02 January, 2021

The Choice to Be Good

[Note: This entry spoils plot points in Cobra Kai, The Sword of Good, and (maybe if you stretch it) My Little Pony. Please only read this entry if you don't mind casual discussion of spoilers or if you've already read the short story The Sword of Good and watched Cobra Kai to at least the first two episodes of the third season.]

John Kreese, Cobra Kai
In the final scene of season 3 episode 2 of Cobra Kai, John Kreese kicks out the weak members of Cobra Kai and gives a speech justifying why he did so.

"Your whole life you've been told to be good. But good is only a matter of perspective. Always remember your enemies think that what they're doing is right. They think they are the hero; you are the villain." —John Kreese, Cobra Kai

Kreese goes on to say that there is no good; there is no bad. Only strength and weakness. We've heard this sort of thing from fictional villains many times before. And while there is a level of truth to this if you buy in to moral antirealism as I do, that same level of skepticism can and probably should be applied to many other things. (For a frank example of this, listen to the final six minutes of Embrace the Void's interview of Jeff Sebo (starting at 1:01:01, though the rest of the interview is also excellent).) Ultimately, speeches like this are reserved for fictional villains. Yet with a small bit of tweaking, rational fanfic style, you can construct from here a position that is not only much more convincing, but which also may very well be true.

I have been told my entire life to be good. To do the right thing, to make the good choice. At first, this was hard for me. I was rather selfish as a child; I cared very little for others, except insofar as it affected me. Even when it did affect me a great deal, I still didn't take care to do well for others, because I incorrectly judged short term personal gains over the problems that I'd create for my then future selves. If I look back to those times, putting myself into the position of that younger me, I believe I would truthfully think: It is hard to make the choice to be good. I know that the choices I am making are bad, but I like what I get when I make those choices. Lying is bad, but lies help me to get sex when I want. Not being there for friends is bad, but I only enjoy these friendships when they make me feel good, and being around when they need me doesn't feel as good, and avoiding them doesn't have negative consequences because they are pushovers.

Yes, I really did learn friendship lessons from MLP.
Does that make me a brony?
Tyson believes that labelling causes people
to make unflattering untrue assumptions
so I'll not label myself.
Putting aside the fact that I was a terrible person back then, I'd like to zoom in on the idea that choosing to be good was a hard choice for me to make back then. It took real effort of will to do. But somewhere along the line, that changed. At some point, the knowledge that eating animals was bad became a moral imperative for me to no longer eat animals. The idea that a friend needed me turned into me needing to be there for them. I can remember watching the first season of My Little Pony and learning some lesson about friendship, and then actually putting into practice that lesson by enacting that very lesson with my real life friends. By this point in my life, learning that X is good turned into me deciding that I had to do X. It was no longer difficult at all to make the choice to be good -- knowing that something was good was sufficient for me to actually go through with it.

Of course, I still improved over time, but it was more due to me learning what was good. I found parts of my life that I was morally deficient in and did my best to improve them. I learned from others what they thought about what was good or bad, determined if I agreed, and then changed my life accordingly. To me, the idea that making the choice to be good was a difficult choice to make had become alien and weird. It was hard to identify with my past self who had felt differently.

But I think I may have come full circle on this idea. The me of today, writing this now, once again believes that making the choice to be good is an extremely difficult choice to make. Not because I want to do bad, but because as time passes I become much less certain that I know what good even is. (Or, from the perspective of a moral anti-realist like me, I've become much less certain that I even know what I want good to even be.)

Image from the YouTube version of
Brodski's audiobook version of
Yudkowsky's The Sword of Good.
Our whole lives we've been told to be good. But good seems to be only a matter of perspective. We must always remember that our enemies think that what they're doing is right. They think they are the hero; that we are the villains. Yet if we have proper epistemic utility, we must allow that they may be right! The choice between good and evil is not to say "I choose good"; it is to look at a set of facts and to determine which choice is the good choice.

During Christmas, I skyped with family and we played a discussion game. On each person's turn, we were asked a question that we had to honestly answer, not in a kneejerk way, but to really consider and answer truthfully in front of our family. The card I was dealt asked me about mistakes I had made in 2020. The big one was obvious: I almost died because I had not been properly getting checked up medically. But the other mistake was potentially just as grave: I had not been properly considering the value of actively helping to enact social justice.

Those who know me well will understand that I am still very much thinking through these things. I do not yet know to what extent we should value free open discussion over the comfort of people experiencing social inequity. I know only that either extreme seems wrong to me and that I will likely end up endorsing some middle position between them. But figuring out what actually is the good... That is a question that, once answered, may potentially redirect large amounts of intellectual and financial capital in the EA movement and beyond. As a communicator, I feel that if I am able to find a good middle ground, I may be able to help convince a large proportion of the EA community to take that middle ground seriously. But it is important that I get this right.

I told my family that I was having this problem. That knowing that you want to do the right thing is not enough; the hard part is figuring out what the right thing even is. It's especially difficult when the arguments on one side are well written, competently organized, and internally consistent; while the other side purports to give its best face through a racial equity workshop where the trainer talked about their astrological sign, an insistence that marginalized people feel unsafe even among people who are doing their best to be considerate of racial equity merely because they publicly recognized the achievements of someone else who isn't considerate, and who continually push for the idea that direct impact dominates intent when it comes to support of white supremacist institutional structures, regardless of any other externalities. Quite frankly, it is difficult to take one of these sides seriously given how poor their most-often presented arguments seem to be. Yet (ironically) when I look past the impact of their arguments and instead look to their intent -- when I see their suffering and inability to construct a good argument as to why they are affected so much -- it makes me want to delve deeper, to look further, to seek out what I'm missing. Meanwhile, the other side seems so smug. So uncaring. It's as though on the one hand one side seems to be obviously true, and yet simultaneously the other side seems to also be equally obviously true. The contradiction is striking.

Good seems to only be a matter of perspective. To see clearly, we must disregard status quo bias. Imagine that you're starting from scratch. Look to the consequences. If you must aim solely for greatest utility, then you must properly value fairness to avoid utility monsters. Don't fall for Pascal's mugging. Don't overvalue pithiness. Notice confusion. Do check with someone you trust to see if you've made a mistake in your logic. Set aside how you feel when going through logic, but trust your feelings as an alarm bell if it tells you that something is wrong. Remember, though, that sometimes the error is in the alarm system, not the logic. If your conclusion will seem to harm your public image too greatly, then your temporal discounts are probably too high. Just because one of the sides claims loudly to be the good side does not make it so; but also if they can do so with a straight face then you should value that as evidence that they are in fact doing mostly good things. Overall, we must come to a decision eventually, so don't keep retreading old ground. It is difficult, but we must make the choice to be good. We must.

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