χαλεπὰ τὰ καλά. (Beauty is hard.)
– Solon or Plato

I recently realised I don’t know why quality is rare. Some possible reasons:

  • Brute probability
    'Quality is rare because the number of quality states is much smaller than the number of bad states of things - and neither nature nor artifice are enough to target the former very well or very often.'
    If you've spent much time looking at C20th modernism, this will seem plausible.

  • Social constructionism
    'Quality is rare because we estimate a thing's quality by its rarity, or by how hard it is to do.'
    (Cop-out, true only of positional goods and not others.)

  • Easy quality is unnoticed
    e.g. I have a flawless track record of keeping my lungs cycling and my blood oxygenated. That is, I am a skilled breather. My breathing is high-quality, four nines of reliability. But this is easy for me, so I don't notice.

  • Labour theory of quality
    'Quality is rare because it is actually a function of the amount of skilled labour spent on the thing, and skilled labour is rare.'
    (False, even for just explaining or moralising exchange value.)
    Related: to be competent at something takes a rare conjunction of traits: intelligence and conscientiousness and slack to build skill.

  • Inverse labour theory of quality
    'Quality is much less rare than it used to be, because of machine production. Quality is proportional with driving humans out of manufacturies. The knowledge economy and the cultural economy are mostly crap because they are not automated enough.'
    (Fits disturbingly well.)

  • Labour thermodynamics
    'Quality is rare because good things occupy lower-entropy states and so, by the second law, require more Work to create and maintain.'
    Is cleaning the best example of this?

  • Weak incentives
    Most people ordering most tasks are not capable of judging the quality (quickly). So most tasks can't incentivise quality, so people don't put in the effort required.
    This is clearly only a partial answer - why would we default to low quality if it was equally easy to do high?

  • The Metaphysics of Quality
    Robert Pirsig has a complicated answer which he hides behind two big autobiographical / allegorical novels. As far as I can tell his answer is: quality isn't a property of objects or even situations: it's an interaction between your mind and your object, a Kant-style apperception. The implication is that you can cultivate finding quality everywhere, and this is a big part of the contemplative traditions of the world; why they're good.

    I want to retort that things aren't that easy, that powerful forces put us in this state (see below) and that mere introspection should not be expected to foil such forces. But it's been a long time since I read Zen and I dimly recall that he's not naive, that he doesn't blame us victims.

  • Evolved hastiness
    'Quality is optimality. Optimality is rare because we were tuned for satisficing ("good enough"), not optimisation ("good as possible"). On the evolutionary scale, we didn't have time to optimise anything, so hasty mediocrity is our default state. We clearly can do better sometimes, we just don't do it without trying.'

  • Evolved tastelessness
    'Quality is rare because prehistoric 'savannah' tasks admit of fewer grades of quality than those stipulated by audiophiles or wine buffs today. (The impala was either edible or inedible.) So our quality organs are underdeveloped.'

  • Evolved shallowness
    'Quality is rare because we evolved to value the new, and most things aren't new. An obsession with novelty was a winning strategy in the ancestral environment. So we devalue the common in order to direct more attention on the rare and thus and thus maximise diet balance / mating opportunities.'

    Big issue with this: novelty has been increasing massively in the last 300 hundred years, and going by the ambient pessimism, I'm not sure people's experienced value has been tracking that huge increase. (Note also that this is social constructionism with a different hat on.)

  • Environment shift: Out of our depth
    That is, our environment has shifted far from the one we formed our heuristics and hard-wired competencies in. The atomic actions of the modern world (punctuality, lifelong learning of new systems, temperance when surrounded by superstimuli, being relaxed in large crowds, extreme focus duration - sometimes for an entire hour!) are basically absent in the ancestral env. Neither our genes nor our culture have adapted enough yet.
    Prediction: it should be much easier to find high quality in primordial things: hunting, swimming, dancing, group singing, language. 1

  • Evolved reward bias: pessimism
    Paul Christiano notes that when you are designing agents, if you don't know the correct reward function then you are much better served by giving them falsely low reward (including random jump-scare penalties) than falsely high reward. The latter leads to inactivity and randomness; the former to desperate intelligence. This is the best single explanation.

    Bostrom & Shulman instead ground this in fitness directly:
    for human beings, it is generally much easier to lose large amounts of reproductive fitness in a short time than to gain an equivalent amount. Staying in a fire for a few moments can result in permanent injury or death, at the cost of all of an organism’s remaining reproductive opportunities. No single meal or sex act has as much at stake per second—it takes weeks to starve, and the expected number of reproducing children produced per minute of mating is small. Thus, evolution may have had call to generate more intensely motivating-per-second pains in response to injury than pleasures in response to positive events.

These are not probably mutually exclusive. I’ll fill in new ideas and evidence for each as I go.

That bad things are easy and good things hard, that pain is sometimes chronic and pleasure always fleeting, seems like the largest part of “the Human Condition”.

Consider: if we were immortal but otherwise exactly as we are, then a lot of people would still have a terrible time. (Even ignoring the dementia and cachexia.)

But if we were stubbornly happy - if we often experienced joy for no particular reason, if the worst misfortune was quickly recovered from - then at least to me this seems like the remaining problems of mortality, meaning, progress would become ordinary ill-defined problems rather than the miserable ruinous wicked problems they are for many people now.

(The natural crabbed, reward-biased response is to worry that such “hyperthymic” people would be deeply deluded or unempathetic. We have a couple of real examples suggesting otherwise.)

  1. Evidence: Native speakers of a language are remarkable in their recall and live generation, even when the language is luridly complex. The weakness of adult language learning is no counterevidence, since you wouldn't need more than one.

    Counterevidence: Physical and social clumsiness is common, with maybe 6% with some form of dyspraxia. Many people find it extremely difficult to find a partner. The current physical and social environment is very different, but we fail on easy cases, e.g. dropping things when walking on flat surfaces.

See also


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Tags: meaning, philosophy, transhumanism, suffering, biology


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