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Five Days with the Devil

Joe Edelman
Feb 9, 2017 · 5 min read

Inside: a thought experiment; how human values get lost; and a new perspective on recent political upheaval (Trump, Brexit, terrorism, etc).

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Art by Jessica Monster


On Monday the devil offers you productivity. He has a magical to-do list for you. Things appear on the to-do list as soon as you desire them, if they are possible at all. And as soon as they appear, BAM! They will have already happened. You can still enjoy the feelings of accomplishment, and the fruits of success, but you’ll have nothing of the process. So: as soon as you desire to write a book, it will have been written. As soon as you desire a fancy dinner, you will have just eaten it. As soon as you desire to spend a day relaxing with someone you love, that day will have just happened. It will be over.

Is this a heaven or hell? Are there any desires for which it’d be helpful? If it seems like a bad offer, does that mean something about what you aim to accomplish in life? About the drive to be productive or efficient?


On Tuesday the devil’s got a way to improve your relationships and collaborations. He is going to solve — forever — the problem of determining which trades and contractual arrangements will work in your personal and work life. You’ll immediately know who could hire you, how much they would pay, and what’s expected. Same with your personal life: you will immediately know where there’s mutual desire — for kissing, for sleeping together, for going out to dinner, or for conversing about literature. The devil will remove all the pain and confusion of negotiating, of searching, of flirting, etc. But he asks one thing: your relationships with these people will be limited to the contract as specified. There can be no open-ended discovering together, only a series of known-in-advance trades. You may still spend ongoing time with a person, but only as a sequence of these known-in-advance trades.

How long would such a life be enjoyable? How would it be to live on Earth if everyone accepted the devil’s deal? Do you have friends who’d accept this trade, and friends who wouldn’t? What’s the difference?


On Wednesday, the devil offers to improve your powers of perception and recognition. Like Sherlock Holmes, you’ll be better at noticing things: the composition of your environment, clues about others’ emotional states, the realities of your political and economic situation, etc. The only price the devil asks is a corresponding reduction of your powers of appreciation. You’ll know more about what’s going on, but know less about why it matters to you. You’ll have trouble seeing why to care. Whatever you currently value — whether for its beauty, its usefulness, or its passion — you’ll appreciate less.

Would you take the devil’s offer? What appreciations would you miss the most? How would your life change? Imagine if you chose, not only for yourself, but for all humanity: would you decide to make everyone more perceptive, more factual, and less appreciative? How would that society be different? Is perception without appreciation even possible?


On Thursday, the devil offers universal empathy and understanding. Whatever you feel, people will see it, and they’ll immediately understand all the important details of what’s happened to you, and care for you. You’ll no longer have to tell your story to get sympathy and understanding, because you’ll have it immediately. The price, this time, is that people will only know about your feelings, your story, your experience. All else will remain locked inside: your plans, your dreams, what you identify with, how you want to grow or live differently. You’ll have everyone’s empathy, but no collaboration, no mentorship, no togetherness in growing or learning.

Would you take the offer? If you did, would people be giving you more or less in the long run? What kind of growing together or collaboration would you miss the most? What do people really do for one another?


On Friday the devil comes to enhance your overall success. He’ll make you twice as successful at living however you like. If you want to exercise, you will. If you want to improve the situation of less-fortunate people, you’ll be twice as effective as you’d normally be. Whatever you dream or set your mind to, it’s more likely to be realized. A price, however, must be paid. For the rest of your life, everyone will know your success, no one will know your motivations. Your purposes—all of them—must always be secret.

What do you lose in this trade? Why is it important to understand each other’s reasons? What do we get out of the process? Is a life less worthwhile if no one knows our true reasons? Are we more or less likely to do the right things, when we can’t talk about our true reasons?

In each of the stories above, the devil undermined a key part of how humans interact around their values:

  • On Monday, by offering the to-do list, he reduced all values to logistical goals.
  • On Tuesday, by replacing flirting and discovery with an enhanced coordination, he re-cast collaboration as a trade for goals, rather than a mutual exploration of values.
  • On Wednesday, by offering us acute perception, the devil stole our ability to discover value in our environment. He convinced us only facts were real.
  • On Thursday, by offering us empathy and understanding, he removed our capacity to protect each other, which depends on recognizing values.
  • On Friday, by preventing us from sharing reasons, he cut us off from us certain social processes: from deliberation about values, from co-discovery of values. It’s exactly these social processes which make our choices meaningful.

These trades are not speculative. They are not fables.

These are trades our society made. They actually happened.

Humans are creatures who constantly ask one another what’s important — in a spouse, in a wine, in a programming language.

Our values have a social life. Just as we respond to each other’s’ feelings, we also work together: exploring, extending, and protecting our values. There’s a hidden structure to how we evolve and update and pursue what’s important to us. We coalesce socially around values, and we collaborate to realize them in choices and projects.


People feel they’re living in a society which doesn’t reflect their values. On the left those values include fairness, equality, and living with nature. On the right they include dignified work, stable families, and religious community.

We have a simple story about why society doesn’t respect our values: the other side is winning!

But maybe it’s not left values that are winning, or right values that are. Maybe it’s not liberal values or Muslim values or American values. Maybe what’s happening is all values are losing.

What if the social life of values is failing? What if our values aren’t being coalesced around, aren’t being expressed as they once were? What could we do to fix this?

If you liked this post, you may enjoy Emotions and Integrity (7 min), or my post on our political situation, Nothing to be Done (17 min), or my guide to designing around users’ values (13 min).

You can also learn more in an online class, with a group activities and a trained facilitator (maybe even me):

Human Systems

A textbook and guide to repairing the social fabric by…

Joe Edelman

Written by

Stay in touch!

Human Systems

A textbook and guide to repairing the social fabric by understanding values, practices, norms, and so on. Stay in touch! [emails], [tweets], [face to face]

Joe Edelman

Written by

Stay in touch!

Human Systems

A textbook and guide to repairing the social fabric by understanding values, practices, norms, and so on. Stay in touch! [emails], [tweets], [face to face]

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