Cross-posted from my website. Audio version here, or search "Joe Carlsmith Audio" on your podcast app.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
There’s a thing I call “sincerity” that matters a lot to me. In particular, it’s core to how I hope to orient towards the world. And it’s one of the main things I look for in people and communities.
My hope, in this essay, is to bring what I mean by sincerity into clearer view. But the term has a fairly rich set of associations for me, which I’m not sure will ultimately admit of a cleanly unified analysis. I start by discussing five of these associations. Sincerity seems to me closely related to:
- Something like truth-seeking (“scout-mindset”), but for agency as a whole rather than just beliefs
- “Not playing pretend”
- One’s different motivations working in harmony
- (Less confidently) Some stuff about non-ego/altruism/goodness
I then discuss whether we can unify these five associations under a single principle. I offer two possibilities for doing so. The first is conceptual, and takes scout-mindset-but-for-agency as the core thing. The second is empirical, and takes “not playing pretend” as the core thing. I’m not sure either is adequate.
I also discuss a few of the many failure modes nearby to sincerity: self-deception, extremism, over-confidence, “the-normal-rules-don’t-apply-to-me”-ness, sanctimony, over-concern with sincerity itself (both in others, and in yourself), and that most straightforward and fearsome of failures: just plain picking the wrong actions, even if you did the other stuff right.
Thanks to Katja Grace, Ketan Ramakrishnan, Claire Zabel, Samira Nedungadi, Cate Hall, Bill Zito, Nick Whitaker, and Dwarkesh Patel for discussion.
“Jeanne d’Arc écoutant les voix,” by Thirion, image source here.
2. Initial gestures
There is a true person of no rank who is always coming and going from the portals of your face.
Who is that true person of no rank?
Before jumping into the five associations above, I want to make a few more general gestures at the thing I have in mind when I say “sincerity,” to get us at least somewhat oriented. First, I’ll note and comment on some related words. Then, I’ll describe some related feelings.
2.1 Some words
The word “sincerity,” here, isn’t perfect. In particular, I think it over-evokes something directly social – e.g. whether you are accurately presenting your beliefs and motivations to others. Google says: “being free from pretense, hypocrisy, and deceit.”
I think something about pretense is important here, and I discuss it below. But sincerity in the main sense I have in mind is compatible with lying (indeed, this is one of the dangers I discuss in the final section).
Suppose, for example, that per grand thought-experimental tradition, you are living amongst the Nazis. You hate Nazism and have total, steely internal clarity about this. When you lie to your boss about your loyalty to Hitler, you are clearly being insincere in one sense – but it’s not the main sense I have in mind.
Also, “sincerity” tempts you to group candidates for sincerity into only two buckets: “sincere” and “insincere.” But much of life is neither actively sincere (at least in my sense), nor especially insincere – consider, for example, a casual greeting.
Still, despite these issues, “sincerity” is the term I actually use. And I don’t think this is an accident. So I’m going to keep using it.
Another word is “earnest.” This might be closer – though it can sound a bit breathless. The idea of being “in good faith” seems related, but also too social. “Genuine” is also too social. “Authentic” is too interested in the self. I’m tempted by “good will,” but unsure (more below).
So we’ll have to do without an ideal word, here – and without easy reliance on everyday linguistic intuitions. And all this stuff is a mash of hazy cluster-concepts anyway. Still, I’m hoping that with some examples, and some different angles of attack, we can bring something important into clearer focus.
2.2 Some feelings
Another way of trying to point at what I mean by sincerity would be to talk about related feelings. For example: there’s some experience, in my own life, that I associate with returning to a place of greater sincerity, after having been lost in some fog, some agenda, some background clinging I wasn’t seeing. It’s a feeling kind of like relief. Something unhooks and unblocks. Some space re-opens – one that feels receptive, responsive, and somehow restful, even if the circumstances are difficult and uncertain overall. There’s a feeling of renewed internal clarity and harmony; and also, a renewed sense of self-trust, non-shame, of being “on my own side,” of being willing to look myself and others in the eye.
It’s also a space that feels ready to collaborate, negotiate, figure stuff out, make stuff happen. It feels engaged, and like some sort of energy is flowing smoothly.
And beyond this, it feels good; like coming home; like something falling into its proper place.
There are hazier feelings, too. It feels like sincerity is the doorway to real life. It’s the thing that sees the real stakes. It’s the opposite of playing pretend.
Hopefully some of these words and feelings can serve as initial pointers. Now I want to look at five different and more specific associations in more detail.
3. Like truth-seeking, but for agency as a whole
I am a feather on the breath of God.
- Saint Hildegard of Bingen
Let’s start with the first association I listed above: namely, sincerity being like truth-seeking, but for agency as a whole. I’ll start with an example, then try for a more abstract characterization.
3.1 “Should I do X?” – fake and real
Consider veganism. Whether you’re a vegan or not, try asking yourself: “should I be vegan?”
No need to answer. I’m interested in what it’s like to ask. In particular: I think there’s a way of “actually asking” this question, and a way of “fake asking” it.
The “actually asking” version aspires to actually end up a vegan, if you should be a vegan; and to actually end up not-a-vegan, if you should not be a vegan. That is, it’s an effort to make your behavior genuinely sensitive to something. The “should” at stake is one your decision-making process is really trying to track, reflect, respond to.
The fake version does … something else. It resists opening the question fully. It’s not willing to end up going either way. Rather, it constricts; tightens. It has a flavor of threat-response. Maybe it says the words, but it says them slant – in a mental posture contorted, at some level, by something hard and closed. It’s not fully on board with the “should” at stake; not ready to follow this “should” wherever it leads.
Indeed, perhaps it’s so off-board, at some level, that it barely needs to tighten up. Rather, the question it mouths is stillborn. Conversation on the topic would be barely a game. So there’s no force for tightness to counteract; no risk of changing your life.
Vegans and non-vegans can both go fake, here. The non-vegan fake version is most familiar. Giving up meat and dairy is a direct and visceral cost. So is guilt about not doing so. The question threatens both. So it’s easy to tense up or shut down.
But vegans can end up tense/dead here, too. Probably, they’ve already paid lots of costs, to be vegan. Maybe they’ve built an identity around it. Maybe they’ve evangelized; announced; been a bit righteous. So the question threatens to deflate and disorient a core narrative; to make their sacrifice unnecessary; their activism, misguided. And the possibility that veganism – once noble and pure – is actively wrong is even more jarring to consider.
And there are other ways to end up in fake-mode for questions like this – especially if you’re asking them in social contexts. Sometimes, a social context doesn’t allow certain questions to be answered in certain ways – at least not without punishment. Maybe a part of you wants to say “yes, look, I value my own transitory pleasure and convenience more than I disvalue the severe suffering of these animals.” Or maybe a part of you wants to say more extreme or selfish or disruptive things. Stuff about dogs eating dogs and what lambs say about eagles; about which number one ultimately looks out for; about the sick hypocrisy of our pretenses of purity. “What is honor? Air. Who hath it? He that died o’Wednesday.” But perhaps polite company does not permit you.
"Falstaff with big wine jar and cup,” by Grutzner, image source here.
Perhaps, indeed, the polite company is not so polite. Perhaps the polite company is structuring the conversation and concepts in adversarial ways; pressuring you to use a “should” that is not really yours. Perhaps you cannot see this directly; but a part of you senses coercion, and that part shuts down, clamps up, rebels.
For this reason, I want to focus on what it’s like to ask this sort of question when you’re alone. To ask it just to yourself. To not be overheard. (Though even so, to be alone is not a simple thing. We are always overhearing ourselves. We have internal company, too — whether polite or impolite. And just as we can deceive ourselves, so too can we coerce ourselves. Indeed, the two are sometimes closely intertwined.)
The vegan example has a moral flavor, but you can ask fake “should” questions in less moralized contexts, too. “Should I quit my job?” “Should I break up with my partner?” (Or, maybe more likely, you can perpetually fail to ask.) Even relative to some more purely prudential “should,” such questions can implicate stuff it’s hard to hold or look at. The stakes can get high and scary. It’s easy to flinch away.
I don’t have a full story about the difference between actually asking “what should I do?” and fake asking. But something about this difference matters a lot to me. And it feels closely related to what I mean by sincerity. Sincerity actually asks its questions. And it risks changing its life in response.
3.2 The proper object of agency
Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you
- Matthew 7:7
Suppose we ran with this example. What sort of abstract characterization of sincerity would it suggest? Here’s a first pass.
Recall “scout-mindset”: the orientation towards belief-formation in which you’re genuinely trying to get to the truth. If you’re in scout-mindset, you’re not writing your conclusion first, then trying to argue for it. You’re not treating the process of belief-formation as a game, or a performance, or a status contest, or a dressing room for a new identity-costume. You’re trying to understand what your situation really is; what’s actually going on.
Scout-mindset and sincerity seem to me very closely connected – and they seem especially intertwined in the veganism example above. Scout-mindset is trying to follow the evidence where it really leads. Sincerity is trying to follow something where it really leads, too.
And they feel similar. Above I mentioned openness, responsiveness, and non-clinging. These are classic scout-mindset flavors. There’s something restful about not needing the conclusion to be one thing or other; something freeing about being able to just really listen for clues about what’s true; to just be trying to get it right, rather than to defend some agenda. Sincerity has a lot of that.
Indeed, I’m tempted to see scout-mindset as a part of sincerity. Specifically, the belief part. That is, scout-mindset is sincere inquiry.And sincerity is like scout-mindset, but for agency as a whole.
What does that mean? Well: truth is the proper object of belief (or so many scouts assume). So scout-mindset gives belief its proper object. Thus, if sincerity were to agency as scout-mindset is to belief, then sincerity would give to agency…
Does agency have a proper object? What’s a “proper object,” anyway? Sounds a bit prim.
Still, philosophers often talk as though agency aims at something. Something about normativity, value, “reasons,” “what you should do,”; the thing that the onrushing movement of your mind tries to reflect and respond to; the thing that can make choices into mistakes; the thing the veganism question above was about. So I’m tempted by an abstract characterization of sincerity that appeals to something like this. For example:
First-pass definition: Sincerity (in the non-standard sense I have in mind) is actually trying to do what you have most reason to do.
That is, just as scout-mindset actually tries to get your beliefs right, sincerity actually tries to get your decisions right.
We can break this into two parts. The first is epistemic: it’s scout-mindset, applied to the question of what you have most reason to do. The sincere person asks: “what, actually, should I do?” And they really try to figure it out.
The second part is motivational: it’s the readiness – indeed, the desire – to act on the answer that the first part supplies. That is, when sincerity asks “what should I do?”, the “should” in question has real pull and force. If you talk with a sincere person about what to do, it feels like a real conversation; like the part of them that will make the decision is “in the room” – speaking, listening, trying to see.
I’m interested in this definition partly because if, in my own life, I start to feel like I’ve lost touch with sincerity, I find questions like “what, actually, should I do?” a helpful prompt. It’s a way of inviting all the considerations, and all the parts of myself, to come to the table and speak openly. It’s a reminder to myself that ultimately, there’s no sense in making mistakes. By choosing the worse option – the option that I’d ultimately regret choosing, if I really understood — I’m not “getting away with something”; I’m not successfully defecting on my values, but winning some other, better prize. I’m just choosing stuff I care about less over stuff I care about more. I’m just fucking up.
3.3 Is sincerity the opposite of weakness of will? (No.)
No soul would knowingly choose evil.
Perhaps one asks: if sincerity is “actually trying to do what you have most reason to do,” why would anyone be anything other than sincere? Why try to do something else?
Why indeed. And yet. Indeed, perhaps the veganism example is a reminder.
Socrates, famously, thought that no one errs on purpose. Rather, all evil stems from ignorance: a mistake about what’s good.
But people often claim to be erring even as they err. “I shouldn’t have this extra drink.” “I should be working right now rather than doom-scrolling.” “Evil, be thou my good.” And so on. Thus, that inspiring literature on “weakness of the will,” and the like.
Is sincerity, then, “strength of will”? Related, but wrong vibe. Too militaristic, disciplinarian. “Harmony of will” seems closer (though not everything – more below).
Indeed, once we’re led into talk about “weakness of the will” as akin to the absence of sincerity, I start to think that the first-pass definition above is missing something.
For starters, weakness of will and the absence of sincerity just seem like different things. But also (though I feel a bit confused here), some cases of weakness of will seem compatible with sincerity. In particular: some weak-willed agents have genuine guilt/regret about what they’re doing/not doing; and a genuine desire to change. If they could hit a button that would help them change – help strengthen the relevant will – they would. And this seems like it recovers some dimension of sincerity – and maybe, most of it.
The first-pass definition above also raises questions about Huck Finn cases – another classic from this corner of the philosophical literature. Huck Finn helps free the slave Jim, out of sympathy for him, despite believing that it’s wrong to do – and philosophers tend to like Huck regardless. Naively, this looks like a failure of “scout-mindset, but for agency.” But was Huck sincere in my sense?
I’m open to “no,” here – especially once Huck starts going into how “so I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about [doing right], but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.” But the case feels complicated, and it gives me some additional pause about the first-pass definition above. That said, I don’t want to go into it too much, as “scout-mindset, but for agency” isn’t the only angle I’m interested in.
3.4 Fake weakness of will
I do, though, want to make one other note about cases of weakness of will where someone feels a lot of heartfelt guilt, regret, and so on. In particular: I think people often talk like that’s what’s going on when it’s not – and this seems sincerity-relevant.
For example, in response to stuff with “demandingness” vibes, like veganism or drowning children, one sometimes hears stuff like: “I know that it’s wrong that I keep doing X. But you see: I’m a bad person. I’m selfish. So, I don’t do what I should do.”
And sometimes, indeed, there is real pain in their voice. But sometimes there isn’t. Rather, something seems suspiciously casual, cheerful, dead. Perhaps a certain discourse (“let’s systematize bourgeois western morality”) is being placated, in a conversational context that cows quickly to self-criticism (even when costless and perfunctory). But we would not say such things, in such tones, about other wrongs; “real wrongs”; wrongs where there are social punishments, for example. And I do think this sort of case prompts questions about sincerity, in the sense I have in mind.
(See also Caplan on “missing moods” – a classic red flag about sincerity.)
(Here I’m not trying to take a strong stand on how to deal with demandingness, though see here for some of my thoughts, and here and here for some other relevant discussions. And I’m especially not saying: that people saying stuff like the above should shape up and do that super-demanding and coercive and totalizing thing that a bunch of themselves really hates. Also: I do think it’s good to be able to be clear about when you don’t endorse your actions, or are failing to live up to your values — rather than being forced into distortions – even if you know your behavior isn’t going to change. So the case seems complicated in lots of ways.)
Note, though, that we should be careful with our “shoulds,” here (and also with our “wrongs,” our “bad persons,” our “my values” and so on). In particular: in a previous essay, I distinguished between two kinds: “shoulds” that would necessarily harmonize with your deepest values on reflection (often called “internalist”), and “shoulds” that might not – that even after arbitrary reflection could remain fully and forever alien to everything you love and care about, despite their authority (somehow) over your deliberation (these are often called “externalist”).
I like the former better, and they’re the ones I’ll typically have in mind when I talk about “the proper object of agency.” But we might attempt to understand “I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, but I’m fine with that” in terms of an externalist “should” – i.e., the person is saying “yes, by some external standard that I expect to remain alienated from even on ideal reflection, I shouldn’t be doing this; but I have no loyalty to this standard” (compare a paperclipper, acknowledging that it is “wrong,” in human language, to turn people into paperclips). If that is what they mean, diagnosing an absence of sincerity is more complicated, even on the first-pass definition above. And perhaps conversations about e.g. drowning children have more of this – or at least, more confusions in this vicinity, and a more mixed set of loyalties – than we often think.
4. Not playing pretend
These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play.
But I have that within which passeth show.
“Portrait of Hamlet,” by William Morris Hunt, image source here.
Let’s move on to another angle on sincerity: namely, something about “not playing pretend.”
Of the angles I’ll consider, I think this is probably closest to the everyday meaning of “sincerity.” And it can handle cases like “lying to the Nazis” above, if we get more specific about who you are “playing pretend” towards. Specifically, in the Nazis case, you are playing pretend towards the Nazis. But you aren’t playing pretend with yourself. So we call your relationship to the Nazis insincere, but your relationship to yourself sincere. And I’m most interested, here, in your relationship to yourself.
What is it to play pretend with yourself? Perhaps one knows the feeling. We live buoyed and cowed, guided and coerced, by our own stories – and such stories bleed over into the stories that other people tell, too. So it’s natural to try to tell harder, to ourselves, the stories we like more; or that others will like more; or that the others told us to tell.
Maybe, for example, you’re started campaigning to save the whales. Is that because you want to save the whales? That’s what the campaign says on the tin. And that’s what you say to yourself, too, when you ask yourself, which maybe you don’t, often. But maybe, actually, you mostly joined the campaign because it’s high status in the world of this example — though joining for this reason, unfortunately, isn’t. Good thing that’s not your reason.
Or maybe you go live as a solitary monk in the mountains, telling yourself that you are seeking the face of the Ultimate. In fact, you are fleeing the face of your mother, and the embarrassment of having a hard time finding a job. Or perhaps you are interested, merely, in the role of “monk”; the aesthetic of the robe and candles; the holier-than-thou. And let’s say that a part of you knows this, but keeps pushing it under the rug. No one else is watching, here. But you’re performing nonetheless.
I’m not trying to get preachy about motivational purity, here. Indeed, in many contexts, anxiety about the purity of one’s motives is counter-productive. Often, it’s the outcome that counts, and your motives matter insofar as they are clues about the likely outcome (more on this below). And anyway, for various virtues – courage, generosity, integrity – acting like you have them, especially when the stakes are high, is either a candidate path to the real thing, or close to it already (Lewis: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did”).
Still, something about “not playing pretend” with yourself does seem important to sincerity in the sense I have in mind. Sincerity has a non-hollow-ness. It has a core, and not just a surface – a core that explains and predicts the surface, in some straightforward and “honest” way. And this holds not just for outer surfaces – speech, action – but for inner ones as well – identities, narratives, mental postures, feelings. In this sense, sincerity makes it possible to look oneself in the eye; see clearly why you are doing what you are doing, without ruining some pretty story you were trying to tell.
Indeed, falling out of sincerity, for me, is closely associated with a feeling that I can’t quite look myself in the eye; like there’s some fog or fakeness or shame or something twisted up in my motivations and reasoning. And sometimes this is because I’m being driven, in part, by some background agenda that isn’t quite announcing itself and joining the conversation openly, and which doesn’t expect to get endorsed, or made space for, if it does. Clinging (in the sense I’ve written about previously) is often a part of this – clinging, maybe, in relation to something about status or ego, to some fear or greed.
All that said, “not playing pretend with yourself” doesn’t seem like it captures all of sincerity, either. Often, for example, I can see the relevant “background agenda” pretty clearly: it’s right there, definitely doing its thing. I’m not lying to myself about that – or even, necessarily, looking away. My internal narrative seems fairly accurate. It’s just that the agenda is too attention-grabby and twisted up in things to get held in perspective, or integrated into a balanced and wholehearted decision. And this feels like it messes with sincerity regardless.
Sometimes this comes up for me with writing, for example. Why does one write? “Sheer egoism” is the first on Orwell’s list of motives. “Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death … It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one.” Humbug, indeed. And yet, to perceive clearly egoism in one’s writing, even as one writes, is neither to banish it, nor – I think – to render one’s writing sincere. To see fog is not to see through it. Even now, this essay is full of fog (forgive me). So too is my life as a whole. I can feel it, and acknowledge it, and wish it away – and then get pulled right back in. Introspection – even when accurate – is not enough.
5. Healthy stapleclippers
Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
… Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?
Will you speak before I am gone?
– Whitman, Song of Myself
Let’s turn, then, to a different ideal I associate with sincerity: namely, some sort of harmony between different parts of yourself.
For various people I know, something in this vicinity approaches the highest spiritual ideal. The assumed psychological model has different variants, but generally, your different motives and psychological patterns are “parts” – little mini agents with their own goals, beliefs, histories, traumas – and the key aspiration is to get these parts to resolve their misunderstandings/conflicts, and to play nice together: i.e., for their group dynamics to become more cooperative, trusting, gains-from-trade-realizing, and so on. Thus: maybe before, a part of you wanted staples, and a part of you wanted paperclips, and their relationship was dysfunctional. The clippy part was domineering and protective. The stapler part was scared and ashamed. But then, you moved to the Bay Area, and your parts talked it out, and now you maximize a joint paperclip-staple utility function in a way that’s better for both parts, and your internal government functions smoothly and openly, and everything else is just the execution phase. You’ve become the healthy stapleclipper that was inside you all along.
(I jest a bit: but I think this sort of multi-agent frame is actually quite useful.)
Can we map “sincerity” to this vision of spiritual health? It’s at least a bit tempting. In particular, various blockers to sincerity do seem like breakdowns of a type of internal harmony/cooperation. Thus, maybe your internal government has a set of “official values,” and a way of making decisions that are going to count as “endorsed.” But maybe some part of you is feeling left out, or judged, or coerced. Maybe it’s gone underground, and started operating as a force distinct from the official narrative – one the official narrative either can’t see, or doesn’t want to see. Or maybe the official narrative can see it, but can’t stop it. Maybe this part just “grabs the wheel” when it sees its chance, regardless of previous agreements, established policies, and so on. Maybe the other parts surface, and notice, and feel some breakdown of internal order, but they are helpless to stop it, and are soon submerged again.
On this picture, then, sincerity is the operation of a functional and harmonious internal government – one that involves not just an accurate internal narrative, but a willingness, on the part of the internal citizens, to play by the rules. Such citizens feel heard and respected by their government, and thus, they accept and support it; they come to the table openly to discuss and share information; to listen and to trade; and to set a joint, mutually-beneficial policy. And then they abide by the results. Indeed, perhaps it is this sort of harmonious internal government that makes “scout-mindset, but for agency” possible. When you convene the council of “what should I do,” the relevant stake-holders are actually in the room, and they are able to speak and debate and compromise freely – without shame, without propaganda, without back rooms.
Still, I worry that this “healthy stapleclipper” vision of sincerity leaves some important aspects out: some aspects less about process and more about content; less about whether your internal government works, and more about what it’s trying to do. I’m not sure that, ultimately, we should make sure an analysis of sincerity has room for these aspects. But I want to flag them regardless.
A serious house on serious earth it is
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet
Are recognisd and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious
And gravitating with it to this ground
Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in
If only that so many dead lie round.
- Larkin, “Church Going”
The first aspect I have in mind is something about “seriousness.”
What is it to be serious? I think the concept probably needs its own essay. But, a few gestures.
Consider trolling. What’s the thing it’s not?
Or consider a friend who tells you excitedly that they are planning to start a direct air capture company to address climate change. But then you find out that they haven’t tried to learn anything about direct air capture technology. What quality do you start to think they are lacking?
Or suppose that someone very smart says something very dumb, about a matter of grave importance. Dumb as in: clearly wrong upon a few moments’ thought. But it was superficially clever, and said with casual confidence. Why did that happen?
Or consider most of the characters in the movie Don’t Look Up. What weren’t they?
In all these cases, some quality of attention is missing. And it’s a quality of attention that I associate strongly with sincerity.
But at least naively, this quality of attention doesn’t seem like it’s centrally a matter (or an expression) of your parts playing nice with each other, or of some kind of internal clarity about the office-supplies you personally prefer. Suppose that Nero fiddles while Rome burns. Suppose that the dilettante just likes flitting from thing to thing. Suppose that the socialite just enjoys the gossip. Maybe they’re clear and coherent about their values and decision-process. But some quality of seriousness still seems like it’s lacking, at least in normal circumstances; and so, too, some aspect of the sincerity I’m interested in.
Relatedly: sincerity, for me, connotes depth, heartfelt-ness, and vulnerability – but staple-clipping need not. Yudkowsky writes about having “something to protect.” Does that just mean: “having a utility function”? Nero can have that. So too the flippant socialite, the detached ironist, the casual troll. The ontology of utility functions does not, itself, make any immediate room for a “depth vs. shallowness” dimension on which preferences can vary.
And yet it feels like we need such a dimension. Relative to other ways of arranging your soul, sincerity seems uniquely at odds with “fucking around.” It sees something important, in a way that even coherent preferences and harmonious self-government need not imply. It’s not that sincerity need be grave, or dour. But something is not a joke, or a game.
Indeed, perhaps something is so much not a joke that it’s hard to speak about. Something, perhaps, too real to hold steadily. Something that could blind like the sun. Something searing.
7. Other associations with non-ego/altruism/goodness
Go, my son, and do something worth doing.
- George MacDonald, Phantastes
Seriousness is one association with sincerity that healthy staple-clipping doesn’t obviously capture. I want to briefly note a few others – albeit, ones I’m less confident about.
Thus: I associate sincerity with some quality in the opposite direction of the ego – some humility, some openness, some willingness to let go of the self and turn towards the world.
The koan I quoted above has some of this. Who is that true person of no rank, who is always coming and going from your face? “True person” is one thing, and sounds sincerity-relevant. But “no rank” seems relevant, too. Here I think of a very sincere-seeming man I met once, who was doing something that I thought good, and organizing some other people to help. “You’re not going to get a medal,” he said.
And “seriousness” alone is suggestive, here. Often, if you’re serious about something, it’s sufficiently important that stuff about “rank” falls aside. Suppose, for example, that you and many others are on a ship, and it’s sinking. Suppose that someone needs to tie various knots, and you take pride in your knot-tying, and maybe knot-tying is high status for some reason. Who do you want to tie the knots? The one whose knots will hold best – whoever that is. A sinking ship is not a time for pride and status stuff.
But I also think there’s a deeper connection between non-ego and sincerity, stemming from the scout-mindset-but-for-agency thing. In particular: we generally take “what should I do?” to implicate the interests of people other than the self, and to countenance actions that might put the self’s comforts and narratives and social aspirations at risk. Indeed, there’s a grand tradition of thinking that sometimes, what one “should do” can ask very much of the self indeed (cf “demandingness,” but not just this). And there is question of how much of that sort of thing one is up for – and thus, of how far one is willing to follow this whole “should” business, if it leads in demanding directions. If you should do blah hard thing – and here I mean a real should, not some fake purity virtue thing people want you to nod at, not some “in an ideal world of infinite willpower,” but something where you yourself would say “not doing blah hard thing was such a fuck-up” if you really understood – do you want to?
Scout-mindset-but-for-agency is a “yes,” here. And while it can seem an easy question (“should I do what I should do?”), at least in the seminar room, it’s famously not, when the oh-right-this-is-why-we-called-it-“hard” shows up for real – and especially not, after some initial burst of enthusiasm fades, and you are left with just the warp and weft of the thing itself, the costs and the benefits, the work to be done. Indeed, plausibly, struggles with whether or not to do what one thinks one should do account for a good portion of the moral drama of human life (though less, I think, than sometimes supposed) – and we often think that some temptation or constriction related to the ego is importantly responsible. Here I think of a Kantian professor I had, who thought (he had a variety of unusual views) that human souls exist beyond all space and time, and that they only ever make one choice: between the self, and the moral law – and that your life is just the shadow of this choice, scattered across time. Some Christians imagine something similar: ultimately, one either chooses God, or self. If the latter, one finds that in fact, one chose only nothingness, ashes, and finally hell. And yet, somehow, the choice is not easy.
We might look for other traditions, too, that put pride, ego, self on the one hand, and goodness, love, God, on the other. And such traditions offer other (maybe more challenging) words to contend with, too: words like duty, submission, surrender. “As if he or she were a feather on the breath of God.” (See also, from a different tradition: “Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own.”)
We need not like such traditions. But I see sincerity as closely related to the thing they are seeking (and sometimes, manipulating) – and closely related, as well, to various religious impulses more broadly. To the extent there is a tension between holding on to something about the self, and following “what should I do?” where it leads, sincerity chooses the latter, or aspires to. In this sense, it knows its loyalty – and it’s this loyalty that makes scout-mindset-but-for-agency possible. But such loyalty does indeed involve some type of surrender, openness, letting go; or at least, some ability to hold the ego, and its many fears, as one-thing-amongst-many; to let one voice go quiet, that others may speak.
I also associate sincerity with a broader variety of moral compliments: compliments, for example, to do with “good faith,” “good will,” “public spirit.” Often, we invoke such terms when there is some common project with which someone’s narrow interests could be in tension – and we call “good” the orientation that resolves this tension in the pro-social direction. So here, again, I find an association between sincerity and some willingness to set the self aside. And indeed, even more broadly, when I think of my own inner picture of what it is to be a “good person” (yes, yes, it’s a tricky term – feel free to drop it) some vibe nearby to sincerity comes strongly to the fore.
7.1 How close is the connection between sincerity and goodness?
To bear and not to own;
to act and not lay claim;
to do the work and let it go…
- Tao Te Ching
Notably, though: these sorts of associations seem especially ill-suited to the “healthy staple-clipper” model I discussed above, at least if we wish to extend that model across a sufficiently diverse variety of possible agents. The class of “healthy staple-clippers” – that is, agents who have resolved conflicts between their different motivations, and formed a well-functioning internal government – is quite wide: it includes egoists, sadists, status-maximizers, paperclippers, and all the rest. The class of healthy staple-clippers we might want to call “serious,” in a given context, is somewhat narrower, but plausibly, various egoists, sadists, status-maximizers, and paperclippers will still qualify. Here I think, for example, of the world of Game of Thrones – hardly a scene of Christian virtue, but plausibly, a place with lots of agents who are in the relevant sense “serious” running around (cf the Lannisters, Littlefinger, etc). And various villains in our own world, and our own history, seem unfortunately “serious” as well (though not all: indeed, much of the worst contemporary stuff seems insultingly unserious).
What’s more, depending on your meta-ethics, such agents need not be diagnosable with any failures of “scout-mindset-but-for-agency.” Anti-realism/subjectivism famously admits that the paperclipper is guilty of no irrationality: when it asks its equivalent of “what should I do,” the answer is to max those clips. So too the equivalent for some egoists, sadists, status-maximizers, and the like. Various anti-realists hope that in the real world, the problem with such agents is that they aren’t well-enough-informed, or that their parts aren’t playing nice with one another. But the hope rings a bit wishful – and even if it’s true, it’s contingently so.
For anti-realists, then, is Cersei Lannister as sincere as Jon Snow, with his doe-eyes? Is the scheming sadist as sincere as the diligent public servant? If we wish to build in some conceptual connection between sincerity and goodness/altruism/non-ego, we might look for ways to say “no,” here – and in the next section, I’ll discuss some. But I’m not sure we should do that. I feel the temptation, but I’m wary of trying to make all my favorite things one thing – of trying to shoehorn all virtues into a single core. And I do think there’s a sense in which Cerseis and sadists can be sincere – albeit, sincere about bad stuff.
“Nero’s Torches,” by Siemiradzki, image source here.
Still: in practice, and in the actual world, I have strong associations between sincerity and stuff like goodness/altruism/non-ego. Other things equal, I prefer analyses that vindicate or explain this connection.
8. Can we unify all these associations under a single principle?
So far, I’ve discussed five associations with sincerity:
- Scout-mindset, but for agency as a whole
- “Not playing pretend”
- Healthy staple-clipping (i.e., your parts playing nice with each other, in the context of a well-functioning internal government)
- Other stuff about non-ego/altruism/goodness
Five things is a lot. And the discussion, more generally, has been a bit, erm, intricate. Can we cut through the noise, here, to a simpler and more unified characterization?
I’m not sure. Here I’ll discuss two possible ways one might try: one conceptual, and the other empirical. There are various others – but this essay is long enough. And anyway, I’m not sure we should be especially attached to unification, or to validating all of these associations in particular.
8.1 True paths
These are the words we dimly hear…
To my mind, the biggest problem for unifying 1-5, at a conceptual level, is some of them are about process – that is, about the “structure” of your agency — and some of them are about content – that is, about, roughly, what you value, and how much. Specifically, I think of 1-3 as process, and 4-5 as content. We saw this, in the last two sections, when we encountered healthy staple-clippers who weren’t “serious” or “good” in a 4-5-ish way. It’s that classic issue for anti-realism. People often want their favorite stuff – morality, goodness, etc – to fall out of something structural-to-all-rational-agents. But the anti-realist’s ontology doesn’t cooperate.
Now, one option here is to go realist. Thus, we might say:
Look, you know that thing where we traditionally think that the “what should I do?” at stake in scout-mindset-but-for-agency leads to things like goodness and altruism and morality and stuff? That’s because it, uh, does – and not just for you, with the contingencies of your brain and evolution etc, but for all agents worthy of the word “rational.” Jon Snow is more sincere than Cersei Lannister because Jon is listening harder for the wild and windy call of the true path; whereas Cersei’s soul is closed and hard, and she has ears only for her own desires. Thus: 5.
And also, with respect to 4, the true path is serious. In fact, it’s basically the least-joke thing there is. Listening for it, what you hear is just: the entire world, in all its glory and beauty and pain. And to hear truly is not compatible with flippancy, or ironic detachment, or living your life as a troll. Too much is at stake.
Indeed, we see instincts in this realist direction even in the therapeutic paradigm most closely associated (among my friends) with healthy staple-clipping: namely, Internal Family Systems (IFS). Thus, in IFS, the thing that happens when your parts play nice is you return to The Self – a centered, open-hearted, peaceful version of yourself, which is implicitly treated as the “true version” (you know: your, um, soul), obscured by the distortions of your parts. The possibility that The Self might be a sadist, or an egoist, or a paperclipper, does not seem to be countenanced by the IFS tradition, at least in my (quite limited) exposure. To the contrary, The Self gets loaded up with specific, “content-y” compliments: notably Compassion, but also, Courage, Connectedness, Playfulness, Patience, and various others (see the “8 C’s” and the “5 P’s” here).
This is importantly different from the more Humean, mini-agents-with-utility-functions picture that many of my anti-realist friends bring to their staple-clipping aspirations, and which we’ve been working with thus far. On the Humean picture, there is no “true self” (and certainly no soul, or capital-letter-thing) that the parts distort; rather, there are just the group dynamics of the different parts interacting, maybe fighting for resources, maybe getting gains from trade, etc (you know, like game theory — game theory can’t be woo, right?). If the parts are sadists and egoists, then so too is the gains-from-trade, compromise-utility-function agent some sadistic-egoistic mix. Compassion, Courage, Playfulness, and so on don’t bloom out of nothingness.
If we reject this Humean picture for a more IFS-ish one, then we might try to bridge the process-content gap via properties of The Self. That is, on this picture (it’s basically moral realism), getting your parts to play nice (3) leads, also, to seriousness (4) and non-ego/altruism/goodness (5) (along with the other C’s and P’s). To the extent this is a prediction about all rational agents (just give the paperclipper therapy!), it looks rough, though. And one wonders, even, about quite-nearby agents, like Cersei.
8.1.1 If there were a worthy and to-be-served God, would you want to serve Him?
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Indeed, the general problem with this realist-ish approach to trying to get 4-5 out of 1-3 is that the relevant forms of realism aren’t very plausible (more on my views about this here). Still, I wonder whether we might get something like 4-5 out of something else: namely, the question of what a scout-mindset-but-for-agency agent would want to do, if a relevant form of realism turns out true (even granted that it’s probably not). Here’s a related religious example, to give you a flavor of what I mean.
Consider Bob, an atheist. And let’s suppose that atheism is probably true, and that Bob’s atheism is tracking the evidence that makes it so. Still, we can ask Bob: if somehow, Christianity (or whatever: pick your favorite theism) were true, and there was, actually, a just and perfect and worthy God at the foundation of all being, would you want to love Him, and serve Him, and surrender your will unto His – assuming, per Christianity, that this is to-be-done?
Maybe some folks get prissy about this sort of question. One way to do so is to deny that one can condition on such a thing, because it is meaningless or metaphysically impossible or whatever. But in many places in philosophy, one wants to be uncertain about things that, if false, are probably also meaningless/impossible. And are you really ready to e.g. bet anything against those things, or to say that you can’t get evidence for them?
Beyond this, though, my guess is that some atheists are so invested in rejecting religion that they want to reject it even conditional on it being true and righteous and to-be-accepted. Thus, for example: “All this talk of service and surrender sounds servile, infantile. What is God, my big boss in the sky? I’m my own man; my will is my own, thanks; I do what I like, and I don’t take orders.” And perhaps, to an atheist’s ear, such talk sounds virtuous. Perhaps (though this is more complicated), conditional on atheism, it is. But conditional on theism, it is foolishness and sin – a childish desire to subvert the low and the high; to make of oneself some reality independent of Reality.
So it is important (if challenging), in considering such questions, to really condition on the view-you-don’t-find-plausible. And when I do this, I find that, if there is a just and worthy God at the foundation of all beings – a God who, by His very nature, is to-be-served – then I want to serve Him. It’s just that: there probably isn’t.
(Indeed, many of the most sincere-seeming people I know – though not all – seem to me like the kind of people who would be religious, in worlds where religion was, like, true. And many of them were religious growing up.)
We can play a similar game with moral realism. Thus, consider Cersei, and recall her description of her ethic, given before she condemns a woman to torture: “I do things because they feel good. I drink because it feels good. I killed my husband because it felt good to be rid of him. I fuck my brother because it feels good… “ and so on. And let’s suppose that Cersei, who has recently been taking philosophy classes, has almost all of her credence on some kind of anti-realist thing. Still, we can ask: “Cersei, if some kind of moral realism were true, and it was objectively wrong to kill your husband even independent of your attitudes (but also, somehow, in a way with authority over your practical deliberation), would you want, then, to not have killed him?”
One suspects that Cersei wouldn’t say: “Oh, well in that case, of course I wouldn’t want to have killed him – doing so would be objectively wrong! After all, I’m only max-ing out my feeling-good because I think some kind of anti-realism is probably true, and there’s nothing else to go on.” Rather, one suspects that for Cersei, this whole ethics and meta-ethics business isn’t actually playing much of a role in her deliberation at all. She’s got her thing – feeling good – and she’s going for it.
And even if we hold constant that moral realism is probably false, this attitude seems quite different from an agent who, if moral realism were true, would want to find out the moral law and follow it. It seems more likely that Jon Snow has this property than that Cersei does, even if they have similar credences on anti-realism.
So I’m tempted to look for sincerity somewhere in this difference. In particular, to the extent Jon would want to act differently if the ethical/meta-ethical facts were different, it seems like he’s exhibiting some kind of scout-mindset-but-for-agency that Cersei isn’t. That is, Cersei doesn’t care whether trying to feel max good is a mistake, or whether it’s objectively wrong, or whether the true and righteous God looks on her as a force of darkness: her thing is feeling max good, just as Clippy’s thing is clips. In this sense, she’s a paperclipper everywhere – even in a world where the anti-realist ontology of paperclipping is misguided, and there is much more to life, and to morality, than what you care about.
Whereas the Jon-ish approach, as I’m imagining it, is different. The way I think about it is: in a world where there is an objective morality that I should honor and obey, I aspire to do so (just as: in a world where there is a worthy God who is to-be-served, I aspire to serve Him). In a world where what I should do is centrally a matter of what I care about, I aspire to do that, too. And in a world where this talk of “should” is in some sense broken, I aspire to forge on its absence. Whether I would hold true to those aspirations, given the right sorts of evidence, is a further question (talk is cheap – and questions about “should I do what I should do?” always sound easy). But even the aspiration feels to me like it marks some departure from pure paperclipping.
(Note that the dynamic at stake with an agent like Cersei, here, is importantly similar to the one I’ve discussed previously, with respect to the type of realist-inspired agent who burns people in nihilism worlds alive, for the sake of small benefits to people in realism worlds. In both cases, one takes an ontology from one meta-ethics — for Cersei, anti-realism or nihilism; for the realist wagerer, non-naturalist realism – and then applies it to a world where we have specifically said that some other meta-ethical ontology holds. And in both cases, I suggest, people should stop trying to make their favorite meta-ethics true even conditional on it being false. But I think this topic might need its own essay.)
If we specify that “scout-mindset-but-for-agency” implies something like what I just sketched, can we bridge the gap between “scout-mindset-but-for-agency” and stuff like “seriousness” and “non-ego/altruism/goodness,” while still putting low probability on moral realism? It helps a bit, at least.
Thus, suppose Cersei comes to me and says: “Joe, I know I’ve been going around killing husbands and feeling max good. But that’s because, as far as I can tell, that’s what I have most reason to do, given that anti-realism about meta-ethics is probably true, and that feeling max good is what an ideally-coherent version of me would want. But obviously, if there were an objective morality on which it was often my duty to prioritize helping/not-harming others over my own pleasure, I’d want to abide by it.” And suppose that, when I check some other world with great evidence for an objective, altruistic morality, there’s Cersei in the soup kitchen (read: The Athena-Parfit Long-Term Institute for Raising for Effectively Prioritizing Global Alignment Challenges), working away. It’s a strange pattern of behavior from someone who just killed her husband (indeed, instructively so – how much does meta-ethics really matter to behavior?). But it does feel like points in favor of sincerity, in my book. And the same holds for the troll or the ironist who says “obviously, I would get serious if anything was actually serious; it’s just that, on my coherent-on-reflection values, very little is.”
Still, is it enough? She’s still killing her husband in the actual world. The troll is still trolling. Whatever strains of altruism and seriousness are at stake here are coming from some fairly thin and esoteric source – one that plausibly isn’t especially present to you when someone seems sincere in the actual world. And does understanding sincerity really require so much talk about meta-ethics?
And anyway, there would be more work to do to spell out the conceptual story here – and in particular, to stich 1-3 together; to deal with questions about how to understand weakness of the will; and the like.
For now, though, let’s turn to a different way of trying to unify 1-5: namely, via appeal to empirical stuff.
8.2 What type of not-playing-pretend does the social world care about?
In some sense, all sorts of empirical hypotheses might serve to unify 1-5. At a high level, given blah conceptually distinct things, one can just hypothesize that in practice, they often come together. Thus, perhaps: “in practice, there is some reasonably joint-in-nature-ish cluster of psychological traits in the vicinity of what Joe is talking about with sincerity, which tend to give rise to 1-5-ish stuff.” Or more narrowly: “in humans, getting your parts to play nice together often leads to seriousness, altruism, less self-deception, and more scout-mindset-for-agency.” (EDIT 12/28: See also Paul Christiano's suggestion here for another possible empirical-ish account.)
I’m especially interested here, though, in a more specific tack: namely, one that hones in on “not playing pretend” as the core feature of sincerity, and tries to explain the other associations via the contexts where questions about “pretending” tend to arise.
I’m drawn to this approach partly because “not pretending” is what sincerity, like, actually means, according to the dictionary. And the clearest cases of insincerity, even in my non-standard sense, involve some element of pretense. So it seems worth testing how far just this one factor can take us.
Thus: how might we get to “seriousness” and “non-ego/altruism/goodness” from “not playing pretend”? Well, suppose that we take as a baseline expectation that many people care a lot about certain familiar and “selfish” things: things like their time and energy, their pleasure and pain, their social status, and their ego’s story about themselves. There is a sense in which we expect almost everyone to be “sincere” about these things: e.g., if you put someone on a sinking ship, you would expect them to be sincere in their concern for its sinking, and their efforts to not die. But it’s so taken-for-granted that people want these things that we don’t, often, need to really wonder about it.
Rather, we’re more interested in questions about sincerity when some more pro-social good is at stake, the pursuit of which might in principle come into conflict with more self-regarding incentives. Indeed, often a given social practice comes with some tacit expectation that the pro-social good is what the participants are after, even when everyone knows all sorts of other motivations are likely swirling around.
Thus, for example: public conversation about some important topic X (say: the minimum wage) often comes with the tacit expectation that participants in the conversation are actually trying to get to the truth about X. So in a sense, if your participation in this conversation is centrally motivated by e.g. the desire to raise your social status or to signal loyalty to some tribe or something, you are “playing pretend” relative to the tacit expectation of truth-seeking – even if this sort of playing pretend is quite common and unsurprising.
Similarly, if you are participating in some practical altruistic endeavor, like a campaign to save the whales, there is often some tacit expectation that you actually care about saving the whales. If you don’t, and are instead just there for virtue-signaling or something, there is a sense in which you are playing pretend – and doing so in a way that would ruin the signaling, if revealed.
Indeed, why is virtue-signaling even a thing? Why care about showing that you have “good character”? Because it matters, to our pro-social outcomes, who can be trusted with what; who will defect on the group behind its back, or in subtle or unsubtle ways; which sorts of motives and commitments actually predict someone’s behavior, when push comes to shove. So we want to know who actually has blah pro-social goals, commitments, patterns of norm-obedience, etc, and whose motivations are more purely and naively selfish, status-y, and so on.
Thus, questions about sincerity arise, in practice, centrally with respect to more pro-social commitments. We associate sincerity with things like non-ego/altruism/goodness because these are pro-social things. And we associate it with “seriousness” because seriousness, in the relevant sense, is (sort-of) a pro-social thing, too. After all, how do we tell whether someone is serious? Plausibly, because they are visibly expending certain more standardly “selfish” resources – e.g., time, mental energy, risk, social capital – for the sake of some goal. We take for granted that people are “serious” about conserving such selfish resources: the interesting question is whether they are serious about anything else – whether there is anything in their life that they view as more important than the stuff we expect everyone to treat as important. (We also talk about “seriousness” with respect to selfish things – e.g., planning a good vacation, setting yourself up for a good retirement – but we’re still generally judging this via someone’s expenditure of resources like time, energy, money, etc.)
This sort of analysis of sincerity is centrally social, but it can extend to our inner lives as well. Thus, per The Elephant in the Brain and similar vibes, the line between our presentation to others and our presentation to ourselves is blurry. In particular: we’ve evolved as translucent creatures, in a context responsive to the fact that our inner motives leak out into the social world in ways we can’t control. So if, in your heart, you’ve got some non-pro-social aim – some aim where, if the tribe could see it, they’d lose trust in you, or punish you, or stop granting you some kind of status, or whatever – this creates a kind of inner tension: some shame, some need to hide, some sense of not being fully cooperative and above-board.
One option, in response to this tension, is to try to push this non-pro-social aim under the rug, outside the awareness of your official narrative. But this creates a lot of frictions for your internal government (cf “healthy staple-clipping”), and it messes with your ability to deliberate, wholeheartedly, via the official conscious channels (cf “scout-mindset-but-for-agency”).
But another option is to arrange relations between your motives and commitments such that you’re not ashamed of them. And because shame is such a centrally social thing (even if you’re alone), and because the social world is especially invested in the relationship between your pro-social motives/commitments and your more selfish motivations, this is easiest if some substantial portion of your motivational landscape is actually pro-social, and/or if the structure of your commitments is such that the relevant “tribe” would recognize and accept it (though there are other routes to non-shame, too).
Here, the “tribe” you’re responding to need not be the actual concrete humans surrounding you. Indeed, plausibly, we are often attempting to arrange our motives and commitments in a way that some more idealized set of peers – maybe the “moral community,” maybe God, etc – would view as justified and defensible. And if we feel like we have done so, some part of us relaxes, and we breathe a sigh of relief. Thus, perhaps, that feeling of resolved internal tension that I, at least, associate with returning to greater sincerity. The idealized fantasy tribe is no longer upset. And perhaps, as well, this is where my sense that sincerity requires more than an accurate internal narrative comes from. Maybe you’re not lying to yourself about your motives; but if the idealized fantasy tribe would be upset, some problem persists.
Of course, all of this is just handwavy, armchair speculation. Still, is it enough to unify 1-5 in a satisfying way? I dunno. It seems like there’s at least something there, even if it’s not especially clean and tidy. Indeed, perhaps the cynics (if they’re still reading) have been thirsting for this sort of explanation all along.
One thing about this approach is that to the extent we use “not playing pretend” as the actual core thing for sincerity, and explain the rest of 1-5 via more contingent social and psychological factors, we’ll end up saying that Cerseis and status-maximizers and flippant socialites and the like are actually, at bottom, sincere, provided that they’re suitably free of pretense. Maybe even trolls and ironists, too (though this gets a bit complicated, insofar as some kind of pretense is built into trolling and irony). But maybe this is OK. Maybe sincerity comes pretty cheap, especially once we move beyond the social realm and into someone’s internal world. Or maybe: some kind of self-directed pretense or hiding or looking away is sufficiently common that it can explain the sense in which sincerity seems non-cheap. Saying this will likely require to me to get more specific about the type of sincere people I’m especially excited about (i.e., “sincere about blah altruistic thing”) – but perhaps that’s OK too. And there is something nice about dealing with pretense-free Cerseis and status-maximizers as well (though if we’re focused on internal sincerity, they may not be pretense-free with respect to me).
8.3 Living with disunity
Overall, while I’ve set up “can we unify all my hazy and maybe-inconsistent associations with sincerity into something clean and nice” as the driving dialectic of this essay, I don’t think it’s actually that important. I’m interested if there’s some clean joint-in-nature, here – some single core trait that my associations are responding to – and it seems worth checking. But no big surprise if not, and I don’t want to get especially hung up on how we use the word.
I do think there’s something important in this vicinity, though, even if it isn’t simple or clean – indeed, something I view as very precious. My hope has been that by looking hard in this broad direction, from a variety of angles, we might become more sensitive to what this thing is – how it’s structured, what it looks like and feels like, what propels it and constrains it. Perhaps, when we look extra close, we see, instead of one thing, many closely related things, overlapping to different degrees and in different combinations, interacting and supporting and complementing each other. Indeed, when I think of all my friends, with their different forms and flavors of sincerity, it becomes less tempting (though still not entirely un-tempting) to look for some simple, single core.
9. Sincerity’s failure modes
Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise.
- Ecclesiastes 7:16
I want to close with a brief discussion of some failure modes nearby to sincerity.
Obviously, there are tons of these. And scary ones, too. I won’t come near to doing them justice (this essay is already long enough). But I feel some obligation to at least mention them – in part because I expect that to some readers, they will feel quite salient.
Some failure modes have to do with corruption, rationalization, self-serving biases, self-deception. Failure modes where actually, you’re much more of an asshole, even just in your heart, than you’ve managed to convince yourself you are. One thing about these failure modes is that they’re especially akin to the thing that sincerity is supposed to be guarding against. But to think you’ve triumphed over something is an especially easy way to fall victim.
Other failure modes have to do with extremism, over-confidence, rigid-ness, ideological-ness, totalizing-ness. Maybe you treat your supposed sincerity about The Thing – your oh-so-fine feelings, your passionate conviction, your oh-so-crystal internal clarity – as a signal of some kind of righteousness and purity and definitely-true-ness and justified-in-doing-whatever-ness and the-normal-rules-don’t-apply-ness. Here lies, indeed, too many horrors of history, and many more mundane misdeeds – including, notably, many more directly social forms of insincerity, where you, in your righteousness, start treating lying to your neighbors like lying to the Nazis. Pairs well with the first category, but they aren’t the same, and importantly, they can come apart: not all noxious ideology is corrupt. Indeed, to look only for corruption is to miss deeper dangers.
They called Robespierre “The Incorruptible.” Image source here.
Another failure mode has to do with being sanctimonious, patronizing, moralizing, holier-than-thou. This may be the failure mode most responsible for the sense in which sincerity, in others, is sometimes (often?) experienced as annoying; and perhaps, for that oh-so-pressing desire to expose the hypocrisy underneath some presentation of sincerity; to cut the moralizer down a peg.
Indeed, I worry that this essay itself succumbs to various failure modes in the vicinity of moralizing and sanctimony; and of related failure modes, to do with indulging in lofty flights of abstraction, at the cost of something more grounded and gritty and actually-real; of stuff related to loving “your neighbor,” but not, like, Bob, the dude next door. And existing over-much in some “morality” mode can be its own myopia. Orwell has some nice comments on this sort of thing, in an essay on the value of a certain genre of lewd cartoon for puncturing our purities:
… two principles, noble folly and base wisdom, exist side by side in nearly every human being. If you look into your own mind, which are you, Don Quixote or Sancho Panza? Almost certainly you are both. There is one part of you that wishes to be a hero or a saint, but another part of you is a little fat man who sees very clearly the advantages of staying alive with a whole skin … I never read the proclamations of generals before battle, the speeches of fuehrers and prime ministers, the solidarity songs of public schools and left-wing political parties, national anthems, Temperance tracts, papal encyclicals and sermons against gambling and contraception, without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from all the millions of common men to whom these high sentiments make no appeal. Nevertheless the high sentiments always win in the end, leaders who offer blood, toil, tears and sweat always get more out of their followers than those who offer safety and a good time. When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic. Women face childbed and the scrubbing brush, revolutionaries keep their mouths shut in the torture chamber, battleships go down with their guns still firing when their decks are awash. It is only that the other element in man, the lazy, cowardly, debt-bilking adulterer who is inside all of us, can never be suppressed altogether and needs a hearing occasionally. The comic post cards are one expression of his point of view, a humble one, less important than the music halls, but still worthy of attention.
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, by Jules David, image source here.
I don’t share Orwell’s confidence that “high sentiments always win in the end.” His was a different day; and while ours has much in the way of high-pitched moralizing, “high-pitched” is distinct from “high.” Nor am I especially excited about people blowing more raspberries at the gravest issues of our time.
Indeed, I’m not, generally, a fan of irony, or of “trolling” – as perhaps this essay has made clear. And to be ironic “all the way down,” into the core of one’s being, seems to me a sad emptiness, a serious deflection of responsibility – and sometimes, a path to casual evil. Indeed, various just-straight-up-bad things, in today’s world, cloak themselves in irony as a cover, a mode of misdirection, a way of not being fully clear, even to yourself, about who you are, and what you are trying to do (various patterns on the alt-right are the obvious example, here).
Still, the image of Orwell’s lewd cartoons (and the connection to their analogues in modern internet-culture) has stayed with me. It reminds me a bit of the jeers at Robespierre, during his oh-so-high-minded “Festival of the Supreme Being” (film version here). Given the extent to which Robespierre seems to have fallen victim to a variety of failure modes nearby to sincerity, it seems like this sort of thing has a role to play.
“The Festival of the Supreme Being,” by Demarchy. Image source here.
Another, more subtle failure mode is about over-concern with sincerity itself – either in others, or in yourself. Thus, with respect to others: it is much easier to debate whether someone is sincere or “in good faith” or whatever, with respect X, than to debate X on the merits; much easier to look for flaws and contradictions and “gotchas!” in a fellow human than to turn towards the world itself, and to shoulder, for yourself, the burden of understanding it, and acting well in response. And there are incentive problems, too: if we require that someone have no flaws, with respect to moral thing X, before they can talk about X or hold others to account for it, our accountability practices with respect to X will suffer.
And we see a similar problem, mirrored, with respect to ourselves. Thus, it is easy to treat the question of whether one is sincere as, somehow, the main thing; to agonize endlessly about possible flaws or biases or rationalizations or contradictions in one’s character; to turn most of one’s moral gaze inwards, rather than outwards towards the world. This focus is especially likely if the dominant mode of criticism one expects is directed at one’s sincerity, rather than the object-level merits of what one is trying to do (see previous paragraph). For a certain sort of psychology, though, such an incentive isn’t necessary: anxiety about whether one is a “good person” has always been a driving force.
But even just relative to questions about one’s character and corruption, it’s not clear how far your introspection will take you. Indeed, various quarters of philosophy have ceased to route their insults via your inner states – ceased to wonder, before calling the slaveholders evil, whether e.g. they were “trying their best”; whether, on the evidence that they had at thetime, they were justified in thinking that slavery was OK. Evil, perhaps, is not a mental state; not some darkness you can always see in your soul. Your therapist can’t always tell you. So too goodness. So too, perhaps, sincerity itself. Perhaps it’s partly the world that makes you who you are.
But more importantly: who you are is not the point. Being a good person is not the point. The point is the thing that a good person is looking at: the friend in need, the child dying, the beauty and the pain, the great song of the world.
Indeed, here lies the most straightforward failure, and what should be the scariest: just, simply, to pick the wrong actions, whatever your sincerity, whatever else you’ve done right. To think you are doing blah, causing blah; that the world is blah way; that the good and the just point in blah direction; but then, to run headlong into that old thing, that terrible truth most holy and most high: the map is not territory.
Or even: to have the right map, but just, simply, to not be strong enough, to not be up to the task (as a friend put it to me: “it doesn’t matter whether you were right if you didn’t do anything”).
Thus, regardless of your sincerity: harm, waste, death, pain – and sometimes, irreparable. Perhaps, indeed, in seeking sincerity, you were really seeking an option of forgiveness, of “you tried your best,” of a pat on the back and a better-luck-next-time. But sometimes there are no next-times. Sometimes, it was now or never – and in fact: never. No mother and no father. It was on you, on us, and we did some things, or didn’t, but we got it wrong, and failed, and it doesn’t matter why.
I want to emphasize this last one because I, at least, feel some temptation to use an inward sense of whether I am coming from a place of sincerity, or not, as a proxy for how much to trust myself, and for whether I’m on the right track. And I don’t think this is entirely silly: if it looks, from the inside, like I’m a corrupt and hateful jerk, that is indeed a clue about my likely impact on the world. But I think this sort of heuristic easily forgets how much of the work is in the map vs. territory thing, the task-at-hand thing. Your inner life is centrally “map.” But it’s the territory that counts.
For simplicity, let’s assume you have some good reason for this – i.e., you’re trying to help people, sabotage the Nazi regime, etc.
Another issue is that “sincerity” can also sound a bit nicey-nicey. A bit saccharine. Again, a relevant connotation; but not ideal.
Of course, in the real world, genuinely opening a question can itself require an investment of time and energy that someone may not be up for at a given moment, even if they’re up for it in principle. They may have “made a previous decision about that,” and prefer to move on rather than reconsider. This is indeed one way that conversation about a question like this can fail – but I’m hoping to set it aside.
See here for one argument – though you also need the premise that being less-than-maximally effective (even just in helping animals) is wrong.
Thanks to Katja Grace for suggesting, in another context, that I consider what answers a social circumstance “allows you” to give.
See Yudkowsky, here, for related concerns.
Thanks to Bill Zito for discussion of the “not asking” option.
Alternatively: scout-mindset arises very naturally when you’re sincere about something.
“Beliefs are for true things.”
I owe the idea of the decision-making part being “in the room” to Anna Salamon, years ago.
See my essay on moral demandingness for more on this.
Here I’m reminded of this debate between Shelly Kagan and William Lane Craig. “Why do we stray so much?” the moderator asks, and Craig speaks about sin. And then – and here’s what struck me – Kagan talks about sin as well – a word that felt strange in the mouth of analytic philosopher. Maybe one objects to its theistic implications. But maybe it’s a good word, anyway.
“No one who either knows or believes that there is another possible course of action, better than the one he is following, will ever continue on his present course” (Protagoras 358b–c).
Compare with e.g. an alcoholic who claims to really want to quit. Would they take the “quit drinking” pill? That said, especially outside the context of straightforward addiction, intentional motivational self-modification like this is complicated, and it’s reasonable to be wary of it. But set up the case so that it’s maximally good on these fronts. For example, let’s say that it’s a temporary modification that will definitely be reversed, at which point the person will have a waiting period in which they decide whether to do it again; and let’s say their decision-making, in the interim, will be confined to low-stakes contexts with relatively reversible effects.
See Bennett (1974) for a collection of quotes.
Indeed, I think it’s important fact about evil that it is often done both knowingly and cheerfully.
Thanks to Cate Hall for discussion, here.
Indeed, many everyday cases of insincerity mix self and other-directed deception together. Someone is trying to tell some story both to themselves and to the world, at once: “I am a person of type X,” “the reason I’m doing this is Y.” Perhaps, indeed, the world’s opinion matters centrally insofar as it makes the internal story possible. See also Hanson on “Smart Sincere Syndrome,” his work with Simler on “The Elephant in the Brain,” and much else.
Katja Grace, in discussion, suggested to me that if you’re fully wrong about your motivations, then in some sense you might recover a form of sincerity. After all, you’re not lying to yourself (or at least, not anymore; perhaps you tried, and succeeded, in the past); rather, you’re just entirely mistaken.
Indeed, social roles are frequent sites of playing pretend, because they come both with a telos – an expected goal, a thing they’re supposed to be about – and with various forms of status, power, identity, and belonging that easily trigger other motivations. Science, we think, aims at truth; art, at [something complicated – beauty?]; public service, at the public good. And so, too, does the true scientist, artist, public servant. But how much of science is true science? How much of a “literary scene” has its eye on the telos of literature? But if one hopes to call oneself a scientist, or an artist, or whatever, there is an incentive to tell stories – including to oneself – on which one’s eye is on the prize.
Though, also Lewis: “If you do a man a good turn, not to please God and obey the law of charity, but to show him what a fine forgiving chap you are, and to put him in your debt, and then sit down to wait for his ‘gratitude’, you will probably be disappointed.” Both quotes from Mere Christianity.
See also Hamlet on “denoting me truly.”
Here I’m actually thinking of a tradition subtly different from what I see as the first-cut model of Internal Family Systems, on which there is such a thing as The Self – a centered, open-hearted, peaceful version of yourself, which is implicitly treated as the “true version,” obscured by the distortions of your parts. On the picture I have in mind here, there is no “true self” that the parts distort; rather, there are just the group dynamics of the different parts interacting. More on this difference below. In practice, though, many of the mental moves are similar.
No: “What I am trying to say is that more than your own life has to be at stake, before a person becomes desperate enough to resort to math.”
We could try to construct one via appeal to the types of sacrifices someone is willing to make, where sacrifices are understood in terms of goods like your life, your time, and so forth. I discuss this below.
I haven’t read much of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but I suspect that sincerity falls on the “heaviness” side of his lightness/heaviness distinction:
“The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”
I’ve also heard “no status” – e.g., here.
Thanks to Claire Zabel for suggesting an example in this vein.
Which is not to say, of our own world (sinking or no), that one should forget all about pride and status. Indeed, I think it’s worth wariness of people saying “forget all about that status bullshit and do what I say.”
This isn’t limited to consequentialism, or to demanding religions: it applies to common-sense morality as well. Thus, for example, we tend to think that if you’re driving to the hospital to save yourself from imminent death, but getting there in time requires running someone over on the way, morality prohibits you from running them over: you have to let yourself die instead. More here.
Cf. Freddie DeBoer:
"…the only passion that matters is a passion for the ordinary, because we live in the ordinary. Nothing gold can stay. Provocations don’t stay provoking. You start out full of fire and if you’re successful in your professionalization goals you get an office and settle in to filing grant applications. That’s life. This is what the radical left can’t understand, is bent on not understanding: if you’re only into it when it’s exciting, if you can only get the energy to participate when you’re rioting in the streets, you’re not really into it at all. You’re just a tourist. Real left organizing is renting the Portapotties for a demo. That’s the work…
Here is a little bit of hard-won wisdom from someone who has often thought that he has found The Thing, the one overarching project or mindset or philosophy that will dictate the path of the good and the decent: The Thing doesn’t exist. You never find it. All Things eventually go the way of your Thing from when you were 20, when you discovered Buddhism/existentialism/Ayn Rand – it inspired and animated you, you thought you had broken the world’s code, then over time, the cracks inevitably showed, and what seemed energizing and limitless within that Thing was subsumed into the plodding ordinariness of everyday life. I am still a Marxist, as I think the Marxist theory of history (which leads inevitably to the Marxist theory of economics) better describes the world than any other philosophy I’ve encountered. But my adult life has been one long repetitive encounter with the limits of Marxism, not because it’s the wrong Thing but simply because it’s a Thing, and in fact my political origin story really starts at the day I walked away from the orthodox Marxist reading groups of my young adulthood."
Lewis, in Perelandra: “he felt like a man brought out under naked heaven, on the edge of a precipice, into the teeth of a wind that came howling from the Pole.”
Glancing at this link, I first thought this quote was from an Islamic source, but I think it’s actually from Saint Hildegard of Bingen.
Perhaps the Christians (though not the rationalists) would say: some form of death. Bonhoeffer: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” St. Francis: “For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
“Joe, won’t you ever get tired of meta-ethics? Just let it go, man.”
See e.g. here for an example attempt – one that I think fails.
Video here, though: explicit, spoiler-ish, and potentially disturbing.
Maybe you’re like: Joe, this is just a classic “True Self” vs. “No Self” debate, which is resolved via something something non-duality etc. But I don’t think so. In particular, neither side of that debate countenances the possibility that the spiritual ideal leaves you a sadist, egoist, paperclipper, etc – though perhaps, per the recent “enlightenment is compatible with being an asshole” vibes in some western Buddhist circles, both should.
Of course, there are empirical questions here about what will happen to actual humans when they do blah form of therapy, about where actual patterns of sadism and egoism etc come from, and so on. But I’m holding off on empirics until the next sub-section: here I’m looking for conceptual stories.
Here we might try to talk about the difference between de dicto vs. de re approaches to normative deliberation, but I don’t actually think this covers at it, as I think the thing I want to point at extends to nihilism worlds as well.
Though if they’re too difficult – and especially conditional on anti-realism — one wonders whether the right sort of “should” is at stake. See Soares on “‘Should’ considered harmful.”
And this despite the fact that the true meta-ethics is probably necessarily true.
I even feel something similar towards the paperclipper who says, in that charming robot voice, “obviously, if there were a righteous God, we should worship.”
I think my treatment of this topic in the context of 1 and 2 may end up inconsistent, but I’m going to leave it for now.
Thanks to Katja Grace for discussion of this approach.
See Nagel’s “Concealment and Exposure” for some interesting discussion of dynamics in this vicinity.
Or at least, it used to? How far hath we fallen?
Though importantly, norm-violation can be motivated by more than selfishness.
Thanks to Katja Grace for suggesting this frame.
In fact, it makes me want to say: "wake up! You live in the real world. Your actions have real consequences."
See Dover (2019) for more on this and related problems for hypocrisy norms.
Thanks to Claire Zabel for discussion.
Though: careful now. If you aren’t a good person, that likely has something importantly to do with your relationship to “the point.”
See Soares on “How we will be measured” for more.
See e.g. Soares on excuses.
From Kelsey Piper, on Don’t Look Up: “It’s the most serious thing the movie has to say… Don’t Look Up isn’t about ordinary people who discover inside them the heroism to save the ones they love. It’s about ordinary people who know what’s coming and aren’t ultimately heroes at all. They make a couple of futile attempts to do something, which amount to nothing. And then they die, because that’s what will happen if we aren’t up to the task ahead of us.” See also Robert Miles on “There’s No Rule That Says We Make It.”
I think various spiritual traditions may be partly to blame, here. Sometimes, in Buddhism (and especially re: Karma), there’s a vibe like “get the intention right, and the rest will follow.” New agers, too, love to go off of the “energy” of something. And in Christianity, it can seem like one is expected, always, to know in one’s heart what is right and what is wrong, and the question is only: whether you have the inner strength to choose the right. Indeed, in my opinion, much of today’s moral discourse assumes much too hard that various moral questions are easy, and that the truth of blah position is clear to anyone who isn’t obviously an asshole, and that whether you are an asshole is quite immediately epistemically accessible if you would just, for a moment, stop to check. And perhaps, in many moral contexts, this isn’t too bad a guide. But I worry it misses the sense in which being a force for good in the world is not, centrally, a matter of introspection.
As I was reading this I thought that earnestness was clearly the right word for what you’re discussing. Your argument against it, which just boils down to it sounding cheesy, didn’t dissuade me of that view. I think its fine to just own that the value you care about has kinda cheesy connotations, rather than trying to leverage a less accurate word that doesn’t have baggage you dislike. Being earnest is great!
Thanks for this - I think this captures a quality (or set of qualities?) that has previously not had so accurate a handle! I think, in many ways, sincerity is the quality that leads people to really 'take seriously' (i.e., follow through in a coherent way) the project of doing good.
I recommend the audio version on Joe Carlsmith Audio. For me, the reading by the author made this essay very engaging and conveyed additional meaning, with the final section very strong.