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The Umbrella Ethic of Good Faith

Reasonable morals require the eschewal of wilful ignorance

I'm concerned about the polarization in society lately, a trend that has been increasing for several years.

Sometimes a polar approach to certain issues may have some merit. The problem lies in an inability to understand the views of others (even though one may not agree). If one can see the mistakes that others make in their assumptions and perceptions, then one is more likely to be able to spot similar biases within one's own views.

I regularly update my beliefs and values. Underlying principles change very slowly, but new information can create a more nuanced understanding of certain issues that I previously had not considered or been aware of.

If we are to progress as a civilization it is essential that we learn to practice good faith.

In a time of increased strife, it saddens me to see so many people retreat into their ideological trenches, refusing to give others the benefit of the doubt, or attempt to view things from another's perspective.

Emotive Epithets and short-circuit-thinking abound, as people express a mean kind of quiet despair at those who 'simply cannot see the light'.

The “Russell Conjugation” taught me that most of us do not actually form opinions from facts, but from the emotional shadings of facts we receive from others.

In short, we form multiple contradictory opinions from facts about almost everything, yet we selectively empower others to tell us how to feel in order to choose on which of our opinions we will predicate action or inaction.
— Eric Weinstein

Hannah Arendt makes the case in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil that the worst evil of the 20th Century was not wrought by sociopaths, but by empathic people who were wound up so much in their emotive identities that they lost all sense of perspective, and de-humanised the 'other'.

Eichmann himself was a "habitual joiner" of societies that could give him some sense of strengthened identity, a group narcissism. He was also noted for "his consistent use of "stock phrases and self-invented clichés" picked up from these groups, and was reliant upon official euphemisms in order to hold the necessary cognitive dissonance. 

Having the right words is not enough to conceptualise clearly, the emotional connotations of language also frustrate this process. Perhaps this is one reason why many people find it easier to make executive decisions when thinking in a non first language, as words have less ingrained emotional responses.

Being precise in ones language and communicating in a non-inflammatory manner is a key component of good faith. 


We are taught from a young age to bolster our sense of self-worth by identifying with things outside of ourselves. Identity is a morass that ensnares all of us to some degree. 

In truth, the only thing that can consistently give us a true sense of self-worth is living well-reasoned values in daily practice.

Unfortunately, identity is often the thief of reason. Since our ego development has identity blocks built into it, the loss of an identity can lead to a kind of self-preservation panic whereby the ego confabulates in order to throw out the new information, no matter how overwhelming or well-constructed.

Keeping your identity outside of your ego is essential to good faith.

Nothing is more self-delusional than a guilty conscience.

When a person’s conscience is bothering them and they don’t want to accept that they are wrong they will go to great lengths to delude themselves (and gaslight others) in order to escape the feeling.
— Skinner Layne


Are your moral beliefs the same as they have always been? I imagine that you have changed your opinion about things many times over the course of your life, as you encountered new ideas, or developed sufficient observations to observe the ugly consequences of even the most noble intentions.

It appears to be rather unfashionable to be a moderate anything these days, and yet moral conviction and certainty is what enables spree killers. A healthy ambivalence is generally a virtue

This virtue expresses itself as a reticence to make a judgment call before having developed an in-depth analysis, and a willingness to admit that one may have been in error, and to accept the challenge of updating one's ethical map of the world (which may or may not require changes in lifestyle and daily practice).

The only way that we can develop ourselves into better people is by allowing ourselves the grace of having once been further from the truth, and the earnest pursuit of a path towards ground zero, acknowledging that relevant information to that journey may (or perhaps sometimes must) come from places not usually given time or credence.

The ossification of one's beliefs is a very dangerous thing. We all had stupid ideas when we were younger and poorly informed, which we have since discarded. Harbouring bad ideas is a matter of unfortunate fact rather than a moral issue. Rather, the underlying moral failure is often one of wilful ignorance, whereby one refuses to update one's beliefs even in the presence of overwhelming evidence.

The most overriding vice is willful ignorance, that deliberate turning-away from the potential of updating one's knowledge or values; To choose to ossify and join the dinosaur, for the short-sighted false comfort of being perennially correct.

Beliefs are naturally attuned to our sense of  identity. Beliefs are likely to be kept around if they serve a useful egoic protection function i.e. 'the reason I can't get ahead and because of these damned immigrants/racists/bigots/cucks' etc. 

One who aspires to be a person of better overall moral excellence should deliberately dig into points of view that are alien despite the fact that one has a chance of experiencing them as being unsettling, infuriating, or even outrageous.

When did you last change your mind?

Being open to updating your beliefs is essential to good faith.

Perhaps there are multiple ways to be morally right at the same time. Sam Harris notes that there can be multiple good answers to moral dilemmas without requiring moral relativism: 

"My model of the moral landscape does allow for multiple peaks -- many different modes of flourishing, admitting of irreconcilable goals. Thus, if you want to move society toward peak 19746X, while I fancy 74397J, we may have disagreements that simply can't be worked out.

This is akin to trying to get me to follow you to the summit of Everest while I want to drag you up the slopes of K2. Such disagreements do not land us back in moral relativism, however: because there will be right and wrong ways to move toward one peak or the other; there will be many more low spots on the moral landscape than peaks (i.e. truly wrong answers to moral questions); and for all but the loftiest goals and the most disparate forms of conscious experience, moral disagreements will not be between sides of equal merit. Which is to say that for most moral controversies, we need not agree to disagree; rather, we should do our best to determine which side is actually right."

I think every belief must be accompanied by a doubt, a reminder to check my assumptions every once in a while. The more sacred and deeply held the belief, the more important the reality check.

It is rarely my ephemeral beliefs that have gotten me into trouble, but rather the unshakable, unquestionable ones – the big view.
— Skinner Layne

The essential importance of epistemic humility

If one should update one's beliefs semi-regularly, then one should update one's credence often. 

But how can one feel certain that one has a decent understanding of the logic of views that one disagrees with, without biases sneaking in? Tools like Bryan Caplan's Ideological Turing Test can provided insights, by asking one to pretend to showcase a view that one does not agree with on a given issue, and then ask others to rate the likelihood of it being genuinely held by an adherent or not.

Another valuable method is the Double Crux favored by CFAR. The concept is that people often end up arguing past each other because of how they define the cruxes of their respective arguments in different ways. This process can even be managed internally, in order to deconstruct a situation that one is unsure about.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
— Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I

These are not purely logical perspectives on the world. We learn from neuroscience that emotion aids the logical functions in making sense of the world, and communicating context to others. 

Raymond Arnold once mentioned the idea of a GitHub for Beliefs whereby they may be revised over time and optionally shared with others, an idea I am most enthused by. Venkatesh Rao discusses the value of having 'strong views, weakly held', in order to balance the necessity for updating information without the risk of becoming wishy-washy and paralyzed through analysis.

Achieving the right balance of scepticism and credence is one of the toughest challenges we face as humans. I sorely wish that more of us were equipped with philosophy from an early age but I fear that actual philosophy is considered too controversial in these days of exalting the subjective.

In any case, being aware of the relative potential improbability of what you believe is essential to acting in good faith.

Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong.

All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on “I am not too sure.”
— H.L. Mencken

Non-violent argumentation

Hans-Hermann Hoppe's Argumentation Ethics highlight something important – If one isn't willing to play by the rules of a fair argument, then one may forfeit a right to be listened to.

The general premise is that if one threatens another with the initiation of violence (whether personal, or by proxy such as through legal means, or economic), then it doesn't matter what one's argument is, one has already lost.

Stephen Kinsella expands upon this in his concept of Dialogical Estoppel, that if one uses violence means to makes a point, then one has implicitly agreed to having violence used against one in turn.

Daniel Dennett also specifies rules of discourse:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

It is the mark of a good mind to work to understand and be influenced by others.
— Harriet Beecher Stowe (paraphrased)

Another model that I respect is Ozymandias' Enemy Control Ray, because this thought experiment forces one to search for universals that sidestep ideology and terminology.

The establishment of fundamental basic norms for how a discourse of disagreement may and may not play out is essential for any advanced society not to destroy itself. This is why we developed Geneva Conventions and the Treaties of Westphalia. I believe that we now need to go further, to establish norms for the resolution of vicious yet bloodless conflicts.

Flame Wars have been a thing for a very long time (with a chance of being flambéd for real).

Flame Wars have been a thing for a very long time (with a chance of being flambéd for real).

The weaponization of narratives can be insidiously non-obvious, as propaganda in all its forms are so common in our society. Weaponization can even be done in supposed defense of others, for example, by declaring that anyone who disagrees with a given statement or perspective must therefore be a racist, or conversely a politically correct fanatic.

In historical terms, one might have been called a blasphemer or a conshie instead. One must not permit an impulse to silence through ostracism to occur when people attempt to express themselves, no matter how unpopular an opinion. This terror even damages modern science through chilling effects, so much so that a rebellion is forming.

Politics ought to be a game of leading people to one's perspective, rather than making them afraid to openly disagree. When people feel as if they have been attacked, they shut down open enquiry and retreat to the familiar comfort of national pride and religious dogma.

We reap what we sow when we speak of and to others without respect – it returns to us amplified. When we believe in the importance and value of the moral beliefs that others have, even though we disagree with them, we can gain a newfound respect.

When we seek to engage earnestly and to protect the psychological safety of others, magic happens. We're different, but we're more alike than not.

It is the mark of a superior mind to be able to disagree without being disagreeable.
— Ann Landers

To preserve clarity of thinking, one must shoo away all weaponized narratives, even those that ones agrees with, and to call them out for being written in bad faith. To not do so, to turn a blind eye, invalidates one by proxy.

One must therefore learn to argue properly, or admit that it's just an affectation.

Making an argument without implicit threat of violence is essential to good faith.

How one responds to peaceful disagreements can betray a great deal about ones moral position.


In the final years of the Soviet empire, it experienced a pervasive societal malady known as Dofenism. As the stagnation of the 80s strengthened, and access to information increased through technology, people rapidly lost faith in the system.

They emotionally checked-out, save for a general contempt for just about everyone else, but particularly for the state. Dofenism can therefore be described as the state of mind of seriously not giving a damn. These people simply did whatever they had to in order to survive, phoning-in whatever minimal effort was required to meet their basic needs, and finding simple pleasures in meeting with friends and enjoying nature.

This was not indicative of dullness, in fact many of the most highly educated in Soviet society were the most ardent Dofenists, wiling away the years in dull yet cushy jobs, stoking boilers and guarding warehouses. 

When even industrious and intelligent individuals act in such a way, it is an adaptive attitude when one is facing an impending and unavoidable collapse.

If one is wrapped up in the system when it collapses, one's position and status will disappear and leave one reeling. But if one is already an economic outlaw, more-or-less, then one has the initiative to create a new niche for oneself within a post-collapse system.

Some flavor of Dofenism is haunting many within the West today.

From Airbnb-ridden cosmopolitan towers this may not be readily apparent. The blight of unemployment (and aspirational disability status) disproportionately affects the rural poor. Those lucky enough to have a minimum wage job have lost faith that they can earn more for doing brilliant work versus barely competent work, or that they could ever rise up over many years of solid service. 

the ones who truly cherish democracy don't complain when 'those people' vote the wrong way

Industrialization pulls people from the country to the city. This process still has not abated, but successive generations of brain drain have left many of those in rural communities with no meaningful way to compete with broader society. The lamentations of those who have been left behind are finally being heard by the cosmopolitans who abandoned them.

It's the ostracising attitude of 'cordon sanitaire', present to varying degrees in so many liberal democracies, that has enabled the current situation; The concept that we don't need to listen to 'bigots and deplorables', or can ignore large swathes of society that we would prefer to pretend don't exist, and don't merit consideration. 

This is not how democratic discourse is supposed to work. Nor is it acting in good faith.

One must allow people to declare their opinions openly in order to debate them, and for their wishes to be duly enacted to a degree that other groups in society are willing to compromise. Frustrating the franchise of such people causes (quite reasonable) contempt for democratic processes, and further reinforces a desire for some autocrat to show up and sweep out the broken system.

A lot of people are justifiably concerned by unchecked migration and rapidly shifting demographics. A lot of people are justifiably miserable as they increasingly feel entirely unnecessary in modern society. A lot of people are justifiably clinging to hope that there is someone they can believe in who will finally address these issues.

If 2016 taught future students of history anything it's that if one doesn't serve democracy, democracy is gonna serve you. 

...What suffices for evil to triumph is for well-intentioned people to argue with each other over stupid things
— Skinner Layne

The psychological yoke of clusters andmachines

The algorithmic biases inherent in our increasingly machine-driven media reinforce the tendency to find ourselves in ever more restrictive echo-chambers. When confronted with some salacious new gossip we often find ourselves flailing around, not sure what to believe until seduced by our peers from familiar ground.

During times of relative optimism and expansion people will rarely find time to bicker with each other, as there is simply too much good stuff around to enjoy. However, we are currently in a phase where a large portion of the populace increasingly feels that the spoils of progress are not reaching them.

Technology enables anyone to watch politicians and celebrities on TV and Social Media for instant call and response on whatever happens to be the hot topic. The connection is much more tangible and immediate, and this reinforces discussion and dissemination of political memes within narrow groups.

Politics has become more like a sports fixture, as tribes rally around populist demagogues who feed them the addictive drama that on some level gives them a welcome sense of existential meaning. Politics is no longer about conflicts of values; it is showbiz. They are simply giving the people exactly what they want.

Social networking is only the latest amplification of the partisan clustering process that has been driven by assortative mating, geographic mobility, and population density factors.

As we delegate greater economic tasks to machines, we will find that our economy itself may split, through boycotts whereby one preferentially purchases from those with similar values.

If we are to reap the benefit of the enlightenment that advanced technology can bring us we must ensure that a framework of good faith umbrella ethics are embedded within the principles by which they operate.

No matter what doing good means to you, if you truly wish to enact it, you must enshrine the metavirtues of good faith in your personal and professional conduct.

  • Understand & learn from others

  • Disagree without being disagreeable

  • Entertain an idea without accepting it

  • Hold two competing ideas in mind and still be able to function

  • Try to assume the good faith of others and that most people are mostly good, most of the time.

All reasonable ethics and behaviour stem from these fundamental norms.

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
— Yehuda Amichai