How I’m trying to be a less "good" person
Improving my relationship with altruism ❤️, by trying to be bad 😈
The motivations pushing me towards altruism are many and diverse.
These motivations vary in:
Strength - how strongly it directs attention and effort towards the goal
Personal wholesomeness - how good it is for me (considering my whole life, not just when I’m feeling the motivation)
Impact - What specific altruistic things they drive me to do in the world
The most important drivers of moral behaviour (for me) are some combination of compassion and “being a good person” (the latter having the underlying emotions of pride and shame).
Compassion is a more wholesome source of motivation and is more strongly connected to wanting to actually help others.
I think it’s possible to deliberately weaken the strength of the good-person motivation, and doing so gives space for more compassion based motivation
Deliberately weakening the good-person feelings might look like trying to not be a good person. Maybe even deliberately doing things that make me feel like I’m being a bad person.
I’ve wanted to be a “good person” for as long as I can remember
When I was about 8 I collected Sylvanian family toys. I had a bunch of them, I knew each one, and would regularly play with them. One day I came home from school and found one that I didn’t recognize under my bed. It was not my toy. It must have been some other kid’s.
I’m still not sure what happened here; the most likely explanation is that I had lost that toy a long time before and had forgotten about it. But to my 8-year-old self, the only conclusion was that someone else had lost it and it had somehow found itself in my room. I was very upset about this. I have a distinct memory of being under my bed, holding the toy and crying. There were two reasons that I remember being upset: “Oh my god that poor other kid, they must be really sad to have lost this”, and “Oh no, how did I end up with this toy, I must have done something wrong”.
This is my earliest clear memory of experiencing the moral emotions of compassion and shame so strongly. The moral actions I have taken since (e.g. directing my career towards things that help others, going vegan, giving to charity etc.), are clearly motivated by both these emotions. Just as when I was upset about the lost Sylvanian, there are two key features to my moral feelings….
The key drivers of my moral actions are compassion and trying to be a good person.
I am motivated to help others because I feel compassion (or kindness or metta)
This is relatively simple, I perceive the suffering of others and feel a strong desire to help alleviate that suffering
I am motivated to help others because I want to be a good person.
I have a complicated, sometimes inconsistent picture of “a good person” in my mind. I suspect I have mostly built up this picture by looking at what other people say is moral and good (the outside view), but also from my own feelings of compassion and other moral intuitions about what feels right (my inside view).
This good-person picture includes things like:
Not harming others or saying mean things
Not lying and being open about my motivations
Not treating people differently based on superficial characteristics (e.g. their appearance)
Following politeness norms
Why I want to be a good person isn't completely clear, but I suspect it is in large part caused by a need to be accepted by others. Being a good person results in people being more likely to be accepted by others. People don’t like people they judge to be bad people. This means I am incentivised to assess whether my actions are the actions of a good person. When they are, I feel good about myself (pride) and when they are not, I feel bad about myself (shame).
It’s probably a little more complicated than this. And “Being accepted by others” isn’t necessarily connected to current reality. It’s more like my messy, inconsistent, internal sense of what leads to me or another person being accepted by some unspecified group. And it isn’t just about being “good”, it’s also about other things like being smart, cool, productive attractive etc…)
My core moral motivations in one diagram:
These 2 core types of motivations differ in a few way:
Strength - how strongly it directs my attention and effort towards the goal that is connected to the motivation.
Personal wholesomeness - how good it feels, considering my whole life, not just when when I’m feeling the sense of motivation
Impact - Often these motivations will lead to similar actions, but not always. The core disagreement between these 2 parts is that:
The good-person motivation sees compassion as inconsistent, arbitrary, and possible scope insensitive.
Compassion sees good-person motivation as not prioritising the needs of others where this conflicts with the superficial aesthetic of looking like a good person.
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Why I want to stop being a “good person”
Being a good person feels bad a lot and might lead to burnout
If you think that to be a good person you just need to follow a few simple rules (like not killing people), then you're going to find it pretty easy. But if you combine the “need to be a good person” with “maximising” theories of ethics i.e. theories like utilitarianism which put no real limit on how good you can be, then you are going to have a very bad time. This combo essentially means you are going to consistently feel a sense of guilt and shame about not doing enough. In my case this has led to burnout-risking over-work and generally exhausting levels of conscientiousness and shame.
Compassion generally feels better
Acting based on compassion just feels good. It feels like love, warmth, and focus. Acting based on a feeling of needing to be liked and accepted by others is more mixed, pride when it’s going well, shame and guilt when it’s not. Some people might feel that compassion does not feel good to them. This might just be that some people have different feelings about their feelings, but I suspect in part this is due to a slight confusion about what compassion is. To me it is the feeling of care, the feeling of wanting to help. This just feels good to me. It’s also possibly due to others having a more negative experience of empathy in response to observing suffering. This feels a little bad to me too, but the compassion and motivation that follow outweigh this.
Compassion might be better for actually helping others.
If you trust your own perceptions versus those of society, compassion based motivation is likely more correlated with actually helping people. The compassionate part of me notices much more quickly when it doesn’t quite believe my theory of change. The part of me that is looking for social approval only really sees the do-gooding as instrumental.
A challenge to this might be that some real and important forms of altruism are poorly served by compassion-based motivation. For example, maybe you just can’t connect to the experience of animals, or people living in the far future, but think they need to be helped purely out of an abstract sense of the good. I have found this not to be the case for me - those individuals are real, they matter, and I want to help if I can.
Caring less about what others think seems helpful generally
Being a good person reinforces the sense of needing to prove myself to others to be accepted. I think a small number of people need more of this - i.e. more sensitivity to what others think of them, but I am definitely not one of those people. I generally suspect most people would be better off caring less about what others think of them. This might look like letting go of the need to be a good person.
How I’m trying to “be a bad person”
So I’m trying to not “be a good person”. My strategy here has essentially been a form of comfort zone expansion with the identity of being a “good person”. I.e. trying to do small, safe experiments in being a bad person.
I initially thought this might need to involve actively doing things that seem slightly bad to me, such as littering, or low-stakes lying, or being slightly rude to people (e.g. not saying thank you). In practice, I’ve found I just get a tonne of benefit from simply:
Noticing when I’ve done something that is less than my ideal
Connecting with the intention to be a bad person.
Letting the subtle feeling of shame at being a bad person wash over me, while I connect to a sense that I am still lovable and acceptable.
“Not living up to my ideal” might include:
doing a slightly crappy job on an altruistic project
noticing I have some selfish ulterior motive in a social setting
saying something insensitively critical of the ideas of others
inadvertently upsetting someone close to me
In all these cases, instead of losing myself in the feeling of shame, I can try and connect with my intention to try out being a bad person and think “great! I did something a bad person would do”, that’s fine.
I expect this approach will also work for other sources of shame. E.g.
“Great! I spent all day lying on the sofa watching Netflix, exactly what a lazy person would do!”
“Great! I made a clearly ridiculous claim in a public setting, exactly what a stupid person would do!”
Also to be clear, I don't really think there are such things as bad, lazy or stupid people. I’m just putting things in terms that my internal moral judge understands. Maybe someday the judge might go completely, but he’s around for a reason, so I suspect he’s here to stay.
But I’m not abandoning being a good person completely
I don’t want zero sensitivity to moral norms, and I think I will always feel the emotions of pride and shame. My intention here is to start to rebalance my motivations. I’m disempowering that “good person” part of me relative to the compassionate part, but the good-person feelings aren’t going away. This has already been making me noticeably happier (feeling less shame) while having no obvious negative impact on whether I actually seem to be improving the lives of others. Also I now get to keep all those toys I’ve stolen.