A Theory of Moral Equilibrium
Not New, But Necessary
Let’s jump right into it: I submit that part of the human condition is having the power of one’s inner potential being opposed by forces that are equivalent to that power. That is to say that whatever the extent of one’s potential impact, there is equal and opposite inner resistance pulling them back from achieving it. Everyone’s moral responsibilities and internal pressures against fulfilling them roughly equal out, the only difference between them is the magnitude of the outcome- and the pain of not fulfilling those responsibilities increase in proportion to the scale of the accomplishments that have been forsaken. On the other hand, so does the depth of satisfaction one can relish should they conquer the conspiracy of forces that failed to stop them from achieving something that took their full array of capabilities to pull off.
It’s a standard psychological tradeoff. Relatively carefree people unburdened by constant existential angst may seem to have it easier at first, but it comes at the cost of a certain shallowness of experience- which I must emphasize is fine if they are operating at their maximum capability. If someone with average intelligence and low neuroticism becomes an office manager, that’s fine. He didn’t struggle with as many forces pulling him down, but he didn’t have as many driving him up either.
The point of this is not to compare the worth of people of different capacities- quite the contrary. Under this model, one can say the quality of a human being doesn’t come from the greatness of their capacities, but the percentage of how much of their capacity they manage to fulfill towards positive ends. In this framing, if someone who was dealt a bad genetic hand to the point prison was the most likely outcome but they became the foreman of a local cleaning service instead, they are superior to someone with genius-level IQ who works at some financial firm undifferentiated from tens of thousands of others participating in the same morally ambiguous endeavor.
Under the same principle, someone with low ability who could have easily been a janitor yet still chooses to fall back on petty crime is committing an equal failing as someone with potential for greatness settling for conventionally impressive success. This should put many people reading this (and certainly the person writing it) in a very precarious position because there is no shot in hell we’ve even sniffed what we’re capable of. Objectively speaking, I have a much greater ability to impact society than the average person. However, I’ve also hardly done anything to do so- so although I’m doing my best to catch up, as of now I’m behind the near-convict who’s running a cleaning crew.
Everyone has a choice to maximize their potential or shy away from the challenges of doing so regardless of their biology or conditioning. Even combined, they don’t eliminate choices, they just alter the knobs adjusting their difficulty levels. Take an addict who says “I can’t (insert activity) without (insert drug)”. It’s not literally true, it’s just a powerful subjective sensation that feels true. A scientist standing next to him might easily decline the same drug, but if you tell them to approach a beautiful woman at a bar, he might say “I can’t”. Why not? “I just can’t”. Meanwhile, the addict could have no more trouble approaching that woman than the scientist did refusing the drug. The truth is the addict could stop doing drugs and the scientist could stop being a pussy, their biologies and life experiences just created different levels of perceived resistance in each scenario. Hypotheticals aside, the point is that those with the potential to help guide humanity through this upcoming bottleneck must overcome their formidable interior forces preventing this potential from effectively manifesting in the world.
Creation, Meaning & Suffering
It’s quite understandable why we are intimidated- the rule of equilibrium is perhaps most starkly represented in those who have earned the title “genius” (or similar titles indicating exceptional achievement in their respective fields) that frequently have downsides severe enough to rival their virtuosity. There’s a reason people that reach the top of their fields usually admit they have some inner, insatiable demon driving them- some deeply internalized sense of inadequacy where the degree of external achievement must be high enough to offset the depths of the inner despair. Torment and genius go hand in hand because those are the natural results of the same powerful mind being pointed inward vs outward.
Still, I suspect there’s a bias to personally pathologize someone’s idiosyncrasies. The archetype of the tortured artist or mad scientist may be so timeless because the gravity of the work they’re compelled to do is simply crushing to live under. Yet the outputs of their struggles are the innovations that drive civilization and the creations that make it worth living in. Would anyone seriously claim that the nobility of performing this most human of magic tricks is not worth suffering for?
A very small fraction of humanity possess gifts that allow them to interpret the universe for the rest of us, whether scientifically or artistically- two modalities our minds utilize to make the chaos of existence somewhat legible. Translations of former nonsense into separate languages that are each fascinating by themselves, but only fully meaningful when combined. Since humans are meaning-making machines- the industrial byproduct of which is pain- it stands to reason the more meaning a given machine can generate, the more pain that machinery will necessarily experience.
It’s not a coincidence that in David Hume’s time when those with particular inclinations toward introspection had bouts of melancholy, it was labeled “disease of the learned”. To be in pain is to be human- the pain that the world is not as you want it to be. And the more you know about that world, the more acutely you’re aware of the sheer number of ways in which it falls short. Yet this unpleasant power of perception no one asks to be given also provides the opportunity to bestow their lives with greater purpose by making it more tolerable in ways that are simply out of most people’s reach. However, I’m afraid that if you have any hope in bending the world to your will enough to prevent it from breaking under the types of people that are naturally drawn to bending it to theirs, you will need to suffer more.
This argument has already been made a multitude of times throughout history (nearly always in a more impressive fashion) but like any timeless truth, humanity has the Sisyphean burden of needing to rediscover and restate lessons we’ve already learned countless times before. All I’m saying is whether one is fighting low impulse control to avoid imprisonment or pushing through the despair that comes with contemplating the absurdity of humanity’s current predicament, there is no combination of nature or nurture that exempts us from the inherent tribulation of what Nietzsche termed Self-Overcoming.
Quoting directly from the excellent Academy of Ideas video on the subject:
In the end, Nietzsche thought, all that matters in life is how much one has grown and overcome their previous limitations as this determines how powerful one is, and in turn determines one’s worth as a human being. All men are not equal, thought Nietzsche, the powerful individual, the one who is devoted to self overcoming, is the most valuable. He said “What determines your rank is the quanta of power you are; the rest is cowardice.”
And the indefatigable, devilishly clever adversary anyone who is reading with will be struggling to overcome their whole life is their own reason. The bastard is so dedicated to his craft, he even spends the majority of his time as our closest ally- the duplicity! While people struggling with an insufficient amount of reason occasionally fail to restrain their lowest impulses, people struggling with a surplus of reason are nearly always successfully prevented from reaching their greatest heights. Because settling for less than the greatest is assuredly more sensible. At least a voice telling you to rob a bank can be easily dismissed as retarded, but what is the objection to the voice telling you to mitigate your risks? On the contrary, the boldness required for great deeds usually seems like the stupid option. The opportunity to partake in high-risk, high-reward behaviors that happen to be virtuous still registers pretty damn close to “how ‘bout we rob a bank?”
The voice of rationalism is often that of a worm disguised as a sage, and since it can never be proven to be anything other than what we’d like it to be, why wouldn’t we decide it’s something flattering? Something can always be done later and it can always be done by someone else (not really, but we’ll get to that). The calculation of the pros and cons of outsourcing risk to others to reap the reward if they succeed and not bear the costs if they fail will always spit out the same result on paper- yet for some reason, ice-cold logic always seems to skew favorably toward the calculator. It’s not “cowardice”, it’s “prudence”; the other thing wouldn’t be “admirable”, it would be “reckless”. Dispassionate analysis always tastes better mixed with masturbatory Russell conjugation for our own internal propaganda.
The Terror of Freedom
The fact is we can never calculate our way into action because the odds will never be good. An alternative theory is that the current risks aren’t the problem at all, we know full well we’re capable of doing more and are just scared shitless of the stakes when we game out potential futures in our heads. We pretend our self-constructed psychological barriers are real because the shame of living within them is preferable to the terrifying responsibilities that emerge if we let them dissolve.
“The more possibility…an individual has, the more potential anxiety he has at the same time.” - Søren Kierkegaard
The moral equilibrium remains constant because the resistance we feel always grows in proportion to our aspirations. Eric Weinstein sought a Theory of Everything- extremely ambitious. Accordingly, he also delayed sharing Geometric Unity for years because he was paralyzed by the potential consequences of doing so. There are countless brilliant thinkers grappling with their own problems at any given time, and they all have their work cut out for them because intellect and character travel similarly to light and sound. One you get immediately and the arrival of the other is delayed, as it takes a lifetime of work to develop. Even in failure, their willingness to struggle places them above most, as the vast majority of us shrink from attempting great deeds in the first place. The reason, according to Nietzsche:
“They fear their higher self, because when it speaks, it speaks demandingly.”
We all have things we’re running away from- it’s just that the consequences of some people’s evasions are orders of magnitude greater than others; therefore, they have orders of magnitude greater responsibility to succeed in their self-overcoming. However, they mostly vacillate in perpetuity because that’s what intelligent people do best. But when Yeats said “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” he lets us off too easy. If you know the consequences of the worst successfully acting out their passions and your lack of conviction is what allows those outcomes to transpire, you may be many things, but “the best” ain’t one of ‘em. That’s not to belittle people who simply lead good lives in their small corner of the world, but if one has atypical capacity to fortify the foundation those small corners rely upon and remains a bystander as it decays, this cannot be considered a morally neutral decision.
Yet when inspiration to answer the call finally begins to swell, rationality once again rushes to our defense, scoffing at the audacity of such self-regard: “Woah, slow your roll there- of all people, why would it be you?” A statistically sound assessment- but how strangely fortuitous that the virtue of your humility incidentally absolves you of an otherwise terrible burden.
“For some people this evasion of one’s own growth, setting low levels of aspiration, the fear of doing what one is capable of doing, voluntary self-crippling…are in fact defenses against grandiosity, arrogance, sinful pride, hubris.” - Abraham Maslow
Of all the bullshit defense mechanisms, this one takes the cake. Trading delusions of grandeur for delusions of impotence to avoid risk, then patting ourselves on the back for being down-to-earth.
Desperate For The Right Delusions
In the most thoroughly delusional society in history, God forbid we have ones of grandeur. By all means, let’s pump the breaks. We wouldn’t want an overabundance of ambition; we can only take so many Elon Musks. Let me ask you something- why do we have to indulge every pathology except the one that might actually be useful? Besides, hasn’t the medical establishment in this country lost its mandate to determine what’s healthy at this point? If divulging your highest aspirations to a medical professional would get you diagnosed with delusions of grandeur, maybe you should take their expert assessment with a grain of salt considering their other two appointments that day were giving a 7-year-old amphetamines and greenlighting a 13-year-olds gender transition surgery.
“The frailty of genius is it needs an audience” - Sherlock Holmes
Fine, the downsides of damaged personalities with excessive need for admiration are worth the benefits that genius provides (even if most people who think of themselves as such are deluded). As long as we’re drowning in narcissism, we might as well do something cool with it. This isn’t exactly a foreign subject for me- the only way you write things like this is after spending countless hours fascinated with yourself, but at least I’m trying to transmute my self-indulgent vices into something useful. Like converting a warhead into a powerplant, and it’s not like we have a shortage of radioactive material to work with. In any case, aspiring to greatness in a culture that abhors the notion of it makes it all the more worthy to pursue.
I’m willing to bet many people with the greatest discrepancies between their self-assessed potential and present circumstances aren’t delusional at all, but actually have such an accurate grasp of what would await them on that hypothetical journey, it immobilizes them. Ignorance is indeed bliss- and the less of it you have, the more torturous it becomes. It’s difficult enough to decide to take the road less traveled, but the more accurate map of reality one has, the more that road is illuminated and reveals threats that others bold enough to have taken that road weren’t even aware of. If it were open knowledge that rows of snipers lined either side of the path, what percentage of otherwise daring people would still walk it?
I suppose that is ultimately what defines heroism vs cowardice- if you aren’t aware of the danger in the first place you don’t even get the option. Maybe the best argument for delusions of grandeur is they might be what’s needed for someone to believe they can actually survive the historic paths we need people to take. To look at a road filled with booby traps, mines, and dead bodies and go “yeah, I can make it” as they lean over to stretch a hammy. Since no stupid person can and most smart people won’t, the obligation to do the allegedly impossible falls to the sliver of talented people who also possess the will to overcome the cosmic resistance their potentialities inevitably generate. And if they happen to have a screw loose, consider it a priceless luxury when almost everyone who’s safely bolted down happens to be wearing a suicide vest.
Nietzsche and Self Overcoming:
I’ll at least make the point that I did not rip my views this directly from Nietzsche. I was looking for quotes concerning Self-Overcoming, but even I didn’t expect the convergence would be that on the nose
Freedom and Anxiety- The Inner God vs The Inner Worm
Psychology of Self-Sabotage & Resistance:
The Jonah Complex and the Fear of Greatness: