Morality for sociopaths: why to just be a good person

In one of my favorite Paul Graham essays, we learn something basic about Graham’s perspective on life.

In almost every domain there are advantages to seeming good. It makes people trust you. But actually being good is an expensive way to seem good. To an amoral person it might seem to be overkill.

The question he’s asking is: is it worth it to go beyond seeming like a good person, and to actually be one? 

He gives the example of Ron Conway, the legendary investor. 

No one, VC or angel, has invested in more of the top startups than Ron Conway.

And yet he’s a super nice guy. In fact, nice is not the word. Ronco is good. I know of zero instances in which he has behaved badly. It’s hard even to imagine.

Is it merely a coincidence that the most successful investor happens to be such a nice guy? Taking an outside view, Graham notes that Conway isn’t an outlier. 

Though plenty of investors are jerks, there is a clear trend among them: the most successful investors are also the most upstanding. 

So what might be going on? Taking an inside view, it’s easy to draw a connection between Conway’s goodness and the good things that have come his way: 

All the deals he gets to invest in come to him through referrals. Google did. Facebook did. Twitter was a referral from Evan Williams himself. And the reason so many people refer deals to him is that he’s proven himself to be a good guy.

But couldn’t Conway and others have gotten the same benefits by being good strategically? Surely there are some occasions on which it’s beneficial to capitalize on an advantage, even if the other person wouldn’t call it “fair”. Maybe they won’t know. Maybe they can’t do anything about it.  

Graham offers two factors that weigh in favor of being good as a rule rather than opportunistically. 

The first is transparency. The more your actions and motivations will be on display for all to see, the more it matters that you be good. Put differently, the greater the transparency, the fewer opportunities for you to screw people over and not get caught. Graham notes that transparency seems to be increasing in the world as a general trend. 

The second factor is chaos. The more unpredictability there is in the world — the less you’re able to predict future events — the less capable you are of deciding accurately when it’s okay to be an asshole. The person that has no power to help or harm you today might be in a very different position next year. The farther out in the future you go, the less you’re able to predict how things will be.

Both of these factors weigh against being a moral opportunist and in favor of just being a good person. 

We might put it another way: there are long-term compounding benefits to simply being a good person. Humans reciprocate. If you are good to people as a matter of routine, then over time the number of people in the world that you’ve been good to will increase. You’ll be more and more likely to encounter people that you’ve been good to. They will want to be good to you. Furthermore, you’ll gain a reputation for being good. People that you’ve never interacted with will assume, based on your reputation, that you’re going to be good to them, so they’ll be predisposed to be good to you. 

A world where the people you encounter have a heightened probability of being friendly to you is a good world to operate in. So even for the sociopath motivated only by self-interest, it’s probably worth it to just adopt the rule of being a good person. Invest your scheming energy elsewhere.