Personal relationships with goodness

Many people seem to find themselves in a situation something like this:

  1. Good actions seem better than bad actions. Better actions seem better than worse actions.
  2. There seem to be many very good things to do—for instance, reducing global catastrophic risks, or saving children from malaria.
  3. Nonetheless, they continually do things that seem vastly less good, at least some of the time. For instance, just now I went and listened to a choir singing. You might also admire kittens, or play video games, or curl up in a ball, or watch a movie, or try to figure out whether the actress in the movie was the same one that you saw in a different movie. I’ll call this ‘indulgence’, though it is not quite the right category.

On the face of it, this is worrying. Why do you do the less good things? Is it because you prefer badness to goodness? Are you evil?

It would be nice to have some kind of a story about this. Especially if you are just going to keep on occasionally admiring kittens or whatever for years on end. I think people settle on different stories. These don’t have obviously different consequences, but I think they do have subtly different ones. Here are some stories I’m familiar with:

I’m not good: “My behavior is not directly related to goodness, and nor should it be”, “It would be good to do X, but I am not that good” “Doing good things rather than bad things is generally supererogatory”

I think this one is popular. I find it hard to stomach, because if I am not good that seems like a serious problem. Plus, if goodness isn’t the guide to my actions, it seems like I’m going to need some sort of concept like schmoodness to determine which things I should do. Plus I just care about being good for some idiosyncratic reason. But it seems actually dangerous, because not treating goodness as a guide to one’s actions seems like it might affect one’s actions pretty negatively, beyond excusing a bit of kitten admiring or choir attendance.

In its favor, this story can help with ‘leaving a line of retreat‘: maybe you can better think about what is good, honestly, if you aren’t going to be immediately compelled to do it. It also has the appealing benefit of not looking dishonest, hypocritical, or self-aggrandizing.

Goodness is hard: “I want to be good, but I fail due to weakness of will or some other mysterious force”

This one probably only matches one’s experience while actively trying to never indulge in anything, which seems rare as a long term strategy.

Indulgence is good: “I am good, but it is not psychologically sustainable to exist without admiring kittens. It really helps with productivity.” “I am good, and it is somehow important for me to admire kittens. I don’t know why, and it doesn’t sound that plausible, but I don’t expect anything good to happen if I investigate or challenge it”

This is nice, because you get to be good, and continue to pursue good things, and not feel endlessly bad about the indulgence.

It has the downside that it sounds a bit like an absurd rationalization—’of course I care about solving the most important problems, for instance, figuring out where the cutest kittens are on the internet’. Also, supposing that fruitless entertainments are indeed good, they are presumably only good in moderation, and so it is hard for observers to tell if you are doing too much, which will lead them to suspect that you are doing too much. Also, you probably can’t tell yourself if you are doing too much, and supposing that there is any kind of pressure to observe more kittens under the banner of ‘the best thing a person can do’, you might risk that happening.

I’m partly good; indulgence is part of compromise: “I am good, but I am a small part of my brain, and there are all these other pesky parts that are bad, and I’m reasonably compromising with them” “I have many parts, and at least one of them is good, and at least one of them wants to admire kittens.”

This has the upside of being arguably relatively accurate, and many of the downsides of the first story, but to a lesser degree.

Among these, there seems to be a basic conflict between being able to feel virtuous, and being able to feel honest and straightforward. Which I guess is what you get if you keep on doing apparently non-virtuous things. But given that stopping doing those things doesn’t seem to be a real option, I feel like it should be possible to have something close to both.

I am interested to hear about any other such accounts people might have heard of.


14 responses to “Personal relationships with goodness

  1. After having been sick, I feel a sense of “justified selfishness” more than ever before in my life. I’m hoping it will go away as I get better. But I just have this concern now that life could easily be unendurably sucky for me if I don’t look out for myself first. I guess this falls into “indulgence is good.”

  2. Michael Wulfsohn

    My attitude is that I don’t have any obligation to help the world. I do want to help the world, and I devote some effort to that. But I feel that my default amount of impact is zero, not “as positive as possible.” So a lot of what I do is meant to be good for me, rather than good for the world.

    I do however feel that I have a responsibility not to harm the world.

  3. I agree that maximizing collective goodness is a good coordination target, but most of the world doesn’t seem capable of or interested in coordinating with me to maximize our collective goodness. The things I do are designed to more or less maximize goodness for myself and people who I can actually coordinate with.

  4. In the “indulgence is good” category, you have 1) indulgence being instrumentally good because it sustains me and makes me productive, and 2) indulgence is good in a way which is must remain mysterious because otherwise, it might crumble into plausible uncommendable motives and implausible commendable motives under scrutiny. I’d like to add the possibility that indulgence is just terminally goodish, despite not feeling praiseworthy. To “goodness is hard”, I would also add that goodness might be somatically unbearable, not just psychologically unbearable.

    Some more categories:
    Goodness is impossible: If I ask a stranger why they’re not reducing global catastrophic risk, I should not be surprised to get an answer like, “What are you talking about? That’s not a thing people do or can do. What Flavor-Aid have you been drinking? I might as well ask why you aren’t resurrecting King Tut. If reducing global catastrophic risk is a thing that can be done at all, it’s not something that can be done by me, a career waitress living from paycheck to paycheck who barely graduated high school.” Alternatively, Goodness could feel impossible in a similar way to how you felt that putting a pot of water (or a tea kettle?) on the stove felt non-actionable to you in that blog post I think I remember you posting a few months ago because that action was in the realm of cooking where you had never acquired learned agency (and were instead in the default human state of unlearned helplessness).

    Goodness is not so good:
    Do-gooding saints, if you look at the outcomes of their works, don’t achieve much. Meritous actions that feel accessible are usually hard work that needs to be redone regularly, like feeding a stranger or shoveling a neighbor’s driveway, and these don’t systematically change the system that will produce more suffering tomorrow. Effective altruism is only a counterpoint to this if it feels accessible to you or if you think you have effective opportunities.

    Goodness is not consciously electable and not sufficiently persuasive to the unconscious elector:
    The part of me that claims to want to do good is behaviorally impotent and either self-deceitful or delusional in its judgements: while some of my motives might be good, the thing that talks about my motives is a neural apologist with no introspective access to those motives and no control over them, and which exists to find explanations of my actions which make them seem meritous, justifiable, or excusable. The thing which seems to be my ability to make choices lives in acoustic separation from the thing which does so. The unconscious elector doesn’t make a categorical distinction between world-saving and kitten-admiring and will do anything which feels rewarding or which stops pain. People perform rewarding indulgences if their social environment doesn’t blame them for it. One’s conscience is part of one’s social environment, and some people haven’t yet been instilled with an intrusive thought in their conscience that causes them blame-pain for following a given behavior that the conscious apologist would label as an indulgence. Goodness flourishes where it is reinforced rather than where it is consciously sought.

  5. michealvassar

    Goodness isn’t a noun, and really not much of an adjective either. It’s a political banner. In the best case, those become stale over time. Righteousness used to be a lot more popular than it is today, for instance.

    Political banners result from philosophical simplifications which do not actually compile if you try to run them analytically, but which make it easier for humans to coordinate for a while without needing to share all their assumptions. However, if the simplifications are too serious given the actual environment, for instance, conflating money and wealth, only harms result, for instance, the insane advice to save money for future generations.

    People don’t need a theory of what to do in general in order to act. Such a theory is AGI, which is hard. Feel free to try to develop it, but know that it’s very hard. Short term, producing good results requires actions which are less hard, but still harder than talking about it conventionally and donating money. That’s just the social side of mainstream religion and does very little good if any.

  6. ethicalhaydonism

    A bit tangential, I know, but there’s one quite robust way of setting up the supererogatory/permissive approach –

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  8. Along the lines of “Being good is hard” / “Indulgence is good”: I might spend the rest of today pondering how to eradicate malaria and help negate the impact it already has had, and achieve remarkably little while at it. So “I’m too dumb to be of that much use” is one I use relatively often. It’s got it’s pros and cons; an obvious pro is that not every one of us is gifted with being able to come up with actually good solutions to highly complex problems. An obvious con is that I could still use my intelligence better for the good of everybody.

    Going about it rationally is obviously great, and arguably the best way to reduce suffering, but I have a hunch (no spit, Sherlock) that a nonmeditator’s basic cognition just isn’t that much about maximizing utility as it is about more immediate things; that is, it’s always easy to find a rational argument against whatever our real reasons for selfishness / enjoying our lives / appreciating personal, immediate things are. Spiritual teachers like to say that the important difference should be on the level of intuitive processes, and I kind of relate to that; as soon as one realizes the vanity of stupid desires, it becomes easier to help the whole world.

    And then again, I’m pretty sure even that doesn’t solve the whole problem – maybe that’s just how we are.

  9. (I really need to check by more often.)

    “I am not a goodness-maximizing machine, rather a human being that needs other things in addition to goodness.”

    (That and from an EA-ish sort of view, you can’t do the most good in the world by trying to be a goodness-maximizing machine while still being a human, because you’ll asplode.

    Self-care, in other words, leads to more capacity to do good.)

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  11. Generalized goodness is hard to define. When people do try to define it, they disagree strongly with each other’s definitions. It is also unnecessary from my perspective, since the goodness of others is not my goodness.

    Even personal goodness is hard to define, let alone optimize. I put my indulgence down to a mix of akrasia and marginal utility of indulgence relative to the next best available thing. Sometimes Netflix and cat videos really are the optimal answer.

  12. Howard Holmes

    My story probably fits into your first category of “I’m not good.” I’m not good because no such thing as good or bad, better or worse exists. You provide four objections to this view:

    1) Being not good seems like a serious problem. This is only true if there is such a thing. Granted that being good is the single most important thing to humans, but none of them succeeds because there is no such thing…no problem.

    2) I need goodness to guide my actions. You only think you do but even though choice is an ubiquitous part of being human good gives us no relevant information for making choices. When I wake in the morning I am immediately faced with the choice of whether or not to stay in bed. I might stay because I am sick or because it is still dark. I might get up because I feel rested, or because I know I have a busy schedule today. These are all valid reasons for choosing. But add that “it is good to get up” and this adds zero information and is useless for decision.

    3) I care about being good. Of course, you do. Duh! It is the thing humans care most about, but if you knew why we care about it, you would be surprised.

    4) It might affect one’s actions very negatively. Not so. You do not use “good” now to make choices so nothing will change. Your motivations when you reject the illusion of good/bad will remain exactly the same as they are now…you will just realize them and be more honest.

  13. Along similar lines as some of the other responses here, my story goes something like: “I’m not (always) a metaethicist.”

    The dilemma presented here is about rational decision making. Why do we do things that, when we think hard about it, do not seem like the best things to do?

    But must we think hard? Here are two closely related questions:
    1. What determines what is “good”?
    2. Am I morally obligated to think about, to develop, and then to act according to a coherent moral theory?

    If real people are not moral-utility-maximizers, or even rational agents, then I think the answer to the second question is no, and I’m off the hook.

    If the answer is yes, then I’m not a good person (yet I don’t know that I’m not a good person! and that leads to a whole slew of other issues), and nor are A LOT of other people.

    Which isn’t to say that the answer is necessarily no—but it sure provides a good excuse for me to keep on watching my cat videos.

  14. Here’s another perspective: “good” isn’t a meaningful category, and it’s leading us astray.

    Seems to me that “good” is a useful meme a parent would come up with to keep their child in line. I don’t think it has any objective meaning beyond that. It’s just short for “well behaved”. In English it’s even used that way. Good boy!

    Concerning independent agents, morality is a contract. An answer to morality is only useful if one can reasonably expect people to agree to its terms. “you can’t look at kittens” is a bad contract because you can be certain it’s going to be violated. No point in even proposing it (except for those EA’s that would rather stay well-behaved than face adulthood)

    Don’t get me wrong, I do wish that everyone would just sacrifice everything they had for the greater good, but as long as we’re stuck with the assumption that people go even one inch out of their self-interest, we’re not going to make any progress in figuring out morality.

    And that’s killing our impact. Can you imagine that I’m frustrated?

    Everyone is acting in their self-interest, and it’s good pareto-optimized contracts that make these actions how we want them.


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