Weighing Second Order Effects

I'm confused about how to order second order effects, compared to first order ones. Both of these are things that happen after you take an action. First order effects are the things which are immediate consequences of actions you take. Stuff like what you're directly causing, e.g. the person you push in front of a trolley. Second order effects are how you and the world change after you've taken your action (sans the direct consequences). Stuff like what sort of person you become, what sort of incentives you put in place for future actors, e.g. how pushing a person in front of a trolley makes you slightly more predisposed towards murder.

It's not a clean boundary, and I think a full model of causes and effects might disagree with this notion. After all, if they all happen as a result of taking an action, then they're all technically first order effects. But that doesn't seem to give an answer about how we should weigh them.

It seems like in situations where you care about forming a habit, or making yourself into a certain type of person, you would want to care more about the second order effects. Here, it's something like caring about the symbolism about an action because the symbolism is actually real. If your conception of yourself is a sliding window of the past k experiences you've had, it's actually to your benefit to make a show of certain virtues, if only to justify the adoption of such a self-concept for your future self. We might thus justify demonstrating restraint by not eating something sweet, even if when effect on your health is negligible. The argument here is that people don't think about the second order effects enough, and all the little inconsistencies and traps wear them down. By being mindful of this, you can get better, aligned results.

Yet, getting caught up in all of these suppositions also seems dangerous in certain situations. There are arguably an infinite number of ways to think about how whatever action you're taking supports the furthering of some arbitrary attitude. Pushing someone in front of a trolley espouses the attitude of killing someone, but might also espouse the attitude of taking decisive action, or the attitude of really liking to push people. In this case, you can cut through a lot of arguably useless pondering by just looking at what happens directly. You want X to happen? Don't spend time worrying about how X leads to Y which leads to Z. Just make X happen, see how the world updates, and then respond. I'm not saying to not think ahead, mind you. The causal structure of the world is still there, and eating ice cream when you're deathly allergic to dairy is still a stupid idea. But don't get bogged down into what sort of person you're turning into. If your actions define who you are, then focus on the main brunt of hwat your actions do.

Is there a clear test to figure out what matters when?

Last Updated: 2019-11-24 15:14
First Published: 2019-11-24 15:14