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.