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Diversity of Experience – Econlib

by xyonent
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There’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. post Scott Sumner’s book helped bring this issue into focus: he argued that we sometimes fail to understand and appreciate that people may think radically differently than we do, and that this can lead to political polarization. He said:

People who cannot accept that other people like contemporary art suffer from a failure of imagination, an inability to understand that other people process visual information differently than we do. People who see voters of the opposite party as evil often fail to understand that not everyone sees political issues the same way they do.

This is what Jeffrey Friedman said:Conceptual heterogeneity” – the idea that different minds process information in different ways. Friedman explained:

If there is ideational heterogeneity between my web of beliefs and your web of beliefs, then I cannot know how you will interpret your situation and how you will act accordingly. Even if I knew your situation, which is a hard problem in itself if you are anonymous to me and most agents are anonymous to technocrats trying to predict their behavior, if you and I are ideationally heterogeneous, then I cannot know how you will subjectively interpret it and how you will act accordingly.

Friedman was talking about differences in how we process information leading to different interpretations and actions, but the more general case I had in mind is the impossibility of subjective knowledge of other people, made clear by Scott Sumner’s post. experience, Even if you don’t find value in the experience of viewing contemporary art, you might think that anyone who claims to enjoy the experience of viewing contemporary art is just role-playing, unless you take into account that different people have different subjective experiences that are fundamentally beyond your understanding. Let’s call this phenomenon “experiential heterogeneity.” To paraphrase Friedman’s explanation, it can be explained as follows:

Empirical heterogeneity between my subjective experience and your subjective experience means that I cannot know how you will experience your situation and therefore how you will react to it. Thus, even if I knew your situation, which is a hard problem in itself if you are anonymous to me and most agents are anonymous to technocrats trying to predict their behavior, if you and I are empirically heterogeneous, I cannot know how you will subjectively experience it and therefore how you will act in response to it.

Outside of contemporary art, there are two other examples that involve diversity of experience: the first comes from my own experience, the second from the experience of others.

I used to be a pretty heavy smoker. Towards the end of my time in the Marines, I worked at a rifle range and served as the Range Safety Officer and Lead Combat Marksman for the annual rifle qualification and pre-deployment combat training for my last year. This was a job that put me outdoors all day for obvious reasons, so I didn’t have to go outside to smoke. I could light up a cigarette whenever I wanted. And I was easily consuming 3 packs a day at that point. Finally, I decided to quit smoking. I knew that my income would drop dramatically after I left the Marines and went to college, so I needed to cut back on my expenses. (Plus, I had a few other reasons for quitting smoking – you can probably think of a few yourself!) The difficulty of quitting smoking is well-known enough to be a cultural meme, and as a long-time heavy smoker, I knew it would be a tough transition. But it turns out what I “knew” wasn’t true. Quitting smoking wasn’t particularly hard. It was actually pretty easy for me. What can we learn from this? There are two possibilities:

  1. Quitting smoking is actually not that hard. Smokers who complain about the difficulty of quitting are just being spoiled.
  2. Quitting smoking is actually very difficult, but I happen to have the willpower of Hercules, so I can easily achieve things that are too difficult for the average person.

Either interpretation gives me the opportunity to flaunt my superiority, but I don’t think that’s true. I know people who are not simply weak-willed babies who have had a very hard time quitting smoking. I know a lot of the difficult things they’ve done in their lives, so I can’t just dismiss them as lacking willpower or discipline. And, to be honest, I can’t claim to have particularly strong willpower. There are a lot of things in my life that I’ve struggled with that wouldn’t be difficult for most other people.

So what’s the third option? My subjective experience of quitting smoking was simply different from most other people’s. So it’s not that I had better willpower than my friends who struggled to quit smoking. I probably just had a lot less willpower than them. You might be tempted to say, “Quitting smoking isn’t that hard. I know from my own experience. You’re just lazy.” But that’s not justified. The truth is, I have no idea what the process of quitting smoking feels like for other people. Neither do you.

The second case belongs to Ben Carpenter, one of the online fitness personalities on YouTube: if you don’t mind foul language, I recommend you spend a few minutes watching his videos. videobut here’s the gist: While Ben himself is very thin (he’s both a fitness model and a workout coach), his sister has struggled with weight her whole life. He talks about the time he was dieting to an abnormally low body fat level for a photo shoot, and the extraordinary struggle he had with hunger while trying to maintain that skinny figure. When his sister asked him how he was feeling, he detailed how extreme his hunger was, how nothing he ate ever lessened it, and how as soon as he finished eating, all he could think about was when he was going to eat again. Her response was, “Basically what you said sums up how I feel every day.” Carpenter describes the realization this gave him:

Dieting to this level of slimness has been the hardest fitness challenge I’ve ever undertaken. If you offered me $100,000 to maintain it for a year, I don’t think I could have done it. I’m not rich. Anyone who has dieted to below 6% body fat without drugs will tell you how their appetite was incredibly uncontrollable. But I only had to fight the signs of cravings for a few weeks. She did it for years. Year…My sister has had to exert more effort and willpower to fight hunger cues her entire life than I have, basically. Until now have.

Ben Carpenter describes his sister as “incredibly hardworking,” so we know full well that her struggles with weight control aren’t just because she’s a lazy, weak-willed eater. But if we simply assume that other people’s subjective experiences are the same as our own, we might simply assume that someone like Emily Carpenter is also lazy and weak-willed, despite her incredible efforts and work in other areas of her life. But we don’t know what it feels like for other people to be hungry; we can’t know that.

So what am I trying to say? In the cases I mentioned above, i.e. addiction and weight control, my view on the former and Ben Carpenter’s view on the latter are usually seen as the kinder, more compassionate view, and the view that it’s all down to willpower and voluntary choice is usually seen as the more cold-hearted view. Meanwhile, the libertarian or classical liberal view of letting certain problems be dealt with “in the market” is often seen as the cold-hearted view. To some, it seems cold-hearted and uncompassionate. To tell “It’s good to have a safe job, but it’s also good to have money. Extremely dangerous jobs – in modern America these are mainly fishing, forestry, and truck driving – pay higher than other working-class occupations because people are unwilling to risk death or disability on the job. And it’s a good thing in a free society that different people can make different choices within the range of risks and rewards.” However, I think that this view, far from being cold and uncaring, actually shows real respect, and even compassion, for people.

Libertarians and classical liberals are much more likely to accept the idea that it’s a good thing that different people can make different choices along the risk-reward spectrum. But modern liberals and progressives push back against this. They view such choices as suspect and feel the need to overturn them through the state. They often express this as being unable to believe that someone would actually make such a choice. Sincerely They believe that taking on risk in exchange for high reward is a good trade. Such choices are likely to be made under duress or in ignorance, and are subject to external veto by a third party.

Scott Sumner concludes his post with “Never assume you know what’s going on in other people’s minds. You don’t. You don’t believe your neighbor needs painkillers? How would you know? The very reason we need free markets is because we don’t know what others see, feel, or taste.” I wholeheartedly agree. Modern liberals see others making choices that seem wrong or misguided and think this is an indication that the choices are inauthentic or unworthy of respect and therefore deniable. Classical liberals see the same thing and understand that these choices may seem odd to us, but they still deserve respect and should not be subject to outside interference. Because we can’t really know the thoughts or subjective experiences of others and therefore can’t really know what value that arrangement has for them. If I see someone making a higher risk for higher reward trade-off that seems crazy to me, that’s excellent evidence that such a trade-off is not worth it to me, but there is absolutely no evidence that such a trade-off is not really worth it to them. As is often the case, Adam Smith said it best:

The statesman who attempts to direct the people how they should spend their capital not only burdens himself with unnecessary attention, but also assumes an authority which cannot be safely trusted over any individual, any council, or any senate; and no authority is more dangerous than in the hands of any man who is so foolish and presumptuous as to imagine himself fit to exercise it.

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