Imagine a kingdom ruled by a wise and benevolent king who, by reason of some strange tradition, is prohibited from ever leaving his palace. He only receives information on the affairs of the kingdom from his various Viziers. Like most Viziers, they are evil and power-hungry, and they are all conspiring with some of the most brutal and oppressive nobles in the land to preserve their reign of terror.
Also, you have an adorable pet bear
One day the Heroine speaks out against the current conditions in the kingdom. Taxes are too high, the peasants are starving to death, and people are being enslaved, all to enrich a few brutal nobles. The Heroine goes from town to town with her message: the people must beg the King to do something about this problem.
The Viziers hear of this and go to the king. “The Heroine,” they say, “is speaking against you. The whole kingdom is happy and prosperous, but this one woman wants to tear it apart and start a civil war for her own personal enrichment. Your people beg you to do something about her before she destroys the golden age they are currently enjoying.”
And so the king orders the Heroine executed, an order which the Viziers and the nobles are all too happy to carry out.
In this kingdom all the laws would be utterly selfish and show no regard for the average citizen. But this would be totally consistent with the King himself being a good person.
In fact, the King could be a perfectly good person, a person who attains moral heights of which other people never even dream, simply because he would never face a true moral dilemma. Suppose there were some problem that might prove morally difficult for the King – for example, the eastern states, which provide most of the kingdom’s silk, are rebelling, and the king could either choose to live in peace with the newly independent east, or brutally crush them. If he chose the first option, silk would cost a lot more, and the king really likes silk.
If he were aware of this situation, it would be a sort of moral dilemma – do I do the right thing and avoid a war, or do I do what’s convenient for me and lets me keep my luxury goods? Thanks to the Viziers, this problem disappears. If the Viziers want silk, they can tell the king that the eastern states have just launched a surprise attack, complete with atrocities – they must be dealt with as a matter of existential threat to the kingdom itself. And if the Viziers don’t want silk, they can just tell the king that the east ran out of silk, too bad, nothing we can do about it. In fact, the Viziers will never present a true moral dilemma to the king, because then they wouldn’t know which side he’d choose.
And so the king is faced only with easy, convenient moral decisions, and is able to preserve perfect innocence and purity. No matter how awful and tyrannical his decisions, the populace may at least take consolation that their king is, at heart, a good person.
These were some of the thoughts that went through my head when I read Ozy’s The Inherent Goodness of Human Nature, or Lack Thereof. Ozy worries that Hansonian explanations – in which people do nice things mostly for selfish reasons like signaling or self-signaling – mean that there’s no such thing as goodness. As ze puts it:
Robin Hanson (if I understand him correctly) would argue that the person giving money to the Make a Wish Foundation doesn’t actually want to help sick children; they want to feel nice, like the sort of person who helps sick children, and– more importantly– they want everyone else to believe that they’re nice people who help sick children.
My initial reaction to this is “No! That’s horrible! You terrible person!” Unfortunately, “you’re a terrible person!” is not actually an argument that something is not true. My sense of revulsion at that idea is nothing more than a sign that I’m biased in favor of the “humans: basically nice” explanation.
Robin himself commented by saying:
I love people, even if I don’t think they are as good as they like to let on. I hope others can love me under the same conditions.
This seems like one of the wisest things I have ever heard, and restores just a little of my faith in humanity. But I think I’m more optimistic than Robin is.
Like Ozy, I believe human nature is basically good even though people’s actions seem based on selfish and amoral motives. This is no more contradictory than the King being basically good, even though all his decrees will seem based on selfish and amoral motives. If the King has no access to accurate information, but can only make decisions based on information gleaned from biased sources, then the biases of those sources will be reflected in his words and deeds.
I cannot say why I identify other people with the Kings of their minds rather than with the Viziers of their minds (or with the creepy guys standing next to the king of their minds) save that this is who I feel I am in my mind, it is how I would like other people to see me, and so it seems both accurate and kind to see other people that way as well. Upon this view, people are good by nature, far better than their actions suggest, and it is really hard not to love and respect them.
This is not to say I think there’s no such thing as evil. I would prefer that evil be something different than mere stupidity, something more than “Osama bin Laden was dumb enough to believe his mental Viziers when they told him becoming a terrorist mastermind was the right thing to do, poor guy”, and indeed it seems there are lots of good stupid people and evil smart people, even lots of irrational good people and rational evil people. Although I have no clear answer, I think I would define evil as certain habits of mind which make it extremely easy for your Viziers to put one over on you, certain tendencies like “other people would do the same to me, so I’m just giving them a taste of my own medicine if I hurt them.”
This is still an attempt to be a good person – it’s an attempt to create a moral system in which you are just and virtuous for hurting others – but once you’re letting your Viziers use this kind of argument on you I think it’s pretty safe to say you’ve gone evil. This doesn’t quite correspond to my inner intuitive impression of evil, but if I turn it from a specific English-language assertion to a sort of preconscious sense of wrongedness and arrogant self-justification that expresses the same idea, it might.
You may notice how nicely this meshes with Trivers’ theory of consciousness.