Strength, not courage, is the second component of goodness

post by Srdjan Miletic (srdjan-miletic) · 2021-06-01T03:32:07.488Z · LW · GW · 5 comments

I've long thought that there are three parts to being a good person

  1. Wisdom: Knowing what the right thing to do is
  2. Courage: Having the bravery required to do it
  3. Choice: Choosing to do it

All three deserve their own articles but for now let's look at courage. My initial reasoning for courage was simple. Knowing is the right thing to do doesn't mean anything if you're too much of a coward to do it. When I was younger I would always imagine extreme scenarios when thinking about this virtue. Would I give up my life if asked to pledge to a false faith. Would I really choose death over giving up 5 innocent people to the secret police. As I've got older and stepped into the real world more and more, my experience has been that most people are essentially cowards and won't even pay the most minor costs to do the right thing. Experiences I've had include:

Still, the problem with courage is that it describes only resistance to forces from the outside world. To be good, it's not enough merely to be able to resist external pressure or social coercion. You also have to be able to master your own daemons. Whether it's the urge to cheat on your partner, greed for the last cookie or biases against other peoples due to your upbringing, many character defects, irrationalities and compulsions can lead you to immoral behavior. Resisting these internal daemons is just as much a part of being a good person as resisting external daemons.

What word captures the ability to do what is right irrespective of both external and internal pressure? I think strength is that word. A person who is strong will do what is right even when doing so is hard. A person who is weak will cave, whether it's to threats or to their own impulses. One issue is that whereas courage was too narrow, strength is a bit too broad. It can imply physical strength and also non-moral self-control. Still, I feel like capturing a slightly bigger area than I mean to is better than excluding half the area I want to cover.

crossposted to my blog

5 comments

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comment by elazdins · 2021-06-10T20:34:18.411Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One component you are missing is the ability to do the right thing, also known as power. I think strength comes under this.

For example, you might know that landing an airplane full of passengers is the right thing to do. You may choose to do it and you might have the courage to do it, but without the appropriate power (in this case knowledge how to land a plane) you can't do it.

Another example - you see a lady being mugged at knife point. The right thing to do would be to help her, even if you are couragous, but without the necessary negotiation or self defence skills, you can't. So your wisdom, choice and courage amount to nothing without the requisite power.

If you only maximize your wisdom and courage, without developing power, your ability to do good will be limited.

Replies from: srdjan-miletic
comment by Srdjan Miletic (srdjan-miletic) · 2021-06-10T22:56:53.819Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
  • Wholeheartedly agree that having the capacity to cause good outcomes is important. I'm not sure it's part of being a good person. Let's say you have two people. Both have the same personal amount of Wisdom and Courage. Both choose to do good. One person is born poor and the other is born with 100 billion dollars in inheritance. The richer person is undoubtedly more powerful and can do more good but does that mean they're a better person?

  • Maybe "ability" or some other word is better here than power. For me power implies being able to force other agents to do/not do things. Ability suggests being able to do something, even when that something doesn't involve other agents.

Replies from: elazdins
comment by elazdins · 2021-06-11T13:25:41.829Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do think pursuing opportunities to increase your capacity to do good is an important part of being good as a person. Ability works too, definitely, as in my book power is not much more than ability to carry out an action, whatever that may be. A transition that is possible to you, but maybe not others.

I suppose I would also swap the binary idea of being or not being a good person, for a continuous measure of "goodness". In fact, instead of saying that a person is good or bad to some degree, I think it makes sense to evaluate the morality of each act individually - how good or bad was that act of yours? As all people carry out good and bad acts each day.

And if we evaluate the moral value of acts, then having an ability to carry out these acts in the first place becomes even more important. We are all born under different circumstances, with different abilities. But it is also true for many of us (perhaps most) that we can develop ourselves, increase our capacity to help others.

comment by David_Gross · 2021-06-01T04:17:45.166Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Endurance [? · GW], maybe? Perseverance [? · GW]?

comment by Jeroen R (jeroen-r) · 2021-06-01T09:57:41.381Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think strength is fine. The moral aspect should be covered by point 3, Choice.

And courage can be as non-moral as strength, I think.