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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