Bad intent is a disposition, not a feeling

by Benquo 2y1st May 201774 comments

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It’s common to think that someone else is arguing in bad faith. In a recent blog post, Nate Soares claims that this intuition is both wrong and harmful:

I believe that the ability to expect that conversation partners are well-intentioned by default is a public good. An extremely valuable public good. When criticism turns to attacking the intentions of others, I perceive that to be burning the commons. Communities often have to deal with actors that in fact have ill intentions, and in that case it's often worth the damage to prevent an even greater exploitation by malicious actors. But damage is damage in either case, and I suspect that young communities are prone to destroying this particular commons based on false premises.

To be clear, I am not claiming that well-intentioned actions tend to have good consequences. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Whether or not someone's actions have good consequences is an entirely separate issue. I am only claiming that, in the particular case of small high-trust communities, I believe almost everyone is almost always attempting to do good by their own lights. I believe that propagating doubt about that fact is nearly always a bad idea.

It would be surprising, if bad intent were so rare in the relevant sense, that people would be so quick to jump to the conclusion that it is present. Why would that be adaptive?

What reason do we have to believe that we’re systematically overestimating this? If we’re systematically overestimating it, why should we believe that it’s adaptive to suppress this?

There are plenty of reasons why we might make systematic errors on things that are too infrequent or too inconsequential to yield a lot of relevant-feeling training data or matter much for reproductive fitness, but social intuitions are a central case of the sort of things I would expect humans to get right by default. I think the burden of evidence is on the side disagreeing with the intuitions behind this extremely common defensive response, to explain what bad actors are, why we are on such a hair-trigger against them, and why we should relax this.

Nate continues:

My models of human psychology allow for people to possess good intentions while executing adaptations that increase their status, influence, or popularity. My models also don’t deem people poor allies merely on account of their having instinctual motivations to achieve status, power, or prestige, any more than I deem people poor allies if they care about things like money, art, or good food. […]

One more clarification: some of my friends have insinuated (but not said outright as far as I know) that the execution of actions with bad consequences is just as bad as having ill intentions, and we should treat the two similarly. I think this is very wrong: eroding trust in the judgement or discernment of an individual is very different from eroding trust in whether or not they are pursuing the common good.

Nate's argument is almost entirely about mens rea - about subjective intent to make something bad happen. But mens rea is not really a thing. He contrasts this with actions that have bad consequences, which are common. But there’s something in the middle: following an incentive gradient that rewards distortions. For instance, if you rigorously A/B test your marketing until it generates the presentation that attracts the most customers, and don’t bother to inspect why they respond positively to the result, then you’re simply saying whatever words get you the most customers, regardless of whether they’re true. In such cases, whether or not you ever formed a conscious intent to mislead, your strategy is to tell whichever lie is most convenient; there was nothing in your optimization target that forced your words to be true ones, and most possible claims are false, so you ended up making false claims.

More generally, if you try to control others’ actions, and don’t limit yourself to doing that by honestly informing them, then you’ll end up with a strategy that distorts the truth, whether or not you meant to. The default state for any given constraint is that it has not been applied to someone's behavior. To say that someone has the honest intent to inform is a positive claim about their intent. It's clear to me that we should expect this to sometimes be the case - sometimes people perceive a convergent incentive to inform one another, rather than a divergent incentive to grab control. But, if you do not defend yourself and your community against divergent strategies unless there is unambiguous evidence, then you make yourself vulnerable to those strategies, and should expect to get more of them.The default hypothesis should be that any given constraint has not been applied to someone's behavior. To say that someone has the honest intent to inform is a positive claim about their intent. It's clear to me that we should expect this to sometimes be the case - sometimes people have a convergent incentive to inform one another, rather than a divergent incentive to grab control. 

I’ve been criticizing EA organizations a lot for deceptive or otherwise distortionary practices (see here and here), and one response I often get is, in effect, “How can you say that? After all, I've personally assured you that my organization never had a secret meeting in which we overtly resolved to lie to people!”

Aside from the obvious problems with assuring someone that you're telling the truth, this is generally something of a nonsequitur. Your public communication strategy can be publicly observed. If it tends to create distortions, then I can reasonable infer that you’re following some sort of incentive gradient that rewards some kinds of distortions. I don’t need to know about your subjective experiences to draw this conclusion. I don’t need to know your inner narrative. I can just look, as a member of the public, and report what I see.

Acting in bad faith doesn’t make you intrinsically a bad person, because there’s no such thing. And besides, it wouldn't be so common if it required an exceptionally bad character. But it has to be OK to point out when people are not just mistaken, but following patterns of behavior that are systematically distorting the discourse - and to point this out publicly so that we can learn to do better, together.

(Cross-posted at my personal blog.)

[EDITED 1 May 2017 - changed wording of title from "behavior" to "disposition"]

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