[Speculative philosophy. Originally on Grand, Unified, Crazy.]

Three Stories

Imagine, for a moment, three young adults recently embarked on the same promising career path. The first comes home from work each day, and spends their evenings practising and playing a musical instrument. The second comes home from work each day, and spends their evenings practising and playing a video game. The third comes home from work each day, and spends their evenings hooked up to a machine which directly stimulates the pleasure and reward centres of their brain.

How do these people make you feel?

For some people with more libertarian, utilitarian, or hedonistic perspectives, all three people are equally positive. They harm no-one, and are spending their time on activities they enjoy and freely chose. We can ask nothing more of them.

And yet this perspective does not line up with my intuitions. For me, and I suspect for many people, the musician’s choice of hobby is laudable, the gamer’s is relatively neutral, and the “stimmer”‘s (the person with the brain-stimulating machine) is distinctly repugnant in a way that feels vaguely ethics-related. It may be difficult to actually draw that repugnance out in clear moral language – after all, no-one is being harmed – but still… they’re not the kind of person you’d want your children to marry.

The Good and The Bad

Untangling the “why” of these intuitions is quite an interesting problem. Technically all three hobbies rely on hijacking the reward centres of the brain, whose original evolutionary advantages were more to do with food, sex, and other survival-related tasks. There’s a fairly short path from arguing that the stimmer’s behaviour is repugnant to arguing that all three cases are repugnant; after all none of them result in food or anything truly “productive”. But this tack also seems to go a bit against our intuitions.

Fortunately, the world has a lot of different video games, and we can use that range to draw out some more concrete differences. At the low-end are games like Cow Clicker and Cookie Clicker, which are so basic as to be little more than indirect versions of the reward-centre-stimulating machine. More complex games seem to intuitively fare a little better, as do games with a non-trivial social element. Games that directly attempt to train us in some way also seem to do a little better, whether they actually work or not.

Generalizing slightly, it seems like the things we care about to make video games more “positive” are roughly: transferable skills, personal growth, and social contact. But this model doesn’t seem to fit so well when applied to learning an instrument. You could argue that it includes transferable skills, but the obvious candidates only transfer to other instruments and forms of musicianship, not to anything strictly “practical”. Similarly, social contact is a positive, but it’s not a required component of learning an instrument. Playing in a group seems distinctly better than learning it by yourself, but learning it on your own still seems like a net positive. Our final option of “personal growth” now seems very wishy-washy. Yes, learning an instrument seems to be a clear case of personal growth, but… what does that mean exactly? How is it useful, if it doesn’t include transferable skills or social contact?

There are a few possible explanations that I’m not going to explore fully in this post, since it would take us a bit far afield from the point I originally wanted to address. For one, perhaps music is seen as more of a shared or public good, one that naturally increases social cohesion. It seems plausible that maybe our intuitions just can’t account for somebody learning music entirely in private, with no social benefits.

Another approach would be to lean on Jonathan Haidt’s A Righteous Mind and its Moral Foundations Theory. Certainly none of the three people are causing harm with their actions, but perhaps they are triggering one of our weirder loyalty or sanctity intuitions?

Thirdly, perhaps the issue with the third hobby is less “it’s not useful” and more of a concern than it’s actively dangerous. We know from experiments on rats (and a few unethical ones on humans) that such machines can lead to addictive behaviour and very dangerous disregard for food and other critical needs. Perhaps as video games become more indirect, they become less addictive and simply less dangerous.

Moral Obligations

Really though, these questions are being unpacked in order to answer the more interesting one in this essay’s title: when is it wrong to click on a cow? Or slightly less metaphorically: what moral obligations do we have around how we spend our leisure time? Should I feel bad about reading a book if it doesn’t teach me anything? Should I feel bad about going out to see a show if it’s not some deep philosophical exploration of the human spirit? What about the widely-shat-upon genre of reality television?

Even more disturbingly, what are the implications for just hanging out with your friends? Surely that’s still a good thing?

If I generalize my intuitions well past my ability to back them up with reason, we have some weak moral obligation to spend our time in a way that benefits our group, either through direct development of publicly beneficial skills like music, or through more general self-improvement in one form or another, or through socializing and social play and the resulting group bonding. Anything that we do entirely without benefit to others is onanistic and probably wrong.

The final question is then: what if that isn’t what I find enjoyable? How much room is there in life for reading trashy novels and watching the Kardashians? The moral absolutist in me suggests that there is none; that we must do our best to optimize what little time we have as effectively as possible. But that’s a topic for another post.

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19 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:37 AM

One possible motivation for your intuition: which one brings potential value to your life (makes a better ally)? The musician, I'd expect, with the gamer being less so, and the wirehead not at all useful to you.

I account for it by status/cultural signaling. In some cultures, music practice is culturally forbidden. In others, dangerous and otherwise useless rituals are required, like bullet ant gloves. So it’s not the inherent nature of the activity.

In our own culture, playing music is a status symbol. In children, it means your parents were probably wealthy enough to afford lessons and engaged in prepping you for competition in the college signaling game. Even as adults, to defend the status that the musically educated gain from their art, we are all locked in to protecting its high status.

Video games are not high status, so everyone who holds status is likewise incentivized to prevent them from becoming a competing status symbol.

Self stimming signals deep nonconformity. So we run away from it.

I also feel like this is pretty much the whole answer. Certain 'non-productive' hobbies are traditionally associated with higher status (music, art, etc. Especially the traditional varieties), probably because they (used to) signal that the person has sufficient free time and money to maintain the hobby, and is in touch with the high status culture surrounding it.

One intuition I have for the difference is the consuming/producing axis: the stimmer is purely consuming, the video game player is half consuming, half producing a narrative/experience, and the player is mostly producing something.

I'm not as sure why this should be morally relevant, but I do feel that producing is more "moral" than consuming, in general.

It is always wrong to click on a cow. Clicking on cows is contrary to the moral law.


This feels like a joke or a reference to something with which I am not familiar?

What if we rephrased the question as "When is it okay to be bored?"

The way the post seems to frame the setting is that these three are doing things in a largely nonsocial setting. None are overtly engaging in some activities that imply some form of social interaction. As such, if we consider that aspect and then pose the alternative "go home and stare at the wall" does that suggest any additional takes on how to assess the situations?

(I will avoiding any discussion of brain stimming because I prefer to keep the discussion as concrete as practical. Brain stimming lacks concreteness because our species has almost no experience with brain stimming of humans.)

A young man's spending his evenings clicking on cows is a sign that something is seriously wrong with him. You say as much when you write, "they’re not the kind of person you’d want your children to marry."

In your hypothetical you do not give any details to suggest what might be wrong. If you had hypothesized for example that a 70-year-old man in a wheelchair living alone on government handouts spends his evenings clicking on cows, my guess is that you would feel less repugnance because you have been socialized to be sympathetic towards the disabled and the poor.

But human lives go seriously wrong all the time in ways that cannot be catalogued in a straightforward way into a bin labelled chronic illness, chronic poverty, substance abuse or such.

It has only been a century or two since part of the world has learned *not* to react with repugnance and moral condemnation towards, e.g., a person who has obvious signs of chronic illness, and even in the populations most inclined to be sympathetic, most people will react with moral condemnation toward personal failure when there are no signs as to the cause of that failure.

I hope you don't mind my saying this, but you have given no indications in this post that you aren't having the natural human reaction to a strong sign of severe personal failure (namely, moral condemnation).

You write, "I think if stimming was cheap and easy, most people would do it". If most people would do it, then it is not a sign of a serious personal failure as much as a sign of a serious societal failure. In any case, I don't see how it sheds any useful light on the matter whether or not you feel moral repugnance.

I agree with the other answers (status, usefulness for others), but I think it is also about the likely development in the future. Playing on instrument will make you tired after a while; wireheading will not. Therefore it is likely that the third person will gradually expand the time they spend wireheading. That is why "they’re not the kind of person you’d want your children to marry"; it is easy to imagine that in 10 years they will spend their entire days wireheaded, and your child will have to do all the work or divorce them. (In worst case, that will make your daughter a single mother with kids, or your son will have to keep sending half of his paycheck to pay for the wireheading bills of his ex.)

For the first one, there is a chance they will become good at playing the instrument (which means some status and a potential source of income) or they will give up at some moment. If it only remains a useless hobby, it is possible but unlikely that it would expand to take the entire day.

The one with video games is somewhere in between. There are people who become dependend on video games, there are people who grow out of them, there are also people who have the games as a hobby that doesn't expand to eat all their time and attention.

If I were to guess at the source of your intuition, I would say you were taught a value system that denigrates people for not putting enough effort into things, or being focused on one's own pleasure rather than doing more "important" things.

The musician and video game player have to at least work for their pleasure, and their reward is a place on a status ladder of some kind. The stim user isn't climbing any ladders or putting in any effort, and thus should be denigrated/disapproved of.

This isn't an acultural moral intuition, though: it's based on your specific schooling, family, or other cultural upbringing. A person brought up in an environment where personal ambition is denigrated would likely see the musician as a try-hard, the video game player as acceptable as long as they're not too serious about it, and the stim user as someone to get together and have a stim party with!


we must do our best to optimize what little time we have as effectively as possible

Healthy humans are usually more satisficing than optimizing. (Slack is healthy, Moloch not so much.)

In general, my observation has been that the more somebody talks up some form of utility maximization, not as a simple consequence of math or a useful tool, but as a moral imperative and a personal ideal, the more likely the interest arises from a compulsion to virtue-signal in opposition to something one has been taught should be denigrated. The virtue signaling impulse then happens whenever one is exposed to examples of the denigrated thing (e.g. thinking about somebody using a stim machine).

Cultural indoctrination like this can be altered or deleted fairly simply using memory reconsolidation techniques, after which one ceases to have the urge to denigrate or virtue-signal in response to a pattern-match, replaced with something like, "well, it depends" -- i.e., specific-case reasoning rather than a compulsive heuristic.

There is terminological conflict as in another context "stimming" means alleviating your brain by giving it a (predictable) stimulus, such as tapping your leg or brushing in a certain way. It also has features of stigma around it. This is for especially for people with neurological conditions that have altered needs.

One of the issues with whether solitary confinement is a humane condition to impose is the negative effect that the lack of stimulus does to a human brain. In a certain sense a certain degree of stimming might even be morally required.

Cow Clicker was a satire of games like "Farmville" that had gameplay that consisted of waiting for a timer to expire so you could restart it. Many of the people who played it did so because they liked the joke.

I feel like the obvious answer here is to look at the underlying intention.

is distinctly repugnant in a way that feels vaguely ethics-related. It may be difficult to actually draw that repugnance out in clear moral language – after all, no-one is being harmed – but still… they’re not the kind of person you’d want your children to marry.

Which direction is the causal arrow going in. I think that the type of person most likely to stim voluntarily already has some socially undesirable characteristics. I think that this sense of unease goes away somewhat if told that they are part of a scientific study and were told whether or not to stim at random.

Either way, I think that it is morally small change.


I think if stimming was cheap and easy, most people would do it. I don’t think it would only be done by people with other socially undesirable characteristics.


Slight typo: You've used "fair" instead of "fare".

I've also pondered a similar issue, but from the lens of addictiveness and Skinner boxes. I think the key differentiators for me have to do with meaning and skill cap.

As for the moral obligation aspect, this is really interesting. I think the component about group benefit is quite interesting and is most of it. I do wonder about skills which do not get much attention or are mostly for your own benefit, e.g. someone practicing to be the best in the world at skipping stones seems fine, but we're likely not going to make a spectacle out of it. I guess this skill is at least demonstrable in theory, such that it could entertain some people?

I think I'd also feel morally repugnant at someone who, for example, spent all their time writing great fiction and then locking it up somewhere where no one could read it. (Maybe this gives them enjoyment.) Something-something, I think social responsibility is what's going on here in a very interesting way.

Awesome write-up of your ponderings!


Typo fixed, thanks!

"Only one thing is serious for all people at all times. A man may be more aware of it or less aware of it but the seriousness of things will not alter on this account.

"If a man could understand all the horror of the lives of ordinary people who are turning round in a circle of insignificant interests and insignificant aims, if he could understand what they are losing, he would understand that there can be only one thing that is serious for him—to escape from the general law, to be free. What can be serious for a man in prison who is condemned to death? Only one thing: How to save himself, how to escape: nothing else is serious."

Gurdjieff, as quoted in Ouspensky, "In Search of the Miraculous".

Well, what do you want? What will you do to get it?

Personally, I have no inclination to read trashy novels or watch the Kardashians (or inform myself of who they might be), so the issue of whether to do that does not exist for me.

When is it wrong to click on a cow? When your better self (the one that is smarter and better informed than you, your personal coherent extrapolated volition) would not.