A Tale of Two Humans

I just published a video on the Evolving Ego YouTube channel.

This is the first part of a series. According to my current outline, there will be 15 videos in the series, but that’s liable to change along the way.

The series is an expanded version of my post from way back in 2012: “Stop Setting Goals that Don’t Make You Happy”.  This was a post that many people told me helped them “see the matrix”.

This first video sets the stage by presenting two very different caricatures of how life might go for a human being:

The Singularity and the Savanna (part 1)

New Ribbonfarm Guest Post

Venkatesh Rao has published a guest post of mine on his excellent blog “Ribbonfarm”.

The post is called “I Can’t Be Your Hero, I’m Too Busy Being Super”, and it’s about how we manage our self image as we encounter new roles, challenges and sources of conflict in our lives. (And, as if that’s not enough, it’s even got some Batman references in it 🙂 )

Once you finish reading the post, poke around Ribbonfarm a bit. It’s a treasure trove of insight about business, technology, and the human condition.

The Diagram

This diagram is my cheat sheet and will guide much of my future writing. It should perhaps be labeled “Map of Self-Conscious Human Motivation”, suggesting there’s a whole other diagram for “other conscious” motivation. But this will do for now.


I’ll provide some exposition over time. I present the gist in: “4 Portraits That Make Us Self-Conscious“.

Social Identity, Moral Concern, and Moral Imagination

Some people are tired of identity politics and wish to identify only as “human”.

I have some sympathy with this.

However, I also realize that it’s easy for a relatively privileged person in a society to turn their nose up at identity politics. If my social categories rarely put me at risk of disadvantage, I will rarely feel a pressing need to band together with my fellow sufferers to seek a remedy.  I will therefore be relatively more  free to forget about group memberships when I interact with others, and endeavor to simply treat everyone as “human beings.”

Being free to identify as “merely human” could be seen as a benefit of social privilege. And, as such, if it is a good thing, then it is something to feel grateful for, and not necessarily something to feel superior about.

Now, with that said, I do think that the person who wishes to identify only as “human” is likely to be a better moral guide than the one who identifies strongly with only one sub-group of humanity, and does not extend moral concern to anyone outside the group. At least the former has a universal scope to their moral concern. And they are also very often willing to help level playing fields and undo the effects of past discrimination for others.

However, this person also tends to lack something important in moral discourse, namely, moral imagination, or the ability to really “get” what an issue looks like from different perspectives.

An even better moral guide is the one who not only identifies as “human”, but also identifies with several other sub-groups, some of which are in conflict with each other. That person has been forced by life into grappling with issues from many different perspectives, with concerns for everyone involved. That person had something on the line as they thought things through from many points of view. That person will tend to bring more to the table than the good-hearted person of privilege, because they have BOTH broad concern AND a very strong moral imagination.

In a nutshell, a good rule of thumb in controversial discussions is (as Nassim Taleb might say) to listen most closely to those who have had skin in the game on both sides of an issue.

It’s not that the person with less moral imagination always has the wrong views in maters of controversy. It’s just that they have more difficulty seeing from all the relevant points of view.

Personally, I try to have universal moral concern in all conflicts between groups. However, I have better moral imagination when dealing with some conflicts (religion/atheism, conservative/progressive) than in dealing with others (feminism/patriarchy, racial conflict). And I attribute that to the fact that I’ve had skin in the game on both sides in the former kinds of conflict, and not so much in the latter kinds. That doesn’t mean I can’t develop my moral imagination with respect to the latter issues. I can, and have, but the learning is slower when you don’t have skin in the game on both sides.


Tribal Feedback Loops

Some people prize individual differences, and focus on inter-personal interaction with others, regardless of which groups the other person belongs to.

Others prize their group identity, and focus on inter-group interactions with others. In other words, one’s relationship with the other person will be heavily influenced by the relationship between that person’s group and one’s own group.

Few people inhabit either extreme, and most will have a mixture of inter-group and inter-personal strategies for interacting with members of an out-group. But people can differ in the relative strength of each orientation.

No doubt one’s degree of inter-personal vs inter-group orientation will be due in part to innate individual dispositions.

But I wonder also if an inter-personal orientation correlates positively with privilege, and inter-group orientation correlates positively with oppression.

If you aren’t being discriminated against because you are a member of a group, there’s less reason to identify strongly with that group. If members of your group are being antagonized by the members of another group, you are more likely to focus on the idea that you must stand or fall together as a group.

Now, if a strong group identity causes members of one’s group to antagonize members of the out-group, that will increase the tendency of the out-group to band together and likewise antagonize your group. And that will increase the tendency of members of both groups to favor inter-group interaction strategies over inter-personal strategies with members of the out-group. (My intention is to use the word ‘antagonize’ neutrally here. One side can be justified in their antagonism while the other is not.)

If members of the out-group stop antagonizing your group, then your need to identify with your group becomes less urgent. And that might mean that members of your group will, likewise, spend less energy antagonizing their group. And the predominant interaction strategies will shift from inter-group to inter-personal.

If all this holds, then there seem to be positive feedback loops in both directions.

What does this mean for current political and social discourse?

Space Pub Selves


In a galaxy far, far away, Charlie and his grandfather enter the lounge of their Space Hotel. The bouncer tells them to fill out a name tag and turn their universal translators on.

Once they have their tags around their necks, with name and home planet written neatly, Grandfather looks out over the crowd and says, “Let’s mingle. And you do the talking, Charlie. I think you’ll find these people are quite interesting.”

Xanton from Tribus looks strangely approachable.


“Greetings to you, outsider.”

“Outsider? Who are you?”

“I am Xanton, from Tribus. And on Tribus I am from house Primus, sworn enemies of house Secundus. Once we were oppressed, and now we have risen to our rightful perch and put them in their proper place.”

“Oh, how interesting. And what do you do for a living?”

“My job is Janitor, I sweep the halls of the Head Council so they can concentrate on the battle with Secundus. And with my wages I raise my children to be proud members of Primus and I donate some of what’s left to the council.”

“Do you have any hobbies?”

“In my free time I listen to Primus music, I am very keen on movies that support Primus values, and I like to get on the message boards and do battle with any member of Secundus brave enough to stick their head out of the ground.”

“Well, nice to meet you, Xanton.”

Glancing to his left, Charlie’s eye is caught by Sheila from Peritia.


“Greetings future rockstar.”

“Haha. I like that. Who are you?”

“I am the blade you do not want behind you in the dark. I am the voice you hire to go out before you, preparing the people to take up your cause. I am a master of speechcraft and stealth. My talents make any group better, and my services are in high demand. It’s a pleasure to meet you, youngling.”

“That sounds intense. So what do you do for fun?”

“Practice my skills. What else?.”

“That makes sense. It’s been a pleasure to meet you.”

“You too, and watch your back this evening [wink]”.

Backing away, Charlie bumps into Bard from Fabula.

Charlie extends a hand. “Sorry. I’m Charlie.”

“Nice to meet you Charlie. It appears our paths were destined to cross. At last the moment has come. I am Bard.”

“What can you tell me about yourself, Bard?”

“My mother was a milkmaid and my father was a rolling stone. As I grew I helped tend the cows, until one night I looked up at the biggest moon I’d ever seen and realized I was intended for greater things. I left for the city to find my path. Along the way I have had many setbacks and many victories. Moments of clarity and moments of confusion. Moments of hope and moments of despair. And it has all prepared me for what is to take place these next few months. I cannot divulge the details now, but you will almost certainly read of it in the papers within the year.”

“Wow. Sounds epic.”

“Epic it is. And what is your story, young “Charlie from Cohaesus”?”

“Well, it’s rather complicated, and I’m still trying to figure some stuff out, but let me start by saying, . . .”

“Just tell me your story, m’lad. Everyone has a story.”

“I’m afraid I don’t have a story prepared at the moment. Sorry to disappoint you. It was nice to meet you, Bard of Fabula.”

Charlie spins around and is greeted by an intense gaze and outstretched hand.

“A pleasure to meet you, I am Danita of Lacerta.”

“Nice to meet you Danita of Lacerta. What can you tell me about yourself?”

“Well, I love chocolate, and shrimp, and wine and spirits. And I like what I see in front of me right now.”

“Have you been shy your whole life?”

“Who has time to be shy? People can think what they want. We’re all animals even if we pretend otherwise. We must play the social games, yes, but never let them put you in a cage, young Charlie. Remember that you eat and breathe and feel things just like every other animal. That big brain of yours should be used to help you find more pleasure in life, not be used against you to keep you alienated from yourself.”

“Sounds like a good philosophy.”

“It’s who we are. Anyway, here’s my room number. If you happen to stumble by later on, I won’t blame you, and it will be our little secret. [wink]”

“Pleasure to meet you, Danita.”

As Danita dances away, Charlie takes the nearest seat. Grandfather takes a seat beside him.

“Grandfather . . .”

“Yes Charlie?”

“You were right. That was interesting. But strange, too.”

“What’s strange, Charlie?”

“Well, I asked many people to tell me about themselves this evening, and no one answered the way we do back home. They all had such strange answers. But none of the answers was like the others, either.”

“Go on.”

“Xanton from Tribus” didn’t really tell me about himself. He told me about his tribe.”

“Sheila from Peritia” didn’t really tell me about herself, she told me about her skills.”

“Bard from Fabula didn’t really tell me about himself — not who he is anyway. He told me some grand story that he is involved in, but not who he is.”

“And Danita, wow. That was interesting. She didn’t really tell me who she is either, though she did make it clear what she wants.”

“Let me ask you this, Charlie, . . . can you imagine a situation where you might answer like Xanton of Tribus?”

“I suppose if we were under attack and had to stand or fall as a group, yes. I might think it very important to lead with my group identity.”

“And can you think of any situation where you might answer like Sheila of Peritia?”

“On a job interview.”

“And Bard of Fabula?”

“Maybe if I were depressed and had to tell myself I was part of an epic story just to get out of bed in the morning.”

“And Danita?”

“Umm, . . .”

“OK, so you might describe yourself the way these people do if you had the right purpose for your self-description. If your purpose were to make people want to work with you, you would emphasize your skills. If you wanted to reassure your allies that you were prepared to stand or fall with them, then you might describe yourself like Xanton did, and so on.”

“Yeah. But, something seems funny about that.”

“What’s that?”

“We’re not at a job interview. We’re not in a region of warring tribes. We’re basically at a coctail party in a neutral space station. In fact, lack of subtlety aside, Danita’s answer is really the only one that fits the situation.”

“What kinds of answers were you expecting?”

“I was expecting to hear more about who they are deep down, not just the way they are on the surface for this purpose or that.”

“Maybe deep down they are exactly as they presented themselves.”

“Naw, Gramps, Sheila must be more than her skills. Like Xanton she probably has some sort of tribe. Like Bard she probably has many stories, and like Danita she must also have a private experience of breathing and tasting and feeling warm or cold and being driven by her animal spirits.”

“And Sheila chose to emphasize her skills.”

“Yeah, but why lead with that? That makes her seem one-dimensional and not very self-aware. It’s like she’s that blind man describing the trunk of an elephant and thinking he’s describing the whole elephant.”

“And you know about the whole elephant. And that makes you more self-aware.”

“Well it’s not just that. She told me she has skills. But I don’t know how she intends to use those skills. If she had told me more about her core self first, I might have a better picture of how she might use her skills. She has basically told me she has a head with dangerous protrusions, but I don’t know if she’s an elephant or a lion. I don’t know if she is apt to use her teeth on offense, or her tusks on defense.”

“Perhaps she wants to keep you guessing.”

“I suppose so.”

“And you would never think of keeping people guessing.”

“Not really. I mean, what if they get the wrong idea? If I talk about my skills before they know who I am, they won’t know as well what to expect from me. Again, they might not be able to tell whether I’m an elephant or a lion. And if I lead with a story about myself before they know who I am, they won’t understand the protagonist in the story as well. And if I lead with my tribal identity before they know who I am, they might think I just parrot what I’m told and don’t have any original thoughts of my own.”

“They could get the wrong idea, that’s true.”

“And what if I tell them that I have the skills of an assassin, and then tell them that my purpose in life is to end mosquito-borne illness on my planet. How will they make sense of that? If I describe my core self first, then they can see how those skills and that story are part of the same person.”

“Otherwise there might be some mystery.”

“Exactly. Or they might think I’m an incoherent mess.”

“You want them to think you’ve got it all together.”

“I suppose.”

“And describing the whole elephant first proves that you have it all together.”


“Here’s a question, Charlie. How did you come to know about the elephant?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, how do you know who you are as a whole? How do you know about that person who gives coherence to all the skills and stories and social identities and desires?”

“How do I know about that person? I am that person. I’ve been observing myself for eighteen years now. Most of eighteen years.”

“Have you ever seen the whole elephant all at once?”

“Interesting question. I’m not sure how to answer it. Where are you going with this?”

“Is it possible you’ve never really seen the whole elephant. Perhaps you’ve only seen trunks and tusks and tails and feet, and you imagine that they’re all part of an elephant, because that makes everything fit together.”

“Are you suggesting there is no elephant?”

“I’m mostly just asking questions. I mean you are a person. And you’re not completely incoherent, that’s true. But maybe that’s all it is. Maybe the elephant is nothing other than a set of descriptions you invented so that all your skills and stories and habits and goals and social identities could fit together.”

“You mean I created the elephant?”


“For a purpose.”


“So when I complained about how the people here gave me specific descriptions for a purpose, but didn’t tell me about their core selves, you were laughing at me?”

“Laughing at you?”

“Because the core-self description I was expecting is nothing but a description for a purpose as well.”

“And what would that purpose be?”

“Not wanting to appear incoherent or unjustified or threatening or dumb, even for an instant.”

“Well, now. Isn’t that something. [wink].”

“Yeah, that’s something.”

“Charlie, do you know what most inhabitants of this sector think of Cohaesians?”

“No, what?”

“They think we’re neurotic, brooding, self-absorbed and boring.”

“I think I’m starting to see why. Well, at least not everyone here thinks I’m boring.”

“Should I wait up for you?”

“Probably not.”

“Well good night, then, Charlie [wink]”.

Charlie makes his way to Danita’s room and knocks lightly on the door.

The door opens, and Danita’s soft voice bids him forward into the dark room. As the door shuts behind him, he feels some pressure on his wrist, and hears a clicking sound. He’s been cuffed.

Danita turns on the light, removes her wig, and flips her nametag, so it no longer says “Danita of Lacerta“


“I told you to watch your back, youngling. Don’t worry. I’ll be gentle.”

“So you are a lion.”

But . . .

This relationship might be in good shape:

“I wish he had a younger body, and I worry sometimes he thinks I’m stupid, but I love his mind and personal power, and I love our vibe together. I never feel this way with younger guys.”

“I sometimes wish she had more perspective on life, and I worry she thinks I’m just too old for her, but I love her body, and her curiosity, and I love our vibe together. She makes me feel young again.”

This relationship might be in trouble:

“I love his mind and personal power, and I love our vibe together. I never feel this way with younger guys. But I wish he had a younger body, and I worry sometimes he thinks I’m stupid.”

“I love her body, and her curiosity, and I love our vibe together. She makes me feel young again. But I sometimes wish she had more perspective on life, and I worry she thinks I’m just too old for her.”

What’s the difference?

Some Thoughts about Autonomy

First, let’s get on the same page about the meaning of the term. Autonomy is a matter of being able to do things for your own reasons. This is not the same as independence, which is a matter of doing your own thing. A person can be autonomous without being independent (Think Navy Seal recruit during Hell Week).

And with that out of the way . . .

If we are going to be held accountable for our actions, it makes sense to want to be able to choose actions that we can justify to others. You want me to do a thing? If my animal spirit is down with it, then, if I can find a reason that will play to every member in my audience of concern, I might do the thing. If I can’t find some such reason (or set of reasons), I will resist doing the thing. If you are particularly important to me, or my animal spirit is particularly down with it, I might still do the thing, but only after careful consideration of whose expectations I will be violating, and how to mitigate the damage. The point is, I need to be free to make these assessments and manage social expectations in a way that works for me (and everyone I care about).

That’s what autonomy is for.

Most people value autonomy. But autonomy can look very different depending on what kind of social deal you’ve made.

Consider an extreme tribalist. This person feels obliged to justify words and actions only to members of their own tribe, and feels no burden of justification to anyone outside the tribe. Such a person might find their own reasons to do things with other tribe members relatively quickly. Their reasons often just are their tribe’s reasons. If someone in the tribe wants them to do something, it’s likely that the suggestion is already justifiable to the person’s audience of concern (which consists only of tribe members). And if the tribe holds absolutist attitudes towards its norms, there will be little confusion about what is justifiable. There will be little to gain from looking for creative justifications that might counter initial objections. And if there is a hierarchical structure within the tribe, then the fact that a certain person is asking is often justification enough.

In a tight-knit tribe, autonomy and compliance often look like the same thing. And often they are the same thing. Tribalists are “free to comply” because there are fewer competing interests to consider.

For those who wish to move nimbly among many tribes, or who wish to identify as human, and not with more specific tribal labels, and who wish to do so conscientiously, things are often much more complicated. Coming up with reasons that will play well to every audience of concern can be tricky. And the more diverse the groups to which one obliges oneself, the more work one must do to carve out space for autonomous speech and action.

Tribalists often mock universalists for their obsession with autonomy. And they tend to mock the careful speech of someone who is trying to make their words acceptable to as wide an audience as possible. All those “maybes” and “probablys” and “sometimeses”. Just tell it how it is!

Of course, the mockery goes both ways.

The tribalist might not value the universalist’s “obsession” with autonomy. But they might very well value autonomy itself just as much. It just comes much more easily for them. They don’t have to think about it as much or “carve out space” for it, because it’s more or less built into their system. They have taken “the tribalist deal” (which restricts the audience to which one owes justification) instead of the “universalist deal” (which expands the audience to which one owes justification).

And, as with most interesting deals, each choice comes with tradeoffs.