Monthly Archives: April 2015

What Rolling Stone Can Teach Us About Creating Ethical Poly Communities

[CN: Rape]

In November 2014, Rolling Stone published an article by Sabrina Erdely entitled “A Rape on Campus.” Wikipedia has a summary of the article and the subsequent fallout. For those who haven’t been following, the Rolling Stone article centered around the story of “Jackie,” a pseudonym for a University of Virginia student who told a harrowing story of being gang-raped by a group of fraternity brothers, one of whom had been her date for the evening, and who had led her upstairs to where she was attacked.

Jackie’s story has largely been discredited. There is broad consensus that, for whatever reason, the story that appeared in the Rolling Stone article is not true. Rolling Stone’s publisher points the finger at Jackie, calling her a “a really expert fabulist storyteller.” However, other sources, including my friend Miri Mogilevsky, have pointed out that journalistic standards exist to deal with precisely this kind of situation, and that this was a failure of Rolling Stone to practice good journalism:

it’s crucial that journalists and editors understand that it is their responsibility, not that of their sources, to ensure accuracy and fairness in reporting. Although Jackie probably did not lie, and the inconsistencies in her story can better be explained by fairly simple neurobiology, the fact is that people do lie sometimes. Some people lie pretty often. Politicians, whom journalists frequently write about and interview, lie quite a bit. People who have committed a crime also tend to lie when asked if they did it.

Moreover, people often misremember or forget things, even when their brains aren’t operating in trauma mode. As someone who often winds up in discussions about science and research with friends, I have often watched a trusted and knowledgeable person confidently tell me something that is absolutely false, and when I presented them with evidence that it was false, they were genuinely confused as to how they could’ve believed such a false thing. The reason is that our brains just aren’t made to retain lots facts and details accurately. Our modern systems of criminal justice, journalism, and other practices that require precise recitation of facts were not designed with this in mind.

A good journalist knows this, which is why the saying “Trust, but verify” exists. The Rolling Stone staff have been misdirecting blame onto Jackie by claiming that it was the sensitivity of her situation that caused them to abandon their journalistic training, but it is when situations are sensitive that these principles are especially important.

I agree with Miri that it’s entirely possible that Jackie was not lying, and that she merely misremembered the details of what happened to her. When the story first broke, Miri explained how trauma survivors’ memories are especially imperfect, and that recalling things like names, dates, or specific details are often very difficult for trauma survivors, regardless of their level of veracity. Maybe Jackie was lying. Maybe she is a trauma survivor suffering from PTSD, and that her memory was imperfect, causing her to report erroneous information about what happened to her and mistakenly point the finger at the wrong parties. From Rolling Stone’s standpoint, I don’t think it matters. Reporters don’t have the luxury of assuming that their sources are telling the truth, even if they are. It is a bedrock foundation of journalism that one cannot merely assume the accuracy of one’s sources.

The effect of Rolling Stone’s journalist failure is disastrous. There was obvious damage done to the falsely accused parties, but and nobody is angrier than sexual assault survivors:

This makes me angry. I’m angry because what should have been a rigorous journalistic investigation has succeeded in drawing more attention to false allegations of rape and diverting focus from the problem of sexual assault and harassment on university campuses. I’m angry because veteran reporters, editors and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone should have known better than to rely on a single source to carry and verify a complex story that alleged criminal wrongdoing on the part of UVA students and neglect on the part of the university administration. I’m angry as a survivor of sexual assault, who knows the crushing hopelessness and despair that accompanies not being believed, and who also knows that every line of print devoted to false allegations makes it that little bit more difficult for people to come forward and report rape.

[…]

The frightening thing is that the hostile responses in light of the Colombia report are so predictable. Many will use Jackie’s false allegations as an example of how women lie about rape and how victims cannot be believed. The debacle is prime ammunition for Men’s Rights Activists and others who seek to deny that rape culture exists and paint victims as manipulative and untrustworthy. I will not speculate on why ‘Jackie’ fabricated her story or write angrily to blame her, but Rolling Stone’s failure to confirm the accuracy of their story is indefensible.

Rolling Stone’s journalistic failures not only make them look foolish, but serve to make it more difficult for rape and sexual assault victims to be heard. When reporting on such topics, journalists have a duty to all survivors to take their practices and ethics seriously.

I think this has lessons for our poly communities, both local and national. Much like a failure of journalism can harm all survivors, similar failures in our communities to address abuse can harm all abuse victims. Communities leaders have similar duties to journalists when investigating and taking action on abuse allegations. The consequences of getting things wrong are huge, so it’s important that we take steps to get things right.

LESSON 1: LEAD WITH COMPASSION

First, some things that Rolling Stone did right: by all accounts, Erdely treated Jackie with compassion, respect, and dignity, which is something that victims sadly are often denied. Trauma survivors are often treated as suspects or liars by investigators who lack training in how trauma can affect a person. A lot of the ways trauma manifests can be confusing to someone who has no experience or education in dealing with survivors. The result is that survivors are often treated poorly, disbelieved, or dismissed based on normal responses to trauma. Leaders have a duty to educate themselves regarding how abuse tends to manifest, and what to expect from a reporting victim. In particular, experts suggest asking open-ended and allowing victims to recall details at their own pace rather than asking for specific information first.

Emma Fett of Navel Gazing has a tremendous post on dealing with abuse. Her top recommendation is that we believe abuse victims, but adds:

This is actually not as simple as it seems. Because people who are abusive almost always hide as victims. If we believe them, unequivocally, we give safe harbor for abuse. But if we are always suspicious of people who report abuse, we do not give a safe space to survivors who already doubt their own experience.

My compromise is this: we believe that abuse victims are telling the absolute truth about their pain, and we respond with compassion. Even abusers hiding as victims are in pain. Even malicious liars are in pain. In our communities, when we receive reports of abuse, our responses should recognize that, no matter how dubious a claim may sound, we are dealing with a person who is hurting. Any response should start with compassion first.

At the same time, it’s not inconsistent to recognize that memories, especially memories of traumatic events, are flawed, and to require additional corroboration before we treat a single source’s account of an event as the truth of what happened. Doing so protects not only those accused, but also victims.

LESSON 2: TRUST, BUT VERIFY

Most sources agree that Rolling Stone’s biggest mistake was its failure to verify Jackie’s story. The Columbia Journalism Review investigation identified a host of mistakes, all centering around the idea that Rolling Stone trusted a single source and failed to get a meaningful response from those accused of wrongdoing. Particularly, the report found that Rolling Stone failed to provide the accused fraternity with enough information to conduct a meaningful investigation, telling them only that “I’ve become aware of allegations of gang rape that have been made against the UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi.” Needless to say, this was not nearly enough information for Phi Kappa Psi to investigate.

The Presumption of Innocence

Our criminal law system assumes that people are innocent until proven guilty. It makes this assumption because it recognizes that accusations are not the same thing as evidence, and that it is unjust to punish someone without giving them a meaningful opportunity to present a defense. The presumption of innocence is generally considered an indispensable part of any just system.

Likewise, in any poly group, it’s important to recognize that just because someone has been accused of wrongdoing, that person hasn’t actually committed wrongdoing. This, of course, doesn’t mean that people can’t be suspended pending investigation, but it does mean that alleged victims aren’t the only people who need to be treated with respect and dignity. It also means that, to take any adverse action against a member, more than just an accusation should be required.

Multiple Sides to Every Story

One thing that Rolling Stone teaches us, without a doubt, is that it’s unforgivable not to get all sides of a story before making any judgments about what happened. Rolling Stone put all of their faith in the victim’s account of what happened, and did not give anyone else a chance to explain their side.

The lesson here is that no single person ever gives the complete story. When we are faced with an accusation of wrongdoing, it’s important to get all sides before making any decisions.

LESSON 3: PUT IN THE LEGWORK

One of the biggest lessons to take is that dealing with allegations of abuse takes work. It’s not something that can be done quickly and easily. By all accounts, Erdely put a tremendous amount of work into her story, and it still wasn’t enough. Investigating wrongdoing takes a lot of resources and willpower. Making sure the resources and willpower are there should be the first priority of anyone attempting to deal with abuse allegations.

Investigating abuse allegations means interviewing all witnesses, reviewing all physical evidence, reading all documents or digital communications, and figuring out what actually happened. It’s trivially easy to throw one’s hands up and say “well, it’s he said/she said, so I can’t do anything!” It’s also trivially easy to say “always believe victims! Punish anyone accused of anything!” Actually figuring out what happened is difficult, and it requires time, energy, and sometimes other resources. It is not something that should be attempted by people or organizations who are unwilling to put in the work.

LESSON 4: ADMIT WHEN THE EVIDENCE ISN’T THERE

This is probably the most difficult lesson of all, and this is the one that Erdely failed most spectacularly. She had her chosen narrative. Jackie’s story fit perfectly. More than that, Erdely’s narrative wasn’t really about any individual person. It was drawing attention to an endemic problem with college life and society in general. The individual stories weren’t the important part, it was about the problems with our own culture. Abandoning Jackie’s story would have meant either killing the piece entirely or writing a watered-down, less effective version which would draw less attention to a critical issue. Even if she had the noblest of intentions, Erdely unreasonably failed to admit that her story did not have the evidentiary support needed to publish.

Likewise, it can be extremely difficult for leaders to admit when there isn’t enough evidence to take action. Failing to take action could mean that there is a predator in the midst, and that, as a leader, you are abdicating your responsibility to protect your community. It could mean that the alleged victim feels ignored and abandoned. It could mean that you are exposing your community to further abuse.

All of that is true, but the alternative is just as bad. By taking action against a person who may be innocent, you may be committing abuse by proxy. You may be enabling and assisting a dangerous abuser from continuing to torment their victim(s). You may be vindicating and encouraging the behavior you’re seeking to prevent, thereby causing more of it in your community. You may also be setting the standard that your community has no sense of justice and turning a potential asset into an enemy.

The sad truth is that there is no way to completely stop abuse in our communities or to prevent abusers from being a part of them. Effectively minimizing the amount of abuse in our communities involves recognizing this fact and planning around it. A certain amount of risk tolerance is required in any community, and policies must reflect that all risk cannot be eliminated.

Where there is insufficient evidence to show that it is more likely than not that a person engaged in prohibited conduct, no punitive action can reasonably be taken against that person. It’s a hard decision to make, but sometimes staying one’s hand is the best choice.

Of course, actions can and should be taken to mitigate such a decision, starting with lesson 1: lead with compassion. Even if you don’t believe someone’s story, it is unnecessary to treat that person as a liar or a faker. Remember that memories are unreliable, and that a person may be acting in complete good faith, but still get the story wrong. Second, remember that just because official action won’t be taken doesn’t mean that care can’t be provided. Third, always recognize the right of anyone to tell their story. Victims always have the right to speak up about what happened to them apart from any official process. The fact that you may feel their story is inaccurate is no reason to silence them.

Creating ethical communities is difficult and full of tough questions. What to do about abuse allegations is one of the toughest and one of the most important questions. Hopefully, we can all learn from Rolling Stone’s journalistic failure and not fall into the same mistakes as Erdely, which ends up hurting victims more than anyone.

Stop Telling Fat People to Be Thin

source: fiercefatties.com

Last month, Harriet Brown published an article on Slate comprehensively laying out the science around weight loss and showing how (a) diets don’t work long-term; (b) weight loss isn’t healthy; and (c) that it’s out culture’s obsession with being thin that drives people (including doctors) to assume that being thin is healthier than being fat. The Slate article was a summary of what’s in her book Body of Truth, and reflects what fat activists have been saying for years.

In response, Julia Belluz published an article on Vox claiming that Brown’s article was misleading and that losing weight is a worthwhile and attainable goal. Belluz’s article is terrible. It’s so terrible that I have to rant about it at length here. So consider this your trigger warning for angry ranting and diet talk.

Claim One: Diets Don’t Turn Fat People Into Thin People

Brown lays out what we know about diets:

doctors know the holy trinity of obesity treatments—diet, exercise, and medication—don’t work. They know yo-yo dieting is linked to heart disease, insulin resistance, higher blood pressure, inflammation, and, ironically, long-term weight gain. Still, they push the same ineffective treatments, insisting they’ll make you not just thinner but healthier.

In reality, 97 percent of dieters regain everything they lost and then some within three years. Obesity research fails to reflect this truth because it rarely follows people for more than 18 months. This makes most weight-loss studies disingenuous at best and downright deceptive at worst.

Brown’s statements reflect scientific findings about the ineffectiveness of diets over the long-term, which more often lead to weight gain than weight loss (83% in the linked study). Nobody quite knows why that’s happening, but one of the most plausible theories is set point theory, which is the idea that each body has a certain level of fat that it wants, and without drastic interventions, it will remain at the same level long-term. Set points can change, but nobody really knows how, and most diets tend to slightly raise a person’s set point rather than lower it. Set Point Theory applies to fat people and thin people alike:

Kolata goes on to discuss a later study that demonstrated it was just as hard to gain a significant amount of weight and keep it on. Male prisoners agreed to do this weight-gain experiment, and it turned out they had to eat a ridiculous amount of food–literally up to 10,000 calories a day–to increase their weight by 20-25 percent. Once they did that, their metabolisms went apeshit trying to get them back down to their normal weights. As soon as the study was over, the weight fell off.

There is also some evidence that gut microbes contribute in a significant way to weight gain or loss. The thing about all of the theories, though, is that they are not yet proven, and more importantly, that nobody understand them well enough to say how to turn a fat person into a thin person (or vice versa).

Belluz disagrees:

Some of the best research on what works for weight loss comes from the National Weight Control Registry, a study that has parsed the traits, habits, and behaviors of adults who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for a minimum of one year.

[…]

“What makes maintaining weight loss seem ‘almost impossible,'” writes obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff, “are the goal posts society has generally set to measure success.” So no to quick diets, yes to long-term lifestyle changes. They can help.

Can you spot the error? I can! A few of them in fact! But the most glaring error is the one-year time requirement. There is no question that people on diets can lose weight and keep it off for one year, maybe even two. But once you get to year three, and especially when you get to year five, nearly everyone has not only regained the weight that they lost, but put on additional weight.

The other error is what’s known as selection bias. The registry includes 10,000 people who have successfully kept their weight off. Belluz tries to use the registry as evidence that long-term weight loss is possible for most people. However, nobody has argued that weight loss is impossible for anyone, just that it doesn’t work for 97% of those who try. Given that 45 million Americans diet every year, that’s over a million people every year who are successful. The existence of a registry of 10,000 people who have successfully lost weight proves nothing other than that they are part of the lucky 3% whose metabolism is cooperative.

Belluz tries to claim that the people on the registry have valuable advice for the rest of us. I’m reminded of a parable about mutual fund management I was told in finance class. Let’s pretend that picking stocks at random will outperform an index fund 30% of the time (the actual number is probably much higher). Let’s also say that there are ten thousand asset managers in the market. That means that, statistically, there will be 24 managers who are able to say “I beat the market every year for the past five years!” They will claim that their success is due to their incredible skills and insights, and try to convince you to invest all of your money with them. Their success is actually due to dumb luck. Their stock picks for the current year are no better or worse than anyone else’s.

The same goes for people who have successfully lost weight. Yes, they exist. No, they don’t have anything to teach the rest of us. For some reason, they got lucky. However, as the vast majority of studies have found, their success is not replicable for most people. They are not role models, and they have no helpful advice for how to turn fat people into thin people. Yes, this includes you.

Claim Two: Losing Weight Doesn’t Improve Health

Brown’s article claims:

Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention repeatedly find the lowest mortality rates among people whose body mass index puts them in the “overweight” and “mildly obese” categories. And recent research suggests that losing weight doesn’t actually improve health biomarkers such as blood pressure, fasting glucose, or triglyceride levels for most people.

Brown’s claims have been well-documented by various sources. There is an effect some call “the obesity paradox” where “[o]bese patients with heart disease, heart failure, diabetes, kidney disease, pneumonia, and many other chronic diseases fare better and live longer than those of normal weight.”

Belluz takes issue:

Stokes actually looked at more than 10 years of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and death records of American adults between the ages of 50 and 84, and went back in time, accounting for people’s weight histories. This made it possible to break up the normal weight category into two separate groups that are usually lumped together: those who had maintained a normal weight throughout their lives, and those who were normal weight at the time of the study but had experienced weight loss.

Stokes found that people who were always normal weight had an extremely low risk of death, but that the other normal weight group — with people who were formerly obese — had a much higher mortality rate. After redefining the normal weight category to only include the stable weight individuals, he found much stronger associations between excess weight and mortality.

Belluz claims that this “definitely has implications for the intensity with which we should be pursuing lifestyle and behavioral modification.”

inconceivableThis was the point at which my jaw dropped. I’m still having trouble believing Belluz is serious. She just presented a study that shows that losing weight not only doesn’t make you healthier, but it makes you so unhealthy that it throws off the statistics for the rest of the group, and she uses that as an argument in favor of weight loss! Belluz discovered really good evidence against the idea that weight loss is good for you and then wrote an entire article about how we should all be dieting! And claiming that it will improve our health! I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone.

Related to the health question, Brown addresses the kind of energy is takes to maintain weight loss long term:

Debra Sapp-Yarwood, a fiftysomething from Kansas City, Missouri, who’s studying to be a hospital chaplain, is one of the three percenters, the select few who have lost a chunk of weight and kept it off. She dropped 55 pounds 11 years ago, and maintains her new weight with a diet and exercise routine most people would find unsustainable: She eats 1,800 calories a day—no more than 200 in carbs—and has learned to put up with what she describes as “intrusive thoughts and food preoccupations.” She used to run for an hour a day, but after foot surgery she switched to her current routine: a 50-minute exercise video performed at twice the speed of the instructor, while wearing ankle weights and a weighted vest that add between 25 or 30 pounds to her small frame.

“Maintaining weight loss is not a lifestyle,” she says. “It’s a job.” It’s a job that requires not just time, self-discipline, and energy—it also takes up a lot of mental real estate. People who maintain weight loss over the long term typically make it their top priority in life. Which is not always possible. Or desirable.

Belluz is unsympathetic:

But I would ask Brown: does being obese require any less mental energy?

Is it really more mentally freeing to feel tired when you walk up a flight of stairs, to have to buy two seats on an airplane because one won’t do, to not be able to play with your children because you’re too unfit, to continually worry about whether your clothes are going to fit in the morning … the list goes on.

This is where Belluz reveals what is at the root of her science-denialism and wrongheaded thinking: prejudice against fatties. Belluz assumes that being fat means you’re too “unfit” to walk up stairs or play with children? That you have to worry whether your clothes will fit? Seriously? In the same way that body size doesn’t determine health, body size does not determine fitness. Newsflash, asshole: fat people exercise! And when a fat person exercises, their muscles, lungs, and heart develop strength and endurance. Just like a thin person! Being fat doesn’t mean it’s tiring to walk up a flight of stairs. There are many fat and thin people alike who end up out of breath after walking up the stairs. There are also many fat and thin people who have no trouble walking up a flight of stairs. Body size does not determine cardiovascular health, and to suggest it does is nothing short of bigotry.

Do you know what actually uses up a lot of mental energy in fat people? Fat stigma, which is exacerbated by ignorant articles pushing tired bullshit that’s been disproven over and over again. Want to improve the health of fatties? Spread the word about Fat Acceptance and Health at Every Size.

I am fat. I have always been fat. I am actually one of the lucky few who has managed to lose weight and keep it off long-term, which I did almost a decade ago by starting low-carb and then going low-calorie. Since then, my weight has been slowly but surely creeping back up. I’ve tried low-carb followed by low-calorie again, with no effect. I’ve tried going low-carb for longer. No effect. I’ve tried Whole30. No effect. I’ve tried The Smarter Science of Slim. No effect.

I’m not doing it anymore. I live a healthy lifestyle. I drink green smoothies for breakfast. I eat salad for lunch. I probably eat fewer calories than you do. I exercise regularly. I’ve started jogging. I walk up three flights of stairs to my office no problem. My doctors tell me I’m in excellent health. I have no reason to lose weight, and I’m not going to.

If Julia Belluz has a problem with that, she can kiss my fat ass.

Ethics and Philosophy: A Defense of Egoism

In my previous post about ethics, I explored the normative question through the works of Christine Korsgaard. I concluded that ethics are not normative, or at least that ethics have no collective normativity, and I rejected Korsgaard’s theory that we may ethically obligate others.

This post will attempt to provide an overview of how I do see ethics, and will primary discuss the works of Dan Fincke.

I. Ethics are About Self-Interest

In my previous post, I rejected the strongest arguments that I could find in favor of normativity, and specifically in favor of the idea that we have ethical duties to others. What remains, then, are duties to ourselves. One on Korgaard’s arguments that I do find convincing is the idea that anyone who takes an action must have a motivation. Everyone wants something. Everyone has desires. If we had no desires, we would never do anything. And so the goal of any action is to satisfy one or more of those desires. It is therefore universal among all creatures which take actions that we have desires we wish to satisfy.

Because we have no moral obligations toward others, but we all wish to satisfy our own desires, ethics becomes a discussion regarding how to best meet our own desires. This way of thinking about ethics is commonly known as egoism.

Within an egoist framework, what is “good” is whatever best satisfies our own subjective desires. Our desires are complicated and dependent on various factors, but for purposes of this discussion, the term “well-being” will be used to refer to the satisfaction of our subjective desires, whatever they may be.

Dan Fincke agrees that our our well-being is the appropriate starting point for an ethical system:

Ultimately, I think that justifying my interest in a good is going to require, on the most fundamental level, reference to my own egoistic good. My own thriving is the most fundamental, instrinsic, and unavoidably objective good I have.

Once we recognize that we have no moral duties to anyone or anything outside of our own subjective self-interest, the rest of the conversation is about how best to satisfy our desires.

II. Empowering Ourselves by Empowering Others

Dan Fincke sees the ultimate good as empowerment. In his ethics, what is “good” is whatever increases our power:

“What best advances our functioning, best advances our being, and is thereby our objectively greatest interest. This can be theoretically be determined according to facts about the nature of our characteristic functioning and facts about what effectively constitutes or advances that functioning the most.”

My disagreements with this approach are discussed below. However, if “power” is replaced with “well-being” (as defined above), I mostly agree with everything else Fincke has to say on the subject. In particular, I completely agree with Fincke that increasing our own well-being relies in part on increasing the well-being of others:

“On the purely egoistic level, the development of our own powerful functioning depends to an incalculable extent on others’ flourishing. To maximally realize our potential, we need the conditions of stability and prosperity which others’ thriving creates and sustains for us and we need the cultivation of our powers by those already powerful who can advance us far beyond where we would ever have been in isolation and make it so that our own efforts can attain to even greater extents than would otherwise have been possible.”

I’ve previously written about how I support feminism out of self-interest. This principle holds true in many areas. In most circumstances, my well-being will best be served by increasing everyone’s well-being. I have no desire to see others suffer, and tend to take substantial joy in seeing others doing well. My more material goals are likewise accomplished by increasing everyone’s well-being. I make money by empowering my employer to profit from my labor. I purchase things from people and organizations who would rather have the money paid than the product purchased. For many ways my life could be improved, society will have to improve, which benefits everyone. Most of the political changes I support would benefit the majority of people affected. Life is not a zero-sum game. In almost all ways I can think of, improvements in my well-being involve improvements in the lives of others.

Further, my strongest attachments include a desire on my part for others to have their desires met. Part of attachment, for me, is a sort of convergence between my own well-being and the well-being of another person. At baseline, I have a weak attachment like this with every other person in the world. Imagining or being exposed to unhappy people makes me unhappy. Imagining or being exposed to happy people makes me happy. Therefore, I have a strong incentive to empower others to be happy for purely egoist reasons.

III. Newcomb’s Problem, or Honesty Is the Best Policy

Dan Fincke discusses how much of morality is the process of sacrificing short-term gains for larger or more long-term gains:

What I think is ultimately happening in morality is that it is overriding our misperception of our interests and our tendencies to subjectively desire in short term and micro level ways, in order to fulfill our ultimate interests on the macro and long term level, considering our good from a third person standard of what maximizes our total power.

With this in mind, there is a strong argument that egoism is best served by, in most circumstances, conforming to virtue ethics. This argument can be understood through an understanding of Newcomb’s Problem:

In Newcomb’s problem, a superintelligence called Omega shows you two boxes, A and B, and offers you the choice of taking only box A, or both boxes A and B. Omega has put $1,000 in box B. If Omega thinks you will take box A only, he has put $1,000,000 in it. Otherwise he has left it empty. Omega has played this game many times, and has never been wrong in his predictions about whether someone will take both boxes or not.

This is referred to as a “problem” or a “paradox” because, once the boxes have been filled, nothing we do could affect what it is them. So long as Omega thought we would only take one box, we are free to take both boxes and reap the profits. However, doing so means that if Omega correctly predicted our behavior, there would be only $1,000 in the boxes. So in order to “win” the game, whether one takes one or both boxes is irrelevant. To win, one must be the type of person who would only take one box. Newcomb’s problem, then, does not depend on what you do. It depends on who you are.

The relevance is that life is made up of many situations which resemble Newcomb’s problem:

Most real decisions that humans face are Newcomblike whenever other humans are involved. People are automatically reading unconscious or unintentional signals and using these to build models of how you make choices, and they’re using those models to make their choices.

[…]

I know at least two people who are unreliable and untrustworthy, and who blame the fact that they can’t hold down jobs (and that nobody cuts them any slack) on bad luck rather than on their own demeanors. Both consistently believe that they are taking the best available action whenever they act unreliable and untrustworthy. Both brush off the idea of “becoming a sucker”. Neither of them is capable of acting unreliable whilesignaling reliability. Both of them would benefit from actually becoming trustworthy.

[…]

You can’t reliably signal trustworthiness without actually being trustworthy. You can’t reliably be charismatic without actually caring about people. You can’t easily signal confidence without becoming confident. Someone who cannot represent these arguments may find that many of the benefits of trustworthiness, charisma, and confidence are unavailable to them.

Because life resembles Newcomb’s problem, people have strong incentives to behave in ways that are seen as virtuous, as those behaviors are generally rewarded, and “bad” behaviors punished. If society is doing its job, there is no need to appeal to a higher morality to encourage people to behave in prosocial ways. Rational actors will recognize that it is in their best interest to do so.

All these tools can be fooled, of course. First impressions are often wrong. Con-men often seem trustworthy, and honest shy people can seem unworthy of trust. However, all of this social data is at least correlated with the truth, and that’s all we need.

It doesn’t matter that omega isn’t real. Overall, the best way to gain the social benefits of appearing virtuous is to be virtuous. In my estimation, the gains of doing so outweigh any short-term gains that one can obtain by taking advantage of others. Malicious behavior, in most circumstances, is ultimately self-defeating.

From that standpoint, the main goal of society is to make sure that it is in everyone’s best interest to behave in prosocial ways. Society must reward virtue and punish vice. To build a world that is beneficial for all, society must keep incentives properly aligned.

IV. Well-Being, Not Power, is Not The Goal

Because the goodness of an action is determined by our own subjective self-interest, goodness is dependent upon our own motivation. This idea is my primary area of disagreement with Dan Fincke. Fincke advocates for empowerment as the ultimate good:

But pleasures and pains or consciously formed preference attitudes, etc. are not themselves “conferrers” of goodness on things. Goodness is intrinsic and our pleasures, pains, attitudes, reasoned judgments, can either effectively align with our objective goods and contribute to maximizing our attainment of them or fail to do so.

I disagree. Fincke’s empowerment ethics rely on the idea that functioning is a good in itself. In the same way that a “good hammer” is effective at pounding nails, Fincke feels that a “good person” is effective at expressing their humanity. Human powers consist of “rational powers, emotional powers, social powers, technological powers, artistic powers, physical powers, and sexual powers” with associated sub-powers. Fincke’s argument is completely internally consistent, but I don’t find it convincing because I don’t think humans have a purpose.

A good hammer is effective at pounding nails because people designed hammers for that purpose. It’s reliant on the idea that a person using the hammer desires to pound a nail, and its goodness is derivative of that desire. If nobody wanted to pound nails, it would not be good for a hammer to be effective at that task.

Similarly, human powers are only good because people want to exercise them. If people do not desire to exercise their powers, then doing so has no intrinsic goodness. All the goodness in an action is derivative of the desires of those affected. This goes back to my original argument – that we all have motivations, and that the only reason we act is to satisfy those motivations. It’s not that satisfying our motivations is intrinsically good. It’s that, no matter what we may tell ourselves or others, satisfying our motivations is the only thing that causes us to take actions. Satisfying our own subjective, egoistic desires is our goal, no matter how we choose to conceptualize it. So, for each individual, what is “good” is what satisfies our desires.

Ethical dilemmas, then, are places where a single person’s subjective desires conflict. I may want a fancy car, but I also may want a healthy bank account. To resolve the conflict, I need to decide which I want more. Similarly, I don’t want to take the trash out, but I also want my wife to be happy. A resolution of that conflict requires me to estimate the effect that my actions will have on both me and my wife, and decide which I want more.

People have these kinds of dilemmas all of the time, and we are notoriously bad at acting in our own self-interest. While it’s up to each individual to decide for themselves what is in their own self interest, I’m partial to the idea that the degree to which something satisfies our desires is a fact about the universe, and could be measured, given enough information. AI researches refer to a concept called coherent extrapolated volition:

In calculating CEV, an AI would predict what an idealized version of us would want, “if we knew more, thought faster, were more the people we wished we were, had grown up farther together”.

Obviously, this sort of thing is impossible to measure, given our current level of technology and understanding of the brain, but I support the idea that our subjective desires are not always what we think they are, and that a lot of our thinking about ethics should be thinking about what we actually want.

V. Implications

My vision of egoism is functionally very similar to R.M. Hare’s two-level utilitarianism, which starts from utilitarian ethics, but concludes that, in most situations, it’s best to operate according to a series of heuristics, and that actually trying to estimate the full effect of our actions should be reserved for special circumstances (or for the process of selecting heuristics).

My egoism works in a similar way. As a general rule, one is encouraged to adopt the heuristics that benefit all of humanity, as those are likely the ones that benefit the individual as well. One is encouraged to be a virtuous person, as society generally rewards the virtuous and punishes those seen as wicked.

However, there are important distinctions, the most important of which is the understanding that there is no such thing as moral superiority. When one understands that the most moral thing is to act in our own self-interest, and that everyone is attempting to act in their own self-interest (even if they are doing a bad job), it is unreasonable to feel morally superior to another person. It is likewise unreasonable to feel morally inferior. Such concepts become incoherent.

From this standpoint, it is easy to see that nobody “deserves” any more or less happiness than anyone else. This has important implications for the justice system, which tends to include an element of retribution, or the idea that it is important to punish bad acts based on how intrinsically bad they are. From an egoist perspective, the only purpose of rewarding or punishing behavior is to affect future behavior, and all such rewards or punishments are measure by their effectiveness at doing so. This attitude would quickly lead to the wholesale reform of our prison system and the end of most forms of incarceration (as it is ineffective at preventing recidivism). It would also lead to a lot less moral condemnation and righteous anger, as moral disagreements would instead be seen as simple differences in preference and not high-minded judgments of a person’s value. The strongest statement a person could make about someone else’s morality is “I want something different,” or “I don’t think that will actually help you.”

Accepting that ethics are all about our own egoistic desires would also make it easier to analyze moral dilemmas. Classic moral dilemmas (such as The Trolley Problem) are much easier from an egoistic perspective – we just have to figure out which option makes us feel worse and choose the other. The same goes for questions about animal welfare. Animals have moral value to the same extent that other people have moral value, which is the extent to which we desire their well-being. If enough people desire animal welfare to a sufficient extent, society will reward protecting animal welfare and punish actions that harm animal welfare. Most advocates already understand this, and concentrate their advocacy between actual caring for animals and attempting to convince others to care more about animal welfare. Even utilitarians who love debating ethical questions understand that concessions must be made for egoistic reasons.

I’ve previously argued that

Life is a series of moral dilemmas. Every day, we make decisions that a different person, with different ideas of right and wrong, would make differently. Ethics aren’t just about political questions – e.g. war, civil rights, socialism, taxes – thought it’s about those too. Ethics tell us what time to wake up, which jobs to apply for, what to eat, where to shop, and whether to give $1 to the homeless man on the street.

Part of being able to make those kinds of decisions is a firm understanding of right and wrong. Most of the time, we rely on heuristics to make those decisions, but as in two-step utilitarianism, the process of choosing the best heuristics requires us to know what the ultimate goal of our ethics is. Once we understand that the goal is to satisfy our egoistic desires (and understand how our well-being is intrinsically linked to the well-being of others), we can more effectively make decisions.

Egoism also makes it much easier to forgive people for their bad behavior. When someone mistreats me, I understand that they are only doing what they think is right, and I understand that, no matter how bad their behavior, they deserve just as much happiness as me. This doesn’t mean that they continue to have access to me, but it does mean that I rarely wish to see people suffer (though it happens on occasion – I am human).

Ultimately, I favor egoism because it is true. As my friend Kaveh Mousavi recently wrote,

We need people whose main concern is not activist effectiveness. We need intellectuals whose primary concern is speaking the truth. We need people who push the boundaries of our thinking, who dare think the impossible, we need moral watchdogs saying things they know will be unpopular, we need people who are willing to be polarizing and controversial, we need people who are harsh and blunt. Without them human history would be impoverished, and they have achieved much in other areas of life if not in activism.

Likewise, even if the implications of egoism were terrible for the world and would result in disaster if widely adopted, I would still believe in it because I think it is true. I just probably wouldn’t write blog posts about it.

Not-So-Radical Honesty

“If you once tell a lie, the truth is ever after your enemy.” – Eliezer Yudkowsky

I. Radical Honesty

Radical Honesty is a philosophy developed by psychiatrist Brad Blanton, which has as its principle tenet that lying is the primary source of human stress and that to become happier, people should tell the truth in all situations.

Lying is the major source of all human stress. It kills us. When people engage honestly, energy that was wasted maintaining a performance to make an impression is suddenly available for real creativity. When we admit our pretenses we can refresh our relationships and powerfully create our future together. Radical Honesty is direct communication that leads to intimacy in relationships.

Unfortunately, Blanton himself seems like kind of a crackpost. He says things like “the primary cause of most both psychological and physical illness is being trapped in your mind.” He is also reportedly an abusive shithead. Still, the source of an idea has no bearing on its value, so I think it’s worth considering Blanton’s ideas on their own merits.

Blanton advocates against telling lies in any situation, but he goes further than that. A critical part of Radical Honesty is the idea that we should share our opinions and feelings all of the time.

He says we should toss out the filters between our brains and our mouths. If you think it, say it. Confess to your boss your secret plans to start your own company. If you’re having fantasies about your wife’s sister, Blanton says to tell your wife and tell her sister. It’s the only path to authentic relationships. It’s the only way to smash through modernity’s soul-deadening alienation. Oversharing? No such thing.

My biggest issue with Blanton’s conception of Radical Honesty is that it’s intrusive. It’s often said that opinions are like assholes – everyone’s got one, and they all stink. So it’s a pretty hard sell to claim that the world would be a better place if everyone went around telling everyone else their opinions all of the time. Further, expressing thoughts or feelings that people don’t want to hear can create pressure, or even lead to coercion. Blanton’s system seems to privilege the preferences of the speaker over the preferences of the audience. I would reserve any suggestion that people ought to freely share their thoughts for situations in which we have reason to believe that the other person wants to know what we think. This can be because they’ve asked a question, they are in a situation where our input would be valuable to them, or merely that we know them well enough to know that they would want us to speak up.

However, there are parts of Radical Honesty that I find appealing. I agree that telling lies saps our energy and sabotages intimacy. I agree that vast amounts of energy are wasted trying to maintain our facades. I agree that being completely honest is the only way to have an authentic relationship with another person.

One of the things I like about Radical Honesty is that it erases the distinction between lying and other forms of dishonesty. Our societies tends to view outright lies as somehow different from other intentionally misleading actions, but from a Radically Honest perspective, telling a lie, giving a false impression, and failing to correct a known assumption are equally wrong. Since the effect of each is the same, and the mental state of the dishonest party is the same, they all seem equally dishonest to me.

II. Where Dishonesty Is Coercive

Contra Blanton, I think the amount of honesty a person should display varies with situation. Ethically, I feel that honesty is required where honesty is necessary to respect another person’s boundaries and autonomy. This most often comes up in intimate relationships. As More Than Two puts it:

Perhaps the most common justification for dishonestly in a relationship is the notion that the truth will hurt worse than a lie. A person who cheats on a partner may think, If I tell the truth, I will hurt my partners, but if I don’t, my partner won’t need to experience that pain. This reasoning says more about the person making the argument than it does about the person he is “protecting,” because consent is not valid if it is not informed. By hiding the truth, we deny our partners the opportunity to consent to continuing a relationship with us. Controlling information to try to keep a partner (or to get a partner to do what we want) is one way we treat people as things.

Everyone has boundaries in intimate relationships. We might not always know what those boundaries are (though asking usually helps), but we can be confident that every one of our intimate partners has boundaries about who they are willing to have such relationships with. Sadly, one of the most common ways that intimate partners are dishonest with one another is that they hide things about themselves that they thing their partner won’t like. While I think that is foolish for practical reasons, it’s also virtually guaranteed to prevent a partner from giving informed consent to continue the relationship. Intentionally hiding aspects of ourselves is a way of preventing a partner from enforcing their boundaries or making informed choices about who to partner with. While hiding aspects of ourselves will not always result in a boundary violation, it’s likely enough that doing so shows a reckless disregard for our partner’s agency and boundaries.

Wherever a person’s boundaries are dependent upon knowing something about us, being dishonest is coercive. There are no exceptions. There are situations, however, when coercion is justified. The classic example is defense of self or others. If someone punches you, it’s ok to punch them back. But it’s important to remember that being dishonest with a person is likely a boundary violation. If you wouldn’t feel justified hitting someone, you shouldn’t feel justified being dishonest with them.

For this reason, lying in intimate relationships is never justified unless it’s a temporary measure to protect yourself while you exit the relationship. Intimate relationships run on trust. As More Than Two points out, being dishonest with an intimate partner means that, from then on, your relationship is non-consensual. Dishonesty, in this sense, is a form of controlling behavior. It’s a way of managing others rather than connecting with them. It’s a hostile act, and it abuses the trust that a partner has given.

However, I part ways with Blanton at his suggestion that we have an affirmative duty to tell the truth. While I tend to value privacy less than most, people still have a right to it, even from intimate partners. However, this doesn’t extend to a right to be dishonest. The key difference between privacy and dishonesty is that an honest person will admit to keeping things private. An honest exercise of privacy will involve phrases like “I don’t feel comfortable telling you that,” “I don’t want to talk about that,” or “that’s private.” Rather than misleading or misdirecting, an honest private person will merely state that they don’t wish to disclose.

Sometimes, honesty can be dangerous. In intimate relationships, people will sometimes react to our honesty (even if it’s merely a request for privacy) with hostility, rage, or even violence. Often, we can’t know how a person will react to our disclosures. In such circumstances, dishonesty can be a weapon we use to defend ourselves. When we are faced with a situation in which we feel that we should be dishonest with an intimate partner to protect ourselves, unless there are coercive forces keeping us there (see below) the only ethical choice is to leave the relationship. Once a person has been dishonest with an intimate partner, and refuses to correct their dishonesty, that person has robbed their partner of the ability to consent to continue the relationship. The only ethical choice is to end it.

Other times, honesty is merely difficult. It might cause people not to like us, to break up, or to get justifiably angry. Being honest might make us feel shame, guilt, or fear. Being honest might mean we don’t get what we want. But none of that justifies recklessly violating another person’s boundaries. None of that justifies coercing someone into a nonconsensual relationship.

III. Where Honesty is Ethically Optional

Pragmatically, I’m a fan of honesty in most situations. As stated above, I feel that honesty is a requirement to have a genuine connection with another person. There are also social benefits to being seen as an honest person, and the only reliable and lasting way to create that image is to actually be an honest person. However, that’s a subject for a different post.

As we’ve seen above, being dishonest with a person turns a consensual relationship into a nonconsensual one. However, where a relationship is already nonconsensual or coercive in nature, dishonesty can be justified. The biggest example is employment. In the United States, most employment relationships are coercive. Employers generally have vastly more power than employees, and employees are dependent upon employers for even basic necessities. Most employment relationships are based on a foundation of coercion, and so a prospective employee has no ethical duty to be completely honest with an employer. There, it’s more a pragmatic decision about what is safe to disclose or not. The same applies in mostly consumer transactions, or really most interactions between individuals and large businesses.

Similarly, other personal relationships can be coercive, where the power imbalance becomes so great that one party cannot simply leave without unnecessary consequences:

When leaving the relationship means destitution, social isolation, estrangement from family, or other avoidable and destructive consequences, it is coercive. When a partner attempts to make a breakup unnecessarily difficult or painful, it is coercive.

So where a person is already at such a power disadvantage that they have no meaningful choice but to stay in the relationship, that relationship is already nonconsensual, and the disadvantaged party is justified in using dishonesty to protect themselves. Abusive relationships, in particular, often create this type of coercion, where the abused party feels that they have no meaningful choice but to stay with the abuser.

However, there’s a pretty high bar. Where a person knows that leaving the relationship is a reasonable option and has no insurmountable barriers to doing so, dishonesty is only justified as an exit strategy. It’s critically important not to overuse this justification. “You made me do it” is an excuse that’s much more likely to be used by an abuser than a victim, so think hard before you decide that you have no choice other than to violate another person’s boundaries.

Sometimes, dishonesty can be consensual. In certain relationships, there is a “don’t ask don’t tell” understanding about certain topics, or even an understanding that a person should lie or hide certain information. Practically, this can be difficult. Ethically, it’s not a problem. Honesty is never required if the audience doesn’t want it. This enables a lot of familial relationships that would otherwise end up being antagonistic. It also tends to facilitate getting along with coworkers or other people that we don’t choose to be around. In other friendships, it’s understood that people aren’t sharing their full thoughts, and that’s ok too, so long as both parties are aware of what is being disclosed and what isn’t.

IV. Conclusion

Radical Honesty seems like a pretty silly idea, but there are elements of it that I like. My own policy would look something like this:

Dishonesty is a hostile act. This includes lying, intentionally misleading people, or knowingly failing to correct assumptions. Tell the truth in most circumstances. The importance of telling the truth increases with the amount of trust the other person is giving. Share your thoughts liberally, but only when you have reason to believe that your audience wants to know them. If you wish to keep something private, say so explicitly.

Avoid telling the truth where dishonesty is the least harmful alternative. Situations like this in social relationships are rare, and should be exited as quickly as possible. Where exiting is not a meaningful option, long-term dishonesty may be the best policy, though we should be highly skeptical of this option as we are all biased to favor it.

Where a person does not want honesty, there is no need to be honest with them.

Corporations are not people. There is nothing coercive about lying to a corporation.

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Addendum (4/9/15):

I left this out the first time, but I think it’s important to recognize that the More Than Two Relationship Bill of Rights recognizes that “You have the right, without shame, blame or guilt, in all intimate relationships, to be told the truth.” Eve Rickert has convincingly argued that this right cannot be waived:

If a right is something you cannot give up in a relationship, do all of the rights in our RBoR still stand as rights?

To answer this question, we need to consider, for each right, what it means for that right to not exist in a relationship. Does consistently violating that right lead to coercion? Does it violate ongoing, informed consent? Will it lead to abuse?

I read through the RBoR again with these questions in mind. Amazingly, I found that all of the rights still meet the bar for being a right. There are certainly cases where you might choose not to exercise a right. It might be easy enough to say you don’t need the right to leave when, well, you don’t want to leave. But when you decide you do want the right? It’s still there.

And that’s what makes it a right.

The Great Escape

Every year, so I have been told, I get a year older. It’s a pretty meaningless contruct in every way except for the obvious marking of the passage of time. I feel the same every birthday, the same as the year before, not one lick older. Basically, I have never felt like a Grown Up.

Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m doing a lot of grown up things because I’m supporting myself, have worked at the same company for ten years, pay bills, file taxes, have a mortgage, all that. But I’ve always felt like I was doing these things while being outside of the realm of adulthood.

Until now.

To celebrate my 34th birthday a couple of weeks ago, I took a couple of days off from work and did many fun things. I got a massage and ate delicious food and drank wine and expertly crafted gourmet cocktails. I wore a dress each day and waltzed around feeling pretty.

On Sunday night, I was curled up on the couch relaxing, centering myself for the return to real life the following Monday…

When I got a phone call. From the Collingswood Police Department. And then from Camden County Animal Control.

We are lucky enough to have a fenced in backyard at our house. We have a dog door that allows our little terrors to go in and out as they please. Unfortunately, we recently discovered that the dogs (especially the puppy) are good at leaping over short fences, ramming holes into older wood fencing, and getting out of the yard and running amuck around the neighborhood. Wes and I have been patching the holes as we find them, but ultimately we realized that we had to get new fencing installed.

I had already started the process of finding a contractor to do this for us when I got the phone calls from various county authorities. I was informed that Lola had gotten out, trotted all the way over to the vicinity of the police station, and gotten into a fight with some other dog around there. I was then informed that Lola had been taken to the Camden County Animal Shelter (henceforth to be referred to as Dog Jail) and would be spending the night there and that I could come bail her out the next morning.

It was then that I realized that I was a grown up. Not only was I attempting to find the best priced contractor for a vinyl fencing installation, but now I had to go to Dog Jail to bail out my hooligan dog (a hooligan dog WITH A TROUBLED PAST) after she’s spent the night in the, er, dog tank? To think about what she’s done.

I called out from work and retrieved the pooch. This is her in the backseat of my car that morning. I don’t think she thought about any of this at all at any point during the night:

Lola Dog Jail

I then called two more fence companies and arranged for consultations that day, went grocery shopping, did laundry, patched more holes in the fence, tripped over debris in the yard injuring my hand, went for a run, made dinner, and then fell asleep on the couch while attempting to watch a show.

Adulting like a boss.

I then realized that working myself to the bone with mundane adultness was perhaps not the kindest way to treat myself. And thus the sticker chart was born, to make sure I do things like draw and eat and all that.

Here’s hoping that the dogs stay out of trouble while we’re waiting for the fence project to be completed. Although, if they get “arrested” again, I might ask the shelter to take a “mug shot” of them. Lola has a great “Man, this is the worst thing ever” face.