C. S. Lewis once observed something that rang very true for me. In his book God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, Lewis wrote:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

This is certainly true in my own life. The difficulties inflicted upon me by bad actors who willfully wanted to make me worse off are a tiny fraction of the difficulties I have endured by people who were genuinely convinced they were being helpful and were acting with (what they judged as) my “best interests at heart.”

I don’t think this experience is unique to me, of course. A surreal but not at all rare sight to see is when alleged “beneficiaries” seek to escape from those who view themselves as benefactors. I recently remembered a silly fictional example of this from a review of the game Resident Evil 5. For readers of this blog who aren’t into video games, Resident Evil is a series of horror games largely revolving around zombie outbreaks and bioweapons. When reviewing this game for his Zero Punctuation web series, game critic Yahtzee Croshaw had the following gripe about the AI programing that controlled your in-game partner:

One time I was low on health, but not too low, and was about to use a small herb to keep myself going, when I saw my partner coming towards me brandishing a valuable large herb. And when you’re running away from your support character with more desperate terror than you feel for any of the actual monsters, something has definitely gone wrong somewhere. 

That part of the review made me laugh out loud. I had also largely forgotten it until I read the following real-world example of the same phenomenon from the book Monitoring Sweatshops: Workers, Consumers, and the Global Apparel Industry by Jill Esbenshade. In this book, she describes her encounters with workers in Chinese sweatshops and she is surprised to find that she isn’t viewed as a benevolent helper the way she expected: 

We find almost every violation in the book. The workers are pulling 90-hour weeks. The place has no fire extinguishers or fire exits, and is so jammed full of material that a small fire could explode into an inferno in a minute. There are no safety guards on the sewing machines, and the first-aid boxes hold only packages of instant noodles. 

With the bosses out of earshot, I fully expect the workers to pour out their sorrows to me, to beg me to tell the consumers of America to help them out of their misery. I’m surprised at what I hear.

“I’m happy to have this job,” is the essence of what several workers tell me. “At home, I’m a drain on my family’s resources. But now, I can send them money every month.” 

I point out that they make only $100 a month; they remind me that this is about five times what they can make in their home province. I ask if they feel like they’re being exploited, having to work 90 hours a week. They laugh. “We all work piece rate here. More work, more money.” 

The worst part of the day for them, it seemed, was seeing me arrive. “I don’t want to tell you anything because you’ll close my factory and ruin any chances I have at having a better life one day,” one tells me. 

Rules of thumb are not perfectly accurate, but they are generally useful. And a good rule of thumb for would-be social reformers and helpers is this – if the person or people you think you are helping seem like they are desperate to get away from you, you should seriously consider the possibility that you’re not as helpful as you like to think. Other people are generally better than you are at knowing their own circumstances, preferences, and what would be in their own best interests. Tormenting someone “for their own good” is still torment – and I would never want to be the kind of person who can treat people that way with an unburdened conscience.

And if you find yourself beset upon by the kind of person Lewis warned about, a good rule of thumb on how to handle them, in my opinion, comes from Robert Heinlein’s Notebooks of Lazarus Long:

Freedom begins when you tell Mrs. Grundy to go fly a kite.