See My FTBCon 3 Panels!

This weekend, I had the privilege to appear on three separate panels at FTBCon 3, the third annual FreeThoughtBlogs online conference. My first panel was entitled “FtBCon3: Kumbay-Ahh-Ahh-Ahhh!!!: Building a Community Around Shared Sexual Interests.” We discussed how communities built around things like poly and kink function, how to have strong communities, and how to keep them safe. It was moderated by Neil Wehnemen, and the other panelists were Karen Hill and Trina Gardinier.

Notice the festive Christmas decorations that are still up!

The next panel was the one I moderated, entitled “Reasonable Relationships: How Does Our Skepticism Influence our Romantic or Non-Romantic Relationship.” This was an idea that grew out of my Skeptical Monogamy presentation. When I gave the presentation at Atlanta Poly Weekend, a lot of the discussion became about how logical fallacies influence and distort our relationship thinking. It was such a great conversation that I thought it would make a good panel discussion all by itself. I was joined by More Than Two author Franklin Veaux, and bloggers Miri Mogilevsky and Chana Messinger. It ended up being a great discussion, and touched on a few topics in my Rational Relationships series.

My final panel, also moderated by Neil Wehneman, was entitled “Did You Remember Your (Love) Life Vest? Polyamory in the Deep End.” At FTBCon 2, there was a panel on polyamory that focused on 101-level questions, and this one was intended as a sequel, to get into some higher-level questions. During this panel, we got into some of the more advanced topics such as when/if to come out, long-distance, and poly misconceptions that grind our gears. Also on the panel were Miri and Karen from the community panel, as well as Heina Dadhaboy and Danny Samuelson.

FTBCon was a great experience, and they have lots of other great discussions up on the homepage. I encourage you to check them all out.

If you’d like to see more of my presentations, I’ll be presenting on relationship anarchy at Poly Living in Philadelphia the weekend of February 20-22, and Atlanta Poly Weekend, June 5-7.

What Do We Want?

What does it mean when we say we want something? My goal in relationships is generally to empower everyone involved to do whatever they want as much of the time as possible. But what do they “want?” What counts as a genuine desire vs. something we do to avoid the consequences? If a person buys me a gift to make me happy, does that count? If a person agrees to monogamy in order to keep a relationship, can that person be said to have “wanted” that? What if different parts of ourselves have incompatible desires? Where is the line drawn?

I don’t really have a clear answer to that. As I’ve noted a couple of times before, human motivation is complicated and context-dependent. It’s often not as simple as saying “I want X” or “I don’t want Y.” It’s usually something like “I want X, Y, and Z, but not if it means I can’t get A or B, though I’d give up B if I could get Z and X, but I need A unless I can get C, and…” you get the idea.

In relationships, when I say that people should do what they want, what it really comes down to is that our relationships should be free of coercion. Shelly, a guest poster on More Than Two, has a good explanation for what coercion looks like:

Coercion is when you make the consequences to saying “no” to intimacy so great that it removes any reasonable choice. There is more obvious coercion, such as threats, either externally or internally directed. But I find that coercion just sort of organically arises when you believe that your partner, in that moment, owes you intimacy. If you think your partner owes you intimacy, and you are just “expressing your feelings,” there’s a good chance you’re being coercive. If your partner says “no,” and you start preparing for a fight instead of accepting their choice, you’re probably going to be coercive.

I would simply expand this definition to include the consequences of saying “no” to anything aside from recognizing boundaries. Intimacy isn’t the only thing that partners should be able to refuse. People should always be free to make the decisions that will make themselves happiest. But conversely, healthy relationships have healthy boundaries, and partners should be expected to respect each other’s boundaries and to suffer extreme consequences if they do not. Enforcing boundaries, though, is the only area where it is ethical to attempt to control a partner’s behavior without their consent, and the need to create consequences to enforce boundaries is often a sign of an unhealthy relationship.

In a sense, capitulating to coercion is “doing what we want.” Avoiding the negative consequences of a decision is often a legitimate motivating factor. But when coercion is at play, the consequences of the decision have been unnecessarily increased such that the subject no longer has a meaningful choice. It is the unnecessarily element that separates coercion from mere knowledge of consequences. All actions have consequences, and some will have dire consequences for a relationship. This is unavoidable. Avoiding coercion simply means that a partner is not imposing unnecessary or artificial consequences.

Often, a consequence of certain behaviors will be that the relationship ends. This is not coercion. In fact, it is the opposite. A relationship ending, while it may be very painful, is not an example of the consequences being so great that meaningful choice is removed. It is often reasonable and necessary for a relationship to end. I cannot stress this enough. However, certain similar actions are coercive. A partner threatening to leave when they don’t mean it is coercive. When leaving the relationship means destitution, social isolation, estrangement from family, or other avoidable and destructive consequences, it is coercive. When a partner attempts to make a breakup unnecessarily difficult or painful, it is coercive.

There are also plenty of things short of ending the relationship that can be coercive. Punishing a partner (or threatening to punish a partner) for the purpose of changing their behavior is coercive. Causing a scene when you don’t get what you want is coercive. Passive-aggressive remarks are coercive. Asking for things multiple times after you’ve received a “no” can be coercive. Continually bringing up the fact that you didn’t get what you want can be coercive. Any action that doesn’t respect and support a partner’s right and ability to make their own choices can be coercive.

When we are free from coercion, we are able to make our own choices according to our own priorities. When our will is not overridden by outside pressure, we are free to engage in our own internal debate to decide what it is we want. This is no simple task. As I pointed out above, our minds are not unified. Our hedonistic desires, instrumental goals, ethics, empathy, and identify will often be competing within our own heads. Some people find it useful to think of themselves as having multiple selves which are in constant competition to get what they want. Sometimes it makes sense to use coercive tactics on ourselves, when we don’t trust our future selves to make smart decisions in the moment. What we want is not often clear, and even when it is, it can change at any time.

The important thing in relationships is that we allow our partners room to have that internal struggle, and to decide what to do free of coercion. Sometimes, we can help, and we shouldn’t be afraid to do so, but we should be careful that we’re not substituting our own will for that of our partners’ or engaging in coercive tactics without realizing it. When I say “everyone should do what they want,” what I mean is that everyone should do whatever their internal processes tell them is best, free from coercive pressure from outside sources.

So going back to my original questions – any of those examples could be the result of an internal process of deliberation OR the result of coercion. It would depend on the context and the individuals involved. The important thing, in our relationships, is that we recognize the inviolable right of people to decide for themselves what will make them happy, and to do what they think as best so long as it isn’t crossing any of our boundaries.

Being Honest About Our Motivations

There is no better way to destroy my trust in you than to lie to me about your motivations. It’s canon polyamory that healthy relationships require trust. Trust is built by behaving in a trustworthy manner. The best way to build trust is to tell the truth even when lying is ostensibly in your best interest. One the most common ways to do this is when asked about your motivations.

Asking someone about their motivation is a metaphorical trust fall. Because motivations occur only in our minds, there is no way to independently confirm what someone tells us. Unless their actions are so dramatically inconsistently with what they say that it’s obvious, it’s nearly impossible to tell when someone isn’t being honest. A person’s word is very nearly all we have to go on.

When someone asks you why you did something, they are showing vulnerability. They are trusting you to tell them the truth. Abusing that trust is a great way to show someone that you can’t be trusted in the future.

In my motte-and-bailey post, I talked a bit about motivations:

Human motivation is complicated, and there are often multiple reasons motivating us for a single action or position. Often, when examining our motivations, we will seize on the most palatable motivation and ignore the others…. The only real solution is to rigorously examine and communicate our motivations, which can be incredibly demanding and difficult. It’s not easy to sort out your primary motivation from numerous contenders. The key question is this: but for your stated reason, would you be comfortable with the behavior at issue? …If you would still object, then your stated reason is not your actual reason.

This is all still true. Often, our motivations will be unknown even to ourselves. And that’s fine! “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer, when someone asks why you did something. “I don’t want to talk about it” is likewise a perfectly acceptable answer. There’s nothing about being honest which requires you to give people information that you don’t have or that you don’t want to give.

Even if you think you know your motivation, have some epistemic humility about it. Understand that motivation is complicated, and if your apparent motivation sounds a little too noble, maybe take a second look. If someone points out to you that your words and actions don’t line up, consider that you may be mistaken. Ask yourself whether, if your stated motivation changed, your behavior would change. If the answer isn’t an unequivocal “yes,” then there are other motivations at play that should be discussed.

Trust is most important when it’s easiest to violate. Lying about our internal thoughts is one of the easiest and least verifiable ways to violate someone’s trust. If you value honesty, then value it when it counts.

TIGER BLOOD

[Content Note: Whole30, food talk]

Well, folks, it is day 16 for me on this go around of the Whole30 and…I feel great. Truly. I even pull some little muscle or pinched a nerve in my upper back and I’m all “whatever” about it. It hurts when I laugh, which is funny, which makes me laugh more. It’s a vicious cycle…OF HILARITY.

I owe this, at least in part, to starting a yoga practice. I have been taking morning classes regularly since the start of the month and it’s amazing. I now can see that my day is infinitely better if I make the effort to drag myself out of bed by 5:40am to get to the 6am weekday class. I didn’t go yesterday and was all cranky. Like, I was in a meeting and was totally that “I AM NOT GOING TO DO THIS AND THAT. THIS AND THAT IS NOT MY JOB!” asshole. (Granted, I had some founded reasons for being miffed, but not indignant and inflexible). I leave class feeling awake and ready to take on the day with finely tuned productivity and smartness attacks.

I realize that I am swiftly becoming a white, middle class stereotype, and I think I’m fine with that.

Stuffwhitepeoplelike

Anywho, now that I am pretty much accepting that this way of eating is way better for me, I am trying to figure out what I’m going to do after the strict month is over. I know, I know. I’ve been here before. Before it was about caffeine. I had confirmed three different times that daily caffeine does me no favors (it takes me from bouncing off the walls to HULK SMASH in a few days of regular consumption). For some reason though, I thought it was tooooo haaaaard to avoid it, on account of my love of seasonal lattes.

Yes, I know. I’m doing nothing to break that whole stereotype thing. I also frequently cook with sea salt. SUCK IT.

pumpkin-spice-latte
But I figured out at some point that I don’t even love lattes that much (I do love vanilla chai lattes however, and their caffeine content is low in comparison) and they should be a treat anyway. A decaf peppermint mocha is awesome…every once in a while. I think it became easier once I also figured out that the sugar in these things, or in coffee that doctor on my own also made me feel like crap if I had them often. When you get to the point that you understand that pretty much nothing about a specific food or beverage does you much good, it’s easier to relegate it to the realm of “special occasion”.

This has been what I have long wanted to do with crusty bread, all things containing substantial amounts of added sugar, all things grainy…but setting this intention is harder because these things are EVERYWHERE. I feel great right now, but it takes considerable effort to eat this way. In talking to Wes yesterday, we agreed that limiting grains and added sugar was the best way to move forward. I’m great with that because I discovered zoodles (noodles that are just spiral cut zucchini) and I really enjoy them with pasta sauce. He also shared an article with me showing a bunch of interesting and delicious-looking things I can do with cauliflower and I will try them ALL.

The other big reason I want to keep on this way of thinking is because I cook a lot more and bring lunch to work and haven’t been resorting to getting take out for dinner. So there is the added bonus of saving a crap-load of cash. I have…SAVINGS. I could, like, actually save up for some pricier things I want like traveling or a new acoustic/electric guitar or moon boots (or whatever the kids are buying these days). This is more exciting than I expected it to be and I really want to keep the trend going. I want this energy. I want this discipline. I want this focus moving forward.

I would just like to eat a piece of cheese or some refried beans here and there. Basically, I want to be able to eat Tex-Mex food again because omg yum, ok?
Of course, one of the other reasons I have been doing so much better with this round of Whole30 is that I found better recipes and have been enjoying the process of cooking. Dinner generally takes me an hour total to prepare (including baking time or whatever) and that’s fine for me. I have gotten into a weeknight routine that ends up with me cooking a healthy meal and cleaning the kitchen up intermittently. And now I have all this energy, nothing seems all that hard to maintain. I have also been cooking things that everyone in the house seems to like, taking that entire stressor out of the equation. Not everything has been universally liked, but in those cases people took care of themselves and I let them.

So, what I’m saying is, I’m way happier right now and that makes everything infinitely easier. I’m happier because of all the healthy things I’m doing for my body, but I’m also significantly happier now that I finally understand what people have been telling me about not worrying so much about everyone else all the time. That part of my ego has deflated and stopped tormenting me. I am doing things that benefit me and the improvement to my wellbeing is huge. I don’t worry about everyone else being happy because I can see that my being happy makes everyone else happier (that’s a Happiness Project thing, and a Wes-ism…I finally get it).

I have still been working hard at home, but I do it gladly, without resentment, and am finally back to a place of really digging my home and the people in it (and the people who visit). Sure, I’m still on antidepressants. I might be on them my entire life because depression isn’t just about things not working in your life. There might also be a chemical component to it. I might never be balanced well without it. BUT I also can’t (and wouldn’t) deny that I have made a bounty of positive changes and finally am feeling lasting positive effects of those changes on my addled brain.

I’m still sort of addled. I have been known to get distracted by the dogs while trying to do too many things at once, subsequently forgetting what I went up to the attic for in the first place, amongst various other stupid human tricks. But that’s just me. I’m also not angry, hate-filled, and heartbroken anymore. I also feel like I can do so many of the things that used to bring me joy but stopped because I simply couldn’t spare the energy.

I got in contact with my “old band” (we haven’t played together in a year or something) because I suddenly realized how much I was missing music, our music, in my life.

Arcati Crisis

I think I’ve picked up my guitar twice in the entire time we have been on “hiatus” and that’s super weird after years of playing it a little every day. I’ve barely sung, except a few times at karaoke and sometimes in the car. I’ll be playing with Peter next week and I’m really looking forward to it and after that I’m hoping to work with everyone to find a way to do that stuff without it becoming too much for me. Of course, I feel like I have infinite ability again, but I know I don’t actually (and I don’t want to have too many nights where I’m not cooking at home). But, honestly, we’re an amazing band and I think I want to be part of that again in some capacity yet to be determined.

I don’t feel that way about everything, of course. I’m pretty much over theater for the most part. That might change, but a series of unfortunate theater experiences over a number of years “cured the acting bug” I guess. I could see doing a project here and there, but it’s really not my artistic priority anymore. I’m glad, then, that I decided to be a chemist instead of an actor because man would I be pissed now. I feel similarly about burlesque. I would probably enjoy doing a show every so often during the year (APW I’m looking at you!), but it’s not what I want to be doing with my time anymore. It served its purpose for me and then became linked with memories of a lot of people and events I don’t want to give energy to anymore. It was a good time and now it’s over in the capacity that it was happening in the past.

So yeah, I’m feeling good and for the first time in a while I can see that feeling lasting. I’m doing what I want, what I need and it’s awesome.

No matter how white and privileged it makes me. I know, OK?!?

Anyway, next time I’ll geek out about how cool cameras are.  Stay tuned!

Ethics Are Important

In my last post, I talked about why I’m unconvinced that ethics are normative (i.e. why they don’t have universal right and wrong answers), and why I think egoism is the only reasonable foundation for any ethical system. That post was probably boring and uninteresting to most people, because most people who haven’t studied philosophy don’t care about ethics, and most people who have studied philosophy would find it painfully amateur.

I am sad that most people don’t care about ethics, though, because having a coherent ethical system is really important. Ethics are what tells us right from wrong. It’s a key ingredient in how we make decisions. Thinking about right and wrong and forming a coherent system is one of the best ways to make your life and the world better.

I. We Are Surrounded By Moral Dilemmas

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

Further, ethics are ever-present in our communities. Polyamory is often defined as “ethical non-monogamy.” Well, what about the ethical part? The atheism community is often fractured along ethical lines. Social justice communities are founded on ethical grounds, and most activism involves making ethical appeals. However, these appeals inevitably lead to a lot of disagreement because people have different ethics.

Most activism has, as one of its goals, convincing people to support a certain cause. This is really difficult to do without a shared ethical system. I’ve written before about how feminism is a self-interested issue for me. Most feminist writing comes from a much more altruistic foundation, and as a result, I find much of it unconvincing. Egoists, utilitarians, virtue ethicists, and deontologists will all approach social justice issues differently, and one group’s ethical appeal will often fail to move someone who follows a different ethical system. And since most people don’t have a coherent ethical system, most people are unable to effectively advocate in favor of their personal ethics. It is incomprehensible to tell me to “be good” if you can’t tell me what “good” means. It is impossible to tell me to do the right thing when you are unable to define “right.”

II. Our Ethical Intuitions Are Unreliable

Most people, rather than try to come up with a coherent ethical system, rely on their ethical intuitions. Certain things just “feel right,” and so that’s what people think of as right. Unfortunately, doing what feels right is unreliable at best and downright harmful at worst. Altruism is one example that, for most people, feels right. I’ve written before about why I think attempting to act altruistically often makes the world worse, and why encouraging and promoting altruism as a virtue harms people, especially people socialized as women.

Bigotry feels right to the bigots. Sexists are sexists because their ethical intuitions tell them that men and women should be treated differently. Racists are racist because their ethical intuitions tell them that the races aren’t equal. The same goes for other forms of bigotry. Explicit bigotry aside, we naturally care more about people the more we can identify with them; we care more about a single person than we do about millions of people.

A rogue’s gallery of cognitive biases are working tirelessly to confound our ethical intuitions. Biases that affect our thinking in other areas don’t just take the day off when it comes to ethics. Doing what feels right means surrendering to every bias that we have. If we don’t have a rational way to challenge our ethical intuition, there is nothing we can do when our intuition gives us faulty messages. It astounds me how many people will glorify and exalt rational thinking when it comes to understanding the world, but will abandon it when it comes to deciding ethical dilemmas.

III. Incoherent Ethics Lead to Incoherent Actions

This article by Leah Libresco is what inspired this post. Libresco was responding to Scott Alexander’s suggestion that, if one could offset its effects by doing enough good in the world, it may be ethically permissible to kill someone. Libresco also considered several other hypothetical situations which were contrived to justify breaking a popular ethical maxim. Libresco feels that the hypotheticals add so many caveats and contrived details that the situations become not just unlikely, but paradoxical. She closes with:

The major rhetorical peril I want to warn against is when you impose straining-credulity hypotheticals on yourself, and keep looking for the flaw in your philosophy, rather than the paradox in your premise that led you into confusion. It’s trivial to say, “Imagine an easily tamable mountain lion L… an immune to long-term disturbance from incest couple C… a perfect murder subject M… a hairy ball combed perfectly flat B” without checking whether such a creature still carries the normal traits of a mountain lion, a set of lovers, a human being at all.

The world is large enough to contain many rare things, but no contradictory ones. There’s no point in contorting your beliefs to make them accommodate the wholly imaginary.

While Libresco has a point that one’s ethics need not accommodate the paradoxical, I disagree that ethics need not accommodate the imaginary. The examples that Libresco gives are not paradoxical. There is nothing inherent to the definition of a mountain lion that makes them untameable. There is nothing inherent to the definition of brother and sister which makes incest harmful. It is the context and details surrounding these circumstances that makes mountain lions wild and incest harmful. These situations are not paradoxical; they are merely incredibly unlikely to the point of being absurd. But if your ethics cannot accommodate the absurd, your ethics are flawed.

The world is absurd. Very, very unlikely things happen every day. There is literally no way to foresee all situations where your ethical judgment will be necessary. A useful ethical system must apply to situations that you can’t imagine. The very fact that you can imagine a situation means that it’s worth considering on ethical grounds. Because inevitably, you will be called to make a moral decision in a situation that you’ve never thought about. If your ethics are unable to be applied to all situations you can imagine, then they will surely not be applicable to all situations you encounter. If your ethics can’t give you a good answer to the trolley problem, then your ethics will not be able to give you an answer when you are faced with an unforeseen dilemma. If your ethics do not apply in the least convenient possible world, then your ethics do not apply to this world.

IV. Alexander’s Morals Are Incoherent

From her piece, though it’s not explicitly stated, it seems that Libresco is tacitly admitting that her personal ethics don’t have an answer for the contrived hypotheticals. Alexander, too, seems to be suggesting that he is having trouble reconciling his ethics. To me, this is an indication that their ethics need refinement.

Let’s start with Alexander. Alexander posits that it may be moral to have someone killed if an overwhelming amount of good is done elsewhere to offset the immorality of the killing. Alexander’s post seems to assume utilitarian ethics (which is consistent with his other writing and several comments made on his post), since from any other mainstream ethical viewpoint, this would not be a difficult question. However, rather than prove his point, Alexander merely proves the incoherence of his ethics. From a utilitarian standpoint, if a person is capable of doing an overwhelming amount of net good, that person has a moral obligation to do so. The moral choice is to do all of the good, but not kill the person. Utilitarianism makes no distinction between “less moral” and “immoral.” The only question is how much utility flows from the act. In Alexander’s hypothetical, it’s possible to do all the good while avoiding the bad, and so that is the ethical choice. Doing all the good AND the bad creates less utility, and is thus less moral (i.e. immoral).

It’s not mentioned in the post, but Alexander’s misstep relies on his determination-by-fiat that giving 10% of his income to charity is enough to keep him morally in the clear. As I said above, utilitarianism makes no distinction between “less moral” and “immoral,” so as a practical matter, utilitarians must either draw an arbitrary line somewhere, give as much as they possibly can of themselves, or make peace with the fact that they are acting immorally. Alexander chooses to draw the arbitrary line. However, this throws a wrench into the remainder of his moral machinery. Alexander’s hypothetical murderer is extremely rich, and offsets his murder using targeted spending. Under actual utilitarian reasoning, the murderer would be obligated to give away nearly all of his money in the most utility-maximizing way possible in order to behave morally. Thus, a moral millionaire would be a contradiction. The only way Alexander can even reach the question is through the assumption that the millionaire is not ethically required to do as much good as possible, but at that point, he’s abandoned utilitarian ethics and the whole conversation changes. This does not point out a flaw in utilitarianism itself, but it does point out a flaw in the reasoning of almost all utilitarians that consider themselves to be acting morally.

Libresco seems to be hinting that she has an actual answer to the dilemma (“‘moral damage’ is a bad in and of itself”), though she never actually says what it is, so I’m unsure of her position on Alexander’s hypothetical. I do think, however, that’s it’s worth considering, and that it’s important that one’s ethics have an answer.

V. Conclusion

Ethics matter. Ethics are the way we determine right from wrong, on big questions and small questions. It is important that our ethics are applicable to all situations, because at some point, we’re going to encounter a situation we didn’t plan for. If our ethics can’t accommodate that situation, then we will either freeze up or attempt to revise our ethics on the spot, which can lead to disastrous results. It’s much better to consider difficult ethical questions in times of calm, where we have the time and energy to work out the answers.

If we are unwilling to consider hypothetical situations, even absurd hypothetical situations, then we are not taking our ethics seriously, and we will not be prepared when life throws us a serious curveball.

January: The Month in Which I Feel like a Superhero

So, I know it’s only 7 days into January, but I’ve got to say that I feel like I am kicking its ass.

Admittedly, the metaphor of beating up a unit of time is pretty stupid, and now I’m just trying to imagine what January’s ass looks like (whatever…don’t act like you weren’t doing the same thing), but it’s the most concise way of hyperbolically stating that I’m doing really well with my goals.

My experience so far with the Whole30 challenge is way better this time. Again, I know that I am only 7 days into it, but last time 7 days felt like an eternity. I was dealing with a lot of stress from other sources at the time and I just didn’t have it in me to not run back to the standard foods and drink I classically crave when I’m stressed out.

Frenchman

That picture is basically a stressed out me, sans the mustache and goatee.

This time though, I have enacted a few pretty important emotional changes that are keeping my stress quite in check. Sure, I have spikes here and there, being human and all, but they are short lived and generally require me to stop and think for a minute how to fix whatever the problem is. The biggest and most important thing that I’ve really started to do is consider my wants and needs first when considering an entire situation. I still consider everyone else, but I am getting better about making decisions that are good for me, even if they might be inconvenient or whatever for others. This likely sounds trivial, but I have pretty much never done this except in particular situations decisive action was required for maintenance of my own sanity. Now I’m trying to do this for everything and I’m finding that this way of taking care of myself and paying attention to myself has led to me actually being able to relax often because I’m starting to do what I actually want or need to do.

So yay for that! And eating whole foods and paying attention to vitamins and such is both good for me and fascinating. For instance, do you know how incredibly easy it is to get a full day’s worth of vitamin A and vitamin K? Eat a cup of spinach and you will have well over 100% of each. Eating part of a sweet potato will give you like 300% of your daily vitamin A. It’s SO easy to get enough that it’s also easy to get too much of, well, any vitamin or mineral. This is why you shouldn’t just eat sweet potatoes and kale all day every day. It will make various systems in your body start to malfunction. Amber and I were talking about the early expeditions to the arctic and how people were dying or getting ridiculously ill from eating polar bear meat/liver. It’s pretty much all vitamin A. Like anything, moderation is key. Vitamins are healthy until they’re not!

polar bear

If you run with the skeptic crowd, a popular thing to illuminate is that multi-vitamins are crap, and that often supplements of any kind are grouped in with that. I think it’s definitely better to get your vitamins and minerals from the food you eat (your body employs that better), but if you’re simply not getting enough of certain things, or if you have absorption issues, supplements are great. For instance, me and my vitamin D supplement are BFFs. I’m a pale white girl who doesn’t go out much in the winter and wears sunscreen in the summer and I don’t really drink much milk. Taking the supplement vastly improved my life. I no longer fear falling asleep at the wheel EVERYTIME I drive and I stay awake through movies and plays out on the town. Sure, I still fall asleep watching stuff sometimes, but that’s usually because I’m tired from my day.

Speaking of which, I started a daily yoga practice at a local studio. I’ve been flirting with the idea for a long time and this particular studio has a Vinyasa class every weekday morning at 6am. I thought it was a joke to think I’d actually want to do that but I went ahead and gave it a shot this week and this morning I did my third day of class in a row! In short, I love it. I do best with guided exercise and having a welcoming place to go and get an hour workout first thing in the morning is wonderful. I used to take pilates classes, and while they were great for my abs, there was an aspect of the class that felt like it was OK to push yourself too far. I could only afford one class a week and I found that I left feeling more stressed than when I arrived because I couldn’t do what everyone else in the class could do (and everyone else came 3 times a week I think). I was skeptical about liking a yoga class because I feared that there would be too much spiritual mumbo jumbo for my liking but this studio is really great for that too! It has meditative aspects to it, but I have been wanting to get into that and they aren’t about karma or chakras. Yes, chakras are mentioned now and again, but always followed up by talking about actual parts of the body. What I really like about it is that it’s definitely not easy…at all…but the instructors teach with the idea that getting “good” at yoga is a years long process and on some days you can do more and on some days you do less. Today, for instance, I was in child’s pose a lot because my legs were like “go to hell”. I did what I could do, tried things that seemed hard and when they were too hard I took a break. Just that alone is very relaxing.

It’s such a great way to start a work day. I come out of there feeling great and ready to take on the day. I have been more productive at work and generally more positive. It’s a happiness boost for me to have accomplished a workout first thing.

Of course, I have to get up at 5:30am to get to the class so I’m tired after dinner and have been getting to bed at 10pm (and sometimes I fall asleep on the couch before that), but there’s something really satisfying about that too. I’m now getting tired in time to get a full night’s sleep. There’s still time to do fun things or whatever, but I’m structuring my life more around things that make me feel good and healthy. And that’s pretty fab. Doing unhealthy stuff that I enjoy should be a time to time thing, not the norm. So I’m happy to be making a positive shift.

Tomorrow I go to my first digital photography class. I’m looking forward to learning a bunch of stuff and being able to take fabulous photos. I’m hoping that I can get into the Spring screen printing class again, and this time I hope to have super cool pictures I took myself to Andy Warhol-ize (or something).

So there’s a lot of good stuff going on that I hope to sustain and I’m really happy about it. I’m feeling creative and I’m feeling like my life has become simpler, calmer, and more satisfying.

Also…24 days until Disney. Yessssssssss!

Ethics and Philosophy: Ethics are Not Normative

Some time ago, I started reading philosophy. Since then, I have been trying to get a handle on leading philosophical views on ethics and morality. This post is my attempt to sketch out my current views on moral normativity. Everything here is tentative and open to revision. I welcome all argument, especially from people who know way more about it than I do. I have read very little philosophy, and what I have read has been somewhat abridged, so I welcome argument and debate on this topic.

I. The Sources of Normativity

My biggest stumbling block in most ethical philosophy is this: is there a rational reason why I should care about other people? Why is selfishness wrong? I did not find a satisfactory answer to this anywhere in Betrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, so I asked my friend and prominent philosopher [1] Dan Fincke for recommended reading. Dan correctly labeled the subject of my inquiry as “the normative question” and suggested Christine Korsgaard. Korsgaard has published her defense of ethical normativity in her book, The Sources of Normativity. However, because I’m allergic to paying over $10 for a book, I opted to read Korsgaard’s Tanner Lectures on normativity, which provide the source material for her later book.

Korsgaard identifies four sources for normativity, all of which she labels correct. The first is Voluntarism:

According to this view, moral obligation derives from the command of someone who has legitimate authority over the moral agent and so can make laws for her. You must do the right thing because God commands it, say, or because a political sovereign whom you have agreed to obey makes it law. Normativity springs from a legislative will.

According to this view, morality is normative because it is imposed from an outside authority. The second source is realism:

According to this view, moral claims are normative if they are true, and true if there are intrinsically normative entities or facts that they correctly describe. Realists try to establish the normativity of ethics by arguing that values or obligations or reasons really exist or, more commonly, by arguing against the various forms of skepticism about them.

Korsgaard goes on to explain that the realist view simply declares certain thing to be intrinsically normative “by fiat.” The realist decides that something is intrinsically normative, and that’s that. The third source is reflective endorsement:

This view is favored by philosophers who believe that morality is grounded in human nature. The philosopher’s first job is to explain what the source of morality in human nature is, why we use moral concepts and feel ourselves bound by them. When an explanation of our moral nature is in hand, we can then raise the normative question: all things considered, do we have reason to accept the claims of our moral nature or should we reject them? The question is not “are these claims true?” as it is for the realist. The reasons sought here are practical reasons; the idea is to show that morality is good for us.

This view argues that, as we reflect on our decisions, we will involuntarily approve or disapprove of them, so the “moral” action is the one of which, upon reflection, we approve. The fourth source is the appeal to autonomy:

Kantians believe that the source of the normativity of moral claims must be found in the agent’s own will, in particular in the fact that the laws of morality are the laws of the agent’s own will and that its claims are ones she is prepared to make on herself. The capacity for self-conscious reflection about our own actions confers on us a kind of authority over ourselves, and it is this authority that gives normativity to moral claims.

This view argues that it is our own identities and wills which obligate us to perform certain acts and avoid others. These views are fleshed out very well in the linked lecture series, and I encourage anyone interested in the topic to read it. At just over 100 pages, it’s rather short for a work of philosophy, but not what I’d call an easy read.

Korsgaard argues that it is our own practical identities that compel our actions. She defines a practical identity as “a description under which you find your life to be worth living and your actions to be worth undertaking.” She argues that your practical identity is “not merely a contingent conception of your identity, which you have constructed or chosen for yourself or could conceivably reject. It is simply the truth.” Because, upon reflection, we will disapprove of actions inconsistent with our practical identities, then we are obligated to conform to them. The “reflective structure of human consciousness” obligates us to behave in ways that are consistent with our practical identities.

Korsgaard argues that the structure of the human mind makes it impossible for us not to value our identities. To act, we must have reasons, and to have reasons for action, we must see our own actions as worthwhile. We must see ourselves as beings whose actions matter. “Since you cannot act without reasons and your humanity is the source of your reasons, you must endorse your own humanity if you are to act at all.”

Korsgaard goes on to argue that we can obligate others because the act of communication and socializing creates a shared consciousness, that our experiences are not completely private, and that we can involve others in them through communication. We can think and reason together. Therefore, Korsgaard argues, we can obligate one another in the same way that we can obligate ourselves.

II. Morality is Not Normative

Korsgaard’s arguments break down for me in two places. First, I am not convinced by Korsgaard’s description of a practical identity. Second, I do not see the logical connection that Korsgaard draws between shared reasoning and obligating one another.

Korsgaard describes the practical identity as simply a fact, not something that could conceivably be rejected. I think this overlooks the elasticity of identity. Korsgaard claims that when reflection reveals that an action is inconsistent with a person’s practical identity, “she must reject that way of acting, and act in
another way.” This seems self-evidently false. There are two additional options: (1) she can change her identity; or (2) she can change her mind about whether the action is consistent with her identity.

If Korsgaard were correct, and a person’s identity was unable to change in response to threats, there would be no such thing as a religious convert. Many formerly religious people were extremely devout, so much so that “pious” or “faithful” were part of their practical identity in the terms Korsgaard gives. Yet people change this identity, sometimes gradually, sometimes all at once. Similarly, people often begin identifying as nonmonogamous in response to performing an act inconsistent with their practical identity as a faithful, monogamous partner. Rather than reject the action, people often change their identity and/or change what their identity means (i.e. deciding that being “faithful” just means being honest, not being monogamous). There is no such thing as an immutable identity. Once it is acknowledged that practical identity is a fluid concept, Korsgaard’s argument loses its force. Acts cease to be obligatory and merely become optional. Certainly, some people have strong enough identities that they are unchangeable, but that is hardly universal, and thus it is not normative.

The second issue is that the fact that we can reason and think together does not mean that others share our practical identity. Practical identity, as described by Korsgaard, is an incredibly strong concept. It must be so strong that “an agent would rather be dead” than to contradict it. Above, I’ve expressed skepticism about whether this concept applies universally to every individual. However, I can say with near-certainty that this level of devotion to identity cannot be forced on anyone from an outside source. There is nothing I can do to force you to adopt my values on such a fundamental level. While some people are susceptible to that kind of thing, not all people are (and I would argue that most are not), and thus the concept is not normative.

III. Conclusion

Korsgaard’s arguments for normativity are the most convincing that I’ve been able to find, but I still find them unconvincing. Because I can find no evidence for normative morality, I am forced to conclude that morality is purely subjective (although that still leaves room for intersubjective morality). I am forced to conclude that the only coherent moral philosophy is egoism.

I’m planning a future post on the implications of this view, but for now, I’m interested in any comments people have on the sources of normativity, or lack thereof.

____________________________________
1. Not as prominent as he should be. As someone who is repelled by most philosophy, I find Dan’s writing to be equal parts accessible and brilliant. He is also rebelling against out bullshit higher education system by offering independent classes over Google Hangouts. If you’re interested, you can see his class schedule here.

Happy Frikkin’ New Year!

I usually don’t think much about New Year’s resolutions. The date is somewhat arbitrary and I often set resolutions other times of year (like September, for some reason…probably because I still haven’t grown out of the school schedules that had everything start again after a long summer break). But this year, I’m trying to think of them in a positive and fun way because 2015 is going to be amazing, damn it.

2014 had a lot of low spots, but I think I’ve had enough of all that and instead am thinking about what I liked about 2014 and what I’d like to be doing more of.

Firstly, I decided that I read way too much negativity in the form of blogs. Be it a few personal blogs that don’t do me any good to read or the copious amounts of social justice and political blogs I’ve been reading, I have to say that I need to step away for a while and get my head back into gear seeing the positive in the world. Everybody needs a break. I acknowledge and have extreme distaste for all that injustice, but I have been inundated by it by my choice of reading material to the point of near madness…and full on exhaustion. So I went into my Feedly account and replaced all of the blogs I was reading with humor, photography, and science. I’m stepping back from being “in the know” about all this stuff for at least January, maybe longer depending on how much better I feel.

Secondly, I’m taking another crack at the Whole30. No, I don’t believe in all the stuff they claim BUT I went and read some article about someone who half-assed their first one and then whole-hogged their second one and the difference was huge. I want to see it through and see the difference. Also, January is a good time to do it this year because we’re going to Disneyworld on January 31st which means reaping awesome health benefits during the month and then one big awesome reward at the end! I tend to eat terribly on vacations, so while I will not be following the rules down in Orlando, I hope to be in a place where I easily make better choices. Our schedule while we’re down there is packed and I want all the happiness and energy I can muster! But I think it will be easier to make it to the end of the challenge this time because each day of the Whole30 is a countdown to a vacation I’ve been looking so very forward to for months.

I’m also taking this month to finally figure out a regular workout schedule and schedule my life around it, not it around my life. I want to get into yoga and meditation this year because I need ways to move through waves of anger and grief I still experience and will likely continue to feel because I’m human. In addition, I just want to finally get into decent shape, especially because trips to the Colorado Rockies and Yosemite have been discussed for a few years from now and I want to get into habits that bring my baseline level of fitness up so that training for awesome, challenging hiking won’t be this huge endeavor that I will invariable fail at.

Next, I set a reading goal on Goodreads. My book reading track record has been abysmal over the years, to say the least. I decided that 15 books for the year was a good and attainable goal. A little more than one a month. I ordered three books from Amazon that I will likely read rather quickly because they are bound to be hilarious and I’ve been meaning to read the one for a long time. I’ve got a copy of Neil Patrick Harris’ “Choose Your Own Autobiography” on the way, as well as Jenny Lawson’s “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” and the Hyperbole and a Half book. I want to start the year off with entertaining reads! I preordered a copy of Gretchen Rubin’s “Better than Before”, a book about good habit forming (something I need help with definitely!) and I’ll have that in March. Other than those, I have several books around that I started to read and liked, but never finished because reading used to immediately put me to sleep. As it turns out, this had a lot to do with that pesky vitamin D deficiency and I think I’ll be able to do a lot better now! Also, Amber and I are going to have reading parties. I think that just means lazing around and reading in the same room, but that sounds pretty awesome.

I want to do lots of art! I did lots of art in 2014 and it greatly added to my happiness. I just want to keep that going and explore different media and get better. I sold a piece last week and that was pretty awesome. Maybe that is a trend that will continue! I also want to set up a screen printing space in the basement (and get down to our friends’ house and pick up all the screen printing stuff they have graciously offered me). I am still thinking about doing a stained glass class because I draw everything like it’s stained glass already and would love to do that! I think I found a good one, but I’m still looking around.

In addition, I want to learn how to take fabulous and artful photos with my fancy pants DSLR. I already take OK pictures with it, but I want to really learn how to use it because I currently use it mostly as a point-and-shoot. And I want to get a really great zoom lens for it or whatever kind of lens helps you really play with depth of field and all that. My friend Kelly taught me all kinds of stuff about F stops and all that years ago, but I have forgotten it all and have never truly learned how to use the thing. I want that to change! So I’ve signed up for digital photography at my beloved Fleisher!

There are various other things that I want to do, but those are all pretty big and good ones! Here’s to a healthy, happy, and kick-ass year. May it be a year of excellent decision making and of healing and positivity. May I grow to feel well enough to be my best at home and at work. Sure, these are lofty goals, but whatever. That’s what January is for!

Rational Relationships: The Motte-and-Bailey Doctrine

MotteandBailey

The motte-and-bailey doctrine is a concept created by Nicholas Shackel as a critique of post-moderism. I was introduced to it through Slate Star Codex

The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.

So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.

An example:

The religious group that acts for all the world like God is a supernatural creator who builds universes, creates people out of other people’s ribs, parts seas, and heals the sick when asked very nicely (bailey). Then when atheists come around and say maybe there’s no God, the religious group objects “But God is just another name for the beauty and order in the Universe! You’re not denying that there’s beauty and order in the Universe, are you?” (motte). Then when the atheists go away they get back to making people out of other people’s ribs and stuff.

SSC give several more examples, which are very helpful if you’re not quite getting the concept. To me, it refers to a situation where your position is not easily defended, so you retreat to a stronger position when challenged. Then, after the challenge is over, you go back to the weaker position.

We do this all of the time in relationships. The most common area I see this in is STI risk. STI’s are a real danger, and taking precautions against STI’s is an extremely defensible position. “What?! I just want to be safe” is the motte. The bailey ends up being all kinds of emotional needs, accommodating jealousy, or soft veto power. There is almost no restriction that one could put on a partner that could not be somehow justified by pointing at STI risk. Want veto power (bailey)? Just say you don’t trust the other person’s sexual safety (motte). Want to cut your partner’s dating pool significantly (bailey)? Insist that all partners receive extensive STI testing every six months (motte). Want to be the only person who gets to do kink with your partner (bailey)? Point out that it’s riskier from a sexual health perspective, and say you’re not comfortable with that risk level (motte).

It can also be used with other legitimate concerns. Don’t want your partner to stay overnight with other partners (bailey)? Claim that you can’t sleep alone (motte). Want to limit the amount of time your partner can spend away from home (bailey)? Come up with a household duty schedule that conveniently requires your partner to be home most of the time (motte). Want to make sure your partner stays closeted (bailey)? Say that your boss is a total bigot and would fire you if they found out you were poly (motte).

The motte-and-bailey doctrine is so dangerous precisely because the “motte” positions are really good reasons. It’s totally legit to want to minimize your STI risks, and communicating that to a partner is something we should all do! Some people can’t sleep alone! Some people have terrible bosses! There is no way to tell the difference between when someone has an honest issue and when someone is just trying to control their partner.

Worse, we can even fool ourselves with motte-and-bailey thinking. Human motivation is complicated, and there are often multiple reasons motivating us for a single action or position. Often, when examining our motivations, we will seize on the most palatable motivation and ignore the others. So it’s possible that we can have legitimate fears about STI’s, but weigh those fears more heavily because we have unaddressed insecurities which motivate us to control our partner(s). Our fears about coming out may be less about getting fired and more about wanting to avoid conflict or awkwardness with our friends.

The only real solution is to rigorously examine and communicate our motivations, which can be incredibly demanding and difficult. It’s not easy to sort out your primary motivation from numerous contenders. The key question is this: but for your stated reason, would you be comfortable with the behavior at issue? For example, if there was no risk of STI’s, would you be ok with your partner dating promiscuous people? If your job was safe, would you have any objection to coming out? If you would still object, then your stated reason is not your actual reason.

Knowing and admitting our motivations is a key step toward personal growth, and the growth of a relationship. We must always be vigilant that our motivations are what we think.

Rational Relationships: The Sunk Cost Fallacy

“We must do whatever it takes to justify what we’ve already done” – Stephen Colbert

The sunk cost fallacy is one of my favorite concepts. I first encountered it in business school. In the business word, “sunk costs” are any past costs that cannot be regained. The sunk costs fallacy describes an occurrence whereby managers will overvalue a project based on the sunk costs invested in it, rather than the prospective future gains.

A simple example is buying a stock. If you pay $1000 for ten shares of stock, that $1000 is a sunk cost. The current value of the stock is independent of the price that you paid for it. The only way to accurately value the stock is to determine its price at the current moment or to attempt to estimate its future value. However, if the market will currently pay only $900 for your ten shares, then there is psychological pressure on you to continue to think of your stock as worth $1000, even if its actual value is less than that.

The sunk cost fallacy comes from people’s natural tendency toward loss aversion. For almost everyone, the pain of receiving something and then losing it is greater than never having it in the first place. In other words, we tend to feel losses more strongly than we feel corresponding gains. Because of this, we tend to try to avoid losses more than we try to pursue gains. The sunk cost fallacy is a result of loss aversion, because we tend not to see sunk costs as “losses” until we dispose of the object paid for. When you buy those shares of stock, you have lost $1000, but it doesn’t feel like you’ve lost $1000 because you’ve simultaneously gained a stock that’s valued at $1000. If the price of the stock drops to $900, you’ve lost the equivalent of $100, but it doesn’t feel that way unless you sell the stock. If you sell the stock for $900, you’ve gained $900, but it feels like a loss of $100. This is the feeling that enables the sunk cost fallacy.

This is a problem for business people. Let’s say my company decides to research a new widget, incurs substantial R&D costs, and tasks me with the decision whether to introduce the widget into the market. There is a temptation to see the large amount of R&D put into the widget and conclude that the widget will be profitable and we should launch it. However, the amount of R&D spent has no bearing on whether there is sufficient demand for the widget. If I actually relied on the sunk costs to make my decision, it would be a disaster. Profitability depends on demand, production costs, overhead, advertising, and a whole host of other factors, none of which are sunk costs. Sunk costs are completely irrelevant to the value of the widget.

The sunk cost fallacy is that little voice that encourages us to finish the book once we’ve read half of it and decided that we don’t like it. It’s what keeps us driving the wrong direction rather than turn around (literally and figuratively). It’s what keep us using the fancy $150 universal remote long after it’s apparent that the cheap $10 remote is more user-friendly and useful.

It’s also what keeps us in bad relationships. People change. Often, those changes will result in formerly good partners no longer being good matches for each other. In those circumstances, it’s best that couples break up or transition to some other form of relationship. It is often the case, though, that couples will look at their history and conclude that too much time, effort, and energy has been invested in the relationship to end it.

This is a mistake. There are certainly plenty of reasons why long-standing partners might not want to break up. Their experience with each other may show them that they are only in a temporary rough patch. Their lives may be so entangled that leaving the relationship would be incredibly painful. Their issues may just not be as bad as they seem.

But it’s a mistake to think that the amount of investment in a relationship automatically adds value to that relationship. It doesn’t. The value of the relationship consists of what is happening in the present and in the future. The past is done. The past is useful in predicting the future, but the past by itself doesn’t actually add any value. The length of a relationship or the amount of effort put into a relationship doesn’t actually add value. If it’s clear that a relationship won’t serve you in the future, your previous investment in the relationship won’t change that.

Rationally evaluating our relationships requires acknowledging that their value is derived only from our reasonable future expectations. Sunk costs are unrecoverable.