I’ve been writing a lot recently on responsible action, suffering, depression, emotions and greatness, deciding who loses, children, competition, political-economy, and well-being, but not much directly on “goodness”.
However, I’ve recently had a bit of what I would consider an insight on the sticky and intractable nature of goodness that I think is worth sharing, discussing, and analyzing a bit more. Being good is inherently a social quality. Goodness depends on relation to others for it to make any kind of sense at all. A person is not “good” in a vacuum, but only in how they interact, treat, and respond to those around them.
Happiness, or well-being, certainly involves others, but is not solely comprised of our relations with them. It has other aspects. See my algorithm for well-being to see how hedonistic pleasure, life-satisfaction, and social connection are all major components of well-being. Recognizing how goodness and happiness are fundamentally different - innately social versus innately individual respectively - lets us see how they often (always?) work as trade-offs.
Being good can be defined rather simply: don’t harm others and help them when you can. Putting this into practice is the tough part. The tricky parts are the two verbs, harm and help.
What classifies an action as harming or helping? People have struggled to answer that for centuries. Consequentialists believe that the consequences of an action make it good or not. Non-consequentialists typically believe that intent matters most in deciding the answer. Utilitarianism of the Bentham, Mill, and Singer variety best exemplify consequentialist approaches, whereas duty ethics of the Kant variety are the foremost non-consequentialist approach.
Intent seems to matter more for self-evaluations of whether we believe ourselves to be good. We often will still see ourselves as good if we intended the best possible outcome given what we could foresee. However, we are often judged on the consequences of our actions and very often are not able to plead ignorance as our defense when others are involved in evaluating our goodness. This is particularly true in law, but also of our acquaintances, friends, and family.
How Your Happiness Harms Others
Putting aside some of the philosophical difficulties outlined above in deciding how to decide what is good, let’s look at some examples. I’ll use examples from the three components of well-being listed above.
Hedonistic pleasure. I most typically think of things like sex, drugs, and food in this category.
Does having sex with a partner other than your own count as harm? Society says so. Clearly there is no physical harm, unless we bring some sort of STD home to the unsuspecting. So that means the harm is psychological in nature. Often it is hurt feelings attached to ego, shame, or jealousy. Hurt feelings are typically not considered good reasons for not doing things outside of relationships. You rarely see anyone saying not to buy an expensive watch or nice car because it will hurt the feelings of someone else.
Then there is the single female who sleeps with many partners and is considered a “slut”. A bad woman. Less than pure. Probably not respecting of herself. Often she and her family with have to live with shame and potentially be the victims of outright mean and hurtful comments or actions from others. So even sex between two consenting, single adults is often troublesome. This is another societal belief, but does seem to be slowly changing. However, we do still see examples of news stories where girls are shamed for being involved in the legal business of pornography, even while attending Duke University.
How about drugs and food? These may cause harm to others as well. Drugs can lead to direct physical harm of others, but also the emotional pain of family and friends who believe you are being self-destructive. Again, this is really dependent on the social norm attached to the drug. Alcohol is very tolerated in most of society, even though it is much more harmful than many illegal substances.
Food? Yes, absolutely. Obesity costs America over $200 billion annually. That definitely harms the economy, productivity, and relationships of all kinds. An example unrelated to obesity is the jealousy, anger, resentment, and hatred that can be aroused by those who cannot afford to dine at expensive establishments like Ruth’s Chris or other high-end steak houses. This latter type of harm is much closer to the infidelity described above. On top of the emotional harm that is possible, we can consider the opportunity cost and environmental destruction the food we purchase incurs. Ideally, we would eat vegetables grown in our backyards that don’t require long-distance shipping or destruction of rainforests.
Naturally, these aren’t the only ways to engage in hedonistic pleasure. The use of electronics, cars, and air conditioning can all be pleasureable experiences. They are also directly connected to oil and mineral use that often employ highly extractive and destructive means in regards to both the environment and human lives.
Life-satisfaction. This is connected to meaning, purpose, goal accomplishment, and congruence. Many of these will overlap with the basic pleasures mentioned above. It is difficult to accomplish major goals without utilizing resources, many of which are attached to corrosive trade practices.
One of the few ways in which life-satisfaction would not lead to harm is by becoming some sort of ascetic monk that lives alone and sustainably in the mountains. The downside with this lifestyle choice is that it effectively makes one subject to chance illnesses and injuries. It is pretty difficult experience a sense of well-being when suffering from a preventable disease or broken limb. You may not be harming others through consumption of material goods or interactions that lead to their psychological suffering, but you may very well be causing harm to yourself.
This also would assume that no one would be suffering because you chose to leave their life. Most of us have loved ones that would find it akin to sudden death if we picked up and left from their lives for the sake of eliminating harm. They might even be inclined to label us as selfish for voluntarily walking out of their lives permanently, instead of being taken away by some unforeseen, unchosen tragedy like a car accident.
Social connection. This aspect may seem the least likely to cause harm, but easily does so in many situations. This often stems from the difficulty we looked at above between defining good on the basis of intent or consequence. Others almost always judge us on the consequences of our actions, not our intent. Generally speaking, this leads to them becoming angry, hurt, or experiencing some other form of destructive emotion.
It is a rare day that someone doesn’t misunderstand a joke not intended to be mean-spirited, or interpret not picking up coffee for them when you out as thoughtlessness or forgetfulness due to a lack of care and concern. These misunderstandings between people based on outward results is the general bane of social interaction.
These are rather small examples, but they escalate quickly when we connect them to larger social issues like abortion. Is terminating a fetus causing harm? To whom? Does this interfere with the well-being of the would-be mother because she has to postpone or walk away from her goals and break with what makes her feel like a congruent person? Does it preemptively cut off all well-being whatsoever for the future person that no longer exists?
Clearly, not harming others is a very difficult business. The best we can do is decide when it is acceptable to harm others, in what ways, and to what extent and then try to make good on those agreements.
Deciding Who Loses: Part Two
In the article linked directly above on deciding who loses in mutually exclusive circumstances, I introduced a simple tool that could help find the solution with minimal social grief. The two parties could each determine how much suffering or well-being the choice would make for them, and in comparing the two subjective realities, select the “lesser of two evils”.
This, of course, was after first trying to find situations that were win/win. There is no need to resort to someone losing when it comes to deciding what to do if both can win. What I failed to do in the initial article was make the connection between figuring out how to maximize well-being for the two parties involved compared to maximizing the good. After all, selecting maximal well-being is simply one goal worth pursuing.
The tool introduced in the original article is simply not needed if merely one of two parties is focused on the goal of maximizing their goodness. If they are focused on maximizing their character trait of “goodness”, then they can simply submit to whatever choice the other party wants instead of trying to decide what is subjectively the least worst option. In this case, being a good person simply means volunteering to let the other party have their way. Although, even here, we need to make sure that letting the other have their way doesn’t involve them intentionally hurting others. In that case, being good means preventing those actions.
Good vs. Happy
What should be clear by this point is that deciding to maximize well-being is a goal. We select our goals. We decide to put happiness above other options. In an era where research on happiness and the field of positive psychology are flourishing, this seems natural. This hasn’t always been the case, however, and we could easily select maximizing being good as our goal.
This is essentially what the “effective altruist” movement is doing. A slew of books have popped up recently detailing how to do The Most Good You Can Do by Doing Good Better, protecting The Life You Can Save, or by saving Strangers Drowning. All of these books are not about individuals getting the most happiness out of life, but rather helping the most people and doing the most good.
In doing this though, there is an inevitable trade-off with happiness. Joshua Green, author of Moral Tribes, has termed this disposition for sacrificing your own happiness for the sake of others as turning yourself into a “happiness pump”. What he is hinting at is that in the extreme, we can always donate our time, energy, attention, and money to causes that would make others better off up to the point where we have literally none of those resources for ourselves. In fact, that is close to what Peter Singer has argued for - donate all of your money to those in need up to the point at which donating more to someone suffering would cause you to ultimately suffer more than they are.
By taking this stance, you have become a “happiness pump”. Taking whatever potential happiness you could have and turning around and pumping it into others who are less fortunate. Greene argues that this hardly seems like a worthwhile way to live. That’s true if well-being is our goal, but not if goodness is. Maximizing the good really does require becoming a happiness pump.
Social Democracy as a Model
In seeing this tension, I find it useful to turn to the political arena where the tension between liberty and equality was seen long ago. Political scientists have recognized that unconstrained liberty leads to high levels of inequality and the strife that accompanies that state. Conversely, perfect equality does require sacrificing individual liberties to ensure that everyone has the same political and economic outcome. As Jonathan Haidt’s research has shown, this is just a difference in values. People who value caring and fairness are more prone to value equality. People who value liberty most will generally be in favor of tolerating more inequality.
Rather than settle on unregulated capitalism or unadulterated communism, which give maximal liberty and equality respectively, many countries are beginning to sort out a stable middle ground with social democracy. This seems to be exactly what ethics needs in the tension it finds between happiness and goodness.
This is not too hard to do in theory, but has been difficult in practice, largely to my mind because people simply aren’t seeing this trade-off as a trade-off. People believe that we can be maximally happy and maximally good. This simply isn’t the case. It’s like wanting to have maximal liberty and maximal equality at the same time.
Examples of this abound everywhere. Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tiger Woods are all celebrities that would be largely considered “good” people if it weren’t for their marital transgression that, at the heart of it, involved them chasing a form happiness within the realms of hedonistic pleasure and perhaps connection. Rather than condemn them, we can recognize their decisions for what they were, choosing happiness over goodness in specific circumstances unrelated to their other decisions where they did favor goodness over happiness.
Even the most generous philanthropist in history, Bill Gates, owns a $123 million home in Washington, something clearly aimed at happiness over goodness. Should we fault him for this choice or condemn him as bad for not adding that sum to his foundation?
The Cheat Meal Effect
Thinking about these necessary and innate trade-offs that must be made between between the two states of being happy or being good, I’ve come to think of them in a similar manner to “cheat meals” when dieting. In this context, cheating is relative to whatever you are dealing with when thinking about your own happiness or goodness. It can be splurging on a luxury travel destination with good accommodations to improve your happiness versus donating the same amount to Against Malaria Foundation to increase your goodness.
The main point is to recognize the goals and values you have first.
Second, you figure out how to maximize your energies long-term to reach those goals by allowing yourself to discard the illusion of being both 100% happy and good at the same time by giving yourself an occasional “out” so you don’t go crazy.
What’s nice about this strategy is that it is more sustainable. It lets you “stick to your diet” the majority of the time and not feel bad when you decide to cheat every once in awhile. As any dedicated dieter will tell you, having the mental break from perfection can make compliance much easier. If you know that you get to indulge on Friday night by eating all the donuts and cupcakes you want, it is much easier to be strict and on your diet the rest of the week.
People use this tactic with diet and exercise already. Dan Savage and others are arguing that it should be more normal with committed, monogamous relationships as well. Similarly, I’ve already mentioned the case of spending time, energy, attention, and money on self versus others.
We can commit to a diet or exercise regimen 95% of the time and still get good results if we cheat 5% of the time. We can commit to a 50-year relationship or marriage with another person and still have other loves along the way. We can commit to donating 10-50% of our income to the most effective charities and foundations and still buy ourselves luxury items with the leftover. None of these things must necessitate self-appraisal as a bad person. It just means that we’ve recognized the conflict between happiness and goodness and made decisions about where to draw the line.
I can imagine a future where physical needs for food, water, shelter, and clothing are taken care of for nearly everyone on the planet. It is possible that we become wealthy enough as a species that we don’t have to worry about the trade-off between consuming for our own happiness and donating to charities for the benefit of the destitute.
Even with that material “utopia” as it were, people would still need to figure out how to cope with the psychological harms we cause to each other in our relationships. That requires more than physical capital accumulation and (re)distribution.
It requires recognizing that the individual pursuit of happiness often causes harm in unintended ways. That psychological hurt is best coped with by searching for understanding and acceptance, not by assigning blame, guilt, or labels of others as bad, evil, or twisted.
That requires an evolution of the spirit within every individual on the planet. To recognize as Alain de Botton put it that, “My view of human nature is that all of us are just holding it together in various ways — and that’s okay, and we just need to go easy with one another, knowing that we’re all these incredibly fragile beings.”