How would you improve the world if you had supernatural powers?

September 22, 2013 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog, Evolutionary Psychology, Nature

Here’s an exercise to see your values from a new perspective. I used to do it all the time until I learned my lesson from it, which I’ll write at the bottom.

Answer the question “how would you improve the world if you could have a magical wish come true?” and follow through to see if the change would, in fact, improve your life. To clarify, I mean a supernatural change outside of what you normally do to improve your life and world.

I submit that it’s not as easy as you think.

Say you had whatever magical powers to change the world however you wanted. Could you improve the world beyond what you could do without the magical powers?

Quick answers people jump to include making themselves rich, fit, or young, or maybe able to fly. Some people want the world filled with Victoria Secret models. Others want to end poverty or hunger.

These are fun answers, but thinking them through shows they don’t get you farther than you can get on your own — at least without realizing something essential about yourself, people in general, and nature.

I’ll follow the consequences of each a few steps.

At the end I’ll share the important lesson I’ve learned from this exercise that I think you’ll find valuable.

Caveats for the following proposed improvements

For the next few changes I consider the consequences, keep in mind two things.

First, I don’t pretend to follow the consequences of each comprehensively to their thorough completion, just to show they aren’t as simple as “I’m rich, now I’m happy. Done.”

Second, in none of the cases do I consider you change your inner self or anyone else’s — what I would call your emotional system. I’ll treat that case at the end.

Caveat to myself: I don’t pretend I can come up with all possible solutions or consequences to them, so maybe I’m missing something. I’d love for a reader to point out things I’m missing.

Common proposed improvements

What if you became magically rich?

Consider you made yourself magically rich. I grant you’d likely enjoy your life after the transition. For a while, at least.

Then this change puts you in the position of early retirees, who always seem to dislike retirement after a few months of golf, travel, sailing, or whatever pastime they chose. The realize happiness and emotional reward don’t come from passive enjoyment. They need at least some measure of active contribution — solving some problem. Merely removing your material needs, even providing as much physical pleasure as you want, doesn’t create happiness or emotional pleasure.

Studies show lottery winners, even people who win hundreds of millions of dollars, don’t end up happier in the long term (except people who didn’t have enough to live on first).

People can make themselves happier, but huge amounts of wealth don’t do it.

What if you could fly?

Consider if you gave yourself the magical ability to fly or some similar ability. Again, I grant you’d likely enjoy your life for a while… until the novelty ran out.

Airplanes gave people the ability to fly, just trapped in a plane. Shortly after the Wright brothers, I bet flying was the most amazing thing in the world, even trapped in a plane. Now people fly all the time. Even people who have never flown know others do all the time. I don’t think anyone values it remotely like people after the Wright brothers.

You point out flying without a plane would be more awesome? Okay, I’ll grant you that, but I don’t think that awesomeness would last the rest of your life. You could get places faster, but I suspect people would resent your extra ability.

What about teleportation, super strength, etc?

Same as flying.

What about ending hunger?

This goals sound noble, but let’s think it through.

If you just create enough food to feed everyone on Earth now, the population will keep growing until you run out of that supply. If you keep growing the supply, the population will keep growing. Eventually you’ll run out of some other resource, like clean water, clean air, etc.

You might say the Earth can provide enough food for everyone now. Maybe you just want to redistribute it. But we distribute it now based on a system of property rights. Many famines happen not from lack of food but from distribution.

If you want to take from the rich to give to the poor, how do you plan to implement that change? If you want to steal the food, it’s hard to argue you made the world better. If you want to change the system, how does that happen? Do you get to rewrite the laws? Now you’ve made yourself a dictator. Furthermore, we can’t conceive of the unintended side-effects of changing the global economic system. Again, hard to argue you made the world better. Do you want to change the hearts and minds of the rich people? Now you’re jumping into mind control. Again, how do you argue you made the world better?

I don’t see how to avoid reaching the point that other people have different values. If you respect their values you limit how much you can change the world. If you don’t respect their values, you have a hard time claiming you’ve improved the world.

In short

  • If you create more food, you’ll create more people and eventually run out of some other resource, putting you back where you started.
  • If you don’t create more food but just redistribute what already exists, you’ll hit the same problem, plus if you don’t change the global economic system you’ll have to steal from people plus the system will eventually return to where it is.
  • If you do change the system without changing people’s motivations, you don’t know if the new system will work, plus you’ve made yourself a dictator.

What about ending poverty?

The same discussion applies to solving poverty.

What about creating effective universal education?

Here I think you have the best chance at improving the world, but I still see major problems. In particular, how do you decide what to teach?

People disagree on what’s worth teaching and how. How do you propose changing the curriculum? What about people who don’t value education? Do you force them or their children to go to school? What about contentious subjects? Do you force religious people to study atheism and vice versa? Do people who oppose evolution still have to learn it?

Academia is already filled with debate.

What about families who want their children to work and not go to school? What about communities and countries that don’t have resources to provide schools or teachers? Resource constraints put us back where we were with food and money.

Lessons learned

Every candidate I can think of to improve the world without changing yourself runs into two main problems.

  1. Happiness and emotional reward need some active contribution from you. Changing the world doesn’t contribute for you.
  2. Other people have different values. Changing them seems inhuman.

These two problems suggest the only ways I can think of to improve the world. Both seem unnatural and, frankly, creepy enough that I couldn’t imagine doing them even if I could.

  1. Change yourself so you feel more happiness and emotional reward.
  2. Change others’ values so they don’t conflict with each other.

Changing your emotional system seems odd. It’s not the same as giving yourself the ability to fly. It would seem to change you to someone else. What’s the point of improving the world if the “you” that created the improvement stopped existing, replaced by a magically happier version?

If you could just wish yourself to be happy all the time, I could see how you could say the world felt better, but it seems odd to be happy for no reason.

Changing others seems inhuman. Sure, they wouldn’t disagree, but they wouldn’t seem human either.

Main lesson

When I do this exercise, I always end up concluding that given our humanity, the world is as good a place as it can be. Writing that sounds privileged. I recognize the world doesn’t seem so great for people living in poverty, being tortured, and so on. On the other hand, I don’t think I’m saying anything that others have said for thousands of years, like in Buddhism.

The point isn’t to ignore or belittle the pain and suffering in the world, but to empower you to realize you have within you tools to create happiness and emotional reward more effective than magic. You just have to work with your environment, beliefs, and behavior. We evolved to live in our world, not a fantasy world.

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