Commonsense Good, Creative Good

September 27th, 2023
ea, veg
Let's say you're vegan and you go to a vegan restaurant. The food is quite bad, and you'd normally leave a bad review, but now you're worried: what if your bad review leads people to go to non-vegan restaurants instead? Should you refrain from leaving a review? Or leave a false review, for the animals?

On the other hand, there are a lot of potential consequences of leaving a review beyond "it makes people less likely to eat at this particular restaurant, and they might eat at a non-vegan restaurant instead". For example, three plausible effects of artificially inflated reviews could be:

  • Non-vegans looking for high-quality food go to the restaurant, get vegan food, think "even highly rated vegan food is terrible", don't become vegan.

  • Actually good vegan restaurants have trouble distinguishing themselves, because "helpful" vegans rate everywhere five stars regardless of quality, and so the normal forces that push up the quality of food don't work as well. Now the food tastes bad and fewer people are willing to sustain the sacrifice of being vegan.

  • People notice this and think "if vegans are lying to us about how good the food is, are they also lying to us about the health impacts?" Overall trust in vegans (and utilitarians) decreases.

Despite thinking that it is the outcomes of actions that determine whether they are a good idea, I don't think this kind of reasoning about everyday things is actually helpful. It's too easy to tie yourself in logical knots, making a decision that seems counterintuitive-but-correct, except if you spent longer thinking about it, or discussed it with others, you would have decided the other way.

We are human beings making hundreds of decisions a day, with limited ability to know the impacts of our actions, and a worryingly strong capacity for self-serving reasoning. A full unbiased weighing of the possibilities is, sure, the correct choice if you relax these constraints, but in our daily lives that's not an option we have.

Luckily, humans have lived for centuries under these constraints, and we've developed ideas of what is "good" that turn out to be a solid guide to typical situations. Moral systems around the world don't agree on everything, but on questions of how to live your daily life they're surprisingly close: patience, respect, humility, moderation, kindness, honesty. I'm thankful we have all this learning on makes for harmonious societies distilled into our cultures to support us in our interactions.

On the other hand, I do think there is a very important place for this kind of reasoning: sometimes our normal ideas of "good" are seriously lacking. For example, they don't give us much guidance once scale is involved: a donation that helps a hundred people and one that equivalently helps a thousand people are both "good" from a commonsense perspective, even though I think it's pretty clearly ten times better to go with the second. Similarly, if you're trying to decide between working as a teacher in a poor school, therapist in a jail, a manager at a food pantry, or a firefighter in a disadvantaged community, common sense just says they're all "good" and leaves you there.

How do we reconcile this conflict, where carefully getting into the consequences of decisions can take a lot of time and risk strange errors, while never evaluating the outcomes of decisions risks having a much smaller positive effect on the world? I'd propose normally going for "commonsense good" and then in the most important cases going for "creative good".

The idea is, normally just do straightforwardly good things. Be cooperative, friendly, and considerate. Embrace the standard virtues. Don't stress about the global impacts or second-order altruistic effects of minor decisions. But also identify the very small fraction of your decisions which are likely to have the largest effects and put a lot of creative energy into doing the best you can. Questions like, what cause areas are most important, or what should I do with my time and/or money? On those decisions, make a serious effort to figure out what will have the best effects: read what other people have to say, talk to people who've made similar decisions, form your own views, consider writing up your conclusions, and stay open to evidence that you could be doing better.

For example, perhaps after a lot of thinking you decide that animals matter a lot more than most people seem to think they do, especially less-fuzzy ones like shrimp, and that improving their situation is one of the most urgent ways to make the world better. You might decide to start donating to support animal organizations, or even switch careers to work on it full time. You might decide to stop eating animal products as a way to show how important this is and build the world you want to see. But in your day-to-day life I'd recommend doing normal good things: maintain a good work-life balance even though your work matters a lot; give your friends honest health advice, not what will get them to minimize animal consumption; review restaurants as a consumer, not an animal advocate.

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