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February 24th, 2021
The battle between good and evil is the eternal struggle, the one that underpins the stories of all great religions, literature, even film, and perhaps all media. The whole human race is even perhaps just an elaborate search algorithm that is tasked with figuring out exactly what is good, and by diametrical default: what is evil.
The pair, as concepts seem pure in their opposition. The whole world seems to stratify nicely as though the border between good and evil is the sharpest of knives, cleaving any and every situation cleanly so that the severed pieces flop into their respective categories.
As we abandon nuance, and the difficulty of making sense of the larger context, this framework becomes even more and more seductive. Suddenly it seems that everything can be reduced simply and irrevocably. There is a certain comfort in this idea. It’s seductive first and foremost because it’s so easy. But it’s akin to a man with a hammer seeing everything as a nail. Such reductionism suddenly reveals itself as a bad idea when that man with the hammer mistakes someone’s head for a sensible target.
The issue with such reductionism, and especially with this eternal pair of good and evil is that they are not diametrically opposed, but interwoven, each making up subtle and fundamental strands of the other. To try and cleave such things just ends up damaging the whole. Many stories wonderfully weave these good and evil tropes showing how confusing they can be interwoven, and yet, this interweaving and at core good and evil each themselves boil down to a single concept: incentives.
The story’s hero who has captured the villain believes he is doing good by doing harm in order to learn where his kidnapped daughter is being held. But the hero is simply incentivized to do such harm, and in this case the incentive appears to be very good. If however, the villain turns out to be brain damaged and saw someone try to attack the girl and saved her and brought her home to keep her safe, fearful that someone else might try to hurt her, then the villain suddenly doesn’t seem so evil. He was clearly incentivized to “do good”, which was perceived as “evil” by others who could not understand the situation correctly.
Upton Sinclair once said that it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. Money is just a stand in here. We all experience a pretty powerful incentive when money is involved. The deeper point of Sinclair’s statement is that we can simply be incapable of understanding something if we are appropriately incentivized not to.
Incentive as a concept runs deeper than just the stick and the carrot that either entices us onward or pushes forcefully. Incentive determines much of the shape, direction and porousness of one’s perspective. The surprising thing about incentive is that it’s neither good nor evil. Such a definition requires a certain perspective, a certain situation and station from which to view what’s going on. Incentive on it’s own is just a vector. What flavors it one way or another isn’t even it’s source nor it’s aim, but the location of those things in relation to other people. We are all essentially vectors, incentivized by a small number of incentives that are much the same across people, but which ultimately cause people to conflict when these individual vectors collide and intertwine.