You only have two types of problems

I’ve recently become convinced that there are only two types of problems you can have: belief problems and agency problems.

Belief problems are problems that arise from having not enough information or incorrect information. Examples include:

  • You think you’re very likely to be mugged in your neighborhood, so you either avoid going outside at night or become anxious when you do. In fact, you are unlikely to be mugged and if you knew this you would go outside more and be less stressed when you did.
  • You smoke because you don’t realize that smoking harms your health. (Yes, this is a thing.)
  • You are upset because you think your son hates you. In fact, this is normal behavior for a teenage boy.
  • You get COVID because you think it’s a hoax and act accordingly.
  • You aren’t aware of the power of habit, so you fail to develop a proper exercise routine. If you knew how habits work and how attainable your goals were, you would develop a routine.
  • You don’t know the downside risk of staying in a job you hate and overestimate the difficulty of finding a new one, so you waste your waking hours doing something you hate.

In any of these situations, your problems would’ve been solved if you had the right information.

Agency problems are problems that arise from not being able to act in the way you wish. Agency problems are of two types: freedom problems and you-problems.

Freedom problems occur when something external to you stops you from acting as you wish. Examples:

  • You are a slave.
  • You are locked in a cage.
  • You are too poor to support yourself.

These external circumstances strip you of the means of doing what you wish.

You-problems occur when the inability to act as you wish arises internally. Let me say a bit more about what I mean by “do as you wish.”

Wishing and wanting are different. Wanting can mean many things. As Frankfurt pointed out:

A statement of the form ‘A wants to X'...may be consistent, for example, with each of the following statements: (a) the prospect of doing X elicits no sensation or introspectible emotional response in A; (b) A is unaware that he wants to X; (c) A believes that he does not want to X; (d) A wants to refrain from X-ing; (e) A wants to Y and believes that it is impossible for him both to Y and to X; (f) A does not "really" want to X; (g) A would rather die than X; and so on.

To avoid confusion, I use “doing as you wish” to describe a second-order desire. If you wish to do something, you desire to want to do it. If you don’t wish to eat a donut, that means you don’t want to want to eat a donut. But you can still want to eat a donut, even if you don’t wish to.

(If that was confusing, just think about “what you wish to do” as what you value. Sometimes you want to do things that are against your values. In those cases, you want to do the thing, but you don’t wish to.)

Okay, onto examples of you-problems:

  • You know donuts are not on your diet and don’t wish to eat them, but you suffer from weakness of will and eat them anyway.
  • You know drug use has negative consequences for you and wish you’d quit, but you are addicted.
  • You know you should get out of bed and wish to get on with your day, but you are depressed.
  • You don’t wish to hit your husband, but you are in a fit of rage.

These are internal obstacles to doing as you wish.

Let’s take stock. Two types of problems: belief problems and agency problems. Belief problems = you are ignorant or mistaken. Agency problems = you are constrained or incapacitated.

The theorists in the audience might have two urges at this point. Some might want to turn belief problems into agency problems. Suppose your dad believes in QAnon. At first glance, this is a belief problem (and it’s a problem in general because he stormed the US Capitol). If he didn’t believe in crazy conspiracy theories, he would be okay. Now some people will say: hey, this is an agency problem. He believes this stuff because he gets his news from Facebook, which is garbage. This is a conduct problem; the belief problem is derivative.

The second urge is to turn agency problems into belief problems. Socrates famously thought this: “No one goes willingly toward the bad.” If you really knew the consequences of eating those donuts and the value of your health, you wouldn’t eat them. So if you go ahead and eat them, you just don’t know what’s good for you.

I don’t think either of these moves is correct, and maybe it’s obvious why. That’s for another post.

Anyway, this was a very rough sketch of the picture. If the theory’s not just plain wrong, I’m worried it’s not informative. Duh, people struggle to do what they wish. Duh, the world would be a better place if people weren’t so ignorant. The challenge is to fight the killers of agency – slavery, cages, poverty, akrasia, addiction, depression, anger – and the promoters of ignorance and fake news – lack of education, certain news outlets. But nobody disagrees with the premise that killers of agency and promoters of ignorance are bad. We just can’t agree on who the bad guys are and what the order of priority for tackling the problems should be.

‘Til next time.

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