Avoiding Nice-Guy Fantasy

I’m writing an urban fantasy novel, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the genre. I’ve always been a fan of fantasy/sci-fi stories, but there are some unfortunate tropes in the genre that reflect a lot of male power fantasies. Classic stories like the Lord of the Ring, Star Wars, and most superhero comics tend to feature a powerful Leading Man who was born destined for greatness. He develops some kind of supernatural combat powers (or is just really good at fighting) which allows him to fight his way to the end boss and defeat him with the powers of goodness (but also superpowers). Often, this wins him the affection of the Female Lead, who is mostly just there to need rescuing and provide the hero with a prize. It’s pretty much the James Bond/action hero formula.

Some modern stories have been subverting these tropes, some in really excellent ways. Other stories have been subverting the specific tropes, but not really addressing the attitudes that lead to them. Recently, I’ve read a number of modern fantasy/sci-fi stories that have all shared a lot of the same elements that seem to be a reaction to the classic formula. They tend to be written by men and feature male heroes, but these are not your typical heroes. The Leading Man isn’t overly powerful or impressive, and is often weak or low-status. He’s not devastatingly handsome, but he has an understated attractiveness. Rather than use his great combat prowess, Leading Man defeats the enemy using his unique, special-snowflake mind. He may or may not have magic powers, but any powers he has appear at first glance to be useless or underpowered, though Leading Man eventually finds a clever, unexpected way to use them to defeat the evil bad guy. The bad guy is unequivocally evil. Leading Man has no real flaws, but all minor flaws are treated like a much bigger deal than they are. He constantly feels guilty about his “bad” decisions despite the fact that everything he did was the only reasonable option given the circumstances.

Unlike the classic story, the modern stories feature strong female characters. Women are never the main characters, of course, but they have substantial supporting roles, and the story always makes sure to squeak out a passing grade on the Bechdel test. In the modern fantasy novel, women are the ones with the physical prowess, able to fight, shoot, and generally kick ass. Leading Man is often saved by his female sidekick multiple times throughout the story, though he never feels emasculated or anything but grateful because he’s not a Neanderthal like those classic action heroes who spent their time saving helpless women. Female sidekick is always attractive, but in a quirky, nontraditional way, which is pointed out multiple times during the novel. Still, there is often a helpless woman who needs to be saved, but this is a different woman, and not a love interest, because this isn’t the kind of story where the hero wins a woman’s affections by saving her. That’s for those James Bond-style brutes. Still, there is often a female antagonist hassling the hero for unjustified, personal reasons (bitchy ex-wife, anyone?).

I checked in with my literary Facebook group and confirmed that this is an ongoing trend. I’ve taken to calling this “nice-guy fantasy,” because it seems to reflect the same attitudes that underly the “Nice Guy” phenomenon in pop culture. Nice Guys are a reaction to the perceived deficiencies of the “dumb jocks,” who are thought to be unworthy of the affections that they receive because of their regressive attitudes toward women. Nice Guys feel that they are more deserving of women’s affection because they avoid the worst behaviors of jocks, though in reality, their attitudes are just as sexist and unjustified, just in a different way.

In the same way, nice-guy fantasy just swaps out one set of rigid gender roles for another. Nice guy fantasy appears to be a reaction to perceived deficiencies of the classic action-hero formula and its regressive attitudes toward women and its simplistic view of heroism. Nice-guy fantasy avoids the worst tropes of the classic action-hero style writing, but merely takes that box and replaces it with another to force all of its characters into. Sophia McDougal, writing in the New Statesman, summarizes the problem:

Nowadays the princesses all know kung fu, and yet they’re still the same princesses. They’re still love interests, still the one girl in a team of five boys, and they’re all kind of the same. They march on screen, punch someone to show how they don’t take no shit, throw around a couple of one-liners or forcibly kiss someone because getting consent is for wimps, and then with ladylike discretion they back out of the narrative’s way….

What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains.

Nice-guy fantasy continues the action-hero trend of representing a male power fantasy, but this time it’s the fantasy a shy, geeky man who grew up resenting the Superman archetype. Rather than fantasizing about being the superspy who can beat up rooms full of people, seduce any woman, and shoot the wings off a fly, this story is a fantasy about being the underdog who rises to the challenge foisted upon him by circumstance (and, of course, his big heart). The problem is that this ends up being just as formulaic as the classic action story and just as reductive in terms of gender roles. It’s still about a Great Man Becoming Great, it’s just a nerdier, more chess club/silicon valley view of greatness rather than the classic captain-of-the-football-team view.

In writing my own story (34,000 words and counting!), I’ve tried to be conscious of this trend and avoid any sort of self-congratulatory stereotypes. It’s a fantasy story about an isolated society, so one thing I’ve done is just changed the society’s views of gender roles. Because of the way the “magic” works, women are stronger and generally more physically impressive, so the society evolved so that women are the dominant gender. However, women still carry and nurse children, so that gets taken into account.

The other thing I’ve tried to do is to have a large variety of female characters. The ratio of male:female in my is about 1:4. This is a literary device, but also an artifact of the culture in that, because men are the marginalized gender, there are more women in roles like detectives, doctors, transportation operators, and other jobs that are featured in the story. The two viewpoint characters are women, though in our society their behavior would probably be read as masculine (or, let’s be honest, “bitchy”).

It’s been a challenge, but I’m hoping it turns out well. I’m still on my first draft, and I’m planning on going back and rewriting the entire thing once I finish. This is the first novel I’ve ever attempted, so I’m sure it won’t be a masterpiece, but I’m hoping it will end up being something I can be proud of, and above all, I hope it doesn’t come across as reactionary. I’m writing the story the way I am because I think it’s interesting, and I would like to read a story like it, and I hope it doesn’t come across as merely a reaction to other fantasy tropes.

The other thing that worries me is that my characters are all kind of jerks in their own way. Not in the sense that they have minor flaws which are easily overlooked, but in the sense that they have large personality defects that will take a lifetime to improve, and will not be resolved by the end of the book (though some progress will be made). My characters are often self-absorbed, short-sighted, irrational, downright foolish, and they don’t always understand how consent works. I’m worried that someone reading my story will think these characters were intended as role models or heroes when they are actually just meant to be humans that I (and hopefully a few readers) will find interesting, but I don’t know how to make that clear without imposing contrived consequences on the characters for their flaws. My main protagonist will be learning from her mistakes, but overall, the story features far too many character flaws in numerous characters to address individually. I’m hoping that readers will understand that even the “good guy” characters aren’t intended as role models.

Man, writing fiction is difficult.

Make Sure Your Rules Have a Safe Word

image from beforeplay.org

Image from beforeplay.org. Click for details.

My friend Rose, writing at her brand new blog Our Better Natures, makes an excellent point about the use of rules in relationships:

For these types of situations, I think that an idea from the kink and power exchange community is useful.  For any healthy power exchange, even while playing with consensual nonconsent, there is an overarching level at which someone can always opt out.  I suggest that we look at all rules and agreements as a form of role playing in this vein.  With healthy power exchange, ideally, the power dynamics are explicitly negotiated with necessary safe words in place.  Rules and agreements need to be negotiated in much the same way.  Rules and agreements are their own type of role playing because we can never fully and truly give up our ability to make decisions, set boundaries, or leave the relationship and also still maintain healthy consent.  If we take the view on consent outlined above, then there truly can be no inherent level at which anyone owes anyone else intimacy or control over their choices and emotional states.

This is a great point, and I think consensual power exchange is a great lens through which to view rulemaking in relationships. I’ve written before about how rules are a way that we psychologically manipulate our future selves into making the correct choices when we don’t trust our future selves to do so. When we involve another person in the rulemaking (that is, we make a promise or agreement to another person), we implicitly give them the authority to demand compliance with that promise. In essence, it’s a form of consensual power exchange whereby we voluntarily give up a bit of our freedom to another person or persons.

One of the most important concepts in any consensual power exchange relationship, be it a five-minute scene or a thirty-year relationship, is that consent must be ongoing and can be revoked at any time. This is an uncontroversial idea in BDSM communities, where the norm is to always have a safeword which will immediately end the scene as soon as any party want to opt out. In longer-term consensual power exchange relationships, all parties stress that the details of any power exchange agreement are entirely voluntary and open to revocation free from coercive pressure.

Relationship rules or agreements ought to be treated the same way. Ideally, all parties would be clear that anyone was free to unilaterally cancel any agreement at any time free from guilt, shame, or obligation. Sadly, people often view terminating an agreement as a hostile act or a betrayal. While the BDSM community is nearly united in support of the idea that power exchange can be revoked without penalty, the poly community lags far behind on this idea. It is remarkably commonplace to see people pressured, shamed, and coerced into abiding by agreements that no longer work for them.

As I’ve written before, sometimes terminating an agreement can result in the other party ending the relationship, and that is to be expected. The same principle that says any party can terminate an agreement at any time also mandates that any party is free to end the relationship at any time. The same principle applies in all consensual power exchange relationships.

So next time someone wishes to renegotiate or terminate an agreement, let’s take a lesson from the BDSM community and recognize that it is always their right to do so, and allow them a space free of shame, obligation, or guilt.

 

The Creation Museum is Horrifying

So Gina, Amber, and I are on a road trip from Jersey to Colorado and back. Today we passed through Kentucky on our way to Nashville, and we figured we had to stop at the Creation Museum. For those of you who don’t know, the Creation Museum is a project by Ken Ham, which exists to evangelize young-Earth creationism and biblical literacy. The main draw to us was that we heard that much of the museum was dedicated to the idea that Adam  and Eve coexisted with dinosaurs! We figured that we were in for some amusing scenes of biblical humans riding triceratopses, and the standard fire & brimstone about Jesus and Heaven. It started out innocuous enough:

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The opening hallway was pretty much what we expected. Lots of preaching about how the Bible is the word of god, quotes about great beasts in the Bible, and about how evolution is wrong:

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Grimlock, Gina's little T-Rex, was very excited to see the dinosaurs

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The main exhibit area starts out similarly. There are these charming lads:

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Then there is a bunch of propaganda about how important biblical literacy is, and a room featuring a family engaging in drugs, pornography, abortions, and gossip! And then, PLOT TWIST! The family’s preacher has decided that they should just leave the science to the scientists, and not worry about the age of the Earth or how people were created. No wonder the family is drowning in sin!

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Then there is a room full of humans and dinosaurs! It’s just as amusing as expected, despite the fact that you are not allowed to pet the raptors.
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Adam and Eve frolic in the garden of Eden, joined by deer, rabbits, squirrels, and random dinosaurs. Also, there was a pretty impressive Noah’s Ark diorama.

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It’s after this room that the museum gets truly disturbing. While everything up until this point was rather silly and amusing, the remainder of the museum is a true monument to ignornance. It replicates the look and feel of a natural history museum, with large, bright photos aside “scientific explanations” about how creationism is true. Each exhibit gives what “secular scientists” say, then gives the biblical interpretation, explaining that the only reason secular scientists and Christian scientists come to different conclusions is that they start with different assumptions.

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The terrifying part is that so many of their explanations sounds plausible if you don’t have a pretty sophisticated understanding of biology and ecology. How was the Grand Canyon formed? We don’t know! But there have been events where large canyons were formed in just a matter of days due to volcanic eruptions…. Why are dinosaur fossils buried so deep? Because the global flood deposited massive amounts of sediment on top of them, of course! In fact, the global flood explains a lot of the state of the Earth’s surface. How do we explain the fact that we can observe evolution in bacteria? Some convoluted explanation about how that’s just natural selection, not evolution. You see, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are actually inferior to other bacteria (all mutations are mistakes), and would die out as soon as antibiotics were removed from their environment. And therefore evolution is false.

Secular scientists say that beetles evolved a mating call? Think critically! How could female beetles evolve the response to the mating call at the same time males evolved the call? Secular scientists say that Goliath beetles evolved the ability to fly? Think critically! How could something so heavy evolve that ability? Isn’t it more likely that it was designed by an intelligent creator?

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Rather than come out and say that the scientific community is wrong, Ham’s museum instead takes the often-used strategy of sowing doubt and encouraging people to make up their own minds, along with heavily suggesting that the “secular scientists” aren’t to be trusted. The last few rooms of the museum are dedicated not to promoting anything, but rather tearing down science.

It’s scary because it works. The museum is hugely successful. Innumerable parents bring innumerable children to the museum every day to be indoctrinated against human reason. While we came in expecting amusement, we left fighting off depression at the deviousness of Ham’s assault on progress. The whole museum seemed designed to worm into the heads of impressionable children (and adults) the idea that scientists know nothing, can prove nothing, and are advocating only for their own alternative faith-based worldview. The museum proceeds not by making straightforward arguments, but by pretending to approach the natural world in a scientific way. Ham’s museum presents creationism as a science, the only goal of which is to accurately explain the natural world. Disagreements with the vast majority of the scientific community are presented as simply different schools of thought rather than fundamentally different approaches toward understanding the world.

The Creation Museum scares me. It is devastatingly effective at spreading misinformation and ignorance, and it is emblematic of a widespread backlash against the march of progress, which undermines holy truths at every turn. The Creation Museum looms as the proverbial conservative, standing before the tide of history and yelling “stop.” Except rather than a single doomed figure, it is an army of soldiers for Christ, dedicated to dragging us all back into the 18th century.

Compatibility is All That Matters

Good dating advice usually has one unifying feature: it stresses that relationships should be entirely consent-based. That means that every part of a relationship is genuinely desired by all parties, and no party is coerced into engaging in any activity for the benefit of other(s). In theory, this is uncontroversial. Most people will recognize that they shouldn’t coerce dating partners into unwanted activities.

There’s a flipside, though, which is a little less intuitive. It’s the idea that any relationship practice is ethical if all parties give unqualified consent. Assuming that all parties are free from coercion and have the capacity to give meaningful consent, there is nothing that’s off-limits. A lot of bad dating advice overlooks this fact, offering prescriptive advice which assumes that people (or, more likely, all people of a single gender) want the same things. This sort of thinking tends to divide things up into “good” and “bad” behaviors, universalizing the preferences of the majority (or sometimes, just the preferences of the author).

But people are different, and they have different preferences. What’s a dealbreaker for you might be a positive for me. Something I can’t stand might be something you can’t live without. Too often, we assume that our preferences are universal, and we condemn those who don’t conform to them. The world is full of bitter exes who weren’t treated the way they liked and assume that indicates something wrong with the other party rather than just a mismatch in preference. It’s a way of disrespecting someone’s autonomy to insist that your preferences are the right way to have a relationship, and that any other preferences are wrong.

At the same time, it’s important that one’s relationships are freely chosen, which means that while nothing is off limits, one must be honest and open about what to expect, and space must be given for a graceful rejection. There are wrong ways to have a relationship, and rights that cannot be waived. However, those rights are all about making sure that consent to the relationship is freely given and undiluted. As long as we are completely honest and noncoercive about what we are looking for and what to expect, then we are free to pursue whatever relationship(s) we desire.

The important thing, then, is compatibility. Rather than conforming to a set of rules that define “good relationships,” our challenge is to write our own qualifications that define what’s good for us. Then we find people who share our preferences and draw strong boundaries with people who don’t. Upliftconnect.com offers some on-point advice about drawing boundaries:

If access to your heart, your email, your phone, and your physical being lives on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being complete inner circle access, those who are 10’s require what Brene Brown calls “a full jar of marbles.” In other words, they need to have earned your trust. If the jar of marbles gets half full because of betrayals of trust, access needs to go down — not necessarily all the way to 1, but maybe to 5 or 6. Maybe they don’t get to call you every day or sleep in your bed or spend Christmas morning with you.

That way, if someone isn’t treating you with impeccable respect, you simply limit access without making up a story about it. No point becoming the exploding doormat. That’s not enlightened either. Your heart stays wide open. The boundaries close up though. Unconditional love, absolute freedom, conditional access.

Then it’s not someone else’s job to treat you right. It’s your  job to treat you right with appropriate boundaries that limit access based on whether or not someone is deserving of complete inner circle access.

In this way, you can allow people to be themselves and have their own relationship preferences, but you limit access to yourself only to people who share your preferences and live up to your expectations. It stops being about whether someone is a “good” or “bad” partner, and becomes about whether they are a good fit. When we focus on compatibility, we respect everyone’s autonomy while still being able to protect ourselves and follow our own path.

An Open Letter to Atlanta Poly Weekend

The following is an email sent to the Relationship Equality Foundation, the organization that hosts and organizes Atlanta Poly Weekend. 

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Dear Relationship Equality Foundation,

I’ve always been a big supporter of Atlanta Poly Weekend. My first year attending, a presenter cancelled at the last minute and I volunteered to step in and do my Online Dating presentation. Last year, I gave two presentations as well as put on a burlesque show. I’ve also promoted your event on my blog and in many personal interactions. I’ve done everything I can think of to support your organization because at the time it seemed like a really good cause. Unfortunately, that support has not been mutual.

Last winter, several of my wife’s ex-partners, including Shaun McGonigal, engaged in a coordinated smear campaign against me. While most organizations and individuals were able to see that this was a case of resentful exes attempting to continue their abuse post-breakup, your organization accepted their accusations uncritically, gave me no meaningful opportunity to defend myself, and never told me what I was accused of doing. When I provided extensive evidence that all public allegations were false, exaggerated, or left out important context, I was ignored.

Your organization designated Billy Holder (and old friend of Shaun McGonigal’s from his time living in Atlanta) as an investigator. Billy’s “investigation” was anything but. Billy never got my side of any of the stories that he was told. He never spoke to any of the witnesses that I identified, in person or online, despite numerous opportunities to do so. His conversation with me largely consisted of Billy expressing his anger and disappointment regarding how the Polyamory Leadership Network handled the situation. He never disclosed to me that he was investigating anything. He expressed multiple times that he was in the dark. He outright lied to me by telling me that he didn’t know the content of any of the accusations. Instead, he pretended to be my friend and reassured me that he was on my side.

During the weekend that he was in town, Billy gained and then took advantage of my trust. I consented to be in a sexual situation with him having no idea he was acting in an official capacity as an investigator . It felt (and continues to feel) disgusting because I consented under false pretenses. I feel violated. Had he been honest with me, I never would have engaged in any kind of sexual contact with him. I consider his failure to disclose his role to be a major consent breach (in addition to the appalling ethics of an investigator having sex with the target of his investigation).

Billy then turned around and used his position as a member of your board and principal organizer of Atlanta Poly Weekend to get me banned from the event, ostensibly due to the fact that I’m some kind of danger to the community.

Billy also used his influence and position of power to make sure that his friend Shaun McGonigal was able to attend, despite the fact that over the past year he and the Relationship Equality Foundation received reports that Shaun:

  • once beat his girlfriend so hard that her injuries caused her to miss three days of work
  • emotionally and verbally abused my wife Gina for over a year
  • without provocation, threatened to break my nose
  • manipulated, abused, and gaslit other former partners

Since then, Shaun also beat his wife in a fit of rage, which led to their divorce. Your organization has ignored all of these reports and allowed Billy Holder to protect his friend and scapegoat me.

It is obvious that none of this is about protecting the community or effectively dealing with abuse, and it is about Billy Holder playing favorites and the Relationship Equality Foundation allowing him to do so.

For obvious reasons, I do not wish to attend or support APW, nor will I unless significant changes are made. However, I hope you and your attendees will take the event this weekend as an opportunity to rethink how you handle this sort of thing and make some attempts to establish some actual accountability in your community. Your current system serves only to enable abuse by proxy, empower abusers, and make your community more dangerous.

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For anyone attending APW this year, the only thing I’d ask is that you let the organizers know about your unhappiness with how they handle abuse complaints and request that they establish a system which provides genuine accountability while respecting the humanity of everyone involved.

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UPDATE [6/6/15]: APW issued a statement on its Facebook page:

APW earnestly aims to create a safe place for our attendees, guests, presenters, staff and volunteers. We treat all reports of abuse seriously and are concerned for the people in any situation of abuse. Our first responsibility is to create a convention space that is safe for everyone. We act in good faith within our role as an event to honor the sense of safety in the community at large.
In order to support the survivors, we try to give the accusers the benefit of the doubt and the accused a reasonable opportunity to participate in the discussion. Because we support the survivors and are not against the accused, the accused can be welcomed back into the community and APW.
While we are part of the community we serve, we are not the arbitrators of personal situations and must focus on the small confines of our event. The Board of Directors reached a consensus regarding a particularly volatile situation outside of our event that was nevertheless disrupting our event, in our opinion. As our community changes, we evolve along with it and use this experience to learn and continue discussions about what creates safe environments.
Currently we are in the stage of supporting the survivors:http://emmfett.blogspot.com/…/the-community-response-to-abu… We are learning what it means to support accountability for the accused. It is our hope to learn this alongside the community

In addition to being vague PR-speak, this statement does not reflect any of my or my family’s interactions with APW. They have not taken our reports of Shaun McGonigle’s abuse seriously, and they have conducted zero followup with any of the multiple people who have contacted them to report his abuse. For example, when Shaun engaged in behavior at a different conference that bordered on stalking me, I reported it to several organization including APW. Their response was to mock me:

But yet, the conference leadership was not informed about the situation nor were any complaints, to our knowledge, brought against that person to the conference leadership as he remained at the conference all weekend.  We found this to be odd if you are truly scared to be at an event where he is present.

Never mind that I didn’t realize he’d been following and watching me until he blogged about it after the conference. Never mind that the conference leadership was informed immediately, and had been informed prior to the conference about Shaun. Never mind that my wife Gina fled the conference in tears on Friday night because Shaun was there, and didn’t return all weekend despite paying over a hundred dollars for a ticket. This has been typical of APW’s treatment of us, minimizing and discrediting our fears and working overtime to protect Gina’s abusive ex. APW absolutely does not take abuse complaints seriously or support victims. For them to claim otherwise is insulting and degrading to all of Shaun’s victims that have repeatedly contacted them to no avail.

Expectation Damages and Reliance Damages

What do we do when our relationship expectations aren’t met? What happens when someone breaks a rule, violates an agreement, or otherwise doesn’t do what we legitimately expected them to do, and it harms us?

Expectation Damages vs. Reliance Damages

In the law, there are different kinds of damages that can be awarded based on the type of injury. When one party breaks a contract, typically the other party is awarded expectation damages. Expectation damages are meant to put the other party in the position they would have been in had the contract been fulfilled.

Imagine that I agreed to sell you my couch for $200. You rent a truck for $50 to transport it, but when you show up, I say I changed my mind and don’t want to sell. The cheapest comparable couch you can find costs $300 and will require another $50 truck rental to pick it up. Your expectation damages are $100. You expected to pay $200 and a $50 rental fee, and receive a couch. Instead, you paid $300 and a $50 rental fee to receive a couch, so you are $100 worse off than you would have been had I stuck to the deal.

Another type of damages that are typically awarded when expectation damages are difficult to estimate or when circumstances are more appropriate are reliance damages. Reliance damages are intended to put the injured party in the position they would have been in had the contract never been made in the first place.

In the couch example, your reliance damages are $50. If we had never made the contract, you never would have spent the $50 on the truck rental. You paid that $50 in reasonable reliance on my promise to sell you my couch. Because I broke my promise, you’re out $50. If I break the deal before you rent the truck, you don’t have any damages, since you’re in the same position you would otherwise be in.

In a business context, there are good reasons why we typically award expectation damages for breach of contract. Unless there is an opportunity for an efficient breach, we want to encourage people to stick to their deals. Business runs on deals, and rules that encourage people to break deals would increase uncertainty. Uncertainty is bad for business, so we favor rules that increase stability and predictability.

Relationship Damages

In a relationship context, most of the time, we won’t be talking about money, but I think it’s useful to consider the general magnitude of a person’s responsibility when trying to make amends. There’s a big difference between trying to make up for wasting an hour of your life vs. ruining your career, and the amends required are different.

I find reliance damages to be the more appropriate way to think about relationship injuries. When a person breaks a promise I think it’s extraordinarily helpful to consider the conceptual difference between (a) putting someone in the position they would be had the promise never been made (reliance damages) vs. (b) putting someone in the position they would be had the promise been fulfilled (expectation damages). I favor thinking in terms of reliance damages because it’s more autonomy-promoting. It encourages people to make amends for any damage they’ve caused, but it also encourages people to renegotiate their agreements if they’re no longer benefiting from them. The thinking behind expectation damages is that people should stick to their agreements and that people have a responsibility to make sure the other party gets the benefit of the bargain no matter what. The thinking behind reliance damages is that sometimes shit happens, and people’s responsibility is to make up for any damage they’ve caused.

Examples

Let’s consider a few examples of common broken promises in relationships:

(1) you flake on a date.
(2) you fail to do the dishes as promised.
(3) you cheat sexually.
(4) you divorce your partner (after vowing “till death do us part”).

In example (1), expectation damages would seek to put the person in the position they would have been had you showed up. So from that thinking, your moral responsibility would be to take your partner out on a date, whether you want to or not, because that’s what you promised. I’m not a fan of this solution, because I don’t think people should ever feel required to give social attention when they don’t want to. It’s a pillar of consent culture that nobody ever owes another person their social energy or attention, and our ethics ought to reflect that.

Reliance damages would seek to put the other person in the position they would have been in had you never promised to go on the date. If you back out soon enough, there really aren’t any damages, since the other person has time to make alternative plans. If not, you’ve ruined their evening, so it’s on you to make amends for that. It could mean taking them out on a different evening if that’s what you want to do, but it could also mean letting them borrow your Playstation so they’re not bored all evening. Or it could mean buying them a book or (if you live together) giving them control of the living room TV for the night. Thinking in terms of reliance damages give you options that don’t infringe on your autonomy.

Example (2) is interesting because expectation damages aren’t actually very problematic. You would just need to do the dishes that have been sitting in the sink all night. Most of the time, that’s a fine solution. It’s also interesting because there likely aren’t any reliance damages. If you didn’t promise to do the dishes, would the other person not have eaten? Would they have used paper plates? Probably not. It’s likely that the dishes would have been made no matter what, so really, the person is in the same position as if no promise was made.

So does that mean it’s ok to promise to do the dishes, then back out at the last minute? Of course not. What this indicates to me is that the issue with you not doing dishes isn’t that you said you would do them. The issue is that if you never do the dishes, you’re a jerk! If you did the dishes for the past three evenings, then I don’t think there’s a big problem with you saying that you’re not going to do them tonight. You shouldn’t have said you’d do them, but I don’t think you owe the other person anything if they’re just taking advantage of your helpful nature to get you to do the dishes every night. However, if you don’t do a fair share of the housework, that’s problem whether you’ve agreed to or not. So in this situation, I still think it’s appropriate to think in terms of reliance damages. This is just a good reminder that there are other considerations aside from just broken promises.

In example (3), expectation damages would seek to put the person in the position they would have been had you not cheated. This is what most people do in this situation. It involves things like getting tested for STI’s, breaking off the other relationship, assuring your partner that it won’t happen again, and completing some kind of probationary period where your actions get some extra scrutiny. While this can be a good solution if maintaining your current relationship is your only consideration, I don’t favor it as an ethical requirement. What if you’re in love with the other person? What if you don’t want to be monogamous anymore? What if your partner is controlling and this is the excuse they need to micromanage your life?

Reliance damages put the person in the position as if you never promised monogamy in the first place. This might mean breaking up, if your partner desires only monogamous relationships. It might mean that you decide to open your relationship (although this is a notoriously bad way to start an open relationship). It might mean doing all of the same things as expectation damages and making a new promise of monogamy, if that’s what you want and your partner trusts you to keep to your word (which they probably shouldn’t).

Example (4) truly shows the absurdity of expectation damages. Expectation damages, in this situation, would mean getting remarried. Unless you’re a fanatical believer in the sanctity of marriage, I think we can agree that there is no ethical requirement to get remarried once you get divorced.

Reliance damages mean putting the other person in the position they would have been had you never promised to stay with them forever. In a divorce, a lot of this can be financial. Did the rely on your financial support and stop pursuing a career? Pay spousal support. Did they rely on your financial assistance when deciding to have a child? Pay child support. Did they take out a mortgage with you? Either figure out a compromise or sell the house and pay off the mortgage. Non-financially, there was probably a lot of emotional damage done, so make up for that as best you can.

Conclusion

When you’ve broken a promise, you’ve probably done something wrong. But what is it? Most analysis tends to view the act of breaking the promise as the bad thing, but I tend to disagree. I think it promotes freedom and autonomy much more to see the bad thing as making the promise in the first place. If you find yourself so motivated to break a promise that you overcome the psychological difficulty in doing so, I think most of the time it’s fair to say that you inaccurately predicted your feelings. Had you known that you would not want to stick to the agreements, you probably wouldn’t have made it. So I think it’s best to see the promise as the mistake.

Adopting the thinking behind reliance damages helps all parties focus on the promise as the mistake, and seeks to rectify the situation by putting the injured party in the position they would have been had the promise never been made. I want people to do whatever they want, as much of the time as possible. That can’t happen if our ethical thinking encourages people to stick to agreements even when they are no longer benefiting from them. I’d much rather adopt ethical rules which encourage the breaking of agreements that shouldn’t have been made in the first place and merely obligate people to make amends for the harm they caused.

Breaking promises is bad. Traditional morality says to keep your promises no matter what. My advice is different. I say, don’t make promises that you won’t want to keep. If you do, then making the promise was your mistake, and you are responsible for any injuries cause by another person’s reasonable reliance on your promise.

What Rolling Stone Can Teach Us About Creating Ethical Poly Communities

[CN: Rape]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

LESSON 1: LEAD WITH COMPASSION

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

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

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

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

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

LESSON 2: TRUST, BUT VERIFY

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

The Presumption of Innocence

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

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

Multiple Sides to Every Story

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

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

LESSON 3: PUT IN THE LEGWORK

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

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

LESSON 4: ADMIT WHEN THE EVIDENCE ISN’T THERE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop Telling Fat People to Be Thin

source: fiercefatties.com

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

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

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

Brown lays out what we know about diets:

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

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

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

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

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

Belluz disagrees:

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Claim Two: Losing Weight Doesn’t Improve Health

Brown’s article claims:

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

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

Belluz takes issue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belluz is unsympathetic:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics and Philosophy: A Defense of Egoism

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

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

I. Ethics are About Self-Interest

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Empowering Ourselves by Empowering Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V. Implications

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve previously argued that

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not-So-Radical Honesty

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

I. Radical Honesty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Where Dishonesty Is Coercive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Where Honesty is Ethically Optional

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV. Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________

Addendum (4/9/15):

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

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

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

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

And that’s what makes it a right.