A game of angels and devils

by [anonymous] 6y27th Sep 201363 comments


TL;DR: On the surface, many problems in the world seem more like inspired evil than unfortunate accident.

Every now and then I hear some conspiracy fanatic claim that all the greatest problems in the world are the result of inspired evil instigated by a handful of shadowy figures, and I will quietly shake my head in wonder: How silly and immature, and how very convenient for them, to blame the evils of the world on a handful of sinister individuals! I feel similarly about those who insist on the existence of a devil, or “a sinister force of negative energy” as the new-age types tend to put it, who they deem responsible for mucking things up for humanity. I find it amazing that even those who discard their belief in god will often hold on to their belief in a devil, as the one responsible for the world’s problems. As if humanity needs the help! This quote from The Gulag Archipelago comes to mind:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Or, perhaps more commonly known, Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” And I still feel this way: Human stupidity is so commonplace that it is surely a better explanation than actual malice, which seems much rarer. Yet recently, something happened which caused me to reconsider this position somewhat, during a conversation with a friend late one evening when we were waiting for the tram to arrive.

“Let’s play a game of angels and devils”, I said on a whim. “One of us plays the part of the angel, and his task is to come up with ways to improve the world in the most efficient way possible. The other plays the part of the devil, and his job is to make things as difficult for humanity as possible. The goal of the game is to see who comes up with the best ideas to further their cause.” The game did not really head anywhere, since we only had a few minutes, but I found the suggestions we came up with for the devil quite interesting.

We decided that the most important task to be accomplished by the devil in order to maximize human misery was to prevent any progress from occurring on the part of humanity, since we are both what you might call futurists. This meant first and foremost that education needed to be discouraged at all costs. Having just read part of predictably irrational, and with some other psychology texts firmly in the back of my mind, it occurred to me that the best way to discourage education might be to make it a chore. As Dan Ariely pointed out, people’s valuation of a good is very strongly influenced by the way it is treated: Setting an outrageous price for a good could actually create a demand for it, as seen with his example of black pearls. Similarly, it was noted in Freakonomics that imposing a (fairly low) fine for being late in bringing one’s child to a daycare center would actually cause parents to perceive a lower social stigma to doing so, thereby encouraging it.

In my role as a devil, I couldn’t help but notice what a fine job had already been done to discourage children from learning: By making it mandatory, the powers that be had managed to transform education from a privilege (as it was considered to be in the past, if elderly people are to be believed) to a chore. Not only that, but in taking away the ability of teachers to punish children in any other way, homework became the penalty of choice: “Hand in your essay on history in time, or else you will have to write two essays on history!” Not only had education become a chore, it had become a punishment to be meted out! What amazing ingenuity! And if that weren’t enough, by locking an overly large group of students into a relatively small compartment, the students naturally developed a primitive society complete with harsh pecking order and all the horror that implies (Paul Graham’s why nerds are unpopular illustrates this nicely). Of course, it is not too difficult to imagine the situation being made even worse: A truly diabolical mind would encourage complete indoctrination of children, with harsh physical punishment meted out by sadistic and frustrated teachers, as seen in some of the more primitive societies in the world. But in a western society that doesn’t allow anything too obviously evil, I find my devilish self in awe at how diabolically subtle and yet cruelly effective the current system already is at discouraging education and dispensing misery in equal measure. If I had designed the system myself, I would be justly proud.

And it’s not just the western educational system that gives off the impression of fiendish design. If the march of reason is my greatest enemy, then surely I in my role as devil would want to impede progress as much as possible by creating a mental framework that actively hinders any progress from occurring. What better invention for this purpose than faith? The notion of faith, the idea that it is somehow good to hold a proposition to be true, is surely the very anti-thesis of reason. “Believe what I say, or else you are wicked!” It is as if religion is a virus that was intentionally designed to curb any discussion and prevent any progress from taking place. I can easily imagine myself as devil shopping around in the lower levels of hell, muttering darkly to myself about how I need to stop those dang human kids from having reasonable discussions before it is too late and they discover the scientific method, when I chance upon this product: “Instant dark age, just add faith! This mental virus has been perfectly honed to maximize misery, and has even inoculated itself against the only thing that can destroy it!” With such a sales pitch, I would soon be convinced that I found the solution to all my problems, and I would go home with one “faithotron 2000” (including free trial religion). I’d probably hum a merry tune as I went to work, as well.

And what of politics? As devil, I’d find nothing more deliciously evil than having humans inflict misery upon each other, and it’s much more efficient than having to do it myself all the time. However, I can’t just have a group of Satanists actively hurt people; they’d be easily identified and killed, as illustrated in the first quote of this post. So what I’d need, clearly, is some system that justifies hurting others. Politics are great for this! Just have some people like Ayn Rand spread ideas like unmitigated greed being good, and presto! You get a whole bunch of people who now feel justified in spending all of their combined human ingenuity to hurting each other in an attempt to get ahead in society. They get more evil done together than I ever could by myself, and they are even supported in doing so by the very people who are oppressed the most! How wonderfully elegant! And what about the notion of nationalism, which causes people to hurt each other simply for being born in a different country or culture than their own? Brilliant! The notion of status, which causes people to aggressively compete with each other in a zero sum game? Lovely! The list of things that seem designed purely to inflict misery goes on and on.

Am I saying that there is a literal devil out there responsible for these things? Of course not. Nor am I saying that somewhere out there evil people are indeed committing insidious deeds just for the heck of it. But I did gain more sympathy for the point of view that many problems in the world really look like they are the result of malevolent intent, if you just kind of squint and blur out the details a little. If nothing else, I find the thought experiment a very interesting one.

So, what do you lot here on Less Wrong think? Is this post insightful, or am I merely cherry picking examples and interpreting them to suit my needs? What evils would you commit as devil? Do you want to see more posts from me in this trend or not? Please let me know what you think.