Moral Competence

Sun Jan 03 2021

Since posting, a number of folks have pointed out that "competence" probably isn't the right word here. "Morally focused", or "morally effective" might be better. This post isn't meant to be harsh, nor is it meant to propose an absolute binary. I hope you'll read it with the kinder tone that was intended.

Last year, we pivoted our YC startup from a socially-good mental health product (Quirk), towards a socially-neutral software infrastructure product (Room Service). I couldn't have imagined myself wanting to pivot when we started; our mental health company was deeply tied to my own experience and our genuine desire to help other folks. With the clarity of a year (and a global pandemic) in between the pivot, it's easier to see some of what went wrong.

What we were missing, and what many social-good founders are missing, is moral competence. If you want to do good, you actually have to help people. Merely attempting to help people is not enough. That doesn't mean that trying to help people is bad. It's not, but moral good comes from moral competence. And that was something we lacked.

The morally incompetent want purpose; they want to be on the front-lines of the helping. But for the morally incompetent, helping people is more important than the folks being helped. They don't offer service, they seek it. The service outranks the outcome. The signature move of the morally incompetent is to be told about existing solutions that they were previously unaware of and then soldier on without any critical examination of any added value they're providing. Others working on the problem are ignored entirely or seen as a threat to their own solution. The morally incompetent are passionate about working on the problem and potentially even solving the problem, so long as they were involved in the solution. For the morally incompetent, it's important that they're helping the right people with the right problem; it would be a failure to help on an entirely different problem. All problems are stack-ranked in the morally incompetent's mind and they need to be working on the one that's most critical to them in particular, regardless of their ability to offer help. For the morally incompetent, it's of critical importance that they work directly on the problem, rather than help indirectly. For the morally incompetent, large societal issues are best solved by direct intervention, rather than large societal solutions. Working on the problem indirectly, or from an angle that is not obvious to an outside observer is a failure. For the morally incompetent, large societal problems are unsolved only because they personally haven't purposed a solution.

It's easy to fall into the trap of moral incompetence, we did with our company. Moral competence and incompetence often looks the same to an outside observer. The world is really good at praising people who are doing good things well before those things are accomplished. You get hounded for interviews, you win awards, your family and friends congratulate you. And when things aren't going well, when you're not helping people, it feels like a betrayal to tell anyone. After all, that would mean no longer helping people with your chosen problem.

The morally competent differ in intent. It's more important to cure cancer than it is to be working on curing cancer, to stop climate change than to be working on stopping climate change, to improve mental health than to be working on improving mental health. The morally competent aren't hanging around the hoop, content to be playing the game. The point isn't to be working in the field, it's to solve the problem.