The World Still Burns

A phrase taken from Ziz, it means “this world saving plan is good, but it isn’t enough to save the whole world”. I use it a lot to explain my thinking to normal people; I often get asked why I don’t write things up as academic papers, or do a startup that would predictably-in-advance earn lots of money if I sunk a year into it. The answer is universally that I have more impactful things I can be doing with my time. If the sum total of things you expect to do over your life isn’t enough to save the world, then you should try to figure out something else to do with your life. Writing papers and doing startups is not part of a trajectory that lets me e.g. end aging or solve another problem on that scale.

How can you even consider that? There’s got to be some other way.

From here, this is an assertation that even if some action you could spend your time on is commensurate with having a plan that saves the whole world, that you still shouldn’t do it, because it is too morally abhorrent.

There’s a particular failure mode people fall into, where they think that because the world is terrible, then they’re justified in taking actions that directly hurt others if those actions can be justified within either a utilitarian framework or within an existing power structure, e.g. “how things are done”. An example from fiction is, from s1e10 of Avatar the Last Airbender, Jet decides to take out a village filled with enemy soldiers who were abusing and killing the civilians, which would take out the civilians too. But ultimately, the reason soldiers would themselves abuse citizens mostly comes down to trauma. A real life example is saying that your enemies should be imprisoned in horrible conditions, or even tortured, because “maybe it’ll incentivize future people to do what you want, and besides, that’s just how things have to be”.

In the way that trauma is the enemy of life, fighting trauma with trauma just hurts people who haven’t given up on hope yet, it just psychologically breaks them. Utilitarian analyses can become corrupted if the person doing them is traumatized, because trauma wants to spread itself, and that will seep into the utilitarian analysis in perverse ways. Hence, “How can you even consider that? There’s got to be some other way” is not about ideological purity, but about avoiding a certain class of blind spots that systematically bias utilitarian analyses in a certain direction.


The normal definition of the word, with the added understanding that since trauma is present in a physical system (the brain), that getting rid of it is fundamentally an engineering problem.

2 thoughts on “Glossary

  1. Jay Post author

    When Aang asks Avatar Yangchen if there’s a way to defeat firelord Ozai without killing him and she says, “no, it is honorable to lead a spiritual existence and do nonviolence, but what’s more important is to do things to make the world better even if you have to kill someone, because that is a more utilitarian way of protecting people than doing nothing”, she is wrong. It’s true that she did more good by getting her hands dirty to protect people than she would have by meditating on a mountain, but there’s always a third class of options. Roughly, fighting without traumatizing anyone, like Aang did.

    The ultimate difference between Aang and Yangchen is, Aang’s insistence that he couldn’t consider killing Ozai, that there had to be some other way, led Aang to spend time exploring other options even when he wasn’t expecting to find something else that worked. His absolute desperation that there had to be some other way led him to find something he wasn’t expecting to find, something outside of his models of what was possible. And in retrospect this was the right decision, but it should have been knowably the right decision in advance too; “spend a few days researching a way to win without traumatizing your enemies” is not an expensive thing to do relative to the expected value it has. But Yangchen didn’t even acknowledge that that was an option that existed. And her trauma would have perversely influenced her estimates of “what is the expected value of exploring this” if she’d done that calculation, because there was a certain level to which she was still willing to fight but also a deeper level on which she had permanently given up.

    Iroh would say, “Sometimes life is like this dark tunnel. You can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you just keep moving… you will come to a better place”. Or in other terms, don’t forget to keep exploring and doing implicit value of information (VOI) calculations if you don’t yet have a plan that keeps the world from burning. If there’s a plan that can save the world, but you don’t know of it yet, your local landscape might look like despair. Your ability to come up with world saving plans is mostly a function of what your skill points are, e.g. what you’ve spent your time doing or learning in a deep/untraumatized way. So, if you are stuck, you can go get more skill points and then you’ll be able to make better plans than you were able to make before.

    Yangchen’s decision to fight fiercely for good, but still to fight only within the bounds of what she knew, is a decision bounded by trauma. It might seem like the “default” thing to do, but she could have explored instead, and the decision to not explore ways to fight that would do more good than she did, and instead charge right into the fray, was one made out of her own trauma. Trauma is a continuum rather than binary, so people who are more traumatized tend to shape the world in a way limited by that trauma to a deeper extent than people who are less traumatized. The main characters from Legend of Korra (especially Korra herself) get more and more traumatized as the show goes on, and they slowly lose the ability to come up with clever plans, and slip more and more into reacting rather than acting. Katara seems more like Aang in how she makes a conscious choice not to slip into despair, and not to kill her mother’s killer, saying “you’re my enemy, but you’re really pathetic and I can’t find it in myself to hate you”, even after he says “well you can kill me and make it even”, because he can’t envision any other way things might be.

  2. Jay Post author

    I’m still trying to figure out if there’s significant potential for people to abuse tech for healing trauma, like if selfish people would be more effective in doing harm for selfish reasons if they were less traumatized and thus more creative/energetic. As far as I can tell, the answer is that there’s some potential for harm, but it’s significantly outweighed by the potential for good. Or like, some people are fundamentally selfish, and that’s independent of trauma, but trauma is an add-on that ironically perpetuates itself onto others by means of causing currently traumatized people (mostly everyone) to see the world as having severely limited possibilities (“you have to go to school and get traumatized that’s just how things work”). This may all be some sort of outdated evolutionary resource conservation thing.


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