Highlighted by Andy Matuschak

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There is a common view that, unless people are very conscious or self-reflective, they likely do things for no reason at all, and merely make up reasons after the fact to justify their mindless, involuntary, twitch-like actions. This view seems to come from a strain of behaviorist psychology that views people as addicted or habituated or socially programmed or driven directly by impulses or brain chemicals (“desperately seeking dopamine”) or evolutionary imperatives around status or reproduction. The view that we only justify our random actions in hindsight is bolstered by psych studies where people are unreliable witnesses, or where we narrate our own actions in seemingly arbitrary ways. But our capacity to make up reasons in retrospect doesn’t indicate that that we don’t have reasons in the first place. And there is ample evidence that we do. The view that people do things for no reason appeals mostly to those who’ve never looked into the economics of choice and addiction, who’ve never considered how alarming it is when we actually do something for no conscious reason (like sleepwalking or throwing up or responding to laughing gas), and who’ve never introspected about the reasons behind their own “bad” choices. If you look into the economics of choice and addiction, you’ll find that so-called “addiction” is indistinguishable from rational actions taken in a tough situation (Stigler & Becker, Theory of Rational Addiction). If you look into the philosophy of action, you’ll find a coherent view that, not only to we make up reasons for our actions, we also make up actions for our reasons (Velleman, Virtual Selves). If you introspect about your own “bad” choices, you’ll find that even a “bad” choice to eat junk food or watch TV or do something you’re conflicted about comes from a “good” reason, like wanting to stop feeling anxious, or to do something about your loneliness, or to get your mind off something you don’t know how to face. The truth that emerges is this: that people of all levels of self-reflection and articulacy do things for good reasons, and that psychological theories that paint people as addicted, habituated, socially programmed, or driven directly by brain chemicals are a dangerous, elitist, and disrespectful kind of bullshit. Why are these theories dangerous? Because it’s only if people have reasons that you can possible help them with what they want to do. If you imagine that there’s nothing behind people’s actions, that they don’t have anything noble that they hope for, that there’s nothing their actions are about… the best you can do is project your own goals for them (happiness, health, mindfulness, productivity, etc) and you needn’t have any concern about whether they want those things for themselves.

There is a common view that, unless people are very conscious or self-reflective, they likely do things for no reason at all, and merely make up reasons after the fact to justify their mindless, involuntary, twitch-like actions. This view seems to come from a strain of behaviorist psychology that views people as addicted or habituated or socially programmed or driven directly by impulses or brain chemicals (“desperately seeking dopamine”) or evolutionary imperatives around status or reproduction. The view that we only justify our random actions in hindsight is bolstered by psych studies where people are unreliable witnesses, or where we narrate our own actions in seemingly arbitrary ways. But our capacity to make up reasons in retrospect doesn’t indicate that that we don’t have reasons in the first place. And there is ample evidence that we do. The view that people do things for no reason appeals mostly to those who’ve never looked into the economics of choice and addiction, who’ve never considered how alarming it is when we actually do something for no conscious reason (like sleepwalking or throwing up or responding to laughing gas), and who’ve never introspected about the reasons behind their own “bad” choices. If you look into the economics of choice and addiction, you’ll find that so-called “addiction” is indistinguishable from rational actions taken in a tough situation (Stigler & Becker, Theory of Rational Addiction). If you look into the philosophy of action, you’ll find a coherent view that, not only to we make up reasons for our actions, we also make up actions for our reasons (Velleman, Virtual Selves). If you introspect about your own “bad” choices, you’ll find that even a “bad” choice to eat junk food or watch TV or do something you’re conflicted about comes from a “good” reason, like wanting to stop feeling anxious, or to do something about your loneliness, or to get your mind off something you don’t know how to face. The truth that emerges is this: that people of all levels of self-reflection and articulacy do things for good reasons, and that psychological theories that paint people as addicted, habituated, socially programmed, or driven directly by brain chemicals are a dangerous, elitist, and disrespectful kind of bullshit. Why are these theories dangerous? Because it’s only if people have reasons that you can possible help them with what they want to do. If you imagine that there’s nothing behind people’s actions, that they don’t have anything noble that they hope for, that there’s nothing their actions are about… the best you can do is project your own goals for them (happiness, health, mindfulness, productivity, etc) and you needn’t have any concern about whether they want those things for themselves.