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There is a Magic Button

This is a guest post by my friend Jordan Liu. Check out his blog for more great content.

There is a magic button, and if you were to push it, then from that moment on nobody would experience the tingly feeling they get when they see someone attractive ever again. They would still be able to recognize attractive features, but that specific sensation would be lost forever.

Do you push the button?

I read this question aloud from a laminated card to the circle of people gathered around the snack table at a meetup in Berkeley and grabbed a handful of chips from the open party-sized bag.

“Obviously yes”, I said after a short pause.

“Why obviously?”

“Because it would help solve a lot of inequality. I feel like people are often discriminated against for not being attractive”, I explained. “They have to work extra hard to get others to trust them, have worse outcomes when tried for crimes, and have a harder time making friends and finding romantic partners. And most of the world also acts like this isn’t true. They prefer the comfortable lie that the only thing that matters is what’s on the inside, and if your heart is beautiful then people will see that beauty. But I don’t think that’s really the case.”

An older man to my right jumped in. “Is eliminating inequality a good thing in and of itself though? And isn’t removing the tingly feeling of seeing someone attractive explicitly limiting the best of us, rather than trying to bring others up to that level? I could see pushing a button that made everyone extremely attractive, but this is closer to taking away attractiveness altogether.”

“I guess I feel like the amount of suffering that would be eased by pushing the button outweighs the suffering brought on by the extra work attractive people now have to do to be liked.”

“But”, he objected, “it’s not just about suffering. I have an intuition that there is something uniquely valuable about that tingly feeling. Sort of like how humans appreciate beauty in art and music, and this is agreed upon as something that is specific to humans and very special. Taking that away would be like taking away the shiver you get when a song connects with you just the right way.”

A girl across the table added, “would you push the button if it meant that nobody would ever experience the tingly feeling they get when they hear a beautiful voice?”

This was par for the course at a meetup for readers of the philosophy blog SlateStarCodex. I made a mental note about how much I loved talking about questions like this, and the particular discussion styles that marked people who were especially good at it – patterns like the ability to ask questions in analogous forms, and the ability to cut straight to the root of disagreements.

“I guess not”, I admitted.

“Is that just because you feel like the amount of inequality resulting from variation in voices is not as much as the amount of inequality resulting from variation in attractiveness?” she asked.

“That would be consistent, but actually now I’m just questioning my initial instinct to push the first button. Maybe I wouldn’t.”

The older man grabbed an Oreo. “But do you think inequality is wrong in principle? Let’s suppose everyone in the world starts out looking exactly as attractive as each other, and then one day someone is born who is 10% more attractive. Are we morally obligated to do everything we can to make them less attractive?”

I frowned. “Well… not in that case, but if you add in the fact that there are limited resources and all of those people are in competition with each other – a competition in which being attractive helps you – then I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the inequality leads to unneeded suffering. Like, let’s say an extremely attractive woman is born who all the men then decide they want to compete to woo. They all end up spending all this extra energy on the competition that would have otherwise been spent doing important things which now don’t get done, so society suffers in that way, first of all. And then there’s competition among the women where they all want to be more attractive now that the benefits have been made so obvious, so they start spending their time trying to get men to want to woo them, so again society suffers. And then the world gradually sorts itself into one that is divided into stratas of attractiveness where life is best for those who are the most attractive. And now if someone is born who is 10% less attractive than the mode then they’ve been forced into this lower class and denied privileges they would have had if attractiveness didn’t matter so much.”

I looked around the circle to see nods of agreement and picked up another card. This one read “what is your craziest sexual fantasy?”

The argument that there is something uniquely valuable about the tingly feeling of seeing someone attractive is interesting. It’s not unlike the feeling I get when I hear beautiful music, or see a beautiful painting. I wouldn’t push a button that got rid of those feelings. I wouldn’t push a button that stopped us from feeling love.

Societies tend to produce a lot of art once they hit a threshold of being able to keep people fed and safe. Some people go so far as to say that things like art, music, and love are what give life meaning, that the point of modern society is that it gives us leisure time to do with what we please. Born of this school of thought is the advice that you should follow your dreams. Do something you’re passionate about and you’ll never work a day in your life. And reactionarily, the counter-advice, keep your passions separate from your job. Be passionate about your hobbies, but pick a job with security that you’re good at and that makes you money.

Even so, for many of us with job security and generous wages, the allure of following our dreams still tinges every discussion of the future. “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” I’m not sure. Either I will have followed my dreams by then, or I will still be doing what I’m doing, and not finding it unenjoyable, because how could such a cushy life ever be unenjoyable, but also markedly noticing that even though this isn’t bad, it still is not my passion.

One friend jokes about quitting his consulting job to found a startup. Another travels the world, “funemployed.” One friend leaves a big tech company to pursue stand-up comedy. I see a video of his set on Facebook later – he’s hilarious. Then I go to work and help build a product that a billion people use, with my teammates who are basically the smartest and most conscientious people I know. And at the end of the day I have a jam session with a bassist who used to play music professionally before deciding that having his career be music was slowly draining his passion for music. When I grab dinner with him later and tell him that in 5 years I will have tried doing music as a job he considers it for a moment and says, “given what I know about you, I actually think you would really enjoy that.” I think back to what one of my high school teachers once said about a career in music: “you have to love it enough to risk hating it.” I think about what I would be risking if I did leave my job.

Passion does weird things. It can make it seem admirable to leave a well paying and impactful job for a cheap apartment near an arts scene. Romantic, even. If I tell you that a successful CEO stepped down from his position at 35, you are confused until I mention that he’s really passionate about charity work and hopes to shift his focus to doing more of that. Following your passion is kind of like the ultimate justification for doing anything, especially things that involve a lot of sacrifice. And maybe this is rightly so – what else could possibly pull you away from your good-enough life to try out a maybe-better-but-maybe-worse alternative?

Or, more realistically, it’s a maybe-better-but-probably-worse alternative. At least for the musicians, artists, and stand-ups. Only a tiny fraction of us ever achieve conventional success. Of those who are able to make a living doing what we love, even fewer get mega-star levels of fame. And of those who do get famous, many will never have as positive an impact on the world as I can have doing software engineering on a billion-user product. If I fix a 911 call issue, that’s a billion people who now have more reliable emergency services. If in addition to that I donate 10% of my income to effective charities, that’s 3+ lives saved annually. Most doctors don’t save that many lives in a year, and their job is literally to save lives.

But, of course, there are worthwhile goals other than the ones which do the most good. If your moral compass points another way, as Emerson would argue, you’d best follow that compass, because at the end of the day the only person to account for your life is you. So maybe the answer is, as Dan Harmon says, to only do it if you could spend your whole life doing it without ever “making it”, and you would still be happy and feel like that was a worthwhile life. But that’s less practical advice and more just a way to calibrate your expectations. If you’re doing it to get famous, you’re probably going to burn out before you get famous. In other words, if you really have enough passion to fuel a lifetime of work, Harmon says go for it. In a way, looking for a career related to your passion is a natural consequence of that passion itself.

So let’s say you have a magic button. If you push it, then from that moment on, nobody will experience passion ever again. They would still be able to honestly evaluate their skills and appreciate well executed art, but the specific feeling of drive that leads people to make stupid decisions would be lost forever. They would finally be able to plan for their futures in realistic ways, weighing the low percent chance of success with the safety of a conventional career.

Do you push the button?