Does "Goodness" Work or Fail in Competition?

I recently received a long letter from a dedicated reader, Ehab Sherif, asking basically if people who try to be good and benevolent are at a competitive disadvantage. This is an interesting question.

I am often asked if Sun Tzu's system is a religious philosophy, which it isn't. It is a practical method and science based on outcomes than an ontological theory. Religion is about the right goals as well as the method for achieving those goals. Sun Tzu's system is about achieving goals given our very real limitations in this world. Sun Tzu says nothing about what the proper goals are, simply on how they are best achieved in this world.

I am also asked if Sun Tzu's system is more compatible with some religions than others, This is difficult for me to say, since I am not familiar with all religions,. However, I can say that it is completely compatible with all religions with which I am familiar. However, as we explain in this public article, empathy for others is an absolute requirement to use Sun Tzu's system.

For those interested in such questions, I offer my answer to Ehab about the nature of goodness below.

Hi Ehab: I want to do your heartfelt letter and its questions about goodness and justice, but it may be beyond my poor abilities. I cannot enlighten. I can only encourage people to learn from what works.

"Life is deception" not because of life is evil but because of our limitation. Sun Tzu's primary meaning here is that a strategic position consist of two components: the reality and the opinion, which can be very different things. Because of this, we work to create opinions that favor our moves.

This is not simply because people choose to be selfish rather than benevolent. All people are both benevolent and selfish at all times. The more we meet our own needs, the more benevolent we are, but this is not selfless behavior,. It makes us happy to see others happy, especially those with whom we come into regular contact, those we know. "Benevolence" toward strangers is selfish as well. Such benevolence is usually a simple desire for personal moral superiority. Extensive, strong opinions about what constitutes the "common good" requires a high self-regard. In its extreme forms, that self-regard assumes godlike knowledge about what is best for everyone, knowledge which is clearly beyond our limited abilities.

We tend to be selfish because our individual consciousness is so narrow, centered in one specific place and time. We can only be myopically focused on our own lives. While we can imagine the feelings of others, pretending such imaginings are anything more than poor attempts at understanding is again nothing more than self-regard.

Since we are limited to our individual human bodies, we want to survive and prosper, if only for the benefit of those we love. When we are willing to give our lives for our loved ones or our beliefs, it is not because we are selfless. We are not willing to die for the beliefs of others, only for our own!

We cannot confuse benevolence with doing good. Nor should we mistake selfishness with doing evil. Much that is good can come from our selfishness and much harm can and has come from our benevolence. We must not confuse our intentions with their outcomes, justifying the later on the basis of the former. To be good at strategy, we need empathy, which is the foundation of all benevolence, but good is accomplished by good strategy beyond simply intending to do good.

Paraphrasing Adam Smith, it is not from the benevolence of the butcher and the baker that we enjoy our dinner, but from our mutual selfish interdependence on each others. When we exchange what we do best for what others do best, we all prosper. Competition is part of this prosperity because it rewards those who are the most productive (1.3.1 Competitive Comparison. When those who do best get more rewards, others are quick to emulate their practices, continuously improving the world as a whole (7.1.3 Standards and Innovation).

On the other hand, benevolent intentions often create disastrous outcomes. Examples are everywhere. Children's lives are spoiled by indulgent parents who protect them from challenges of life and thus poorly prepare them to succeed in a competitive world. The benevolent desire to protect raptors from DDT ended up killing tens of millions of people, mostly children, in Africa from malaria. The flow of charity products into poor countries, puts local producers out of business. The local farmers become beggars living on charity instead of productive members of society because they cannot sell their food at prices competitive with charity. The desire to create "equality" among men, eliminating competition, ends up creating states such as the USSR and Mao's China, that kill tens of millions of their own citizens for the "common good."

We are also are wrong thinking that “good people” don’t know how to play to win. Most winners are good people who follow all the normative rules of society for the practical value of winning the trust and support of others. The problem is that we confuse “being good” with “doing good”. The normative rules of "being good" are simply prohibitions against actions that damage ourselves and our relationships in the long-rule while providing instant gratification in the short run. Following these rules is more a matter of self-control, realizing that our actions have consequences and that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Doing good is much more difficult. It means created value. In human society, this means doing what others are most willing to reward us for doing. Everyone in the universe has a different perspective on what is valuable and those ideas change from moment to moment. Few of us really have a clear perspective on our own idea of what is good and valuable at any given moment. When we extend this ideas beyond simple rules of practical conduct into some sort of universal absolute, we get into trouble.

Our challenge with the "truth" must be limited to our poor capabilities. We struggle simply to know what works best or what is best for us to communicate at any given moment. To know what is “true” in a universal sense, is well beyond our capacities. Is it “honest” for a salesperson to put his product in the very best possible light, especially in terms of what he sees others as wanting? Absolutely! That is his job, just as it is the customer’s job to suspect and challenge the salesperson.

Neither the salesperson or the customer knows what is true in terms of the best possible use for the customer's money in all the world at any given moment. It is out of the competition between buyers and sellers we all learn what is possibly the best.

If a salesperson does not represent the best possible aspects of a product, who will? If a salesperson uses his limited time on exposing all the potential negatives instead of all the positives, he will certainly denying his customers the happiness they could have gotten from the product. I want my cook to tell me that he is making the best meal that I have ever tasted rather than the worst. Even if I doubt the truth of this statement, I will enjoy the mean more for its promotion, rather than its denigration.

I do not believe in scarcity except in our knowledge. We are poor to the degree we are ignorant. The more we learn, the more abundance we can create. However, the issue is never the distribution and division of abundance. It is foolish to think that governments can "fairly" distribute anything. Governments can only discourage the creation of abundance by threatening redistribution from those who produce abundance to those who only consume. If we create enough abundance, nature takes care of its distribution. Abundance naturally spreads to all around us. Just we can only pile sand so high without it spreading out. In wealth nations, even the poor are wealthy by comparison. A poor person in America can live a more comfortable life in every way than a rich man in the poorest country.

Our challenge is the creation of abundance. The heart of the challenge is that the meaning of “value” is dynamic, changing from more moment to moment with the desires of each individual. Everyone in the world has a say and no one in the world can hear what we are ALL saying because we are all speaking at once. I know with certainty that learning Sun Tzu’s methods will help everyone create more abundance, but my success in convincing people to spend a little time to master these ideas is limit. The world is a noisy place. My job is simply to keep trying new way to break through the noise and work on making the system easier for people to appreciate.

I agree with you that our role on this earth is to discover God, or, more precisely in my limited understanding, God’s role for us in this world. We are always discovering God. He is all around us, in everything, but like truth, He is beyond our comprehension. Our problem is not finding God, but in grasping the small part of the infinite that allows us to reach our potential. In the end, like Sun Tzu, I am a practical man. I believe that God put us in this world for a practical reason, to do practical things. He made us weak, so that we would need each other. He made us foolish, so we would have an incentive to learn. When we depend on each other and learn more about how the world works, we are doing His will.

Thank you for your kind words of affection, but I am far from deserving. I am glad you have found some value in my work and I encourage you to studying Sun Tzu more and find others to whom you can teach what you have learned. It is by teaching that we truly learn. I am glad that the work has freed you from the endless routine of planning so that you are free to adapt to the world as it is rather than how we think it should be.