We genuinely just want to do what’s best for the world”

Someone recently described their in-group as follows:

We genuinely just want to do what’s best for the world.

How many humans have motivations this pure, and this transparent? Perhaps there are some. But I would guess that the vast majority who understand themselves this way are, in fact, misguided.

My guess is that most of us do better if we think of our motives as somewhat complex and mysterious—not simple and transparent.

I’m assuming that a more accurate self-understanding leads to better consequences on average. I can imagine cases, perhaps entire domains, where this is false. But on average, know thyself” is a good rule, I would say.

My impression is that the way we think, the way we recognise and weigh reasons, is heavily shaped by our motives in complex and pervasive ways that are hard to recognise or understand.

If that’s right, then a simple story about motives will lead us to misunderstand our own thought. I genuinely just want to do what’s best for the company”, says the employee, agreeing uncritically with the reasoning of their superior.

For my part, I like the story of: we’re trying to create and play status games with positive externalities”. Positive externalities” captures the altruistic aspiration, while status games” expresses realism about human nature, a sense of how hard it is to create and maintain systems where social status even vaguely tracks the promotion of the good.


November 8, 2021