With edits in blue. This post duplicates the original.
Original post: Preference over preference
Each individual person has a preference. Some preferences are strong, others are weak. For many preferences it’s more complicated than that; they aren’t static, and we change our preferences all the time. Some days we don’t like certain foods, sometimes we may strongly dislike a certain song then another time we may not care so much. Our preferences can change in scope, as well as intensity. Some very brilliant economists tried to write theories about how we can predict market behaviour based on the revealed preferences of the people in the market, (which is the preferences that people have shown to have taken. More on that in another post).
Sometimes people can have preferences over other people’s preferences.
- Example 1: I prefer to be surrounded by people who enjoy exercise, that way I will be motivated to exercise more.
- Example 2: I prefer to be surrounded by people who don’t care how they look, that way I look prettier than everyone else.
- Example 3: I prefer when other people like my clothes.
- Example 4: I prefer my partners to be polyamorous.
- Example 5: I prefer people around me to not smoke.
The interesting thing about example 3; is that there are multiple pathways to achieve that preference:
- Find out what clothes people like and acquire those clothes, then wear them regularly.
- Find people who already like the clothes that you have, then hang around those people regularly.
- Change the preference of the people around you so that they like your clothes.
Changing someone’s preference over clothing seems pretty harmless, and that way you get to wear clothes you like, they get to like the clothes you wear, and you get to be around people who like the clothes you wear without finding new people. The scary and maybe uncomfortable thing is that the other examples can be also achieved through these means.
- Find out where poly people are, and hang out with them. (and ask to be their partners – etc)
- Find out which of the people you know are already poly and hang out with them (and ask to be their partners – etc)
- Change the preferences of your existing partner/s.
- Find out where people who enjoy exercise hang out, and join them.
- Find out which of your friends already enjoy exercise and hang out with them.
- Change the preferences of those around you to also enjoy exercise.
- Find out where people don’t smoke, hang out in those places.
- Figure out who already doesn’t smoke and hang out with them.
- Encourage people you know to not smoke.
(I think that’s enough examples)
Is it wrong?
There is nothing inherently wrong with having a preference. Having a preference over another person’s preference is also not inherently wrong. Such is the nature of having a preference (usually a strong one by the time you are dictating it to your surroundings). What really matters is what you do about it.
In this day and age; no one would be discouraged from figuring out where people are not smoking and being in those places instead of the smoking places. In this day and age you wouldn’t be criticised for finding out which of your friends don’t smoke and only hanging out with them either – but maybe it makes some people uncomfortable to do it, or to feel that the reciprocal might happen if someone strongly didn’t like their preferences. In this day and age; encouraging those around you to not smoke can come across as an action with questionable motives.
So let’s look at some of the motives:
- I prefer it when people don’t smoke around me because then I don’t get second hand smoke.
- I prefer it when my friends don’t smoke because I don’t like chemical dependency in my environment.
- I prefer it when my friends don’t smoke so that we look better than that other group of people who do smoke.
- I prefer it when my friends don’t smoke because I don’t want them to get cancer and die (and not be around to be my friends any more).
Before launching into noble excuse territory… Motive 1 seems very much about self-preservation. We can’t really fault an entity for trying to self-preserve.
Motive 2 is a more broad example of self-preservation – the idea that having dependency in your environment might negatively impact you enough to warrant the need to maintain an environment without it – it’s a stretch, but not an unreasonable self-preservation drive.
Motive 3 appears to be a superficial drive to be better than other people. We often don’t like admitting that this is the reason we do things; but I don’t mind it either. If it were me; I’d get pretty tired of being motivated by *keeping up with the Joneses* type attitudes but some people care greatly about that.
Motive 4 seems like a potentially altruistic desire to protect your friends; but then it seems less so once you include the bracketed sub-motive.
Herein lies the problem. If a preference looks like it is designed to improve someone else’s life like “others shouldn’t smoke” (remember that “looks like to me” is equivalent to “I believe it looks like…”), and we believe that having a preference over their preference would improve their life – should we enforce that preference? Do we have a right or even a burden to encourage those around us to quit smoking? To take up exercise? To become poly? To like us (or our clothes)?
The idea of preference over preference is a big one. What if my preference is that people eat my birthday cake? and Bob’s preference is that he sticks to his diet today? Who should win? It’s My Birthday. On Bob’s birthday he doesn’t have to eat cake, but on My Birthday he does. Or does he?
The truth is neither way is the best way. Sometimes hypothetical bob should eat the birthday cake and sometimes hypothetical birthday-kid should respect other people’s dietary choices. What we really have control over is our own preference for ourselves. My only advice it to tread delicately when having preferences over other people’s preferences.
If we think we know better (and we might but also might not) and are trying to uphold a preference over a preference (p/p), then what happens?
Either we are right, we are wrong, or something else happens. And depends on whether the other party conformed or not (or did something else). Then what happens when things resolve.
- A is smoking
- B says not to because it’s bad for you
- A doesn’t stop
- It turns out to be bad for you
- A gets sick
B was right, tried to push a p/p and lost. (either by not pushing hard enough or by A being stubborn). Did the p/p serve any good here? Should it have happened? What if an alternative 5 exists; “A keeps smoking, never gets sick and lives to 90”. Then was the p/p useful?
- A is monogamous
- B says to be poly
- A does
- It goes badly
- A is hurt
B was wrong, tried to push a p/p and won. But was wrong and shouldn’t have pushed it? Or maybe A shouldn’t have conformed.
This can be represented in a table:
|B prefers to maintain P/P||B does not maintain P/P|
|A is susceptible to pressure||A gives in||A does not change (because there is no pressure)|
|A is not susceptible||A does not change (stubborn)||A does not change (because there is no pressure)|
And a second table of results:
change was negative (or caused a negative result)
change was positive (or caused a positive result)
A is susceptible
A is not susceptible
Assuming also that if A loses; B takes a hit as well. Ideally we want everyone to win all the time. But just showing these things in a table is not enough. We should be assigning estimated probability to these choices as well.
For example (my made up numbers of whether I think smoking will lead to a bad result):
98% smoking causes problems
2% smoking does not cause problems.
If we edit the earlier table:
B prefers to maintain P/P
B does not maintain P/P
A is susceptible to pressure
A gives in (2% estimate that the change was pointless)
A does not change (because there is no pressure) (98% estimate that this is a bad outcome)
A is not susceptible to pressure
A does not change (stubborn) (98% estimate that this is a bad outcome)
A does not change (because there is no pressure) (98% estimate that this is a bad outcome)
To an aspiring rationalist; seeing your p/p table with estimates should help to understand whether they should take you up on fulfilling your preference or not. Assuming of course that rationalists never lie; and can accurately estimate the confidence of their beliefs.
If you meet someone with a 98% belief they should be able to produce evidence that will also reasonably convince you of similar ideas and encourage you to update your beliefs. So maybe in the smoking case A should be listening to B; or checking the evidence very seriously.
What should you do when you hold a strong p/p that will be to your benefit at the same time as being to someone else’s detriment. (and part 2: what if you are unsure of the benefit or detriment)
B want’s A to try a new street drug “splice”. B says it’s lots of fun and encourages A to do it. B is unsure of the risks; but sure of the benefits (lots of fun). Should B encourage A? (what more do we need to know to make that sort of judgement call?)
B has a sexual interest that is specific, and A’s are indifferent B could easily encourage A to “try out this”. should B?
B has an old crappy car that B doesn’t like very much. B prefers to make friends with shady A’s who will steal the car. then B can claim on insurance that it was stolen. and get a nicer care with the payout. Should B?
B wants A to pay for the two of them to go on a carnival ride. the cost is simple (several dollars) the benefit is not. Should B pressure A? (what more do we need to know in order to answer that question?)
A always crosses the street dangerously because they are often running late. B believes that A should be more safe – walk a distance to the nearest crossing before crossing the road; B knows that this will make A late. Should B pressure A? (will more information help us answer?)
It was suggested that the Veil of ignorance might help to create a rule in this situation. However the bounds of this situation dictate that you know which party you are; and that you have a preference over a preference. So the Veil of ignorance does not so much apply to give us insight.
- It is possible to be a selfish entity, hold p/p and encourage others to fulfil your preference
- it is also possible to be a non-influential entity, and never push a preference over others.
- it is possible to be a stubborn entity and never conform to someone else’s p/p.
- It is also possible to be a conforming entity and always conform.
It is also possible to be a mix of these 4 in different situations and/or different preferences.
Know your preferences, know your p/p’s and think very carefully about pushing your p/p’s, hiding your p/p’s; changing your preferences to conform, or being needlessly stubborn about your preferences. (warning: this is hard; don’t think it’s easy just because it fits into one sentence)
Knowing what your strong preferences are; knowing which of your preferences are potentially not beneficial for others and understanding whether you have a tendency to push your p/p on other people will possibly help you to be more careful when handling p/p and avoid manipulating people (to their detriment). In addition to this; knowing what culture you come from and what culture others come from will help to know how weak p/p might be misinterpreted as strong p/p (see “ask culture”, “guess culture” and “tell culture”). (some cultures aim to please when asked, and ask little of each other; some cultures are stubborn, vocal and demanding. In the middle of the two cultures is the crazy-confused zone. Of course these are the obvious cases. Sometimes cultural taboo will come up around some topics and not others; i.e. dinner etiquette might be something you never ask about – because it would be bad etiquette; but expressing a strong preference over what you want to drink is expected)
In conclusion there are no rules to be drawn around p/p other than – Try to understand it; and how it can go wrong and be careful.
Meta: 4.5 hours to write, 30mins to take feedback and edit. Thanks to the slack for being patient while I asked tricky example questions.
My Table of contents – contains links to the other things I have written.
Further comments adjustments and suggestions welcome.