Category Archives: Culture and Society

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.

Capitalization and Polyamory

Jana Lembke of NYmag.com has an article up about capitalization in relationships:

When something great happens in our personal lives, it’s exciting to share the event with people close to us. But at one time or another, you’ve probably disclosed some good news that wasn’t met with the degree of excitement or encouragement you had hoped for. It can be disappointing — even irritating — to expect someone’s ardent interest and get a lukewarm response instead. The process of telling others about our successes and getting a positive reaction is called “capitalization,” and research suggests it has major benefits for romantic relationships.

This concept reminded me of one of the reasons Gina and I decided to open up our relationship in the first place. There came a point, about five years into our relationship, where we realized that when the other had good news, instead of feeling positively, we got jealous instead. The typical example was a time when I got an unexpected day off from work. When I told Gina, instead of the active-constructive response I hope for, she got annoyed that she didn’t get a day off. I often reacted similarly when she got some unexpected benefit, thinking only of myself and failing to take joy in her good fortune.

When we talked about it, we realized that it was a toxic dynamic and we resolved to change it. From there, it was a direct line to polyamory. Once we realized that each other’s gain wasn’t our loss, monogamy no longer made sense. If we were able to take joy in a partner’s day off work, why couldn’t we take joy in a partner’s fun sexual experience? Or in a partner’s new relationship energy? Or in a particularly well-thought-out gift from another partner?

It wasn’t instantaneous of course. It took a lot of work and processing before we were able to stop thinking in terms of “fairness” or poly guilt and get to the point where we could feel real compersion. But it all started by realizing that capitalization was an important relationship skill, and that things that made each other happy should not be harmful to us.

Lembke also endorses the idea of making an effort:

Once you realize the importance of capitalization, there’s no reason not to make a conscious effort to do a better job of it. So the next time your beloved shares a personal success, remember that a heartfelt “congratulations!” goes a long way toward fanning those warm feelings that sustain relationship happiness.

It’s a lot easier to eliminate or mitigate sexual and romantic jealousy when we’re working to eliminate jealousy from all parts of our relationship. While jealousy tends to be stronger when it comes to sex and relationships, there are plenty of places where it can creep into our relationships. Making an effort to capitalize the small things can make it easier to be happy about the bigger things.

My Poly Nightmare

“A lot of unethical behavior comes from people trying to protect themselves by controlling partners”

— Franklin Veaux, Poly Living 2015

This is a story about how the polyamorous community failed me my family. It details our abuse and mistreatment, first at the hands of several of our partners and friends, and then at the hands of community leaders.

I was happy to have this conversation in private, and much of it has been. However, my antagonists have since moved the conversation into the public sphere, and therefore I think a public response is necessary. I am writing this for several reasons. First, I wish to address the public accusations against me, as they are, by and large, false and misleading. Second is purely self-expression. There are a lot of people attempting to shame me into silence, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to give in to those kinds of tactics. But more than anything, I am writing this in the hope that it will help the poly community improve.

I’m hoping that my story can help the rest of the community see how even well-meaning policies can end up furthering and reinforcing abuse if they aren’t well thought-out in advance, and how lazy, irresponsible, or corrupt leadership can mean disaster. Above all, this story is meant to show that we are not building communities that reflect our values, and to hopefully inspire some changes in the way that we do things.

One of my favorite quotes from More Than Two is the following (pp. 51-52):

We keep hearing that polyamory is hard work. We don’t agree-at least not for the reasons that people say. But developing the skills to be successful in poly relationships? That’s a different story. Learning to understand and express your needs, learning to take responsibility for your emotions… that’s hard work. Once you’ve developed those skills, poly relationships aren’t hard.

In the above quote, authors Veaux and Rickert identify two key skills that make poly relationships easy: (1) understanding and expressing your needs; and (2) taking responsibility for your emotions. This is a story about people who do these two things and people who don’t, and the conflicts that arise between them. At different points in this story, I fall into both categories. But if you don’t agree that it’s best to be in the former category, then you can save yourself a lot of reading and just conclude that I’m a jerk and our communities are fine, because that’s all this story is going to show you.

This story is completely true, as best I can remember it. However, memory is seriously unreliable, easily distorted, and even falsely manipulated.  Many of these events took place years before this account was written, making all memories of events especially unreliable. Wherever possible, I’ve relied on written records. Unless otherwise indicated, anything that appears in quotation marks is a direct quote from a written source. Any description of emails, texts, or IM’s has been made after a thorough review of all such communications, and I’ve attempted to give a reasonable amount of context for any such communications where appropriate. I’ve also attempted to verify accounts with witnesses whenever written accounts aren’t available.

Still, several of the events contained in this account are not recorded anywhere, and so rely purely on memory for their descriptions. The necessity of this is unfortunate, but unavoidable. I’ve tried to make it easy to tell which portions are from memory and which are from records, and the portions relying on memory should be viewed with greater skepticism.

This story is told in ten parts. It carries a trigger warning for abuse, sexual assault, gaslighting, victim blaming, and just generally people being awful to each other:

  • Part 1: About Me. Background about my views on relationships, Ask vs. Guess Culture, certain boundaries I have, and how I respond to criticism.
  • Part 2: Opening Up. A short summary of Gina and my early experiences with open relationships, my game-changing relationship with Jessie, and some poor partner- selection decisions that Gina and I made.
  • Part 3: Failure to Communicate. This part discusses my relationship with Ginny Brown and her massive dishonesty, which I consider the worst romantic relationship of my life.
  • Part 4: Gina’s Abusive Relationship with Shaun. The story of Shaun McGonigal’s abuse of my wife Gina for over a year, Ginny’s enabling and excuse-making, and its effects on my household.
  • Part 5: The Community Abandons Gina. A short interlude about the lack of support that Gina received from the poly community after reporting that she was an abuse victim.
  • Part 6: Terry. My greatest regret: my first date with a friend of Ginny’s, my own negligence, and our mutual inability to see each other’s lack of enthusiasm about sexual activity.
  • Part 7: Idealization, Devaluation, Discard. Our ex-friend Hilary Nunes, her unwavering support for us, and her complete 180 after we stopped giving her what she wanted.
  • Part 8: Ginny and Shaun Attack. Ginny and Shaun’s first attempt to blame us for Shaun’s abuse of Gina and Ginny’s dishonesty and enabling.
  • Part 9: The Second Attack and the Community’s Disappointing Response. Shaun, Ginny, and Hilary’s February 2015 offensive and the shameful and counterproductive way it was handled by the Polyamory Leadership Network and Billy Holder of Atlanta Poly Weekend.
  • Part 10: Waking Up From the Nightmare. A discussion of how to establish real accountability in the poly community.

Amber has also told her story, which people may find relevant.

On Culpability

Culpability is a general theme of this story. Culpability is a term from the criminal law, and generally depends on one’s mental state. I feel that’s a reasonable way to judge what degree of blame someone bears when someone else gets hurt in our personal lives as well as the legal system. Our system generally recognizes four categories of culpability for harm done (in descending order):

  • Purpose: a person is considered to have acted purposefully when the harm done was the conscious goal of the actor. When a person takes an action with the explicit goal of causing harm, their mental state is considered purposeful.
  • Knowledge: a person is considered to have acted knowingly when they were aware that their actions would almost certainly cause harm, but such harm was not their conscious goal. When a person takes an action that they know will cause harm, their mental state is considered knowledgeable.
  • Recklessness: a person is considered to have acted recklessly when they acted in conscious and unreasonable disregard of a known risk. A person is reckless where they are aware that their actions have a substantial risk of causing harm, and such risk is unreasonable under the circumstances.
  • Negligence: a person is considered to have acted negligently when they took an unreasonable risk that they should have known about, but were not consciously aware of. Where a person is unaware that their actions pose an unreasonable risk of causing harm, but they should have known the risk, their mental state is negligent.

Except for the unusual situation where a person announces their intentions, a person’s mental state is inferred from circumstances, which usually requires a rather comprehensive understanding of the facts of the situation. People are presumed to intend the natural and probable results of their actions. Factfinders will properly consider the “totality of the circumstances” in order to determine a person’s mental state. If there is evidence to suggest that someone acted with a certain level of intent, then any such evidence is worth considering.

Outside of certain exceptional circumstances, our legal system does not punish people for actions unless their mental state falls under one of the categories above. The theory is that, unless we are at least willing to say that someone should have known that their actions would cause harm, they are not responsible for the harm done. In terms of degree, a negligent mental state generally carries far less punishment than a reckless mental state, which carries less punishment than a knowing mental state. I consider this a reasonable way to judge how blameworthy a person is, so it is the standard I apply in my personal life as well, and the standard I feel we should use in our shared spaces.

Louisa Leontiades expresses the importance of intentions for reasons other than culpability:

For me there is a striking difference between continuing to be an abuser when it is intentional and conscious and being an abuser when it is unintentional and unconscious. The difference has less to do with levels of culpability, and more with understanding which source to tackle in order to prevent further abuse even whilst acknowledging that all abuse has severe ramifications whether it is unintentional and unconscious or intentional and conscious. The goal must be to become conscious of it, in others and especially in ourselves.

It’s often said that “intentions are not magic,” which is true. Nothing about a person’s intentions erases the harm done by their actions, so a person’s intentions are not relevant to the question of whether harm was done. Such harm should be acknowledged and appreciated regardless of fault or intent. A person’s mental state is only relevant to the question of how much responsibility that person bears for the harm done. If we are unable to conclude that a person knew or should have known that their actions were unreasonably harmful, then it makes no sense to place any blame or fault on that person for harm done. If, on the other hand, we can conclude that a person was aware of the harm they were causing and did not have a good reason for doing so, then it makes sense to hold that person accountable for that harm.

“Abuse” is itself a loaded and vague term. Some people describe any relationship where a person is significantly harmed as abusive. Others reserve use of the term to describe a situation where a person’s behavior was intentional. Some people use it to describe mild irritation. No single use of the term is correct or incorrect, but inconsistent use leads to confusion. For purposes of this document, “abuse” will be used only to describe situations where the abuser has been at least negligent, and a person will not be described as an abuser unless I’m willing to say that, at the very least, they should have known that their actions would be unreasonably harmful.

Culpability, Guilt, and Emotional Blackmail

My girlfriend Amber and I are reading Emotional Blackmail by Susan Forward. A general theme of the book is that guilt is a favorite weapon of blackmailers. A blackmailer’s favorite statement is “you hurt me,” because it’s an easy way to create guilt which can then be leveraged to control people. From the book (p. 69):

Love and respect are equated with total obedience, and when that’s not forthcoming, it’s as though a betrayal has taken place. The party line of the blackmailer, repeated with infinite variations, is You are only doing this to hurt me. You care nothing for my feelings.

Keeping the focus on culpability short-circuits the blackmailer’s attempt to create guilt by requiring a discussion of facts and competing needs, not just one person’s feelings. Blackmailers are used to a situation where the mere acknowledgment that someone was hurt means that the other person feels guilty and usually gives in to whatever they’re asking.

One of the first points made by the book is that “blackmail takes two.” Because it’s difficult to make me feel guilty unless I also feel culpable, emotional blackmail is mostly ineffective against me. A person can’t just say “you hurt me” to create guilt unless my culpability is apparent. To create guilt, they must say “you hurt me by doing this specific thing, which you should not have done because….” which is difficult to do without a legitimate case. Would-be emotional blackmailers usually give up when it becomes clear that just saying “you hurt me” isn’t enough to create a fog of guilt. I consider this one of my most important defenses against emotional blackmail, and probably the biggest reason that would-be emotional blackmailers have such a problem with me.

Rejecting the idea that one should automatically feel guilty over another person’s pain also helps with good communication. It’s much easier to inform someone that their actions hurt you when you’re not worried about them collapsing into a pile of guilt or getting overly defensive. When both people in the conversation require culpability to assign guilt or blame, it’s easy for “you hurt me” to be the start of a conversation, not the end of one.

The Right Way to Have Relationships

I feel very strongly that people should be allowed, free of negative judgments, to conduct their relationships however they please so long as everyone involved gives coercion-free, informed consent. What is a healthy relationship for one person may be severely damaging to a different person (and vice versa). I know that the relationships that are healthy and enjoyable for me can be miserable for the wrong kind of person, and can even result in feeling abused. The converse also applies: relationships that are healthy for others can be seriously damaging to me, leaving me feeling abused and mistreated. I believe that everyone should be given the choice for themselves about what kind of relationship(s) to have, and how to express them. So long as people give informed consent that is free of coercion, I don’t think anyone ought to tell them how to behave with each other. I also have no tolerance for the attitude that that one’s preferred way to practice relationships is obvious, and that everyone should conform to that preference without even being told what it is.

Because legitimate consent must be informed, I consider it unethical to be dishonest about anything that you know (or should know) will impact someone’s decision to be in a relationship or how to practice that relationship. A person cannot consent to something they don’t know about, so misleading people into forming relationships is a serious consent violation.

On a practical level, it is impossible to give someone all of the information that may impact their decisions about your relationship. Different people care about different things, and nobody can guess everything that’s going to be important to someone else. So just like in any other situation, people should not be blamed for failing to make disclosures unless they knew or should have known that such disclosures were necessary to establish informed consent.

Part 1: About Me

The Community Does Not Need You to Stay Quiet While Your Partner Is Abused

[UPDATE: Ginny has posted a partial walkback, which articulates a substantially more reasonable position]

Have you ever read an article online, and thought “this is great information! I’m going to share this with everyone!” until you got about 3/4 of the way down, when your jaw just drops because you can’t believe the absolute bullshit place the article went? That’s what it was like when I read Ginny’s post on what to do if your partner is accused of abuse. It starts out with a lot of great advice about supporting abuse victims. I particularly like the parts where she notes the difference between actual believing victims and engaging in victim-supportive behavior. As someone who believes very strongly in the value of honesty, I appreciate that there is no pressure to be dishonest, and the pointing out that there are ways to support victims without giving up our skepticism about how we form beliefs.

Then she gets to this:

Sometimes, accusations of abuse are themselves a form of abuse or manipulation. Your accused partner might themselves be a victim, in this case. If you believe that to be true, then it is absolutely appropriate to direct a lot of compassion and support to them — privately.

I’m sorry, what? I’d like you all to read that again so you understand what she is suggesting. What she is saying is that if your partner is being abused, then you need to shut up and take it. She’s saying that if you try to speak up against the abuse that your partner – an abuse victim – is taking, then you’re not supporting abuse victims.

grumpy cat no

No. Absolutely not. Ginny’s solution creates a race to the internet, where the first person to report abuse gets to be heard, and everyone else needs to shut up or be accused of being victim-blaming assholes. It’s well-known that abusers will often play the victim to divert attention, solicit sympathy, and enable further abuse. Ginny’s system gives abuser an extra incentive to play the victim publicly. If you’re the first person to go public, then you’re untouchable! Anyone sticking up for you is an asshole abuse apologist!

Secrecy enables abusers. Abusers know that there is a bias toward victims, and will take advantage of that bias whenever possible. And they will deflect and resist any attempt at honest investigation of the facts. The key to exposing abusers is sunlight, not darkness. Establishing accountability takes effort, it takes investigation, and it takes judgment. It does not require the silencing of abuse victims and their supporters. And to suggest it does is shameful.

If you are serious about stopping abuse in our communities, there is only one solution: actual investigation. Facts must be determined, evidence gathered, statements taken, and defenses presented. Yes, it’s a pain in the ass, but nobody said it would be easy. Yes, it might take a while, which is why suspensions pending investigation are a thing. Yes, you might get it wrong, and that would be regrettable, but if you don’t investigate, your chances of getting it wrong are way higher.

Investigation can be done in a victim-supportive way. There is no need to interrogate victims, demand evidence, or even reveal their identities (in most circumstances). As shown in the linked post above, often, once you get both sides of the story, the undisputed facts will be enough to make a decision. If not, work with what you have. Respect the alleged victim’s decision to provide or not provide evidence. Allow the victim to be as active or passive in the process as possible. But if both sides are pointing toward each other, recognize that either could be the true victim, and don’t automatically weigh one side heavier than the other just because they came forward first.

But don’t you dare pretend to be supportive of abuse victims and then claim that abuse victims, or their partners, should shut up and take the abuse. If your partner is being attacked by a malicious abuser, you go right ahead and say so, as loud as you want, to whoever you want. Ginny’s system empowers abusers to keep abusing, and drafts the entire community into doing so. Do not fall into that trap.

A Better Way to Ask for An Apology

How to Give an Apology

Last year, there was a really great post going around by JoEllen at cuppacocoa.com about a better way to give apologies. Ostensibly, the post was about how parents or caregivers should ask children to apologize, but it soon became clear that the advice was applicable to anyone. JoEllen’s suggestion for how to phrase an apology takes the following form:

I’m sorry for…
This is wrong because…
In the future, I will…
Will you forgive me?

Each step is important and serves a different function. The first section (“I’m sorry for…”) shows that you understand what it was that you did.

Wrong: I’m sorry for being mean.
Right: I’m sorry for saying that nobody wants to be your friend.

In the “I’m sorry for…” section, apologizing for hurting someone’s feelings is inappropriate, because it doesn’t show show that you understand the specific action you took that was wrong. This section requires that you be specific about your actions.

The second section (“This is wrong because…”) shows that you understand not just that your action was wrong, but the reasoning process behind why it was wrong. It shows that you have a good chance of effectively avoiding causing similar harm in the future, because you know how to recognize right from wrong and apply it to your actions. This is the section where it is appropriate to say “it was wrong because it hurt you.”

The third section (“In the future, I will…”) shows that you are taking the understanding you’ve shown in the first two section, and translating it into concrete action. The fourth section (“Will you forgive me?”) empowers the other person to decide if the apology is accepted. I also think it’s a good idea to add an extra section along the lines of “how can I make it up to you?” This shows your commitment to making things right, and empowers the other person to decide the best way to do that.

How to Ask For an Apology

Effectively asking for an apology is simply a mirror of the effective apology. If you feel wronged by someone, and you are interested in approaching the issue constructively, then it’s important that your request for an apology adequately empowers the other person to give an effective apology. It also sets the tone for the entire exchange, and shows that your goal is constructive dialogue, rather than vengeance or retribution.

An effective request for an apology would look like this:

Here is what you did…
This is wrong because…
Here is what you could have done instead…
I would like an apology [or another specific action]

Be Specific About the Actions That Were Wrong

The first section (“Here is what you did…”) is critically important because it informs the other person of what specific action you have a problem with. Similarly to the first section of an apology, it is inappropriate here to say “you were mean” or “you hurt me.”

Merely saying “you hurt me” doesn’t give the other person the information they need to effectively apologize. In order to be able to give an effective apology, the person needs to know which actions they took that you consider wrong. Be specific. The most effective way to adequately describe a person’s actions is to imagine that you’re telling a third party what happened, who knows nothing about the situation.

Bad: you made it so I couldn’t participate in the conversation.
Good: both times I tried to tell my story, you cut me off and talked over me.

Being specific when asking for an apology helps avoid confusing the issue. I know that I get offended when people lie to me, even inconsequential or “white” lies. However, people tend to lie to me when they are afraid that I will be angry if they tell me the truth. For instance, if a partner has a date with a new romantic interest, but says that they are going out with a different friend, I would be angry. But it’s important that I specifically state that I am angry about the dishonesty, not about my partner going on a date. Demanding an apology for having a date would be controlling and disempowering, and my partner might reasonably refuse to apologize. However, if I’m specific that it’s the dishonesty that upset me, we sidestep that trap. Merely saying “your actions hurt me” is insufficient to let my partner know that it was only the dishonesty that bothered me.

Being specific about the actions for which you want an apology also helps avoid a situation where one or both parties have bad facts. Sometimes, you can say “here is what you did…” and the other person will say “I didn’t do that.” Even if you don’t believe them, it refocuses the disagreement onto the disputed facts. Any constructive conflict resolution requires that the specific conflict be identified, and if it’s factual, that’s really important to know.

It is also important to clearly distinguish between things you’ve observed, things you’ve heard secondhand, and your interpretations of your observations. “You hit me” is a direct observation. “Terry and Jean said that you hit them” is a secondhand observation. “You like to hit people” is an interpretation. In particular, it’s often not helpful to present your interpretations as facts. Your interpretations are not facts, and all observations are open to interpretation. Leaving room for the fact that your interpretations are not certain, and remaining open to alternative explanations, is important in any constructive discussion.

Explain the Problem

The second section (“This is wrong because…”) serves as another way of narrowing the dispute. Often, two people can agree on what happened, but disagree over whether it was wrong.

Merely pointing out that you were hurt by the actions of someone else is insufficient to show that their actions were wrong. Healthy boundary-setting can hurt people. As Emma Fett has pointed out, “‘I was victimized by acts of control’ is not the same as ‘I was victimized by the other person’s resistance to my control.'” As Franklin Veaux has noted:

people who abuse genuinely feel that if they tell a partner to do something and the partner doesn’t do it, they’re the ones being abused. I’ve talked to so many people who complain, “My partner isn’t doing what I tell them to!” It hurts me when my partner doesn’t let me control them! That’s abuse! My partner is abusing me by not obeying me!

Obviously, that is a situation where a party is feeling wronged, but has not actually been wronged. But the larger issue is that people are allowed to have different ethics and preferences in their relationships. Ethics are complicated, and reasonable minds can disagree about what is right or wrong in any given circumstance. While some things are not up for debate (e.g. violating clearly communicated physical boundaries is wrong), much of the ethics surrounding interpersonal relationships is highly debated and not at all obvious.

Much of the process of building a social circle involves finding people whose ethics and preferences align with each other. I like to be treated a certain way, so I look for people share my preferences on how people ought to treat each other and avoid people with conflicting preferences. I try to be as open as possible about my opinions and preferences regarding interpersonal relationships, in part because they’re not shared by everyone and I want everyone to know what they’re getting into. Being so open about my preferences tends to attract compatible people and repel incompatible people.

However, it’s not a perfect system, and no two people ever agree 100% on everything. So even among friends, it’s possible to have pretty substantial disagreements about ethics and preferences. When asking for an apology, it’s unreasonable to expect the other person to already know and agree why their actions were wrong unless it’s particularly obvious. Spelling out the reasons why you feel the other person’s actions were wrong makes sure the other person is aware of your ethics/preferences, and invites them to either agree or disagree. Even if the process leads to disagreement, disagreements about how people should behave can be very informative to future decisions regarding your boundaries with that person, and what kind of relationship you want to have.

Tell People How They Could Have Done Better

The third section (“Here is what you could have done instead…”) is important, in that it’s a way of showing that you respect the other person’s needs, and that you have considered the context. Just pointing out problems isn’t constructive unless you offer a potential solution. And if you offer a solution that satisfies the other person’s needs but also avoids the problematic behavior, then the other person knows that you are trying to be constructive, and that you consider their needs to be equally important to your own.

Bad: you shouldn’t have eaten the last piece of chicken.
Good: you could have asked if anyone else wanted the last piece, and you could have eaten the leftover pasta if you were still hungry.

When asking for an apology, it’s easy to give the impression that your perspective is the only one that matters. When you are in pain, it’s difficult to focus on anything but your pain. This section lets the other person know that their perspective still matters, that you have taken their needs into account, and that you have not committed the fundamental attribution error (where your own actions are seen as a reaction to the situation you’re in, but others’ actions are seen as indicative of their character).

By offering a reasonable solution, you are also communicating your own preferences. While the second section communicates your preferences in the abstract, this section translates them into actions. Often, a disagreement that appears large when it is discussed on the abstract level will turn out to be rather small when it comes to how it manifests as action. It is another way of focusing the disagreement and allowing people to either reach consensus or drill down to reach the heart of the disagreement.

Ask for What You Want

The final section (“I would like an apology [or another specific action]”) is important because it informs the other person how to make amends. If an apology is sufficient, it tends to be helpful for the other party to know that. If some other action is needed, it’s critically important that the other party is aware of what is needed. Asking for what you want is an important part of any interpersonal relationship, and it’s especially important when you feel wronged. If there is a path to healing, draw the other person a map. It’s not always reasonable to expect the other person to be able to find their way all on their own.

Plan for a Dialogue

If the steps above are followed, the other party will have a good idea of where you stand, and will have the information they need to understand your perspective. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will agree with your perspective uncritically. The above steps are meant as a starting point to a conversation. Done properly, they will demonstrate that you are approaching the disagreement from a constructive standpoint, and will provide necessary information. But even the most well-meaning and understanding people can have disagreements on facts, interpretations, ethics/preferences, and the reasonableness of the requested solution. In some situations, consensus will be easy. You will articulate your issues, the other person will see their error, and they will apologize. Other times, it will take some back-and-forth. The thing to remember is that a lot of the areas of disagreement are places that reasonable people can disagree.

Even when it comes to factual disputes, reasonable people can disagree. People’s memories are unreliable, and memories of traumatic events are especially unreliable, so any dispute that relies on human memories to determine what happened is dangerous. In such situations, it may be prudent to consider the other person’s fact pattern, and give the response you would give if it were true. Recognizing the unreliability of memory may mean that it’s never possible to conclusively say what happened, but that’s ok. You can still agree on what should have happened under the different factual circumstances presented, and agree that certain actions would be wrong. It can also be helpful, in those situation, if you are the accused party, to try to make amends regardless, in recognition that your memory is fallible and that the other person may be correct about what happened. At the same time, if you are the aggrieved party, it can be helpful to recognize that your own memory of the events may be flawed, and show understanding if a different person has a different recollection.

When To Ask For an Apology

Like giving an effective apology, an effective request for an apology take substantially more time and effort than the usual variety. When you’re in pain, you may not have that bandwidth, and that’s fine. If someone is hurting you wrongfully, you don’t owe it to them to communicate that fact in the most helpful way possible.

But at the same time, it’s difficult to be sure that the other person is definitely in the wrong until hearing their side of the story. If you can imagine a situation in which their actions may have been appropriate, it’s often best not to treat them as though their guilt is predetermined.

Generally, the quality of your request for an apology should be proportional to your desire to receive an apology and/or have a constructive dialogue. Usually, this will correspond to a desire to have a well-functioning relationship with a person. If your hope is to have a constructive discussion regarding the ways in which you were hurt, and come out the other side feeling positive about each other, it’s to your advantage to make your request as effective as possible. Likewise, if it is tremendously important to you that the other person understand what they did for some other reason, it’s probably best to follow the steps above. If it’s less important to you to get through to the person, it might not we worth the time and energy. It’s always a personal decision, and not every expression of pain needs to be as constructive as possible. However, if your goal is to improve a relationship, it may be worth the investment of time and energy to effectively ask for an apology.

copyright 2015 by Wesley Fenza

What Do We Want?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Honest About Our Motivations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics Are Important

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

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

I. We Are Surrounded By Moral Dilemmas

Life is a series of moral dilemmas. Every day, we make 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.

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

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

II. Our Ethical Intuitions Are Unreliable

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

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

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

III. Incoherent Ethics Lead to Incoherent Actions

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

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

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

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

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

IV. Alexander’s Morals Are Incoherent

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

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

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

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

V. Conclusion

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

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