Doing Good ≠ Being Good

Most of us like to be associated with “idealistic” groups that claim that they are doing good, i.e., making the world better. However, this is usually not our strongest motive in choosing to associate with such groups. Instead, we more strongly want to make ourselves look good, and gain good-looking associations. Most idealistic groups quickly learn to cater to this demand by:

  • Making meetings where people can visibly show off their affiliation with the group, form ties with like-minded others, and affiliate with impressive speakers/leaders.
  • Making ladders of extra recognition, such as awards, and offices.
  • Offering training to develop and credential related skills.
  • Advocating for the world to put more value on the features that this group’s members have, and less value on other features.
  • Advocating to others to join this and related groups, via arguing the virtues of it and its members.

Of course such groups try to frame these activities in terms of making the world better. And yes, groups that really were trying to make the world better might in fact do some of these. The tipoff, however, is their relative neglect of everything else required to actually make the world better. Groups tend to be far clearer on how to tell who is good than on how exactly good individuals make the world better, on what else exactly is required, and on how they are going to manage that.

Let me give some examples:

  • Christianity presents itself as good for the world, but its main activity is meetings centered on impressive people, and at meetings most people are mostly thinking about how good or bad they are or have been. They talk a lot about what is good vs bad behavior, but are pretty thin on how more good behavior will help the world.
  • I recently talked at a conference of ecological spiritual consciousness raising folks. They had impressive speakers who celebrated features of attendees. Some presented an explicit ladder of higher consciousness, ranked famous people on it, and talked in detail about how to move to higher levels. They want a more egalitarian and ecologically sustainable world, but are fuzzy on how exactly spiritual consciousness helps there.
  • The recent movie Tomorrowland seemed on the surface to be about having hope for and working for a better tomorrow. But in fact a secret society was obsessed with finding the few best people in the world, even though it already had enough secret tech to save the world. Most superhero stories are on the surface about heros struggling to help the world against an opposing villain, but actually more about how cool and impressive it would be to have certain abilities.
  • Political disputes seem to easily get distracted by issues of who is better. Immigration becomes all about what immigrants are worthy. School becomes all about how it can makes you better and who deserves a chance to get better. Charity debates become ways to show who has enough empathy, or enough toughness. How to promote innovation quickly becomes celebrating particular innovators.
  • When discussing how to get better predictions, there is far more interest in finding correlates of who personally is a super-forecaster, than in finding better institutions like prediction markets to promote good predictions. Similarly for rationality, there is far more interest in how to spot rational folks, and in rationality training, than in institutions to promote rationality.

Look, yes the world is full of people, and yes the qualities of those people make some different to world outcomes. But a great many other things also matter for outcomes. So if you were really focused on doing good, you’d pay lots of attention to things other than being good. Doing good isn’t just being good, not by a long shot.

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  • Zorro

    Can you find examples of major groups that do show signs of being genuinely about doing good?

    • John_Maxwell_IV

      The effective altruist movement is the obvious candidate: http://www.effectivealtruism.org/

      • Anon

        The Effective Altruism movement can’t even define what “doing good” means. There was a thread on goal definitions and it was dominated by vague slogans (“sustainably flourishing world”) or by self-referential metrics (“GWWC members”).

        That they are not even capable of defining specific, non-self-referential goals is not a sign for the effectiveness of EA (unless I overlooked something).

        I predict that any goal definition that is not a meaningless slogan, not trivial and not self-referential will divide the movement until it no longer is one.

      • John_Maxwell_IV

        The EA movement has had no pithy slogan type goal thus far and this doesn’t seem to have caused substantial problems. Within the movement, there are a variety of notions of what it means to do good, with broad agreement on a few principles: http://www.benkuhn.net/ea-reading#on-thinking-like-an-effective-altruist

        Insofar as there is any point of agreement, it seems EAs think that we should maintain a spirit of inquiry regarding this (and other topics): http://effective-altruism.com/ea/9s/effective_altruism_is_a_question_not_an_ideology/

      • Paul Crowley

        Is there some way we can formalise and bet on your prediction here?

      • Anon

        No, I’m not that serious about my epistemic state. It’s just a subjective observation from the outside.

      • IMASBA

        “The Effective Altruism movement can’t even define what “doing good” means.”

        Isn’t that simply because different people have different ideas about what “doing good” means? It seems like a problem that cannot be solved to everyone’s satisfaction.

      • Anon

        Sure. But then you have a movement where people actually have different goals from each other. Not necessarily conflicting, but still. This may well turn out to be a limiting factor of EA’s future.

      • Anon

        By the way, I have one to offer, but of course it will be controversial:

        “Achieve and maintain a world state where 10 billion people are online, don’t have to work more than 30 hours per week on average, have a discretionary spending of at least $5 PPP per day each, and have low enough levels of pain and illness that no more than 1% of them would prefer not to be conscious at any given time.”

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        Are there any new results in Effective Altruism? Results not well known when the movement started?

      • John_Maxwell_IV

        What’s meant by “result” in this context? Would Givewell’s charity analyses and blog posts count? There’s a decently long list of blogs & discussion forums that talk about effective altruism either some of the time or all of the time.

        If you are asking whether people use math to analyze effective altruism, the answer seems to be at least some of the time, e.g. these blog posts off the top of my head:

        http://lesswrong.com/lw/745/why_we_cant_take_expected_value_estimates/

        http://lesswrong.com/lw/gzq/bayesian_adjustment_does_not_defeat_existential/

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        I meant a new insight about how to actually be effective.

      • John_Maxwell_IV

        Maybe some of CFAR’s stuff then? I’m still not sure what you’re getting at.

      • John_Maxwell_IV

        In a world where the EA movement was actually about doing good, what’s a specific “result” it would seek to produce?

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Of course. Isn’t this generally understood? To call someone a “do gooder” is usually denigration. Do gooders are correctly viewed as closet narcissists.

    • oldoddjobs

      I think people understand about it about others but not themselves. But there’s the rub – can the bird’s eye view of oneself be achieved and is there actually any point in trying?

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    Thanks for writing this; I think spreading this metameme has the potential to have all sorts of positive knock-on effects. I think I might even refer to it as doing good vs looking good, to make the point even more clear and forceful.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      doing good vs looking good

      If you are trying to look good, it is often important not to look like you’re trying to look good. This may lead you to document the effects of your good deeds. But does any serious observer fail no realize that one who documents his good deeds is interested in looking good?

      • John_Maxwell_IV

        It’s often quite useful for people to try to look good: https://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/pretend-to-really-really-try/

        The problem comes when looking good diverges too far from doing good. Humans are going to look good no matter what, so our goal should be to promote norms that make it so doing good makes you look good and looking good means you are doing good (or at least not doing active harm, e.g. promoting misinformation in order to look like a nice person–see previous example).

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        It’s embarassing that rather smart people would express such juvenile psychobabble.

        Enhancing human welfare isn’t reducible to identifying what’s good and getting a few people to do more of it.

        Read some history or something.

      • John_Maxwell_IV

        “It’s embarassing that rather smart people would express such juvenile psychobabble.”

        DH2, “responding to tone”. Instead of saying anything of substance, you’re dismissing stuff as “juvenile psychobabble”: http://www.paulgraham.com/disagree.html

        “Enhancing human welfare isn’t reducible to identifying what’s good and getting a few people to do more of it.”

        DH3, “contradiction”. Flat statement of an opposing position without any supporting evidence.

        If you want to cite *specific* supporting evidence (e.g. specific historical evidence that suggests “identifying what’s good and getting people to do more of it” is a bad strategy), I’m all ears.

  • chaosmosis

    “Similarly for rationality, there is far more interest in how to spot rational folks, and in rationality training, than in institutions to promote rationality.”

    Why don’t you consider rationality training to fall under the category of “institutions to promote rationality”?

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      Speaking for myself, of course: “Rationalists” don’t consider societal rationality. Rather, they pursue their “rationalist” objectives as a zero sum game: rationality is about “winning.”

  • Matt M

    Almost every charity worker / activist would do more good in the world by maximising their income in the private sector and giving it all to charity instead. For a lot of my university contemporaries, that would mean becoming an investment banker, working 100 hours a week, and living like a monk in a London basement. That way, they could donate enough to support five charity workers to replace themselves. I conclude that they are in charity work for themselves to a large degree.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      What do you conclude from the fact that no one does what you would recommend for true altruism?

      I think there are two main positions in this argument (both wrong):

      1. The self-congratulatory: Do-gooding changes its qualitative character merely by becoming more methodological and documenting the superficial effects of their good deeds.

      2. The cynical: Humans are complete egoists, from whom all behavior is self-regarding.

      In my view, Haidt pretty much got the altruism-egoism thing right (empirically if not theoretically [ http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/2013/03/1401-habit-theory-of-morality-moral.html ]): humans are 90% chimp and 10% bee.

      Humans are no doubt primarily egoists. For that reason, it is of some importance to distinguish genuine selflessness (manifesting rarely) and garden-variety posturing.

      When the bee tendencies are elicited in a human (with both the best and the worst likely consequences), this is connected with causes that truly can move people. This is never the creation of abstract “good”—which is an obvious attempt to appease a guilty conscience or the manifestation of Stage 3 Kohlbergian moral development.

      This is why no one ever follows your advice to altruists. But people have made comparable sacrifices for religion or political causes, etc. The closest example I can think for a famous person who sacrificed a lot of his life to making money for a cause was Friedrich Engels.

      • Matt M

        Well, no one that I know of does it. Genuine altruists may follow the Christian requirement to secrecy in charity.

        Honestly, I don’t much care if people publicise this behaviour. It may have positive peer effects. I’m just pointing out that the means used – direct charity work – is often not the best way to meet the stated goal – “to help poor people”. So I conclude that the stated goal is not the true one.

      • IMASBA

        Lots of rebel/terrorist/criminal organizations have quasi-members (they’re not official members because they have to avoid being flagged by the authorities, but key members know who they are) whose purpose is to make as much money as possible for the cause. Communist countries did (North Korea still does) have citizens working abroad to acquire foreign currencies for the state (to be used in international trade or to sustain spies on foreign soil). This isn’t always altruistically motivated; some are forced, some get to keep a cut, but it often is.

        Many people might do more good when outsourcing their charity but I doubt that’s true of the majority of people: the effectiveness of this outsourcing is severely constrained by the supply of people with better relevant skills than you willing to work for a gross salary that’s lower than the net salary you would receive for working harder/longer and who are not already employed with better conditions.

    • IMASBA

      Are you sure adding more investment bankers to the world won’t also do harm, or do you mean these people should aim to displace less-charitable people from high-income positions so that a greater proportion of GDP goes to charitable people meaning a greater proportion of GDP will go to GDP?

      • Matt M

        The second. Ish. Displacement is probably not the right way to think about it. Someone who is charitably inclined should pursue their comparative advantage in production, and then trade it to get the outcomes they want – same as anything else. If I want more turkey dinners, I don’t start a turkey farm. If I want more sculptures, I don’t buy a chisel. And if I want more charity, I don’t do it myself.

        If I joined a charity full time, they might pay me 20k. Suppose I produce 25k of “charity value”. I would have been better off staying in my job and donating 6k of income to that charity – they get 6k for free, instead of 25k at a cost of 20k. Everyone is better off, because I did what I was productive at.

      • IMASBA

        *meaning a greater proportion of GDP will go to charity

  • Julia Galef

    I think the Effective Altruist movement strongly agrees with the claim “Most charity is about seeming good, not about doing good,” and that this realization was in fact one of the main motivators for EA.

    At the same time, EA recognizes that we’re never going to get rid of the human desire to feel/seem good. So instead they’re trying to create community norms in which you get to feel/seem good by *actually donating effectively to charity* (i.e., by doing good).

    This seems pretty great to me, overall.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      I find it dubious that charity is “good,” no matter how effective on its own terms. Charity has been a substantial obstacle to society’s taking charge of its responsibilities.

      Of course we disagree on that. But you read Hanson with insufficient care. He doesn’t speak (tritely) of the difference between doing good and seeming good but between being good and doing good.

      You don’t want merely to “look good.” You want to be good. I grant you that, as Hanson does implicitly. But being good isn’t the same as doing good. The proof is you have no concern with solving actual social problems as long as you can document your contributions.

      It is a grave error to think it doesn’t matter what a person’s motivations are. [Perhaps spreading this misinformation is the greatest disservice.]

    • Silent Cal

      Extended version of this argument from sometime-OB-blogger Katja Grace: https://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/pretend-to-really-really-try/

      I’d argue that this is actually how all human civilization works; that is, how an entire species executing cynical gene-selfish adaptations ends up with positive average externality per individual.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        From Katja Grace:

        I claim Effective Altruism should not shy away from pretending to try. It should strive to pretend to really try more convincingly, rather than striving to really try.

        I claim that the cultural harm in encouraging pretense is a harm outweighing the good deeds of EA. [Only a blind fanatic could make a comment like that quoted above. It reminds me of something out of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils.]

        The notion that motives don’t matter is a dangerous cultural meme. No doubt maintaining appearances will always play a role in human behavior, but to think that strategies of societal improvement can be left to pretension threatens to rob our culture of its very ability to detect (or perhaps care about) sham.

      • Silent Cal

        Heh, Dostoyevsky was parodying essentially the rationalist movement of his day, so the resemblance isn’t too shocking.

        But I’m not sure your picture of the kind of pretense being advocated is accurate. The idea as I see it is that as you make your concrete near-mode decisions you do your earnest best to do the best thing for the world, and when you step back and look at it in far mode you acknowledge that that near-mode process is biased as hell no matter what you do but you can at least try to control which way the biases pull. I guess there’s the issue that by acknowledging that you can’t eliminate bias you remove some motivation to combat it… is that your issue?

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        The similarity to Dostoyevsky’s rationalists is that they employ a narrow utilitarianism, disregarding the ethical and practical consequences of that very narrowness.

        The idea as I see it is that as you make your concrete near-mode decisions you do your earnest best to do the best thing for the world…

        I think mistaken the idea that we do our earnest best to do best for the world in near-mode. What genuine moral altruism we have comes from far-mode. We rationalize our near-mode deceptions in far-mode ideology, but much hypocrisy is barely below the surface (if that) in near-mode.

        A science-fiction novel (can’t recall the title) amusingly illustrated this point. The mentor genius tells his protege (these are heroes, not villains) that when he, too, is rich, he should be sure to make generous contributions to charity. Otherwise, people will think he’s a selfish bastard. That’s a conscious (or preconscious), near-mode, motivation.

        My problem with EA-style rationalism is that it promotes hypocrisy. It says it’s desirable that you’re trying your damnest to create an impression. You should do it more, if it supports the cause–that is, if you’re the sort of person whose hypocrisy adds up to societal good.

        It’s a movement that devalues sincerity–cynical in the truly pejorative sense.

      • Silent Cal

        Sorry, what I wrote was syntactically unclear. I didn’t mean that near-mode is an optimal state for doing what’s best for the world, but rather that doing what’s best for the world while in near-mode is a goal we should pursue (despite its very high difficulty). But the idea we’re discussing is a trick, motivated by far-mode altruism, to mostly give near-mode the right selfish incentives.

        The way I read it, Effective Altruism is sincere in far-mode. You become an Effective Altruist because in far-mode you want to do good.

        I’m not sure what your sincerity program would look like. If we start rejecting goals of creating appearances, we’ll probably be left with naked egoism, and we might even lose a lot of prudence as well (do I actually care about my distant-future finances, or do I just want to appear responsible?).

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        But the idea we’re discussing is a trick, motivated by far-mode altruism, to mostly give near-mode the right selfish incentives.

        Let me first say that I disagree that “you become an EA because in far-mode you want to do good.” Folks become EA for near-mode reasons too (which EA also encourages). But I take it this would still be to misunderstand you. I take the blockquoted comment as the essence of your point.
        It’s the point of contention: I’m against fooling oneself (to the meager degree it can be avoided). Let me try a concrete tack, at the risk of overpersonalizing. What does one do when one discovers that one’s motives for charitable endeavor are insincere? My answer: one should view it as a character defect. The EA answer: one should embrace it. The different answers don’t have clearly different immediate implications. [I don’t say (as does the Neoreactionary commenter) ‘adopt a self-regarding ethic.’ Motivion isn’t unequivocal.]

        My contention is that the attitude a movement takes toward such discoveries will have long-term effects on its participants’ ethics. [Readers more familiar than I with EAs can evaluate empirically.] I’d predict an EA culture increasingly driven by status-seeking.

      • Silent Cal

        Does the use of a commitment aid like Beeminder count as ‘fooling oneself’? This is another way of creating near-mode incentives that align with a far-mode goal. Do you worry that Beeminder users will lose the ability to genuinely care about long-term goals as they embrace short-term loss aversion as primary motivation?

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Actually, I have worried about just that (in a Comment somewhere). But let me emphasize that I don’t question that humans have to compromise. I don’t propose to deny folks their crutches, or to promote self-denial.

        The analogy to EA would be to promote Beeminder as the ideal way to work (or even as remotely close to it). At the least, it shows one’s labor is very alienated. If I had to use such a device, it would be with full awareness of its self-damaging consequences.

      • Silent Cal

        +1 for consistency, then!

        But I think the analogy is broken by the relatively high availability of self-actualizing work. If it were firmly established that basically no human can work for more than a few months on intrinsic motivation, I’d focus on ways to improve external motivation.

        Is our disagreement that you think intrinsically-motivated altruism is attainable enough to be worth striving for? I guess my thought is that under enough scrutiny whatever motivation you thought was intrinsically altruistic will *at best* turn out to be a desire to think of oneself as good.

        Actually, the analogy to work suggests to me that alignment of selfish and idealistic motives might have a positive role in preserving the latter. If you wanted to strengthen your work ethic, would you rather start a small business or join a commune?

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        I think I have slightly higher expectations from altruism than you, but our main difference is that I have far lower expectations of hypocrisy. Hypocritical motives are fine for trivial matters (say, table manners). But I think it’s a rationalist fantasy to design major social coordinations on a hypocritical foundation. Effective social coordination is too hard for that approach. Not only is it undermining of the fundamental ethical imperative to honesty (extinguishing the stigma attaching to hypocrisy), but it is ineffectual and misleading. [Which is to say, for example, that you can’t rely on a politician like Hillary Clinton to remake herself along new ideological lines and then to be compelled by the force of commitment to execute policy accordingly.]

        I think it clear that consistency between abstract and concrete thinking strengthens commitments. But their alignment by hypocritical means undermines them. The difference between the desire to think oneself good and the desire to please others is far from trivial. [It’s one of the (avoidable) dangers of Robin’s approach that the difference might be minimized.]

        Charity is inherently one of the most hypocritical institutions; I wouldn’t choose it as a vehicle for societal improvement.

      • Silent Cal

        > But I think it’s a rationalist fantasy to design major social coordinations on a hypocritical foundation.

        What do you think the foundations of all our major social coordination are? Surely politics, when not self-interested, is just as hypocritical as charity.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        The foundation of our major social coordinations is self interest weakly saturated with altruism. Hypocrisy didn’t evolve to further societal interests; it evolved out of the striving of individuals to avoid social responsibilities. (That doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be turned to different uses, but it makes it less likely.)

        Politics is less hypocritical than charity when the central element of self-interest (extended to the interests of others similarly situated and to allies) is frankly admitted. The self-interest of the voter (which isn’t really egoism because it includes the interest of some disparate others) is potentially transparent in political practice, whereas charity depends almost completely on hypocrisy.

  • Charles

    I believe most groups really are trying to do good, and the problem is that they don’t realize what important things they’re failing to do. The problem is a lack of skepticism and self-scrutiny, but it’s too far to say “they aren’t really trying to do good.” The members of these groups genuinely do care about making a positive impact. The more introspective members do know that they are acting out of self-interest too, but they think this can jive with benevolent intentions.

    I think denigrating these groups as cynical, woefully naive, or narcissistic is hasty and unhelpful. The people are not pure, and those that claim to be are full of shit, but most of them do have a sincere desire to do good. It would be better to recommend how they could be more effective in a way that doesn’t ignore their self-identity and emotions (such as the commenter who argues that they should go be ascetic investment bankers). Of course these groups are not full of perfect people and are not purely virtuous, but they are well-intentioned, generally helpful (I’d argue), and may be interested in self-improvement if people had helpful explanations of problems and suggestions of improvements. Simply impugning their intentions looks to me more like a way to feel superior to people who are trying (imperfectly) to work for the betterment of others rather than pursue their own status boosting. Of course their status and social relationships and ego matter, but so do their beliefs and moral commitments and earnestness do too. You can be aware of the former without dismissing the latter.

  • Warg Franklin

    A big problem with rationalists and effective altruists is that they notice this hypocrisy, that charity isn’t really about doing good, but conclude not that their professed verbal/social “morality” standards are wrong, but that the bedrock moral intuition that actually drives their behaviour is wrong. They then set their verbal “morality” against their true character and of course have all kinds of trouble from the contradictions that arise from that. This is a profoundly poisonous and anti-human approach, in my opinion. When they conflict, you should have loyalty to your true character, not the mask you wear for social reasons.

    Now obviously some of us do care in that weird not-quite-instrumental-to-selfish-concerns way about things like the glorious future of mankind, doing good work at our jobs, living the virtuous life according to our beliefs, and so on. But we have to recognize that this stuff is intended to heuristically supplement our more direct selfishness in achieving the usual selfish ends. If we allow this “ideological” morality to come in conflict with the real cold hard selfish calculus, we’re going to have a bad time of it, spiritually and in terms of actually achieving anything.

    I much favour the approach of bringing the social and inherent moralities into alignment. You believe that a man should do good work? Do it, and get paid for it. You believe that there is a such thing as a virtuous life? Live it in such a way that you have many happy healthy children with good values. You believe that there are major challenges facing our civilization, or that massive humanitarian interventions are possible? Then you should be able to do it and capture a substantial fraction of that value for yourself. That is, make sure your work is justifiable selfishly as well as ideologically.

    Further, for-profit do-gooding in this way connects you to reality in a way that pure ideology just can’t. You think sending money overseas to help poor folks live better lives is helpful? Well if you’re not directly profiting from it, you’ll have to profit from something else (looking good, perhaps), and if you’re profiting from something else, your selfish subconscious motivational processes that are ultimately what drive you have no real reason to care what happens to those poor folks, so you’ll neglect them and optimize for local status. On the other hand, if the money is an *investment*, or you are sending a product for *sale*, then your outcome is tied to their outcome and your selfish monkey brain says “ah, we better pay attention and make this actually work” and suddenly you are working with the subconscious 90% of your brain instead of against it.

    You might protest that some good is not doable at profit, which is technically true, but until proven otherwise, my suspicion is that this is just a convenient excuse to avoid the hard work of having to actually do good instead of just pretending to. I think the only feasible method for doing real good is structuring it so you can do it at a profit, and I find that when I commit myself to this, a lot more possible do-gooding looks possibly profitable than the initial reaction against it would suggest. Sure, sometimes you have to go up a meta level or two (Can’t trade for profit because warlords? Provide political stability in which trading can happen for profit. That’s too hard? Welcome to reality, where actually doing stuff is harder than pretending to do stuff.), but that’s probably the real do-gooder approach anyway.

    This is why Neoreaction has chosen to operate for-profit: if we think we have knowledge that is massively important to the future of human civilization, the best way to proceed is to solve those problems for real so that we actually generate real value, and then take a cut for ourselves.

    • Anon

      Sounds great, but there is nothing in the nature of the universe that makes this true for all important problems. In an uncaring universe without intelligent design of game theory and tradeoffs, would it just be an amazing coincidence if the enlightened egoism of individuals would also be best overall, for a conceivable set of non-selfish values?

      Imagine a solvable problem exists where x% of humans at a time need to violate y% of their (enlightened) self-interest (without getting the full payoff for their cost, all factors considered). If they do, the problem gets solved and a considerably greater altruistic value is generated. If they don’t, the problem doesn’t get solved, and the altruistic potential is lost.

      What reason do you have to believe that the universe can never throw such problems at us? Perhaps we would do the “look good, rather than do good” egoism, but this may well mean that the world in general is far worse off.

      • http://thefutureprimaeval.net/ Warg Franklin

        I’m not saying selfishness is what best achieves any arbitrary set of values. I’m first and foremost saying you are in fact selfish and should therefore act as such.

        Secondarily the claim is that because you are mostly selfish, your ideological commitments are at best dressing on that. So the heuristic is that you should not let your ideological commitments override selfishness. Align them instead.

        Third, to the extent you do care to some extent about your ideological commitments, your selfish motivations are more powerful and more important, so getting your selfish motivations on side for any ideological action is the best way to achieve your ideological goals. (This maximizes overall selfish+ideological utility)

        There are of course many things the universe can throw at us that bring our ideological and selfish concerns into conflict. You should probably change your ideology in this case.

      • Anon

        There are some points worth steelmanning here, but I’m now primarily left wondering why it would be in your self-interest to tell strangers on the internet that they should be more selfish.

      • Ken Arromdee

        He likely just enjoys making points on the Internet, which is not inconsistent with those points being correct. It’s in his self-interest to do things he enjoys.

      • http://thefutureprimaeval.net/ Warg Franklin

        1. We all sharpen our ideas by debate. I gain from exposing my ideas to new spheres and critiques.

        2. This crowd has lots of smart people I’d like to collaborate with more. Stating my case and philosophical principles publicly intrigues the right people for further useful conversation and collaboration.

        3. What Ken said.

        4. Ya’ll weren’t going to do anything for me anyways because altruism isn’t real, so I lose nothing by convincing you to be explicitly selfish.

      • anon

        good response. would upvote.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        I’m first and foremost saying you are in fact selfish and should therefore act as such.

        That seems a non sequitur.

        Moreover, if we are in fact selfish, then it’s hard to see how ideological commitments could override egoism: if we’re ideologically committed, it’s because being an ideologue is to our selfish advantage. (For example, it may be necessary to consciously (try to) restrain one’s selfishness for the sake of ideals if one is to gather all the virtuous masking effects of following an ideology.)

        [In short, your theory would have us acting selfishly except in our conscious decision to try to act (more) selflessly. Implausible, if not incoherent.]

      • http://thefutureprimaeval.net/ Warg Franklin

        >if we are in fact selfish, then it’s hard to see how ideological commitments could override egoism: if we’re ideologically committed, it’s because being an ideologue is to our selfish advantage.

        Yes ideology is ultimately a tool of the base selfishness, but it acts with considerable autonomy and is not always automatically consistent with the base selfishness. However, it is still derived and subordinate, so contradictions between enlightened self interest and ideology should not exist unless something is wrong. That is, ideology is a map of the territory of the social implications of selfish motivation. Maps should usually match territories.

        So ideological commitments can, in a state of confusion, come into conflict with seflishness, and you can attempt to resolve that contradiction in favor of ideology, as the effective altruists do, but then you’re just denying reality and pushing the contradiction deeper, and you’re going to have a bad time where in the best case the ideology becomes a low-cost selfish status game the community plays amongst themselves, and in the more likely case, incurs a considerable cost on its victims.

        >If I can be cynical…

        If you all privately understand that Effective Altruism is a sham played for status and holiness points among your peers, please do carry on fully dressed in your masks of pretend altruism. However I think many EAs are sincere, and it is them that I invite to consider whether their declared ideology is really a realistic model of or standard for their motivations. I claim that it is not, and that they would be better off acknowledging this and acting accordingly.

        Y’all seem to like to question my motivations, so let me explain why I want to help EAs out of their condition: helping people is an honest investment in a productive friendship. EAs are generally solid and dedicated people who would make good allies, so I feel compelled to help them.

        And excuse me for getting all John Galt on you, but I’m willing to be open about my motivations because rational, honest, and self-interested interactions are, uniquely among possible forms of interaction, improved by transparency.

      • Anon

        Now I think I was steelmanning you too much in my head.

        >That is, ideology is a map of the territory of the social implications of selfish motivation.

        This seems flat-out wrong to me. Some of the underlying emotions may have evolved for selfish social gain (and kin selection), but the complex modern memescape of ideology is in no way a mere map to the territory of selfish strategizing.

        >If you all privately understand that Effective Altruism is a sham played for status and holiness points among your peers, please do carry on fully dressed in your masks of pretend altruism.

        Some people have donated thousands of dollars to charity with no expectation of gaining an equivalent advantage. If you start calling every emotional incentive, from guilt to status to reputation to empathy to fuzzies “a sham”, then your distinction between self-interest and altruism becomes worthless (actually worse than that, harmfully confusing).

        Re John Galt: The Randian-type rationalists are often the worst rationalizers, with Ayn Rand one of the worst among them.

      • http://thefutureprimaeval.net/ Warg Franklin

        >Now I think I was steelmanning you too much in my head.

        Gee, thanks. Fortunately, some of the other readers here are capable of figuring out what I’m getting at through my admittedly disorganized arguments.

        >Some of the underlying emotions may have evolved for selfish social gain (and kin selection), but the complex modern memescape of ideology is in no way a mere map to the territory of selfish strategizing.

        It is helpful to resolve contradictions in motivation. My claim that ideology is a map is partially a normative claim, that it is helpful to think of it as such. Apologies for not making that clear.

        On subjects like this, the distinction between descriptive, normative, innate, and received gets rather blurry. It is notoriously difficult to untangle this stuff.

        >Some people have donated thousands of dollars to charity with no expectation of gaining an equivalent advantage.

        Myself included. I’ve been through the whole earn-to-give thing and I know the psychology. But in retrospect I do notice that I paid more attention to how those donations made me look and what kind of person it made me than to how it actually affected the situation on the ground. I notice that the selfish motivations tend to hijack the “altruistic” actions when one doesn’t directly have skin in the game. I notice other people (ie RH in the OP) reporting similar conflicts, and people behaving consistently with my model.

        I’m not calling all non-selfish motivations “shams”. Read what I wrote again. It was in response to the claim that I’m asking people to take off their masks and be open about their private selfish motivations. What I’m calling a sham is if people actually were explicitly pretending to be altruistic while knowing privately that it’s not real. Note that immediately after this, I (conservatively) note that this is not true for many EAs. Like I said, almost everybody is sincere. That doesn’t mean they are fully internally consistent, though, or that their actions reflect their actual extrapolated desires.

        I used to be an altruist, and I don’t know what verbal arguments actually work to correct that condition, but I basically realized that altruism in some important sense isn’t real for most people, and reflecting on my own motivations, it wasn’t real for me either.

        >The Randian-type rationalists are often the worst rationalizers, with Ayn Rand one of the worst among them.

        Therefore all their conclusions are wrong? I’m no objectivist, but let’s give them credit for the advancements they did make, or at least consider that they might have got some things right.

      • Anon

        >But in retrospect I do notice that I paid more attention to how those donations made me look and what kind of person it made me than to how it actually affected the situation on the ground.

        This is to be expected, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t make the situation on the ground better. If we can use the desire to look good to actually make the world better, then that is a good outcome. Of course, for that there needs to be a norm that contributing to align the two is good, while the opposite is bad (and should make you look bad). In that case, you’re going in the wrong direction by trying to create a norm that no one should care.

        I think the best part about egoism and hypocracy are that they limit how much damage bad ideologies can cause. Also if we are being okay with being mostly self-interested, and honest about this part of human nature, we may be more productive and have better political support for better incentive design. And perhaps the world is so broken that we should just run it in the ground with selfish extraction, and that is actually better overall. But that seems rather pessimistic.

      • http://thefutureprimaeval.net/ Warg Franklin

        >If we can use the desire to look good to actually make the world better, then that is a good outcome.

        Sure. But what system of accountability actually causes people to do that? Good things don’t happen by magic, they happen because people make them so. And people put in enough work to make something so when their personal success is tied to a good outcome.

        EA is better (for altruistic values of “better”) than previous charity, but I’m not convinced at this point that it’s even as good as, say, Silicon Valley startup culture. SV startup culture produces billions in actual verifiable value. EA helps a few poor folk overseas to avoid malaria or whatever. Which one is better? Which one actually matters?

        >I think the best part about egoism and hypocracy are that they limit how much damage bad ideologies can cause.

        Do you think this is asymmetric such that they don’t also limit good?

        >And perhaps the world is so broken that we should just run it in the ground with selfish extraction, and that is actually better overall.

        I’m not sure what you are getting at. The world as it stands is generally uplifted by selfish action.

      • Anon

        >SV startup culture produces billions in actual verifiable value. EA helps a few poor folk overseas to avoid malaria or whatever.

        I think your framing is deceptive because you compare billions of value with a few people who avoid malaria. But the intellectually honest comparison is sensitive to cost. If investing in tech stock long-term is a more effective altruism than donating malaria nets, then this is what EA should converge on. Hanson has made arguments of this sort, but there are reasonable caveats. (I personally would not donate to AMF at this point)

        >Do you think this is asymmetric such that they don’t also limit good?

        Not generally, but perhaps in some circumstances. I think there are some identifiable classes of people who could do the world a favor if they were more hypocritical and egoistic (compared to what they are doing).

        >The world as it stands is generally uplifted by selfish action.

        That is very dependent on context. A world of selfish actors may fail some coordination tasks that might be hard, but within scope of a somewhat-altruistic intelligent species. It is also possible that even economic growth is harmful, if it relies on or otherwise causes large numbers of sentient victims to suffer for minor efficiency gains. It is conceivable that this is a long-term attractor, but avoidable with coordinated moderate altruism. I think a self-reinforcing effect is that moderate altruistic coordination can have a huge memetic know-on effect on the distribution of reputational and legal incentives for the mass of mostly-selfish actors.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Yes ideology is ultimately a tool of the base selfishness, but it acts with considerable autonomy and is not always automatically consistent with the base selfishness

        What allows it to act with such autonomy? The evol. psych. explanation is that somewhat autonomous ideals advance egoistic interests. Then, you can’t necessarily appeal to self-interest to separate folks from EA. Do you have an alternate explanation for “confusion’s” prevalence?

        If you all privately understand that Effective Altruism is a sham played
        for status and holiness points among your peers, please do carry on
        fully dressed in your masks of pretend altruism.

        I’m not one of them, but I think they’re clear on the subject. [See my quote of Katja Grace or her whole piece.]

    • Anthony Mark Mercuri

      I don’t think selfishness works in the way you describe, at all levels of attainment. I think that the further away from basic life-preserving requirements you go, the more wiggle-room you have against self-interest in order to be altruistic. For instance, it’s very hard to not be selfish about wanting food or love. But it’s much easier to forego that expensive car you want.

      I think perhaps the hindrance to this working out in reality is that people conflate the *actually less-important things* (like the expensive car) with some more basic requirements (like love or food): “If I don’t have this fancy car, my wife won’t respect me because status is very important to her, and she’ll leave me and I won’t have love”, which is obviously an illusion which can be dispelled by all parties involved (i.e. the wife as well) gaining perspective.

  • IMASBA

    This phenomenon is easily explained in the case of some major religions. In christianity and islam there are much more grave penalties to being “bad” in some small manner than to being incredibly lazy in doing “good”. This is of course a result of them being instruments for keeping farmer-era populations toeing to the rulers’ line. Mainstream hinduism in modern India seems to be like that too.

    I wholeheartedly subscribe to Robin’s assertions on this topic. I can think of more examples: welfare states spending colossal amounts on counselors and the like for individuals in trouble while it would be much cheaper to just hand out money and the system of “care” of people with physical or minor mental deviations who get treated like children, not even getting a chance to show some ambition and being kept away from physical intimacy (even the paid for variant). In these cases a lot of seemingly “caring” behavior is displayed but it’s doing very little actual good, especially relative to the resources spent.

    • Meegs34

      Well the award for being good is eternal life in paradise. The penalty is hell. Plus, you can get forgiven for any sin. I think it’s biased to forgiveness and doing good, if anything.

      Christianity also makes clear that the point is not to receive earthly riches and glory.

      I like Robin’s overall point, but not sure I can square it with Christianity as I understand it. I think it’s pretty self-evident how people being and doing good while avoiding doing bad makes the world a better place.

      • IMASBA

        “Well the award for being good is eternal life in paradise. The penalty is hell.”

        Right, what you do in your own insignificant private life seems to be a bigger deal than choosing not to give away 99.9 out of your $100 million to improve the world.

        “I think it’s biased to forgiveness and doing good, if anything.”

        Nobody’s ever been stoned or flogged for not trying as hard as they could to improve the world.

      • Meegs34

        Hmm, ok, but part of being a good Christian is charity and giving away what you have. You don’t get stoned for not doing it, exactly, but you get encouraged to do it at pretty much every “meeting” that Robin mentioned.

        Why are our private lives insignificant? If we all decide to, say, avoid criminal activity, wouldn’t that make the world a much better place? Isn’t a huge part of our problems cultural?

        Sure, we won’t make technological advances or make political or economic reforms, but those aren’t the only frontiers.

      • IMASBA

        “Why are our private lives insignificant? If we all decide to, say, avoid criminal activity, wouldn’t that make the world a much better place?”

        Yes, but major religions put the proportions completely out of whack, it should be easier to be absolved of sins through volunteering at a homeless shelter than through confession or other rituals, but it’s not. Encouragement for doing good is weak and there is no punishment for not doing good while the punishment for being bad is infinite and the reward for not being bad (even if it is through passivity) is infinite as well. This fits with their purpose of being highly accessible and enforcing the morality of some farmer-era ruling elite (and I really mean morality, not ethics).

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        I think it’s pretty self-evident how people being and doing good while avoiding doing bad makes the world a better place.

        Hanson answers this. Prominently, in fact:

        “Look, yes the world is full of people, and yes the qualities of those people make some different to world outcomes. But a great many other things also matter for outcomes. So if you were really focused on doing good, you’d pay lots of attention to things other than being good.”

    • Anthony Mark Mercuri

      Could you expand on the example you gave in your second paragraph? What countries, institutions, and mental and physical conditions are you talking about? Could you link me some more in-depth resources on the specific examples you’re thinking of?

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  • ThaomasH

    “Christianity presents itself as good for the world, but its main activity is meetings centered on impressive people, and at meetings most people are mostly thinking about how good or bad they are or have been. They talk a lot about what is good vs bad behavior, but are pretty thin on how more good behavior will help the world.”

    Robin has not been to Mass in a long time. 🙂

  • http://rasmusen.org/ Eric Rasmusen

    “They talk a lot about what is good vs bad behavior, but are pretty thin on how more good behavior will help the world.”

    To be sure, the Christian idea is to serve God rather than one’s fellow man, but this works out well for the fellow men too. Is it really necessary to talk about how being faithful to your wife, being less selfish, paying attention to how your children are doing, being brave about denouncing evil, not being caught up in your own status-seeking and consumption, etc. are good for other people?

    • stevesailer

      Right. I’ve heard plenty of sermons over the years about how specific good behavior will help the world.

    • http://www.propertarianism.com Curt Doolittle

      Eric,

      (ruminating)

      The Christian idea is to create high trust by extending kinship ‘love’ to non-kin, by ignoring our animal impulses evolved for status competition and accumulation, thereby changing reducing the friction of familialism, clanishness and tribalism.

      This behavior is necessary for the development of an advanced economy. And it separates the west and japan from the rest.

      It is also (probably) true that westerners are less genetically biased against outsiders (due to more circumpolar hunter-gatherer evolutionary pressures) and less aggressive (lower testosterone) and more able to take advantage of it (higher average verbal IQ).

      But all that means is that westerners are fertile genetic ground for extension of kinship love to non-kin.

      The church outlawing cousin marriage in order to break up the great families was equally influential.

      So it is one thing to acknowledge the central subtle principle of Christianity, and to grasp its dramatic economic and political benefits, and quite another to conflate the dogma, rules and justifications as other than primitive law.

      Cheers

      Curt Doolittle
      The Propertarian Institute
      Kiev, Ukraine

  • wm13

    So how do we apply these analytic principles to websites written by libertarianish professors who think they are smarter than everyone else? That would be an interesting post. For instance, this post purports to interpret the behavior of others, but it never explains why sound interpretation of a libertarianish, intellectually smug variety would make the world better.

  • dzhaughn .

    Does the average person taking a walk in a forest benefit the world? It does marginal harm to the forest and no good to anyone else. However, refreshed, the walker may better benefit the world. And how about sleep?

    So why mock Christians (and why single them out?) for what they do on their self-described “day of rest?”

    Separately, the suggestion that the social benefits of “forgiveness” and “lovingkindness” and “doing to others as you would have them do to you” are as yet only thinly justified is absurd. If you don’t agree, fine, but more argument won’t persuade you.

    Everyone knows that the belief in these principles is not the same as the practice of them, and that the benefits accrue from the practice. But practice without faith in them is probably impossible, and at best meaningless rote imitation.

    • arch1

      “But practice without faith in them is probably impossible, and at best meaningless rote imitation.”
      Are you saying that such behaviors aren’t possible (or if possible are somehow just empty simulacra) unless motivated by *religious* faith? If so, why in the world would you believe this?

      • dzhaughn .

        I don’t mean anything mystical here. I just mean faith in the sense that you might have faith that working hard in school will pay off. You don’t know how it will pay off, and you will not see the results until much later, at best. You have to rely on what some others tell you, and ignore some others that tell you otherwise. Those might get equally good grades with less work.

        (Is that so different than religious faith?)

    • IMASBA

      Why would you care if it was “rote imitation” if it is nevertheless possible and effective?

      I get that one first has to become motivated, but once that is done what does it matter that an outside observer would think of your actions as “rote imitation”?

      • dzhaughn .

        It’s not that important of a point, I shouldn’t have mentioned it. But I’ll elaborate anyway. 🙂

        The bus driver slams on the brake, I stumble and step on your foot the bus. I say “I’m sorry!” you say “Ouch! Oh, well, its alright.”

        What good does all that do?

        Perhaps it shows you that I recognize your pain and my role in it and regrettable inability to help, and shows me that you recognize that our roles could easily have been reversed. That can heal some of the guilt and fear, even among the by-standers. These are gestures toward our shared lot as two of myriad humans and bus riders.

        Or, picturing a desolate world ala 1984, perhaps it only signifies our mutual acquiescence to social norms, whatever they happen to be. We can then go back to our private indifference and resentment, respectively.

        The latter is the sort of thing I short-handed as “meaningless rote imitation.” It seems possible to coerce this forgiveness-like behavior. Some would say it was effective–perhaps it stopped you from stomping on my foot, and a subsequent fight. Good for it.

        But, I don’t think it is a workable approach, and and I don’t think it is desirable. I’ve nothing against social convention-we could not live without it-but its worth consists in its relation to “our hearts,” to our real will, not in some material advantage arising from the convention.

    • Ely Spears

      I may walk in a forest and be struck with a motivational thought from a bird’s song that leads me to think of the missing piece of a software system I was building that is ultimately used to prevent damage to future forests, or to perform robotic surgery better, or something. So the cost-benefit of many seemingly boring actions is quite hard to calculate.

      Maybe someone else sings a hymn in church on Sunday and that’s what helps her to write some software, or paint a picture, or produce a movie, or whatever, that has a chain reaction of positive effects.

      These kinds of calculations are pretty hard to model on an individual-by-individual basis. But nobody’s talking about that here. Only group-level first order approximations of major tenets.

      The question is: if a group that professes to be focused on doing-good through defining what being-good means is presented with evidence that its being-good-ness is not correlating with doing-good-ness, will the group change its definition of being-good in response?

      If a group defines doing-good in terms of being good, and uses some properties like forgiveness to define being good, which actually end up correlating with doing-good, then that group’s definition of being good is a good approximation of doing good, and the group doesn’t have a lot of work to do to modify itself to keep up with the self-proclaimed goal of doing good, so it wouldn’t be a group covered by the thesis of this post (and so Christianity *might not* be such a group, at least not due to its advocacy of forgiveness… or maybe it *might* be such a group because of its advocacy of other things…)

      • dzhaughn .

        I think you’re too generous too Hanson when you say “no one is talking about that.” With a million examples to choose from, he chose a narrow-minded broadside against church goers. (You show better breadth of mind, thanks!) But enough of that.

        Two of those million:

        Trying to Do Good: There’s a rumor that a large foundation abandoned its advocacy of creating small-sized schools when it was shown that the reason the best test scores all came from small schools was merely that the variance of small sets of randomly chosen scores is higher than that of large sets. A couple billion dollars was spent before anyone noticed this. Oopsy! (Note the absence of proof of failure! The rational thing is to stop once the supporting theory is undermined. Rational, but not easy.)

        Just Being Righteous: There is a rumor than an environmental organization advocates against the use of DDT against mosquitoes in Africa. The basis for this is that DDT is nasty toxic, will kill thousands, renders the area a toxic wasteland, and makes the capitalists money. Some say this leaves tens of thousands of preventable deaths due to malaria, no alternative approach that is likely to actually occur in a generation, and wildly misrepresents the actual risk of DDT. But we’re not going to listen to chemical industry shills, we have to draw a bright line, zero tolerance, etc..

        (If you disagree with the particulars, that’s fine, I’m no expert. I only claim high plausibility, not high probability.)

  • efalken

    Aristotle argued that to maximize human flourishing, governments do best by encouraging their subjects to live virtuous lives. A virtuous life is a happy life in general.

    Lots of other ideologies attempt to do the same thing, thinking that being a good Christian, socialist, humanist, social justice activist, or anarchist encourages virtues that increase the flourishing of society. I don’t think they are missing the objective (being vs. doing good), rather, they take it for granted that ‘being good’ as they define it is ‘doing good’. Often they are profoundly wrong, or their principles are easily used as pretexts by social climbers with ulterior motives.

    So, I don’t think the problem is the end game (being vs. doing), rather, whether what they are preaching actually works reasonably well, and does it effectively minimize the influence of those with bad faith working within their system.

    • Ely Spears

      But I think the point is that if we start from a position like that, and we observe that some things about being good don’t actually end up causing outcomes that we would define as doing good, then if our real aim is to do good instead of to be good, we would update our beliefs about what actions/behaviors to do and try again, improving along the way.

      But in most systems that equate their brand of being good with the externality of doing good, when they are confronted with evidence that their being-good has not yielded measurable doing-good (or has even caused harm), the responses is not to change in response (like a pursuer of doing-good would) but is instead to rally as a community so as to rationalize why their prized definition of being-good still is == doing-good, and why other, not-that-group’s-fault reasons are to blame for the lack of measurable doing-good as a result of their being-good.

      • efalken

        It’s curious to consider ideologies that clearly were found wrong–Nazism, socialism, racism–and note that some are abandoned, some aren’t. The key there is some can be seen as merely flawed tactics within a correct strategy, whereas some were ends in themselves. Also, it’s probably true that racists and Nazis over a certain age didn’t change their mind so much as die, probably because there wasn’t as much for them to gain from changed their minds.

        I doubt the big differences today between progressives/egalitarians and classical liberals/conservatives, when they are found in error, will be seen as merely errant minor policies, not relevant to the big picture.

  • qazer

    “Christianity … talk a lot about what is good vs bad behavior, but are pretty thin on how more good behavior will help the world. ”

    This is true as far as it goes, but it misses a key point. Christianity (at least the mainstream varieties), is not primarily concerned with “making the world better” per se, it is concerned with making *people* better, and social uplift is mostly a secondary function/outgrowth. Consider the well-known “turn the other cheek/give to all who ask” passage: Christ does not advise this with the goal of making face-slapping less prevalent, nor in the interest of making face-slappers less violent. Rather, the goal is making the face-slapped person more forgiving/godly. Anything else is gravy.

    Or as a theology professor responded to my class when it was pointed out that “turn the other cheek” likely wouldn’t “work” if it was used in response to, say, a Nazi invasion: “Christ commanded you to forgive. He did not command you to survive.”

    That may go for the “ecological spiritual consciousness” folks, too.

  • Christian Kleineidam

    Similarly for rationality, there is far more interest in how to spot rational folks, and in rationality training, than in institutions to promote rationality.

    Isn’t rationality training about creating ways to promote rationality?

    If you don’t have working rationality training and “promote rationality” the result is likely that you promote practices that aren’t really about rationality.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      If you adopt prediction markets, you will get rational estimates, even if you train no one in rational behavior.

  • Daublin

    I agree with your larger point, but your discussion of Christian church is missing a lot of what goes on and is forcing the example to fit your point. I wish you would pick a different example, or at least pick one *part* of Christianity instead of trying to summarize the whole thing and make a talking point out of it.

    You say that services (I assume you mean church services) are thin on evaluating how “good” behavior would help the world, but I would say that’s the whole point of all the discussion and meditation that goes on. If you are doing things that don’t help anyone, then you’re not really doing good at all, and that’s part of why there is so much discussion and meditation on the topic of what it means to be a good person.

    You overlook that a lot of people being helped are right there in that room. In true Hayekian style, much of what a church does–for good or for ill–is to help out the actual membership of the church. That includes children, the injured and unemployed, the elderly, and any other manner of person that is not particularly well off. The people are right there and are greatful for the support; when they aren’t greatful, the activity stops happening as much.

    It’s also true that the meetings promote impressive people, but isn’t that only rational? The people in the spotlight at a church service are those who have devoted large portions of their lives to get into that position.

    Finally, part of how you make people better, is you showcase them a little bit when they do. It can be overdone, but a little bit of pride can be a good thing when it steers people toward being better.