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Inner Goodness

8 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 23 October 2008 10:19PM

Followup toWhich Parts Are "Me"?, Effortless Technique

A recent conversation with Michael Vassar touched on - or to be more accurate, he patiently explained to me - the psychology of at least three (3) different types of people known to him, who are evil and think of themselves as "evil".  In ascending order of frequency:

The first type was someone who, having concluded that God does not exist, concludes that one should do all the things that God is said to dislike.  (Apparently such folk actually exist.)

The third type was someone who thinks of "morality" only as a burden - all the things your parents say you can't do - and who rebels by deliberately doing those things.

The second type was a whole 'nother story, so I'm skipping it for now.

This reminded me of a topic I needed to post on:

Beware of placing goodness outside.

This specializes to e.g. my belief that ethicists should be inside rather than outside a profession: that it is futile to have "bioethicists" not working in biotech, or futile to think you can study Friendly AI without needing to think technically about AI.

But the deeper sense of "not placing goodness outside" was something I first learned at age ~15 from the celebrity logician Raymond Smullyan, in his book The Tao Is Silent, my first introduction to (heavily Westernized) Eastern thought.

Michael Vassar doesn't like this book.  Maybe because most of the statements in it are patently false?

But The Tao Is Silent still has a warm place reserved in my heart, for it was here that I first encountered such ideas as:

Do you think of altruism as sacrificing one's own happiness for the sake of others, or as gaining one's happiness through the happiness of others?

(I would respond, by the way, that an "altruist" is someone who chooses between actions according to the criterion of others' welfare.)

A key chapter in The Tao Is Silent can be found online:  "Taoism versus Morality".  This chapter is medium-long (say, 3-4 Eliezer OB posts) but it should convey what I mean, when I say that this book manages to be quite charming, even though most of the statements in it are false.

Here is one key passage:

TAOIST:  I think the word "humane" is central to our entire problem.  You are pushing morality.  I am encouraging humanity.  You are emphasizing "right and wrong," I am emphasizing the value of natural love.  I do not assert that it is logically impossible for a person to be both moralistic and humane, but I have yet to meet one who is! I don't believe in fact that there are any.  My whole life experience has clearly shown me that the two are inversely related to an extraordinary degree.  I have never yet met a moralist who is a really kind person.  I have never met a truly kind and humane person who is a moralist.  And no wonder! Morality and humaneness are completely antithetical in spirit.

MORALIST:  I'm not sure that I really understand your use of the word "humane," and above all, I am totally puzzled as to why you should regard it as antithetical to morality.

TAOIST:  A humane person is one who is simply kind, sympathetic, and loving. He does not believe that he SHOULD be so, or that it is his "duty" to be so; he just simply is.  He treats his neighbor well not because it is the "right thing to do," but because he feels like it.  He feels like it out of sympathy or empathy--out of simple human feeling.  So if a person is humane, what does he need morality for?  Why should a person be told that he should do something which he wants to do anyway?

MORALIST:  Oh, I see what you're talking about; you're talking about saints! Of course, in a world full of saints, moralists would no longer be needed--any more than doctors would be needed in a world full of healthy people.  But the unfortunate reality is that the world is not full of saints. Of everybody were what you call "humane," things would be fine.  But most people are fundamentally not so nice.  They don't love their neighbor; at the first opporunity they will explot their neighbor for their own selfish ends. That's why we moralists are necessary to keep them in check.

TAOIST:  To keep them in check!  How perfectly said!  And do you succeed in keeping them in check?

MORALIST:  I don't say that we always succeed, but we try our best.  After all, you can't blame a doctor for failing to keep a plague in check if he conscientiously does everything he can.  We moralists are not gods, and we cannot guarantee our efforts will succeed.  All we can do is tell people they SHOULD be more humane, we can't force them to.  After all, people have free wills.

TAOIST:  And it has never once occurred to you that what in fact you are doing is making people less humane rather than more humane?

MORALIST:  Of course not, what a horrible thing to say!  Don't we explicitly tell people that they should be MORE humane?

TAOIST:  Exactly!  And that is precisely the trouble.  What makes you think that telling one that one should be humane or that it is one's "duty" to be humane is likely to influence one to be more humane?  It seems to me, it would tend to have the opposite effect.  What you are trying to do is to command love.  And love, like a precious flower, will only wither at any attempt to force it.  My whole criticism of you is to the effect that you are trying to force that which can thrive only if it is not forced.  That's what I mean when I say that you moralists are creating the very problems about which you complain.

MORALIST:  No, no, you don't understand!  I am not commanding people to love each other.  I know as well as you do that love cannot be commanded.  I realize it would be a beautiful world if everyone loved one another so much that morality would not be necessary at all, but the hard facts of life are that we don't live in such a world.  Therefore morality is necessary.  But I am not commanding one to love one's neighbor--I know that is impossible. What I command is:  even though you don't love your neighbor all that much, it is your duty to treat him right anyhow.  I am a realist.

TAOIST:  And I say you are not a realist.  I say that right treatment or fairness or truthfulness or duty or obligation can no more be successfully commanded than love.

Or as Lao-Tse said:  "Give up all this advertising of goodness and duty, and people will regain love of their fellows."

As an empirical proposition, the idea that human nature begins as pure sweetness and light and is then tainted by the environment, is flat wrong.  I don't believe that a world in which morality was never spoken of, would overflow with kindness.

But it is often much easier to point out where someone else is wrong, than to be right yourself.  Smullyan's criticism of Western morality - especially Christian morality, which he focuses on - does hit the mark, I think.

It is very common to find a view of morality as something external, a burden of duty, a threat of punishment, an inconvenient thing that constrains you against your own desires; something from outside.

Though I don't recall the bibliography off the top of my head, there's been more than one study demonstrating that children who are told to, say, avoid playing with a car, and offered a cookie if they refrain, will go ahead and play with the car when they think no one is watching, or if no cookie is offered.  If no reward or punishment is offered, and the child is simply told not to play with the car, the child will refrain even if no adult is around.  So much for the positive influence of "God is watching you" on morals.  I don't know if any direct studies have been done on the question; but extrapolating from existing knowledge, you would expect childhood religious belief to interfere with the process of internalizing morality.  (If there were actually a God, you wouldn't want to tell the kids about it until they'd grown up, considering how human nature seems to work in the laboratory.)

Human nature is not inherent sweetness and light.  But if evil is not something that comes from outside, then neither is morality external.  It's not as if we got it from God.

I won't say that you ought to adopt a view of goodness that's more internal.  I won't tell you that you have a duty to do it.  But if you see morality as something that's outside yourself, then I think you've gone down a garden path; and I hope that, in coming to see this, you will retrace your footsteps.

Take a good look in the mirror, and ask yourself:  Would I rather that people be happy, than sad?

If the answer is "Yes", you really have no call to blame anyone else for your altruism; you're just a good person, that's all.

But what if the answer is:  "Not really - I don't care much about other people."

Then I ask:  Does answering this way, make you sad?  Do you wish that you could answer differently?

If so, then this sadness again originates in you, and it would be futile to attribute it to anything not-you.

But suppose the one even says:  "Actually, I actively dislike most people I meet and want to hit them with a sockfull of spare change.  Only my knowledge that it would be wrong keeps me from acting on my desire."

Then I would say to look in the mirror and ask yourself who it is that prefers to do the right thing, rather than the wrong thing.  And again if the answer is "Me", then it is pointless to externalize your righteousness.

Albeit if the one says: "I hate everyone else in the world and want to hurt them before they die, and also I have no interest in right or wrong; I am restrained from being a serial killer only out of a cold, calculated fear of punishment" - then, I admit, I have very little to say to them.

Occasionally I meet people who are not serial killers, but who have decided for some reason that they ought to be only selfish, and therefore, should reject their own preference that other people be happy rather than sad.  I wish I knew what sort of cognitive history leads into this state of mind.  Ayn Rand?  Aleister Crowley?  How exactly do you get there?  What Rubicons do you cross?  It's not the justifications I'm interested in, but the critical moments of thought.

Even the most elementary ideas of Friendly AI cannot be grasped by someone who externalizes morality.  They will think of Friendliness as chains imposed to constrain the AI's own "true" desires; rather than as a shaping (selection from out of a huge space of possibilities) of the AI so that the AI chooses according to certain criteria, "its own desire" as it were.  They will object to the idea of founding the AI on human morals in any way, saying, "But humans are such awful creatures," not realizing that it is only humans who have ever passed such a judgment.

As recounted in Original Teachings of Ch'an Buddhism by Chang Chung-Yuan, and quoted by Smullyan: 

One day P'ang Yun, sitting quietly in his temple, made this remark:

"How difficult it is!
How difficult it is!
My studies are like drying the fibers of a thousand pounds
of flax in the sun by hanging them on the trees!"

But his wife responded:

"My way is easy indeed!
I found the teachings of the
Patriarchs right on the tops
of the flowering plants!"

When their daughter overheard this exchange, she sang:

"My study is neither difficult nor easy.
When I am hungry I eat,
When I am tired I rest."

Comments (31)

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Comment author: eric_falkenstein2 24 October 2008 12:22:18AM 1 point [-]

I think it's not binary. The 'humane' approach is focusing on the endgame, the 'moralist' on a tactic he thinks will get there. Strategy not mated to tactics is futile, so I think the Taoist in this example could be faulted for being naive: can't we all just get along? Clearly, some ethics, habits, are better suited towards humaneness than others. But the problem with the tacticians, the moralists, is that they are often wrong: their practices won't get to the objective very well(think about the poor Raelians). Indeed, any sufficiently comprehensive set of tactics will be wrong, and any right set of tactics will be incomplete.

Thus, I think it's wise to think about a good endgame, what gives your life meaning, satisfaction, and pleasure, but just as important is to think about specific rules that maximizing these objectives. You will certainly not pick the optimum out of ignorance and the difficulty of the problem, and so you will always be 'wrong', especially with hindsight, on both target and tactics, but that should not lead to nihilism, rather, apply your intelligence: learn throughout your life. By the time we die, we still won't have it exactly right, but good enough for this self-aware-subsystem.

Comment author: Peterdjones 21 January 2013 01:13:24PM 1 point [-]

I see what you mean, but there is still something to the observation that people who obsess a lot about morality generally aren't very pleasant.

Comment author: MugaSofer 21 January 2013 04:00:32PM -2 points [-]

It seems to me that the humane approach is endorsing a tactic of avoiding assessing everything in terms of the endgame; think of Tit-For-Tat, whose tactic completely ignores the opponent's predicted response. Of course, you need to think tactically in order to choose a tactic, but it could be counterproductive to continue taking it into account, perhaps due to limited time, computational resources, or something more arcane like Omega reading your mind.

Or, of course, because you run on hostile hardware.

(I do not necessarily endorse the "humane" position in that fictional debate.)

Comment author: Stephen_Weeks 24 October 2008 02:03:23AM 1 point [-]

I'm entertained to remember that one of the last things you said to me at Penguicon was that I'm evil. This post reminded me of that.

This is a really interesting post. This was one of my major disagreements with my church back when I was religious.

Comment author: TGGP4 24 October 2008 02:18:43AM 0 points [-]

gaining one's happiness through the happiness of others You even find that idea in Stirner. Though it doesn't exclude the possibility of happiness through the misfortune of others as well.

Comment author: Richard4 24 October 2008 02:45:10AM 0 points [-]

Aristotle, anyone?

Comment author: Venu 24 October 2008 02:53:09AM 3 points [-]

Ayn Rand? Aleister Crowley? How exactly do you get there? What Rubicons do you cross? It's not the justifications I'm interested in, but the critical moments of thought.

My guess is that Ayn Rand at least applied a "reversed stupidity = intelligence" heuristic. She saw examples of ostensible altruists committing great evil - and from there generalized to the opposite extreme - since altruism leads to evil, the only good must come from selfishness.

(Just to be clear, I am not defending Rand here.)

Comment author: Venu 24 October 2008 03:09:04AM 1 point [-]

To me it seems like this post evades what is to me the hard question of morality. If my own welfare often comes in conflict with the welfare of others, then how much weight should I attach to my own utility in comparison to the utility of other humans? This post seems to say I should look into the mirror to get my answer - but that answer is too crude - in the sense that I know I should care for others, but how much?

I think there is definitely a role for external influence here. My reading OB for the last year or more has made me consciously think of myself as a rationalist, and this has pushed me to behave in a manner consistent with my self-labelling as a rationalist. In a similar fashion, if I start thinking of myself as an altruist (having come under some external influence), I am quite sure it will push me to behave in a manner more consistent with that labelling. It is trivial/wrong to then say that this altruism was "latent" in me all along.

Comment author: notsonewuser 04 January 2014 04:24:27PM 0 points [-]

This post seems to say I should look in the mirror to get my answer

I'd agree with that. However, I doubt Eliezer would agree that you should only look in the mirror. Perhaps we can steel-man the concept: Look in the mirror, holding up the evidence you've gone out into the world to collect. At that point, if you see two pieces of paper with possible answers to your question float by, it will be you who chooses which answer is better. Even if one of the pieces of paper just says "Do whatever your parents tell you to", it would still be you who chose to listen to that piece of paper rather than another one. (Eliezer makes this analogy somewhere (and he does a better job than I did), but I couldn't find it; otherwise, I would have cited it.)

Comment author: Matthew_F. 24 October 2008 04:31:01AM 0 points [-]

Ahhm yes Mr. Yudkowsky, the Nike slogan "Just do it" rings true. I do hold in asteem two things I've learned in this blog. All that matters is caring for others and the most important force in the universe is intelligence.

Not that haven't thought those thoughts, but now they are intuitively true and can be argued persuasively by me. Thanks.

Comment author: different 24 October 2008 06:58:40AM 1 point [-]

"I hate everyone else in the world and want to hurt them before they die, and also I have no interest in right or wrong; I am restrained from being a serial killer only out of a cold, calculated fear of punishment"

I don't quite hate *everyone* else, I'm not a sadist, and nor am I tempted toward violence. But I do in fact dislike most people; I have relatively little interest in "right" or "wrong" as general concepts; and I deeply resent the fact that other people's interests are different from mine, and that society would be willing to conspire at a moment's notice to prevent me from imposing my will.

In short, I am like Zaire or Dennis, living in anguished resentment of my inability to seize the entire pie.

Now, because I'm a human equipped with the standard cognitive circuitry, I feel all the usual social emotions: empathy, jealousy, generosity, constant fretting over tribal status, etc. But on a deep level, I wish I didn't. I wish I could reprogram myself not to care about other people at all.

Sometimes I catch myself thinking "ethically"; thinking of myself as a "good" person, or at least that it would be desirable to be good. This always makes me feel "slimy" after a while; when I reflect upon myself with detachment, I am appalled by the smugness of the person I see. Further reflection reveals that the only reason I am (apparently) interested in being ethical is that the few people I like are interested in being ethical, and I think it's cool to be like them. Pure social reinforcement, and it drives my reflective self crazy.

So while I'm not a sociopath on the object level, as it were, perhaps I am on the meta-level.

I post this for the sake of seeing whether I fall into a category that EY had contemplated.

Comment author: Tim_Tyler 24 October 2008 09:36:50AM 1 point [-]

It's been a while - but IIRC, The Tao Is Silent is Taoism for nerds. I encountered Taoism via the martial arts - and TTIS skips over most of the bits of Taoism I find interesting, and goes straight for the bits Raymond Smullian liked - i.e. all the nerdy bits. As I recall, my reaction was something like: yes, this is all very amusing - but heaven help anyone who is learning about Taoism from Smullian.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 24 October 2008 11:45:28AM 2 points [-]

Though I don't recall the bibliography off the top of my head, there's been more than one study demonstrating that children who are told to, say, avoid playing with a car, and offered a cookie if they refrain, will go ahead and play with the car when they think no one is watching, or if no cookie is offered. If no reward or punishment is offered, and the child is simply told not to play with the car, the child will refrain even if no adult is around.

This and other similar studies are, I think, reviewed in Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards.

Comment author: Caledonian2 24 October 2008 04:24:48PM 3 points [-]

Heaven and Earth are not humane.

The Tao Te Ching repeatedly stresses the idea that the Great Way has as little to do with what human moralities label desirable as it has to do with what most human beings perceive as kindness, generosity, or mercy.

Humans consider it cruelty, indifference, and ruthlessness.

Comment author: Jon2 24 October 2008 06:56:05PM 0 points [-]

I think you're mis-characterizing Christian morality. The Bible makes a clear distinction between merely obeying laws, and internalizing good behaviors. It even acknowledges that the former can be quite dangerous, i.e. from Romans 7:

"For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code."

Comment author: Alan_Crowe 24 October 2008 09:11:26PM 5 points [-]

I think I can answer the question about Ayn Rand. Turn away from her heroes and look at her villains. They seem realistic and scary. How did she manage it? Well, she left Russia in 1926, having seen the aftermath of the revolution up close and personal. So I guessed that she attained realism by drawing on her own real life experiences. I wasn't happy with this answer, because her villains were too redolent of the corporatist new-speak of the Heath-Wilson years, too Westernised for Bolsheviks. I knew little of the Lenin years, so I left this little puzzle on the back burner.

Recent financial turmoil has sparked interest in the causes of the Great Depression. The basic tale is of a monetary contraction of one third. Trade barriers made a small contribution. I was not happy with the basic tale because the quantity theory of money suggests that a monetary contraction should lead to deflation. After a dreadful couple of years, in which both prices and wages fall by a third, the economy should start working as before, running on a third less money. Why did the Great Depression last so long?

Enter the National Recovery Administration. Its job was to introduce regulations for price and wage controls to stop deflation. This leads to a situation in which Hoover doesn't understand why unemployment is 25%, but he does know that he has done something right because real wages of the still employed have risen. Whoops! The NRA stopped the economy working around the failure of the Federal reserve and introduced lots of police state style snooping to enforce price and wage controls, plus the inevitable corruption and arbitrage opportunities for those in the know with the pull to take advantage of the situation.

Ayn Rand comes to the US in 1926, aged 21. Glad to escape the soviet system. Three years later, the Crash. That is followed by Americans making extra-ordinary policy errors and the American economy going down the tubes as though John Galt were seducing the competent people away. Plus she gets to learn the NewSpeak used to justify those policy errors and defend them from criticism. She goes on to write her wishfulfillment fantasies, in which these events don't just happen, there is grand historical design behind them. Her villains are skillfully written. It is worth reading Atlas Shrugged, all 3^^^3 pages, to meet them.

Her personal history is fleeing halfway round the world, to escape the bad guys, only to have "them" catch up with her 7 years later.

Comment author: Caledonian2 24 October 2008 11:27:07PM 2 points [-]

Rand is consumed by a need to provide a 'rationalized' explanation for the irrational behavior of her villians. In essence, she declares them to have a sort of Freudian death wish that causes them to sabotage and destroy everyone capable of living happily, ultimately ending with themselves dying last.

Peculiar, given how utterly incompatible her thinking is with the pseudo-scientific bent of Freud's... although the sort of cult that formed around them both is appropriately similar.

I'm pretty sure her thinking was wrong in that regard. Most people don't have secret, rational reasons they hide even from themselves for the irrational things they do. They're simply irrational. Rand, I think, could not accept that.

Comment author: Will_Holcomb 28 October 2008 11:02:03PM 0 points [-]

I chalk much of the varieties of human behavior up to the idea that there are several different ethical paradigms that individuals progress through their lifespan.

One of the distinguishing features of this progression suggested by a variety of researchers, Perry, Kohlberg and Gilligan come to mind, is a gradual universalization of identity. This change in identity has both personal and interpersonal repercussions generally leading to more humanistic positions.

Progression, however, is necessarily a function of identity alteration, which, depending on the chemistry and life experiences of the individual, may be unlikely to take place.

It's certainly an interesting question to contemplate and I like your inclusion of Taoism. So far as religious systems that impose a minimum of structure on the interpretation of experience, it's hard to beat.

Comment author: David_J._Balan 14 November 2008 06:18:27PM 1 point [-]

It seems to me that what's internal about morality is the buy-in, the acceptance that I ought to care about the other fella at all. But much of what remains is external in the sense that the specific rules of morality to which I subject myself are (at least to a large extent) the product of objective reasoning.

Comment author: MugaSofer 21 January 2013 11:24:21AM -1 points [-]

Albeit if the one says: "I hate everyone else in the world and want to hurt them before they die, and also I have no interest in right or wrong; I am restrained from being a serial killer only out of a cold, calculated fear of punishment" - then, I admit, I have very little to say to them.

Has anyone found a response to this sort of claim? Assuming you don't think the person is genuinely a clinical psychopath.

Comment author: Peterdjones 21 January 2013 01:22:31PM 0 points [-]

If you can get someone to backtrack, how they came to that conclusion, you can probably critique it. But getting people to backtrack is the difficult part. Being able to explain why you think what you think is a rarish skill.

Comment author: MugaSofer 21 January 2013 03:51:29PM *  -2 points [-]

Indeed :(

I just hoped there might be some sort of, well, reply to this sort of fake bullet-biting. I happen to know someone who uses it as a fully general counterargument - and they're pretty good ad redefining their claims so that any contradictions magically disappear when challenged. It's not unbeatable, but it is exhausting to have to pin them down on a contradiction with what they actually do - and then they can always shrug and say "well, I never said I cared about being well-integrated" and make my head explode.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 October 2013 12:52:46PM *  2 points [-]

The second type was a whole 'nother story, so I'm skipping it for now.

[emphasis added] Do you still remember what that was?

Comment author: notsonewuser 04 January 2014 03:52:43PM 0 points [-]

The "ethicists should be inside rather than outside a profession" link is broken. You can find it archived here.

Comment author: notsonewuser 04 January 2014 07:45:39PM 2 points [-]

They will object to the idea of founding the AI on human morals in any way, saying, "But humans are such awful creatures," not realizing that it is only humans who have ever passed such a judgment.

This is a gem.

Comment author: ialdabaoth 04 January 2014 08:58:04PM *  -1 points [-]

Occasionally I meet people who are not serial killers, but who have decided for some reason that they ought to be only selfish, and therefore, should reject their own preference that other people be happy rather than sad. I wish I knew what sort of cognitive history leads into this state of mind. Ayn Rand? Aleister Crowley? How exactly do you get there? What Rubicons do you cross? It's not the justifications I'm interested in, but the critical moments of thought.

Imagine that you are a genuinely humane person. You take joy in other peoples' joy; you are saddened by other peoples' sadness; you are pained by other peoples' pain.

Then, imagine that your attempts to solace other peoples' pain, to empathize with other peoples' sadness, to share or even increase other peoples' joy, are punished. Why? You don't know. An objective outside view might notice that you are too low-status, or that you have a cognitive deficit, or that any number of path-dependent tragedies occurred to lock you into an "all the other reindeer" feedback loop.

But all you know is that, time after time, people punish you for trying to make them happy or ease their sorrow, and they punish you for trying to understand what you did wrong, and they punish you for trying to understand why they are punishing you.

Then you come across several legitimately successful people, who are being rewarded for making people sad, or inflicting pain, or for attaching a price to other peoples' happiness.

And then something clicks.

Comment author: hyporational 05 January 2014 04:42:28PM *  0 points [-]

But all you know is that, time after time, people punish you for trying to make them happy or ease their sorrow, and they punish you for trying to understand what you did wrong, and they punish you for trying to understand why they are punishing you.

This would just make me operate more covertly and avoid the worst cases of such folks, but some people might not see that as an option.

I think your explanation covers more a simple change in values rather than people taking their philosophies too seriously which it seems to me was what the gp had difficulty understanding. Perhaps the latter behavior doesn't even exists and it just seems that way.

Comment author: blacktrance 21 January 2014 06:15:00AM 1 point [-]

Occasionally I meet people who are not serial killers, but who have decided for some reason that they ought to be only selfish, and therefore, should reject their own preference that other people be happy rather than sad. I wish I knew what sort of cognitive history leads into this state of mind. Ayn Rand?

As far as Rand goes, this is a common but inaccurate characterization of her. From reading her fiction, it's clear that the heroes derive enormous benefits from each other - emotional benefits, not just monetary. She certainly didn't advocate that people reject their preference that people should be happy rather than sad. In fact, what she advocated was something similar to this post - that morality is not an external burden but something that's part of you.