The case for being a terrible person

Bryan Caplan once wrote a post titled “Against Human Weakness,” where he said:

Human weakness is a choice, and it should be criticized, not excused.  I’m particularly baffled when economists say otherwise.  In what economic model is “lots of people feel tempted to do it” a reason to turn a blind eye?  I embrace a simple alternative: Do the right thing all day, every day.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  “Bryan’s holding himself up as a saint, but if I spied on him, I’m sure I could dig up all kinds of dirt on him.”  Perhaps you’re even hoping I’ll issue a hubristic Gary Hart-style challenge to follow me around.  My response:

1. I do many embarrassing things every day.  I sing off-key, dance badly when no one is watching, say things about people that I wouldn’t say to their faces, and much more.  I’d rather not see any of this on Youtube.  Still, I insist that my behavior is merely embarrassing.  If I thought it was wrong, I would cease and desist – not plead human weakness.


This has always struck me as wrong. The problem is that once you’ve committed to “do the right thing all day, every day,” you’ve given yourself a powerful incentive to rationalize whatever you do do as being the right thing. I find it interesting that Bryan is a deontologist, and has pressed a version of the argument that utilitarianism is “too demanding.”

I’m writing about this because of a recent post by Brienne Strohl complaining about the rhetoric of some people advocating vegetarianism/veganism within the LessWrong community. I think there was quite a bit wrong with it–a questionable account of the abortion debate, exaggerating the number of people who doubt non-human sentience even within the rationalist community–but maybe those things are beside the point.

She seems to have acknowledged some of those issues since posting the original Facebook version. At one point, she explained that she was mostly trying to convey how she felt about a certain set of pro-veg* arguments, and that’s where I think being a terrible person could be helpful. Er… not that you should go out of your way to be a terrible person, just maybe that you shouldn’t let yourself get too committed to always keeping your actions in line with your moral beliefs, and you should try to learn to entertain the possibility that you might be a terrible person without getting too distressed by that thought.

This post is relevant background here, but to use a non-animal-rights-related example, I want to have kids. It’s something I’ve always wanted, as a terminal value, for reasons almost certainly explained by evolution. And there’s no utilitarian justification I can give for wanting kids–at best it might be not very bad from a utilitarian point of view, and at worst you can argue having kids represents a huge commitment of time and other resources that might do a lot of good if focused elsewhere. And I can acknowledge that because I’m not too attached to the image of myself always doing the right thing. (See also Julia Wise’s discussion.)

This is in many ways the opposite of an attitude I seem to see a lot in the LessWrong community, which I’ve complained about before. They are very attached to their self-conception as rational people, to the point of giving flimsy excuses to dismiss outgroupers as Not Rational.

Unfortunately, I saw some of that in Brienne’s original post, which implied vegans in the EA community were guilty of “emotional manipulation” and threatened that if people do that, “I will block you and never trust you to have a fair, truth-seeking conversation with me ever again.” The original post complained especially about videos of how animals are treated on factory farms, a complaint she seems to have backed off from. But the revised post has other problems.

Brienne claims, “I am extremely disappointed in many people who have responded to my post in ways that cut off any possibility of honest discussion,” and makes a dismissive reference to “blue/green politics” (which in the LW-o-sphere, I’ve often found ends up being a lame excuse to dismiss politics you dislike–or in this case, maybe any view you dislike because vegan EAs aren’t pushing any policy proposals or aligning themselves with a political party).

I can sympathize with Brienne when she says she wants to be able to be emotionally vulnerable. Maybe the more strident animal rights advocates make that hard for her to do. But I’ve read through the Facebook thread she’s talking about, and I don’t think it’s remotely fair to accuse anyone there of “cutting off any possibility of honest discussion.” As Rob Bensinger pointed out, people in the LW community already use beautiful prose, fiction, etc. to get their points across, and it’s not clear why this issue should be any different.

TLDR; this attitude of “I am a rational person who would totally be persuaded if given a good argument and therefore these people I disagree with must be emotional manipulative Not Rational people” is incredibly unhealthy.

The great risk I see with the “everyone is terrible” meme is that it seems to naturally degenerate into “everyone is terrible but you can atone by adopting some superficial markers of in-group membership.” Take Christianity for example–Jesus says that if you want to be perfect you should sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and since nobody does that, it fits well with the doctrine that everyone is a sinner. But in practice modern evangelicals mostly end up caring what you think of gay marriage.

Or look at the online social justice community–in theory I should be on board with the social justice agenda, but in practice it tends to degenerate into a lot of language policing, disconnected from anything that really matters. (This is possibly an argument that that animal rights community shouldn’t let itself get too focused on “anti-speciesist language” or whatever.)

Possibly the solution is to keep reminding ourselves that even when we do manage to do the right thing, there’s typically a lot of moral luck involved. But I think a lot of it is just getting comfortable with your own flaws (without being glib). I’ll finish with a quote from Robin Hanson:

I don’t expect a lot out of humans. I love humans, humans are the best species I know, I tenderly enjoy their company and I love them – but I don’t expect high things from them, usually. I know how hard it is to just do the basics, so I don’t get angry at people for just being human.

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