Give and Take: Understanding Good and Evil in Modern Society

We often post on Mastodon, or write about “Them”, “The Rich”, “The Oligarchy”, “Christians”, “Republicans”, etc. These terms feel squishy because they are. Often these terms are left undefined so that a person can modify their ideology without having to admit that they are doing that. We don’t want to be that way, we’d prefer to clearly define good and evil within our own ideology. So today we are presenting a new model for understanding good and evil in modern society.

Our non-meme artwork is provided by a custom stable-diffusion instance we maintain. This piece was created from that prompt “back to the stone age, abstract, oil on canvas”
Taking things back to the stone age

Before we try to attack this problem in our complex modern society, let’s try to understand it in simpler terms. Back in the Stone Age, by which we really mean the period after the last ice age but before the development of agriculture, referred to as the Upper Paleolithic era. Humanity was organized differently. Back then we travelled in small hunter-gatherer tribes, often consisting only of extended family, never more than 100 individuals in a single group.

At these sizes, it is fairly easy to understand the role that each person plays. More importantly it is easy to see who is and is not pulling their weight so to speak. Lazy, grifting, or bully type people will not survive long in groups like this. They are pushed out and often die alone after the group moves on.

So let’s think of the people who contribute to this group’s survival as being “good” and those that don’t as being “bad”. This assumes the perspective that we wish to survive, which is typically the desire of most human societies. Contribution can come in many forms, you may gather food or firewood, you may hunt animals to eat or make clothing from. Those are simple methods of contribution to understand, but there are others.

You may have and raise children to keep the group going. You may keep and tell stories to share knowledge and training between generations. Maybe you are disabled and cannot hunt or gather, so you compose or sing songs to help the tribe relax. Maybe you are a shaman or seer who helps to guide the moral choices the tribe makes. A healer. All of these would be considered good wouldn’t you say?

What about bad? Bad might be a hunter who is jealous of another hunter’s good fortunes and seeks to harm or kill that hunter so they can raise their own status. That’s a clear example of bad, but it isn’t always so clean. Bad could also simply mean taking a little more food than the others in the group. This type of damage only becomes evident over a longer period of time.

Still, even the most clever “bad” person in a group smaller than 100 will eventually be found out. You cannot get away with stealing food forever, nor would you be able to jealously kill multiple other people without some questions being asked.

Rights, Money and Power are all types of abstract resources highly valued by our modern societies.
Defining Resources

To help us take this understanding into the modern world we have to expand our definition of “resource”. In that hunter gatherer group resources were:

  • Food
  • Animal materials
  • Natural materials
  • Knowledge
  • Maybe entertainment

Not much else would have been thought of as a resource back then. These resources are concrete things, with clear shared understanding of their meaning. When we say “Natural materials” you think of wood, reeds, obsidian, and that is precisely what we mean by the term.

In our modern world resources are more abstract than this, harder to define:

  • Rights
  • Money
  • Power
  • Space

These are conceptual ideas, not concrete things. And yet, they are limited in the same way as the earlier list’s items are. Even with a concept like “Rights” there are limits set by morality or other humans with “Power”. Limits such as “Don’t kill other people”, you don’t normally have a right to do that in a modern society. Something like same-sex marriage is exactly the same, that’s a right that exists – saying it isn’t allowed is equivalent to taking it away.

“Money” is an especially difficult concept as it has no real value on it’s own, it’s just paper, chunks of cheap metals, or more often numbers in a database. This resource, money, is special as it can be traded for the other resources due to our shared understanding of the relative value that things have. A car has a price, that price is set by the people who build and sell the car. We can understand that price in terms of money. So money is a kind of super resource in modern society.

The great ball pit, each ball represents a single unit of any given resource you’d like to think about

To get this discussion going we’d like to present a analogy for the modern society. Rather than thinking of it as a massive web of connected individuals trading with each other, instead picture a huge ball bit like you might see in a fast food play area. All the humans in the society are standing around this massive ball bit.

Each ball represents a unit of “resources”, rights, power, money, knowledge, food, whatever you want to think of as a resource gets represented by a ball in this pit. The humans around the pit can do a few things with these balls:

  • They can earn or take one from the pool or another person
  • They can create one and add it to the pit, more on this later
  • They can give a ball they have to another human
  • They can return a ball they have to the pit

In this way, the ball pit is a kind of shared resource pool for all of humanity. As long as a ball is in the pit, any human could conceptually take it via some means. When a ball is being held by another human though, that human must either give it to someone else, hoard it, return it, or have it stolen from them.

What about that 2nd point above, creating new balls for the pit? This happens all the time. Governments print money in a very literal sense, this adds balls to the pit. Sometimes especially bright humans invent something, like a new technology or product. When that technology improves the lives of other humans it is equivalent to creating and adding balls to the pit. Think of an entrepreneur starting a business and now many others have better jobs than they had before.

When a person is born they are holding a nearly infinite number of balls in the form of rights, things they could do. Kill someone, marry someone of the same gender, steal from someone. These actions are only restricted by other humans, so they are taken away almost immediately in most societies, leaving only a few rights in play.

The goal of a modern society seems to be to always increase the total number of balls in play. We measure this type of thing abstractly with statistics like the gross domestic produce, or GDP of a given country.

In an objectively fair society, each person receives an equal share of the resources
A fair society

In an entirely fair society every human would have access to the same number of balls throughout their lives. Even if they, or other humans do something to increase the total supply, that extra amount would be shared amongst all the others in time. In fact this is the stated goal of many political ideologies, such as communism. Even democracy ostensibly claims to desire this fair distribution amongst the citizenry.

In reality this is rarely the case. We all feel this in our own societies, or read about it in the news. A person like Elon Musk is currently holding 0.008% of all the “money” balls in the United States. That number is calculated by taken his estimated wealth, around 200 billion divided by the GDP, around 23 trillion.

0.008% may seem pretty small, but consider that is equal to 200 billion dollars. In our hypothetically “fair” society no human would ever have more than 0.000000002% of the total balls. This was calculated by taking the per capita GDP, around 68,000 divided by that total GDP, or 23 trillion. So Elon Musk has 6 orders of magnitude more resources than a fair society would allow.

Perhaps Elon Musk is so useful to society that giving him 6 orders of magnitude more resources is worth it. Consider however that this 200 billion is effectively sitting in a pile behind him. In effect these resources have been removed from the shared pool entirely. Lowering the amount that every other person could possibly get.

You may not agree with that, you may say “Well no, Elon Musk is using these resources to create more resources”. You are absolutely correct, and also very wrong. When Elon Musk causes some companies stock value to rise, or creates some number of jobs to build his products that does add to the global pool. However that isn’t how wealth is calculated. Elon Musk’s 200 billion is specifically shares of resources under his direct control. Once a share moves to corporate control, or is paid out to an employee it no longer counts as his personal wealth.

So Elon Musk really is a dragon hoarding a pile of gold. That gold is just sitting there, taken out of the system, nobody else can access it unless he decides to allow that.

If the United States was a perfectly fair society, each and every person would receive 68,000 unit resources a year. Each person that isn’t receiving that much is being taken advantage of in some way, each person taking more than that is causing that unfairness to worsen. This number is the per-capita GDP of our nation.

Good and Evil, can we really define these objectively, without requiring any moral judgement?
Good and evil

With all that groundwork laid, lets turn to the topic of this article: defining good and evil. To cut right to it, we say that Elon Musk is “evil” because he has taken more collective resources that he has given. This idea of give and take, alongside the analogy of the ball pit, provides a model for judging the quality of any given action or person.

Again, you may disagree with our assessment of Elon. That’s fair so let’s do some math to understand it better. Elon’s wealth is equal to the per capita GDP of 2,941,176 citizens. That’s nearly 3 million. In the United States there are only 2 cities, New York and Los Angeles with more than 3 million people. So take any other city, Boston, Chicago, Miami, Elon has taken more resources than all of the people in one of those cities. He has more resources than the entire population of Chicago would have in a fair society.

To claim that he deserves this would mean that you believe he has added more than this to our collective resources. Let’s explore that idea, what would it mean? It would mean that the companies he has managed have somehow created more total wealth than he has taken out. Remember just trading wealth around won’t cut it here, it has to be new resources. A new job, or increasing the rights or power of others in a measurable way.

By the most generous estimates Tesla is responsible for the creation of 600,000 jobs. This means all downstream parts producers, and upstream repair facilities — not just direct jobs at Tesla itself. This estimate is generous as it comes from Elon himself and he is not likely to low ball this right?

600,000 is a lot, but Elon has taken nearly 3 million persons worth of wealth out. That’s 5 times more than he’s created at Tesla. Created here is being awfully generous too as many of those parts manufactures also supply other vehicle manufacturers so really he can claim only some percentage of most of these. Yet even using this generous number we aren’t even close!

So Elon is evil, in that he has a negative contribution balance. The numbers here show this pretty definitively. We could work through his other companies, PayPal, SpaceX, Boring and now Twitter — but we’ll cut to the chase, it doesn’t add up to 3 million no matter how you try to work it, or how generous you want to be.

We only pick on Elon as he is the most outspoken about the value of his contributions, if some other billionaire wants to step up we will happily pick on them instead.
Stop picking on Elon Musk

Ok, maybe we’re picking too much on Elon specifically. Let’s move our give and take definition of good and evil down to earth a bit. Consider the common pick pocket. This person likely lives on the streets or in some form of shared housing. This person does not pay any taxes into the collective pool, being a criminal by nature. Instead this person only takes from other humans. They take resources from other humans — not from the collective pool. And they certainly aren’t adding to the collective pool.

This is a definition of “evil” that requires no god, no morality system, no ethics. The definition is purely based on resource allocation. The pick pocket is “evil” because they take more than they give, not because the act of stealing is judged to be morally evil. A robin hood type character who also steals, but then returns it all to the poor, well this person becomes good by our measure.

How about a less clear cut case, the local police officer in a small town. This person earns some salary, this is an example of taking from the common pool indirectly via employment. They also take rights away from others by arresting them. Maybe those others were “evil”, but that doesn’t matter in this objective understanding of allocation. What do they give back? Maybe they speak at a school and inspire some children to do better. Maybe they protect someone from an act of violence. These are examples of giving resources back.

In balance though it is next to impossible for the police officer to come out ahead. Their job by definition requires the taking of rights at every interaction, only some interactions also result in giving of some form. In this way we can easily show that all police officers are “evil” from the perspective of a fair society.

Yes, the police are evil. It is not possible to do a job requiring you take rights from others through violence and also be a net positive in society. This is not a moral judgement.
Police officers are evil?

Yes, they are, yes, all of them. It’s defined by the job they have to do. Think about the hunter gatherer society from earlier in our post. In that group of 100 people, what purpose would a police officer serve? Would such a group really support and feed a person who’s sole job was to take rights away from others? This concept is silly on its face, and we have no historical evidence of police type positions existing in those societies.

The same goes for politicians. How often does a new law create a right for a person? Almost never compared to how often they restrict or take one away. This same idea of give and take can help us to judge the worth of our politicians. It is through this lens that we can so easily paint republicans as evil. When has a republican policy ever given back to the collective good. We’ll wait here while you try to dig one up.

On the other hand Democrats generally are pushing for laws that if not outright giving back, are at least not solely about taking things away. Student loan forgiveness, lowering taxes for the working class, improving access to healthcare. These are examples of policies that give back a tremendous number of resources to the common pool. Just one of these policies outweighs the entirety of republican giving.

The elderly and the disabled are not evil, Ayn Rand is wrong on this point by her own objectivism logic. You just have to take away her moral judgement to see it.
What about the elderly, or disabled, Ha gotcha!

When we were pitching this article idea to Auntie over dinner this was her first comment as well. In a way the system we’ve outlined above feels dangerously similar to objectivism, the philosophical system proposed by Ayn Rand and adored by conservative man babies the world over.

There is a key difference though. Objectivism makes a moral judgement on the elderly and disabled. It says that the downstream effects of them are “costs” to society. At the same time objectivism heralds the downstream effects of CEOs like Elon Musk as amazing achievements. Why is that?

Why is it that when a parts manufacturer adds a job to support Tesla that’s a positive, but when a disable person gets a wheel chair, made by that same parts manufacturer in many cases — it’s a negative? This is silly, it’s a moral judgement and has no place is our system. The disabled person is taking very little from society, usually a poverty wage, at the same time they use more equipment and see more doctors than any of us do. Those doctors owe their employment to that disabled person.

In the stone age example, the disabled and elderly die before they can have much impact on society. In modern times we have entire companies with 1000s of employees devoted to supporting these groups. Are those 1000s of employees worth nothing? Ayn Rand seems to think so, she would even frame their jobs as a cost to society. We don’t. In fact a disabled person is adding more positive value to society via downstream and upstream effects than most CEOs.

We swear this system has psychedelic underpinnings, we don’t just like writing about political philosophy for fun after all, oh wait…

Our system here is not perfect, no system ever will be. Yet it gives us a useful measure of good and evil. It can be applied to any action or person. Our system is objective, it makes no moral judgement as to the quality of any give or any take. All gives are equal, all takes are equal. This is a critical difference between this and objectivism or any other model for society.

When Elon Musk exploits labor in his factories to earn more profit for himself, he is taking. When he creates a job in that factory he is giving. His ultimate balance is what determines whether he is good or evil. As we’ve demonstrated here he can never possibly be good, the math will never work out. A homeless person who picks up a single can and puts it in a recycling bin has already beaten Elon Musk by this measure.

How does this apply to psychedelics? Well, we are all one huge universal organism. This is a truth you quickly see while in a psychedelic experience. From this perspective would it make any sense for your little toe to suddenly take 6 orders of magnitude more blood than your brain? No, you would die. In the same way allowing people like Elon Musk to do this is killing our society.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this post, maybe it will help you to better think about the relative value of the actions in your own life. Next time you see a homeless person pick up a can to get the recycling fee remember that this single action has made them more good than a billionaire could ever be.





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