Reclaiming Eddie Willers

by Swimmer9631 min read13th Jul 201920 comments


Fiction (Topic)Altruism
Personal Blog

[Content: personal ramble, not trying to be rigorous]

When I read Atlas Shrugged a few years ago, it was one of the more intensely disturbing experiences I’ve had.

I remember that Eddie Willers was the only character I resonated or identified with much. He’s also, as far as I can tell, the only (even slightly positively portrayed) Hufflepuff character in the story. And the last we see is of him alone in the wilderness, as the last train breaks down – mistakenly loyal to the train company, an entity that isn’t capable of loyalty in return, and not agenty or cool enough to join the main protagonists in their escape from the collapse of civilization.

That...really got to me. I won’t make any claims about whether Atlas Shrugged is a particularly well-written book, or whether it even contains this message on purpose, but at that moment in my life, it painted a very vivid, compelling picture of a world in which to be Hufflepuff is to be unsafe, useless, unwanted. Incapable of agency or of doing the right thing when it matters. Eddie is an earnest idealist, trying to do his best by Dagny Taggart and her company, and that trait is his doom.

(I was recently quoted a friend of mine saying “a Hufflepuff among Slytherins will die as surely as among [snakes? Don’t remember exact quote]”. Right now, this feels like an example of that phenomenon.)

I notice a desire to push back against that interpretation. I claim that Eddie is flawed, imperfect, and his last choice ends up being ineffective, but not because of his earnest idealism. He’s being unstrategic, not paying attention to the patterns of his world and what will actually work – but I refuse to say that his caring about the train reaching its destination is a mistake.

Loyalty isn’t necessarily strategic, and blind loyalty can lead into disaster, but I refuse to say that having a drive towards it is inevitably a character flaw.

In the real world, it matters if trains reach their destinations. It’s a bad thing if civilization collapses because all the people who could have stopped it walked away. And it doesn’t make someone a fool, or pitiable, or merely a foil for the true protagonists, if they genuinely and earnestly care.

If I were in Eddie Willers’ shoes, transplanted as I am now into the world of Atlas Shrugged – I don’t think I would be blindly loyal to Dagny Taggart, or to her company. I hope I would actually take a step back, take my feelings of loyalty as object, and reflect on what mattered according to my values and how to protect those things as strategically as possible.

Still, I almost hope my journey would come to the same place – stranded in the wilderness on a broken-down train, because I refused to abandon society’s last hope even as everything crumbled around me.

I refuse to be ashamed of that. And, well, it doesn’t have to end there. The scene might fade to black – but afterward, even if I eventually gave up on that specific train and set it aside as a lost cause, I hope I would pack up my belongings and and start walking. Not away, but towards wherever I could keep trying to help.

In the world of Atlas Shrugged, maybe I would be truly alone in that, and thus doomed to failure. In the real world, our world… I don’t think so. I can be an earnest idealist, deep down, and I’m not the only one.


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The problem with loyalty is that it's only as good as the decision process by which loyalty is assigned and revoked. The in-story context in which Eddie Willers stands by the railroad is one in which the remaining technological and industrial base is being cannibalized for extractive purposes at an accelerating rate. If you can't, under some circumstances, revoke loyalty, then you're cooperatebot. If I'm in a zero-sum conflict with another agent, and I have the chance to cheaply destroy a cooperatebot that's robustly under its control, it's often decision-theoretically correct for me to do so. Scorched-earth tactics work on similar principles.

A heuristic of serving the best thing available doesn't fully solve this problem - sometimes there's nothing you can practically offer loyalty to that's not actively destructive. If you're not able to withdraw your labor in such circumstances, then you're stuck causing harm.

During WWII, someone like this living in Germany ends up helping the Axis war effort, unless they're ready to actually rebel against their government (which they usually won't be, it's dangerous and not for most people). It's much better if such a person is willing to slack off, when the alternative is to cause harm. Certainly keeping the trains running on time under such circumstances would not generically be a friendly move towards people like me.

On the other hand, someone like this living in an Allied country during WWII would have been helping the Allies win, and someone like this living in a truly robustly good society is of tremendous value to everyone around them.

I seriously do think that a large portion of what our society is doing constitutes a pointless war against nothing in particular, and some of it is specifically a war against minds, so this isn't just a nitpick, it's a core objection to keeping loyalty in your core identity.

No objection to identifying with being the sort of person who is loyal and dutiful when it's the right thing to do, if you make sure to cultivate the moral courage to do otherwise when that's better.

I'm glad you made this comment (even though I confess it's a bit triggering, but I'm going to try my best to respond calmly). I think it's useful for clarifying what I mean, which I hadn't disclaimered very much because this post was pretty low-effort.

I agree that Eddie-as-written is very unstrategic, and also unreflective, in that he doesn't show the capacity to question his own drives. He doesn't attempt to model the world around him and the actual impacts of his actions at all (e.g. I don't think we ever see him thinking in a consequentialist way.) Loyalty as a trait + not trying to question your decision process does seem very dangerous, but I'm not convinced it's dangerous in a fundamentally different way from, say, intelligence or strength or social savvy combined with not questioning one's decision process. Any capacity-to-do-stuff applied in a random or not-well-thought-out direction, or especially in a direction manipulated by an adversarial agent, is likely to be harmful.

I'm not exactly sure what you mean by keeping loyalty "in your core identity". The thing I mean to convey is that a) I want to recognize that I have a significant drive towards loyalty, and b) I don't have a moral obligation to rip that part out of my soul and rebuild my motivation system from scratch. Which is different from saying I don't have a moral duty to check whether I'm actually doing the right things. My higher-level ethical framework isn't one where loyalty is fundamental, I do try to check, and I've in fact broken loyalty bonds multiple times after reassessing.

I think I'm not an "obligate-loyal" person, I in fact have other drives and can function to a reasonable capacity through other sources of motivation; this is arguably what I'm doing right now, and I can't claim that it was always deliberate but I think I've ended up "slacking" when my S1 wasn't sure if a leader or institution was worth being loyal to. (I'm leaning towards thinking that loyalty-to-modern-institutions is almost always a misfiring of the drive, and have the start of a post on that.) Embracing my desire-to-be-loyal as part of me doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be an important driver in the near term; it may be that the current world doesn't offer actually-good avenues for this, for the reasons you pointed out, and I'm better off being slightly-less-fully-alive in exchange for not being loyalty-bound to an institution that might be harmful. But, just...yeah, I guess I like the framing in your subsequent comment. Maybe there's a thing wrong with the world, but I'm no longer willing to let people tell me that this is something fundamentally wrong with me.

Thanks for engaging with this difficult subject seriously and carefully. When I talk about keeping loyalty in your core identity, part of what I'm trying to point to is a tendency to interpret criticism of particular loyalty behaviors (e.g. the depiction of Eddie Willers) as an attack on your essence as a person. Sometimes that kind of criticism really is just an attempt to lower the prestige of the loyalty drive, other times the content of the critique is just a claim that some loyalties are misplaced, and very often things are going to contain some mixture of the two, and you have some choice about what part to focus on.

It's possible that unconditionally accepting your preference for justified-loyalty as a part of you might make it easier to accept such critiques. I expect that to work best if you're also willing to believe in an integrated way that they also serve who only stand and wait, i.e. able to go a while without external validation of the loyalty trait.

Another way to say this is that sometimes the world doesn't deserve Eddie Willers because it can't make the proper use of him. This is very unfair - it is literally abuse, in the original meaning of the term - I'm very sad about it, and consider it a morally urgent problem.

More on the pressure to be loyal to something. The things that seem actively helpful now are either actively leading the effort to refactor our civilization into something more value-aligned or claiming territory for a local value-aligned agent, or participating in efforts to do one or the other. But a lot of people might not be in a position to do either, and I wish I knew how to make them feel OK just holding off on all action except what they need to do to get by. I think the best case for cults like Hari Krishna is that they help obligate-loyal people do exactly that - just hang out, for the duration. Unfortunately, it seems like the conversion is permanent, not temporary, and I'd like to have the obligate-loyal people online again once it's safe for them.

Some thoughts from a different aspect of Hufflepuff-ness (the "niceness" aspect)

There's a kind of midwestern person who grows up in a small town where everyone is nice all the time. The Being Nice provides a clear benefit in the form of, well, the place is nice. It provides a less legible benefit of "the process of everyone being nice to each other builds group cohesion."

And that person comes to the big city. And being "nice" is no longer adaptive. And the people of the city also haven't quite figured out how to adapt to it. (Something from Vaniver's recent post feels relevant here. The Tao of being in a midwestern town is not the same as the Tao of being in a big city. But also, big cities are full of people who came from places with oddly specific Tao, and they haven't all figured out the Big City Tao, which often means the whole thing is afflicted by a vague pathology)

The Nice person starts out by trying to be nice.

Alas: "A Hufflepuff surrounded by Slytherins will surely wither and die as if they were surrounded by vampires."

The Nice person helps the people around them, at first hoping/assuming that they will be helped in turn, which never happens. Eventually the Nice person becomes a burnt out version of themselves, unhappy. And maybe they leave the Big City, or maybe they stay and are unhappy, or maybe eventually they find a small enclave of Nice people, or maybe they stop being Nice, or maybe they manage to keep being nice and just sort of accept that others won't be nice back.

But, the thing that would have been particularly valuable is if the Nice person had realized, and internalized, that Being Nice in the big city needs to look quite different from Being Nice in the midwestern town.

Being Nice in the big city requires backbone, in a way that Being Nice in the midwestern town was fundamentally about not needing backbone. [Maybe. I haven't actually lived in a midwestern town so I'm not sure I grok it]. My sense is that in the small town, the fact that everyone can trust each other without having to have their guard up is part of the magic that is going on.

In any case, in the big city, you need your guard up. And you need backbone to enforce your boundaries to avoid getting consumed. But more interestingly, you need backbone to be nice.

Hufflepuff Leadership, I described this as:

There's an important skill, early on in the Hufflepuff Skill Tree, which is something like "Collaborative Leadership."
The Hufflepuff strategy of "everyone pitching in to keep things nice" requires a mechanism to cause there to be a lot of people pitching in. If you're going to attempt to keep a place nice this way, you need such a mechanism. This requires a certain kind of leadership.
It doesn't need to feel like bossing people around – it can feel like "people making friends and helping each other out". But it does require a certain kind of assertiveness.
If you're pitching in and helping out just because you like to and okay with the notion that others might not do so, coolio. But if your goal is to keep a place nice, instead of making it nice for this particular afternoon, this skill is really important.

With followup:

If you're the sort of person in space where people come-and-go a lot, and as such, it's continuously important to be building Fight Entropy Capacity...
...and you have a natural impulse to, say, see that the garbage needs taking out and then Do So...
...then whenever possible, you should try replacing that impulse with something like the following:
— Find another person who can see the garbage from where they're sitting
— Say "Hey, want to help me take out the garbage?" (this works best if there's multiple bins, recycling, etc, so you legitimately could use some help)
— Show them how to actually do so (since it's often not clear what to do with a full garbage bag), and then where to get a new bag for the newly empty bin.
— End the interaction, not with a pitch for them to help takeout the garbage themselves in the future, but to ask other people for help the way you just asked them, and show them how to do it, so that the body of people who've ever thought about how to keep the space clean can grow.

I'm not sure that description actually quite works (and in any case it requires a number of social skills). It also applies differently in domains other than "take out the garbage."

But the core idea is that, in the big city, or anywhere that doesn't have a preexisting, self-propagating Niceness Meme, Being Nice requires leadership. Leadership requires agency, and willingness to deal with conflict, and the ability to actually figure out what's right for yourself.

And there's an important move people need to learn (not just for "being nice"), which is to backpropagate the awareness that "In this environment, niceness requires leadership" into their aesthetic of why Being Nice is good and beautiful and right.

Being Nice in the big city is still good and beautiful and right. But it's a different kind of good-and-beautiful-and-right.

I think there's something similar going on with loyalty. (I think the discussion in the other comment threads here are already roughly grappling with the right questions here)

Oh hey, that small midwestern town where everyone is nice to each other is where I grew up. And basically that exact thing happened to me in the Big City. Interesting to read this comment.

Hurray, my first principle models based on vague anecdata turned out to be true (at least once).

[This is mainly just more literary interpretation. You might find that boring.]

It is interesting to hear you interpret the message of Willers to be

Eddie is an earnest idealist, trying to do his best by Dagny Taggart and her company, and that trait is his doom.

My interpretation of that ending scene is that Rand thought the prime movers (Dagny, Rearden, Galt) were the ones who made things work. You had people who were honest and capable, but not great, and they too would be left in a stagnating world if the prime movers were to leave. It was to galvanise people to action - even if you're not actively trying to mooch off people, you won't be guaranteed a place in Galt's Gulch. And if you're "just average", perhaps you can do a lot more good if you find your Dagny Taggart to support and enable.

Not to say your interpretation is wrong and mine right, but I found it interesting to have two different interpretations, especially when I, too, resonated so much with Willers!

Also, I think loyalty to one's society is something that everyone in the plot shows. From memory, we see many characters (Dagny, Rearden, even Kellogg) struggling to step away from the companies they love. It takes them a lot of time (at least for the former two, as far as the reader knows) to agree to leave.

Perhaps the better question is, to whom should one be loyal? In the end Willers decides to save the company, but in doing so he decides to leave behind Dagny. If there was ever any fatal flaw to Willers (other than "not being great"), it is that he places his loyalty in his past, and not in the people he trusted. A Hufflepuff can be loyal and supportive, but they can't be loyal to everything. If the world is burning and there is a team of people who need your support, perhaps you should abandon the world - at least for a while.

(I don't find literary analysis boring at all!) It's been long enough since I read the book that I don't exactly remember all the bits, and it also makes sense that different themes could resonate for different people. I think your interpretation is probably closer to what Ayn Rand intended – she obviously doesn't think of Eddie as an antagonist, exactly, since he has positive traits and her antagonists generally don't. I agree, and probably she would agree, that Eddie was able to do more good by "finding his Dagny" (I mean, this is what I was trying to do at the time!) That being said, I...don't remember having the impression at all that he would have been welcome in Galt's Gulch, even if he had decided to pin his loyalty on Dagny herself rather than the railroad; I don't remember him even having an opportunity to find out that she was leaving or why. (I could just be misremembering this, though.)

[note: I respect Hufflepuff virtues and endeavor to have/show them, but I'm so deeply Ravenclaw that I don't fully feel the pain of the confusion when results of such are not ideal. If this is unhelpful, please ignore or moderate away.]

I have two main reactions to this post:

1) the whole point of caricatures with a small number of archetypes is to show that no extreme is really effective without some balance of the others. Naive hufflepuffism (loyalty and other-focus) with no amount of goal-seeking, risk-taking, or strategic decision-making is simply as useless (or harmful) as any of the others taken to an extreme. You don't have to give up on the value of caring and loyalty in order to see that it's not sufficient.

2) I think I have to deconstruct "loyalty" a bit before I can accept it as a virtue. To the extent that it's a motivation to carry on worthwhile relationships through adversity, it's nothing but admirable. To the extent that it's unquestioning sublimation of one's self to an idea or person, its harmful. And I might recommend "fealty" as a better word for that asymmetric, non-strategic abdication of responsibility to make good decisions.

On 2) I agree, but I think this is true of pretty much any "virtue" you could name – ambition, curiosity, kindness, humility, honesty/candor, etc. As you point out, no virtue is sufficient by itself, and no extreme is effective without some balance of the others. (Though I contest the fact that naive hufflepuffism doesn't already include some goal-seeking; caring about getting shit done is a pretty core Hufflepuff trait, and one Eddie Willers has in spades, though of course it may not be strategic or aimed in a useful direction). The main claim I'm making is that loyalty is a virtue the same way e.g. honesty is – not sufficient in itself, harmful if followed unstrategically and unquestioned, but good to have at all.

Another claim I'm making, though it wasn't very explicit here, is that there's not a single "right amount" of loyalty-drive to have. There's going to be a range where it's balanced with other traits and adaptive, different people are going to fall in different places on that spectrum, and that's fine. I have a high enough innate-drive-to-loyalty that I really don't need to cultivate more of it on purpose; it makes more sense to cultivate traits like ambition and self-efficacy that will help balance it; but I also don't think I should hammer that drive out of myself.

The main claim I'm making is that loyalty is a virtue the same way e.g. honesty is – not sufficient in itself, harmful if followed unstrategically and unquestioned, but good to have at all.

I wholeheartedly support that claim. It's generally good, and in normal cases it's better to have too much than too little. In extreme cases (especially common in fiction and AI mechanism design, and some in politics), the specific failures overwhelm the general goodness. I would only quibble that the line ranges not only across people, but across contexts as well, even for the same individual.

This will sound horrible, but I think the view of idealists as fools has a grain of truth. There are many people, entities and ideas that, if you love them, will reward you generously. Why waste your love on something that won't reward you?

This seems like partly a critique of unstrategic loyalty and unquestioned ideals rather than idealism per se, and (to my brain at least) partly like a type error – in my mind, the point of having ideals isn't at all that they will reward you.

I think this is fair re: loyalty to people – it's a red flag if you find yourself being loyal to someone who treats you badly, and falling into that pattern is a pitfall of being someone with a strong tendency to loyalty. Re: entities/institutions, I think it's more complicated, since I don't think modern institutions are generally capable of "being loyal back".

in my mind, the point of having ideals isn’t at all that they will reward you

Maybe not the whole point, but if I have some ideal that's about helping people, and these people turn out ungrateful again and again, it's a sign that the ideal might be wrong.

Overall I think this post would benefit from some exploration of what you think people who are disparaging loyalty are implicitly trying to do. Is there an implied strategy there? What sort of world does that strategy build? How is it different from the strategy or strategies with a place for loyalty as a virtue?

This will necessarily involve speculating about others' covert motives, which is sometimes thought to be impolite, but I think it's fair to speculate about the motives of the sort of people who level covert plausibly-deniable death threats at you such as "a Hufflepuff among Slytherins will die as surely as among snakes."

Considering motives is something that might be worth exploring in a higher-effort and more fleshed-out post, which this one is not. I do want to note that the Hufflepuff-Slytherin quote was from someone who I think would consider themselves a Hufflepuff, so read to me as a warning rather than a threat (and also was quoted to me second-hand, so I'm pretty uncertain about exact wording and don't want to speculate based on it.)

In case it matters, the original quote was "vampires", not snakes.

That part that you mentioned really hurt me while I was reading this book. I read somewhere that because he wasn’t exceptional he had no place in the new world aka galt’s gulch. Still, it struck a nerve. Toughest part for me to handle in the book right there