Monday, February 15, 2016

Is Stoicism Wireheading?

No, but really.

Here's the basic argument: Stoicism, as a practice, is about letting go of the things you want and learning to appreciate what you have, regardless of how much that is, and thereby achieving happiness and tranquility in whatever your life circumstances might be. Wireheading (having the pleasure centers of your brain directly stimulated so much that you never want anything else again) also allows you to achieve happiness and tranquility, regardless of your life circumstances.

So one ending here is "they are therefore the same and therefore Stoicism is bad!" The more nuanced version is: "achieving happiness in all circumstances shuts off the goals and interesting thoughts in your brain, and therefore Stoicism is bad because you're trying to achieve happiness in all circumstances."

I don't think this is right, but I do think it's worth considering. (I've been nerd-sniped, in other words.) So let me pick this apart a little bit more.

Stoicism and Satisficing

Quick definition here: Satisficing, as opposed to maximizing, is being satisfied with a choice or something that you have, even if you're not sure that it's the very best one, as long as you find it to be "good enough." An illustrative example: If you're buying a pair of jeans from among 20 options, you could maximize on this decision by trying on every single pair, ranking them by aesthetics, comfort, utility, and price, then using a weighting function over those ranks to decide which is the most optimal pair of jeans. You could satisfice by trying on some small number of pairs until you find some that you feel are pretty good, and then just buying those. The most extreme version of the satisficing strategy would be to just buy the first pair you see, deciding without any information at all that these would be good enough.

Both strategies can be useful, for different types of decisions and goals. For example, I'm pretty sure you should do your best to maximize if you're trying to buy a house. But there are many cases where satisficing would be a more helpful approach.

The hedonic treadmill is the most obvious example of this. Trying to directly maximize your hedons, paradoxically, often leads to being no happier than you were, because the things it seemed like you wanted, it turns out, were no better than the ones you had already, once the novelty wore off. Satisficing works out really well in this case.

The Stoic philosophy is in part about satisficing, because it's about appreciating what gifts of Fortune you already have. It encourages you especially to recognize the cases where you want something, but having that thing will not in fact make you happier than you are, and to instead reflect on how sad you would be if you lost what you have now (thereby regaining some of the novelty and joy of newly gaining a thing).

And to the extent that it's about satisficing on certain things, it's also about abandoning your desire for those things. So yes - if you no longer want more of those things, you may not pursue or achieve them as effectively as you would otherwise. In that sense, Stoicism resembles wireheading because it extinguishes some of your goals.

Stoicism and Maximizing

But the Stoic philosophy isn't all about satisficing, and removing yourself from the hedonic treadmill, even though those are important components of it. It also involves maximization of the ability to endure hardship, as well as general growth.

From A Guide to the Good Life:
"Water, barley-meal, and crusts of barley-bread," Seneca tells us, "are not a cheerful diet, yet it is the highest kind of pleasure to be able to derive pleasure from this sort of food."
The practiced Stoic not only doesn't mind a loss of hedons, but in fact finds enjoyment in their ability to endure itself. And so they seek to become stronger and stronger, more and more able to take pleasure in less and less.
According to Seneca, when someone attempts to harm a wise man, he might actually welcome the attempt, since the injuries can't hurt him but can help him: "So far . . . is he from shrinking from the bufferings of circumstances or of men, that he counts even injury profitable, for through it he finds a means of putting himself to the proof and makes trial of his virtue."

Stoicism and Me

It's a reasonable objection to the Stoic philosophy to say that it removes some of your goals and replaces them with different ones. It's certainly not wireheading, though, because it does encourage you to pursue greater and greater growth in your life - just differently from how you otherwise would.

The fact is, for me, moving towards wanting material things less and wanting to grow more doesn't feel like a deep change. It feels more like noticing what brings me deep satisfaction over the long term than changing what brings me deep satisfaction. As Mr. Money Mustache put it: "Happiness tends to come not from what you get, but from what you earn."

I can certainly imagine that this might be different for someone else. I'm not inside your head, so who am I to say that the material things you'd like to pursue aren't really as important to you as you'd think? But I also suspect that many people don't actually intend to acquire material things as an end in themselves; instead, they want to acquire material things because they think things will make them happier. And bringing your awareness to the fact that having more things will not make you happier - that, in fact, personal strength and growth are the best way to happiness - isn't really changing your deep desires. It's just grounding your wants in reality.

That's what the Stoic philosophy does for me: it helps me connect my immediate wants to what will truly bring me the most joy.

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