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January 2020: Motivation, looks, war

Wanting is not liking

This is a simple and powerful insight. On some level, I had probably long been aware of it. Drug addicts (at a certain point) don’t enjoy their lives a whole lot. They still crave the drug. I also regularly crave things, but then not enjoy them, or even straight-up regret them afterward. This is where wanting and liking comes apart. Still, this post by Luke Muehlhaeuser drove the point home for me. Now, instead of “Do I want this?” I would often ask myself “Will I like this?” The difference is profound. The hard part is not letting the moment of decision pass.

Ugly altruists?

Increasing your attractiveness (as judged by others) has externalities. People (who perceive themselves as) competing with you for the same mates will be pressured to increase their attractiveness to maintain the same chance of finding one.[1] For egoists, this is a feature, not a bug. For altruists, it’s the other way around. It maybe does not feel like a significant cost, but that’s because it’s distributed across so many people (who are not you), whereas the benefits accrue mainly to just one person (who is you). This can even turn into a wasteful race because it’s the ranking that matters. Does this imply that altruists should wear rags? Luckily, there are positive externalities as well. It’s generally nicer to look at more beautiful people rather than less beautiful people. Does this they outweigh the costs? I don’t know.

[1] This assumes that mating is zero-sum and that what people find attractive is not randomly distributed. Otherwise, the effects would cancel out in expectation since some people would find you more attractive and some less.

War as a game

I finally finished Storm of Steel, Ernst Jünger’s first-person account of trench warfare during the First World War. Admittedly, this is just one perspective, but what struck me most was the perception he and others seemed to have of the fighting. At one point, he finds himself in a particularly intense close-quarter battle with the British. Some of his men are killed in the fighting. He himself only narrowly escapes death. Finally, the British surrender. They come over and Jünger shakes hands with the officer on the other side and they start chatting: “Good game! Maybe you’ll get us next time.” This is not a literal quote from the book but definitely captures the vibe I got. The famous Christmas Truce points in a similar direction: “Let’s take a break, guys, and get a few beers together. We can continue the fight afterward.” At least at times, they seem to have viewed war as a competition among moral equals and not as an ideological struggle to the death. 

This seems to have changed radically in the past 100 years, which is why this perspective was so surprising to me. There are probably a few things that contributed to that shift. Here are some speculations:

  • The world has become more ideological. The Second World War was already a struggle between fascism, communism, and democracies. Today, it might be religious ideologies.
  • Mass media has become more effective. During the First World War, it was not trivial to whip up a whole nation into a hateful frenzy. They definitely tried, but it became much easier with the wide-spread use of radio, TV, and the internet.
  • Death has become a much bigger deal. At the time, people were much more used to other people dying because it happened much more often. This might have made war and casualties less appalling.

There are probably many more factors. 

Things I read



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