Notes on Benevolence (being “less bad”)

This post examines the virtue of benevolence. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.

What is benevolence?

Benevolence (sometimes “goodness” or “goodwill”) is the belief that some things are good, others bad, accompanied by a determination to promote the good and discourage the bad. In short: if you are benevolent you commit yourself on the side of good. Most typically, benevolence concerns moral good and bad — being good to others, in particular — rather than less morally-tinted goods like cleanliness or virtuosity.

A brief definition like this hides a lot of complexity and difficulty. How can it be the case that some things are morally good and other things morally bad, for example, and how can we know the difference? Why is there debate about what is morally good or bad, and why does there seem to be no consensus about how such debates can be resolved through appeals to facts and logic? Why ought one choose to side with good over bad instead of the alternative or instead of remaining neutral and making your decisions based on some other metric entirely?

The benevolent person doesn’t necessarily think that they have all the answers to these questions, but is satisfied that moral right and wrong is real and worthy of respect, believes they can discern the rightness or wrongness of a thing or a course of action well enough to act on that discrimination, and is persuaded that consistently siding with the good is the correct course of action.

Ethical philosophy is in part a gigantic junkyard strewn with the wreckage of ingenious attempts to prove or disprove any of that. If you want a philosophical vehicle with which you can rationally drive yourself either into or out from a stance of benevolence, you can take your pick, but good luck getting it off the lot.

Benevolence and the virtues

“Without love and benevolence life has no attraction.” ―Cicero

From a virtue ethics perspective, the question is whether benevolence is an essential ingredient in human flourishing, or whether one can flourish just as well as an evil or morally indifferent person.

Most virtue traditions at least imply that benevolence is correct. Some virtues are morally neutral: both good people and evil people can thrive better with a good helping of fortitude, fitness, boldness, discipline, confidence, and so forth. But many virtues imply taking moral sides. What makes sympathy better than schadenfreude? concern better than disdain? gentleness better than cruelty? honesty better than deceit? sportsmanship better than ruthlessness? If you decide not to be benevolent, you almost need to find a mirror-world set of Machiavellian virtues in order to learn how to thrive.

“Good” certainly won the public relations war when it chose that name. People more often choose the side of good, or claim to, anyway. The Marist Institute for Public Opinion does a poll about New Years Resolutions every year, and “be a better person” is usually near the top of the list, next to resolutions about exercising more and losing weight.

Sympathy for the devil

But we also tend to love a good villain. Shakespeare’s Iago and Richard Ⅲ are among his most captivating characters, in large part because they are so thoroughly and energetically evil. They show us what an inverted set of malevolent virtues might look like, by showing us a character who has decided to try to flourish as a human being aligned with evil.

Adam Kotsko wrote a fascinating book several years back called Why We Love Sociopaths (excerpt) that examines why sociopathic characters had become so enormously popular on television — folks like House, Dexter, Tony Soprano, Jack Bauer, and Don Draper in TV dramas; cartoon characters like Eric Cartman, who often steals the show on South Park; or the various ruthless and amoral reality TV competitors like those in Survivor or the U.S. Presidential Election — and what this collective pursuit of a fantasy of being sociopathic might mean about us and about the phase our society is going through. In short:

My hypothesis is that the sociopaths we watch on TV allow us to indulge in a kind of thought experiment, based on the question: “What if I really and truly did not give a fuck about anyone?” And the answer they provide? “Then I would be powerful and free.”

Can you flourish as a human being on the side of evil, or is that just a conceit of fiction? It certainly seems like evil people in real life are making their evil decisions under the theory that they will benefit by doing so. How would you argue against them?

Well, for one thing, evil deeds can have bad consequences for the person who does them. But this isn’t very persuasive. Evil people, if they’re not also stupid, have already figured that into their calculations. Avoiding detection and deflecting consequences are among the evil virtues. And it is an ancient complaint that, at least superficially, evil people often prosper while good people get trod underfoot.

We are all familiar with the eternal-soul gambit that sometimes gets trotted out in response to this. Certainly it seems like evil people prosper and good people suffer, but that’s only because you’re focused on the short term. If you look at things from the perspective of eternity, boy howdy do the good people make out like bandits while the bad people wail and gnash their teeth in fire & brimstone. Cool story bro.

Another tack is for good people to say that ungood people are being mistakenly short-sighted. They’re aiming at the sorts of petty rewards that even the evil can obtain, while missing out on the grander things in life that are only available to good people. For example, the good person may wax poetic about the joys of love being in large part the fulfilling feeling of loving, not the silly selfish pride of being adored. An evil person may be able to manipulate someone into giving them the latter, but will never be able to obtain the former.

But ungood people are likely to think that good people are just fooling themselves about that sort of thing: “It is better to give than receive? More terrible to commit injustice than to suffer it? Yeah, sure. Tell me another one. I’ve been down that road, and brother, let me tell you: nice guys finish last.”

More cynically, they assume that good people are just other evil people trying to manipulate each other. Like the child who told the other child: “You should learn to share. Do you know what sharing is? It’s when you have something that I want and you give it to me.”

When I did a quick Google search for “how to become good if you are evil” to see if there was something obvious I missed, perversely almost all of the results seemed instead to be about how good people turn evil. The upshot of all this is that I despair of coming up with either motivations or methods for choosing benevolence if you are not already so inclined.

But that isn’t even the end of the troubles. Consider the enormous differences of opinion about what good and evil consist of. Some radical thinkers (Nietzsche! Rand!) insist that a lot of the common-sense ideas we have inherited about good and evil have been so corrupted that they are almost the opposite of what they should be. So even if you make the leap of deciding to be benevolent, you’ve got your work cut out for you figuring out just what that means.

There are even those who insist that if you side with good over evil, you show that you are subscribing to a primitive, dualist Manichæism, and dooming yourself never to integrate your shadow side and become one with the greater cosmic harmony in which evil plays its useful supporting role.

So where am I going with this?

“I have a belief of my own, and it comforts me… That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil — widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.” —George Eliot (via Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch)

All of that was mostly to say that if there’s a failsafe way to reason someone into benevolence, I’m not familiar with it, and so you won’t find it here. And even if you don’t need convincing on that point, and you plan to take up your sword and shield for the good team, you then have the trouble of finding out how to be good and what is genuinely good, hidden as it is among the many counterfeits.

In the same spirit that the rationalist community adopts when they vow to become “less wrong,” I think it’s probably a better idea to try to be “less bad” than to declare yourself to be firmly, once and for all, on the side of good. This is in part because of the phenomenon of moral licensing — a cognitive bias in which if you do something good, or think of yourself as basically good, or even imagine yourself doing something good, you may give yourself a sort of “get out of jail free card” as a reward, and feel less guilt about indulging in something bad. Somewhat related is noble cause corruption, in which if you’re convinced you’re on the side of the angels, you use that as a great excuse for your atrocities.

If you can avoid strapping on your paladin kit right away, and instead more humbly commit to becoming “less bad” you will be less likely to fall victim to these fallacies, you’ll be more investigative about how to be better, and you’ll be less defensive when you learn about your shortcomings or have them pointed out to you.

I wasn’t a big fan of Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, but I thought its main argument was convincing: that when white Americans become defensive about their identities as not-racist-people it can cause them to avoid confronting their participation in behaviors and structures that perpetuate racism. DiAngelo wishes white Americans would adopt something of an “I’m trying to perpetuate racism less” point of view instead of the less helpful “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” defensiveness.

“Less bad” is something like this. It acknowledges that good is not something you can award yourself and forget about, like a ribbon or a badge, but something you have to always be in pursuit of, and always in doubt about whether or not you’re on the right trail.

Good is hard

It is frustratingly difficult, time-consuming, and uncertain to discern the right from the wrong. It is maddeningly easy to come up with convincing justifications for why the wrong thing that would be easiest to do is really the right thing if you look at it properly.

The upshot is that if you aim for benevolence, it’s going to take work: clear thinking, painstaking discernment, strong willpower. What lures most people away from benevolence and into evil is probably not the usual temptations of the devil but simple laziness — unwillingness to do this hard work:

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” ―Hannah Arendt

Arendt made thinking (of a particular type) the key to becoming good. Evil — “banal” evil as she famously put it — is committed, in her theory, by people who do not think. This isn’t to say that these people are not intelligent, or cultured, or knowledgeable. “Thinking” has a particular meaning in Arendt’s framework: it is a process of internal dialog, one that is necessarily done in withdrawal from society and real-world concerns (that is, you can’t think at the same time you are working or conversing). This withdrawal she calls “solitude” but it is a solitude that you share with yourself in a peculiar duality that enables the dialog to take place: you split in two and converse with yourself (and, crucially, you realize that you have to live with yourself).

Thinking of this sort is not a method for determining hard-and-fast eternal truths about good & evil, but is a process of doubting and testing. “We have a tendency to think of people who are in the habit of examining basic propositions and standards as destructive. We have every reason to change our minds on this subject. Doubters and skeptics are more reliable, not because doubting is wholesome or skepticism good but because such people are used to make up their own minds — to live together with themselves.”

If you do not think, you are “rootless” — at the mercy of the winds of fashion that might blow you into some new, pathological moral convention. It’s not necessarily the case that having roots means that you’re wisely-rooted, but it does mean that you have a stake in your own personality and self-imposed limits on what you are capable of doing. Without these roots, you have no limits, you are capable of anything, and your own character is a matter of indifference to you. In short: you are dangerous.

Thinking, which is to say being in dialog with yourself, is what gives you this stake in your own character — it “results in conscience as its by-product.” You don’t want to be spending your time in dialog with a monster: “If I do wrong I am condemned to live together with a wrongdoer in an unbearable intimacy.”

Well, that’s an interesting perspective, but I’m not sure I buy it. It seems to me that if you could not stand to live with yourself if you were a murderer or a crook or what have you, then you’re already most of the way to benevolence before you start “thinking.” But how do you acquire this idea that being locked in internal intimacy with a wrongdoer is so awful — especially when all you have to do to avoid it is to sink into the luxurious bliss of not-thinking?

Arne Johan Vetlesen (Evil and Human Agency, 2005) is one of those who thinks Arendt got a little carried away by her theory and by her own intellectualism. Vetlesen thinks that the feeling of right and wrong and the shame of being a wrongdoer have more to do with things like empathy and sensitivity than thinking. Adolf Eichmann may have been thoughtless, Vetlesen thinks, but he did the evil things he did not because he didn’t think but because he was astonishingly devoid of compassion.


I have no conclusion.