Humans are inherently self-serving.
No matter how altruistic one is, our instincts default to preservation. Willingly sacrificing our life for a stranger is just not in our DNA—evolution is the ultimate example of every-man-for-themselves. Beyond the explicitly biological, there are also psychological, spiritual, and metaphysical reasons that can add further context to this particular aspect of our nature. Uncertainty about the world around us begets internal narratives that we reinforce within our psyche; uncertainty surrounding our relative social or familial status leads to paranoia and detachment, uncertainty around beliefs in God and religion creates conflicts between generalized morality and Puritanical extremism, and the uncertainty about our place in the Universe opens existential questions into the true value of humanity.
The result is a basic framework that explains our tendancy to place a higher import on the self than on the whole, though this disposition goes directly against meta-rationality in a “survival-of-the-species” way. As much as it’s now considered taboo to say this, we’re fighting upstream in our perpetual attempts to enshrine tolerance and unity. Millenia of human history provide ample evidence that, when given a choice, we will always choose ourselves over others.
Sounds pretty grim, yeah? Coming from a self-proported optimist, this doesn’t feel very optimistic. To this point, the distinction has been rather binary, and thus, impractical for the rather analogue scenarios we regularly face. Indeed, there will (hopefully) be few, if any, instances in our lives where we are forced to make a choice between us living and a stranger dying. This is likely the furthest extreme we can go to in this hypothetical. So what about the other 99.9% of the situations we have to navigate? How does our human nature handle less permanent, less severe, and less relationally-distant situations?
Selfishness, like most things in life, isn’t black-and-white. It exists on a vast spectrum. To one end, we have the altruistic ideal of willingly sacrificing yourself for a stranger; maybe even someone you dislike or view as actively harmful to society. Then all the way to the opposite end, we have sociopathy and psychopathy, where there exists no empathy, compassion, respect, or appreciation for traditional social norms. Almost everyone operates at various latitudes between these poles, but complications arise when there are game-theoretic forces that nudge people in one way or the other. And generally, this nudge isn’t in the direction of some idealitic, harmonious utopia.
Colloquially, this is known as the Moloch problem. The depths and pervasiveness of Moloch is broken down beautifully by Scott Alexander in his “Meditations on Moloch” (seriously, everyone should go read this) so I won’t even attempt to cover everything here. But the 30,000 foot synopsis is that there exists invisible forces that compel individuals to make decisions and act in ways in which their best-case scenario ultimately leads to everyone being worse off. And because these forces act on a meta-socioeconomic level, no single agent (i.e. decision maker) is able to unilaterally break out of this pattern. Submission to fear and greed ultimately drive this inescapable feedback loop. Game theory dominates every interpersonal choice we make, and there is seemingly no resolution that optimizes the collective Nash equilibrium (i.e. everyone gets the outcome they’re hoping for and nobody gets fucked over).
The simplest, and most well-understood, example of Moloch’s coerciveness is the Prisoner’s Dilemma—a hypothetical scenario in which remaining silent and refusing to cooperate with interrogators results in both prisoners getting 2 years of incarceration, each confessing to the crime results in them both getting 5 years, and one confessing while the other remains silent results in 8 years for the former and 1 year for the latter. And the’re not allowed to communicate with one another. So how can a definitive decision be made?
That’s the crux of the dilemma—we don’t actually know how to resolve the impasse in a way that guarantees the optimal outcome. And this is only when considering two agents (i.e. decision makers). What about when we have three agents? Ten? One thousand? Eight billion? Game-theoretic simulations like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Malthusian Traps, and the Byzantine Generals problem have plagued politicians, economists, strategists, and social theorists for centuries.
Failures at rectification haven’t been for a lack of trying. Technological ingenuity can get us part of the way there under very specific circumstances. For example, algorithms for reaching consensus among unaligned and untrusted parties leverage partial solutions to the Byzantine Generals problem in the world of blockchains and cryptography. To combat the Moloch-like forces inherent to Capitalism, state-directed, top-down control has been attempted in places like the Soviet Union and China with some sparks of success (e.g. China’s economy has progressed by magnitudes in the last 30 years, though one could debate how much of that should be credited to the totalian nature of the CCP), but have mostly been catastrophic failures (I probably don’t need to list all the ways Communism has been bad). We can even look to how the threat of mutually-assured destruction from the creation of nuclear weapons has, far from leading to the apocolypse, actually done more to reduce the prevelance of war and violence than anything else in recorded history. Whether through directed and controlled research or as an accidental byproduct, these are all instances of humans fighting back against the corrupting forces of Moloch. And while there may not yet be a way to circumvent Moloch entirely, we have found something that can at least mitigate his influence…
The world as we experience it sits perfectly balanced atop a chaotic cacophony of unspoken rules and unwritten laws. These implicit agreements weave through the fabrics of society and are consistently being pulled and stretched and frayed, threatening to completely give way at any moment. The only thing holding it together and preventing anarchy is the existence of trust. Without trust, cities would descend into chaos, economies would crash, neighbors would turn on each other, cooperation on every level would cease to exist, and Moloch would reign unchallenged. Trust has been the bedrock of human coordination and progress since the very first “I won’t kill you if you don’t kill me” was internalized and reciprocated by our ancestors. From that point onward, every tribe of hunter-gatherers, every community of agriculturalists, every port of traders, and every network of commerce has been built from this frighteningly fragile foundation.
In times of growth and prosperity, trust is the ultimate fertilizer. Many institutions that we take for granted in our everyday lives wouldn’t be possible in low-trust societies; notable examples being lending and borrowing money/assets (credit), centralized governements (maintaining the best interests of the governed), the legal system (upholding the rights of the individual), and even internet data providers (preserving privacy). When optimism is diffusing and accelerating, it’s much easier to have faith that your goverment is good, the media is honest, and your neighbor won’t kill you. After all, a growing pie means everyone can be happy. What could go wrong?
War, nationalism, narrow ideological beliefs, corruption, greed, power, and a distancing of human connection can all go wrong. These are the forces that are constantly tugging and ripping at the very thing that holds society together; they’re the work of Moloch. And in many cases, the most egregious trespassers have no idea as to the consequential scope of their actions. They’re typically just doing what they truly believe to be right for themselves, their family, their company, or their country, even if it may seem obviously disastrous and unhinged to the rest of us. Destabilization doesn’t always require malicious intent, and that is what makes it so terrifying.
If I’m CEO of computer company and decide to replace a component of the CPU with one that is cheaper to manufacture but degrades performance for the user, this is a subtle erosion of trust.
If I’m president of a country who secretly taps its citizens phone calls and emails, this is a violation of their trust.
If I’m a bartender who pockets a few extra dollars from the collective tip jar meant to be divided equally, I’m breaking an explicit social contract with my coworkers even if I never get caught.
If I’m a police officer who oversteps my authority when making an arrest, I’ve severed the reciprocal trust that must exist between me and the population I’m meant to protect and serve.
And if I’m a criminal who’e uncooperative and resists arrest, I shouldn’t expect those officers to treat me with the mutual respect representative of a high-trust society.
This is the Paradox of Trust—individually, we have no reason to believe that someone else (especially a stranger) will act in a way that benefits us, but for the most positive collective outcome, we have to trust that they will.
When there isn’t a way to know, with certainty, how the other party will act, the most logical choice for everyone involved is to go with the one requiring the least tradeoffs and best average outcomes for all. But humans aren’t logical. We succomb to Moloch’s wishes. We’re greedy and manipulative and self-serving. If we can gain an edge at someone else’s expense, we will take the opportunity. Nobody publically admits this because we all understand that this way of thinking/acting is a direct violation of the implicit social-contract. And if we were to explicitly confess to acting in our own best interests in lieu of customs, the trust that is so essential for how our civilization operates would instantly evaporate.
The simplest resolution to this problem has historically been to consolidate the circle of trust as much as is reasonably possible, with the hope that fewer dependencies will allow for a more reliable and resilient system. “If I can trust myself with 95% certainty, my family with 75%, my neighbors with 50%, and my town with 30%, then I should condense my circle include my neighbors but not the greater townspeople.”—Or so goes the theory. But this Band-Aid is no longer realistic in the globalized, heterogenous, and interconnected modern-world.
Every day, we read tweets created by someone in Germany and use products manufactured in China. We listen to our Presidents, Chancellors, Prime Ministers, Kings, Emperors, Premiers, Supreme Rulers, or insert-ego-stroking-title deliver their finely-combed speeches with the naive hope that they’re not brazenly lying to our faces (though we should know better). We then consume the transcriptions and translations of said speeches from journalists and reporters and media outlets with the expectation that the dissemination is accurate (though we should know better). We can attend a sporting event alongside tens of thousands of people—distributed among every age, religion, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, and background—and momentarily forget about the magnitude of our differences to cheer for our favorite team. After a long day of work, we return home to our partner and children and pets expecting that the house hasn’t been burned to the ground by the spiteful neighbor, that our partner hasn’t left us for their coworker, that our children haven’t gotten matching face tattoos, and that our dog hasn’t shit on our favorite rug. We have to TRUST that those tweets aren’t misinformation, those products aren’t dysfunctional, our President has our best interests in mind, the other fans won’t turn on us in the parking lot after the game, and that our home life will be (mostly) stable.
We shouldn’t blindly trust, however. To protect against these Molochian, zero-sum scenarios, there are systems in place that reduce the need for everyone to trust everyone else in every situation. We have laws that punish criminals who violate human and property rights. We have “Terms and Conditions” and “Fact Checkers” that disincentivize rampant lying and misinformation online and in the media (though this is far from a perfect solution, specifically because there are often stronger incentives being propagated by Moloch). Fear of ostracism, termination, and financial penalties leverage the power of negative reinforcement to allow large groups of workers, and multiple businesses, to align their efforts toward a common goal. We have verification checkmarks, Better Business Bureaus, and international human-rights treaties to encourage “good” behavior and offload specific burdens from the individual level to that of a “trusted” third-party. (Note that there are scales of trust as well—we may not trust Twitter with 100% certainty, yet it might still be economical to trust them with accrediting or discrediting anonymous accounts that we don’t trust at all.) Uniquely-human traits like empathy, compassion, and “love” can even act as good-enough moral compasses when there is nothing else to buoy trust above the rising tide.
It’s easy to look around and come up with concrete reasons as to why we should no longer trust our neighbors or our employees or big businesses or foreign countries. We get berated daily with news of mass shootings and hate crimes and fraud and infidelity. It’s not really enigmatic that optimism feels like it’s slowly being drained from the public conscience. While these abhorrent violations of trust are what monopolize our attention and generate the most headlines, our societal framework is still functioning inexplicably as it has for hundreds of thousands of years, despite what some would like to believe.
I’m no psychologist and have no revelatory insights as to which specific aspects of the human psyche allows this seemingly contradictory phenomenon to happen.
I’m no economist and truly don’t understand how the Hidden Hand manages to find a market equilibrium even in the most primal times of volatility and turbulence and every-man-for-himself.
I’m no social theorist and couldn’t tell you as to why doomsday-prophesizing and fear-mongering and pessimism seem to be incessant themes of recent history, despite quality of life, infant mortality, poverty rate, prevelance of infectious diseases, median wealth, technological access, and intergroup tolerance ALL having improved exponentially within the last few thousand years.
Though I’m no expert, I have some guesses as to why humans have, up to this point, been resistant to the ultimate temptations of Moloch.
We have learned, through much trial and more error, to temper our expectations in our fellow man. We understand that we’re imperfect beings too, and the same forces are pulling the strings of our decisions/actions, as well as those who look to take advantage of us. We realize that lying to our boss and gaslighting our partner really aren’t that far from stealing, fraud, and blackmail. And though the underlying web of trust is relentlessly assaulted and abused, every micro-act of compassion, every showing of empathy, and every reinforcement of humanity patches the holes faster than they can be sheered. There is nothing that says we have to trust people—humans are fallible, and we know they will continue letting us down over-and-over-again. But even after being hurt and deceived and violated, we keep choosing to believe in the good.
The only way this makes any semblance of sense from a biological, psychological, or metaphysical perspective is the assumption that we’re all better off together rather than fractured; that the collective is more powerful and capable than the individual; and that our only real chance at longevity within our tiny speck of the cosmos is to accept that trust is paradoxical, yes, but it’s also fundamentally necessary. It's the glue that binds us and the oil that keeps the gears turning. Without trust, we are lost, aimlessly drifting on the ocean of existence, unguided and unconnected. With trust, we are a purposeful force, a sum greater than its parts, capable of not only surviving, but prospering.