For Civilization and Against Niceness

Link post

Scott Alexander wrote a great essay, called “In Favor of Niceness, Community and Civilization”. Scott is a great writer, and conveys what I love about civilization in a beautiful way.

Unfortunately, the essay conflates two behaviors. Though to be fair, those two behaviors often go hand in hand:

Being uncivil, as in: breaking the norms of civilization.

Being mean, as in: being not-nice, unpleasant to be around.

The following paragraph embodies this conflation quite well:

Liberalism does not conquer by fire and sword. Liberalism conquers by communities of people who agree to play by the rules, slowly growing until eventually an equilibrium is disturbed. Its battle cry is not “Death to the unbelievers!” but “If you’re nice, you can join our cuddle pile!”

I love civilization! Democracies let me politically coordinate with people internationally, socially liberal systems grant me freedom to be as weird as I want in private, and economically liberal systems let me try many exotic kinds of positive-sum trades with people! None of this would be possible without civilization.

I agree, Civilization is great. But I don’t want to join your cuddle pile!

Civilization is often about being not nice

As Scott Alexander says, civilization is about “agreeing to play by the rules.” But this is not about niceness. On the contrary, playing by the rules often requires being not nice. [1]

While we want companies to abide by strong regulations, and not cause negative externalities (like pollution), we also do not want them to be nice to each other. This is the core of antitrust law, that aims to minimize anti-competitive practices.

More concretely, the goal of companies is to capture value (make profits), while the goal of free-markets is for companies to create value for consumers. The way those two incentives are aligned is through competition. By getting companies to compete, they need to keep improving compared to other companies to keep their profits, increasing the share of the value enjoyed by consumers

In other words: We want companies to compete as fiercely as possible, thereby driving quality up and pushing prices down.

As Adam Smith wrote:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

This is a feature of economic liberalism.

Similarly, in a court of law, while we want all lawyers present to strictly adhere to their local equivalent of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, we don’t want the defense attorney and the prosecutor to be nice to each other.

When younger, I could not understand attorneys that defended people who they knew were criminals. Weren’t these attorneys making society strictly worse? My confusion went deeper when I learnt that they had an ethical obligation to defend people who they knew were criminals.

But it makes sense: the attorney doesn’t issue the final sentence, the judge does. And the judge doesn’t know if the person is innocent or not, or when they’re guilty, how guilty they are. To solve this, judiciary systems go through something close to an Adversarial Collaboration. Both sides need to bring forward as much evidence for their case as possible. Only then can the judge make the best decision with as much information as possible.

When the defense attorney makes their case, they are not changing the sentence, they are giving more information to the judge, who then decides on the sentence.

If you think about it, it is obvious: it is better for the judge to have more information. And to get there, you need people to optimize for both sides of the story, not focus on the one we already believe to be correct.

This is why prosecutors and defense attorneys should be as adversarial and partisan as possible: they should, under no circumstance, be afraid to embarrass their opposition. Only then, judges can then have access to all the relevant information to emit their final judgment.

The closest thing to a Marketplace of ideas is not traditional media, but Academia. Ideally, researchers should publish papers, and harshly criticize each other after publication. Then, after a while, we could easily see which papers stood the tests of time, were not retracted, thoroughly refuted, and kept being cited.

Unfortunately, niceness makes it hard to call out bad research. As a result, a lot of unrefuted garbage is given a free Science Stamp of Approval.

After all, to punish bad research, you need to fight bad researchers. But fighting is not very collegial.

Obviously, if you think I am wrong, or that I am doing immoral things, fight me by the rules! We will all become better for it.

Civilization is about being Civil, not Nice

A part of civilization is about being nice, and another part is about not being nice. If you love civilization, and want to have your aesthetics reflect that, you might focus on either.

But the secret sauce of civilization is neither niceness nor competition. The secret sauce is being civil, regardless of how you feel.


I should have seen it coming, but when putting this post up for review, all reviewers asked for more about what I mean by being civil. Like, isn’t it just another word for politeness?

This question makes sense, there are multiple conflicting meanings around “civil”, “civility”, “civics”, ”citizen”, “civilization” etc. Some meanings are etymological, or French[2], while others are more literary.

Wikipedia writers are better than I am, so let me start by amiably stealing from them (emphases mine):

Civics is the study of the rights and obligations of citizens in society. The term derives from the Latin word civicus, meaning “relating to a citizen”. The term relates to behavior affecting other citizens, particularly in the context of urban development.

Civic education is the study of the theoretical, political and practical aspects of citizenship, as well as its rights and duties. It includes the study of civil law and civil codes, and the study of government with attention to the role of citizens―as opposed to external factors―in the operation and oversight of government.

To be civil is to recognize that you are but one citizen among many, with a duty toward your metaphorical city (usually your Nation). By building a strong city, you get to be safe, and defend the rights that all citizens should have access to.

Civilization often goes hand in hand with universalism: the vision that this city should encompass all of humanity. Everyone should enjoy these rights.

Civilization’s theory of change is that by following your duty and engaging with your co-citizens, you naturally work with them to implement the change you want to see.

You see yourself not as a leader who must shepherd people that can not think for themselves, but as a concerned citizen spreading important information so that others can think about it, and then propose solutions that can be built together.

Civility is not about being nice to others or sharing their interests, it is about respecting them. For instance, you should not treat them like children by sparing their feelings or protecting them from the truth, you should instead be frank to them.

Civilization is not about never disagreeing or having conflicts, it’s about committing to resolving them by following the rules. More specifically, it is about the conviction that by following the rules, we will solve these conflicts and converge to the best plans we can act upon. This is expected to involve numerous compromises and “disagree-and-commits”.

Civilization vs Niceness

Civilization is not embodied by a cuddle pile. It is embodied by a Code of Law: meaningfully following your duty, participating in the life of your city, and transcending your personal aesthetics, relationships, emotions and preferences.

There are strict trade-offs between niceness and following rules:

If you are only civil when it feels good, you are not civilized. You are someone who seeks to feel good first and foremost.

If you are honest only when it doesn’t hurt people, you are not honest. You are someone who prioritizes making people feel good.

Civilization is embodied by fighting for its principles when they are being transgressed, and following the rules.

Civilization is embodied by playing the damned game, especially when it feels bad or hopeless.

To drill this point deeper, let’s go back to the research example. The remedies section of the Replication Crisis lists many advanced methods, like result-blind peer review, metascience or pre-registration of studies.

But the most obvious remedy is to punish defectors. Unfortunately, it is a big career wart to start publicly trashing the work of other researchers.

This is a very general pattern. Civilization requires punishing defection. But niceness norms put a cost on punishing defection. As a result, the more niceness norms you have, the easier it is to defect (as long as the defector is nice around people 🙂).

I like Voltaire’s attitude about Civilization:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

It is indeed crucial to Civilization that disagreements are expressed. I might think you have the dumbest beliefs ever, but I will do my best so that you can state them.

I am actually even more radical.

I will fight for your duty to state them when they are critical to civilization, and that any concerned citizen would expect you to state them.

I deeply believe that there is value in people stating and discussing their beliefs, even when I already know that they are wrong.

Aesthetics and Norms

I understand that a lot of people have an aesthetic taste for niceness. These aesthetics are so strong that they might feel objectively true, some might even say, morally correct. But those norms are extremely cultural, and it is always a pain when a local community acts as if their norms were universal.

I have heard many times “You would get less pushback if you were less adversarial in your communication”.

When I ask more about the benefit of getting less pushback, the same argumentative bait-and-switch always follows: “Imagine, if you got less pushback, people could more easily agree with your point and it would spread more! Being less adversarial is actually not only good, but useful!”.

Yet, when digging into it: they don’t actually have ideas for how to make the post less adversarial without changing the points made. They can not point at a specific part that could be edited or removed. It is indeed not a problem of form, but of content. Call-outs and strong pushes for change are intrinsically adversarial, and being adversarial just feels morally wrong to them.

Obviously, if I describe some negative behavior that is prevalent, there should be pushback! People should feel compelled to make the case for their behaviors, others should see those cases, examine whether the behavior was justified or not, and then act accordingly.

If there’s no pushback, either the behavior was not prevalent, or I did not reach anyone.

On another note: when you practice a martial art, you sometimes get called out by others for doing something dangerous. In that case, the correct behavior is to thank the person who told you so, change your behavior as necessary, and move on.

But of course, even when it’s justified, you can feel somewhat attacked! You didn’t know you were doing something wrong, and it could sting to have it pointed out (sometimes even mockingly). But being able to not escalate, listen, reflect, and move on regardless is civility.

At a societal scale, this is the whole point of the civilization thing: it should not matter that you take it personally; you own your emotions, you obey the rules, and you participate in making the collective project of civilization stronger. The fact that we can be civilized even in super high-intensity testosterone-fueled environments like combat sports is essential: if we can act with civility when we strangle and kick each other in the face, we can act with civility anywhere.

Similarly, right after an intense basketball game or Smash Bros tournament, you might discuss with your opponent after the game what went wrong on the loser’s side. This often happens right after either you or the opponent has been thoroughly humiliated, sometimes in front of the audience, when trying both of your very best! And when you reach peak civilization, you can discuss the game while trash talking and calling each other a 100 different names, and it’s a nice vibe.

I realize that these are my aesthetics, and that they are not for everyone (sad!). Thus, when I am spending time with people who are more about niceness aesthetics, I’ll happily chill and lower the tension levels.

But when we deal with extinction risks and critical public debates, I will, to the best of my ability, set this aside and just uphold and defend the relevant norms. If they involve being unpleasant, I’ll be unpleasant. If they involve being awkward, I’ll be awkward. And so on.


Niceness is a nice aesthetic, I’ll admit. But it is far from being the essence of Civilization.

The essence of Civilization is following norms, defending our rights, and building things together.

Civilization involves both nice and mean actions. It involves people being both nice and mean to each other.

From this perspective, if you care about Civilization, optimizing solely for niceness is as meaningless and ineffective as optimizing for meanness.

PS: Some anecdotes

Eliezer has been critical of OpenAI for a while. But in the last year, he has become much more public, with most notably his Bankless podcast. As he often does, Sam Altman later voiced his opinions publicly, this time taking into account Eliezer’s stance.

And then, there was a tweet that I deeply loved, that I can’t find anymore. But the tweet had a vibe of “Wow, it is crazy. By calling out each other and responding to their counter-arguments, it’s like they are having a public debate!”

And I was like “Yes! That’s what it’s about! This is exactly why we want people to talk and call each other out publicly. It’s not about Eliezer or Sam being nice to each other, or even about one of them being right. It’s about them sharing their best arguments and people updating their views as a result.”.

Likewise, I have heard from a couple of people new to thinking about extinction risks and superintelligence that they were quite disappointed by arguments from LeCun, and this made them update toward the risks being more real.

  1. ^

    The biggest example of “being not-nice” is how Civilization also requires fighting wars and locking criminals in prison.

    However, wars and prisons are mostly relevant Nation-States. That’s why I will not be spending much writing time here on “enforcing Civilization through physical violence”, as it is not relevant to communities within countries with a rule of law, nor to online communities.

  2. ^

    A lot of the political philosophy around the Age of Enlightenment was written in French. We inherited from this discourse, and its influence reached even our modern constitutions and institutions.

    The typical separation of power between Judiciary, Executive and Legislative powers comes straight from Montesqiueu’s “De l’esprit des loix” (About the Spirit of Law).

    As a result, it’s sometimes hard to know when a word is being used as “present-day formal French”, “past-day colloquial French” or “specific meaning in political philosophy”.