Why’reheading

Why’re we teaching teenagers about safe sexual practice, when we could just try to treat the underlying psychological issues that make them want to have sex?

Wait, no, that’s stupid [1]. Why’re we allowing people to buy make-up or cosmetic surgery, when we could just try to treat the underlying psychological issues that make people unhappy with their appearance?

Wait, that’s stupid [2]. Why’re we supporting people transitioning to the appropriate gender when we could just try to treat the underlying psychological issues that cause dysphoria?

Wait, that’s also stupid [3]. Why’re we using exercise regimes and gastric bands when the solution to obesity is to treat the underlying psychological issues that make people want to be thin?

Wait, still stupid [4]. Why’re we suggesting improvements to societal structure when clearly we could just treat the underlying psychological issues that make people in modern societies unhappy?

That’s probably stupid.

I’ve seen all of those five arguments made in varying contexts. The point of this selection was to maximise the number of people who have at least one issue on each side, so as to frame the discussion more neutrally. But if you’d have guessed that the origin of the discussion was the highly-contentious third, well, I wouldn’t call your guess wrong. But equally, the aim is to skirt around the highly-abstract last one, which is by far the most important.

Seeing these five side-by-side makes it prudent to start by examining the most common argument that’s made in favour of each of them – a slippery slope argument of the form “but if we accept people getting their noses shrunk, how can we say it’s wrong for them to turn themselves into freakish monstrosities of chitin and tentacles that should be cleansed from the world with fire?” Well, we can’t, same as there’s nothing wrong with people removing their limbs if it’ll make them more comfortable with their body, or people trying to find fulfillment in life rather than altering themselves to find their current circumstances fulfilling. Sure, maybe they’d be better off following Buddha’s advice and trying to become perfectly phlegmatic about things, but that’s ultimately a demand for people to change in an unlikely way.

Now, perhaps with sufficient enlightenment or technological advancement, we could make it less unlikely. We could find drugs that treat gender dysphoria or autism or being unhappy about being overweight. That’d certainly be a start. Why not go further? We could have a pill to cure ennui, a surgical procedure to make Mondays seem less horrible, or a vaccine to prevent liking Nickelback! Wait, is this starting to sound familiar?

The well-read will recognize this as an argument fundamentally about wireheading. Well, perhaps it is not such a good mark of entry into the elite once it has a wiki page. The foresighted will note that I am also constructing a slippery slope argument in the opposite direction: if the answer to the question “how much wireheading do we support” is not “none,” or “only as much as people want to do to themselves,” then how much? If people want to be thin, rather than accept being fat and become happy with it, why should we tell them that correcting their psyche is the better option?

This isn’t exactly the same thing as wireheading on every level, of course. But it certainly seems like any argument that proves that it’s right to alter people’s minds in the listed ways ought to be strong enough to also prove that it’s more generally right to alter minds in any number of unlisted ways. And if we take it as given that we don’t want to just alter ourselves to be permanently blissed out by everything, it follows that any particular argument for why certain people should alter themselves to be happy with any particular thing is in need of justification beyond “it would make them happier.”

There are a handful of such justifications that get seen fairly often. Appeals to Nature or God are of little interest to me; if you wish to make such an appeal, I suppose that’s your prerogative. Sometimes people make appeals to unfair competition – “some people are more attractive, and given the demands of competition, this amounts to a kind of tax on unattractiveness, which would be better off removed.” While I kind of agree, pushing back against the existence of options to alter the environment in favour of altering the individual just seems like a poor way to resolve this. If there are any good ways, I don’t know of them, though.

To go back to an earlier point – in Buddhism, there is a story of a farmer with 83 problems [5]. The story goes that the farmer went to see Buddha, who was known to be wise beyond wisdom, to seek counsel on how to rein in his errant son. Buddha said he could not help with that. Well, said the farmer, maybe you could advise me on how to mend my leaky roof. Buddha said he could not help with that. Okay, said the farmer, maybe you could teach me how to mend shoes. Buddha said he could not help with that. And so on through the farmer’s entire list of problems. At the end of the list, the farmer scowled and said “is there anything you can do?” And Buddha said he could solve the farmer’s 84th problem: that the farmer wanted to not have problems.

This must have made Buddha feel extremely clever, except that I’m pretty sure he was above that. But the farmer’s son was still errant; his roof still leaked; his shoes still tattered. One might even argue – given that Buddha could not wirehead anyone, and could only suggest decades of meditation and self-doubt – that he gave the farmer the 84th problem of feeling like caring about all those other problems was his fault for not being phlegmatic enough. Now, maybe the farmer attained enlightenment and was happy – or whatever positive-affect adjective you use to describe enlightened beings, anyway – and if so, good, but did Buddha really do all that he should in this story? Was it okay for him to sit back, content with having provided only the option to remove the perception of there being any problems?

As with the list of examples above, there’s one simple answer: that if someone prefers not to alter their preferences, then we should not say that having provided the option of doing so fulfills all moral obligations to alleviate their suffering. There are lines to be drawn on how far it is acceptable to go in pursuit of such, but the line is not here unless we want to say that in every case listed so far and many others besides the correct approach is “just don’t care about it.”

Well, I hope I’ve explained a bit about why I think wireheading is the wrong sort of approach to the, hah, problem of having an imperfect world. If people want to alter themselves, sure, but the mere existence of that as an option would not be enough to dismiss unhappiness.


[1] – Because that sounds completely impossible.
[2] – Because self-esteem can only get you so far; attractiveness isn’t going to be purely socio-cultural.
[3] – Again, that also sounds pretty much impossible.
[4] – Again, social norms aren’t so loose that people can expect to do equally well by following or by defying them.

The important note here at the foot is this: these arguments are constructed without reference to what the patient wants, i.e. no “but they probably don’t want to be cured of that desire.” And if you’re asking some of the questions but in other cases using answers similar to the footnotes, note that these are pretty interchangeable. For instance, obesity kills as surely as cancer does – and so does gender dysphoria, if you accept that “just have them not commit suicide after we insist they live a life that will make them want to” is not a valid method of engineering solutions, in the same way that “adopt the NAP” is not a useful solution to propose for gun violence.

[5] – It’s not clear why that number in particular, but I did remember the number perfectly despite having heard the story only once. Maybe there’s someting to it!

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Why’reheading

7 thoughts on “Why’reheading

  1. Italics tag!

    I don’t think “wireheading” is a useful general framework for discussing adaptive preferences. More broadly, it is very hard to tackle adaptive preferences in a case (or a continuum of cases, as here) where there is only one preference under discussion, namely the preference-to-be-erased. The result here seems to be a sort of conflation between “Let’s treat the underlying psychological causes of desire for X” and “Let’s treat the underlying psychological causes of unhappiness about/displeasure due to X”. Desire and happiness/pleasure are two very different things! (Happiness and pleasure are different too, but I don’t want to insist on too many issues all at once.)

    I can’t tell whether your examples elide modifying desires (or other emotions) and modifying a source of (dis)pleasure intentionally or not; potentially it is crucial to your intention that the two are interchangeable. But to understand where the danger in preference-modification lies, and where it can be useful or even healthy, the simplest starting point is to draw a distinction between a desire’s direct effects (typically: physiological and perceptual changes that stimulate action), the satisfaction or frustration of the desire (typically: pleasant or frustrating in some degree) and the consequences of satisfaction (i.e., the function that the desire serves). If you collapse these three into one, then you would likely miss the fact that most desires (and other psychological states) cause the organism to flourish in ways that are entirely orthogonal to their hedonic consequences.

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    1. Blegh, the wallpaper-bubble HTML is strong today. Hopefully got everything now, thanks!

      Your point lost me a little. If I desire ice cream, it is because I anticipate enjoying having ice cream. If I modify myself to not enjoy ice cream, I will no longer desire it, but what would it even mean to not desire it while still enjoying it? You’d have to be something beyond human to do that, I think – at least if meant genuinely, rather than as a “desired but other desires outweigh it” kind of thing. We might try removing the ability to anticipate, for instance.

      Which isn’t to say that pleasure and desire are the same thing, just that they’re related more strongly than can be simply separated. Most of the time, if you remove the hedonic element from X, loss of want for it will follow.

      In general, though, I don’t think I’ve made any points that can’t be phrased purely in terms of desires. Wireheading is traditionally about pure pleasure, but desire-to-continue-being-wireheaded is the experimental result of it, so… Yeah, I think the extension of the concept holds up, basically. There’s not really a difference between changing the hedonic landscape to be at the global maximum, and changing the evaluator function so the current location is always perceived to be the global maximum. The optimisation routine (that is, the person, in a sense) stops either way.

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      1. but what would it even mean to not desire it while still enjoying it?

        Just to double-check: you do NOT take “I desire X” to be analytically equivalent to “I anticipate enjoying having X”, correct? Because I don’t know how else to interpret the initial thoughts in your reply: how can you have difficulty figuring out what “X but not Y” means unless you take X and Y to be the same thing?

        Which isn’t to say that pleasure and desire are the same thing, just that they’re related more strongly than can be simply separated.

        More strongly than can be “simply separated” in normal situations, within natural environments, in well-functioning (i.e. healthy) individuals. However, they can, with effort, be distinguished even in healthy individuals.

        Most of the time, if you remove the hedonic element from X, loss of want for it will follow.

        Yes, quite so! This is a something that many people experience across a wide range of circumstances. Mundane example: I start playing tennis. I’m a natural at it, and without every having any strong desire to play tennis I discover that learning the basics is very hedonically rewarding. Suddenly I get competitive and I’m practicing every day because now I do desire to be good at tennis. But it’s a long, slow hill to climb, and my rate of improvement starts to level off, and despite my initial volitional momentum I am not enjoying tennis practice at all. Generally this leads people to “burn out”, become frustrated, and abandon their original desires.

        I don’t deny that the volitional element and the hedonic element are related! On the contrary, I insist on it; and both of them are related to the functional element as well. They function as a triad.

        What I do deny is that the two elements are the same, and in particular I deny that suppressing a desire is the same as making the satisfaction of a desire unpleasurable, or conversely that engendering a desire is the same as making its satisfaction more pleasurable.

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        1. Just to double-check: you do NOT take “I desire X” to be analytically equivalent to “I anticipate enjoying having X”, correct? Because I don’t know how else to interpret the initial thoughts in your reply: how can you have difficulty figuring out what “X but not Y” means unless you take X and Y to be the same thing?

          I don’t know. Suppose you pointed out that “cookedness” and “solidity” were different properties of boiled eggs, and neither of us knew anything about protein denaturing. I might say “well, they’re different words, and I can imagine a liquid-but-still-cooked boiled egg, or a solid-but-uncooked boiled egg, so yeah, I guess they’re different things.” But in reality, they’re not – a cooked boiled egg will always be solid (maybe soft in the middle, but not runny like an uncooked egg) because of the hidden process of how heat alters the egg’s structure. And they’re not so much different things as different aspects of the same thing, in this specific case.

          Right now, I don’t think I know enough about neuroscience to be sure that desires and anticipation-of-enjoyment aren’t equivalent in some sense. I know that they seem to be pretty strongly correlated, and I struggle to imagine what one without the other would look like. I can draw philosophical distinctions, but I can do that for the egg, too. I don’t trust my intuitions very far on this kind of topic. Is “desire” just an aspect of what “anticipating good experience” feels like from the inside? How could I tell?

          This is all a bit off-topic though.

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        2. Well, I don’t think it’s off-topic exactly, but certainly it shows that we would have to thrash out more fundamental psychological concepts before we even had a common vocabulary in which to talk about the question you’ve raised.

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  2. hoverhell says:

    Please don’t take it as given that we don’t want to just alter ourselves to be permanently blissed out by everything.

    Noting a couple points, of course:

    First, there’s a time component: the longer the better.

    Second, it can be done wrong. For all we know, the proverbial mouse might have had the “desire” part activated instead of “pleasure”, and died in suffering like an addict in withdrawal might.

    And yes, the desire and enjoyment are casually linked, but not perfectly, and should not be conflated.

    Of the topic examples, the cardiovascular problems of obesity are indeed special, and the rest of the examples could be solved mentally, removing the suicide risk along with the dysphoria.

    Of course there’s no known acceptable way of doing that. Except maybe for depression. Currently existing medication does seem like an almost working solution to a similar problem. That it should be used is basically taken as a given.

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    1. Please don’t take it as given that we don’t want to just alter ourselves to be permanently blissed out by everything.

      This is perfectly reasonable! If that’s what you want, that’s fine. But in that case, we have the answer to all the other questions as well: people should be able to do what they want, at least very roughly speaking.

      To be clear, my objection is to the notion that all we should do is provide the option of self-editing to no longer perceive problems as bad. If someone’s aggresively insisting it’s totally wrong to have sex before marriage, and the fact that people want to should be addressed by giving them the option to change what they want, that’s just taking an excuse to continue bullying people and claiming it’s their own fault for not taking a terrible option to avoid it. And the same for all the other options, give or take.

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