Personal relationships with goodness

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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.