Thursday, July 9, 2020

Why do Good?

Summary: Why do good? In many cases it's simpler to live life that way. Humans are not robots so they need straightforward heuristics to follow.

Should a person steal if they can get away with it?
Even for self-interested reasons, a person shouldn't wrong other people. There may be cases where the payoff from stealing beats the risk of getting caught, but people are not robots and it's not worth the anxiety to constantly look out for such cases or worry about getting caught afterwards. It's simpler to just be an overall good person. To quote Epicurus, whose ethics was self-interested, "The greatest reward of righteousness is peace of mind".

Why should you help other people?
Even for self-interested reasons, it's worthwhile to help your friends, relatives, neighbors and coworkers. This builds positive relationships and people will help you back in the future. However one shouldn't just do everything in a purely tit-for-tat manner since it's hard to calculate how you'll be paid back so it's simpler to just be helpful. People can also detect if someone is genuinely helpful or just Machiavellian and they want a friend who has their back, not someone who calculates the optimal Bayesian game-theoretic expected value of a good deed.

However, it's fair to avoid being taken advantage of so you don't need to treat freeloaders the same as those who contribute back. This also doesn't address whether one should help a stranger, which is discussed later.

Should you do a good job at work?
As an employee, you can think every moment about getting a good performance evaluation and not do anything that doesn't directly help that goal. However it's simpler to focus on doing a good job and aim to be helpful to your team and company. In a healthy company, employees who do this will be recognized. You also need to keep an eye on getting a good evaluation, but it doesn't need to be your entire focus.

Large companies generally require some kind of formal performance evaluation so they can maintain certain standards across the company and avoid freeloaders, but they also want a healthy culture so that employees care about doing a good job and don't just focus on the measure. With the right balance, the company can succeed and reduce the problems caused by Goodhart's Law.

Should companies do good?
A company can focus every moment on maximizing profit or it can focus on a higher goal such as providing a good product or service to its customers. In theory, focusing on profits should lead to higher overall profit than any other approach. However, profit-focused humans tend to aim for short-term profits at the expense of the longer term company value:
  • A small business doesn't refund a customer and ends up losing the customer and perhaps their friends. 
  • A public corporation focuses on quarterly results and ignores long-term R&D, customer satisfaction or employee retention.
While a perfect profit-focused algorithm may be able to factor everything into the long term value, humans don't think like that. It's simpler to focus on following certain values, such as always providing good customer service, even if it's more expensive in the short-term.

A country cannot run on companies providing products or services based on their goodwill alone. There will always be freeloaders, and ultimately people need competition and a profit motive to try their hardest. However a country cannot flourish if every company is entirely focused on maximizing profits. In a healthy economy, the companies that focus on providing a benefit to their customers (and society) are the companies that will succeed.

A culture of good
In short, it's simplest for the employee or company to keep a daily focus on doing good, while also keeping an eye on the metrics they're measured by (whether performance evaluations or profits). The company itself certainly wants employees to focus on doing good work, and countries certainly want companies to focus on providing good products and services.

How can companies and countries encourage good behavior? A large part of it comes down to cultural norms and expectations:
  • Joe joins a company where everyone only focuses on what's explicitly measured in their performance evaluation. Joe can then turn down all work not connected to his evaluation and no one will think less of him. 
  • Joe joins a company where people fix whatever needs to be fixed and help each other out. If Joe only works for his evaluation, employees may look down on him, and that can even end up harming his evaluation.
A large part of culture is self-reinforcing so it's important for a company to get this right early and hire helpful employees and encourage them to be helpful.

Why is good successful?
If doing good doesn't capture all of the ways an employee or company is evaluated, why is it the best thing to focus on? I think this also relates to culture and what people value:
  • If an employee does good work but misses some performance technicality, a healthy company will still give a positive evaluation. 
  • If a company is known to do fraud or bribery, it will be harder for them to retain employees and customers in a society that values justice.
In a country where bribery is the norm, there's much less risk from participating in it, since people expect everyone to do it anyway. This is why it's important to build good culturural norms. However it's hard for governments to control culture; unlike companies they don't even get to pick their members.

Not the only reason to do good
The above all focused on achieving success, but one should do good for its own sake. By doing good one can achieve more meaning and happiness than from material success. And only doing good is fully within one's control.

If people do good for its own sake, they will also do good to complete strangers, even if it can't be paid back. The doer won't get any reward from this but for their own eudaimonia. And the country or world with more of such people will flourish.

Ethical systems
Now that we've come to ethics for its own sake, what ethical system should one follow? If one wants the best outcome for the world, it seems one should be consequentialist. A perfect consequentialist algorithm could calculate the optimal action in every case to bring the greatest good to the most people. However humans are not robots, and it's easy to use consequentialist thinking to justify bad behavior:
  • It's OK to steal a little from the wealthy, I'll get more benefit from it anyways.
  • It's OK to trespass this private property, I'm not hurting anyone.
An algorithm could correctly factor in how even small actions of stealing and trespassing add up to worse consequences overall. But for humans, it's simpler to just follow ethical rules or try to live virtuously.

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