The Usefulness of Bad People
A thing I started noticing some years ago is that a lot of social groups formed around a core person or small set of people, and that often one or more of that core were just, to put it bluntly, slightly bad people.
Not, generally speaking, awful people - I’m not talking about people who you have to actively warn others away from - but they were definitely a bit inconsiderate, and often came off as a bit of a jerk.
I don’t even mean this in a charming sociopath sort of way. Their flaws often weren’t subtle. The people hanging out with them often knew they were bad people. But they continued to hang out with them anyway.
Why? Well because they were a great way to meet other people, and many of the people who you meet through them were much more pleasant and interesting. So even if you didn’t like the core people that much, as long as you were willing to be friends with them (and, remember, we’re not talking about people who were bad enough that you shouldn’t be friends with them, they’re just a bit jerkish), you’d be able to bootstrap a great group of friends off that.
Often what would happen is that you’d get smaller groups “budding off” from the main group - once people had hit a critical mass of enough friends within the community, they would start hanging out together separately, and sometimes they would stop hanging out with everyone else.
This was fine, because there were generally enough new people coming in to the community at any given point that they original core never ran out of people to hang out with (and besides, far from everyone left this way), which was I think key to why this dynamic occurred in the first place.
The core members of these communities had two important features that tied in to their jerkishness:
They were slightly bad at boundaries.
They didn’t care much about what people thought of them.
These two traits are, believe it or not, excellent for making friends.
They’re bad for making friends with any specific person, but if you’re happy to play the numbers game they let you do the pick up artist thing about not worrying about rejection: Even if they make it so that 50% fewer people want to be friends with you, if you approach ten times as many people that’s made you five times as many friends.
You can, of course, adopt this strategy without being a bad person. All it takes is a degree of confidence, learning to tolerate rejection, and generally working on social skills. But this is hard work, and being a slightly bad person just lets you skip all that and go straight to adopting the strategy anyway because you don’t care about whether you’re bothering people and you don’t care if they reject you.
This leaves everyone else with two strategies:
They could do the hard and uncomfortable work of learning to make lots of friends themselves, and then also do the hard work of building up a friend group.
They could just outsource the task to the slightly bad person at minimal effort and cost to themselves.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of people find the latter more attractive. It’s both significantly easier and also lets them leave their existing model of what good behaviour looks like fully intact. They can slightly judge the bad person, while maintaining their own image of themselves as a good person, benefiting from the bad behaviour while keeping their own hands clean.
I notice this pattern of outsourcing immorality a lot, and the more I pay attention to it the more of it I see.
Why are sales people like that?
A thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of sales and marketing people I’ve worked with (or interacted with in other context) are slightly bad people in the above sense.
Why does this happen so reliably? Well because the incentives are fairly strongly in favour of people doing the hard sell, being pushier than they morally should be, etc.
You could, of course, say that good people should choose to ignore the incentives and do the right thing anyway. This is true, but it elides how incentives work: The first step of getting people to respond to incentives is to exclude everyone who won’t.
Suppose you have two sales people, and one sticks to their guns and chooses to be a good person against the incentives. Now what happens?
Well the other one gets much better sales numbers. They get bonuses, they get promotions, etc. Possibly the good person gets fired, possibly they just get disgruntled and leave because of how much better the less ethical sales person is and how .
More likely they didn’t go into sales in the first place because they knew that this was the culture of sales and that they wouldn’t want to do it. Because incentives also create cultures that align with them in two ways:
Because of the way we learn behaviour from our communities, your voices of conscience (see Jiminy Cricket Must Die again) will tend to align increasingly with your behaviour and those around you, so eventually doing the thing the incentives encourage seems like the right and natural thing to do.
People build assumption on what that culture is able to achieve. If we’ve built a business assuming that a certain rate of sales is possible, it becomes hard to change the culture of sales within that business. In turn, the predominant culture of sales will tend to drive what businesses get created.
The result is that even if we, personally, are able to look down on the sales people because we would never stoop to the sort of behaviour they engage in, the fact that we don’t implicitly rests on having them there to do it for us.
Unfortunately this is a much bigger problem than that, because outsourcing much worse behaviour than this is pretty much how market economies work.
I would like to encourage you to read this excellent article about supply chain ethics.
In particular from early in the article:
The founder of Chocolonely, Teun (Tony) van de Keuken, founded the company with the goal of making the first (the “lonely only”) chocolate bar produced without labor exploitation. According to the company, this goal actually landed them in legal trouble: Bellissimo, a Swiss chocolatier, sued Chocolonely in 2007, allegedly claiming that “slave-free chocolate is impossible to produce.”
The core of this problem is is that the price system works as a black box, hiding the implementation of where things come from from its consumers.
Modern supply chains and commodity markets are an incredibly intricate system of interdependent parts that is far too complex to really understand. This complexity is, in fact, part of the benefit, because it grants us plausible deniability around the ethics of our actions. If everything is too complex to track then we don’t have to notice all of the bad people downstream of our decisions.
Importantly, as with the sales people, we never ask those people to be bad, we just say “I want this thing at this price, the details are up to you” and get to be shocked, shocked I say, when the only way to provide the thing at that price is slavery.
This has a similar dynamic to the sales people: In principle it’s perfectly possible to produce slavery free chocolate of course, it’s just more expensive (though not that more expensive - comparing Tony’s Chocolonely to Lindt it’s about 25% more), but once you’ve got one unethical actor in the market that will tend to drive down the prices people expect.
In addition, there’s a sort of “market for ethically sourced lemons” going on, which again acts as an incentive structure against fixing this.
The market for lemons is a problem that crops up in economics that, once you start noticing, is basically everywhere. The prototypical example is this: Suppose you are buying a used car. The car might be a “peach” (good), or it might be a “lemon” (bad). You, as the buyer, are unable to tell, but the seller knows.
As a buyer buying a car that might be a peach or might be a lemon, the price you’re willing to pay for it is going to be somewhere between the two - you might be willing to pay more than the lemon price, but you’re certainly not going to be paying the peach price. Unfortunately, as the seller, this means that if you know you have a peach you won’t be able to get a fair price for it. Depending on how much lower the customer’s price is, you might even only be able to sell peaches at a loss! As a result, the quality of your stock goes down (because it’s more or only profitable to sell lemons), so customers’ expectations of how likely your cars are to be lemons goes up, which drives down the price to closer to the lemon price, which makes it even harder for you to sell peaches…
The same problem applies for ethics. Suppose you can sustainably sell fully ethical chocolate at 25% above the rate for the unethical version. Suppose people were fully willing to pay that… if they were confident that you were as ethical as you say you are. As it stands, they’re prepared to pay somewhere between the ethical and the unethical price, and you’re in a market for lemons.
This can be solved a bit with standards authorities that allow you to credibly prove that what you’re selling is ethically sourced - e.g. fair trade - but it’s somewhat questionable how well those work, and they can raise the prices further due to the cost of the certification.
You also end up in a Goodhart’s law (“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”) situation, so after the same pressures operate within the standards compliant markets you get people reliably skirting the bare minimum of the standard (e.g. this seems to be the situation with “free range” eggs).
Ultimately, this problem probably cannot be solved without major changes to how society works, because this is not a “problem” from the the system’s point of view: The system is doing exactly what it’s designed to do, by giving us what we want at the price we are willing to pay for it, and it achieves that by letting us outsource the unethical details of what’s required to obtain that.
What to do?
Honestly, I wish I knew. The grand version of this problem is not something that I think we can do much about without a major political shift, and I don’t really trust anyone involved to get such a shift right.
I think there’s some more scope to fix local manifestations of the problem though, and this largely comes down to the fact that there’s a hidden assumption in all of this, which is that it’s cheaper to do things unethically. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.
One thing that has given me some hope this year is listening to Sarah Taber’s podcast. There she makes a convincing argument that a lot of this is not inevitable, and that this kind of exploitative capitalism largely doesn’t produce good businesses, because investing in workers, treating them well, and trusting their expertise, results in much more effective farms which produce better results for less money.
This works, but it requires a relatively high degree of trust between farmer and farm worker, which many farmers seem reluctant to build.
I’m insufficiently clued in to the details of farming, so I recommend the podcast if you want to learn more about that, but I think this pattern replicates itself throughout the working world: A lot of the relationship between management and workers is one built on a fundamental lack of trust on both sides. This is fixable, but fixing it has to start from the management side.
Focusing even further down, to the individual, I think one thing we can start doing is owning the fact that we’re doing this.
Certainly we have a moral obligation to own up to how good or bad we’re actually being, by accepting culpability for the bad behaviour we outsource as well as our own directly bad behaviour. That doesn’t necessarily mean we have to stop doing it, but we should at least be aware that we are doing it and factor that in to our decisions.
I think sometimes this will result in the slightly odd situation that it will result in us feeling morally obliged to become slightly worse people, because it will require us to engage in behaviours that we’d previously have outsourced. Ultimately, this is probably a good thing, both because it confronts us with the consequences of our action, and encourages us to do better than the outsourced version would have.
It probably does also mean we should think more about ethics in our supply chain, but honestly I’m not sure how much effort to invest in that myself. If there are clearly ethically better purchasing choices to make, it probably is worth switching to them, but I suspect that when the entire system is designed to achieve this effect, individual purchasing choices are a relatively high effort to reward ratio place to intervene.