How to be a Happy Sisyphus

This story is old enough that I finally feel comfortable enough sharing it.

Sometimes it feels like I am cursed. I have a disease known as Ehlers Danlos III which affects connective tissue, making it weaker. It isn’t all downsides as my extremely elastic nature has likely saved me from broken bones on more than one occasion, from crashing my bike several times going over 30 miles an hour, to being hit by a bus etc. Something like that happens, usually a few things will be thrown out of joint, I pop them back into place and walk (well limp) home. So why wouldn’t everyone have this quasi super power? Well the flip side of so much flexibility, is that this condition, is to put it mildly, extremely painful with many dislocations and sublexations every day. Normal things like standing can cause me so much pain that I can become drenched in sweat. When I stand, I picture my knees as two ropes slowly tearing strand by strand under the load.
I tried everything to deal with it, and everything to hide it. I have obviously become more open with it over time especially after I needed to start walking with a cane (which I no longer need! But that is a subject for another post concerning scientism) and outgrew some of my youthful pride. I started using knee brace at one point, which failed so catastrophically in class one day that they forced my knee out of socket while I was trying to explain international trade, which didn’t go particularly well for my composure.

So I stopped using them, only to find that the problem had gotten much worse. I remember to this day I was feigning my way through a conversation while walking to the dining hall in so much pain I thought I might faint. With almost every step separating my lower leg from my upper leg only for me to strategically put my foot down to force it back so I wouldn’t topple over.  I remember this because lots of people with the condition end up on heavy doses of opioids, on disability, in wheelchairs, at that moment I vowed to myself that wasn’t going to be me. I vowed I would embrace any pain that would make me better, and I did. In particular I found biking to be a great way to both strengthen my knees and improve my mood by randomly exploring Beijing and the areas around it. I put a lot of love and care into that bike, it had an internal gear hub so you can change gears even when stopped, important for me because trying to start at a high gear really damages my knees. Walking was still not easy, I certainly couldn’t run, and taking the subway was far too painful, I came to see my bike kind of like a wheelchair.

Things were getting better, and after watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi I decided to treat myself to a tour of Japan including even a reservation at the place itself.
Then I started going blind. I had very good vision, but suddenly everything became blurry beyond measure where I could barely make out text or recognize faces. At the same time I was always hungry, always thirsty, and yet I lost thirty pounds in a month, my hair was falling out. I tried to stay in denial for as long as possible, I just started figuring out how to solve one problem certainly I didn’t need to develop a new one. But I did, my immune system at 26 had decided to declare war on my pancreas, and by god it won. Googling type 1 diabetes the first paper I came across discussed the lifespan decrease, which was… significant. I had to get used to giving myself constant injections, to constantly pricking my finger, to almost losing consciousness when I made an overestimate. My girlfriend at the time broke up with me for strictly eugenic reasons. I cancelled my trip, I didn’t want to be too adventurous when I was just learning to use my body whose transmission I had suddenly found changed from an automatic to a manual. Historically I have been very prone to depression, and it certainly didn’t help matters, I started to feel like Sisyphus when it looks like the bolder is about to reach its point of stability, it instead falls.

At some point I forced myself out of it, deciding to instead do a bike sushi tour of Beijing. That winter break I rode for many hundreds of miles, and befriended the head sushi chef at the place that turned out to be my favorite of the ten or so I tried. There I did it, that bolder is just about…

And then on one fateful trip to the grocery store my bike was stolen and it rolled right back down.
I had put so much work into it, even changed out the ball bearings in the wheels. After a few days when I realized the chance of its recovery was about zero, I went to the store where I bought it, they no longer sold internal gear hub bikes though… No one did, I checked, and I checked, and I checked. After about another month of wallowing in misery, both of my conditions were deteriorating. Eventually I broke down and bought a cheap $40 bike to take me to and from work, but it couldn’t exactly take me around the city at any reasonable speed. I tried normal bikes, but every unexpected stop or slowdown tore up my knees, not exactly a great thing in a city of 22 million.

My teaching assistant at the time, a caring girl called all over Beijing looking for a place that sold bikes with internal gear hubs. She finally found one! I had purchased the hub assembly earlier from the internet so all I needed was someone who could work with them.

What preceded was what I vividly recall as one of the worst days of my life.
I took some time off to leave work early that Friday, their website said it is located in Sanlitun, just about the busiest place in Beijing, especially on a Friday. I get there and… nothing no store. I called them in my less than perfect Chinese and found out that the previous week they moved 12 km south and didn’t update any of their information yet.
Getting a taxi those days could be really hard as the price of taxis was set too low. So I stood there holding my box with the hub in it trying my best to get a taxi for over thirty minutes. All this time a motorized rickshaw driver was hassling me, I kept telling him it was too far, he kept insisting otherwise. Exhausted from pain I called them and had them give him the directions, he says he knows where it is and quotes me about 15 dollars. Da Peng was his name, chain smoking Da Peng making off color comments about women, well I wasn’t paying him for the company.
He changed the price to 25 shortly after we started going, rickshaw drivers are not prized for their honesty so I half way expected it and simply acquiesced.

He had no idea where it was. Checking my app I saw he wasn’t even going in the right direction, pointing to the actual location he in shock told me, that is too far! Sigh. I negotiated with him to at least take me to a nearby subway station… which he couldn’t manage either. In frustration I just told him to stop, having made no appreciable advance towards my destination. He wanted to add my wechat (Chinese social media platform) which I grudgingly did, he then pressured me for all the money, even though he didn’t really make any of the trip, and so once again I grudgingly acquiesced, I am not one to fight. A general policy of mine is not to fight over surplus, if someone exploits me I find it cheaper to just let them and stop dealing with them in the future. Though I admit this particular instance still kinda bugs me, I never did accept his repeated friend requests, I think some people must be truly atrocious at reading a situation, I really do.
Eventually hours after my original departure I am finally in a taxi heading to the location, it would be worth it once I had a new bike. But as fate would have it, they had no idea how to work with the internal gear hub I brought, and only would work with a $5000 dollar model, attached with a $5000 bike for… $10000. Now I really wanted a new bike, with an internal gear hub, but my old bike was $130 and it got stolen… After about an hour discussion, I realized there was no way to convince myself to spend that much. I thanked them, picked up my box and found a taxi to take me to my favorite bar (now closed) which was on the way home, a bar I had discovered on a random bike ride during that winter break. I had a drink and talked with the bartender who was at that point a good friend of mine, but realized I had forgotten my insulin and blood sugar tester at home. So I left after one drink, outside the rain was pouring. Trying to get a taxi in Beijing when it was raining was like chasing after wild rabbits, just because you see them doesn’t mean you can catch them.

I was soaked, I had been cheated, I had spent so much money and got nowhere, it was hopeless, and all the standing put me in excruciating pain. There I stood in the middle of a thunderstorm without an umbrella holding onto my box. I reflected on how unfair life was waiting for a taxi that would never come. After 30 minutes I realized it was late, no taxi would come, and I should make it to the subway before it closes, maybe on the accursed day I will at least get a seat.

I walk into the station, it is practically empty, I spot an ice cream machine, one of those automated deals where you can watch it prepare a cone for you. I hadn’t tasted ice cream since diagnosis, I missed ice cream, they had rum raisin, I hadn’t had that flavor in years. I shouldn’t, I don’t have my insulin, for all I know the stress and pain has already made me a treat for sweet toothed vampires, but you know what? Screw it, just screw everything. I bought the ice cream and walked to the platform. There wallowing in my misery I saw a couple, the man was obviously blind, he was holding a trash bag, the woman was digging through the trash for recyclables, at 10:30 at night. My self pity immediately changed from feeling like a righteous response against an unjust world to overly indulgent petulance. I looked at the still unopened ice cream in my hand and thought, when was the last time they got to taste ice cream? I walked over and awkwardly gave it to them, she took a bite and visually sank into the flavor, then gave her husband a bite and I watched as his hardened continence transformed into a mask of youthful joy that only such simple pleasures as rum raisin can provide. I thought to myself, how much happier was it for me to give them the ice cream than I would have been after angrily consuming it for a minute and then subsequently basting in blood sugar for the hour ride home. Then I thought some more, I opened up my wallet to see what was left, about 300 yuan (45 dollars), I hand it to them, at first the lady gives a meek protest but then gladly accepts the money. The last train had arrived, and hey I got a seat. I sat and thought about things, I had gone from being at my most miserable, to in a state that was almost serene. Was there any use of that money that would have made me, in the very selfish and narrow meaning of that word happier or better off? No.

The next day I decided to be more positive and once again thought about how I can be less miserable. Though my cheap bike couldn’t go fast I could try to explore the local area some more: I always went right or left at the subway line, but never straight, that is something to try, going straight. So I went straight and I passed by this little hole in the wall(literally) bike shop, just for fun I thought I would check it out. Turns out, the guy who ran it was deeply passionate about bikes, building custom bikes, and yes as unbelievable as it sounds, internal gear hubs. I commissioned two bikes from him and they are still the bikes I use today. To think what I needed had always been a scarce two miles away. So there, a happy ending. A weirdly almost scripted sounding happy ending. Well if we leave it exactly there anyway, but it is a lesson and a story that forms one of the core stories I tell myself to keep me moving forward, not that I don’t stumble still, it is natural to stumble but I always manage to pick myself up(so far).

Realize that we all suffer, realize we suffer unequally, realize life is unfair, but realize that there are those whose lives you would be horrified to switch with, that go about life, contently as they can, making the most of what they can. Don’t wallow in your own misery, even if it seems deserved, it doesn’t even help you, sometimes the best way to help yourself is to move your focus away from yourself, to others, to the world around you, to see what you can do to help. When bad things happen to me and I notice I have been focusing too much on my own narrow interests, I try to remember the story, snap myself out and open up rather than close down. I have found helping others to be the only sustainable way to improve my mood and outlook.

I still remember the line I had from my elementary school production of Shakespeare which seems apt (I still remember because hammed it up so hard while delivering the lines)

Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
For in this wide and global theatre
Surely there is a tale more woeful than thee

(While double checking I found that this is actually a bastardization of the original quote, but I like the bastardization better so tough)

What is a Moral Requirement?

You are walking home, in your pocket is the new iPhone XIII plus which cost you $2000, but it will be so worth it when everyone sees how cool you are. I mean the new phone is a bit big, and it is stuck in your pocket currently, but just wait until you get a pair of iPants! You are staying with a relative who lives in a rural area and on your way you come across a child drowning, you are a good swimmer and you could save them, but you can’t get your iPhone out of your pocket and you don’t have enough time to take your pants off to save the child. Would you save the child knowing it would destroy your shiny new phone? How would you feel about others facing the same situation who refuses to save the child?

For that same money you can actually save a child right now as philosopher Peter Singer is quick to point out, so in reality everyday of your life you are making this decision over and over and over. If you are morally obligated to save the child drowning, why would you not be obligated save the child you will never meet in some far flung country? You can try to create all the justifications you want, but at the end of the day, it is hard to say that a life is anything other than a life, be they right in front of you or thousands of miles away. Singer’s answer is that since it is a moral obligation to save the drowning child, you must also save the children far away if you want to live a moral life.

I agree that the moral logic of the one case must be the same as the moral logic of the other, but my answer is that in neither case are you obligated to save the child. His case is that intuitively you must save the child in front of you, and logically far away children are an extension of this intuition. If you take the logic of moral obligation to its logical conclusions there isn’t a single human existing who would not be immoral. Plugging my income into his website thelifeyoucansave (a great website BTW) I am told I should donate only about 1,200 dollars a year, though of course it is relatively easy for me to save and donate significantly more than that. So how then would the $1,200 fulfill my moral obligation? Following the logic, I am obligated instead to give as much as possible, indeed I should also try to earn as much as possible to give. Imagine we take it a step further and say I am morally culpable for the deaths that I could have prevented, in that case by choosing to be a teacher instead of working in finance I am likely responsible for more deaths than a serial killer who likely has a much lower earning potential and so the difference between the lives I am responsible for are greater, even though he actually killed someone and I probably save a few.

Most people are not even weak forms of effective altruists, but do their lives make the world a better or worse place? If the typical person living their typical life has worth and makes the world better, why would it be immoral?

I think the solution lies in this;  each person is worth one person and them going about living their lives is morally neutral, unless they take some position of obligation for others, they are not obligated towards the welfare of others. However, with this logic since each person matters, how you affect other people also matters, not because of you, but because of them. We can see someone who saves millions of people and to a degree they matter more, not because they matter more, but because the people they help do. So certainly a life where you help others is morally better, and one where you hurt others is morally worse.

The difference between the two cases though is real, but it is one of moral judgment, not morality.  It is perfectly normal to ignore the suffering of those we do not see, but ignoring suffering that we do see is a good indicator that we are callous and cold. As in the previous essay I argued that moral judgments primarily exist to judge others utility equation in order to assess how they will behave with regards to yourself (functionally this is how it works, obviously you are not thinking hey that guy is nice to his dog, if we had children he would likely treat them well, you think aww that guy is nice to his dog and feel a little more attracted). A person not saving a child in front of them gives you information that they are likely less compassionate and cooperative, a person not giving away all their money is perfectly normal so doesn’t tell us anything about the person. Imagine a world where every day you went to work or school you and everyone else passed by dozens of children you knew could be saved for $2000 dollars, how quickly would you and those around you become numb to it?

So it is good to do good for others, and better to do more good than less, but I think it is a mistake to make it a moral imperative as Singer does. But many things in the world are logarithmic, with quality on the Y axis and price on the X axis, simply avoiding money traps and being more conscious of how you spend money it is easy to save more and of those savings you can do some serious good. Imagine a video game with a quest that allows you to protect thousands of people from a deadly disease, in real life that is a quest most of us privileged enough to be born into affluent nations can complete.

I don’t think we should try to convince  people out of guilt or obligation. Tying things to negative emotions I don’t believe is even likely to lead to the most people, giving the most the most effectively. Giving should be a positive thing if it is to be sustained. Instead I want to focus on empathy, and the benefits to the giver themselves, which will be the topic of my next post.

Are True Altruists Monsters?

“Unbridled altruism is a huge vice of mine,’ he explained. ‘I simply have to do good. I am a sensible dwarf, however, and know that I’m unable to do everyone good. Were I to attempt to be good to everyone, to the entire world and to all the creatures living in it, it would be a drop of fresh water in the salt sea. In other words, a wasted effort. Thus, I decided to do specific good; good which would not go to waste. I’m good to myself and my immediate circle.”

Zoltan Chivay

Altruism is a trait that we normally find to be highly attractive in others… to an extent. Even if you don’t know who this Zoltan person is, you probably already like him, and would welcome him as a friend. We see someone take good care of the pets, helping the local community, or volunteering at a soup kitchen and we think to ourselves; this is a good person, they would likely make a good friend (well not those exact words but you get my meaning). But as the recent effective altruism movement points out, these altruistic actions are almost never the most possible good that could be done using those resources. That is, for the same effort, we could usually find other things that would help others significantly more. Usually this is in very poor countries where many people suffer with debilitating problems that are for us, cheap to solve. In fact, experiments show that donations do not scale with how much good they are purported to do, and that actually people will think of you as a less good person if they know you put a lot of thought into how you can really help the most people with a given amount of money. I would argue this is because moral judgment is focused on learning about what sort of a person an individual is and is often separated from morality.

Imagine we have the greatest altruist that ever lived, his whole life is spent maximizing the healthy life years he adds to people, working constantly and giving everything away except for enough consumption to just keep his production ability up. He reads all the studies and only donates to the charity with the highest expected value per dollar, he values everyone in the world including himself totally equally. This person might already seem a bit strange to you, but let us think of the further implications.

Imagine his mother comes down with a condition that she cannot pay to treat, she will die without the $40,000 operation, an operation her dear child could afford. But he refuses, stating that she is a person, an old person with limited years left and that the same money is very likely to be able to save at least 10 children, since each person is of the same value it would be horrible to do such a thing as to save his own mother, he gives her his sympathies but nothing else.

How do you feel about this fellow? Would you want to be good friends with them? Would you want to be their partner, knowing he would treat you just as well as he would any stranger?

My guess is no.

But why?

This person probably saves hundreds or perhaps thousands of people over the course of his life, so even if you find him too alien to matter, those perfectly normal folk he will save do. In terms of benefit to the world there is no doubt this man is a moral giant, but at the same time, we might even see him as a bad person.

Imagine a different example; let us call it, the case of evil Bill Gates. In this world, Bill Gates still devotes himself to giving away his fortune in a reasonably efficient manner, saving millions of people over the course of his life, but unlike the real world, (well hopefully) Bill Gates he is also a secret serial killer who stalks and kills 2 people every year. What kind of person is Bill Gates? Overall is the world better or worse with him in it? I think the answers are somewhat inarguably, a bad one, and a better world.

Wait what?

Well just picture the world with him in it, all of those people not losing children, all those people living their lives, all the sorrow prevented in their deaths, and while it might be true the murder victims lose their life and that their families suffer greatly, this is playing out on an infinitesimally smaller scale than the reverse situation. Maybe you don’t think it would be moral to kill 20 innocents to prevent the Holocaust, but hopefully you can still agree it would have been better that only 20 died from the Nazi’s efforts, especially if you are not the one making the decision.

Nevertheless, we would still call him a monster if we found out. We wouldn’t want him near our loved ones either would we? If he is caught it is also clear that he should still be punished normally because having exceptions to murder laws for those with significant philanthropic endeavors would likely lead to an even worse world.

Imagine a pedophile who never acts on his horrible urges, and manages to go through life up to that point completely denying that part of himself. Given he did not choose his attraction, but suffers for it so as not to hurt others. It is much harder for him to live a moral life than for you or me. So does that in some way make him more commendable, more moral than someone born differently? If you answered yes, do you want him to babysit your children?

Our systems of judging others morality is fairly self-serving; someone being generous with those around them tells us that they would likely make a good partner or ally. Those ignoring people around them to benefit far off strangers might make the world overall a better place if you really think about it, but they would make for a rubbish ally. We use people’s actions as a way to get to know their utility equation, what they are likely to do in the future. Is this necessarily a bad thing? I guess it kinda depends on some normative views that go past the purview of this short(ish) essay. But undoubtedly many so-called moral paradoxes stem from the failure to separate the logic of morality of different world states and the intuition of moral judgments we have towards individuals. Continue reading “Are True Altruists Monsters?”