I’d like to explore early development of action hierarchy components with a narrative about a budding human being. I hope that an intuition, however faint, will emerge for how these components co-evolve with identity; how those crucial meta-capabilities develop; how the seeds of fairness and goodness sprout; and how everything ties together to motivate directed action. Let’s begin in the beginning.
Solipsism in the Womb
The fetus assumes that they are the purpose of the universe, if not the universe itself. This perspective fits the facts they have encountered. It also happens to carry a good deal of truth: the placenta bestows upon the fetus a singular amount of authoritarian control thus enthroning them as the all-powerful, all-important lord of their small world.
Fulfillment of their desires is imperative, but by no means simple. The universe may be their servant or even their extension, but it does not grant control over itself by magic. It only yields when it is treated right. The fetus must comply with the world’s demands before they can expect its obedience.
To comprehend what they must do and develop the skills to do it, the fetus depends on inductive learning, with its assumption of a consistent causal relationship between action and consequence.
They start out extraordinarily weak. Their senses deluge their understanding and their intentions overwhelm their capabilities. But self-importance pushes them through innumerable failures and tireless repetitions towards comprehension and competence.
Success establishes the concept of desert through a restatement of causality: consequences are owed to actions. They deserve compliance from the world because they’ve earned it.
Each time the fetus compels the universe to satisfy their demands they gain not only entitlement and competence, but confidence in their supremacy. The powerful forces that resisted them prove to be theirs to command. Their low starting point only reinforces their certitude via accumulation of triumphs.
Attained models and skills help the fetus develop new ones. General methods for learning and succeeding evolve from specific efforts. Their sphere of influence expands at an accelerating rate.
They still encounter plentiful resistance, but are sure that mastery is merely a matter of additional effort. Their certainty of having God-like totality and power only increases with time. Until, one day, everything changes.
Encounter with Necessity
The fetus has accepted limitations on methods, but not on goals. Birth introduces the magnitude of necessity1I use the word necessity with a nod to Emile: or On Education by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. to them with unceremonious harshness.
The universe rebels against its lord. The fetus is pushed out by forces that are orders of magnitude more powerful and disobedient than they considered possible. Their efforts and plights go unnoticed, their confidence crumbles, their pride is crushed. Their powerful models and capabilities are proven woefully insufficient.
The harsh forces of necessity only keep coming: gravity, light, heat, cold, pain, motion, hunger. On the day of their birth, the infant learns of a much larger, less responsive, and more mysterious universe. They are confused and concerned, but they do discover benefits and opportunities.
They locate warmth and food. They experience strangely familiar motions and sounds. Necessity, after its show of immense strength, recedes. More content and optimistic, they rest. Perhaps this universe is more orderly, caring, and open to control than early trauma suggested.
Cautiously, the infant attempts to apply the methods that worked in the womb: experimentation, pattern matching, inference, repetition. The world proves accommodating. The infant’s confidence rebounds and their understanding and abilities improve.
They won’t again believe that they can bend anything to their will. The new world relentlessly asserts its authority by thwarting them with baffling forces. But the infant’s sense of self-importance recovers. They are not quite God, but perhaps the universe still exists for them. Perhaps the trauma of birth was a mistake. Or, perhaps, it was a benevolent act to usher them into this larger world.
How far back towards God-like self-conception the infant ventures depends on how well they are able to get the new world to fulfill their wishes.
The infant has no reliable method to distinguish the impossible from the possible, to differentiate unavoidable failures from ones due to insufficient effort or understanding, or to mistakes in execution or strategy. They only have a single heuristic: the forces of necessity never yield.
How hard the infant tries depends on how consistently they are resisted and on how powerful they perceive themselves to be. If they’ve been thwarted too often, or too painfully, they will assume necessity sooner and yield. If they’ve succeeded often, they will not only try longer, but, even after yielding, will return to re-engage with new approaches as their understanding evolves.
Discovery of Other Beings
Social forces dominate the postpartum world, but the infant doesn’t discern other wills in their self-centered universe. They only recognize whether forces are manipulatable, and therefore can serve them, or are constraints that need to be endured. And they can only make this categorization through rebellion. Anything consistent and unyielding is indistinguishable from necessity and will be accepted as such – at least until the baby’s skills and models improve enough to justify the next rebellion.
The baby begins to perceive the wills of other beings by noticing a category of interactions that are neither consistently unyielding nor reliably manipulatable.
The infant has no innate, overarching preference for doing something over commanding it done. Both are potentially valid strategies and they learn to prefer the more effective one. They detect correlations between cries, movements, or thoughts and outcomes. Those evolve into implicit agreements to deliver the same outcomes on demand.
When this compliance is withheld the infant’s fury knows no bounds. Their rage isn’t disappointment at discovery of necessity, or recognition of insufficient competence, or frustration of repeated failure, or expression of pain: it is their nascent pride rebelling at the injustice of being cheated of its due.
The baby has experienced such anger frequently. It is difficult to turn a chaotic sensory stream into valid models of the world so there have been many prematurely assumed victories. But they detect a crucial distinction with some interactions: their fury affects outcomes.
Neither battles against necessity nor manipulation using flawed models were ever influenced by the baby’s disappointment. They’ve proven consistent, even if initially appearing otherwise. But these curious forces are not only inconsistent, but are influenced by the baby’s state of mind!
It is by identifying inconsistency and sensitivity to rebellion that the baby learns to distinguish the wills of others from ordinary forces. From this time forward, the baby needs to differentiate between insufficient competence, futile necessity, and uncooperative wills. Fury evolves from an emotion to also become a method of differentiation and a strategy for victory.
Battles of Will
The baby’s newfound awareness is too vague to fully distinguish between social and physical forces. They are equally willing to accept unyielding necessity of either kind. But the discovered utility of fury triggers a wave of battles as the baby hones their new tactic and reevaluates their models of the world with it. They do what they have always done: act relentlessly to identify necessity and perfect their skills.
The difference is that this time the brunt of their assault is faced by human beings who care about them. The caretakers construe complaints as genuine distress and inflame the problem with their attempts to help. They reinforce the usefulness of fury which leads the baby to redouble their efforts. And they bestow benefits on the baby who perceives a variety of new entitlements; future failures to honor them engender righteous indignation and yet more fury.
With experience, the baby begins to recognize specific individuals and perceive responsiveness to fury as one of their properties. Although they did not begin with an attack on, or even recognition of, any one will, they end up regarding responsiveness of particular individuals as an entitlement. Any disobedience justifies indignation.
Eventually, the child comprehends personhood sufficiently to realize that responsiveness of even the most unyielding individual is not a force of necessity, but an act of will. The child perceives an affront to their significance. They rebel to assert their dominion. The ensuing battles of will become their major occupation for some time.
A Good Person
The child wants others to be their obedient tools, but lacks a realistic understanding of dominion, much less a long-term strategy to achieve it. They fall back on their well-worn method of stubborn rebellion by asserting themselves at every opportunity. The specifics of what happens next depend on the caretakers, but some broadly similar experiences, in varying sequences and proportions, tend to occur.
The child wins their share of battles. Many of their victories amount to recognition of their autonomy rather than surrender to their authority: they select a choice or enter an agreement instead of obeying.
Some victories reveal the child’s shortcomings. They win, but find their demands to have been against their own interests. They perceive wisdom and care behind their caretaker’s guidance.
And some battles, whether victorious or not, backfire to expose the cost of conflict. Friction infiltrates areas where they didn’t ask for it. Resistance to requests rises. Usual assistance is withheld. Increasingly powerful weapons are deployed. Secured victories and reached agreements are challenged anew. The child discerns the interconnectedness of social forces and the expense of tyranny.
Social demands are not necessity in the absolute sense of physical laws, but resemble necessity in proportion to the price they levy on disobedience. The child elects cooperation when it appears to be more effective than rebellion.
This initial cooperation is similar to the contracts they’ve made with the physical world: compliance with social demands gets them treated as a good person who is owed their due. But it is also different because the physical world doesn’t negotiate, accept promises, nor demand or offer recognition of autonomy.
The child is a good person in only the most basic sense. Their intentions aren’t noble and their actions aren’t necessary good in any conventional sense. Good is what satisfies the requirements to get rewarded.
This self-centered definition of goodness is essentially automatic and tautological: few goals can be reached without satisfying requirements of some sort. But it is justified and earned, which is a big step from goodness rendered superfluous by God-like self-conception.
Being good in the social world advances understanding of agreements, fairness, desert, reciprocity, and empathy. It takes time and experience for the child to comprehend these concepts.
They interpret attempts to hold them to their promises as domination – or attempt to dominate with noncompliance – thus triggering new battles of will. But eventually they grasp the two-sided nature of agreements: how they constrain both themselves and others over both time and space. They internalize the value of trust and the unfairness of reneging on one’s obligations.
Trustworthiness fosters agreements, which makes it valuable. It can be objectively evaluated over many actions and thus be recognized as a property of a person. It is often against immediate self interest and is thus expensive, which makes it important that it be accurately recognized. The duty to keep one’s promises elevates goodness to something that can be consciously pursued, externally recognized, and explicitly defended.
As recognition rises in importance, the child’s acknowledgement of trustworthiness, competence, wisdom, and care in others also increases. They desire to identify people worthy of respect and emulation. They show deference. Battles of will still flare up, but increasingly over insufficient recognition of goodness or competence rather than pure power.
The experience with negotiation and honoring of agreements, together with explanations of trusted people, reveal that social demands carry an internal logic that can be evaluated for fairness, coherence, and effectiveness. It becomes possible to consider, debate, and accept agreements on their own merits rather than solely through adversarial negotiation. It becomes evident that social demands can allow everyone to get more of what they want through conflict resolution, trust and understanding, long-term cooperation, and greater effectiveness. Thus justified, perception of agreements advances from begrudgingly effectual to optimistically desirable.
A Social Being
Rules and agreements are two sides of the same coin. The child recognizes that societal rules, like smaller-scale family agreements, have reasons for their existence. The child was not involved in making those rules, but is now biased towards viewing them as beneficial rather than oppressive. They consider themselves a part of a community, with shared goals and responsibilities.
The moral dimension of goodness advances past self-interested trustworthiness when individual actions are connected to success of a community that has been deemed good.
The child sees that everyone in the community benefits from positive contributions. They see good people make such contributions. They perceive reneging on responsibilities as an unfair taking advantage of shared contributions and as a violation of trust. They intuit that their own development has been made possible by the community.
The desire to be fair and trustworthy, to emulate good people, to repay the debt to the community, and to further shared goals justify being a good person as a worthy goal, a point of pride, and a linchpin of identity.
Of course, such genuine buy-in isn’t inevitable. The child’s views are a consequence of the interactions between their preferences and experiences. Many paths favor less social stages of goodness with a possible veneer of sociability.
Neither is the extent of communal buy-in a given. At this point, the child is still primarily a self-centered being driven by their own desires. It’s just that a portion of their desires is now connected with other people and externally justified goodness. There is plenty of space for purely individual pursuits and for participation in multiple communities.
The child’s understanding has progressed from resting on implications of solipsism to relying on increasingly empirical justifications. Goodness evolved to be justified by action, truth by accuracy, power by effectiveness. Identity has to be built and recognition needs to be earned. Duties and communal goals can be prioritized over individual desires.
The child’s self-perception has advanced from complete self-absorption to a hub in a network connected by duties, expectations, agreements, and trust. This network, defended by an interconnected web of justifications, provides the building blocks for a holistic, self-reinforcing worldview.
It starts out small and simple, but expands rapidly through productive interaction with individual development. Healthy networks direct and enhance skill attainment; offer reasonable models to root identity and understanding in; and reward goodness, progress, and contribution.
The child enjoys the recognition and rewards bestowed upon them for their achievements. They see their competence and influence rise. They feel their self-worth grow. Their advancement validates the effectiveness of their approach and the wisdom of their community.
The child’s increasing competence and sphere of influence engages them in more interesting, complex, and meaningful projects. The expanding quantity and diversity of assertions and interactions exposes conflicts. The child is compelled to grow and rework their models to maintain coherence in their enlarged set of ideas, goals, and commitments. This demands that they make choices, some of which involve sacrifices.
These decisions are made in small, logical steps and often appear obvious given the accepted network. They are expected to lead to recognition and rewards, increased effectiveness and confidence, attainment of truth and grand goals. Each justification rests on greater trust in the community and its members. Each acceptance merges the child deeper into the network and further aligns their desired pursuits with communal ones – which reinforces the cycle.
This interconnected process develops the child’s identity, goals, skills, models, meta-capabilities, and axioms. It fits them into a justifiable, self-reinforcing whole that motivates meaningful action. With time, the justifications and connections dissolve into magic, but the confident and capable identity remains to pursue the erected action hierarchies.