You wake up in an alien spaceship, carefully watched by an alien in a chair across the room. It’s apparently going to be one of those days.
Seeing you wake, the alien crosses the room and begins speaking.
I’ll make this really quick. I’m one of the bad kinds of aliens, by your reckoning. Specifically, I’m the ‘callous experimenter who doesn’t care that much about how you feel’ kind. I’ve stumbled into concept some of your people claim they believe they believe; they say individuals should be made to benefit groups or humanity as a whole, rather than just individuals. As the bad kind of alien, this obviously strikes me as the kind of thing people just say to make themselves look better, but I thought I’d give you the chance to prove me wrong.
The alien leads you to a room that’s empty except for a single waist-high pillar complete with the kind of red button you associate with nuclear launches or emergency cut-off switches on industrial equipment. He explains that if you don’t hit the button, humanity is doomed; he will wipe all human life off the face of the earth and build a vacation home there. If you push the button humanity will be saved, but at a cost: his computer will randomly select 1000 people, who will each be moved to an empty space outside of time; though no time will pass in the outside world, they will each individually experience a year alone in white-walled room with nothing to do.
It’s not a hard choice for you; that’s going to suck for the people chosen, but “destruction of the human race” clearly outweighs “a bad year for 1000 people”. You hit the button. The alien looks surprised but merely makes some notes without comment and teleports you home. Over the next few weeks, you see news stories indicating the alien was true to his word; patients are popping up in psych wards throughout the world, clearly traumatized and claiming they had the exact experience the alien claimed they would. A couple papers come out describing “hermitage syndrome”, but the world moves on pretty quickly; only you know the truth.
A few weeks later, you wake up in the spaceship again. The alien is visibly excited, and explains he just realized he made a very basic mistake:
So there I was, sitting around thinking about the experiment when it hit me: I only tested whether or not you’d make choices benefiting the group at the cost of a smaller amount of individuals. What I didn’t test – and this seems obvious now – is whether or not a particular earthling would make a choice that benefits humanity at a great cost to themselves.
He brings you to the button-room again and explains the cost/benefit math to pushing the button hasn’t changed at all, but instead of spreading the cost and making 1000 people spend a year in the room, he’s applying it directly to you. Either humanity is doomed, or you experience a millennia in a room, alone, with nothing but your thoughts to occupy you.
I think about this sometimes when I’m feeling good about how moral I’d like to think I am. More specifically, I think about scenarios like this where the right answer seems clear to me but where choosing it would come at some significant cost or difficulty. Would I, given the opportunity, hit a button that sacrificed my family to save the population of a country? Would I allow myself to be cast into some hell in place of one of my sons? Would I indeed manage to stay faithful to my wife during five years lost and unrecovered on naked woman island?
What matters in this particular mental exercise isn’t determining whether or not I choose the correct options – I think in each situation it would be very easy to say I would, but that outside the harsh reality of the actual confrontational moment these self-assurances don’t mean a whole lot. In each case, either the utility of the thing is clear, or my duties as self-defined and voluntarily sworn are. There’s no confusion as to what I should do, but I wouldn’t know where to even start in setting the odds that I would do them. And lest the extreme nature of the examples above mislead you, understand I’m similarly unsure I’d pass much more minor tests; I’m unsure, for example, that I could be consistently trusted to wake up at 2 AM, get dressed, and drive seven hours to Los Angeles to pick up a stranded friend.
Christianity is not unique among philosophical systems in acknowledging that the morality of man is weak and flawed, but as far as I know it makes the biggest deal out of the fact of all the major religions. In the dogma, all men are sinful and fall short of higher standards; repeated failure is not only known as a risk but absolutely expected of anyone. From the perspective of being within my religion, mental exercises like those above are useful to me in terms of correcting my mindset about myself from the inaccurate “I guess I’m a pretty decent guy; I’m as good as anyone else” to the less pleasing but more accurate “I’m one projected lever-pull from dooming humanity to save myself a comparatively small inconvenience, and one easy excuse from leaving a friend panicked and alone in a terrible city”.
EDITED TO ADD: When writing this, I was in the passenger seat while my wife took her shift driving back from LA. Not 30 minutes later, the engine on our car decided it wasn’t imploding nearly enough; we spent four hours at a gas station before we could get a tow truck and a friend to drive us home. Thanks, Michael!
Case in point: I have the good fortune of having a few subscribers to this blog who see fit to pay me, and thus some people I have a clear duty to in terms of creating content they might enjoy. I’ve had a very busy couple of months, but nothing beginning to touch on making me so busy I couldn’t have eked out a couple hours here and there to write a weekly article as I’m supposed to. But I didn’t; I had some level of obligation, and it was incredibly natural to simply ignore this obligation and watch a British priest solve mysteries instead of fulfilling it. This makes no sense if I’m a fundamentally good person who does good things from reflex, but it makes perfect sense if I’m a fundamentally flawed person who defaults to maximizing his own comforts and rewards above all else.
I highly suspect that if everyone acknowledged and kept front-of-mind the idea that they are in a moral car with shot alignment that without conscious correction constantly veers towards “bad stuff”, we’d live in a better world. I think moral behavior takes constant practice and a healthy amount of distrust of self. But I’m similarly suspicious that what I’ve done here in terms of trying to cast the color of my religion over the subject is going to convince approximately nobody of that point – I likely have just about everybody I can expect to win over with that tactic already.
What I’m interested in is figuring out how to communicate this concept or one with similar implications to a secular audience in a way that’s universally palatable to everyone. That’s a good deal harder than “God wants you to”, but I’ll give it a shot.
I’ve recently begun working in the world of technology start-ups, and in doing writing in that space I’ve found there’s a consistent philosophy among the companies there. Whatever words they decide to use to talk about it, it parses out to something like “good enough is not good enough”. There’s an idea that when you make products that are often intangible, entrenching yourself is much harder and offers much less safety. Companies that made their way by using better methodologies to destroy business models that had existed for generations are profoundly aware that the same could happen to them; if scrum and agile let them displace entire industries, some scrum or agile 2.0 edition could be utilized just as easily to put them out of a job. What was cutting edge enough to change the world ten years ago is bog-standard now, and bog-standard gets out-competed by the exceptional ten times out of ten.
CS Lewis talks about the idea that a rich person giving a great amount away might despite making a large impact be doing something that’s fundamentally easy for them; people they know are going to pat them on the back, and their riches might be such that a half-million dollars for them represents a smaller portion of their actual wealth than five dollars does to you. On the other hand, he says, some small dubious mercy from a street thug might be much more personally costly to the thug than the given fortune was to the wealthy man; his friends might mock him for it, and he’d potentially lose position and respect in a real way. The Bible’s story of the widow and her penny is similar; both stories paint a picture of giving as judged not only by the absolute value of the gift, but also as gaining a more profound spiritual weight when we judge the cost to the giver.
I think combining these things gets me in striking distance of what I want to talk about. The secular example speaks to the idea of evolving competitive environments; adequate is not a static concept. If the same is true of morality, and if one’s actions are judged relative to and in comparison to the actions of others, the person who coasts on yesterday’s ideas of morality is liable to get left in the dust by the guy who practices, keeps up with today’s methodologies and looks for new and exciting ways to innovate goodness. Of course, this only holds if you believe that excellence in this field is worth pursuing, but you probably do even if you aren’t particularly interested in actually doing it.
On the other side of things, you also live in a changing environment as far as resources are concerned; as a whole society is trending towards more resources, not less. It’s also trending towards more inequality, not less, especially in COVID times (I’m looking at you, software-engineer types who have done better, not worse during the pandemic. I’m in that boat; I know it’s a thing.). So for the most part we can say that those that have the resources to give have more than they’ve ever had and also have more opportunities to give of their wealth than ever. I’m not talking solely about money here; if you are socially rich, a quick look around will show you a sea of people absolutely drowning for want of other humans.
Staying competitive in a changing environment demands some sort of control mechanism to keep you on track. Whether or not you believe you are inherently veering towards bad, it would take a pretty healthy ego to believe you are naturally veering towards competitive excellence. Unless you have genuine faith that you are just naturally better than most people without even trying, you want some sort of system built up that nudges you towards the good. This is where the religious examples shine; they provide a signal light for the doing-enough threshold most of us would say we want to cross. And that signal light is, more than anything else, pain.
If you’ve accepted that the value of a good act includes relative personal cost in addition to the absolute value of the act itself, you’ve already moved into a world of proportions and percentages. It means that you are looking to verify that you are looking to feel the pinch as a confirmation that you’ve given a pinch-worthy sacrifice, something or a pile of somethings that add up to something that actually encroaches on your limits in an uncomfortable way. This is especially true if you want to continually improve; a workout that fails to leave you short of breath is one you’ve outgrown and a sign you are ready to move onto something more intense.
Please, please do not take this too be religious bragging. I’m not saying I’m good at any of this at all. When I go to look to see if I’m being a good friend to people, the answer is usually no. When I look to see how much of my money I break off for people who need it, it’s usually not impressive in terms of absolute value OR how much it hurt to give. And if you’ve been following along for any length of time you know a large part of my personality is becoming enraged at people over sometimes-small disagreements.
But I do want to do better, and I don’t think that’s exclusive to me or my religious brethren. I think atheists and fake Dave Matthews both agree in large part that being good is good; I think most would agree that being more good is even better. And I suspect that whether or not you get on board with a “humans are default-bad” framing, most people’s efforts to be good would see a benefit from staying actively aware that better-than-default goodness can only result from more-than-default effort, from more-than-default introspection and honesty in self-inspection, and more-than-default tolerance for sometimes-painful sacrifice.
I think it’s becoming more and more apparent as time goes on that good enough really isn’t good enough anymore; maybe it never was. I think the best we’ve probably got from letting “good person” be a title one can earn just by not being actively bad is people who are just that – usually not actively bad, even if they are sometimes aggressively mediocre at best. I’m one of those mediocre, but I think moving to a mindset of putting active effort into being a good person and thinking of that as something that takes work and active effort to maintain is the first step in moving from good to better.
Came here from Astral Codex Ten. I’m non-religious but after reading other writers was already fairly convinced that original sin is a helpful frame. That said, this is a good framing for why, and one I think I could use to decent effect if someone I was talking to expressed that original sin was a bad frame. Glad I read this!
Where did you find that alien story? Did you make it up, or did you read it somewhere? Is it copyright by somebody? I'd like to expand it into a short story, but I don't want to step on anybody's toes.