Some Additional Disjointed Thoughts Concerning Heroism

Because there were an awful lot of paragraphs that didn’t end up making it into that last post.


The drive to serve others, to achieve concrete positive outcomes in the world, is a fine and noble thing.  Consequences matter.  Human welfare matters.  Exerting yourself for the greater good is laudable.

The drive to be an extraordinary individual, to blaze like a star, is also a fine and noble thing.  Virtue and excellence are terminal values.  I want to live in a world of heroes; I do not want to live in a bland, boring, mechanistic world of value-maximizing machines.

These drives are not the same thing.  If you act as though they are the same thing, you will end up with a disaster on your hands. This is basically a special case of the injunction to purchase fuzzies and utilons separately, with “the urge towards excellence” being a particular variety of fuzzy.  Extraordinary personal greatness is not an optimal methodology for do-gooding, even if we’ve been culturally trained to think that it should be.  (This is basically the point of all effective-altruism literature ever.)  Do-gooding is definitely not an optimal methodology for extraordinary personal greatness.  (This is basically the point of my maybe-someday-to-be-written book.)

Like, if you need an example…

There are guys who wake up every day salivating at the thought that maybe today, at last, will be the day that they can rescue an endangered woman from her peril.  Cynical types will claim that this is all about wanting to enjoy the (sexual/romantic/whatever) usufructs of gallantry, and to some extent they might be right, but — that’s only a part of it, at most.  They know how the heroic story of the Prince goes, and they genuinely want to live it out.  They want to be brave, and caring, and strong, and thereby save the day.

I’m sure I don’t need to point out that this is a fantastically destructive, delusion-inducing attitude.  It pushes you into treating women like helpless non-agents in need of rescue, even when they really definitely aren’t.  It gives you an incentive to view all sorts of things as Dangerous Peril that you can Thwart, even when they really definitely aren’t.  Worst of all, it makes you actively want other people to do bad things to women, because you’re relying on them to take up the villain’s role in the story so that you can be the hero.  It aligns you against systemic policy solutions that don’t rely on your personal valor.

Or maybe you’re less stupid than that.  Maybe you avoid all the delusions, and you just sit home being kind of sad that the world doesn’t really need you to play the Prince.

The situation with effective altruism is almost precisely parallel.  People who want to be heroes of charity volunteer at soup kitchens or something.  People who really want to serve others, and are paying attention, donate a bunch of anonymous dollars to big faceless organizations so that they can save a bunch of anonymous lives.

Fortunately, you can have it all!  You just need to separate the heroism out from the service.  You don’t have to stumble across a maiden in peril in order to be the Prince; you just have to be genuinely brave and caring and strong, and you need to find a context where people will give you the opportunity to display those traits in a Princely way.  And then you can get behind sensible anti-assault policies that don’t rely on your vigilantism.


Some texts, and some people, deny that there is a widespread hunger for heroism.  Indeed, you can find a lot of sources claiming that our world suffers greatly because heroism just isn’t appealing enough — that we have all these dreadful problems, that we cry out for saviors to step up to the plate, but no one does that because we’re all too scared or too venal or too conformist or something.  I think of the Protomen’s eponymous album as being the archetypical manifestation of this attitude, but you can find examples all over the place,  in every milieu where answering the “call to heroism” is treated as a remarkable thing in and of itself.

All I can say is: this does not reflect reality as I have observed it, not even a little bit.  Would-be saviors are a dime a dozen.  All you have to do is offer people the chance to be heroes…even the merest, faintest, most ephemeral hope of it…and they will come in droves.  They will throw themselves into “tournament-style” career paths with brutal working conditions and minimal odds of success.  They will smilingly endure abuse and humiliation and poverty.  They will sign up to travel in dangerous places, to get shot by enemy soldiers, to wear dynamite vests or crash planes into buildings.  They will completely reconfigure their social lives, cut themselves off from their support networks, alienate all the people they love.  Over and over again, they will eagerly start defining themselves in comparison to their favorite fictional paragons.


To some extent, I think, the urge towards heroism is a syndrome of the modern age.  We are drowning in stories these days, more than we ever were before; we have TV narratives pumped into our homes, we have infinite books and book-equivalents available through the Internet, we have an uncountable legion of storytellers slicing genres and market niches ever-finer in order to give us precisely the tales that we most want to consume.  As has been pointed out over and over, for some of us all this media is becoming hyperreal, in that its tropes are starting to define our mindscapes more than the ordinary happenstances of reality do.  And, while real life mostly stars a bunch of regular people doing regular things, much of the media on which we gorge features tales of heroism.  Of course someone raised on a diet of hero-stories is going to think that he ought to be a hero himself.


This heroism thing is a problem with which the rationalist movement is very familiar.  When you’re trying to deal with concrete problems as efficiently as possible, the demands of people’s heroic narratives are a constant hindrance.  No, million-to-one chances don’t actually work out more often than one time in a million.  No, you’re probably not a genius maverick who’s seen something no one else could see, you’re probably just missing something obvious.  Effective altruism, in particular, suffers tremendously from the fact that the most effectively altruistic solutions tend to be boring and supremely un-heroic.  Just give money to the professionals, according to this algorithm that someone else will provide, so as to make sure that it goes towards simple low-risk interventions?  That doesn’t display any kind of heroic virtue at all!

As far as I can tell, the general rationalist response to this difficulty is: heroism is stupid, narrative is stupid, only concrete consequences matter, you should find your pride in doing the boring responsible self-abnegating thing because that is the thing that works best.  Here, look, we’ll say some nice things about you if you take the Giving What We Can pledge. 

And…gah!  Can you imagine any thinner gruel for the hungry spirit?  Can you imagine any ideology more straight-up unappealing to anyone who actually cares about being a hero (except for those who have independently made a cultural fetish out of bullet-biting)?  Can you imagine any pitch less likely to work?

You can see the failure play out in real time.  Even amongst self-proclaimed rationalists, even amongst those who are really into EA giving and other forms of non-individualistic outcome-oriented action, all the good consequentialist behavior doesn’t seem to be generating much in the way of identity support.  Those people still play out the same dramas as everyone else, trying to be wise and witty and righteous within the public eye, trying to shore up their various individual narratives.  And, if you’re willing to apply even a little bit of critical interpretation to their words and deeds, it seems clear that many of them still desperately want to have a grand individual impact on the world — to be heroes.  The abnegation of the ideal doesn’t seem to be sticking.


Some Additional Disjointed Thoughts Concerning Heroism

2 thoughts on “Some Additional Disjointed Thoughts Concerning Heroism

  1. Pseudo-chrysostom says:

    Women are helpless non-agents in need of rescue; most especially from themselves.

    But yeah the gist is on the right track; pretty synchronous even! I’ve been arguing much the same themes myself elsewhere, if with different language perhaps.

    If we get the meme magic rolling just right, we can get this universal holy war of existence really kicked into high gear. What wonders could be seen then!


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