Good and bad faith
I’ve been thinking out loud for a while now about good faith and bad faith and the role they play in building consensus for complicated social systems. Mostly on Twitter. But there’s one small problem: I’ve…never really stated what these concepts actually mean. So. I think it’s about time I give these terms a little more definition, a little more heft. We live in a faith-based social system, sure, but how does that actually work?
Well, here’s my best shot at it: A system is faith-based whenever the members of that system must act on the presumed intent of other actors in the system.
- In a good faith system actors presume that others will strive to benefit the system at their own expense. Example: this is how cells operate as actors in the human body.
- In a bad faith system actors presume others will strive to benefit themselves at the expense of the system. Example: this is how predators operate as actors in a survival ecosystem.
- A mixed system, of course, exhibits some combination of the two. Most systems that we encounter are mixed, with layers and layers of both good and bad faith, stacked one on top of the other.
We can see how this type of “faith” dictates behavior and outcomes if we consider the classic prisoner’s dilemma, where a criminal suspect has to weigh the odds of being betrayed by their partner before deciding whether or not to betray their partner themselves. From the prisoner’s perspective, if they presume their partner will act in good faith, then they will choose to avoid prosecution and simply refuse to betray them. If they presume otherwise, they will immediately spill the beans and bet on the reduced sentence. If the presumption is unclear or uncertain, then the choice becomes exceedingly difficult – we are probably in the territory of mixed faith.
The best way to get a feel for the mix of good and bad faith in your system(s) is to look at how openly actors move around in public and share information. In the harshest bad faith systems, it’s pretty much impossible to speak freely, or even at all. This makes sense, seeing as good and bad faith are all about others’ intent. Revealing your intentions can be fatal – especially if they are good intentions. It’s the equivalent of showing everyone your cards in a game of poker (the quintessential game of bad faith). It makes you vulnerable. That is quite the opposite in a good faith system, where actors will generally feel comfortable being open, or even cavalier, about all of their judgements, mistakes, and intentions. If you’re in a good faith system, you can relax. Take things easy. If you’re in a bad faith system, well… read up on Sun Tzu.
A point of clarification: It can be tempting to think that bad faith systems are always bad and good faith systems are always good, but drawing that conclusion would be a serious mistake. There are all kinds of reasons why you might want to institute a bad faith approach. Survival, for one, though that’s not usually a concern for us in our day-to-day lives. Mostly, human systems employ bad faith in order to help identify or manage bad behavior. Looking to the legal system as an example, there we can see that not only do actors not speak freely, but they even enlist professionals to speak with extreme caution on their behalf – a textbook example of a bad faith system in action. Of course, it also exhibits all the problems that come along with a bad faith system, but we’ll get to that momentarily.
Modulation vs Eradication
As I mentioned, bad faith approaches are recommended as mitigation strategies for bad actors, best used to limit, constrain, deter, and prevent the incidence of chronic problems that can never be ultimately resolved. This is how the judicial system operates for major crimes, where we know due to human nature that criminality will never be reduced to zero. It’s also how speed limits are enforced, where we understand that we won’t catch every speeder, aiming instead to discourage the worst offenders by catching 1 out of 500. These implementations, though imperfect, are at least valid attempts at deploying bad faith: modulation.
But while bad faith has valid uses, beware that there are some important trade-offs to consider. If you need to be able to trust particular actors, for example, engaging them in bad faith can and often does break that relationship, unless they are unreasonably patient. It can also push the good actors out of your system entirely, if they eventually decide it’s not “worth it” to constantly wade through all the distrust and suspicion. But most importantly, when over-applied bad faith can actually empower the very bad actors we are trying to manage.
I have a term for this kind of bad faith overreach: eradication. Eradication attempts occur when actors in mixed systems try to completely eliminate every single instance of a given behavior or problem – at all costs. This… pretty much never works. Eradication might be a conceivable strategy when you have a direct mechanism to achieve it, like using a vaccine to eradicate polio or small pox (two major bad faith actors from the perspective of our immune system). But remember, we’re talking about human behavior here, so eradication can only be achieved by means of coercion or penalty. In other words, enforcement. Eradication requires enforcement, which leads to escalation. Escalation then empowers the actors with the worst available combination of malice and resources. In other words, it leads to an arms race, which will almost always reward the actors who win the arms race.
This is really just a classic escalation pattern, and once this feedback loop sets in there are three possible paths:
- Victory – You out-escalated the bad actors and you have managed to eradicate your problem outright. Good job! (You’ll notice there are no positive examples of this in a social context. There are, however… negative examples.)
- Retreat – the bad actors out-escalate you, mount a defense, hold their position, and eventually force you to completely abandon your eradication strategy. (This is effectively what happened during the American prohibition era.)
- Equilibrium – neither side out-escalates the other but settles into an enduring stalemate, with dynamic tensions maintaining the balance. In other words, you end up with modulation anyway. (This is what we see with speed limit enforcement and other typical modulation strategies.)
I already mentioned it above, but the ultimate example of a failed eradication attempt in American history is the Prohibition era in the United States. It’s an almost pristine example of how a new eradication strategy gets put into effect, which leads to harsh enforcement and the ensuing escalation. The escalation then empowered the worst actors on both sides of the enforcement, not only by supporting the growth of organized crime but also by encouraging a parallel growth in general political corruption. With neither side able to win outright, the enforcement eroded on a number of fronts, including the most important one: public support. This resulted in the ultimate retreat of the movement in the form of literal repeal. Retreat.
(Note: While there’s historical dispute whether or not Prohibition actually caused more crime than simple urbanization, there’s no argument that it clearly empowered the worst actors in the ecosystem.)
Applied to Our Partisan Moment
What does this tell us about partisan bad faith? In a certain sense, partisan bad faith is actually an eradication strategy of its own. Each of our major tribes seeks to defeat and overcome the other, framing every political battle as if they are just one step away from total victory. We already see how the worst actors are winning this particular arms race. Hyper-partisan vitriol is simple to generate and is easily amplified by bots and high-profile accounts, leading to followers, influence, and ever-increasing levels bad faith. Meanwhile, the painstaking work of good faith becomes less and less tenable, more and more relegated to the vacant middle.
But it would be a mistake to think we can simply eradicate partisanship. We can’t. And we shouldn’t. In a healthy environment, the forces of partisanship provide the dynamic tension the center needs to do its job well. They keep the center honest. The problem is simply that the dynamic is broken. But what if we tried to put an end to partisanship anyway? What if we tried to eradicate it? It would… not go well. If the center simply declared that it would not tolerate any partisanship whatsoever, it would quickly get shut out of the game. It would be so lopsided you might not even recognize it as an arms race, or really any kind of competition at all – that is a race where the tortoise loses to the hare, every time. The center cannot hold, not by force of numbers.
You could even argue that this hypothetical isn’t even really a hypothetical; one thing that partly (partly!) weakened the “establishment” over the past decade was it’s diplomatic refusal to engage in the appearance of frivolous partisanship, leaving cracks in the facade through which the fringe was able to leak into the center. I preach moderation and pragmatism a lot myself, but I still can’t help but wonder how the last ten years would have played out if only the major establishment actors used a little less diplomatic doublespeak and gave a little more voice to partisan frustration.
But let’s put counterfactuals aside. While partisans seem to be locked in an eternal stalemate, we are far from equilibrium. The situation is very much unstable, and in this case victory for either side likely means catastrophe for our democracy. But if eradication isn’t even an option, that means equilibrium is our only bet. We can’t inoculate people against partisanship, and bad faith only begets more bad faith, so if we want to solve this problem we’re going to need to modulate it to the point where the system can once again move smoothly. We’re gonna need to find a measure of balance. We have to set up a decent speed limit, and put just the right number of cops on the road. Then add in a little leeway – sometimes you have to let the driver off easy! – and we’ll see the ecosystem naturally settle into a healthy equilibrium.
Yes, we need to find that speed limit. Then, and only then, can we finally start to reconcile our many divides. Only then can we have all the great ideological battles we have been wanting to fight but cannot – trapped as we are, swinging at the empty air in our own little bubbles.
Now, what should that speed limit look like? I’ve got some ideas, but it really isn’t up to me, is it?