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 fair 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 essay, 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.
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.