Why It’s So Hard to Combine Goodness and Honesty

I was reading Bertrand Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy” and got to his analysis of Socrates. Russell has a number of amusing insights into the man, but my favorite is this idea that Socrates’ primary value was as perhaps the first systematic philosopher of bullshit-detection. The Socratic Method, though of limited use in formal, mathematical logic, is ideal for leading your conversation partner to find errors in their thinking. This is of great importance, Russell argues, because in any era the goodness of the public morality will include contradiction and error. Note that the art of bullshit detection not only rubs up against but requires undermining the public morality, the goodness, of the community at large. Russell, not nearly finished with this topic, goes on in his essay “On Nice People” to argue the following.

“To be a nice person, it is necessary to be protected from crude contact with reality, and those who do the protecting cannot be expected to share the niceness that they preserve. Imagine, for example, a wreck on a liner which is transporting a number of colored laborers; the first-class female passengers, all of whom are presumably nice women, will be saved first; but in order that this may happen, there must be men who keep the colored laborers from swamping the boat, and it is unlikely that these men will be able to succeed by nice methods. The women who have been saved, as soon as they are safe, will begin to feel sorry for the poor laborers who were drowned, but their tender hearts are rendered possible only by the rough men who defended them.”

Confucius and Mencius discover a similar problem in their “village worthies.” Confucius calls these people “thieves of virtue” because, by conforming to the passing moral fads, they often lead third parties to confuse a sincere life of virtue with mere virtue signalling. Mencius, quoting a piece of the Confucius cannon now lost to us, writes the following:

“I hate the things that appear to be something but are not. I hate the false millet, because I fear it could confound the sprouts. I hate the flatterers, because I fear they could confound duty. I hate the sharp tongued, because I fear they could confound trustworthiness. I hate the tunes of Zheng, because I fear they could confound music. I hate the lilac, because I fear it could confound the vermilion. I hate the village worthy, because I fear he could confound virtue.”

So what is it about these village worthies Mencius and Confucius dislike so strongly? It is that “you can find no fault” in them, according to whatever moral fad happens to be in vogue. They are comfortable and smug and “good” because “it is enough to be good.” They resemble but fall short of Shun and Yao (Confucian moral exemplars) precisely because they go through the motions of goodness without any of the struggle, deep thinking or discipline performing a thoughtful life would require.

Edward Gibbon, scandalous as always, describes the higher moral values of 4th century Rome as follows:

“As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity.”

The higher the goodness – the more devotion, justice and virgins the church produced – the less practical good could be done. The greater the moral purity, the fewer the philosophers; with the rise of the good, the fall of the useful.

In Russell, the Confucians and Gibbon we find a strange theme of moral goodness being, fundamentally, dishonest. I got thinking about this because of a discussion some of my students had. When I asked them if they valued diversity, each of them said yes. I then explained that diverse suitors to Viking maidens very often killed rival suitors in order to show the sincerity of their love and protect the lady’s honor, that the diverse people of Dahomey believed in the moral imperative to go on tri-annual slave hunts and sacrifice/eat those unfit for sale, that the diverse Hmong tribesmen of Vietnam have a proud tradition of wife stealing, the students universally expressed their horror. Such things violate “universal values,” they explained. Even milder forms of diversity like traditional female circumcision and child soldiering, they continued, were unacceptable because of said values.

I then asked if they could think of any diversities that were acceptable. The only things we came up with were trivialities like cooking diverse foods, provided, of course, that the diverse foods are not farmed in “universal values” incompatible ways and do not look too yucky in our universal values attuned eyes. My students at this point grew confused. How, they wondered, are they supposed to believe what good people believe – diversity is good and universal values exist – without having to actually respect the diverse but icky Viking, Dahomey, Hmong etc. cultures?

We had a similar discussion about equality. Everyone agreed we need more equality, but when I pointed out that an equal world would see my students making $280 a month and ending their educations in the ninth grade, we discovered that what we really wanted was to be more equal to people who are richer and more successful than ourselves, not equal to the unfortunate or even average. Being equal to the average Zambian, for example, would be an unacceptable lack of respect for the differences in ability we all have. This particularly argument led us to the logical consequence that the average Zambian prefers to live uneducated and impoverished, which was most disquieting. Once more, we faced the problem of how to be egalitarian – that is good – without the grim hopelessness of actual equality?

The nonsense of goodness doesn’t end there. My students are also, in order to be good, supposed to believe in freedom, even though that term is literally meaningless. I shouldn’t be too hard on the students. They learned this puffery from their ethics teachers and their ethics teachers – good people – were certified and hired based on their adherence to moral fads far more than their abilities to think. I should also point out that the students also, mostly by themselves, replace goodness with honesty, given the chance.

Back to the gibberish goodness requires us to believe. In all three cases, a commitment to truth over goodness seems to solve the moral confusion. In the case of good people respecting diversity and believing in universal values, we can very simply demonstrate that the goodness in question is a direct contradiction. The value of diversity means that we think there are multiple ways to be good, diversity meaning “many types.” Universal values mean that we there is one answer, universal being “one thing applicable in all cases.” My students couldn’t respect diverse cultures and embrace universal values any more than they could be darkly bright or coolly hot.

In the case of equality, replacing goodness with honesty led to the discovery of a cognitive bias. Namely, when I asked the students for examples of inequality, they invariably mentioned people who were richer and more successful than their own families. Considering my students are all middle or upper class folks from a rich country, those higher ups they considered privileged were a tiny, minuscule slice of the global population. A little discussion followed on this and we discovered that equality is, in almost all cases, sanctified ambition and pious hypocrisy.

Freedom, well, I wrote an entire article about that goofy bundle of nothing. If you don’t have time to read that article, a short summary. The term “freedom” includes both “freedom to X” and “freedom from X.” Freedom to X and freedom from X have exactly opposite meanings and, thus, when we speak of freedom in the abstract, as is done in ethics classes, we are talking literal nonsense.

In all cases it is perhaps better, or at least more honest, to suspect the sincerity of the good, the nice and the worthy.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like my books.
Joshua and the Chosen People
The Potency!
The Blackguard

8 comments

  1. Well done Ben! With me you’re preaching to the choir however. If I may, I’d like to take your observations a bit further.

    As I see it, “morality”, which is to say notions of rightness and wrongness regarding human behavior, exist as an evolved social tool of manipulation. Thus your students displayed that they’ve been so manipulated. Note that in a normal setting they’d have at least been chided for not providing the sorts of answers that they did, or the social tool at work!

    Morality seems to have evolved so that a fundamentally self interested creature could better function in the extremely social human realm. Note that moral notions are entirely relative. This is to say that they reflect the prevailing winds of whatever a given society, or sub society, happens to believe/teach as “right” and “wrong” at a given moment in time. Importantly we don’t just get this tool of manipulation formally through ethics teachers (though there is that), but through human communication in general. Beyond parents, friends, teachers, and so on, modern mass media seems to be a major moral manipulation tool.

    If moral manipulation evolved to improve the viability of self interested creatures that were extremely social, then how might it be problematic for us? The essential problem I see is that moral notions naturally inject us with false beliefs. How might we scientifically improve ourselves, if moral notions bar us from grasping what we are? One implication is that our mental and behavioral sciences should remain extremely soft today. And of course they are extremely soft.

    So what’s my cure? I believe that these sciences will need to be explored no less amorally than our harder varieties of science are naturally explored. Here instead of rightness and wrongness we should identify “purpose”, or a punishment/reward dynamic that drives the function of conscious forms of life. Fortunately the science of economics has already taken this step. Economic models are based upon the promotion of “utility”, which is to say the concept of feeling good rather than bad. It seems to me that no other mental/behavioral science has developed anything approaching the hardness of economic theory. But it’s a specialized field which thus shouldn’t openly challenge the social tool of morality. In order for soft sciences in general to harden up, we should need central varieties (such as psychology) to take this step as well.

    1. Glad you liked it Eric. I wonder what you mean by “manipulation” though. In order for any group of people to function together, they need to agree on a set of rules. Those rules should not be sacred, in my opinion, but they do need to exist.

      And I’m not really criticizing the “rules” sense of morality. I’m criticizing the purity and innocence versions of morality; anything that begins with the conceit “I’m not the sort of person who would ever X.”

      As for relativism, I’m not sure that’s true either. There aren’t any cultures that advocate omnicidal ideologies, for example, nor are there any societies that resemble the Island of the Lotus Eaters. There seem, at least, to be bounds. I do have a suggestion to what those bounds are and how we can avoid the sludge of relativism, but that’s another topic.

      Finally, I wonder if you’re familiar with either William James or a book called “The Evolution of Beauty.”

      1. Ben,
        Though I may have gone a bit further than you in some ways, I doubt it’s quite as far as you’re now supposing. Let me try to clarify.

        I believe that ultimately we’re all happiness seeking products of our circumstances, and so we’re all manipulated on this basis. For example as I see it, it’s the job of my wife and I to manipulate our son (or parent him) so that he will have a happy life. And why is that our job? Because this would make us happy. I’m not against manipulation, or even standard western notions of rightness and wrongness. It’s more nuanced, as in your observation about the conceit of notions like “I’d never lower myself to behave like X”.

        (I’m not sure that you’ve successfully challenged the premise of moral relativism. In a void of omnicidal ideologies, the moral relativist does not claim omnicide to be moral. Otherwise we would consider this “moral”, and specifically in a society that believes in such a cause. (Actually I’d think that certain communities today would love to bring about the end of humanity given its effects upon other forms of life.))

        Try this: The science of economics is founded upon the idea that conscious forms of life seek to feel good and not feel bad. With this amoral foundation it has developed a vast array of successful descriptive models in both micro and macro capacities. Conversely the science of psychology has not yet become founded upon this premise, or any other. Psychologists essentially theorize at a higher level without bothering with what’s below. So to me it’s not surprising that the field has not yet developed much in the way of successful descriptive models of our behavior. And why has it not followed the successful path of economics? Perhaps because the domain of psychology is too close to home. Perhaps because standard moral notions often argue that we ought to behave altruistically rather than seek our own pleasures.

        In any case without formally acknowledging that feeling good rather than bad constitutes the purpose which drives the conscious form of function, I believe that our mental and behavioral forms of science will continue to remain soft. Conversely I’d like them to be explored just as amorally as physics is explored, and here I suspect that central fields like psychology would find success using the same founding premise that economists use, or that our purpose resides in our sentience.

        William James? One of the early founders of psychology. He didn’t quite set the field up as I would have.

        “The Evolution of Beauty”? No I’m not familiar with this book.

      2. I’ll also include an 11 minute video, the first half of which demonstrates my point that psychologists haven’t yet straightened out the matter of what motivates our function, or essentially what’s valuable to us in the end. Pay attention to option 2, or drive reduction theory. I consider this to essentially be the premise upon which economics is founded (though wouldn’t phrase it quite as they have). Whatever objections are raised to this theory, I suspect that I’m able to provide worthy nuanced justification for it.

    2. I agree, Eric – I love how you gave much thought to this & make us think, Ben

  2. So the reason I am asking about manipulation is that it typically has a sinister undertone. It doesn’t seem like that’s what you intend.

    The feeling good/bad metric, as we discussed before, I think is problematic. This is because we are complex critters who are really good at meta cognition. We very often take pleasure in things that seem to be painful – martial arts and mountain climbing for example – by simply shifting our expectations and interpretive lenses. We, in other words, meta-cognitively decide that a “bad” thing is actually “good.” I recently found some interesting research about extreme, painful rituals that indicated such rituals, the more painful they are, the better they are for mental health outcomes. You can of course say that this is “pleasure” according to your metric, but the problem is then that ANYTHING can be interpreted as pleasure. If everything can be interpreted as pleasure, the metric doesn’t seem useful.

    As for softness and hardness in science, there seems to me to be a consistent, linear relationship between the simplicity of a subject and the hardness of the science studying such subjects. For example, math is the hardest science but it is also the simplest, dealing exclusively with abstractions. Physics is next hardest, and it deals with extremely simple things like quarks and photons. Chemistry is a little softer and deals with more complicated chemicals. Biology is likewise softer than chemistry because it’s so much more complex. Psychology, economics (more on this later) and sociology are likewise soft because they deal with extremely complex systems. Using physics methods to examine policy implementation is going to fail almost every time.

    So, econ is a good example of this. The hardest economics belongs to the Chicago School and the
    Austrian School. They are often praised for the exactness and elegance of their mathematics and the beauty of their models. They are also, pretty consistently, wrong in their predictions.

    None of this is an excuse for squishy feelings based “science,” which is what I think you’re criticizing, but then I wonder what bothers you about William James and psychology in general. James, for example, was a RADICAL EMPIRICIST and the greatest champion of the philosophy of pragmatism. His essays, from a pragmatic and radically empiricist standpoint, shed a lot of light on why we shouldn’t trust “hardness” too much when we study something as complicated as a human mind. Same thing with Evolution of Beauty. There are a lot of things that seem to evolve by chance, are not rational, and persist so long as they don’t kill the things partaking in them – peacocks for example.

    Psychology as a whole, was dominated in the middle 20th century by behaviorism, which is about as data-driven and “hard” as you can get. And it does have applications, especially for animals, young children and people with developmental disabilities.. Of course, it has a lot of the same problems that the Chicago School has and runs into serious limitations when applied to people who can think meta-cognitively, but it’s very “hard.”

    If you want a purely logical breakdown of why the physics and mathematics style “hardness” you seem to advocate cannot apply to more complex systems, I can share an academic paper I’m currently writing with you. I’d have to ask you not let anyone else see it, of course, since I do plan to publish it in a journal.

    1. Ben,
      I suppose the manipulation term does have some sinister overtones to it, as in accusations like “You’re just a tool”. I guess I did mean it at least somewhat this way however, though I consider us all tools in the end. This is to say that we’re all products of our circumstances, though some of us seem more aware of what constitutes us while others seem to function obliviously. In any case, I certainly mean no disrespect to your students! They’ve provided the sorts of answers which I’d expect of American students (and knowing you, these might have been Korean). In any case you seem to have opened their minds in this regard, and I suspect gave them a valuable lesson.

      I seem not have been clear about my meaning for “hard” science. Essentially I’m referring to fields which have developed experimentally successful models. Yes physics is one of the hardest varieties of science today, though as I use the term this isn’t inherent. Physics was quite soft before the rise of Newton, and since then its models have improved substantially. It does however remain quite soft regarding various fundamentals, such as quantum mechanics.

      I wouldn’t say chemistry is any less “hard” than physics since I don’t consider its models any less successful. Instead I’d say that it’s a specialized application of physics. Philosophers tell us that it supervenes upon physics, or softly emerges from it. Thus changes in our understandings of related physics inherently change our chemical understandings, though not the other way around. Similarly biology supervenes upon chemistry, psychology supervenes upon biology, and so on. Here higher fields softly emerge from lower fields. (I say “softly” because hard emergence is associated with magic.) So yes, physics is the wrong level of abstraction from which to ponder economics.

      As for mathematics, I consider this a language rather than a science. Note that statements in it are true/false by definition and so exist a priori rather than a posteriori. Apparently we invented this language rather than evolved to speak it, which explains why people are able to speak languages such as English without formally being trained. Not so for mathematics. If we would have evolved to speak mathematics then we should have developed the abilities of a standard calculator, and more.

      So you’re writing a paper which theorizes why complex domains such as psychology and economics can never become “hard sciences”? I guess I’d challenge that premise if you mean that these fields can never develop experimentally successful models. I believe they can, and even have in the case of various generally accepted economic models, such as how prices reside where the supply and demand curves meet. Note that science is still a relatively new human endeavor, though there naturally ought to be some laggards. My own theory on this is that the social tool of morality fights scientific progress the closer science gets to us, which is to say, centered upon psychology. I believe that all forms of science must be explored amorally.

      We may not be in conflict here if we’re using different definitions for hard and soft science however. If not the development of experimentally successful models, how do you define “hard science”? I get the sense that you’ve been referring to empirically apt? Well that’s not me. And I’m no behaviorist (though I do have some sympathy for Skinner’s radical form). In any case I’d love to privately see what you’ve developed so far. I can always be reached here: thephilosophereric@gmail.com

      On my point that the conscious form of function is motivated by the desire to feel good, I have some technical nuances given your observations. This addresses hunger strikes from the video and all else as far as I can tell, or your metacognition observations.

      Consider the phenomenon that we refer to as “hope”. When something is hopeful it feels good now, though regarding something that may or may not happen in the future. But theoretically the positive feelings of current hope overcomes the pains and so on that we must struggle through to get what we want. It’s an investment. Surely you agree that hopeless people tend not fight on against hunger, oppression, and so on?

      Beyond positive sensations of hope, there is also the punishment of “worry”. If we foresee plausible negative future circumstances, such as a roof in disrepair, or that your child isn’t taking school seriously, we feel bad right now in these regards. They bring worries, or incentive to fix what we consider problematic. And we don’t need to be right about what worries us, since the worry itself resides as the motivation.

      Also there’s the adrenaline high. I enjoy hot peppers because the heat often doesn’t hurt me much anymore, though I still get plenty of endorphins from them. Then sometimes painful things can feel good because of perceptions that others will respect what someone’s doing, or theory of mind dynamics. None of this means that we can arbitrarily like anything, but rather such dynamics evolved to help us survive. Though we are indeed a complex critter, the job of science is to reduce us back to understandable ideas, just as we have for fields like physics.

      In any case I don’t know of any situations in which we consciously do things that aren’t ultimately motivated by a desire to feel better (though people do seem to make mistakes here all the time). And as that video demonstrates, the field of psychology has not yet become founded upon this premise, or any other. To me this seems quite problematic. Without a founding premise from which to work, the higher level models that modern psychologists seem to busy themselves with, should be considered extra speculative.

      1. We’ll have to talk more about psychology, particularly behaviorism, which I’m pretty sure satisfies your criteria.

        Check you email, btw. 🙂

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