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.