Poorly distributed complexity: stuff isn't fair

You know the phrase 'life isn't fair?' That's true, but it's an incredibly hard thing to wrap your head around. The universe isn't set up to serve the interests of living things. The ecosystem isn't set up to serve the interests of humans. Human institutions aren't set up to serve the interests of all humans equally. Even personal, individual relationships aren't always set up to optimize for the well-being of all parties.

Comic: a whale has been struck by a harpoon, another whale says "It's okay, Hank. I just read that the goal of ethics is to maximize human flourishing." SOURCE: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, comic number 3420


I spend a lot of time thinking about un-fairness as a founding principle of understanding life. I want things to be more fair -- and I think that's a goal that can be pursued with meaningful success.

I could do a whole series on this,[1. Other examples: it's not fair that purchasing goods and services can lead to supporting anything other than the existence of those goods and services; it's not fair that there's no way to choose political neutrality without siding by default with the current power structure; it's not fair that Western culture on the whole systematically misrepresents adulthood to children to make adults feel good about their idealized notions of the world; it's not fair that it's impossible to use language to communicate ideas clearly without leaving out important details.] but one of the unfair things that bothers me most, and most frequently, is that there is absolutely no set of relationships between:

  • How important it is to understand something,
  • How easy that thing is to understand,
  • How easy it is to get help in understanding that thing.

Like, the United States legal system is literally so complicated that it takes an advanced degree to be able to deal with it with a significant level of competency, but that degree is very expensive, the ideas that you have to learn in getting it are complex, often contradictory, and usually counter-intuitive, and everyone in the US is nonetheless required to behave in a way that corresponds in a certain way to those ideas.

Or, understanding the suffering of a marginalized group requires accepting that they face a constant barrage of microagressions, but any attempt a marginalized person makes to testify to those experiences sounds very much like cherry-picking and can rhetorically be neutralized by actually cherry-picked experiences that a privileged person has had.

Or, we're taught to understand money in terms of a static value -- a millionaire is a person who has a million dollars, you can get rich by winning the lottery and being given a big pile of money -- when the actual functionality of money is more like a rate of flow -- a million dollars is 20 thousand a year if you want it to last 50 years, which is like having an extra household member with a poverty-level job, not like being a millionaire at all.

And, importantly, to all three of those examples you could criticize my summary by pointing out that it's actually way more complicated than that. Which is my point.

Stuff like this reminds me why stuff like Voltaire's famous quote, "The perfect is the enemy of the good," is so important. These problems are all fundamentally un-solvable, because the universe is unfair and we've got brains shaped by evolution and there are lots of people who stand to keep a lot of money and power if these ideas stay confusing.

But knowing we can't solve these problems doesn't mean trying would be bad. The difference between any of them being 0% solved or 10% solved or whatever[2. And calculating percentage-solvedness of these problems is another impossible thing that is nonetheless useful.] and being 50% or 80% solved is a difference of a huge amount of suffering or well-being. Even individual actions by individual people contain a degree of significance that is both trivial and meaningful.

Which is a confusing idea that seems complicated or self-refuting and is hard to express using language, but it's also really important.