Disagreements are like onions II

(or “Why we shouldn’t put all our arguments in one rhetorical basket”)

[Content note: Pulse shooting, homophobia, Islamophobia, gun issues, fundamentalist Christianity, and, sadly, more Donald Trump. A bit on the disjointed side, and perhaps best read as three separate sub-essays.]

As the title suggests, this is a direct follow-up to my last post, “Disagreements are like onions“.

I. Separation, period

…What was I saying? Oh yes, I think all of this can be generalized a little further. In the other post, I suggested that we should make a priority of separating the object level from the meta level, or different “degrees of meta”, when analyzing a given disagreement. One obvious challenge that could be raised against this thesis is whether for any two “layers” of an argument one is really more “meta” than the other in some obvious way. For instance, in the example I gave in the other post about separating the possibility of Trump not being the rightful president from the possibility that his executive orders were wrong, it doesn’t seem that clear whether “legitimacy of election” is the meta-level issue while “morality/legality of executive action” is the object-level issue or vice versa. And it doesn’t really matter — the arguments I was giving were for separating the two, without necessarily applying any particular asymmetric treatment to them.

So the moral of the story as I see it is even a little simpler: just try not to conflate different layers. And now, “layers” is not meant to imply hierarchy with respect to any axis. Considering this in terms of object/meta level distinctions was useful, because it seemed to me that an awful lot of this conflation was between layers that differed in levels of meta-ness, but this isn’t always so.

When we strip away all the talk of object and meta levels and just talk about “levels”, the primary reason for the fallacy becomes even more apparent. A person who is defending a position with many levels is often tempted to throw all of their eggs into the basket of their favorite one, which is often the one which feels easiest to defend.

Although this behavior seems extremely common and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it plenty of times without realizing it, some of the most blatant (and kind of hilarious) examples of it which come most easily to my mind involve fundamentalist Christian apologetics of the most extreme and crackpotty kind. For instance, I remember hearing an open-air preacher on a university campus who was carrying on, in his slow, booming voice, by giving a rendition all of what he considered to be the principal sinful behaviors of us students. It quickly became clear that homosexuality held a position of special status among this horde of evil lifestyle choices, because apparently every single other one was a special case of it. “Extramarital relations is what happens when you give in to your baser passions, so that is a form of homosexuality. Same with pot-smoking, so that is a form of homosexuality. Social Darwinism is also a form of homosexuality. Being a Democrat is a form of homosexuality. Mormonism is a form of homosexuality…” And so on and so on. Now the issue of same-sex attraction isn’t in any obvious way more or less “meta” than questions surrounding these other supposed evils. But it was certainly a hot-button issue at the time as well as evidently this preacher’s specialty, so it was convenient for him to frame absolutely every idea he wanted to attack in terms of homosexuality.

(On a purely comical note, I’m reminded of a Canadian friend who facetiously explained to me that where he grew up, not only do bears represent the epitome of danger, but every threatening thing up there is in fact, at least in some indirect way, a form of bear-ness. As far as I’m concerned, this assertion is really no less ridiculous than that of the evangelical preacher above.)

And while extreme fundamentalist Christians are on my mind, does anyone remember the young-earth creationist Kent “Dr. Dino” Hovind?  His “doctoral dissertation” is available in pdf format online and is another quintessential example of bundling all of one’s ideological opposition into one narrow category.  Apparently, every non-Christian idea that Hovind disliked was yet another face of the “religion of evolution”, throughout all 6,000 years of our world’s existence, from Cain and Abel to the ancient Greek philosophers to Galileo to the origins of Communism.

But atheists have been known to engage in this kind of thing as well.  Around 2012, there was an attempt made by part of the atheist community to splinter off into a group called Atheism Plus, comprised of atheists who wanted to stand up for certain specific humanitarian values outside of the very basic brand of humanism that generally goes hand in hand with a positive lack of religious belief.  Although this new movement was advertised by luminaries such as Dr. Richard Carrier as being based simply upon the sentiment that as a group they should stand up against bad behavior on the part of members of the mainstream atheist community, it seemed clear pretty early on that the intent was to bind atheism together with the beliefs of the then-emerging online social justice movement. I can’t help but feel that by attempting to make such object-level beliefs an inherent part of what it meant to be an atheist, the advocates of Atheism Plus were muddying the distinction between the core of a skeptical belief system and adherence to the particular social and political ideas that they liked. I considered the attitude that an atheist committed to social justice shouldn’t be willing to march for secularist causes alongside other atheists who didn’t see exactly eye-to-eye with them on all social issues to be divisive, and I feared that it would weaken both the battle for freedom from religion and the battle for social justice. And it seemed clear that a lot of this arose from a desire (conscious or subconscious) to sneak in a lot of specific tricky, controversial views under the banner of general skepticism, which is a much more easily defensible value at least in a room of committed nonbelievers.

One Atheism-Plus-related essay that stuck in my mind was this manifesto (long, but altogether quite an insightful and relevant read for this discussion, although ultimately I disagree with it).  Here is a particular excerpt whose essence stayed with me years later:

I saw in skepticism a great deal of potential, too. It was a community that had until recently been very much based in the “hard” sciences and in addressing the more objectively falisfiable beliefs that people held, like cryptids, UFOs, alt-med and paranormal phenomena. But I saw absolutely no reason that skepticism couldn’t be compatible with the social justice issues I also cared about, like feminism. I saw in feminism a lot of repeated mistakes made due to a lack of critical inquiry and self-reflection, and rejection of the value of science and that kind of critical thought, and I also believed that a whole lot of what feminism, and other social justice movements, were trying to address was very similar kinds of irrational beliefs and assumptions, stemming from similar human needs and limitations as beliefs in the paranormal. Misogyny, sexism, cissexism, gender binarism, racism, able-ism… these things didn’t seem meaningfully different to me from pseudo-science, new age, woo, religious faith, occultism or the paranormal. All were human beings going for easy, intuitive conclusions based on what they most wanted or needed to believe, and on what most seemed to them to be true, without that moment of doubt, hesitation and humility that skepticism encourages.

What I felt skepticism could offer all of us, in enabling us to cope with our faulty perceptions and thought, was a certain kind of agency. An ability to make a choice about what we believe instead of just going with the comfortable and most apparent truthiness. And in allowing us that agency, in allowing us that choice… we could make the right choices. Instead of settling for what we are, how we tend to see, think and believe… we could try to be something better. We could look to what we could be, to how we could see, think and believe.

In other words, the writer, Natalie Reed, saw certain social justice stances as following from the same skeptical mindset from which atheism also follows and therefore as a necessary biproduct of performing atheism “the right way”. To me, this seemed in tension with what she said in the very next paragraph about freedom and ability to choose beliefs; clearly, Reed saw only one right answer to certain non-deity-related questions and was frustrated that the atheist community as a whole was failing to embrace it.  Here she didn’t come across to me as possessing the Theory of Mind to see that the skepticism that might lead others to non-belief in gods might not lead to non-belief in all of the other things she was skeptical of, or that other skeptics might even consider parts of her socially liberal ideology to be examples of “truthiness” which deserve more skepticism.

Anyway, to leave the arena of religion for more mainstream politics, I’ve also seen left-wing rhetoric along the lines of “being pro-gun is wrong because if you think about it, the presence of guns stifles free speech, which is one of the pillars of our democracy”.  To me this argument appears to be reaching pretty far by making a pretty indirect connection between gun control and a more popular and easier-to-defend American value.  I’m sure that this kind of argumentation is pervasive in right-wing spaces as well — probably lots of bending-over-backwards interpretations of various proposals as boiling down to “more government control” or something like that — but having had very little exposure to those spaces during the last decade, I don’t really know. I see no reason not to suppose that it is present in most ideological communities.

II. Another reason not to draft all arguments as soldiers

In this more general context of separating layers, my point (2) under section III of the last essay (“Upholding a principle that belongs to one ‘layer’ of the disagreement only on grounds of being in the right at another ‘layer’ isn’t upholding the principle at all”) reminds me a lot of something I wrote on my tumblelog (my Tumblr blog) back last August.  I link to it here and insert a more up-to-date revision of it as follows.

One major thrust of the rationalist approach to winning arguments is to avoid the “arguments are soldiers” mentality — that is, the attitude that every argument for one’s side of a debate, whether good or bad, is an ideological weapon and all must be deployed if one is to win on the political battlefield.  The argument against using arguments as weapons is itself a call for separating the object from the meta, but I see another objection: namely, that the use of “arguments as soldiers” oftentimes implicitly weakens the good arguments for one’s own side.

To give an example of this, I’m afraid I’m going to dredge up a horrible event from last summer: the Pulse shooting (~50 people killed at an Orlando nightclub).  I was traveling at the time it happened and wasn’t able to research all the updates on what was or wasn’t known about the killer hour by hour, so for a few days I was relying on what was popping up on my Facebook newsfeed.  As tragedies go, this one was especially tricky to respond to rhetorically because in the immediate aftermath, as there were so many potential political elements of it pertaining to all sides: in particular, Islam, homophobia, and guns.

Within a day, my Facebook was blowing up with articles giving particular views of the very sparse information we had on the killer at that moment.  The main two groups contributing to the political discussion seemed to be liberals who wanted to play up his homophobia and conservatives (as well as a few anti-Islam liberals / libertarians) who wanted to play up his Muslim-ness.  At the time, judging from preliminary reports I saw trickling in, the levels of both of these traits were unclear.  There were rumors in the early hours of the aftermath that he himself was a regular at the club, and that he had a gay dating app on his phone.  Meanwhile, while it was clear that he was a Muslim, he was raised in America, it wasn’t so clear exactly how strong his ties to ISIS and “radical Islam” were.

I’m going to focus now on the emphasis on the killer’s homophobia, mainly because the people pushing it were the ones on “my side” of most issues and vastly outnumbered the others anyway.  Now there’s nothing wrong in the fact that people were focusing on his homophobia.  After all, it’s extremely important to investigate exactly why someone would perform such an evil act, and it’s completely appropriate for us to feel outraged if part of the motive came from such vile bigotry.  And in fact, it looks like these people turned out to be right: he did choose a gay nightclub out of a desire to attack gays, and he certainly wasn’t a regular or openly gay, etc.  But suppose the evidence had come out differently: would it weaken the gay rights cause in any way?  It would not make gay rights one iota less valid if this guy had shot up a gay club out of pure sadism rather than directed bigotry.  I guess maybe it would make the gay rights cause seem an iota or two less worthwhile, because some of the practical value of a cause lies in how many lives will be affected by it (there’s some importance in demonstrating that homophobia kills).  But I’m going to suggest that even that is only affected a tiny bit, since those 100 lives are still a pretty small fraction of all those who have been killed for being somewhere on the queer spectrum.  My point is not that I was bothered by so many people drawing attention to it (after all, as I have said, this was absolutely appropriate and essential), but that there was this almost-desperate underlying tone implying of “see, this is why homophobia is bad, and this is why gay people deserve equal rights”.  I know that wasn’t actually what anyone was saying or probably even thinking, but that tone does in my opinion sort of communicate an attitude that the validity of gay rights is conditional on exactly which tragedies have arisen from not acknowledging them: if new evidence were to come in showing that the killer wasn’t anti-gay, then where would that leave us?

This reminds me of the common tactic that atheists use in debate where they make a big point of how many lives have been destroyed in the name of religion, implying that this is why religion is incorrect.  I’ve actually seen Richard Dawkins open a debate on the existence of God with this strategy, then backtrack when he sees his debate opponent is formidable at rebutting that point, saying, “But counting up the number of lives lost due to a particular ideology doesn’t really matter anyway; all I care about is which belief system is true!”  (Unfortunately I can’t recall which debate this was, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened more than once.)  Well then, Dr. Dawkins, why didn’t you start by arguing that way in the first place?  In this failed rhetorical maneuver, Dawkins has actually damaged the argument against religion as being antithetical to the objective pursuit of truth by implicitly making this point of view seem delicate, as thought it needed to be backed up by statistics on the number of deaths resulting from the failure to choose secularism.

Or, to give another example from the 2016 election campaign, I noticed that many people seemed very anxious to show that Donald Trump was never a competent businessman at all, as though that was the main factor relevant to his candidacy.  As far as I know, a lot of the memes supposedly demonstrating that he hasn’t actually done anything impressive with money were misleading, but I couldn’t actually care less either way because I saw much, much more crucial indications that he was not fit to be president.  I realized that there was some sense in trying to rebut the supporters of Trump who painted him as a savvy businessman, but displaying it in the front and center of the anti-Trump case seemed to me like a confusion of priorities and actually sort of validated the pro-Trump contention that being successful at business qualifies someone for the presidency.

To summarize, when arguments are used as soldiers in this way, it not only often leads to bad arguments being used, but it weakens other, extremely valid points supporting on the same side.  Then if the bad arguments are eventually knocked down, there’s not quite as much left on display in support our cause as there would have been if we had stuck to emphasizing the core reasoning behind it in the first place.

In other words, putting all one’s rhetorical eggs in a single basket (i.e. a particular aspect of one’s worldview) is a risky business.  At worst, the basket will break and the rhetorician will lose the whole debate despite the fact that some of their other stances were valid.  And at best, the single idea they’re classifying everything else under will come out looking correct, but sneaking all the other ideas in under it might come across as shady and underhanded, and those other ideas might not get the acknowledgment or credit they deserve.

III. A postscript on the March for Science

Tomorrow a lot of my American friends will be participating in a march which is purportedly a protest against the new presidential administration’s blatant disregard for some of the less popular findings of science in favor of pseudoscience and general “truthiness”.  While I am all for the original cause of this demonstration, I tend to have misgivings about protests in general.  A lot of these misgivings have something to do with what I’ve been discussing above: it seems that such protests are often billed as being about something at least sort of specific, but then a bunch of other statistically-correlated beliefs wind up getting lumped in with the original cause.  This appeared to be the case for instance with the American “Occupy Wall Street / 99 Percent” movement in the earlier part of this decade, for instance (inasmuch as that movement started out with any specific position in the first place).  It was also apparent at the Women’s March back in January (hello, intersectional feminism!).  I’m not saying that I was actually against any of these demonstrations, and in fact I think that at least some (such as the Women’s March) had wonderful effects.  But I’m bothered by the fact that such protests have a tendency to devolve into a shouting platform that enforces the clustering of a whole bundle of political positions rather than a unified, focused, and concretely-reasoned push for a particular goal.  I’m a member of a Facebook group dedicated to the March For Science, and I’ve certainly already seen a lot of posts there championing areas of science, or even tangential science-related causes like better representation of minorities, etc., which don’t seem directly relevant to the main crises at hand.

That said, the theme of this particular event, Science, is itself of interest when considering the issue of “separating layers”, because the spirit of Science seems in a certain sense to uphold the opposite value to the one I’ve been preaching here.  That is, the idea behind Science is that we are trying to explain empirical phenomena in terms of the most elegant possible models based on natural laws which apply universally.  In other words, Science is on some level all about not considering different questions independently.  For instance, it is often pointed out that to be consistent in one’s denial of biological evolution, one must also deny the validity of a wide range of scientific areas including geology and particle physics.  So I can’t really fault all the posts I see along the lines of “I march because without science we wouldn’t have the medical technology to treat my leukemia!”, even though it would be unfair to directly imply that support for the strains of pseudoscience peddled by the current administration automatically implies opposition to improving the lives of leukemia patients.  After all, the same respect for the scientific process that has led to so many widely celebrated inventions and breakthroughs ought to be applied when it comes to more politically controversial scientific findings as well.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see exactly how tomorrow’s event shapes up.  I guess that as far as my insistence on “separating layers” applies to this situation, I would say that it’s important to realize that it is possible for intellectually honest people to disagree with the scientific consensus on some (object-level) issues without necessarily opposing the (meta-level) values of the scientific process itself.  However, those of us who feel worried about what appears to be a pervasive disregard for science, who feel that people who hold to popular “truthy” beliefs not supported by scientists while otherwise tacitly supporting the scientific process are oftentimes operating on an inconsistent belief system, are certainly quite justified in wanting to engage in peaceful demonstrations against these worrisome modes of thinking.  Or at least as justified as I am in wanting to write long, rambling blog posts about what I consider to be worrisome modes of thinking.

18033965_10213215715533949_4007728607424155360_n(credit to Kendra Hamilton on Facebook)

Disagreements are like onions

[Content note: this is another attempt to convey one of those fundamental ideas which I feel strongly about deep down but is still a little hard to communicate, so I once again erred on the side of long and dry.  Part 1, hopefully to be continued.  Some political examples, especially Trump-related; how can I resist?]

Finally I’ve gotten around to writing the remaining lengthy, cerebral post I’ve been wanting to get out of my system right from the get-go (really, it’s been in my system for a lot of my life).  I want to talk about object levels versus meta levels and Theory of Mind and everything that comes with it.  I’m worried that this post may become overly long and sprawling because it’s such a far-reaching topic in my view, but at least there’s one thing that makes life a lot easier here: a number of people whose blogs I follow have touched on this directly or indirectly in their writings many times.  By pointing attention to such things, they have done a lot of my work for me.  Also, I’m going to postpone a few of the ideas I have in mind to be put in a second post.

Here is a list (nowhere near exhaustive) of what I consider to be some of the more crucial posts of Alexander’s which address the general issue of Theory of Mind / Object-Meta Distinction in one way or another:

There are many, many more essays written by Alexander and others which apply these principles without quite so directly acknowledging them.  In particular, I’ve seen this from other prominent rationalist community members like Ozy (who runs the blog Thing of Things) as well as from Rob Bensinger, although off the top of my head I can’t produce any links since they both write prolifically in a lot of different places and I don’t have such a good memory for their individual articles and/or comments.  This post is my attempt to unify all of these points expressed by them and others into one concept.

But first, here is a series of example scenarios of a variety of flavors in order to motivate the idea.

I. A collection of very short stories

In recent years there have been a number of controversies surrounding high-profile individuals who hold views that are unsavory in some way or other and who were punished for saying those views, by losing their job for example, or just by not being allowed a microphone.  “A Comment I Posted on ‘What Would JT Do?'” addresses one of these cases, where Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson was fired for voicing highly offensive views.  In it, Alexander expresses frustration with the network for suspending Robertson, arguing that regardless of what side we’re on, we should adhere to the norm of responding to views we don’t like with counterarguments rather than silencing.  Alexander later came to the defense of Brendan Eich when he was fired as CEO of Mozilla for similar reasons.  Much more recently, there has been a lot of discussion in the rationalist community about the forceful protests against the very presence of certain alt-right-ish speakers at universities.  Most seem to agree that regardless of how one feels about what we might call the “object-level situation” (Robertson or Eich or these speakers’ “object-level” positions that we don’t agree with), we should give priority to certain “meta-level” rules (e.g. allowing the opportunity for proponents of all beliefs to take the podium).  Although it’s clearly not quite that simple.  Because, waving aside the whole issue of the “free speech” defense being flawed when “freedom of speech” is understood in the most literal sense, there are some individuals, like possibly Milo Yiannopoulos, who have strayed beyond simply expressing their views into outright bullying.  There seems to be a fine line between speech that is offensive to some groups and actual threats to the safety of members of those groups.  So how exactly do we separate the “object level” from the “meta level” in situations like these?

There has been a particular theme in the debates I’ve (probably foolishly) gotten into with friends over a lot of things relating to the new presidential administration in America.  Many are arguing that we right-thinking Americans who are anti-Trump should refuse to acknowledge Mr. Trump as our president altogether.  They are more or less saying, as I understand it, that the horrid views he has Trumpeted were sufficient reason for various other authorities to have barred him from becoming president in the first place through some sort of brute force, to have refused to go to his inauguration, and get him impeached as soon as possible.  It seems pretty revealing to me that in the midst of some of these “not my president” arguments, the fact that Trump has almost certainly done many highly illegal things is thrown right in with policy positions such as being anti-abortion or (allegedly) anti-gay-rights.  While I agree that he’s “not my president” in the sense of not representing anything I stand for, I vehemently oppose the calls for immediate impeachment, as long as it’s motivated by pure principle rather than objective legal reasoning.  My main argument has a lot to do with how the other side will view what would look like purely political strong-arming in the highly unlikely event that such efforts actually succeed.  I don’t think anyone could completely deny this concern, but apparently I hold unusually strong convictions about the particular importance of considering how other people’s minds will process our behavior.

A few weeks ago I was asked an interesting question by a friend, also pertaining to the American political situation.  We were talking about speculations that some Trump campaign officials engaged in illicit communications with Russian agents, thus swinging the election in his favor.  My friend put forth the idea that if it is ever proven beyond reasonable doubt that Trump won the election through illegal means, then his executive orders should be considered illegal purely by virtue of the fact that he isn’t the rightful president.  I replied that I disagree with this proposal.  Trump’s action as president should be evaluated purely on their own merits (legal, moral, etc.), given the fact that he somehow got into the position he’s in.  In other words, I want our judgments of his becoming president and each thing he does as president to be evaluated as independently as possible.  That way, if we mess up our evaluation of one, this doesn’t affect how we react to the others.  Besides, I believe that both the travel ban and the disastrous first attempt at executing it (these two aspects can be judged separately as well!) were despicable and deserving of harsh judgment quite independently of whether Trump’s presidency itself is legitimate, so it just doesn’t seem fitting somehow for Trump to face legal consequences for the travel ban purely on the grounds that something unlawful was done in his presidential campaign months earlier.  Besides, again, one should consider what his supporters would make of us punishing him for a multitude of actions using the singular strategy of somehow convincing enough people that he never really got elected.

Now let’s move to personal drama of a sort that I’ve seen play out more times than I can count.  Suppose that Alice and Bob are in some kind of close relationship, and Alice gets upset with Bob about something and, let’s say, starts berating him in a tone that somehow goes over the line or with a lot of vulgar language or just generally in a borderline-verbally-abusive way.  Bob disagrees with the reasons why Alice is upset but focuses his resentment around the unacceptable way she talks to him when she’s angry.  Alice’s rebuttal is to point out that Bob yells at her in an equally unpleasant way when he’s upset with her for any reason, and she gives some past examples to lend evidence to the point.  Bob replies that those times were different because for X, Y, and Z reasons, he was right in those arguments and therefore justified in his nasty tone and diction, whereas today she’s wrong in her arguments and thus has no right to talk to him that way.  They are — or at least Bob is — conflating two issues here which should be separate discussions: the specific things they get into arguments about, and the way they talk to each other when they get angry about such things.

I know someone who has insisted multiple times that the word “insult” refers not merely to saying nasty things about someone, but to saying nasty things about someone that are unwarranted.  I have looked up the definition of the verb “to insult” in multiple dictionaries and have asked several others what they consider it to mean, and all evidence points to this person being wrong about the definition of “insult”.  But setting aside explicitly agreed-upon uses of words and the confusion that results from going against them, let’s grant that we can define terms in whatever way we choose as long as we’re consistent about how we use them.  To define “insult” as a valid description of a certain unpleasant behavior only as long as it is unjustified given that particular situation weakens one’s ability to separate a personal dispute into two disagreements (the particulars of why they are arguing, and the way they talk to each other when angry) as in the case of Alice and Bob above.  Insisting on such a definition of “insult” betrays a certain mindset.

(Interestingly, I was corrected on my use of “flattery” several times when I was younger, because I understood it to mean, well, more or less the opposite of “insult” regardless of sincerity or validity of the claim of the flatterer, while I was told that an effusive compliment doesn’t count as flattery if it’s actually obviously true.  This does seem more or less in keeping with dictionary definitions of “flattery”, although it looks slightly different from the “insult” situation situation since “to flatter” is meant to carry a connotation of insincerity.)

II. Separation of degrees

I believe that lying at the heart of all the situations described above there is a fundamental concept in common.  Sometimes we might talk about it in terms of “meta levels” and “object levels” (e.g. Alice and Bob have both an object-level disagreement but also have a problem on the meta-level about how they work through disagreements).  I’ve developed a habit of using this language quite a lot actually; I’m always telling myself that I’ll look back on this writing one day years from now and cringe thinking it looks sort of rhetorically immature to refer to “object” and “meta” things so often, but right now it still often seems like the best way to make my point.

At other times, we might speak of Theory of Mind as explained in some of the links I gave above (e.g. we have to operate on some consideration of the minds of Trump supporters).  I claim — and I hope to argue here at least in an indirect way — that both of these ways of analyzing disagreements point to the same underlying fallacy.

Out of all the rationality-flavored topics that I care about and have been writing essays on, this one lies closest to my heart.  I remember first feeling an awareness of the fact that I innately processed certain arguments in seemingly a very different way from the (equally intelligent and much more experienced) people around me at around the age of 12.  These disagreements were all of the flavor of the scenarios described above, where my frustration was with those who didn’t seem to realize that there are certain general rules which we all must agree to follow regardless of who is right or wrong in a particular dispute, because all parties are equally convinced that they’re right.  And that it’s no good to criticize a person you’re disagreeing with for not following some general rule on the grounds that they’re wrong about specifics when they don’t agree that they’re wrong on the specifics; in fact, it’s bound to further irritate them and push them away.  By the start of my teenage years, being bothered by this was already starting to feel like a major hangup that I was almost alone in suffering from, and part of me hoped and expected to outgrow it.  Yet here I am.  I can’t explain precisely why I’ve always felt as intensely about this as I do, although it’s clearly related in some way to the Principle of Charity, as in Scott Alexander’s framing in some of links above (or to my modified Principle of Empathy).

When I first ran into the rationalist community, perhaps the number one reason I started identifying with the individuals therein was that they all seem to intuitively grasp what I’m getting at here.  Sure, some might disagree with how I’m framing it in this essay (maybe because my framing is arguably not the most valid, but more likely due to lack of lucidity in expressing these concepts), but I never fail to feel assured that they get it.  Of course, “it” is rarely directly discussed in purely abstract terms rather than in the context of a particular concrete topic.  But like I said at the beginning, “it” exists as a thread running through the writing of Alexander, Ozy, and many others.

So is there a way of framing this in more definitive, purposeful language than “there’s some object- vs. meta-level thing or some Theory of Mind stuff going on here”?

Well, let’s start with Scott Alexander’s arguments on seeing issues in terms of object and meta levels in his writing which I linked to above, particularly in the “Slate Star Codex Political Spectrum Quiz”.  (Warning to anyone reading this who hasn’t gone to the link yet and is interested in taking the quiz: I’m about to “spoil” it.)  Here Alexander posits a series of questions, each of which describes a brief political conundrum and gives two choices as to how to proceed.  The catch is that he has cleverly paired the questions into couples which depict scenarios that are very similar on some “meta” level while (very roughly) the roles of “object” level political positions are switched (e.g. a question about a visit by the Dalai Lama being protested by a local Chinese minority is paired with a question about a memorial to southern Civil War veterans being protested by a local African-American minority).  The final score on the quiz is computed using a system that gives the quiz-taker one point for answering “the same way” on a pair of questions, thus displaying meta-level consistency.  The final evaluation is given as follows:

Score of 0 to 3: You are an Object-Level Thinker. You decide difficult cases by trying to find the solution that makes the side you like win and the side you dislike lose in that particular situation.

Score of 4 to 6: You are a Meta-Level Thinker. You decide difficult cases by trying to find general principles that can be applied evenhandedly regardless of which side you like or dislike.

Many have undoubtedly taken this, along with Alexander’s many other articles which seem to take the “meta-level side” (applying general principles across the board including when he doesn’t like the side whose rights he’s supporting), to imply that he favors meta-level thinking over object-level thinking and that we’re all “supposed to” score a 6 on the quiz.  I think I myself interpreted Alexander’s tone this way for a while.  Then I realized that this isn’t necessarily the right lesson to take away from it.  I can’t speak for Scott Alexander’s exact position here, but I do distinctly recall Rob Bensinger remarking in a different comment section that the Slate Star Codex Political Spectrum Quiz serves as an eloquent rebuttal to the attitude that one should always operate on the meta level.  I guess it depends on how one feels about the particular questions asked in the quiz, but I do have to agree that the correct message shouldn’t be to only think on the meta level.  Sometimes there are exceptional object-level circumstances which change the meta-level rules slightly.  For instance, if our Alice and Bob from above are a married couple who have agreed never to try not to let their voices rise above a certain volume when fighting with each other, then one of them might be justified in bending this meta-level rule just a bit in the fight that ensues after finding out that the other, for instance, just gambled away their entire joint life savings without asking, or has been cheating with seven other partners.

Also — this is a much more superficial objection that is easy to remedy — but of course it doesn’t make sense to consider any conflict to have exactly two levels, the “object” one and the “meta” one, because real conflicts are often complicated enough to involve many degrees of “meta-ness”.  For instance, two nations which are run on competing political philosophies (e.g. communism versus capitalism, in this case an object-level disagreement) may try to avoid war with each other in the absence of a particular type of threat or provocation (avoiding force is a meta-level rule), but in the case that they do declare war, they may try to follow international laws pertaining to conduct in war (as in the Geneva Conventions, meta-meta-level rules).  And after all, Alexander talks about an indefinite number of “steps” in the above-linked post on an “n-step theory of mind”.

So we should view any disagreement as likely having many layers of meta-ness, like an onion.  (One may consider the more “meta” layers as being closer to the center of the onion, but I sort of prefer to think of going outward as one gets more “meta”, since meta-level considerations should be a bit more all-encompassing).  And there is no hard-and-fast rule as to some level which will always take precedence over all others in judging any disagreement.  Instead, I think the correct message boils down to something even simpler: we should be aware that these different layers of a disagreement exist; and we should address them all separately in our arguments (even if they aren’t entirely independent).  For a long time, to myself I’ve been referring to this as “separating levels” or “separating layers” or even “separating degrees of meta”.

Where does Theory of Mind come in?  Well, in my experience the general way to fail at the goal I set out above involves disregard for the fact that others’ minds work independently from one’s own.  After all, the most common way to conflate these layers is to insist to one’s opponents that what should be uniform meta-rules need only be applied selectively, depending entirely on the object-level situation.  And it seems to me that the best way to justify this to oneself is to forget that one’s opponents hold differing convictions on the object-level situation which feel just as genuine as one’s own.  That’s basically, by definition, displaying a lack of Theory of Mind.

III. What goes wrong?

When claiming something as a fallacy, I believe it’s always good form to explain why the fallacy leads one astray as well as why people persist in it despite the fact that it leads one astray.  (It’s also nice to suggest a positive solution, but in this case, I don’t have any bright ideas beyond the self-evident “that mode of thinking is wrong, so don’t do that thing”.)

When thinking over why I don’t like it when people “conflate layers” of disagreements, I can’t help treating “reasons why this conflation is logically invalid” and “reasons why this conflation is bad rhetoric which will push people away rather than win arguments” as interchangeable.  Here are a couple of points which may fit one or both criteria.

1) Defending one’s stance on a meta-level issue using one’s stance on object-level issues won’t actually convince anyone not already on board.  If two parties disagree on the object-level issues (which I usually take to be the matter of disagreement which started the conflict in the first place), then for one party to defend their behavior of breaking some meta rule on the grounds that they are right on the object-level issue is a waste of breath.  From what I’ve seen (and from what I feel when this is done to me), it only makes the other party more angry and frustrated.  A valid argument uses premises that everyone involved agrees on and then uses those to convince one’s opponent of something they didn’t agree about.  An attempt at an argument based on a premise that one’s opponent never agreed on is bound to completely fail at accomplishing this.

2) Upholding a principle that belongs to one “layer” of the disagreement only on grounds of being in the right at another “layer” isn’t upholding the principle at all.  This can be seen in my second example with the Trump administration, where using the illegitimacy of Trump’s election to indict him for an executive order sort of implicitly excuses the illegality of the order itself.  Or, going back to our friends Bob and Alice, if Bob says, “I still think you’re wrong on the issue we were fighting about, but much worse than that, the names you called me are completely unacceptable!”, and Alice points out that Bob calls her similar names from time to time (perhaps even in that same fight), and Bob replies, “But I was justified in talking to you that way because there you were wrong!”… well then Bob is essentially implying that there’s nothing innately bad about calling someone those names at all.

Or to take a slightly more universal example, when a child lies to their parent about having done something wrong, the lesson handed to them is often something along the lines of “The naughty thing you did isn’t nearly as bad as the fact that you lied about it!”  But if the child soon afterwards catches their parents themselves lying to avoid getting into trouble for something they did, then justifying it on the grounds of not thinking their crime was actually bad, then there’s a risk of the child coming away very confused about the wrongness of lying.  And I’m not saying that there isn’t a circumstance where the parents’ words and actions might still be completely justified — there are some things that are against the (object-level) rules but which may still be morally right and okay to lie about (i.e. these “layers” do sometimes interfere with each other).  But a parent in this situation should at least be aware of the confusion that might result when laying down a blanket (meta-level) rule that lying is always wrong even when you’re trying to get out of trouble for doing something you feel was okay.

IV. Why do we go wrong?

I expect one could always cite the usual reason where people are prone to not thinking clearly, and to not having a strong Theory of Mind, especially when this allows for rhetoric which seems to work in their favor in the heat of the moment.  As for something more concrete, I think “conflating layers” mainly boils down to one major temptation.

Tying together two different issues in a disagreement allows one to justify oneself based on whichever one is easier to defend.  It’s easier to argue against homophobia itself than to argue purely on the meta-level that someone doesn’t deserve a public platform, so many don’t want to make the effort to separate the issue of the unsavory views of Robinson and Eich and their ilk from the issue of whether they have a right to keep their jobs despite their views.  If we obtain proof that the Trump campaign actually did clinch the election illegally, it will be easier to convince everyone that Trump isn’t the rightful president than to demonstrate that his travel ban was wrong, so a lot of us would feel inclined to use the illegitimacy of Trump’s presidency to condemn his attempt at the travel ban.  It may be easier during a particular argument to defend one’s object-level stance than to defend one’s use of nasty insults, so it’s tempting to define the term itself to depend on one’s rightness or wrongness on the object level.

In other words, while one can’t judge the layers of every argument completely independently, by treating them as all part of one singular issue of controversy it becomes way too easy to get away with all kinds of rhetorical shortcuts, so that one can defend one’s stance throughout the whole onion based only on the most easily justifiable layer.  It enables a bait-and-switch behavior which is similar to (or perhaps just a particular flavor of) the motte-and-bailey tactic.

…and actually, I believe all of this can be generalized slightly further, but I’ll save that for another post which (I hope) will appear here soon.

A sensational attraction

[Content note: more of a musing on several disjointed ideas relating to a particular issue than an essay with a unified argument.  For reasons that are about to become apparent, I feel slightly weird about listing all of the possibly troublesome topics appearing in the content — see tags.]

I’ve noticed a general social trend which annoys me.  I guess the best way for me to summarize that trend is to say that any speculation about a person or persons engaging in some belief or behavior which is sufficiently interesting (in a certain sense of the word, to a certain part of society) is accepted by too many as true on insufficient evidence.  Or maybe it would be less clumsy just to give some examples of what I mean.

One of my very favorite historical celebrities is Charles Dodgson, who under the penname Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass (which together occupy a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf), and who also worked as a professional mathematician and an Anglican deacon while dabbling in photography.  It’s been a while since I read a biography of him or any of his non-Alice written works, but I remember always getting an overwhelming sense that he had a strikingly similar personality to mine and that if timing and geography cooperated we could be really good friends.  The type of very left-brained creativity that he seemed inclined towards seems much like mine, although of course I don’t exactly see my creative pursuits leading to any ground-breaking literature.  We would probably clash on many philosophical matters — that whole God thing, for instance — but I can imagine us engaging in really pleasant debates on these topics over drinks.

Now many still seem to appreciate Dodgson’s literary masterpiece(s) as well as his contributions to mathematical logic, but many also seem to insist on the truth of some thorny allegations surrounding his life.  To start with, I’ve heard it stated as a fact more than once that he produced some of his best work under the influence of mind-altering drugs.  For instance, I once had an English teacher who related that some Dodgson authority (presumably more expert than herself) had informed her that he was “definitely tripping” when he wrote the Alice books.  (I’m not sure what substance he was supposed to be tripping on, as LSD wasn’t invented until well after his time.)  Apparently it would have been impossible to come up with a story as nonsensical and surreal as Alice Through the Looking-Glass without being on something to supplement one’s own raw creativity and wit.  But as far as I know, this is where the “evidence” for the claim ends.

That doesn’t seem so bad — after all, the fact that someone created something marvelous under the influence of drugs doesn’t decrease their merit-worthiness in the eyes of myself or many others — but there’s a far more sinister and pervasive allegation out there that Dodgson was an active pedophile.  Supposedly his interest in young Alice Liddell, the inspiration for the Alice in the books, didn’t spring entirely from affectionate feelings as a friendly uncle figure.  This is an assertion made by a significant number of Dodgson biographers which has caused quite a controversy in the field.  Now I wouldn’t want my own fondness for Dodgson and his work to bias me against believing anything unsavory about him.  And I don’t feel the need to say goodbye to the cherished art of a person who has thought or done horrible things; for instance, I don’t believe the fact that John Lennon had a habit of beating his first wife takes away from the greatness of his music or the secular humanist values he promoted.  So I tried to look into the Dodgson allegations with an open mind.  And I really couldn’t find anything to convince me that he approached little girls with any inappropriate motives or behavior.  The only evidence cited is that Dodgson used to photograph little girls in the nude, which does indeed look pretty damning until you realize that in Victorian times children were considered thoroughly nonsexual and photography of naked children was actually pretty common during that period.  It seems to me that Dodgson was basically a gentle, somewhat shy and socially awkward (although that is disputed by some) bachelor who was friendly and relaxed around some child friends.

Yet there seem to be a lot of people whom it seems impossible to sway by invoking the context of Victorian culture and steadfastly refuse to doubt that Charles Dodgson was a pedophile.  I even argued with one person who dismissively waved away my points with “Come on, we all know that’s what most of those celibate clerics were into.”

Meanwhile, contemporary to Dodgson were two consecutive United States presidents, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom are suggested by a number of scholars to have been gay.  It seems perfectly plausible to me that Buchanan, America’s only bachelor president, may have been gay, although positive evidence for it seems fairly mild and it seems hard to say with much confidence what a politician’s sexual orientation was from that time.  In the case of Lincoln, I find it somewhat less likely given that he had a fairly decent marriage and fathered several children.  There doesn’t seem to be a whit of evidence for his homosexuality outside of the fact that he shared a (probably large double) bed with several men, most famously his close friend Joshua Speed.  But again, this was not uncommon for the time (indeed I’ve discovered since moving abroad that this kind of thing is still not quite as strange in Europe as it is in the modern American culture I grew up in).  I actually once heard two historians debate this claim on the radio; the one asserting Lincoln’s homosexuality was only able to return again and again to the fact that Lincoln shared a bed with Speed.  In this way, these notions persist.

Or take the frequent allegation that Walt Disney was horribly racist despite otherwise being a kind and inspirational man.  I’ve heard his name casually brought up in conversation as an example of a WWII-era figure whose work was admirable and who seemed like a nice, normal fellow but who treated blacks and/or Jews as inferior.  I’ve looked into this claim and after some searching, all I’ve really been able to find is that Disney (along with other notable figures such as Ronald Reagan) joined a particular actor’s/producer’s group in the 1940’s which has since been shown to have harbored some anti-Semitic sentiment.  Evidence that he was a Nazi sympathizer amounts to stray rumors and seems pretty thin on the ground.  Yet people seem to immediately accept the “Disney was a racist!” narrative without actually investigating the origins of the rumor.

So what is going on here?  At first glance, these might appear to be examples of the insistence within the modern internet-based social justice movement on believing any allegation of racism, abuse, etc. in accordance with what some believe to be the best strategy for combating those evils.  But of course this breaks down when one considers the “Lincoln was gay” theory (homosexuality was generally met with societal judgment until relatively recently, but it’s certainly not considered sinful by social liberals today), or the whole “Dodgson was high” thing.  Plus, I don’t think that many of those who are trying to get everyone to realize that racism and sexism persist today are all that concerned with our recognition that some celebrities of the past held abhorrent views and engaged in abusive behavior.  After all, it’s not really so debatable that a lot of values considered horrible today were either the norm or treated with a blind eye in olden times.

No, something else is at the bottom of this, and I’m reminded of Jon Stewart’s description of how he viewed the biases of mainstream media.  He once characterized news media as catering to “sensationalism and laziness” (linked to the full interview because it’s really good, but the relevant part starts around 4:30).  Well, I suggest that maybe the same holds true for the ideas we let through our own filters: we too often have a weakness for sensationalism, for ideas that are provocative in an immediate way that doesn’t require too much thought or reflection.  That is what the above examples all have in common.  Our society as a whole is sort of obsessed with a number of sensational things including racism, drug use, and pretty much anything to do with sex, especially if it’s something taboo or that once was considered taboo.  These speculations each serve as a sort of cheap momentary distraction which entertains us each time we recall it.

When certain types of content begin to attract our sensationalist and lazy urges, I imagine a lot of it has to do with novelty.

I’m pretty sure nobody who remembers what it was like to grow up will disagree with my impression that a lot of kids, from quite young children to preteens and beyond (sometimes pretty far beyond) are kind of obsessed with joking around about anything sexual, drug-related, or violent, the more shocking the better.  Now I don’t know much about child psychology and I acknowledge there are already several very obvious causes of this — actual desire for sex or interest in drugs, for instance, or the obvious awkwardness and/or smirking from older people when they’re talking about these things — but I don’t think any account of the contributing factors is complete without considering the attraction of novelty.  In my experience, children begin to be prone to talking about these things just when they’re first learning about them.  This is probably due to the shock factor being much stronger when these concepts are newer.  In addition, the impression of understanding these things gives the child a sensation of worldliness.  As kids grow older, the fact that these subjects become less taboo gives them more boldness in bringing them up all the time, while at the same time the subjects are invoked in slightly wittier and less blunt ways as there is no longer so much need for them to signal that they know the basics.  Eventually the presence of such content in all social conversation (in my opinion) wears out its welcome somewhat — I often consider it kind of immature to go on treating everything to do with sex and drugs as all that interesting and funny (not that I’ve never been guilty of it myself) — but it’s kind of hard to stop fixating on those things when the world around you seems pretty addicted to hearing about them.  Eventually, for some individuals, certain topics become so old that they’re no longer worth invoking gratuitously or responding to appreciatively, but in many cases that stage never seem to be reached.

Society as a whole seems to go through a similar set of stages with regard to certain forms of sensationalist content as it goes from almost completely unknown and/or taboo, to the very basics just beginning to become common knowledge, to becoming fully and widely understood and needing to be discussed nonstop, to lingering on as popular subject material despite having been talked/joked to death, to finally (only in some cases) being retired as rather boring or cliché.  We are more or less at the nonstop-discussion stage, for instance, where pedophilia is concerned, which explains the insistence on the unpleasant Dodgson allegations: we as a group want to show ourselves that we’re worldly enough to understand the prevalence of such things.

I always think of a certain routine by the singer-songwriter/comedian Tom Lehrer which was recorded on one of his live albums as an intro to the song “We Will All Go Together When We Go” (it can be heard here; warning: very dark nuclear-apocalypse-related humor, though admittedly not much more macabre than Lehrer’s usual).  Lehrer is embarking on a ramble having little to do with the song to follow, something about some (probably fictional) eccentric guy he used to know, and he throws in an inconsequential joke: “I particularly remember a heartwarming novel of his about a young necrophiliac who finally achieved his boyhood ambition by becoming a coroner.”  A slightly tentative, uneasy laugh comes from the audience.  Lehrer then adds, “The rest of you can look it up when you get home”, which is followed by a much louder laugh and some applause.

Now this was recorded back in 1959, and I can tell.  It’s obvious that this had to have been recorded a long time ago, because our collective understanding of and attitudes towards unusual preferences like necrophilia has changed to the point that the joke above just wouldn’t be considered funny by that many people.  I can’t imagine a quip that serves as almost literally nothing more than an acknowledgment of the basic definition of necrophilia being considered worth putting into one’s comedy routine today.  But for the 1959 audience of Tom Lehrer (who was well known at the time for pushing the envelope), kinks like necrophilia were just beginning to enter the collective consciousness so that a few of them were able to get the joke and laugh at it, albeit a little nervously since the concept was still quite new and scandalizing.  Perhaps an audience ten years later would have laughed more fully and easily at the same joke, which might then have reached its peak freshness.  But today it sounds pretty stale.  People still bring up necrophilia in a humorous context left and right of course, but typically not as a joke whose only real element is the definition (“This guy was a necrophiliac, so he decided to become a coroner!” *BA-DUM tsss*).

Meanwhile, other subjects that I expect were sufficiently provocative and sensationalistic to have been fodder for comedy routines at one time eventually seem to have either been deemed offensive or to have worn out altogether.  For instance, I have the impression that old-fashioned comedy contained many more jokes about married men lusting after their neighbors’ wives back this was considered a sufficiently sensational thing to talk about than in modern times, now that our culture has found many fresher and more exciting topics for gratuitous entertainment.  A criticism I sometimes hear by young adults of old-fashioned comedy is that the humor of past generations feels rather cliché, and I suspect this is what causes that impression.  In my opinion, the irony here is that younger humorists seem to overuse certain topics in their content just as much, and while those topics seem fresher today, that might not be the case thirty years from now.

One positive effect of our collective preference for sensationalism is that it leads to greater awareness of people and issues that once went unrecognized.  The drastically increased visibility over the last several decades of gay people in the media is largely due to activism of course, but a lot of it has to do with our culture as a whole discovering some “new” thing, making it gradually less taboo, and finding it engaging enough to portray frequently.  This has helped a great deal to increase visibility for the LGBT community in general.  But clearly the portrayal of diverse sexual orientations has continued to evolve and is still evolving.  Certain types of “gay jokes”, especially the ones whose entire substance is “Gay people exist!”, are now rightly considered offensive, and the moral message of “Gay people are people too!” is now being conveyed in more subtle and nuanced ways.  However, we are only just beginning to reach what I’d considered to be a desired goal of commonly seeing characters who happen to be gay (or any other minority sexual orientation) but who aren’t “gay characters” per se — if we get there, only then might we be able to say that gay culture has reached full mainstream acceptance.

We’ve seen a slightly similar phenomenon with portrayals of mental illness.  Back 50 years ago, the main forms of it portrayed in fiction were very severe disorders featured for shock value (as in Hitchcock’s Psycho).  During my lifetime, however, characters with more common mental illnesses are seen increasingly frequently, which helps bring awareness to a very important issue.

The downside is that there are other issues and groups that also deserve awareness but aren’t fodder for immediate entertainment in quite the same way.  I think asexuality might be the prime example here.  I imagine that many if not most folks are aware of the ace community or at least that some people don’t experience sexual attraction, but you sure wouldn’t know it from the media we consume or even from the assumptions we make in our social interactions.  Asexuals comprise what may be one of the most invisible minority groups in our society, and even though there’s not much explicit anti-asexual prejudice rooted in our traditional culture, there doesn’t seem to be much effort to increase visibility for this group.  The reason behind this is clear: the notion of someone being asexual is interesting in an abstract way, but it isn’t sensationalistic.  Asexuality doesn’t lend itself to interesting situations or plotlines, at least not at first glance.  It’s been widely noted that sitcoms tend to adhere pretty closely to the Everybody Is Single trope where unrealistically few of the characters are in relationships.  This is for the obvious reason that more characters on the dating market means greater potential for engaging stories.  And a character who is single but who just isn’t interested in dating and/or sex seems even less likely than a character in a steady relationship to provide engaging stories of the kind we’re used to consuming.

A similar principle applies to certain kinds of more “mundane” disabilities.  It even applies, say, to high schoolers who (like past-me) aren’t obsessed with drugs, sex, reckless driving, and generally getting into trouble, and yet who (unlike past-me) also aren’t super stereotypically nerdy.  You wouldn’t get the impression that such adolescents exist either from media or from the way most conversations about teenagers go.

This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to portray someone of one of these groups in a film, TV show, or book in a way that sells.  I believe it can be done with a little creative effort, and that such an effort should be made wherever possible.  And I hope to see our culture adopt an attitude of greater self-awareness of the assumptions that arise from our insatiable attraction to sensationalism as well as a willingness to push back against it.

My evolving views of (American) politics

(a journey in epistemic helplessness)

[Content note: throwback to my first two posts, published this month last year.  On politics but I don’t know enough politics to make a “political” post per se.  A few issues listed in tags.]

First, a “meta” note.  I’m pleased that I got some substantial ideas down in writing here last year, however imperfectly, but I feel that I went very slightly astray of what I originally envisioned for this blog.  Therefore, I’ve made a resolution to steer my writing in a direction away from posts on mostly-impersonal abstract rationality concepts and towards posts on more concrete and personal issues.

The primary purpose for me in writing essays for this blog has always boiled down to something akin to self-therapy, as I tried to make clear from the start.  I think I succeeded in this at the beginning, but eventually my focus got slightly bogged down elsewhere.  I don’t regret focusing on the ideas I tried to express here last year, since it felt necessary to give myself a framework to explain why I think in the way that I do.  However, I’m beginning to wince at how many of my previous essays read like long-winded cerebral wanderings through subtle abstract questions with so much talk of “rationalism this” and “rationalist community that”.  It was never my intention to sketch out a dingy addendum to Yudkowsky’s Sequences.

It should be understood that my “rationalisty” essays aren’t meant to be persuasive in the sense of arguing that my approach to certain questions is objectively the best one; they’re instead meant to describe the way my mind works.  What I’ve ultimately wanted to do all along is jot down in writing the feelings and perceptions that guide my current approach to getting through my life both socially and on a more epistemic level (much of which, clearly, is tied in with rationalism).  And of course, I should feel free to go through with this kind of jotting-down even if I’m afraid what I have to say comprises ideas that are poorly defined, obviously incomplete, or even very likely invalid.  That way, I can more easily analyze my own beliefs, and with any luck, a few other people with whom these questions resonate with can analyze them as well.

Eventually I want to lay out some content that is way more personal.  (I feel like my writing flows more easily and less effortfully when I get a little more personal and less lofty anyway, but we’ll see.)  There are issues that I feel uneasy talking about that I already find myself putting off even though I’ve laid out most of the necessary framework (hopefully stating this intention now will help me to eventually follow through on it).  The evolution won’t be sudden or drastic — for instance, there’s definitely one more essay of the long-winded, cerebral, “rationalisty” type that I want to write here — but as I said, I’m starting to consciously push in the direction of personal stories and rants… And that begins with this entry, a throwback to the essay I wrote a year ago on the evolution of my attitudes through different periods of my life.  (And I’m not going to quit explicitly tying everything into rationalism just yet.)

Before I get started, I have to make it clear that this is a far cry from what anyone could call a “political article”.  This blog could never be a political blog, because, to put it bluntly, I’m somewhat of a political ignoramus relative to the writers who run such blogs, or even compared to many people of similar intelligence to me but no formal expertise in public policy.  I would love to understand more about macroeconomics, environmental policy, our electoral system, world history and events, and many other things, and I believe I have the intellectual capacity to do so (especially the more mathematical areas among these).  Yet somehow I’ve never managed to muster the necessary focus.  Clearly I’m interested in politics as a whole and many political issues (as evidenced by frequent references on this blog), but this is apparently an interest versus Interest thing.  I am, on the other hand, quite engaged with gaining an intuition for a lot on the main characters on the political stage and their personalities as well as the broad mentalities guiding the supporters of particular policies or entire parties.  This is not ideal but so far has been my best guide to understanding concrete issues and feeling sure of which sides of them to fight for.  So my journey is not one of direct understanding but of groping around trying to understand the convictions of others and why they feel as they do.

I. My apolitical beginnings

As most readers have probably figured out by now, I grew up in America.  I also grew up in a fairly liberal household, politically speaking.  I remember my first explanation of the difference between America’s two major parties being, “It’s all very complicated, but the Democrats often try to make poor people richer, while the Republicans often try to make rich people richer.”  As I got older, I asked more questions and learned that the Republicans favored tax cuts for the wealthy and tended to favor fewer restrictions on pollution by big businesses despite what scientific evidence was telling us, while Democrats stood up for things like a woman’s right to choose what she does with her own body and increased funding for education and the arts.

At that fairly young age, my skeptical thinking skills had not yet caught up to my innate “believe sufficiently developed-sounding narratives put in front of me” tendency that I’ve alluded to before.  So it’s no surprise that I didn’t subject my initial Democratic sympathies to much critical thinking.

(Warning: if you’re expecting a gripping saga detailing how I swung from this spot on the political spectrum to authoritarian populism, then the alt-right, finally stopping to rest at anarcho-communism or something like that, then you’re in for a disappointment.  Spoiler alert: I’m still mostly sympathetic to the Left.)

The first time there was a political story I really followed was the election of 2000.  At the time I couldn’t really understand how a system which allowed someone to win the popular vote but lose the election could possibly be justified, and the whole thing seemed like a ridiculous mess.  Then the September 11th attacks happened, which finally triggered a habit of following the news regularly.  I remember feeling some sense of loyalty to our then-fairly-new Republican president in the immediate aftermath, which eventually eroded as he for some reason pushed us into Iraq (I didn’t like war, and it seemed that he rushed us into it without obtaining an appropriate amount of evidence, but of course my views were still being colored by those closest to me who were pretty anti-Bush).

Then in high school I began to examine the political climate in America much more closely and critically.  In last year’s post “My Evolving View of Rationalism”, I expressed a belief that most people first form their personal worldviews in high school.  This includes position on the political spectrum (not based on what one is told by parents, etc. but deeply-held beliefs arising from honest questioning).  I remember one defining moment in American History class when I felt this happening to me.  We were watching some video about I-don’t-remember-what, and (I think) a very wealthy CEO was asked whether he considered himself greedy.  He denied it, explaining that he had created thousands of jobs and claiming that he had done more to help the world than Mother Theresa.  I was stunned, not because the man was obviously kind of a jerk (I was expecting that anyway), but because it properly occurred to me for the first time that putting more money towards big businesses might actually help the poor in some way.  Prior to that, I had never made a genuine effort to examine why so many people were in favor of tax cuts for the rich or for big businesses.  I guess I’d been leaning on the assumption that fiscal conservatives were either rich themselves or uneducated (never mind the fact that the most conservative guy I knew growing up was on reduced lunches and had a parent in academia).

It was at around the same time that I began to actually care a lot about religion and why people believed in it in contrast to my earlier religion-is-silly-and-boring stance, as I’ve described elsewhere.  And I put two and two together and realized that religion was playing a major role in politics, and that in fact the stronger sort of religion that I was especially philosophically opposed to was being embraced by the Republican party.  (Another even more significant defining moment I remember that history class is arguing with my mildly conservative teacher over same-sex marriage, when it really hit me that religious belief could lead to moral values that I couldn’t relate to at all and that these could be used to decide moral policy.)  So at around the same time I was realizing that there were other sides to the whole fiscal policy debate, my support for social liberalism was beginning to solidify.  But I remained for the time being not especially outspoken overall when it came to politics.

And then, we entered another presidential election season.

II. How America could have done better in 2004

By 2004, I had cemented myself into a certain political mould, as had many of my high school peers.  Mid-to-late-adolescence, after all, is a period of radical beliefs for many.  I was surrounded by radical Marxists, radical libertarians, radical Christian conservatives, radical anti-Zionists… so what type of radical was I?  Well, by now my budding rationalist sensibilities had instilled in me a distrust of any political ideology that claimed extreme answers to all problems, so I was determined to stay as far away as possible from the periphery of the space of political positions and maintain an openly critical attitude of everyone’s positions.  Of course, what I didn’t have the maturity to see then was that I was being at least as blindly ideological as anyone else — in fact I was essentially masquerading as a radical Centrist.  I still knew that I held a number of partisan positions deep down, but bent over backwards trying not to acknowledge them (some of this was out of a healthy concern that I might be biased towards my parents’ beliefs.  And once again, this was paralleled by how I chose to present my religious views.  I identified as agnostic, which I often defended as the most moderate, open-minded view.  But in retrospect, I was a rather militant agnostic — granted, I still am somewhat — and my attempts to dole out equal criticism to theistic religion and to straight-up atheism were pretty silly.)

And so I was no fan of George W. Bush, but when John Kerry first emerged as Democratic frontrunner, I was determined to conclude that he was probably almost as bad, despite having heard very little of what he had to say.  Then they debated, and my attitude towards him, and the whole electoral contest for that matter, changed completely.

I should back up for a moment and explain one aspect of philosophy that I was very passionate about at the time.  I had become a great follower of what one might pejoratively call “scientism“.  In other words, I valued the scientific method very highly and regarded a general version of it as the best means to reaching empirical truth.  This was the very cornerstone of my philosophical worldview and my brand of rationalism at the time.  I think what spoke to me particularly emphatically was the idea of keeping one’s mind open to all possibilities and then putting them through very rigorous testing — what Carl Sagan called “a marriage of skepticism and wonder” — which required the ability to recognize and admit one’s own mistakes.  It implied a system of self-correction which I considered to be a very beautiful concept.

I had made the connection that the American constitution was an embodiment of a similar concept (very revolutionary for its time): an system of laws which evolved through acceptance of new ideas, testing them by running them past the people; and accordant self-correction.  Of course this was only an ideal and the American government didn’t quite work this way in practice.  But the way I saw it, America was founded upon this principle, the same great principle that governed scientific research, the same concept that separated open-minded rationality from blind dogmatism.  During those years many people were arguing over what it meant to love one’s country in the midst of a war that many of its citizens didn’t support.  I knew where I stood: I loved America regardless of the decisions its politicians made, because its abstract defining ideals formed the very foundation of my creed.  And nothing was more un-American than defending whatever America did on a principle of “my country, right or wrong”.

The final weeks of the 2004 campaign season, and particularly the presidential debates, reshaped my ideas of where each major side of the current political spectrum stood with respect to my most deeply-held epistemic conviction.  On the Democratic side, we had a candidate who spoke in a nuanced way (never mind that I didn’t understand the things he was talking about half the time, what mattered to me was that he sounded oh so nuanced!), but who was routinely criticized for being a “flip-flopper”, which sounded an awful lot to me like a disparaging term for “being able to see two sides of an issue”.  On the Republican side, we had a candidate who seemed to gain appeal by stating everything in as simplistic a way as possible, whose definition of “strong leader” revolved around not questioning the course we were on, and whose overriding concern in the face of criticism was apparently “not sending mixed messages to our troops”.  As someone who wasn’t exactly terribly knowledgeable about many of the object-level issues being discussed, it seemed to me like the debates were really a contest between a philosophy of questioning for the purpose of self correction and a philosophy of maintaining strong convictions for the sake of having strong convictions.

There was a particular moment in the second debate which encapsulated this for me, in which Senator Kerry was explaining why he voted against some pro-life-based laws not because he disagreed with the general stances motivating them but because they lacked certain provisions which he thought were necessary.  He ended by saying, “It’s never quite as simple as the president wants you to believe.”  President Bush’s response says it all:

It’s pretty simple when they say, “Are you for a ban on partial birth abortion?  Yes or no?”  And he was given a chance to vote.  And he voted no.  And that’s just the way it is, that’s the vote.  It came right up, it’s clear for everybody to see.  And as I said, you can run but you can’t hide.  It’s the reality.


This is why any account of my personal journey towards today’s flavor of online rationalism is incomplete without discussing how I was shaped by the 2004 election.

When the results of the contest came in, I was bitterly disappointed along with many others.  But I felt like one of the only ones who was disappointed not only because Bush won, but because Kerry, who had felt to me like a voice of genuine reason, lost.  And after that, I guess I sort of made peace with the fact that I felt unable to hold terribly strong or specific convictions on many political issues that weren’t social.  I had a firm feeling about what mattered the most: I was in favor of politicians who operated on open-mindedness, skepticism, and above all, humility and the ability to self-correct.  And the Democratic party seemed to take stances that better encapsulated that attitude and to house more politicians who had that quality.

For the record, I’ve since grown less naïve about Kerry: while I still believe that he was generally sincere and held consistent beliefs, it’s clear to me that he was shrewd about pandering to different groups of people.  However, I hold that Bush, his administration, and the election of 2004 marked the pinnacle of blatant anti-intellectualism in the US during my lifetime.  (Obviously we’ve just started down a new path and I’m not sure what I’ll be calling this trend in another 12 years, but as Trumpism doesn’t seem to have much of a direct relationship to intellectualism, or intelligence, or any form of coherent thought for that matter, it’s hard for me to brand it as “anti-intellectualism”.)

III. A collection of my (non-)convictions

I guess the update I’ll start with is to say that I no longer see the Left or the Democratic party as a paragon of rationalistic ideology in today’s American political scene.  In fact, I’m constantly frustrated by the extent to which left-wing rhetoric seems to be based on unreasoned emotions and aversion to self-correction.  To fully explain this point of view would require another, much longer post, but if you’re reading this, then there’s a good chance you’re not far away (in some measure of internet-distance) from blogs which delve into the flaws of today’s liberal discourse all the time.

I still feel woefully un-savvy about political goings-on and all sides of complex issues, but I do follow a particular set of heuristics which lead me to certain (still fairly left-wing) political leanings.  Below is my attempt to summarize a few of them.

First off, I knew I eventually had to link to my post on free will / determinism, with my contention that leaning towards free-will explanations versus deterministic ones corresponds in a rough way to conservative versus liberal attitudes.  I suppose it’s important to mention here that my instinct from the moment I was first exposed to the free will debate was towards determinism; this feels related to my tendencies both towards “scientism” and towards empathy.  I soon realized that the sort of determinism I favored was compatibilism, which doesn’t really contradict anybody’s concrete everyday intuition about either free will or determinism.  And yet, in concrete, everyday situations, I do feel like I lean more towards deterministic interpretations of behavior than the average person does.  This has led me to the left-wing view on many things.

Meanwhile, I have also always been somewhat of a utilitarian by instinct and have trouble interpreting ethical dilemmas using any other language.  Therefore, I take issue on a fundamental philosophical level with axiomatic-looking notions like “fairness”, “desert”, and “natural rights”, even while they are useful terms on a practical level.

I therefore strongly believe that punishment should only be used for the purpose of deterrence, not retribution.  When I was younger, I favored the death penalty for reasons of practicality; since then I’ve turned against it mainly because it seems barbaric, in practice not as humane as it should be in theory, prone to error, and rooted in a desire for retribution.  I am in principal willing for certain drugs to be “illegal” in some sense of the term because it’s easy to demonstrate that they do great harm, but I’m completely opposed to harsh prison sentences for drug offenders as this seems absolutely counterproductive to minimizing harm.  I’ve grown quite cynical about the prison system in general and would much prefer some form of mandatory rehabilitation for certain types of “crimes”.

Foreign affairs is my area of greatest ignorance (I’m truly an instance of the American stereotype of knowing a lot about my own country but little about what’s going on in the rest of the world — even recently moving abroad has not improved this much), but I have some heuristic convictions nonetheless.  I believe that the US should strive to do as much good as possible for the world (and “the world” includes America), but that we are far better able to judge and manage and micromanage what goes on within our own borders than what happens in societies far away with very foreign cultures and political situations.  It follows that interfering in conflicts taking place within other countries holds the risk of creating an even bigger mess and possible permanent occupation situation and should be approached with great caution even when there are potential major benefits to global well-being.  Probably the best type of scenario for the US to get involved in is one where there is some united oppressed group far away without the necessary resources to overthrow their oppressors.  I’m not on principle against the US throwing its considerable strength towards solving what we conscientiously consider to be great atrocities abroad.  But I don’t like the idea of America acting as the world’s police force simply because of our great military power, for the same reason that I dislike unfettered monarchy or dictatorship (what happens when the well-intentioned party with overwhelming power is wrong?)

I’m inclined to oppose any ruthless and inhumane actions partaken in the context of war or for reasons of “keeping America safe”, even though dispassionate utilitarianism does compel me to concede in theory that despicable actions towards a few which seem guaranteed to prevent the deaths of many may be justified.  Conveniently, however, harsh measures such as torture have apparently been shown to not be particularly effective.  Moreover, it is of extreme importance to consider how the rest of the world may react to ruthless practices on the part of the American military and how this may serve to further escalate conflict rather than make the world safer.  (In general, emphasis on Theory of Mind and considering how one’s actions will affect other parties’ perceptions is a big part of what guides me both in political attitudes and elsewhere.)

I still hold the process of and institution of science in highest regard when it comes to determining empirical facts, and therefore assume by default the truth of what the scientific community says regarding issues like evolution and climate change (although I’ve become a little cynical about social sciences as of late).

I continue to vehemently reject social attitudes based on conservative religious convictions such as opposition to same-sex marriage, stem-cell research, or euthanasia.  However, one “meta” level up, I don’t have a problem with the fact that some politicians are trying to legislate based on their religious convictions: everyone ought to base their stances on personal moral convictions, and these are based on religious belief for many individuals.  As long as politicians aren’t trying to justify their religiously motivated proposals with claims like “America is a Christian nation”, I don’t consider their proposals to violate the First Amendment or “separation of Church and State”.

In the arena of fiscal policy, I’m still looking to maximize well-being for the greatest number of people.  It’s clear to me that this doesn’t scale linearly with wealth, and so at least on naïve principle I’m in favor of creaming a bit off the top of the highest incomes to give to the poor or to programs which benefit the poor.  However, in the actual world it’s very plausible to me that policies which aim to bring this about may weaken the economy so that everyone is worse off.  My lack of expertise in macroeconomics is hurting me here: I’m not sure to what extent pumping money into the working and lower-middle class (who are likely to spend it all) would benefit the economy versus to what extent this is accomplished through benefits for big businesses.  My inclination for the time being is to make sure that all full-time workers make enough to live on practically (exactly how much is a nontrivial question, of course), although the alternative idea of a universal basic income interests me very much.  While I can see the attraction to libertarianism as an abstract theory and could even see myself taking libertarian stances on many issues, I utterly reject two of the arguments I most often hear for it: “poor people would become richer if they just worked harder” and its neighboring attitudes (see my deterministic inclinations above); and “Taxation is theft!” and similar statements which seem to assume some primal notion of ownership rather than regarding it as an abstract phenomenon contingent an existing State.

There are many more hotly-debated areas of policy on which I have at least some tentative opinion, but these were the main ones I thought to put down in writing at this moment.  Some of them could of course change tomorrow.

Oh, and yes, our mechanisms for self-correction are still of utmost importance in my eyes.  This of course is encoded in our First Amendment protecting free speech, and although I believe that both the Left and the Right have invoked it inappropriately at times, I take very seriously any genuine offense to the spirit of it.  Let’s move towards a norm of listening to each other and compromise or when necessary going with majority opinion in order to work together in an effort to make progress with our policies… but always with the open-minded awareness that we could be wrong.

Agency does not imply moral responsibility [the brief version]

[Content note: uncharacteristically short and sweet.]

The object of this very short essay is to concisely state a proposition and brief argument which I refer to frequently but was lacking a suitable post to link to.  This is one of the central points of my longest essay, “Multivariate Utilitarianism“, but it’s buried most of the way down, and it seems less than ideal to link to “Multivariate Utilitarianism” each time I want to make an off-hand allusion to the idea.

Here is how I would briefly summarize it, using the template of a mathematical paper (even though the content won’t be at all rigorous, I’m afraid).

Proposition. The fact that an agent X acts in a way that results in some event A which increases/decreases utility does not imply that X bears the moral responsibility attached to this change in utility.  In other words, agency does not imply moral responsibility.

Proof (sketch). One way to see that agency cannot imply moral responsibility in a situation where multiple agents are involved is through the following simple argument by contradiction.  Suppose there are at least two agents X and Y whose actions bring about some event that creates some change in utility.  If X had acted otherwise, then this change in utility wouldn’t have happened, so if we assume that agency implies moral responsibility, then X bears responsibility (credit or blame) proportional to the change in utility.  By symmetry, we see that Y also bears the same responsibility.  But both cannot be fully responsible for the same change in utility — or at least, that seems absurd.
One naïve approach to remedy this would be to divide the moral responsibility equally between all agents involved.  However, working with actual examples shows that this quickly breaks down into another absurd situation, mainly because the roles of all parties creating an event are not all equally significant.  We are forced to conclude that there is no canonical algorithm for assigning moral responsibility to each agent, which in particular implies the statement of the proposition.

Remark. (a) The above argument seems quite obvious (at least when stated in more everyday language) but is often obscured by the fact that in situations with multiple agents, usually only one agent is being discussed at a particular time.  That is, people say “If X had acted differently, A wouldn’t have happened; therefore, X bears moral responsibility for A” without every mentioning Y.
(b) A lot of “is versus ought” type questions boil down to special cases of this concept.  To state “circumstances are this way, so one should do A” is not to state “circumstances should be this way, so one should have to do A”.

Example.  Here I quote a scenario I laid out in my longer post:

[There are] two drivers, Mr. X and Ms. W, who each choose to drive at a certain speed at a particular moment (let’s call Mr. X’s speed x and Ms. W’s speed w), such that if either one of them goes just a bit faster right now, then there will be a collision which will do a lot of damage resulting in a decrease in utility (let’s again call this y).  At least naïvely, from the point of view of Mr. X, it doesn’t make sense in the heat of the moment to compute the optimal change in w as well as the optimal change in x, since he has no direct control over w.  He can only determine how to best adjust x, his own speed (the answer, by the way, is perhaps to decrease it or at least definitely not to increase it!), and apart from that all he can do is hope that Ms. W likewise acts responsibly with her speed w… If y represents utility, then our agent Mr. X should increase x if and only if ∂y/∂x is positive.  After all, he has no idea what Ms. W might do with w and can’t really do anything about it, so he should proceed with his calculations as though w is staying at its current value.

That’s what each agent should do.  I’ve said nothing about how much either of them is deserving of praise or blame in the outcome of their actions.

The proposition states that in fact without knowing further details about exactly what the two drivers did, we have no information on how blameworthy Mr. X is for the accident.


To state it (or perhaps overstate it) bluntly, I cite this “agency ≠> responsibility” proposition in an attempt to remedy what I believe is a ubiquitous fallacy at the bottom of many if not most misunderstandings.  I wish everyone in the Hawks and Handsaws audience a Happy New Year and look forward to writing more here in 2017!


Confronting unavoidable gadflies

[Content note: An elaboration of something I’ve tried to describe before.  I didn’t even try to avoid serious political issues this time.  Welfare, death penalty, generational conflict, religion.]

This is a follow-up to “Speculations of my inner gadfly“.

In my earlier gadfly-related post, I tried to describe an idea that had been buzzing around in my head for some time (pun intended?  I’m not sure) which helps to describe how I view certain types of disagreements and bad arguments.  I think it turned out to be one of my better-written entries for this blog and by some measures seems to have been the most popular.  And yet, when I look back on it, I feel like I was mostly pointing out something already obvious to everyone (despite my repeated hedging of “I don’t mean only to point out the obvious here…”) and didn’t manage to really capture of the essence of the common role of “gadfly speculations” as I see it.  This post will be in large part an attempt to clarify my ideas by taking the whole “gadfly” concept in a slightly different direction.  (By the way, most of the terminology and metaphors I’ve come up with so far for expressing my thoughts on this blog make me wince, but I think I actually like the general gadfly metaphor, so I’m going to run with it as long as it doesn’t wear out.)

I. The inevitable truth of grand-scale speculations

Before really getting into the meat-and-potatoes of this post, I need to clarify one important point.  In the other gadfly-related essay, I described inconvenient, perhaps ridiculous-sounding possibilities which may or may not turn out to be correct (and very often aren’t) but stressed that we have to face them anyway rather than brush them aside.  I pointed out that you can always evaluate their likelihood later, but it’s important to at least let them enter your conscious consideration first.  While this certainly wasn’t an invalid point for me to make, I’m afraid it may have been misleading in terms of conveying the way I usually think of “gadfly speculations”.

The fact is that most social controversies that we find ourselves considering involve large numbers of humans and their motivations, the effects that a certain course of action may have on them, and so on.  In these situations, practically every possibility that realistically occurs to us regarding the way some humans might act is correct, but perhaps only for a small minority of the humans involved.  In fact, as soon as such a speculation occurs to us, unless it’s completely bonkers at the level of lizardmen conspiracy theories, it must be true at least occasionally or at least for a few people.  In fact, it would seem very strange if it were never true.

For a real-world example, take the constant debate over government-provided welfare.  Fiscal conservatives tend to argue, or at least insinuate, that a number of citizens on welfare are using these government programs to game the system in some way.  And regardless of our political affiliations, when we stop to objectively consider this, we have to agree that in a certain literal sense this is correct.  The key phrase in the proposition mentioned above is “a number of”.  It’s not clear exactly how many people are gaming the welfare system.  Maybe they are so few as to be irrelevant when the benefits of having a social safety net are taken into account.  But if we have a country where millions of citizens are on welfare, and the welfare system is pretty complicated, then it stands to reason (or at least common sense) that there is a feasible way to abuse it and that some of those citizens are in fact abusing it.  It would really be astounding if nobody were abusing it.

Similarly, if we all assume for the sake of argument that certain sufficiently heinous criminals “deserve” the death penalty (I put “deserve” in quotes because I don’t really know what that means, but that’s a topic for another post), then we all have to admit, regardless of our stances on the death penalty, that the proposition “Some defendants will be wrongly convicted” is correct.  The key word is “some”.  This is a weaker example than the last one, since far fewer humans have been sentenced to death in modern history than are on welfare, but I still suspect that the forensic science involved is so complex and still imperfect enough even today that there must be wrong convictions at least occasionally.  I would be astonished to find out that there have been zero wrong convictions in the last several decades.

Now I realize that there are far more outlandish suggestions out there regarding every controversy that affect so many people’s lives, and maybe it’s plausible that some of the most extreme ones don’t hold for any of the humans involved.  For instance, I seriously doubt that a single one of the millions of individuals on welfare is secretly trying to trying to aid a band of extraterrestrials bent on taking over the earth through weapons which can be powered only by government-signed welfare checks.  However, most speculations this far out in left field aren’t pervasive in the common discourse and generally don’t enter our minds (even subconsciously) in the first place.

So these uncomfortable thoughts that gadflies persistently whisper to us generally don’t have a chance of being completely false.  In fact, as soon as we hear them, we are obliged to admit that it would be quite shocking for them to be entirely false.  Evaluating them becomes a question of to what degree and on how great a scale they are true.

I reiterate what I said in the other post: we tend to dismiss these inconvenient ideas out of hand because acknowledging them means more work for us in our assessment of any situation, and our brains are lazy.  If we acknowledge that at least a few folks will abuse the welfare system, then that obligates us to go through a tricky cost-benefit analysis when arguing in favor of it, which is considerably more difficult than emphasizing more and more stridently that welfare provides necessary aid to many citizens.  And yet, if we at least attempt to argue that abuse of the welfare system is sufficiently rare, then that obligates our opponents to rebut that with an attempt to show that such abuse is unacceptably frequent (rather than argue against welfare simply by complaining that it can be abused), and a potentially productive discussion ensues.

There is an anolog of this notion in the context of small-scale conflicts — say, drama between two individuals — as well: many of the possibilities that try to latch themselves to our minds are almost certainly true on some level.  For instance, if it occurs to you that the reason your friend didn’t show up to your party has something to do with an unintentionally rude remark you made to her the week before, then that is probably playing some role (however small) in her behavior, even if the primary reason for her absence turns out to be an unusually high level of work-related stress.  But this doesn’t apply in nearly as absolute a way as it does for issues involving more people.  And for the purposes of this post, it’s mostly large-scale debates that I’m interested in.

II. The inevitable use of grand-scale debate tactics

Now let’s kick it up a level: in debates which involve a large number of humans, pretty much any speculation about how the opposing side will argue must be correct.

A. The Boomer-Millenial Conflict for Dummies

Here’s a good exercise for considering how a given position might be argued: pretend that you’re an alien with no knowledge whatsoever about human history or problems but who wants to argue a particular side of a human controversy of which you know only the basic definitions of relative terms, with the minimum possible extra research.

Take, for instance, the constant rhetorical warfare between the baby boomer and millenial generations.  Suppose you were an alien knowing nothing about American culture, generational subcultures, or any of the dynamics involved.  You only know the definition of “baby boomer”: it’s a human born during the “baby boom” from the mid-40’s to the mid-60’s, which is so called because of a marked increase in the birth rate.  How would you go about attacking baby boomers?  Well, let’s see, the first thing that comes to mind is that because by definition there are a lot of them, they are to blame for what in some people’s minds might be a dangerously high population.  But you can’t go far with this criticism, because nobody can be reasonably held to blame for having been born.  So what occurs to you next?  Well, again, tautologically there are a lot of baby boomers; they make up a disproportionately large portion of human population.  So if there’s any fault that baby boomers are likely to be prone to, it might be… that they have an over-inflated sense of self-importance, or they behave as though everything is about them, or something.

And sure enough, it’s not hard to find articles like this one, or books like this (see Chapter 7).  I also distinctly remember the preachy right-leaning political comic strip Mallard Fillmore characterizing baby boomers this way (clumsily paraphrasing from memory: “This just in: baby boomers have finally realized that society doesn’t revolve around them!  Unfortunately, they now think it revolves around the federal government.”), but after half an hour of searching for old Mallard Fillmore strips with roughly those words, I can’t find it.  And yes, if I google “baby boomers”, the first attack articles I find are ones which accuse baby boomers of ruining the economy for millenials, since a lack of jobs for young people is the biggest specific issue at play in the inter-generational war right now.  But one has to admit that the hypothetical alien who knew nothing about our current economic woes did a pretty good job at coming up with an anti-baby-boomer talking point which is actually used substantially in the real world, given a bare minimum of knowledge regarding the baby boomer generation.  The “think everything revolves around them” allegation isn’t the primary criticism nowadays, but it is still relevant in the discourse.  That talking point may not usually be backed up by explicitly claiming the source of their perceived self-importance is that there are disproportionately many of them.  But the fact that baby boomers comprise a prominent demographic certainly strengthens the credibility of the “think everything revolves around them” criticism.

So if one who is looking to defend baby boomers goes through the above exercise, the result is a gadfly speculation on opposing debate tactics rather than the facts of the generation-war issue itself: “But the opposition might try to frame things in terms of baby boomers thinking everything’s about them!”  And this turns out to be true, to some extent.  For any controversial issue about which many people are arguing in public from all different sides — or even when only two people are debating, but both are passionate and knowledgeable about many aspects of it — any hypothetical talking point that comes to mind in this way will play at least a minor role.

I like the baby boomer example because one can already come up with a possible criticism by considering only the definition of “baby boomer”.  Usually it requires knowing more than basic definitions, but only a little more.  For instance, if you want instead to attack millenials, and imagine yourself as an alien searching for a good anti-millenial talking point based on a minimal amount of research, one only has to learn about one of the main issues involving millenials today: they complain about a dearth of jobs and general broke-ness.  Now forget the specifics of what they’re complaining about, and ask yourself, what’s the easiest route to discrediting someone who complains?  By claiming that they feel entitled, of course (see below).  Or how does one go about lampooning someone who has trouble finding a job just generally falls into some kind of bad fortune?  By portraying them as lazy, or irresponsible, or lacking in judgment or initiative, etc.

B. General examples

Here are some broad examples of opposing rhetorical tactics which are bound to show up, each of which applies to a variety of real-life debates.

  • “This media outlet / group has a pro-X bias!” vs. “Reality has a pro-X bias!”: I’m starting with this one because I think it might be the most pervasive of all of my examples.  If one party complains that the media or a particular outlet of it is biased in some way, then regardless of specifics, the most obvious strategy for rebuttal is to claim that its portrayal of the situation reflects how things really are.  This is particularly visible in conservative criticisms of the media (or particular news outlets) as having liberal bias, which instigates the response that “reality has a liberal bias”.  It is also a prominent feature of the evolution vs. creation debate, as well as other disputes between skeptics and defenders of academic consensus.  When one party makes an accusation of bias, their opposition is pretty much guaranteed to counter that the source isn’t biased but right.  The flip side of this is, of course “This high-profile source says X is true!” vs. “That source must be biased then!”
  • “We have a legitimate grievance!” vs. “You’re just a bunch of whiners!”: This is the hallmark of debates that hinge on reverting to deterministic or free-choice explanations for a current unfortunate situation.  Closely related is the inevitable attack of “your bad fortune is your own fault” aimed at the aggrieved.  There are too many real-world controversies involving this for me to name here, and in fact I’ve tried to argue before that this is a component of all Left-vs.-Right political issues in America.  Nowadays the concept of “privilege” and related terminology usually shows up throughout these disputes.
  • “We got here by hard work!” vs. “You got there by unfair advantage!”: The flip side of the above rhetorical template.  Also frequently seen in disputes over privilege and free choice vs. determinism.
  • “We deserve better!” vs. “You’re just entitled!”: Also closely related to the grievance/whiners exchange.  If one isn’t up for countering that the other party’s bad fortune is manufactured because they’re looking to complain or just their own fault anyway, then one can take this route.  Whatever “entitled” even means.
  • “Our lived experiences have made us wiser!” vs. “Your lived experiences have made you paranoid / naïve!”: I’ve seen this show up in a lot of more personal conflicts — by claiming experience as evidence of wisdom, one opens oneself up to suggestions that experience can distort one’s perceptions to one’s disadvantage as well.
  • “Person/group X sounds overconfident / refuses to admit mistakes!” vs. “Person/group X is just really smart / hasn’t made a mistake!”: This is a variant of the example above.  I remember it being a major theme of the discourse last decade during the Bush administration.  A further variant is “Person/group X is closed-minded!” vs. “Person/group X just won’t put up with nonsense!”  These stances are often taken by the “teach the controversy” anti-evolutionists versus the “creationism isn’t science” defenders of Darwin’s theory… although interestingly the roles were pretty much reversed back at the time of the Scopes Trial.
  • “You’re afraid to debate!” vs. “We won’t descend to your level by engaging with you!”: Closely related to above.  Another major component of the creation/evolution conflict (yes, creation/evolution provides many good examples).  Epitomized by Richard Dawkins’ refusal to debate the “ignorant fool” Ray Comfort.  However, I’ve seen show up in the context of many other topics where one side sees itself as far more educated than the other.

C. Debating debate tactics: the “motte-and-bailey” debacle

Some of the common recurring themes mentioned above come close to describing not only potentially fallacious tactics used to debate an issue but even to debates over potentially fallacious debating tactics.  It seems not uncommon in discussions between rationalists for one party to accuse the other of a committing a particular fallacy — say confirmation bias, or assuming a strawman — only for the other to point out that sometimes what looks like confirmation bias or a strawman happens to reflect the truth anyway.  To show that I don’t always fail at finding cartoons posted online that I remember reading once, here is a relevant Calvin and Hobbes panel (apologies to Bill Watterson).


If someone argues using language that sounds overly-broad, it’s almost certain that their opposition will accuse them of the fallacy of black-and-white thinking.  But in some way or another, the first party will very likely retort, like Calvin in the panel above, that sometimes that’s just the way things are.  (By the way, Watterson has stated that this cartoon was inspired by his own struggles in a legal dispute in which he was accused of black-and-white thinking.)

To give a more interesting example of something that caused some disagreements within the rationalist community, in one of his more popular posts, Scott Alexander characterized certain types of rhetoric as relying on a fallacy that he calls “motte-and-bailey”, which refers to equivocation between one very convenient sense of a term (assumed most of the time) and a different but much more defensible sense of that term (adopted whenever challenged).  The “motte-and-bailey” terminology was actually coined in an academic paper written years earlier, but Alexander’s article popularized it within the online rationalist movement.

Some months later, his fellow rationalist essayist Ozy banned the use of this concept on their blog Thing of Things, later writing this to further elucidate the potential pitfalls of using “motte-and-bailey”.  Evidently the term was being abused a lot in Thing of Things comments sections.  But here’s the conundrum: any new concept can be abused in some way.  When introducing a new concept, even the concept of a certain logical fallacy to an audience comprised of rationalists, one should always be able to imagine the ways it will be abused and recognize that given a large enough audience, it will be abused in that way.  In the case of “motte-and-bailey”, it is a good exercise to ask ourselves what might be the most convenient way to use it to attack any position one doesn’t like.  Well, the substance of the concept is that a “motte” is a defensible definition of a term which can be quickly adopted when one’s ideas are challenged (“God is the feeling of purpose we perceive in the universe”), while a “bailey” is a convenient definition tacitly assumed otherwise (“God is the petty, vengeful main character of the Old Testament”).  The point is to criticize one’s opponent for defending their ideas by using a defensible (“motte”) definition which they don’t assume the rest of the time.  So it seems all too tempting to… criticize one’s opponent for using a defensible definition even when they do consistently assume it all the time.  (Maybe you’re arguing against a very liberal theist who really does believe only in the “vague purpose” kind of God, and Old Testament fundamentalism is a strawman of their belief system.)  So in other words, exactly the abuse that Ozy described having seen.

If you introduce a new rhetorical concept to a bunch of rationalists, there’s a pretty good chance of somebody invoking it unfairly to attack arguments they don’t like; then there’s also a pretty good chance that someone else will anticipate the possibility of this abuse and unfairly invoke that to attack arguments they don’t like; and the recursion goes on ad infinitum.  Maybe “motte-and-bailey” also happens to be easily abusable to begin with.

But all that doesn’t mean that useful concepts like “motte-and-bailey” shouldn’t be popularized in the first place.  And I guess that brings me to my usual “proposed solution” section of this essay.

IV. How to oppose opposing gadflies

I’ve tried first to make the point that when participating in discourse on certain types of broad issues (particularly social), almost any statement inconvenient for our position that might occur to us is probably true to some degree and moreover will occur to at least some people on other sides who will use it against us.  This makes my view of success at discourse, or even being sure what one believes in the first place, sound pessimistic.  And it is, somewhat.  Becoming reasonably sure of something and being able to actually convince others of it in an intellectually honest way is (at least for me) very, very hard.  But there are still ways of dealing with those gadflies that almost surely oppose us.

First of all, there’s one of the oldest debating guidelines in the book: anticipate opposing arguments.  I spent a lot of time illustrating certain very general types of claims that are sure to be encountered (“your grievance is your own fault”, “so-and-so sounds confident because they in fact are always right”) because, despite the fact that they sound completely obvious when written down in this context, many people in the heat of argument often don’t see them coming because they’re not thinking enough from their opponent’s point of view.  So anticipate them.

The second, and probably more difficult, tactic is to realize that these inevitable counterclaims are probably at least a little bit true and to readily acknowledge this.  That’s not to mean that constantly bending over backwards to agree that every criticism and accusation is kinda-sorta valid is an effective way to win anyone over to one’s position (I err in this direction a lot, so I would know).  But flatly denying that the offensive thing one’s opponent was bound to suggest is almost certain to make things worse.

So the best strategy is probably to admit that our opponent’s suggestion is probably correct for a few people, or just a little bit, and claim (and then make an honest effort to back up the claim) that our position is right anyway.  “Yeah, any welfare system opens itself to the possibility of abuse by a few people, and that’s awful.  But it’s far more important for honest people in need to be able to have a safety net of this kind, because X, Y, and Z.”  Or, “yeah, that group sometimes whines a little more than justified, but they have a legitimate complaint even so because Y and Z.”  Or even, “Yeah, I know that I can moan and be a little melodramatic at times, but that doesn’t mean that my feelings are invalid in this case, because X.”

This is particularly worthwhile, but particularly tough, when one is confronted (or anticipates being confronted) with a personal attack.  There’s a common reaction, which I’ve observed in people close to me, of “On top of being completely wrong about [issue on the table], he has the nerve to keep bringing up such-and-such personal flaw of mine.  He’s lost all credibility with me about [issue], so the personal attack is obvious nonsense.”  (Here the personal fault in question is often something that many have criticized the speaker about and which maybe even the speaker has acknowledged in calmer moments.)  In my opinion, this is almost always the wrong way to look at the situation.  If I’m arguing with someone in my life about Big Important Issue on which I believe they’re totally mistaken and out of line, and they keep shoving in my face some criticism of me that others have made in some way or another, and which I’ve previously acknowledged is somewhat true then… I try to recognize that they’re probably right in their criticism.  They wouldn’t be using the criticism as a weapon to argue their side of the Big Important Issue if it weren’t somehow readily available to them, and it wouldn’t be so available to them if it weren’t somewhat true.  So my response should be to acknowledge immediately that “yeah, I sometimes can be that way” but argue that my faults still don’t imply their side of the Issue, or (in some cases) that they’re completely irrelevant and being used easily but unjustly as a weapon against me.  Of course I still fail at this from time to time, but my successes have gradually made admitting my own faults in this way much easier.

The thing is that no matter how small of a gadfly is staring us down, our adversary can still hide behind as long as we dismiss it even while it tells just a tiny bit of truth.  Engaging with the gadfly actually exposes our adversary and leads to a more productive outcome for everyone involved.  And that is a bit more of my take on why it’s important to welcome gadflies into our minds.

A Principle of Empathy

[Content note: Donald Trump and the election (not the main focus).  Enough said.]

The Principle of Charity is an idea that seems to be touted fairly regularly by members of the rationalist community. Scott Alexander is especially well known as an advocate of it and even devoted the first post on his now very popular blog Slate Star Codex to declaring the Principle of Charity as the ethos of the new blog.  It more or less says that in examining another person’s viewpoint, one should strive for the strongest, most reasonable possible interpretation of their argument, in particular not assuming that they’re being stupid or completely irrational.  I’ve seen related terms used a little more loosely (“I don’t think you’re interpreting her words very charitably”) so as not to apply strictly to intellectual debating scenarios.  The general idea is closely related to the practice of steelmanning.

When I first discovered the internet rationalist community and looked up what the Principle of Charity was, I took it as further confirmation that I had found “my people”.  I recognized it as not only an argumentative tactic I fervently believed in, but as somehow a core part of who I was and a personal characteristic that guided me in my interactions with people.  Today I want to explore a little more closely how the principle speaks to me so strongly, as well as how I might revise it to something which reflects my temperament even better.  In doing so, I may in fact be treating a rather broad strawman of the Principle of Charity rather than the bare essence of the thing itself, but I feel somewhat justified in doing this as our principles often become a little broad and strawman-like when we actually put them into practice.

I. Understanding my charitable instincts

And you overlook Dumbledore’s greatest weakness: he has to believe the best of people.

– Severus Snape, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J. K. Rowling

Those who know me in real life (which presumably isn’t anyone who is reading this, although who knows) find me a bit frustrating from time to time because of my way of argumentatively defending others who have committed offenses.  I say things like “they were probably just trying to Y” or “I’m sure they didn’t mean anything as bad as Z” or “I agree that doing X was wrong, but it’s really difficult for them because of V and W”.  I get told on a regular basis that I have a strong tendency, to a fault, towards “giving everyone the benefit of the doubt” or “seeing / assuming the best in everyone”.  This is perceived as extreme enough to be qualify as a fault because it leads to me being easily manipulated / pushed around… as well as for the oftentimes more immediate and obvious reason that it causes me to argue with my friends on behalf of third parties who have committed offenses and clearly don’t deserve to be defended.

I’m not sure exactly what to say about this component of my personality, except that by and large I haven’t tried to change it because I continue to believe that generous assessments of other people’s behavior have been proven correct on average throughout my life’s experience interacting with humans.  (To be fair, maybe this belief depends entirely on further assessments of other people’s behavior which continue to be too generous.)  Sometimes I overestimate the good intentions behind people’s actions, and sometimes I am too credulous of narratives being related to me, and that has led me into some toxic situations.  I really don’t know exactly how best to calibrate my good-intent-ometer in such a way that I avoid being taken advantage of while continuing to model reasonably correct views of the world.  To explore that in writing would require a whole other blog entry falling into more of a “self-therapy” category.

But clearly, the fact that I tend to assume the best of people, and that I believe that such assumptions on average turn out to be accurate while holding that villainizing others tends to be destructive both for good debate and personal conflict-resolution, has led me to find the Principal of Charity a pretty attractive idea.

However, when listening to feedback given to me over the course of my life on this personal feature of mine, perhaps what strikes me the most is the nature of those which take the form of compliments.  People tell me that I’m “nice”.  Part of this I’m sure alludes to my tendency towards politeness to other people’s faces and even behind their backs, but a lot of it seems to come from an impression that I “see the best in everyone”, which sounds roughly equivalent to “believing everyone is good” or “holding unusually high opinions of everyone”.

I’m really intrigued by this because I think it’s a fundamentally mistaken impression of the way I am.  I don’t hold the other human beings in my life in particularly high esteem.  I like a lot of those around me a lot of the time, and yet there are some days and even whole weeks when I feel incessantly irritated with everyone and with humankind in general.  (Granted, I keep most of these thoughts to myself, as I’m very confrontation-averse and go out of my way to avoid any kind of drama.  Maybe that qualifies as “niceness” or maybe it’s just cowardice; you tell me.)  As far as I know, these occasional misanthropic moods are nothing abnormal, and I wouldn’t say that I hold the other human beings in my life in particularly low esteem either.  Taking the mean over my opinions of everyone I interact with, I estimate that the height of my opinion is not much greater or less than than that of most anybody else.  What’s different is the variance: where most people perhaps think very well of some and very badly of others, my opinions of almost everyone fall somewhere in the middle.  I don’t mean that I go around saying, “Meh, I feel the same so-so feeling towards everyone”; I feel very fond of a lot of people close to me but in my more pensive moments view them as creatures shaped by genetics and environment which happens to have put them in a position of positive impact on my life.  I tend to concoct excuses and/or unpleasant circumstances for the bad things that unsavory people do, but I also tend to concoct selfish motives and/or fortunate circumstances behind the good things that highly respectable people do.

Why do I process personal events this way?  Maybe I just have a strong tendency towards deterministic explanations for everything.  Maybe my reason for leaning towards deterministic explanations is that I badly want to understand what makes other people tick, and assuming libertarian free will amounts to throwing up my hands in the face of the mystery of why others act as they do.  Maybe this is related to the major importance I place on Theory of Mind — I wanted to attach a link to the phrase “Theory of Mind” there, but I haven’t written that post yet; for now, this article provides an introduction.

But I’ve come to realize that although my habit of interpreting the motives behind a lot of questionable actions charitably might be described as applying a Principle of, well, Charity, that doesn’t work as a unified explanation my full mindset in dealing with other people.  I’ve become aware that my first priority is not necessarily to be charitable or sympathetic, or to assume the best, or to give everyone the benefit of the doubt all of the time; it’s to understand.  This makes some objective logical sense: after all, if one’s ultimate goal is to know the truth, then full understanding rather than bias towards believing positive things seems like the way to go.  And so even though the celebrated Principal of Charity is obviously something I’m generally in favor of, it may not most closely reflect my personal creed.

II. The best of people and the worst of people

One of the difficulties in applying the Principle of Charity all the time — and again, this isn’t exactly a rebuttal against the original notion so much as a doubt I’m raising about the general mindset that comes with it — is that it can sometimes become tricky in practice it to fully apply it to multiple sides of an issue at one time.

Suppose you are a relationship councilor and Alex and Beth are in your office explaining each of their sides of a conflict which threatens to destroy their relationship.  Alex is very angry with Beth for having cheated on him.  Beth explains that to some extent they had always had an open relationship.  Alex disputes Beth’s interpretation of exactly what kind of “openness” they had actually agreed to in the relationship.  Beth disputes Alex’s interpretation of this as well as to what degree her behavior constituted “cheating”.  There is some disagreement on concrete physical events and exactly what was said or done when, but more of the disagreement is over interpretations of things that had been “understood” between Alex and Beth.  Your job here, inasmuch as it involves directly resolving the conflict rather than just facilitating better communication between your clients, is tricky.  Applying charity by assuming the most reasonable possible motives behind each person’s point of view seems like a good idea and may be sufficient to fully resolve the problem.  But depending on the circumstances, it may ultimately lead to contradictions: maybe the more charitable you are in interpreting Alex’s words, the more uncharitable you are forced to be towards Beth, and vice versa.  Maybe adopting a model of one (or even both) of them as just a manipulative jerk ultimately fits the evidence better than being as charitable as you can to both of them just up to the point of reaching a complete impasse.

That illustration was kind of vague and maybe not even that realistic, so let’s move from hypothetical personal situations to actual political ones.  For as long as I’ve been following politics, I’ve forcibly avoided demonizing politicians.  Yes, they generally don’t come across as the best of people, but maybe one really has to act with some level of dishonesty in order to make a difference through the political process.  If a politician stood on a platform I strongly disagreed with, I assumed they just held different values at different priorities from me or interpreted facts differently from the way I did (or had access to different sets of facts), rather than assuming that their stance was based on malice.  I figured that if only everyone treated these figures as charitably as I did, then our political discourse would become far more productive.

Then along came a certain non-politician political candidate whose apparent moral bankruptcy evaded all of my early attempts to apply charity.  That man is now the president-elect of the United States.

(I’d like to mention here that I had the beginning of a draft of this essay sitting in my WordPress account, bearing the current title, before I even started writing my recent post on the rationality of voting and therefore well before the election.  I was already planning to bring up Donald Trump.  Then, with the election rapidly approaching, I decided to hurry up and write the essay about voting in time to publish it before the big day.  I figured I would finish this post next and apologize for bringing up Donald Trump, since obviously everyone would be sick of hearing about him following Hillary Clinton’s victory.  But the election didn’t quite go as I foresaw, and we’re all going to be constantly hearing about Donald Trump for a long time to come whether we want to or not, so what the heck.)

Anyway, as the long campaign season unfolded, I found myself less and less able to excuse Mr. Trump’s outlandish remarks, even though my initial instinct had always been to treat him with just as much charity as I had always given to every other candidate.  I had to ask myself, if I had no particular bias against him, why did I appear to be treating him differently from almost everyone else?  And then I realized that it wasn’t really charity that I had been employing to evaluate other political candidates: it was a determination to understand them as completely as possible.  And with Mr. Trump, I had been embarking on the same quest: I wanted to see the inner workings of his mind and exactly what made him speak and act in the ways that he did.  And the model that began to form was that of an ignoramus who held no serious convictions on anything except for his own desire to seek glory through general bullying behavior while feeling vindicated by every success along the way, however absurd.  Now under this model, certain uncharitable interpretations became inescapable for me.  When he made a quip about what those second-amendment people might do if Clinton became president, was he really just joking about how that crowd is just really strong and determined when it comes to fighting for their second-amendment rights?  Could he really have been innocently confused due to a bad earpiece when asked how he felt about David Duke’s support of him?  Did he really mean [insert a dozen other things here]?  Come on.

If I continued to apply charity by accepting every single one of Trump’s explanations for every reprehensible thing he said, it would somehow feel like a violation of common sense.  And eventually it might lead to much dicier issues.  I’m not saying that charity towards Donald Trump necessarily directly implies anti-charity elsewhere, but it does kind of seem to go hand-in-hand with uncharitable interpretations of his detractors’ criticisms of his words and actions.  Scott Alexander made some good points in his recent Slate Star Codex post following Trump’s victory, but a lot of it struck me as an effort to bend over backwards to take a charitable possible attitude towards our president-elect which ironically resulted in rather uncharitable interpretations of some major anti-Trump talking points.

Note that today I don’t care to actually analyze and defend my beliefs on any of these features of our recent election and its aftermath — to do so would require another post of its own, longer than this one.  The reader is free to disagree with me completely, but I ask them to nonetheless accept my reality regarding Trump as a hypothetical situation which illustrates something about the limits of the Principle of Charity.  A lot of what I took for an instinct to be charitable was actually an instinct to be empathetic, and while a lot of the time that results in positive assessments of people, or at least excuse-making, sometimes it results in my realization that their motivations are actually reprehensible and that they don’t deserve excuses.  Charity is always beneficial to the object (while potentially to the detriment of other parties involved in the same debate), but empathy can cut both ways by exposing the best of people and the worst of people.

III. The risks and rewards of empathizing

I propose that we reform our Principle of Charity into a Principle of Empathy.  This Principle of Empathy is not a repudiation of the old Principle of Charity, but rather an evolution of it, one which will lead us closer both to objective truth and to the most understanding possible society.  And given recent events which threaten to polarize our discourse even further, I believe that the goal of striving to be empathetic will be, if anything, more difficult but also more crucial than ever going forward.

I don’t claim that being highly empathetic on a personal level is not without its risks.  I have reason to imagine that I operate on incredibly high levels of empathy, perhaps abnormally intense levels.  I’ve noticed that this is often not only to my detriment but to the detriment of those around me.  For instance, if the suffering of someone close to me is too much for me to handle so that I feel forced to shut them out, then I’m really not being as good a companion to them as if I provided support while managing to remain stronger and less affected by their adversity than they are.

I also see risks in publicly defending others through empathetic reasoning, which is one reason why thus far I’ve generally stuck to empathizing with them in my own mind or behind their backs.  It can become very delicate to stand up for someone on the basis of what you perceive to go on in their minds, both their strengths and their weaknesses, without coming across as a totally condescending prick.  Compare an attack of “What Bob did is completely inexcusable because of A, B, and C” to a defense that sounds like “What Bob did was wrong, but I can understand how he did it given that he’s been through X and Y and this appears to have resulted in him lacking the emotional strength to face up to Z.  Even though the perfectly rational decision would have been W, it was evidently really hard under the circumstances for him to be rational and so he made the wrong choice.  Please show him some forgiveness.”  I imagine that the Bob here might actually feel more angry and hurt by the defense than by the attack.  (Or if one is using the flip side of empathy to instead condemn Bob for sinister motives, he would probably be angered more by this type of condemnation than by an argument based in the external fact of his action having been wrong: “How dare you assume that you know me and the way I think and feel!”)

And yet, I see these both of the issues described above as ones of execution only.  For the former, I have to learn how to feel empathy in the most productive way possible; for the latter, one has to gain the skill of producing diction that conveys a tone of genuine solidarity rather than condescension.  My viewpoint in theory remains unyielding: it is the duty of each of us to go forth and empathize!