Good Guys Shouldn’t Finish Last

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I’d like to raise an objection to a broad spectrum of moral theories of whom we ought to deem morally significant. I call this objection “good guys shouldn’t finish last”. There is a tendency in our moral theory to argue that doing the right thing often entails indiscriminate niceness. Moral theories frequently demand that we be universally benevolent to all beings with certain biological characteristics such as being human, feeling pain, having complex thought, or some such thing. The trouble with all moral theories of this kind is that they result in the moral practitioner, the being trying to do good, being harmed. I argue not only that this harm occurs, but that it is a knockdown objection to any moral theory if the beings it deems morally good have worse lives than the beings it deems morally bad–i.e., if the good guys finish last. I will illustrate each point in sequence.

Indiscriminate Niceness Leads to Self-Harm

A moral theory is one of indiscriminate niceness if the theory mandates that we consider as morally significant all agents with certain biological characteristics. It is indiscriminate insofar as it does not delineate between beings that behave in ways that benefit others and beings that do not. Often indiscriminately nice theories argue that all human beings have moral value, or all sapient beings (including intelligent aliens) or all sentient beings (including intelligent aliens and animals). Indiscriminately nice theories hold that beings matter just by virtue of existing in one of these states.

I wish to separate out two different kinds of indiscriminately nice theories:

  1. Altruistic Theories (Or Perfectly Indiscriminately Nice Theories)–in which all beings are given the same consideration by the agent regardless of whether they benefit the agent, fail to benefit the agent, or actively harm the agent.
  2. Self-Defense Theories (Or Imperfectly Indiscriminately Nice Theories)–in which all beings are given the same consideration by the agent regardless of whether they benefit the agent or fail to benefit the agent, but exceptions are made in cases in which the agent is actively harmed.

Generally, self-defense theories are more popular. It is fairly easy to see how an altruistic theory would lead to self-harm. Under altruism, we are, in effect, prohibited from giving ourselves any moral consideration at all. If Bob is physically abused by Betty, under altruism, Bob is required to treat Betty just as well as he would if Betty refrained from abusing him. He is even required to treat Betty just as well as he would if Betty were actively benevolent toward him. It is easy to see how altruism harms practitioners. Imagine if we all knew that Bob was an altruist. Some of us would likely begin to take advantage of Bob. We would know that regardless of what we do, Bob feels obliged to be indiscriminately nice to us. We could abuse him in every which way yet still receive the same treatment from Bob in return–Bob not only “turns the other cheek”, he loves his enemies as he loves his friends. This puts Bob at a disadvantage. We will be all be able to use him, and he will continue to benefit us regardless. Under altruism, Bob is a good guy, but Bob is disproportionately harmed. Good guys finish last.

Something similar happens in self-defense theories, albeit more quietly. In a self-defense theory, Bob doesn’t have to be benevolent to Betty if Betty abuses him, but Bob has to be benevolent to Betty regardless of whether or not she benefits him. Self-defense theories fail to recognize that non-benevolence is a form of passive harm. If Betty could be benevolent to Bob but fails to do so, she makes Bob worse off through inaction. If Bob is nice to Betty anyway, Betty has no incentive to be nicer to Bob. I’d like to introduce a brief thought experiment to illustrate the point.

There are three people in a forest–Jack, Jane, and Janet. Jack catches fish, Jane hunts deer, and Janet gathers berries. Jane is willing  to share her deer with Jack, provided that he shares his fish with her. Janet is not willing to share her berries with Jack regardless of what Jack does. Jack is trying to decide whether or not to share his fish. In this case, Jane acts benevolently toward Jack while Janet is neutral. She is not actively harming Jack, but she does not share with him. If Jack shares his fish with Jane, he contributes to a reciprocating relationship, in which both Jane and Jack benefit more than they would if the relationship did not exist. If Jack shares his fish with Janet, Janet gets fish without contributing. Jack simply ends up with fewer fish; he gets nothing in return. Even though Janet isn’t actively harming Jack, if Jack goes out of his way to be benevolent to Janet, Jack reduces his own food supply and self-harms. Janet, the morally neutral character, ends up ahead of Jack. Jack is the good guy under self-defense theory, but he finishes last.

Why Good Guys Shouldn’t Finish Last

Why is it so very bad for good guys to finish last? Don’t we often praise those who love their enemies, turn the other cheek, or sacrifice for others even when those others would be unwilling to do the same?  To show the importance of this, I turn to Plato’s Republicand to this bit from Thrasymachus:

And this must be considered, most simple Socrates: the just man everywhere has less than the unjust man…injustice, when it comes into being on a sufficient scale, is mightier, freer, and more masterful than justice

In sum, indiscriminately nice moral theories lead us back to the old Greek problem–they encourage people to act immorally by making immoral behavior profitable. In our examples above, Janet and Betty are the winners, because they still manage to extract benevolence from Jack and Bob without having to return that benevolence. What we end up with is a perversity of incentive. These moral theories are self-defeating. All those who are convinced by them and practice them will invariably finish last.

When practiced on an international level, self-defeating moral theories can even be an evolutionary disadvantage. The classical example is Europe in the thirties, in which countries like Britain and France demilitarized and accommodated other countries. Germany observed that Britain and France were committed to being nice regardless of whether or not it reciprocated this behavior, and so it took advantage of both countries by expanding its military and its territory. By the time Britain and France recognized their error, it was too late. If not for the United States and the Soviet Union, Britain and France would have been consumed by Germany. The good guys would not merely have finished last, they would have been destroyed. Over a lengthy time scale, moral theories that require good guys to self-harm in this way eventually lead to the elimination of the very behaviors they attempt to encourage. Benevolence itself is the ultimate victim of indiscriminately nice theories. By putting self-interest at odds with what’s deemed good, indiscriminately nice theories discourage the good.

When we are nice to those who are not nice to us or harm us, we harm ourselves. But what about Jack and Jane? If Jack is nice to Jane, Jane promised to be nice to Jack. Both were better served by cooperation than they would have been by remaining disconnected. We are better off when we are nice to people who are also nice to us. Genuine cooperation is a big advantage. We can encourage helpful cooperation without leading to self-harm by designing our moral theories differently. Instead of claiming that all people, sapient beings, or sentient beings matter, we ought to claim that all beings that are willing to help us deserve in turn to receive our help. In other words, we demand that the benefactors our benevolence reciprocate. If I’m nice to you, I can expect you to be nice to me, and if you fail to do so, I don’t have to continue to be nice to you.

In casual day to day life, we already do this. You probably expect your friends or your family to treat you differently from how they treat strangers. You would probably even consider it insulting if those close to you treated you the same way they treated people they didn’t know. Friendships, romantic entanglements, and family relationships are all reciprocal arrangements. We are extra nice to some people with the expectation that they will be extra nice to us.

It’s in the abstract where we get lost. We tend to think that individuals that are nice to their enemies or to people they don’t have much of anything to do with are morally better than we are. Instead, these individuals are foolish–they are allowing themselves to be taken advantage of, and they may pay the ultimate price for it if they keep it up. It is not good to help those who are unhelpful, it merely serves to encourage them to continue to not do their share. With that in mind, it may even be ultimately harmful. Sometimes, being nice is bad. Sometimes, we have to be mean to ensure that more of us are nice more of the time.