Why Good Is Crazy

My last post reminded me that the craziest beliefs ordinary folks endorse with a straight face are religious dogmas. And that seems an important clue to what situations break our minds. But to interpret this clue well, we need a sense for what is the key thing that “religions” have common. My last post suggested a hypothesis to me: compared to beliefs on who is dominant, impressive, or conformist, beliefs on who is “good” are the least connected to a constant reality. They and associated beliefs can thus be the most crazy.

Dominance is mostly about power via raw physical force and physical or legal resources. So it is relatively easy to discern, and we have strong incentives to avoid mistakes about it. And while prestige varies greatly by culture, the elements of prestige tend to be commonly impressive features. For example, the most popular sports vary by culture, but most sports show off a similar set of physical abilities. The most popular music genre varies by culture, but most music draws on a common set of musical abilities.

So while beliefs about the best sport or music may vary by culture, for the purpose of picking good mates or allies you can’t go too wrong by being impressed by whomever impresses folks from other cultures, and you have incentives not to make mistakes. For example, if you are mistakenly impressed by and mate with someone without real sport or music abilities, you who may end up with kids who lack those abilities, and fail to impress the next generation.

To discern who is a good conformist you do have to know something about the standards to which they conform. But if you want to associate with a conformist person, you can’t go too wrong by selecting people who are seen as conformist by their local culture. And if you mistakenly associate with someone who is less conformist than you thought, you may well suffer by being seen as non-conformist via your association with them.

Thus cultural variations in beliefs on dominance, prestige, or conformity are not huge obstacles to selecting and associating with people with desirable characteristics. That is to say, beliefs on such things tend to remain tied with strong personal incentives to important objective functional features of the world, ensuring they do not usually get very crazy.

Beliefs on goodness, however, are less tied to objective reality. Yes, beliefs on goodness can serve important functions for societies, encouraging people to do what benefits the society overall. The problem is that this isn’t functional in the same way for individuals. Each individual wants to seem to be good to others, to seem to praise others for being what is seen to be good, and to seem to approve when others praise others who seem to be good. But these are mostly pressures to go along with whatever the local cultures says is good, not to push for a concept of good that will in fact benefit society.

Thus concepts of what makes someone good are less tied to a constant reality than are concepts of what makes someone dominant, conformist, or prestigious. There may be weak slow group selection pressures that encourage cultures to see people as good who help that culture overall, but those pressures are much weaker than the pressures that encourage accurate assessment of who is dominant, conformist, or prestigious.

I suspect that our minds are built to notice that our concepts of goodness are less tied to reality, and so give such concepts more slack on that account. I also suspect that our minds also notice when other concepts are mainly tied to our concepts of goodness, and to similarly give them more slack.

For example, if you notice that your culture thinks people who act like Jesus are good, you will pay close attention to how Jesus was said to act, so you can act like that. But once you notice that the concept of Jesus mainly shows up connected to concepts of goodness, and is not much connected to more practical concepts like how to not crash your car, you will not think as critically about claims on the life or times of Jesus. After all, it doesn’t really matter to you if those are or could be true; what matters are the “morals” of the story of Jesus.

Today, a similar lack of attention to consistency or detail is probably associated with many aspects of things that are seen as good somewhat separately from if they are impressive or powerful. These may include what sorts of recycling or energy use is good for the planet, what sort of policies are good for the nation, what sort of music or art is good for your soul, and so on.

Since this analysis justified a lot of skepticism on concepts of and related to goodness, I am drawn toward a very cautious skeptical attitude in constructing and using such concepts. I want to start with the concepts where there is the least reason to doubt calling them good and well connected to reality, and want to try to go as far as I can with such concepts before adding in other less reliable concepts of good. It seems to me that giving people what they want is just about the least controversial element of good I can find, and thankfully economic analysis goes a remarkably long way with just that concept.

This analysis also suggests that, when doing policy analysis, one should spend as much time as possible doing neutral positive analysis of what is likely to happen if one does nothing, before proceeding to normative analysis of what actions would be best. This should help minimize the biases from our tendency toward wishful and good-based crazy thinking.

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  • http://twitter.com/creedofhubris Frederic Bush

    Can you explain what you mean by “neutral positive analysis”? Is it just “what is likely to happen if one does nothing” or is there more to it?

    • Robin Hanson

      “Positive” is in contrast to “normative”, about what is or could be rather than what should be. “Neutral” indicates independent of particular sides or preferences or views.

  • IMASBA

    “But these are mostly pressures to go along with whatever the local cultures says is good, not to push for a concept of good that will in fact benefit society.”

    Ah yes, morals vs. ethics.

    Of course you are aware that most religions serve primarily to unite nations under one banner (the subjects gain “answers” about the afterlife in return), so what is “moral” according to the religion coincides with what is advantageous to the ruling class.

    “what sort of policies are good for the nation, what sort of music or art is good for your soul, and so on.

    Since this analysis justified a lot of skepticism on concepts of and related to goodness, I am drawn toward a very cautious skeptical attitude in constructing and using such concepts.”

    If you can decide on what is best for the nation you can decide on what is ethical. You can’t say “well everything is relative because people don’t really act for the good of the nation in practice”, because if there is an objective measure of what is good for the nation that automatically means not everything is relative.

  • michael vassar

    As usual, I think that the evolutionary explanations are unnecessary here.
    I also think that it’s relatively easy to evaluate dominance impressiveness within a subculture, such as among theoretical physicists or CEOs, and that it’s relatively easy to identify which hand full of people are the most impressive/dominant within such a group with only moderate levels of error, but below the very top, it’s difficult to measure impressiveness outside of your own group.

    • michael vassar

      Also, people within a group have strong incentives to mislead outsiders towards thinking that their allies (and thus them) are more impressive than other members of the group.

  • Daublin

    This post quietly mixes two kinds of religious beliefs: beliefs about what is good, and beliefs about the supernatural. The beliefs that religions claim are good are mostly not very controversial. The crazy ones are in the latter category.

    The crazy beliefs are overwhelmingly things that really don’t matter to individuals. As such, they make really good signals for who is a member of the group. Different religions will have different crazy claims, so you can figure out whether you’re talking to an in person on an out person pretty quickly.

    Stepping back, I will say that I have a hard time getting anything from your posts that involve religion, because they seem grounded in deep misconceptions about how real religions operate. As a motivating example, academics love to talk about evolution and the Big Bang, but they aren’t such important issues for people who are attending a Wednesday church pot luck. For that matter, they also aren’t that important to most academics, except when they gear themselves up to bash religions.

    • Robin Hanson

      “supernatural” just means “wrong.” If we want a theory to explain which beliefs tend to be wrong, we’ll have to refer to some other category. “don’t really matter” is a start, but my proposal is a bit more refined than that.

      • http://twitter.com/srdiamond srdiamond

        “supernatural” just means “wrong.”

        No, that reduction clearly doesn’t work. Theists often call themselves supernaturalists, and materialists usually distinguish supernatural beliefs from naturalistic beliefs even when the latter are utterly irrational or completely unscientific.

      • VV

        No. Supernatural beliefs all share very specific elements and they are a very small subset of the set of conceivable wrong beliefs.

        I suggest the “Religion Explained” book for an anthropological analysis of the common elements and the differences between religions and an attempt at non-adaptive evolutionary explanation.

    • arch1

      “The beliefs that religions claim are good are mostly not very controversial.”

      Daublin, my religious scholarship is dismal but even I think I know of significant gaps between what is commonly accepted as good and what is presented as good in (e.g.) the Bible.

      On the narrow topic of murdering children, for example: I recently read in “The Moral Landscape” by Sam Harris that the Bible states, in five specifically-cited verses, that parents should kill children who talk back. Also (based now on my own meager knowledge) there is the mass murder of innocent children in Exodus (committed by, er, God) which occurs in order to get Pharaoh’s heart un-hardened on the question of letting the Jews exit Israel (said heart having been hardened, by the very same God). Oh, and then there’s the Flood.

      ..so IMHO (and perhaps in yours too) it’s not looking real good for God on the topic of murdering innocent children: Rather, His policy in this area is *hugely* misaligned with the moral principles I (and I think the vast majority of people) believe in and live by. And I think it’s hard to argue that this gap is an insignificant one.

      Though these examples touch on only one topic, and only one sacred text, they may motivate some to look more carefully before accepting the quoted assertion.

  • http://twitter.com/srdiamond srdiamond

    There may be a finite number of ways to be good—to be exact, four. (See my “The habit theory of morality, moral influence, and moral evolution”http://tinyurl.com/alsd4l6 — and the A.P. Fiske citations.) But the ways to be good conflict.

    Regarding something else:how do the concepts of prestige and dominance relate to the concept of status? Expressions, aspects, causes, or separate concepts?

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Do you even need to talk about “good” and “ought”? Tell people you aim to help them get what they want, and that should be enough to get non-crazy buy-in.

  • Norm

    You’re comparing apples and oranges. “Good” is about a set of propositions one professes in order to signal affiliation. The other examples, such as athletic ability and dominance, are personal attributes one displays to increase ones chances of being selected. They are totally different. If you want to compare apples and apples, try “character” instead of “good”. A suitable mate might have good athletic ability, good status, and good character. Good character has nothing to do with propositional beliefs. Good character is a probabilistic assessment based on past behavior that (for example), “He probably won’t beat me or cheat on me or gamble away the family psyche k, and he will sometimes do altruistic things in public as a costly signal of his dominance”

    • Norm

      “family check”, rather.

  • jcg11

    “But these are mostly pressures to go along with whatever the local cultures says is good, not to push for a concept of good that will in fact benefit society.”

    Based on your previous logic, won’t local cultures more accurately redefine the good as they discover the negative consequences of being incorrect? If their definition of the good is wildly inconsistent with what is actually beneficial for the people of that community, then they will face strong internal or external political pressures to change that definition. If so, then over time we should expect to see a convergence in what local cultures say is good and what is actually beneficial for them. This in turn would make individuals within that community more responsive to what actually is good as opposed to what people in the community erroneously tell them.

  • arch1

    “I want to start with the concepts where there is the least reason to
    doubt calling them good and well connected to reality, and want to try to go as far as I can with such concepts before adding in other less reliable concepts of good. It seems to me that giving people what they want is just about the least controversial element of good I can find,…”

    It may well be the least controversial; but why is *that* your metric?

    At the risk of over-hyping a book I just read, “The Moral Landscape” by Harris presents an alternative view on how to identify what is “…good and well connected to reality.”

    Harris’s thesis is that moral questions are the most important questions humanity faces, that these questions admit of right and wrong answers, that these answers are based on maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures, that morality is therefore a question about the state of the world and the brains of conscious creatures, and that it is therefore crucially important that morality be thought of, and pursued as, an undeveloped branch of science.

    (So, get cranking:-)

    • http://twitter.com/srdiamond srdiamond

      Haven’t read Harris but based on your summary, the problem is circularity: “well-being” is defined by moral terms.

      • arch1

        I believe Harris said somewhere in the book that the intermediate concept of morality may be excess baggage – his point is that what is important is maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures, period.

        For those who still question that there is a meaningful, objective notion of well-being, Harris provides vivid examples of two people living lives near opposite ends of the goodness spectrum. He admits up front that those who do not perceive a difference in these two persons’ degree of well-being are not going to be convinced by the arguments in his book. (Having read his examples, I find it scarcely credible that anyone not seriously unhinged could be indifferent between the two, or consider for a moment consigning a loved one to the bad life if the good one were also an option).