Averting the Apocalypses

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In this article, we’ll take a look at the four fundamental liabilities that threaten any project, from the smallest weekend plan up to the existence of civilization itself.

It may seem pointless to use only four concepts to describe all possible ways in which a project can fail. How could such a generic, high-level categorization be useful in solving real-world problems, in all their nuance?

The purpose of these labels is not to provide all the details necessary to solve the problem, but rather to make sure that people aren’t overlooking a huge aspect of the situation they’re dealing with. Even large groups of people or entire societies tend to address liabilities in ways which merely incur yet more liabilities. Moreover, people who are concerned about particular liabilities and have plans for averting them often clash with people who are concerned with other liabilities, and who fear the liabilities that the first group’s plan will create. These groups often default to labeling each other as stupid or evil, which prevents them from realizing that they both have important concerns.

As a constructive alternative, the fundamental liabilities offer a framework for mutual understanding and cooperation to develop solutions more acceptable for all involved. Rather than removing nuance, these concepts are intended to allow people to identify it in situations they had been treating as black-and-white.

For these reasons, not only will we be looking at the liabilities themselves and how to recognize them, but also the virtues that are required in order to deal with them successfully. These virtues will help minimize the cascade of side-effects that would otherwise come from trying to change the world on a large scale to fix one problem or another.

Before we start, it should be noted that any and all mindsets can be used to address any of the liabilities. There is no direct correspondence between any particular mindset or liability, except that some of the mindsets are more obviously useful in more situations related to a particular liability. The same applies to any attribute, which we’ll see after we go through the liabilities themselves. The major difference between the liabilities is that they represent the various aspects of a goal that reality can impede. 

The Four Apocalypses

The Four Apocalypses are derived from two dichotomies: material versus mental, and order versus chaos. 

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Yes, order and chaos are everywhere. Welcome to reality.

The dichotomy between material versus mental is fairly straightforward. The material side refers to physical or “natural” obstacles. The physical world can threaten goals with unexpected events that interfere, or by simply not allowing the goal to be possible in the first place. These obstacles may also result from people’s mistakes or malfunctioning technology; because those are unintentional, I file them under “natural”. The mental side refers to teleological (goal-related) obstacles, based on people’s choices (deliberate or habitual). Minds can threaten goals by having mutually exclusive desires leading to contention, or by simply not being able to encompass or attempt the goal in the first place. Any direct threat to a goal based on what objectives people are or aren’t targeting falls under mental or teleological threats.

In order versus chaos you can see once again the classic dichotomy that appears throughout conscious existence. From an existential standpoint, order is synonymous with “knowledge”. (See the first article on this blog for more details on existential order and chaos.) Order can foil goals by taking the form of a limitation or boundary on what can be accomplished in the current situation. These boundaries can be material or mental, based on what is physically possible or on what people can bring themselves to decide. Chaos is synonymous with “unknown”. Chaos can thwart goals by manifesting as an adversarial force of unpredictable timing, or as an unforeseen entity disrupting it. These misfortunes can be material or mental as well.

In general, all situations have aspects of known and unknown to some degree, and liabilities are no exception. To be classified as a liability rather than as merely a regular situation, we have to know that a phenomenon will prevent us from getting what we want. On the other hand, we don’t know if we’ll be able to overcome it. The classification of a liability as orderly or chaotic comes from how much knowledge we have about the liability itself and how to deal with it, before it becomes necessary.

These two dichotomies intersect to produce the Four Apocalypses: 

Order (known): Chaos (unknown):
Material (natural): Famine (scarcity) Pestilence (disaster)
Mental (teleological): Age (stagnation) War (conflict)

Table 1: Derivation of the four fundamental liabilities/Apocalypses

Why the gimmick?

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Why add so much drama to something so mundane?

You may notice that these Apocalypses are themed on the classic Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Christian lore (the popular culture version with Pestilence instead of Conquest). However, instead of “Death”, we have “Age”. Why is that?

Well, for one thing, Death is already an Element, as we’ll see in an upcoming article. (No, it doesn’t require causing humans to die. It is much more constructive than mere literal death.) For another, all of these liabilities already represent ways in which a project or civilization can die, so calling one of them “Death” is completely redundant.

We’ll see more about why the fourth apocalypse is more appropriately styled “Age” when we get to its section (although “Conquest” could also be a decent name for it).

Why is there a theme in the first place? I originally came up with these concepts in the first place because I thought the Four Horsemen theme was entertaining and had decided to figure out if these seemingly arbitrary anthropomorphic personifications could be used to represent something deeper. As it turns out, being able to know what forms problems can take is very important. Figuring out how to fundamentally categorize threats turned from a vanity project into a humbling experience. Ultimately, I kept the theme because for me it makes confronting life’s obstacles fun rather than a chore. You can choose to use the regular terms if you prefer. 

Why use the word “apocalypse”? As it turns out, the word didn’t originally mean the actual end of the world. It literally means “revelation”, as in “something that is revealed” or “the process of revealing”. The book of Revelations in Christian lore happens to be about the end of the world and is titled as such to represent the revelation of how things turned out; how it all ends. However, such a revelation can mark the end of anything, not just the whole world, so any conclusion, successful or not, is a miniature apocalypse. Also, referring to problems as “apocalypses” frames them as adventures instead of crushingly boring mundanities. If it’s too melodramatic for your taste, you can just refer to them as liabilities. The concepts are more important than the labels.

Famine

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The Apocalypse of Famine represents the risk of scarcity, a known inadequacy of the physical environment for supporting the goals you are pursuing. This includes both resource scarcity as well as general impossibilities.

The simplest way to visualize how fundamental Famine is is to picture a barrier of finite height. When you hit that barrier, you stop. Whether it’s running out of food, running out of gas, running out of time, lacking the right skills, or anything else, the barrier represents a known limit on what you can do. If you had more money, energy, information, technology, or some other resource, you might be able to make it over the wall. Otherwise, you’re stuck where you are.

In addition to resources, Famine’s constraints can apply to space (physical prisons), time (a deadline with a ticking clock), information (insufficient data), or state (being unable to turn something into something else). The constraints can represent mutually exclusive options, where you don’t have the ability to do everything you want to. For a more esoteric example, the inability to travel backwards in time is a type of Famine, even though any technology we might need in order to do so is purely hypothetical at this point. Any “known” obstacle is a type of Famine.

Extending the metaphor, you can visualize an entire landscape with mountains, valleys, pits, cliffs, and all manner of topographical obstacles. In order to climb over a mountain or escape a pit, you need a certain amount of energy. Without that energy, you’re stuck where you are, and will need to find a way around or wait until the landscape changes. For depicting time limits, these metaphorical barriers work just as well in time as they do in space. If you know that a barrier will appear at a certain time and you need to be on the other side of it before then, that restricts what you can spend time on beforehand. In addition, if you know when you will run out of energy, you are forced to find more instead of spending time on other things.

The fact that scarcity constitutes known barriers makes it a vital aspect of conscious existence: that of stability. When it works against your desires, it’s a threat, but stability is the material order that keeps objects solid and prevents them from flying off of the Earth, among other things. I, for one, am grateful that my constituent particles are starved of the energy they need to evaporate.

When a society’s approach to Famine is underregulated, it results in scarcity through wastefulness, as people disregard a looming barrier and use up the resources they would need to cross it. They may spend all their energy on overcoming problems that aren’t actually important, or use it inefficiently when there was a more frugal way to achieve the same result. As a result, when they are confronted with a crucial obstacle, they have nothing left to surmount it. On the other hand, if they take efforts to hoard their energy in anticipation of this upcoming barrier, they may create the overregulated version of Famine. The effort to avoid Famine through miserliness ironically leads to a different version of Famine, reached via austerity, which is a more managed situation but no less impoverished in everyday life. If you are sufficiently paranoid about wastefulness, life will become completely about surviving and be devoid of anything that actually makes it worth living. People will have everything they need and virtually nothing they want. Following from this, one of the most insidious things about Famine in general is that it can make it impossible to take steps towards long-term flourishing while also surviving in the short term, thus feeding itself. Poverty is a good example of this type of Famine.

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The true virtue allowing you to manage Famine is investment. By skillfully expending extra resources in the present (if you have any to spare), it’s possible to cultivate a greater yield of resources in the future. A typical investment may be aimed at greater production capacity—the ability to generate resources at a faster rate. For instance, they may spend a bit of extra time to build a tool that allows them to save much more time in the future. Investment is fundamentally different from both wastefulness and austerity, because it introduces the concept that resources wisely spent are not simply gone, but rather in their own way and up to a point can be more useful than regular expenditures of resources. Investment leads to the boon that is the opposite of Famine, prosperity, where you have enough resources to overcome a barrier if you so choose.

Here are some examples of the role Famine plays in the world. (This is just to illustrate what sort of problems Famine applies to; I didn’t put much thought into sorting these into categories within the liability and the list is not comprehensive.) 

Examples of how scarcity might manifest:

  • Shortages of raw resources
    • Food
    • Water
    • Shelter
    • Energy
    • Space
    • Time (including human lifespan)
    • Human effort and attention
    • Data
    • Money
      • Money is a medium of exchange for “real” resources and represents how much of other resources you are able to obtain
  • Predictable causes of resource scarcity
    • Wastefulness
    • Unsustainable agricultural practices
    • Pollution
    • Environmental destruction
    • Nonrenewable resources
    • Poor budgeting
    • Entropy
  • Other limits
    • Medical supplies and services
    • Skill
    • Technology
    • Processed information
    • Physical properties of matter and energy
    • Properties of time and space (e.g. no faster-than-light travel)
  • Stability
    • Molecular bonds keep things solid
    • Gravity keeps things on Earth
    • Energy storage doesn’t spontaneously explode (most of the time)

Pestilence

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The Apocalypse of Pestilence represents the risk of disaster, an unexpected divergence of the physical environment from the goals you are pursuing. It is the risk that the known foundations on which one’s efforts are based may be disrupted by factors that are beyond one’s ability to predict or control.

The simplest way to visualize how fundamental Pestilence is is to picture a barrier, like Famine, but one which you do not know exists. Alternatively, you may know it exists, but you do not know where or when you will run into it. When you do encounter the barrier, if you do not have the resources to pass through it, you end up failing at your goal. Depending on how fast you were going, you might pay a cost for crashing into the barrier. The extended landscape of Famine, with all its peaks and pitfalls, is not all known to us. The vast majority of it, both large and remote as well as small and proximate, is terra incognita. Pestilence is the result of the unknown making itself known in painfully unexpected and unexpectedly painful ways.

Accidents, mistakes, errors, misfortunes, et cetera, all fall under the category of Pestilence. Natural disasters, machines breaking down, injury, illness, or inaccuracy are all things which could theoretically be overcome with the right resources or avoided with the right foreknowledge, but by the definition of Pestilence, their occurrence is unpredictable with your current information. (Once you know when a physical problem is going to occur and are able to take it into account when planning, it falls under Famine. Any delay in finalizing plans because you didn’t yet know when a problem would occur is still attributed to Pestilence.)

The fact that disaster constitutes unknown barriers makes it a vital aspect of conscious existence: that of discovery. When it works against your desires, it’s a threat, but discovery is the material chaos that allows us to find new lands, phenomena, and physical laws, among other things. It also includes the hidden holes in known barriers that allow us to solve otherwise impossible problems. I, for one, am grateful that scientific discovery has allowed us to harness the power of electricity and semiconductors to store and transmit vast amounts of information, for example.

When a society’s approach to Pestilence is underregulated, it results in disaster through negligence, as people disregard potential disasters and place themselves in dangerous situations. When you venture forth recklessly and ignore the unknown, you will eventually hit it hard, no matter how long it takes. However, some people go too far in the other direction, avoiding uncertain situations and shunning risks. They overregulate Pestilence with the idea that they will be safe as long as they stick to familiar territory. This effort can ironically lead to a different version of Pestilence reached via susceptibility, which is a more managed situation but still quite risky. The material landscape may change even in the relatively safe area you inhabit. Even when it doesn’t, you have zero guarantee that the unknown will stay in its own territory and leave you alone. There may be little stopping the creatures that live in terra incognita from coming to visit. If you haven’t explored the world for yourself, that much less equipped to deal with it when it does finally come for you. Furthermore, if you stick to “tried and true” methods you may discover a huge weakness or terrible externality (side-effect) you never realized, as happened with the Dust Bowl in the 1930s United States. If you diversify and explore, you have something to fall back on if your original way is unsustainable or destroyed.

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The virtue allowing you to manage Pestilence is exposure. By bravely venturing into the blank spaces on the map and exploring their features, you can make the unknown somewhat less so. Your new experiences will help you equip yourself to avert and overcome obstacles more easily than if you had hidden from them. Exposure is fundamentally different from both negligence and vulnerability, because it introduces the concept that you can seek out and confront the unknown in a deliberate manner, rather than either brashly jumping into it or hiding from it.

Although exposure can represent encountering a problem in a relatively contained form or in a situation that results in minimal harm, it doesn’t require actually facing a disaster. You can also practice exposure by recognizing the many assumptions that our society and systems are based on, and conducting drills, training, or simulation exercises to learn what how to respond if and when those assumptions stop holding up for any reason.

As the saying goes, what does not kill you makes you stronger—if you learn from it. Through introduction to a disaster in a way you can endure, you gain awareness of your weaknesses, which you can turn into a resistance or even outright immunity to that type of disaster in the future.

Exposure leads to the boon that is the opposite of Pestilence, safety, signifying that you are able to prevent or resolve a variety of disruptions to your plans.

Here are some examples of the role Pestilence plays in the world. (This is just to illustrate what sort of problems Pestilence applies to; I didn’t put much thought into sorting these into categories within the liability and the list is not comprehensive.) 

Examples of how disaster might manifest:

  • Natural disasters
    • Wildfires
    • Hurricanes
    • Tornadoes
    • Blizzards
    • Volcanoes
    • Earthquakes
    • Tsunamis
    • Meteorites
  • Anthropogenic accidents
    • Fires
    • Nuclear meltdowns
    • Oil and chemical spills
    • Computer bugs
    • Vehicle crashes
    • Hardware failure
    • Invasive species
  • Other
    • Epidemics
    • Genetic disease
    • Infection
    • Agricultural pests
    • Black Swan Events
    • Outside Context Problems
  • Discovery:
    • New continents
    • New planets
    • New species
    • New technology and medicine

Age

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The Apocalypse of Age represents the risk of stagnation, a known inadequacy of people’s inclination for supporting a goal, or their ability to even attempt doing so. If a person can make an attempt to achieve an objective, but is unable to succeed, the goal failed due to some other liability, and not stagnation.

(This fundamental liability is called “Age” instead of “Death” because all of these liabilities represent the demise of a goal or of society itself. “Death” is just redundant. Age is a more fitting theme because with age often comes ossified habits, complacent thought patterns, and the loss of the will to learn, on both the individual and cultural level. After you’ve survived long enough, you must know everything you need to know, right?)

Age represents the known inability of a person or group of people to make attempts towards a particular goal. It may be that people lack the will to pursue that particular objective, or it may be that they are enthralled with another target. Perhaps the people in question cannot even define the objective in the first place, because they lack the concepts to hold it in their heads. Whatever the case, stagnation describes restrictions on how people choose to direct their efforts. It represents no threat from the world, or each other, but the threat from ourselves when we stop being able to function outside our comfort zone.

The fact that stagnation constitutes a known limit on people’s choices makes it a vital aspect of conscious existence: that of identity. When it works against your ultimate, deepest desires, it’s a threat, but identity is the mental order that keeps people and cultures consistent over time, and prevents them from spontaneously abandoning goals and developing random new ones, among other things. I, for one, am grateful that I know roughly who I will be when I wake up tomorrow morning.

When a society’s approach to Age is underregulated, it results in stagnation through decadence, as people do whatever they want when they want, without the discipline necessary to attend to long-term necessities. They become addicted to various desires, and their identity is subsumed in their addictions. In effort to prevent such addiction, many cultures throughout history and the present day have decided to force people to disregard their desires and to encourage them to forget how to conceive of ever living differently. The effort to avoid Age has ironically led to a different, overregulated version of Age reached via dogma, which is a more managed situation but no less dehumanizing. In order to avoid potentially addictive choices, people remove a great deal of choice and thought from society, and that denies everyone the ability to make informed decisions about their own lives, let alone about how society should be run. Many people have pieces of their very selves suppressed or cut out, because once you start thinking, you start dismantling the protective dogma that shielded society from decadence. What other option is there, though?

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The virtue allowing you to manage Age is transcendence. By rising above the assumptions people make about the world, you can conceive of ideas and options you never realized were possible. By moving beyond the limitations people impose on themselves out of fear of their own vices, you can explore the true relationships between good ideas and bad ones. By letting go of habits, you can resist temptation and live with temperance. (Epicureanism is a good start.) By surpassing rather than suppressing yourself, you can develop the discipline to expand your reach and aim for goals that are outside your immediate grasp. Transcendence is fundamentally different from both decadence and dogma, because it introduces the concept that desires are neither to be wantonly pursued nor submissively abstained from in self-abnegation. Rather, transcendence represents being mindful of how we respond to our desires. Transcendence leads to the boon that is the opposite of Age, vitality, where people’s individual and collective desires and endeavors develop and change over time as they grow as people.

Here are some examples of the role Age plays in the world. (This is just to illustrate what sort of problems Age applies to; I didn’t put much thought into sorting these into categories within the liability and the list is not comprehensive.

Examples of how stagnation might manifest:

  • Decadence
    • Hedonism
    • Degeneration
    • Lack of self-discipline
  • Dogma
    • Propaganda
    • Thought suppression
    • Creative sterility
    • Ossification
  • Despair
    • Hopelessness
    • Humorlessness
    • Ennui
    • Existential angst
  • Desperation
  • Ignorance
  • Complacency
  • Identity
    • Values
    • Commitment
    • Memories
    • Life goals
    • Culture
    • Tradition

War

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The Apocalypse of War represents the risk of conflict, an unexpected divergence of the goals and efforts of people. It is the risk that people’s objectives will oppose yours, or that your own objectives will oppose each other.

The threat War poses to any given goal is that even if people are able to start directing their efforts towards that goal, their efforts may be disrupted by the efforts of others with mutually exclusive goals, or by their own conflicting desires. In the case that the conflict is between different people, we don’t know how far each person is willing to go to get their way, or what skills they can bring to bear to overcome each other’s interference. Who will triumph depends on both of these factors. In the case where the conflict is within a person, we don’t know what the person will ultimately decide, because they’ve never had to choose between the two (or more) conflicting priorities in this particular situation before. They don’t know what they most value or what they’re willing to give up to attain it.

War also represents the fact that we don’t know when or how the environment will change to shift opportunity costs and force people to reevaluate their priorities, or how people and their desires will change over time. There will always come times when we must decide what we are going to work towards and what we must relinquish, and we can’t always know what those will be in advance. 

The fact that conflict entails unpredictable triumphs of some desires over others makes it a vital aspect of conscious existence: that of choice. When it works against your desires, it’s a threat, but choice is the teleological chaos that, for instance, allows us to (from our perspective, at least) change our own and others’ minds, change culture, form constructive rivalries to improve ourselves, and find new dreams to chase, among other things. Choice means we don’t have to follow the thoughts and goals of those around us or of those who came before. If we are averse to our starting point in society, we can change it, even when that means disrupting the plans of other people. They may be forced to figure out a different method or goal because our choices interfere with theirs, and that’s an inherent part of the price of existence, just like the other liabilities. Their desires are not our prisons.

Choice also applies within individuals. It is both the freedom to challenge each others’ desires and the freedom to find and pursue new ones of our own. We may have educated guesses about our decisions, but frequently we don’t know what we will choose until we actually make the choice. The same applies to our skills. You have to actually try something to find out just how far you can go with it. I, for one, am grateful that I don’t always know which of my desires will triumph in a given situation, because it means that for every apparent limit to what I can put my mind to, there’s a chance I can overcome it. 

When a society’s approach to War is underregulated, it results in conflict through turmoil, a state of lawless barbarism in which people take what they want by violence or deception when their desire conflicts with someone else. To prevent turmoil, people create and enforce laws (written or implicitly understood) which punish the use of force and falsehood. However, the enduring desires of people to achieve their own goals often leads them to take control of the processes by which the laws are made and enforced, and turn them against others. They use the laws themselves as weapons of subjugation, rather than tools of agreement to create order for the benefit of society. The more laws and the more situations the laws govern, the more weapons are available to oppress and harm people. No system of laws, no matter how well written, is sufficient to prevent the overregulated version of War, reached via corruption. Corruption is a more managed situation than turmoil but still quite ruthless and unpleasant overall.

From an individual standpoint, inner turmoil occurs when a person is paralyzed with indecision, or wavers between multiple courses of action, each priority interfering with the others so that ultimately nothing gets accomplished and the person is slowly torn apart from within. It’s a tidy microcosm of what happens in a society in turmoil. Likewise, a person can be corrupted if they impose rules on themselves to control their behavior while in a forward-thinking frame of mind, but end up engaging in self-deception and rationalizations in order to excuse self-sabotage or the mistreatment of others, driven by more base desires. 

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The virtue allowing you to manage War is ethics. Both turmoil and corruption result in very little being accomplished by anybody. Everyone is too busy trying to get their own way in everything, and they get in each other’s way, like the proverbial crabs in a bucket pulling each other down and stopping each other from escaping. To make the world a more hospitable place for people in general to achieve their collective goals, we impose ethics on ourselves as a set of principles. We restrict ourselves from initiating aggression (not just violence) against each other, deceiving each other (not just employing outright falsehoods), or manipulating a generally established system in ways which advantage us at the expense of others. We know that even if it means we are unable to achieve some of our goals, society will be better off if we can all trust that our goals will be free from certain kinds of disruption by others. The more ethical society is, the more goals are available to us that would not be if we had to constantly take measures to thwart other people before they thwarted us. We must also hold each other accountable for abiding by ethical principles, even if doing so takes effort and may not benefit us personally.

Ethical behavior also applies to how you treat yourself. Generally speaking, it is important to fulfill the commitments that you make to yourself, else your feelings that change from day to day will pull you from one objective to the next without giving you any time to finish anything you start. Furthermore, you must be honest with yourself, so that you have an accurate picture of your options and your priorities. Otherwise, the commitments you make may not be helpful to you. If you don’t know what you want and what you’re willing to do to get it, your deepest desires may be denied in favor of goals which match what you think you should want based on your observations of other people, or your decisions in the past. Until you realize your true motivations and decide you’re not willing to give them up, you may feel torn between what you feel and what you believe is expected of you from others, or what you have come to expect from yourself.

Finally, you will need to cultivate the discipline to prevent short-term desires from gaming your mental reward system and seizing power over your choices to the detriment of your long-term goals. Many of your possible options are more immediately tempting and present themselves more attractively than those that further your overarching goals, but they are ultimately less fulfilling. In order to succeed at your most constructive objectives, you’ll need to prevent your short-term desires from rewriting your decision criteria to shut them out.

Ethics leads to the boon that is the opposite of War, harmony, where people are able to resolve their differences constructively and benevolently. With inner harmony (also called inner peace), a person is able to consider all their desires when making a decision, acknowledge what they will give up, commit to their choice, and forgive themselves for mistakes. In this way they can live without regret.

Here are some examples of the role War plays in the world. (This is just to illustrate what sort of problems War applies to; I didn’t put much thought into sorting these into categories within the liability and the list is not comprehensive.)

Examples of how conflict might manifest:

  • Turmoil
    • War (the literal kind)
    • Violence and slaughter
    • Ideological clash
    • Pettiness (e.g. “noise wars”; people do things they’re entitled to do solely to annoy each other instead of reaching an understanding)
  • Corruption
    • Rent-seeking and crony capitalism
    • Other unethical business practices
    • Conquest and imperialism
    • Oppression of human rights
  • Legal conflict
    • Crimes
    • Civil lawsuits and torts
  • Social conflict
    • Communication breakdown
    • Mistrust
    • Resentment
  • Choice and liberty:
    • Business competition
    • Sports competition
    • Academic competition
    • Political campaigns
    • Cultural rivalry
    • Sovereignty
    • Creative differences
    • Negotiation
    • Life choices

Recapitulation

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Can we get a replay on the highlights?

Here’s a table to review the key concepts.

Apocalypse: Famine Pestilence Age War
Liability: Scarcity Disaster Stagnation Conflict
Classification: Order, material Chaos, material Order, mental Chaos, mental
Underregulated: Wastefulness Negligence Decadence Turmoil
Overregulated: Austerity Susceptibility Dogma Corruption
Aspect of reality: Stability Discovery Identity Choice
Virtue to counteract: Investment Exposure Transcendence Ethics
Boon earned through virtue: Prosperity Safety Vitality Harmony

Table 2: Compilation of the key concepts related to each liability

The initial concept of the fundamental liabilities was that they were the four possible obstacles to a goal. That’s true, but they’re also much more than that. They’re four aspects of reality and goals combined: scarcity/stability represents what we know about the world; disaster/discovery represents what we don’t know about the world; stagnation/identity represents what we know about what people want; conflict/choice represents what we don’t know about what people want.

It may sound trite when I lay out like that (it certainly does to me), but it’s important because a) these concepts cover everything that societies need to pay attention to, and b) human societies don’t yet know how to have intelligent conversations about such abstract ideas and how they relate to concrete reality. People need a framework to talk about how the big picture works and the different aspects of it that may result in tradeoffs. We can’t address what we don’t pay attention to and don’t realize may grow into a problem. 

The problems that fall under these four categories are old news. However, with the categories we can see what to look for in order to address, fix, and prevent such problems in the future. We can figure out how to address issues on all levels, from personal to global. We can put any problem into context to figure out why it is a threat and what can be done about it. 

Virtues and Boons

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There are 495 pieces offscreen. All of these pieces fit together to form a piece in an even bigger puzzle. And so on.

I’m going to pause here and make it clear yet again that I’m not purporting to have all the solutions to all the world’s problems.

You may have noticed that investment, exposure, transcendence, and ethics are grand, sweeping terms that are very difficult to implement in practice. Of course they are. Dealing with the fundamental liabilities of existence isn’t easy. I’m not here today to give you advice on how to deal with any specific problem. 

Virtues are very large and complex in scope. My only purpose in this article is to help people frame situations in ways that don’t leave out any aspects of either the problems or the solutions, whether those aspects are positive or negative. The general theme of this entire blog is to set up a nuanced foundation for people to effectively construct a better world.

I describe a virtue corresponding to each liability, but merely knowing the concept of a virtue is not sufficient to solve a problem (though it may be necessary). The virtues aren’t nearly as simple as I describe them. They’re complex, nuanced, and open-ended. How could they be anything else? I’d be a fraud if I said that there was an easy way forward through any of this. 

There is no way to vanquish a liability once and for all. The liabilities are fractally recursive. Each one contains all four of them. Every attempt to avert a particular liability is a goal in and of itself, which means it is subject to all the liabilities all over again. A quest to avert Famine is subject to Pestilence, and the quest to avert that Pestilence is subject to Famine. The liabilities will always be with us.

As for the boons that represent triumph over the liabilities, they are not absolute. They cannot possibly be, since the liabilities are inherent in conscious existence. Prosperity, safety, vitality, and harmony are always relative. The most we can do is improve how we manage the liabilities we have, take advantage of the fundamental aspects of reality that compose them, and aim to cultivate as many boons as much as possible for us and future society to enjoy.

Comparisons

To illustrate the Apocalypses and their contrasts with each other in the same situation, imagine the goal of sending humans to the Moon and return them safely to Earth.

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Well, the good news is, it’s a lot closer than we thought. The bad news is, it’s still getting closer. The other good news is that this image goes great with the apocalypse theme!

Here are the four things that can threaten that mission:

  • Famine/scarcity: We don’t have the money or technology to go to the Moon.
  • Pestilence/disaster: We tried to go to the Moon, but our equipment suffered a failure.
  • Age/stagnation: We don’t want to go to the Moon. Why would we ever want to go to the Moon?
  • War/conflict: We tried to go to the Moon, but some rival group either sabotaged the attempt or simply voted legitimately against continuing our funding. Alternatively, we got scared and backed out.

Interactions

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If you can see the cause-and-effect relationships between problems, you are in a better position to stop the chain reaction.

One of the most frustrating things about liabilities is that they chain. One liability can cause or exacerbate other liabilities. Stagnation can lead to disaster, which can lead to scarcity, which can lead to conflict. 

Below is a table of how liabilities can lead to each other. This is just to random examples I tossed out; I didn’t put much thought into making these symmetrical.

Cause: Famine Cause: Pestilence Cause: Age Cause: War
Effect: Famine A group of humans lacks the tools to plant crops fast enough Blight on the crops We starve because we’re wasteful and short-sighted People refuse to cooperate and pool resources to accomplish something
Effect: Pestilence Things break because we can’t afford to maintain them Meteor randomly strikes Things break because we’re too sloppy to maintain or check them Fighting accidentally destroys important structures
Effect: Age Poverty keeps us desperate Bad things keep happening and people despair People naturally fall into impulsiveness, fundamental-ism, and addiction People possess a traditional hatred for another group
Effect: War People fight over limited resources An accident leads to blame and resentment People fight because they’re dogmatic or selfish War perpetuates because of cultural rivalry and desire for domination, or resentment from a previous conflict

Table 3: Random examples of how liabilities can feed each other.

 

However, liabilities can also prevent or inhibit each other. A conflict may be prevented or postponed because one or both parties doesn’t have enough resources.

Below are some ways in which these fundamental aspects of reality can interfere with each other in one form or another. Note that just because one liability is prevented doesn’t mean there aren’t other problems. Some of these situations may not be good on balance. This chart is not a guide on how to run the world. This is just to random examples I tossed out; I didn’t put much thought into making these symmetrical.

Cause: Famine Cause: Pestilence Cause: Age Cause: War
Prevents: Famine Refrigerators extend the shelf life of food because chemical reactions happen more slowly at low temperatures We found a new technique for growing crops which has higher yields The fewer goals we have, the more we can focus our resources on the ones we are pursuing Companies invent more efficient technologies to compete with each other economically
Prevents: Pestilence Pasteurizing food kills harmful bacteria and prevents food poisoning It turns out penicillin is a great antibiotic The fewer goals we have, the less tempted we are to take risks Humans create new technologies for use in wars that are also effective for addressing natural disasters
Prevents: Age People have to work hard and practice discipline in order to grow enough food People have to work hard and practice discipline in order to fight forest fires The more we censor ourselves, the less opportunity we have to fall into addictive behavior Humans create new goals, like visiting the Moon, to get advantages in global rivalries
Prevents: War The need to produce more food leads people to learn to cooperate The need to rebuild after a natural disaster leads rival ethnic groups to learn to trust each other A strong bond of community and tradition can persuade people to resolve disputes with kindness and generously Uniting against a common enemy leads warring tribes to declare a truce

Table 4: Random examples of how liabilities can interfere with each other. 

Attributes of Apocalypses

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This is nothing. Wait until you see me make a crane with flapping wings!

The Attributes enumerated in the previous article are indispensable for describing all kinds of concepts related to human goals and efforts. 

These Attributes describe the Apocalypses in terms of what a person needs in order to avert them. However, if you’re feeling poetic you can anthropomorphize the Apocalypses by pretending that they themselves are entities with Attributes that are actively menacing society, and that the people responding to them need to match those Attributes.

(It should be noted that these Attributes don’t describe the actual effects of the Apocalypses. The effects are described and gauged in terms of what kind of goals an Apocalypse threatens. If it’s a particularly terrible Apocalypse, the goals it threatens would be very important to many people.)

  • An Apocalypse with high Initiative Attribute is one that has long-term consequences but no immediate threat, so it requires Initiative in order for a person to effectively address it.
    • When must you start? Before anything bad actually happens.
  • An Apocalypse with Resilience Attribute must be addressed continuously or at inconvenient times, so it requires Resilience to deal with.
    • When must you continue? When it’s most difficult.
  • An Apocalypse with Mobility Attribute may suddenly change its parameters, so it requires Mobility to keep up with. (Even a predictable liability like Famine may not give you time to relax, so even if you know what you will need to do, you’ll still have to learn fast.) 
    • What must you start? Something you may not be familiar with and might not be able to study in depth.
  • An Apocalypse with Intensity Attribute is very complex and nuanced, so it takes Intensity to resolve successfully.
    • What must you continue? Getting more skilled.

Conclusion: Why did I write this article?

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Affixing labels to things is often useful, but why these particular labels?

Why am I bothering to encompass and classify all of humanity’s possible problems into just four different categories? Isn’t that a little simplistic?

The purpose behind labeling the four liabilities is to give people the words to think about and express their concerns. It’s one thing to claim that a cultural or economic policy will cause a problem. That’s easily dismissed as a bias in the cultural attitude or economic interests of the complainer. This vocabulary I’ve designed allows people to describe what policy they’re worried about, what problems they think it will cause, why they think that will happen, and what they think should be done about it. Not only that, but it also allows them to understand other people’s concerns about their proposed solution. 

We have trouble recognizing and talking about big picture problems and differences in values. Liabilities describe everything that could go wrong, so all concerns can be addressed. People decide to err on different sides of threats, but erring is still dangerous. By thinking about situations in terms of the four liabilities, you can see risks in different aspects of reality as well as the dangers in applying more or less regulation to them. 

For instance, theocracies (such as many Middle Eastern countries) as well as single-party states (such as China) style themselves as such hoping to avert the liability of decadence (underregulated Age). In doing so they incur the liability of dogma (overregulated Age), with all its consequences. The United States decides to allow decadence in order to avert dogma, and that comes with its own consequences. Communication breaks down when each of these cultures assumes that its own way is causing no problems, and that foreign cultures are the only ones incurring liabilities. This failure of mutual understanding leads to conflict (i.e. War, and sometimes literal war).

In order to have an accurate picture of the situation, we all need to realize and acknowledge that our means of dealing with a problem often errs on the side of creating another problem, and that the reason other cultures do things differently is that they have legitimate concerns about the liabilities of our culture, whether it is wasteful or austere, decadent or dogmatic. That’s not to say that some ways aren’t healthier than others, but it’s dangerous to assume they’re better in every way. 

Why is it important to be aware of these abstract liabilities on a daily basis? Frequently, people don’t account for them, either on the big-picture scale or on the smaller, immediate scale. Many people are completely unequipped to deal with these fundamental threats and are blindsided when they occur. Furthermore, if you take measures against one liability and fail to address the others (or other manifestations of the same liability), there’s a good chance you’ll still fail, and you may even hasten your downfall.

If you finish this article having realized you were vulnerable to a danger you weren’t aware of, then the article has achieved part of its mission. The other part is accomplished when you take steps to learn how to address the problem in a balanced and healthy way. 

Existence can be perilous. Let’s face it together with our eyes open.

 

Updates:

  • The boon of vitality for overcoming stagnation and the aspect of reality “choice” represented by conflict were updated in this article from the old version on 10/24/19.
  • The reference to “Death” being the name of a future Element has also been removed as of 10/24/19, because the Element has since been renamed.
  • The phrases “under-control” and “over-control” have been changed on 4/19/20 to “underregulate” and “overregulate” respectively to avoid confusion with the dichotomy of experience and control, where control does not imply order.
  • The boon of harmony for overcoming conflict was updated in this article from the old version on 4/19/20.
  • The virtue of “exposure” and its definition were updated in this article from the old version on 4/20/20.

You can view the changes in the Changelog.