A bit of a recap on the four big questions that I am chipping away at:
1. What should be the extent of my circle of care
2. What should be done for those in my circle of care
3. What should the balance be between breadth and depth in my circle of care.
4. Time and its attendant irrationality
My first post, ‘why’, struck on #1, my last post on #2, and my post on time struck on #4. While I don’t think that I have satisfactory answers for any of them, especially #1, I think that I should now confront #3.
I think this week is especially fitting for this because it is another interesting juncture in life for me. First, this is the week where we can finally announce that we are expecting a child, and it is the Christmas holiday season, so I will be brought into close contact with in-laws, nieces, and nephews that I dearly love. It is also a season where, unless you live a truly blinkered life, you spare a moment’s thought for the people who are working during the holiday, unemployed, or otherwise not able to celebrate the holiday with as much relaxation as some of us enjoy.
This brings me to the question of breadth or depth. I am just about to embark on a personal path where I spend thousands of dollars over years to come on a human that I helped create, but have never met. It is likely that an incremental $5/10 per day that I could provide my own child would go unnoticed, but that same money could double the income of 5-10 people living in abject poverty. Here is the crux of the issue, what should be the balance between the money/time that I spend with a narrow group vs a broad group. This is not idle speculation. Every night I choose to shut down after the workday when my emails continue to mound up for the sake of my family is a choice of depth over breadth. Every dollar and minute of time that I choose to give to charities, and other organizations is a choice of breadth over depth. On the extreme end of this, people like Mandela, Thoreau, and great Generals rarely have fulfilling personal lives, on the other extreme are helicopter parents, and narcissists.
Before I start, I must again, hold as a constant the questions that I don’t think I have fully solved and toy with the consequences of this. Let me hold the following variables constant while I explore this utilitarian tradeoff. Let the extent of my circle of care be limited to humans. These human groups are the ones that I am more familiar with, and most drawn to, so let me use them as emblematic of my depth vs breadth issues: family, country, company, and all those living on less than $1 per day. As I said in my ‘Why’ post, I am not sure that these are the ideal groupings, but I need to pick something to experiment with actions and reactions. Let me also hold constant that I believe that non-linear effects should be preferred to linear ones, and that action should be preferred to inaction. Let the time horizon that I am working towards and the values that it prescribes be limited to one human lifetime, or ~70 years. I can return to debate the validity of these premises at a later time. For now, I would merely like to explore the different ways to approach the depth vs breadth issue.
The utilitarian choice
Utilitarianism speaks to this question. The conventional father of this type of thinking was a chap named Jeremy Bentham. He proposed that the goal for life should be the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He generally defined good as creating some more happiness in that person than was there before. Though there are logical, grounds for debate about this, it is not my intention to do so. It does indeed lead to some prima facie strange things like killing off all of the unhappy people which would lead to higher average happiness in the remnant (as long as they didn’t grieve for the fallen). Again, I have no reason to debate the logical jot-and tittle here given that I am not a professional philosopher. I merely plan to bring up the positives and negatives as they affect my path forward.
Let’s first develop a little vocabulary to speak about this. Let’s talk in terms of utiles of happiness, where happiness can be whatever you want it to be. Again, we are setting aside the question of ‘why’ and merely assuming a 70 year horizon on our time. Let’s allow ourselves to chunk out utiles of satisfaction and allow them to be apportioned to all of the various things which may make us happy. Everything from 10 utiles for teaching a child to ride a bike to 1 utile for your first kiss with the person you believe you will be married to, to .1 utile for the best meal you’ve ever had.
Here is the rub, and the real crux of my question. Where is the right place to create utiles in the world? From a utilitarian perspective, creating 1 utile in 100 people would be the same as creating 100 utiles in one person. To make it more tangible. I could spend a great deal of time, energy, and effort with my company, and I may produce a lot of goods and services that make many people a little bit happier. In my context something like keeping your web pages free from paywalls, and lightning fast. That will affect literally millions of people, but the change in their lives, for most of them will be very small. I can take the same energy and invest it in my family, in my as yet unborn child. I can keep working 80% and have ‘Daddy-days’ with the little one, teach her (as I am convinced, for no reason at all, that she’s a girl) all kinds of fun things about how the world fits together, and have a chance of making a big difference in her life. Presuming that I provide the same net utiles in the world, then where should I invest?
One approach would be to merely parse out which one of the areas could create the largest number of utiles per hour and optimize for that. This slightly tweaks the scenario above, but lets presume that I were much better at producing utiles of satisfaction in my work sphere than in my home sphere, and that in my own life, there was no practical diminishing marginal utility (i.e. I could always make the internet a little bit better, and that would scale linearly over the 60 or so hours that I could effectively dedicate to it per week). Mathematically Utiles/hour_work> Utiles/hour_home for all conceivable times. Logically, people like David Ricardo, the economist who taught the theory of comparative advantage, would suggest that I do something like this. The proof here is actually quite simple, but this is already a bit more drawn out than I would like it to be. In short, Bentham essentially stated that we should all do the things to which we are best suited, trade for the surplus, and then we will all be better off. The logical outcome of this would be that I spend effectively no time investing in my family, and all of my time investing in my work. Plenty of people that I know do precisely this. Obviously, this has negative consequences in the areas that people don’t invest, they cycle through families, children, and other commitments at a rapid rate.
To me, this seems unpalatable, but to others it is clearly not something that their revealed preferences show that they take an issue with. The large number of divorces in the world shows this. If I were to point to the direction of most of the popular culture today, it talks about people devoting more and more of themselves to their paid work. This is a creeping change on our society. Though it certainly would have seemed foreign to our forbearers to send children out for 50+ hours per week to be generally educated in non-practical subjects, it is something that we do routinely today. People feel as though the value that they add in the lives of their families in the remaining few hours of the week is sufficiently important that they are not in dereliction of their duties. It is not like this everywhere. One of the countries that I frequent, Japan, has a very strict division of labor between the genders, and very few women work after having children. Indeed, President Abe is working against this practice to move Japan out of the economic doldrums.
Perhaps I have been too harsh on investing in one sphere alone because of the parameters of my base case (i.e. the utiles created in one scenario are higher than that of every other scenario in every case). In all normal circumstances, the utiles that you produce in one sphere may be nearly linear, but they are not so in all spheres. For instance, while I may be able to impact America’s security and our alliances through my time in the reserves, because the apparatus is so large, I am only ever likely to play a bit part. The limited amount of additional security that I am able to produce is likely to scale linearly with the amount of time that I invest in training and working. This is not so for my investment in my child. Each additional moment of time that I spend with my child will likely be of lower value than the last after a certain point. The same is true with my wife, while a holiday is nice, each incremental day is slightly less memorable. We went to Cabo last year, and I really could not tell you on which day we did what, and I have likely forgotten some of the things that we did, but I certainly remember the room, the arrival, and the departure. These would be the same things that I would remember had we only spent 2 days there and not a week. This is the law of diminishing marginal utility. As we get more of something we appreciate it less and less. Its not that each incremental day is valueless, it is merely that each day is slightly less valuable than the day before. For instance day one may have 100 utiles, day two 90, day three 70, etc.
If this slightly more complicated world of diminishing marginal utility as my base case, then it could be that I am working to optimize things in a multitude of dimensions, but that the dimensions are constantly shifting in value. If I take the vacation example above and presume that I make an average of 80 utiles/day at work, and this is static over most time frames, then I should take at least a two day holiday, because the utiles that I will create there will be higher than at work.
I am actually more satisfied with this than I thought I would be. It means that I should be seeking to create the greatest net marginal utility at all times. I am now going to try to see if I can find some flaws in it.
The first, and most practical difficulty is a fungible currency between the arenas of my life. This is further complicated by the fact that there may not be merely one ‘why’ and thus a fungible currency between ends may not exist. Practically, even over the 70 year time threshold, Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Gentleness, and Self-Control may all be worthwhile ‘whys’, but it is not immediately apparent to me how we convert, units of joy into units of kindness.
The second practical difficulty is if it really possible for me to determine, on an hourly basis, what the value is that I am producing at work, vs an hour working on my studies in the Marine reserves vs and hour with my wife? I can tell you how I feel about these things, but I could not tell you what is of more use over the next 70 or so years. Let’s presume that the big ‘why’ is love, then can I be reasonably confident that I will create more love in an hour sitting and watching some TV show with my wife than in an hour spent ensuring that my sales’ teams’ incentives are correct, and thus their bonus is OK, and they can each spend more time at home with their loved ones. This might seem like a small issue, but for me it is probably pretty large. I ‘feel’ like I am making a bigger impact when I am sitting down 1:1 with one of my subordinates and helping them with their individual problems than when I am working on a diffuse project that may help many of them. My feeling here may overpower my rational assessment of where I am creating value.
Thirdly, some items have low or negative utility at the start and increase in utility before they fall off again. It is much this way with friends-to-be as an adult. Much of the good that I am able to generate in the lives of those around me is by virtue of my knowledge of their lives. Often, this comes in the form of them complaining about the idiocy of their boss/spouse/etc. This is not an edifying process for them or me. In fact, for an introvert like me, it positively sucks (so there may actually be negative personal utility). That said, through this process of getting to know them, having shared experiences with them, etc. I can help them in their time of need, (e.g. if they are facing troubles in their marriage, job, etc). If I took the strictest interpretation of marginal utility, I suppose I wouldn’t meet them at all.
Well, now the idea that I had a few paragraphs ago is not sounding so good. Perhaps the practicalities of implementation will overwhelm its elegance.
Are there any ways that I could overcome these practical difficulties? Perhaps the answer to the first of the practical difficulties (non-fungible units) is merely diversification. If it is true that over essentially all of the good arenas in life that there are diminishing marginal returns, then it seems likely that at least the first few units of kindness, gentleness, self-control, etc, would be more valuable than dogmatically pursuing but one of those ends. For instance, the first time that I encourage my wife to forget about paid work and take joy in the first few weeks with our newborn child, then this would have an outsized effect, the second would have less, and after a while she would be wondering if I even wanted her to work if this was the only way that I tried to encourage her…Conversely, if I encouraged her to take joy in the few weeks she had with the child, be at peace that this is the time that this is time that she will never get back, and be patient with the people who were so career focused that they couldn’t see how valuable this time was, then that may have a much larger impact, not because the phrase is longer, but possibly because I am touching on the highest points of marginal utility for each end, and while converting between them may be impractical, a scattershot approach serves a nearly equally powerful end.
How to overcome the second issue, a rational assessment of the marginal utility of a tight vs narrow focus? This is more challenging, and longer…I think I will return to this next week.
Please, tell me what you thought before reading this, and let me know if this changed your mind.