What's Good? #001

Jan 18, 2024

Preface: This is going to be an ongoing series exploring "What is Good?" It will be messier than my other writing - in fairness to me, this is only one of the biggest problems humans have been trying to solve for all of recorded history. This series is a place to kind of pour thoughts out and share them, in a messy, preprocessed state, so we can have a conversation about it, and maybe, hopefully, make progress on how we answer this. Thanks for bearing with me.

The purpose of this is not to find an answer that is "right" from a lingual or an academic philosophy perspective (though, it does have its place) but to find a way to collectively define "good" in a way we can agree on and help global society. In order to do that, we're going to get some of the general philosophy, mostly normative ethics, out of the way¹. (If philosophy isn't your jam, feel free to skip it.)

  • Nihilism - Maybe the universe is uncaring and indifferent to everything. It is nihilistic and has no inherent meaning, and anything we do is simply attempting to ascribe meaning where there isn't any. Happy now? Nothing "inherently" has meaning, including these words. We made it up, and for that reason I'm setting nihilism aside for this.

  • Utilitarianism - It seems completely arbitrary, also nigh impossible, to me, that we would attempt to score "happiness" in a tangible way across all living life forms and attempt to trade it, like currency, to find some ideal state.

  • Consequentialism - Optimizing for things like wealth and population growth in a "more is better" mindset is, in my opinion, deeply flawed and we're not going to spin our wheels here. I think the same is true with any absolute, so things like Intellectualism, Welfarism, etc. fall into a similar category.

  • Deontology - While I appreciate this for what it is, we can't operate from a purely moral standpoint as we attempt to navigate the future.

  • Pragmatic Ethics - I only recently learned about this category, and it actually feels the closest to what this series is attempting to do insomuch that our morality should be treated more like science. Something to be tested and tried and built on by each generation.

This draft's goals are twofold. One, to explore how we came up with our current definitions of "good" and "bad", and, two, why it is more important now than ever for us to update those definitions. In time, we'll attempt to update that definition, talk about how we demonstrate it, and then how we actually share, and possibly implement it.

Where did "Good" come from?

As living beings descended from a long line of beings who managed to survive and reproduce, much of our prehistoric definitions of "good" and "bad" ² are simply aligned with our ability to survive and reproduce³. While I don't want to ignore nuance, I think it is best to start simply. Something that kills you is "bad" something that preserves you is "good".

Dehydration? 💀 Bad. Drinking water? 🙂 Good.

Drinking dirty water? 🤢 Not as good as clean water, but better to risk a chance of disease than certain dehydration.

So on and so forth. We mostly learned through trial and error.

Find and eat mushrooms? Good!

Find and eat brown gilled mushrooms? Good!

Find and eat white gilled mushrooms? 💀 Bad. Oops!

For a long time this general spectrum of Good vs Bad worked in our favor. It was easy to understand, and our evolution optimized for it.

Until, in time, we learned that too much of a "good" thing, is also "bad".

Find and eat calories? 😀 Good!

Find and eat too many calories for too long? 😞 Bad. (Hello diabetes.)

While these are individual examples of good and bad, they play out on a societal level as well. Indeed our ability to successfully live in groups prior to having recorded language probably helped shape what we now consider good and bad in major ways.

Let's use pain as a general example. Pain is bad. It makes the individual feel bad. It means the individual is less able to contribute to the group. It also means other members of the group have to care for the individual in pain, meaning they contribute less as well. This individual's pain is not only bad for them, it's bad for all of them.

One finds a plant you can chew and it reduces the pain. This plant is good! It helps the individual feel better and contribute, it helps the group not have to worry as much and better contribute as well.

This broad societal definition of good has enabled our civilization to thrive to this point. Unfortunately...

What Got Us Here Won't Get Us There

Fast forward from our tribal roots of dozens of people cooperating to interconnected societies totaling billions of people interacting in far more refined and granular ways. Pain is still bad. It still hurts the person, it still hurts the people who care for them.

We put our big juicy brains to work on that, and over hundreds of years we synthesize stronger and stronger painkillers. These painkillers enable us to stop stronger, longer lasting pain (bigger "bad"). Obviously the more of this painkiller people take, the less bad there is, and therefore the more good. Right?

Wrong. Obviously. It's a false dichotomy; I know you know that. Good and bad are not binary things. They're not really even opposites. This fallacy, along with several systemic failures including healthcare, governance, media, and markets, led to the death of over 100,000 people in 2021 alone.⁴

The opioid crisis is just one instance where we, as a society, are reshaping our world so quickly, and on such a massive scale that the traditional trial-and-error approach and learning from our mistakes is no longer viable. We've started pumping out things in such proportions and rates of adoption that we can't anticipate the impact it's having on us. Consider, for a moment, the amount of unintentional harm caused by lead pipes and paint, HCFCs, or asbestos insulation. Each of those things was "good" once. They each served a very useful purpose. Until we realized it was killing us. Then it was "bad". Those situations sucked, yes. But at least they were addressable.

Fuck Around and Find Out

We're now racing to develop new technologies that have the potential for unrecoverable consequences. Things on such an order of magnitude that problems like asbestos or opioids would be problems we long to return to. I don't say that to undermine the tragedy those substances have caused, but to highlight just how truly catastrophic some of our future mistakes could be. Even this short list of possibly existential threats should give us reason to pause:

  • Climate change (obvious one)

  • Raising a generation on screens

  • Social media and adolescence

  • Artificial intelligence

  • Accessible gene editing

  • Autonomous weapons

A myriad of industries are now tottering on the cutting edge of technologies that can have both a propitious, as well as possibly cataclysmic, impact on the world.

Unfortunately, our societal systems have too much momentum for us to simply step on the brakes to stop and reconsider things. Which means we have to find a way to use this systemic momentum against itself. A classic video game trope, sometimes the only way to beat the system, is to make the system beat itself.

I believe this starts with us getting ahead of the problems, and beginning to find ways to define, and agree, on "Good" before we make the mistakes. Before we've gone too far. We're going to learn these lessons one way or another. We can do it intentionally, and at least attempt to curb calamity. Or, we can just keep on keepin' on and roll the dice. Maybe we'll get lucky again. And again.

And again...

🎲🎲

PS - Click here to read the next part of this series.

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Chris Yoko

“However, I continue to try and I continue, indefatigably, to reach out. There’s no way I can single-handedly save the world, or perhaps, even make a perceptible difference… but how ashamed I would be to let a day pass without making one more effort.” - Isaac Asimov

© 2023 Chris Yoko - All rights reserved

Chris Yoko

“However, I continue to try and I continue, indefatigably, to reach out. There’s no way I can single-handedly save the world, or perhaps, even make a perceptible difference… but how ashamed I would be to let a day pass without making one more effort.” - Isaac Asimov

© 2023 Chris Yoko - All rights reserved

Chris Yoko

“However, I continue to try and I continue, indefatigably, to reach out. There’s no way I can single-handedly save the world, or perhaps, even make a perceptible difference… but how ashamed I would be to let a day pass without making one more effort.” - Isaac Asimov

© 2023 Chris Yoko - All rights reserved