They all clearly a demonstrate a deep-seated and widespread human tendency to be deceitful, cruel, abusive and murderous for reasons that have almost nothing to with material or monetary gain. It is as if most human beings are actively driven a unscratchable itch to hurt, abuse, enslave and kill others even if they stand to gain very little from it. Human beings as a species will spend their own time, effort and resources to hurt other living creatures just for the joy of doing so.
This is a harsh statement, and far from socially acceptable. Sadism is a defining human characteristic, rather than a perversion? To put it forward, I don’t agree that sadism is nearly as prevalent as AD suggests. However, it’s an order of magnitude more prevalent than most people want to admit. Economists ignore it and focus on self-interest: the economic agent may be greedy (that is, focused on narrow self-interest) but he’s not trying to hurt anyone. Psychology treats sadism as pathological, and limited to a small set of broken people called psychopaths, then tries to figure out what material cause created such a monster. The liberal, scientific, philosophically charitable view is that sadistic people are an aberration. People want sex and material comfort and esteem, it holds, but not to inflict pain on others. Humans can be ruthless in their greed, but are not held to be sadistic. What if that isn’t true? We should certainly entertain the notion.
The Marquis de Sade– more of a pervert than a philosopher, and a writer of insufferably boring, yet disturbing, material– earned his place in history by this exact argument. In the Enlightenment, the prevailing view was that human nature was not evil, but neutral-leaning-good. Corrupt states and wayward religion and unjust aristocracies perverted human nature, but the fundamental human drive was not perverse. De Sade was one of the few to challenge this notion. To de Sade, inflicting harm on others for sexual pleasure was the defining trait. This makes the human problem fundamentally insoluble. If self-interest and greed are the problem, society can align peoples’ self-interests by prohibiting harmful behaviors and rewarding mutually beneficial ones. If, however, inflicting pain on others is a fundamental human desire, then it is impossible for any desirable state of human affairs to be remotely stable; people will destroy it, just to watch others suffer.
For my part, I do not consider sadism to be the defining human trait. It exists. It’s real. It’s a motivation behind actions that are otherwise inexplicable. Psychology asserts it to be a pathological trait of about 1 to 2 percent of the population. I think it’s closer to 20 percent. The sadistic impulse can overrun a society, for sure. Look at World War II: Hitler invaded other countries to eradicate an ethnic group for no rational reason. Or, the sadists can be swept to the side and their desires ignored. Refusing to acknowledge that it exists, however, is not a solution, and I’ll get to why that is the case.
Paul Graham writes about the zero-sum mentality that emerges in imprisoned or institutionalized populations. He argues that the malicious and pointless cruelty seen in U.S. high schools, prisons, and high-society wives is of a kind that emerges from boredom. When people don’t have something to do– and are institutionalized or constrained by others’ low regard for them (teenagers are seen as economically useless, high-society wives are made subservient, prisoners are seen as moral scum)– they create senseless and degrading societies. He’s right about all this. Where he is wrong is in his assertion that “the adult world” (work) is better. For him, working on his own startup in the mid-1990s Valley, it was. For the 99%, it’s not. Office politics is the same damn thing. Confine and restrain people, and reinforce their low status with attendance policies and arbitrary orders, and you get some horrendous behavior. Humans are mostly context. Almost all of us will become cruel and violent if circumstances demand it. Okay, but is that the norm? Is there an innate sadism to humans, or is it rare except when induced by poor institutional design? The prevailing liberal mentality is that most human cruelty is either the fault of uncommon biological aberration (mental illness) or incompetent (but not malicious) design in social systems. The socially unacceptable (but not entirely false) counterargument is that sadism is a fundamental attribute of us (or, at least, many of us) as humans.
What is greed?
The prevailing liberal attitude is that greed is the source of much human evil. The thing about greed is that it’s not all that bad. In computer science, we call an optimization algorithm “greedy” if it is short-sighted (i.e. not able to capture the whole space, at a given algorithmic step) and these greedy algorithms often work. Sometimes, they’re the only option because anything else requires too much in the way of computational resources. “Greed” can simplify. Greedy people want to eat well, to travel, and for their children to be well-educated. Since that’s what most people want, they’re relatable. They aren’t malignant. They’re ruthless and short-sighted and often arrogant, but they (just like anyone else) are just trying to have good lives. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, most would argue. Most importantly, they’re reasonable. If society can be restructured and regulated so that doing the right thing is rewarded, and doing the wrong thing is punished or forbidden, greedy people can be used for good. Unlike the case with sadism, the problem can be solved with design.
Is greed good? It depends on how the word is defined. We use the word ambition positively and greed negatively, but if we compare the words as they are, I’m not sure this makes a lot of sense. Generally, I view people who want power more negatively than those who want wealth (in absolute, rather than relative terms) alone. As a society, we admire ambition because the ambitious person has a long-term strategy– the word comes from the Latin ambire, which means to walk around gathering support– whereas greed has connotations of being short-sighted and petty. We conflate long-range thinking with virtue, ignoring the fact that vicious and sadistic people are capable of long-term thought as well. At any rate, I don’t think greed is good. However, greed might be, in certain contexts, the best thing left.
To explain this, note the rather obvious fact that corporate boardrooms aren’t representative samples of humanity. For each person in a decision-making role in a large business organization, there’s a reason why he’s there and, if you think it comes down to “hard work” or “merit”, you’re either an idiot or painfully naive. Society is not run by entrepreneurs, visionaries, or creators. It’s run by private-sector social climbers. Who succeeds in such a world? What types of people can push themselves to the top? Two kinds. The greedy, and the sadistic. No one else can make it up there, and I’ll explain why, later in this post.
This fact is what, in relative terms, makes greed good. It’s a lot better than sadism.
The greedy person may not value other concerns (say, human rights or environmental conservation) enough, but he’s not out to actively destroy good things either. The sadist is actively malicious and must be rooted out and destroyed. It is better, from the point of view of a violence-averse liberal, that the people in charge be merely greedy. Then it is possible to reason with them, especially because technology makes rapid economic growth (5 to 20+ percent per year) possible. What prevents that from happening now is poor leadership, not malignant obstruction, and if we can share the wealth with them while pushing them aside, that might work well for everyone. If the leaders are sadistic, the only way forward is over their dead bodies.
“The vision thing”
Corporate executives do not like to acknowledge that the vast majority of them are motivated either by greed or by sadism. Instead, they talk a great game about vision. They concoct elaborate narratives about the past, the future, and their organization’s place in the world. It makes greed more socially acceptable. Yes, I want power and wealth; and here is what I plan to do with it. In the corporate world, however, vision is almost entirely a lie, and there’s a solid technical reason why that is the case.
We have a term in software engineering called “bikeshedding“, which refers to the narcissism of petty differences. Forget all that complicated stuff; what color are we going to paint the bike shed? The issue quickly becomes one that has nothing to do with aesthetics. It’s a referendum on the status of the people in the group. You see these sorts of things in mergers often. In one company, software teams are named after James Bond villains; in the other, they’re named after 1980s hair bands. If the merger isn’t going well, you’ll see one team try to obliterate the memetic cultural marks of the other. “If you refer to Mötley Crüe in another commit message, or put umlauts where they don’t belong for any reason, I will fucking cut you.”
Bikeshedding gets ugly, because it’s a fundamental human impulse (and one that is especially strong in males) to lash out against unskilled creativity (or the perception of unskilled creativity, because the perceiver may be the defective one). You see this in software flamewars, or in stand-up comedy (with hecklers pestering comics, and the swift comics brutally insulting their adversaries.) This impulse toward denial is not sadistic or even a bad thing at its root. It’s fundamentally conservative, but inflicting brutal social punishments on incompetent wannabe chieftains is what kept early humans from walking into lions’ dens.
As a result of the very strong anti-bikeshedding impulse, creativity and vision are punished, because (a) even those with talent and vision come under brutal attack and are drawn into lose-lose ego wars, and (b) almost never are there creatively competent adults in charge who can resolve conflicts, consistently, on the right side. The end result is that these aspects of humans are driven out of organizations. If you stand for something– anything, even something obviously good for the organization– the probability that you’ll take a career-ending punch approaches one as you climb the ladder. If you want to be a visionary, Corporate America is not the place for it. If you want to be seen as a visionary in Corporate America, the best strategy is to discern what the group wants before a consensus has been reached, and espouse the viewpoint that is going to win– before anyone else has figured that out. What this means is that corporate decisions are actually made “by committee”, and that the committee is usually made up of clever but creatively weak individuals. In the same way as mixing too many pigments produces an uninspiring blah-brown color, an end result of increasing entropy, the decisions that come from such committees are usually depressing ones. They can’t agree on a long-term vision, and to propose one is to leave oneself politically exposed and be termed a “bikeshedder”. The only thing they can agree upon is short-term profit improvement. However, increasing revenue is itself a problem that requires some creativity. If the money were easy to make, it’d already be had. Cutting costs is easier; any dumbass can do that. Most often, these costs are actually only externalized. Cutting health benefits, for one example, means work time is lost to arguments with health insurance companies, reducing productivity in the long run, and being a net negative on the whole. But because those with vision are so easily called out as bikeshedding, impractical narcissists, the only thing left is McKinsey-style cost externalization and looting.
Hence, two kinds of people remain in the boardroom, after the rest have been denied entry or demoted out of the way: the ruthlessly greedy, and the sadistic.
Greedy people will do what it takes to win, but they don’t enjoy hurting people. On the contrary, they’re probably deeply conflicted about what they have to do to get the kind of life they want. The dumber ones probably believe that success in business requires ruthless harm to others. The smarter ones see deference to the mean-spirited cost-cutting culture as a necessary, politically expedient, evil. If you oppose it, you risk appearing “soft” and effeminate and impractical and “too nice to succeed”. So you go along with the reduction of health benefits, the imposition of stack ranking, the artificial scarcities inherent in systems like closed allocation, just to avoid being seen that way. That’s how greed works. Greedy people figure out what the group wants and don’t fight it, but front-run that preference as it emerges. So what influences go into that group preference? Even without sadism, the result of the entropy-increasing committee effect seems to be, “cost cutting” (because no one will ever agree on how to increase revenue). With sadism in the mix, convergence on that sort of idea happens faster, and ignorance of externalized costs is enhanced.
The sadist has an advantage in the corporate game that is unmatched. The more typical greedy-but-decent person will make decisions that harm others, but is drained by doing so. Telling people that they don’t have jobs anymore, and that they won’t get a decent severance because that would have been a losing fight against HR, and that they have to be sent out by security “by policy”, makes them pretty miserable. They’ll play office politics, and they play to win, but they don’t enjoy it. Sadists, on the other hand, are energized by harm. Sadists love office politics. They can play malicious games forever. One trait that gives them an advantage over the merely greedy is that, not only are they energized by their wins, but they don’t lose force in their losses. Greedy people hate discomfort, low status, and loss of opportunity. Sadists don’t care what happens to them, as long as someone else is burning.
This is why, while sadists are probably a minority of the general population, they make up a sizeable fraction of the upper ranks in Corporate America. Their power is bolstered by the fact that most business organizations have ceased to stand for anything. They’re patterns of behavior that have literally no purpose. This is because the decision-making derives from a committee of greedy people with no long-term plans, and sadistic people with harmful long-term plans (that, in time, destroy the organization).
Sadists are not a majority contingent in the human population. However, we generally refuse to admit that it exists at all. It’s the province of criminals and perverts, but surely these upstanding businessmen have their reasons (if short-sighted ones, but that is chalked up to a failure of regulation) for bad behaviors. I would argue that, by refusing to admit to sadism’s prevalence and commonality, we actually give it more power. When people confront frank sadism either in the workplace or in the public, they’re generally shocked. Against an assailant, whether we’re talking about a mugger or a manager presenting a “performance improvement plan”, most people freeze. It’s easy to say, “I would knee him in the nuts, gouge out his eyeballs, and break his fingers in order to get away.” Very few people, when battle visits them unprepared, do so. Mostly, the reaction is, I can’t believe this is happening to me. It’s catatonic panic. Refusing to admit that sadism is real and that it must be fought, we instead give it power by ignoring its existence, thus allowing it to ambush us. In a street fight, this is observed in the few seconds of paralytic shock that can mean losing the fight and being killed. In HR/corporate matters, it’s the tendency of the PIP’d employee to feel intense personal shame and terror, instead of righteous anger, when blindsided by managerial adversity.
The bigger problem
Why do I write? I write because I want people in my generation to learn how to fight. The average 25-year-old software engineer has no idea what to do when office politics turn against him (and that, my friends, can happen to anyone; overperformance is more dangerous than underperformance, but that’s a topic for another essay). I also want them to learn “Work Game”. It’s bizarre to me that learning a set of canned social skills to exploit 20-year-old women with self-esteem problems (pickup artistry) is borderline socially acceptable, while career advice is always of nice-guy “never lie on your resume, no exceptions” variety. (Actually, that’s technically correct. Everyone who succeeds in the corporate game has lied to advance his career, but never put an objectively refutable claim in writing.) Few people have the courage to discuss how the game is actually played. If men can participate in a “pickup artist” culture designed to exploit women with low self-respect and be considered “baller” for it, and raise millions in venture funding… then why it is career-damaging to be honest about what one has to do in the workplace just to maintain, much less advance, one’s position? Why do we have to pretend to uphold this “nice guy”/AFC belief in office meritocracy?
I write because I want the good to learn how to fight. We need to be more ruthless, more aggressive, and sometimes even more political. If we want anything remotely resembling a “meritocracy”, we’re going to have to fight for it and it’s going to get fucking nasty.
However, helping people hack broken organizations isn’t that noble of a goal. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to see the current owners of Corporate America get a shock to the system. I’d enjoy taking them down (that’s not sadism, but a strong– perhaps pathologically strong, but that’s another debate– sense of justice.) Nonetheless, we as a society can do better. This isn’t a movie or video game in which beating the bad guys “saves the world”. What’s important, if less theatric and more humbling, is the step after that: building a new and better world after killing off the old one.
Here we address a cultural problem. Why do companies get to a point where the ultimate power is held by sadists, who can dress up their malignant desires as hard-nosed cost-cutting? What causes the organization to reach the high-entropy state in which the only self-interested decision it can make is to externalize a cost, when there are plenty of overlooked self-interested decisions that are beneficial to the world as a whole? The answer is the “tallest nail” phenomenon. The tallest nail gets hammered down. As a society, that’s how we work. Abstractly, we admire people who “put themselves out there” and propose ideas that might make their organizations and the world much better. Concretely, those people are torn down as “bikeshedders”, by (a) their ideological opponents, who usually have no malicious intent but don’t want their adversaries to succeed– at least, not on that issue–; (b) sadists relishing the opportunity to deny someone a good thing; (c) personal political rivals, which any creative person will acquire over time; and (d) greedy self-interested people who perceive the whim of the group as it is emerging and issue the final “No”. We have a society that rewards deference to authority and punishes creativity, brutally. And capitalism’s private sector, which is supposed to be an antidote to that, and which is supposed to innovate in spite of itself, is where we see that tendency in the worst way.
Greed (meaning self-interest) can be good, if directed properly by those with a bit of long-term vision and an ironclad dedication to fairness. Sadism is not. The combination of the two, which is the norm in corporate boardrooms, is toxic. Ultimately, we need something else. We need true creativity. That’s not Silicon Valley’s “make the world a better place” bullshit either, but a genuine creative drive that comes from a humble acknowledgement of just how fucking hard it is to make the world a tolerable, much less “better”, place. It isn’t easy to make genuine improvements to the world. (Mean-spirited cost-cutting, sadistic game-playing, and cost externalization are much easier ways to make money. Ask any management consultant.) It’s brutally fucking difficult. Yet millions of people every day, just like me, go out and try. I don’t know why I do it, given the harm that even my mild public cynicism has brought to my career, but I keep on fighting. Maybe I’ll win something, some day.
As a culture, we need to start to value that creative courage again, instead of tearing people down over petty differences.