People Are Good, But Stupid – A Maxim For Life

A while back, I ended up playing a game of Psychosis – a board game with questions loosely based around psychology studies, some of which are even still in-date. A more interactive element comes from group activities where Player A gets to answer a question in secret, while the others guess their answer. Usually, these take the format of “So tell me, __________, what is your favourite colour?” – but mostly a bit more interesting than that tepid example.

So I was asked, as you do in the game, “So tell me, ____________, do you think people are A) Mostly good, B) Mostly bad”. I think it may have been more of a scale, but I forget the precise details.

Do I think people are, generally speaking, good or bad?

That sparked off a bit of a debate, as these people know me quite well.

On the one hand, I display a huge amount of cynicism toward people. I generally believe the worst in them. I know the harm they cause, and my cynical reaction is to literally expect it at every turn. If someone is evil, I don’t seem to treat it as a mind-blowing exception to the pattern. On the other hand, came one argument, someone wouldn’t think such a thing if they didn’t fundamentally believe humans were, deep-down, good… but perhaps misguided. A social cynic would have to care about people, and care about their goodness, to rant and rave when they see it going awry.

And I suppose they got it right. I believe people are fundamentally good. I just also believe they’re too stupid to really know what that means.

Everyone wants to be “good”. The connotations of that term alone drive people toward it. It’s positive, it’s beneficial, it’s virtuous and admirable pretty much by definition. But even ignoring the definition, people try to act good – no-one truly wants to cause excessive harm and suffering, we all want to benefit the rest of the world. Even if all they have to go on is “to be good is to be like God”, they’ll instinctively drive toward the harm-reducing, well-being-maximising acts, and the Argumentum ad Dictionarium only comes out in the wash of post hoc rationalisation. We’re driven to be good, rather than bad, and broadly agree on what it means to act those ways even if we disagree when it comes to the tedious, academic unpacking of those terms.

The exceptions are usually driven either by a pragmatic need to break the vague Rules of Goodness (committing a theft because you need money) or a misunderstanding of what constitutes benefit to people (committing a theft because you believe it to be victimless or out of quasi-nihilistic self-interest). Even in the edge-cases of outright psychopathy, we attribute actions to a misfiring and a misinterpretation of morality rather than a drive to be evil.

Calling those exceptions “stupidity” may be an over-simplification – and I have something saved in my drafts folder about a better and more powerful definition of “stupid” to work with. Yet, “stupid” conveys the idea: we want to be good, we all agree that good means maximising well-being and reducing suffering… But we suck at the analytical component of figuring out what that all means in reality.

Mother Theresa thought she was doing good, and reducing suffering, and bringing dignity to people through bringing them, and herself, closer to God – yet those with a keen eye for detail may have seen suffering increase as she deprived the poor and sick of medical treatment while keeping them in squalor, and then spent her donation money on establishing convents. We can’t deny her intentions to do good, and her justifications that her acts were, ultimately, good. And I don’t think it’s a mere disagreement on the definition of good – she wanted to reduce harm and increase well-being, to bring dignity to people. She simply approached it in a… well, somewhat questionable way from the perspective of an outsider with identical motivations and values. Stupidity? Perhaps. Certainly a failure to objectively assess the situation and figure out exactly how to bring about more tangible well-being and happiness.

Look at, say, most racists, sexists or homophobes amongst others with an -ist or -phobe levelled at them. They probably don’t think that what they’re doing is bad. Even the hardened ones. They believe their opinions to be innocent and valid. They try to be good… at least, they don’t try to be evil. But do they understand the harm they cause? Is that because they’re stupid? Perhaps. “Stupid”, again, is not quite the right term – it’s the lack of a decent assessment of their actions.

This is perhaps where the social justice world fails to get through to them – by believing that a bigot is out to cause harm rather than simply misunderstanding whether they cause harm in the first place, they alienate rather than educate. If we approached them as having good intentions, we might be able to convince someone that their (erroneous) approach to implementing those intentions is where the harm comes from. People who say #AllLivesMatter just don’t understand the need to say #BlackLivesMatter, they don’t intend to say #BlackLivesDoNotMatter. Ignorance – not wilful ignorance, just plain, innocent, blameless ignorance – rather than malice is at work here.

“Where’s the harm?” is, ultimately, what hides underneath all the usual defences of hatred and intolerance. At the thin end, someone might defend a racist joke because “it’s just a joke!”; they’re asking where is the harm in something they perceive as truly harmless because they literally don’t see any harm derived from it. And it goes all the way to the extremes of “yes, I might be herding these people into a gas chamber, but, it’s just following orders so I’m not really complicit, and, besides, it’s purifying our race so is obviously beneficial – if we don’t gas this menace we’ll just suffer in the long term”. Okay, maybe that last one requires a little more work to get around… but it’s work we’ll happily do in the name of being good.

We’ll always find a motive to justify ourselves. We’ll always find a reasoning to back up our acts. We wouldn’t do it if we weren’t, fundamentally, driven to be good – because otherwise we’d be happy to admit that, yes, our actions are harmful to others and we don’t care. We’d admit to wanting to cause harm, minimise well-being, and be evil. Yet this is largely not what we see.

We wouldn’t be happy with flawed reasoning if we had the self-awareness to fully analyse it and come to a better conclusion, and then re-address our actions appropriately.

Or, in a soundbite; we want to be good, but we’re too dumb to figure out how to do it properly.

Dear Richard – Just. Stop. Talking

Richard Dawkins’ clusterderp continues – tacking on some comments about ‘belittling‘ to an already overwrought post that is basically “oooh, isn’t moral philosophy hard?” stretched out for 18 trillion pages… whatever. But in the race to demonize him as some old privileged grump, I worry that no one has actually bothered to explain why he’s wrong on his whole “[X] is worse than [Y]” kick. Because he is. Obviously. Just why?

Well, he’s sort of right when he notes that merely saying “[X] is worse than [Y]” isn’t an endorsement of [Y] – it’s an endorsement of neither, in fact. Only, this is quite a trivial thing to come out with unannounced because I don’t recall anyone of note, in a public sphere, in seriousness suggesting he was endorsing any of those ‘lesser’ crimes. Maybe I need to get out more, but I know that I haven’t said this, people I know haven’t said this, and people I read haven’t said this. Therefore it’s fair to say that the absence of evidence is inferential evidence of absence that if anyone has said it, it’s not a majority opinion amongst Dawkins’ critics. No, people were mostly talking about how he doesn’t understand the fallacy of relative privation – the “not as bad as” argument typified by his infamous “oh, you were accosted for coffee in an elevator? Shut up, dumb-ass, because women get raped in Pakistan!” moment – a logic, I must add, that is as airtight as its converse “oh, you were raped in Pakistan? Shut up, dumb-ass, because women get accosted for coffee in elevators!”

No, seriously. That’s the actual logic at work, just with the nouns traded around a bit. If you’re going to say “[X] is worse than [Y]”, consider writing it in E-Prime, a critical thought experiment of language that asks you to phrase things without the verb “to be”.* In this E-Prime translation, what Dawkins is saying is “I rank [X] below [Y]”. Well, bully for you, I rank [Y] below [X], what of it? Or perhaps a third party might come along and play some hypothetical [Z] trump card that’s supposedly worse than both… a pattern that can continue indefinitely:

“Oh, you were brutally attacked, were you? Well, stop complaining because at least they didn’t flay you alive!”

“Oh, you were flayed alive, were you? Well, stop complaining because at least they didn’t feed you mind altering drugs that intensified pain and slowed down time!”

“Oh, you were mentally tortured and conditioned to experience a thousand years of continually refreshing pain at the behest of a sadistic hell demon, were you? Well, stop complaining because at least you didn’t stub your toe on a door.”

Or, let’s be really really cheeky here:

“Oh, you think the Church of England is persecuting your right to exist as an atheist? Well shut up dumb-ass because at least you’re not being burned alive somewhere because of your religion” – indeed, it is very ironic that a man whose other best-selling line is a fashionable range of First World Atheism Problems would use relative privation this way.

So, as you can see, not only is this League Table of Unacceptable Badness a never-ending folly of finding worse or better things to outrank what you’re focused on, its internal logic is somewhat limited to personal perspective, and personal perspective only. And either Dawkins doesn’t understand this, or is so bullheaded that he can’t convey his understanding. At all.


This image is purely decorative. It has no relation to the article. Promise.

As much as I take their opinions with a large splash of salt, the Less Wrong crowd have an excellent piece of local jargon for Dawkins’ recent (well, three-year-long, at least, at this point) foot-in-mouth case: The Typical Mind Fallacy. It’s effectively the Mind Projection Fallacy and a few others wrapped up together, but just really like the canonical Less Wrong wording of it:

The typical mind fallacy is the mistake of making biased and overconfident conclusions about other people’s experience based on your own personal experience; the mistake of assuming that other people are more like you than they actually are.

This is the illusion that your thoughts and opinions are typical, that your judgements are shared by all, and essentially that your opinion of one subjective experience is going to be the same as everyone else’s subjective experience. At its worst this fallacy makes people think that their own subjective experience is actually objectively correct – because they’re too self-involved to realise other people exist and might have functioning thoughts of their own.**

This is really what Dawkins is doing here. And, if anything, that’s what is really ‘belittling’ about it. The guy has been attempting to rank subjective experiences according to his own viewpoint – and his own viewpoint only, let’s stress – and claim that this is apparently ‘logic’ because ‘hey, I’m so smart you so dumb!’ You can’t complain about a straw man argument here: he went on record with a ton of “[X] is worse than [Y]” comments relating to personal experience, and doubled-down each time someone said that was a bit naughty. Ranking subjective experiences based on his own internal logic and fallaciously passing them off as supposedly objective is what he is doing whether his proponents think so or not.

But is anything really worse than another thing?

The average teenager who has just discovered The God Delusion and thinks it’s the epitome of theological thought might instinctively think “Yes! But of course some things are worse than others!”*** But this is just the Typical Mind Fallacy once more. So let’s go to a less controversial (I hope…) set of examples. Is Guardians of the Galaxy better than Star Wars? Is Plan 9 worse than Rocky Horror? Yes? No? The fact we can debate those questions at all suggests there’s no one true objective answer. We can’t exactly hook those films up to a spectrometer and find out and have it published and settled. Sure, we could go to IMDb and see which is ranked higher, but that doesn’t answer the question. It answers something completely different – namely, “which film is ranked higher on IMDb?” Clearly, this is not answering the question of which is better or worse.

[X] might be worse than [Y] to you, but not necessarily to me. Dawkins tried to say that rape at knife point by a stranger is worse than ‘date’ rape – but is it? To me it wouldn’t be. I’d shrug off an attack (relatively) quickly, I’d be over it in a few weeks. I’d probably be able to go out again. I’d have friends I could trust to help me through it, and after a few months it’d be behind me. But if someone I knew quite intimately abused my trust and ‘date’ raped me? Well, that’d be pretty harrowing. I wouldn’t know who to speak to about it. I wouldn’t know who to trust or confide in. I wouldn’t be quite sure if I could be in a room with a supposed friend ever again. It would start a perpetuating cycle of mistrust and paranoia that would destroy relationships I have with countless people and could last years, if not forever. So sure, give me a stranger attacking me at knife point any day.

Is that last paragraph true? Thankfully I’m not in a situation where I’m likely to ever find out. But that would be beside the point – I would like to see anyone, using the objective logic and reasoning gifted to them by being oh-so-superior public intellectuals or otherwise, prove it one way or another. The simple fact is that one experience is not going to be the same as another. A particularly person may well attempt suicide due to a bad break-up with a boy/girl/other-friend. Another person may go through two bereavements, losing a job, a nasty car accident and being mugged and shrug it off. Extremes, sure, but again plausible and a big kick in the face to the concept that these things are supposedly objectively ranked.

But what about ‘statistically speaking’ – which I mention only because I did read someone trying to defend Dawkins by saying that he was “clearly” talking about this. Well, what is ‘worse’ when it comes to statistics? The more frequent, the least frequent? Again, this comes back to ranking films on IMDb, it’s simply asking a qualitatively different question. Is the most common thing worse? Then it’s clearly ‘date’ rape that we should be worried about, most rape victims know their attackers by a significant margin and being attacked on the street is a comparatively negligible risk. And it’s also clearly ‘mild’ paedophilia we should be worried about because that’s significantly more prevalent than strangers abducting children to rape them – even then, physical and emotional abuse rather than sexual abuse by parents is more common even than that. One might well be a more prevalent problem than the other, that’s for sure, but worse? You can’t say from that data alone.

You want a short and quick answer top which is ‘worse’? ‘Not Applicable’.

At least, with this statistical argument, we’re working with objective facts. But you don’t need to be David Hume to realise you can’t morph this into the same “[X] is worse than [Y]” argument Dawkins has been derping on about. They’re different spheres of judgement, and they’re not even supposed to overlap.

* It’s not a foolproof solution to anything by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a useful thought experiment for troubleshooting. It won’t magically solve every issue, and you can still be fallacious while speaking E-Prime, but it can direct you speedily to where you’re arguing from a subjective dictionary definition.

** This may explain most of Less Wrong, of course, as they are people who think human interaction is so difficult they can just build a computer to do it for them.

*** I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again – being in a room full of people who applauded Richard Dawkins walking on stage on TV (but, notably, not a single other guest  that appeared on this show) was one of the creepiest experiences of my life and told me that this organised atheism thing is emphatically not for me. Seriously, people, watch Life of Brian, then watch it again and again until you get the fucking point.