Link Post for August

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Effective Altruism

Why do we ignore genocides?

The four kinds of problems: problems to be solved, problems to be gotten over, crucial considerations, and defeating problems.

Parenting

Read Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift to prepare yourself for parenthood and its effects on your relationship. “The problem: We tend judge our husband’s contributions not by whether they are equal to ours, but by how they measure up other dads’ contributions.”

Virtually every health website contains misinformation about preeclampsia.

Having a child, like heterosexuality, is a very stupid idea.”

Civil Liberties

Sarah Huckabee Sanders used to be an activist for voting rights.

Louisiana police department under the impression that it is constitutional to jail anybody for up to 72 hours without probable cause. (It is not.)

Police officers routinely misgender and deadname murdered trans people, potentially hampering investigations.

One man’s quest to bring better ramen to the incarcerated.

Texan professor fired for his support of gun rights.

Border patrol agent almost decides not to listen to a podcast because the guest is a sex worker, listens to it and discovers the sex worker was actually really interesting, realizes he’s bigoted, starts to think about how else his bigotry affects his actions… and quits the border patrol. Absolutely heartwarming.

Miscellaneous

A beautiful personal essay about abuse in academia.

The student loan system is a perfect example of how there’s no government program so awful you can’t make it worse by adding corporations to it.

“Stigma against porn, kink, and sex work is bipartisan—which is precisely why this particular tweet [about Bigfoot porn] was so effective in garnering attention and in targeting Riggleman.”

Just Plain Neat

A student mistakes an example of an unsolved statistics problem for an unusually difficult homework problem and, due to the power of positive thinking, solves it. Sounds like glurge? Actually, according to Snopes, it totally happened.

There are lots of Thai restaurants in America because the Thai government deliberately promotes them.

Pop songs written by fluent but non-native English speakers have some weird lines.

It never occurred to me before that elementary school history books would have to talk about President Trump. Inside what is no doubt the world’s most awkward job.

Bird with fifty ducklings.

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Book Reviews for August

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The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against The United States: A terrifying science fiction novel by an expert in nuclear nonproliferation, the 2020 Commission Report creates a vivid picture of a world where misunderstandings and recklessness result in the death of millions of people in a nuclear war. The format is very interesting: it’s written as a commission report similar to the 9/11 commission report, in which experts are told by Congress to figure out exactly what went wrong to make the nuclear war happen. The format creates suspense and allows for a lot of otherwise tedious infodumps. Up-to-the-minute news (several stories from 2018 are mentioned) creates a sense of realism. For the best effect, I recommend reading this one soon, before real life proves it wrong (one hopes).

Building the Benedict Option: In many ways, I am not the target audience for this book. If anything, I’m exactly the antitheist, queer, sex-positive social justice warrior that the Benedict Option is meant to separate itself from. As such, there’s a lot in here I disagree with. For example, while I agree with Libresco about the importance of alloparenting, many people who are not aunts and uncles can alloparent and many aunts and uncles have no interest in the task. As such, I find her claim that we should all have lots of children so that our children will have more alloparents baffling.

However, the death of community and the isolation of the nuclear family are things that I’m concerned about, and as such I’m interested in potential solutions. Building the Benedict Option is at its best when it’s gently encouraging the reader to practice the virtue of hospitality, making it feel attainable to invite friends over to a dinner party or take cookies to your neighbors. That is something we can all support.

Also, I liked the shoutouts to my friends. (Ray Arnold, you’re in a book!)

Starved for Science: I purchased this book before realizing it was published in 2008 and therefore is sadly out of date; however, I’m not sure how to get more up-to-date information about GMOs in Africa. Be aware that all information in this review is a decade out of date.

Starved for Science makes the case that agricultural science, particularly but not solely GMOs, is under-utilized in Africa, resulting in more famines and malnourishment than would otherwise occur. In developed countries, many people are skeptical of GMOs, in part because we are generally well-fed and most people hardly notice the few cents’ drop in price that results from the use of GMOs. (Notably, people in the developed world are fine with genetically modified drugs, because they do notice and care about a longer and healthier life.) If citizens of developed countries prefer to pay more money for food that they feel is more natural, even though it isn’t actually any healthier, that’s fine– people are allowed to care about dumb things.

Unfortunately, the fear of GMOs has also been exported to Africa, which desperately needs GMOs, for several reasons. African countries export to Europe, which is hysterical about GMOs, and are afraid that adoption of GMO technology would hurt their trade. Africa relies heavily on foreign aid, which at the time the book was written tended to underfund agricultural science and not to fund GMOs at all. Certain nonprofit groups have campaigned for strict regulations on GMOs in Africa and have misled African governments about the dangers of GMOs. Under pressure from developed countries, the UN has promoted very cautious regulatory schemes for GMOs, which have an outsize effect on African countries because they didn’t have any GMO regulatory scheme to begin with.

Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Autism in adults is underresearched, and autism in girls is underresearched, so combined it means that a lot of this book is like “here’s some anecdotes, we really hope that at some point someone is going to do some research on them.” (I continue to be confused about where that huge research budget for autism is going. They can’t be spending that much money on trying to give flies developmental disabilities.) Still, I think it’s worth attending to the fact that autism in women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB people) presents differently than autism in cis men.

Most of all, this book feels shallow to me. A chapter might say that autistic women and AFAB people are particularly likely to be LGBTQ, or that autistic mothers have a hard time with the expectation that they intuitively understand and feel strong emotions about their children, or that autistic women and AFAB people are likely to have “socially acceptable” special interests like boy band members or popular book series, or that autistic women often marry autistic men even if one or both is undiagnosed. But it rarely draws out the implications of these facts, explains what it is like to be an autistic woman/AFAB person, or provides advice either for the autistic female and AFAB readers or their loved ones.

While the book acknowledges the high rate of gender dysphoria among autistic people assigned female at birth, it repeatedly insists on referring to them as women, often in spite of their explicit self-identification.

Beating Back the Devil: I genuinely don’t understand why the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service isn’t a TV show. It would be amazing. It’s half cop show, half medical show. We follow a quirky team of surprisingly attractive epidemiologists as they investigate ripped-from-the-headlines epidemics and public health crises. Epidemiologists attached to a public health department actually do a bunch of different stuff, so you could totally realistically have them investigate West Nile spread by organ transfusions one week and track down which vegetables are making people sick the enxt. (There is generally one EIS officer per public health department, not a quirky and surprisingly attractive team, but we’d have to make concessions for television.) Once a season they’d investigate a terrorist attack. It would be great and then lots of people would want to become epidemiologists. Seriously, guys. I bet it would improve the world’s pandemic preparedness so much.

Anyway, this was a great book and I highly recommend it for people who want to read a suspenseful book about brave and hardworking epidemiologists investigating things.

These Beautiful Bones: A book about nonsexual implications of the Catholic theology of the body, which has as its primary thesis the idea that God wants you to act like an upper-middle-class person.

Consider the chapter on clothing. Of course, These Beautiful Bones opposes dressing in a sexualized fashion. (The author offers the opinion that wearing Daisy Dukes says that you have such low self-esteem that you see yourself as an object and want other people to see you as an object too. Personally, I think if you can’t be sexually attracted to someone and not see them as an object for your sexual gratification, that sounds like a personal problem.) To their credit, however, the author mostly discusses nonsexual ethics of clothing. To their detriment, the author’s primary opinion is that these overly casual modernists should dress up nicely for church and stop wearing blue jeans to work.

The moral issue of spending too much money on clothes is never addressed. Indeed, the author implies it is virtuous to spend more money on clothes, since nice clothes are expensive and it costs more to have clothes for several different levels of formality. Nowhere does the author mention not showing off one’s wealth, despite the fact that this is literally the only modesty issue ever addressed in the Bible (1 Timothy 2:9). Being anti-consumerist is briefly mentioned, but the author definitely leaves open the interpretation that it’s okay to spend a bunch of money on clothes as long as you don’t have labels all over the place.

The whole book is like this.

Strongly disrecommended.

(To be clear, I think that buying nice clothes can be a moral thing to do: dressing unprofessionally and losing your job is not exactly helping anyone. I think people should donate a sustainable percentage of their income, and part of sustainability is having an entertainment budget. Choosing to spend your entertainment budget on clothes is okay, just like spending it on movie tickets or restaurant meals or a vacation is okay. I am strongly opposed to the idea that wearing nice clothes in general is more ethical than wearing cheap clothes in general. I am also strongly opposed to bad Biblical interpretation, and I think the clear and consistent message of the Bible is that you should sell all you have and give it to the poor.)

[The next three reviews are of porn books.]

Show Yourself to Me: Queer Kink Erotica: Some of the stories are very hot, particularly if you’re interested in trans people, knives, Daddy/boy play, or boots/feet. I’m three out of four, so I enjoyed it a lot. Unfortunately, I kept being thrown out of the stories by the author’s conspicuous social justice politics. I don’t want to hear about how the thing that Alice found really attractive about Bob was his commitment to constant affirmative consent, nor am I particularly interested in being told that the characters all accommodate each other’s disabilities. Show, don’t tell, Jesus.

In addition, many of the stories are far too short for my taste. Just when I’m getting into the swing of things the story ends.

The Slave: The Marketplace series is a BDSM porn series focused on a subculture in which wealthy people actually buy and sell slaves, all of whom are people who have enthusiastically consented to being bought and sold. Each book focuses on a few slave or slaves as they go through the process of being trained and sold. If it sounds like your thing, it probably is.

Characterization is the strongest point of the series. Each slave has a unique personality, strengths, and weaknesses, and their training is customized for them as an individual; you find yourself rooting for the slaves to succeed at their training and even skipping past sex scenes so you can find out whether they end up okay. Robin, the protagonist of The Slave, is no exception.

The Slave is probably an ideal entry point for heterosexual male readers, because Robin is female and present in all the sex scenes, and all the other books have a lot of gay male sex along with the straight and lesbian sex.

Chris Parker, the slave trainer and series protagonist, is probably my single favorite pornographic representation of a trans man. The author clearly put significant thought into how his gender dysphoria affects his sex life, creating a realistic and very sexy depiction of transmasculine sexuality.

The bonus short story at the end is one of my favorite Marketplace pieces: Robin is dressed as a boy in order to serve as a bootblack at a gay male orgy, and winds up getting fucked while still in drag.

The Trainer: By far my least favorite book in the Marketplace series. The author makes the puzzling decision to have the viewpoint character be a slave trainer who thinks slavery is all about sex and who orders a bunch of domestic slaves he’s supposed to be training to have sex with him. Naturally, this means I spend every sex scene for the first four-fifths of the book dying of secondhand embarrassment. Secondhand embarrassment is not hot.

Only worth reading if The Slave made you a hardcore Robin/Chris shipper, as there is some excellent Robin/Chris content.

Shared Environment Effects are Real

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I am a very heretical rationalist, because I believe in an effect of parenting on children.

Among relatively homogeneous samples, about half of variation is genetic, while about half of variation is the product of nonshared environment. However, much of nonshared environment may be the product of measurement error: more careful studies suggest, for example, that 85% of variation in personality is explained by genetics and only 15% by non-shared environment, suggesting that a full 70% of non-shared environment is actually measurement error.

Some people conclude from that study that, in fact, nothing has an effect on anything and your entire personality is based on genetics. I conclude from that study that this is not a very reliable test.

It is very very difficult to pick up small effects with unreliable tests. You need a huge sample size to do so. Twin studies don’t generally have huge sample sizes, because there just aren’t that many twins in the world. And even social science studies that don’t have any twins are regularly underpowered, because journals don’t care about statistical power in the same way that they care about p-values.

It definitely looks like we’re in the sort of world where parenting could have effects. Studies of children who grew up in Romanian orphanages have shown that spending more than six months in the orphanages– in which they had inadequate food, poor hygiene, little social or intellectual stimulation, and no love or affection– results in cognitive impairment, autismlike symptoms, and emotional problems. There is a shared environment effect in heterogeneous samples– such as those which include both rich and poor parents– which is presumably not solely because of the salutary effects inherited wealth can have on the personality. If we know that extreme differences in parenting have effects we can detect, and we know that there are lots of small effects we wouldn’t be able to detect even in principle, then it seems to me that we should assume those small effects exist.

Believing in zero role for shared environment also fails to pass the sniff test. Lots of people, I think, will agree that whether or not you talk to your baby might not have any long-term consequences. But the “zero role for shared environment” position requires yourself to commit to the position that all of the following have either zero correlation between siblings or no effect on children’s psychology whatsoever:

  • Lead poisoning.
  • All other forms of air and water pollution.
  • Prenatal nutrition.
  • Drinking during pregnancy. (Not just light drinking, I mean slamming down ten shots a night every night for your entire pregnancy.)
  • Smoking during pregnancy.
  • Illicit drug use during pregnancy.
  • Secondhand smoke exposure during childhood.
  • Childhood nutrition.
  • Childhood sleep deprivation.
  • School quality.
  • Whether there are drugs being sold in front of your house.
  • Childhood mental health treatment.
  • Childhood physical health treatment.

Sure, maybe you can quibble about one or another of these. Maybe you think that sending your kid to Andover will result in exactly the same consequences as sending your kid to a school where they learn that evolution is a lie because the Loch Ness Monster is real. Maybe you think there’s no real harm in feeding your child lead paint for dinner and that fetal alcohol syndrome is a lie made up by people who just want you to stop having fun, man. Maybe you think no one ever smokes through more than one pregnancy. But it seems really implausible to me that every single one of those either doesn’t have an effect or isn’t correlated between siblings.

People who don’t believe in shared environment sometimes propose mechanisms for what non-shared environment is. “Maybe siblings have different friends!” they say. Okay, and your claim is that there is literally zero correlation between who siblings are friends with? No parents ever bring all their children to another child’s house for a shared playdate? Poorly funded inner-city schools contain exactly the same set of people to be friends with as wealthy schools in the suburbs? “Parents treat different children differently!” they say. Okay, and your claim is that there is literally zero correlation between how parents treat one kid and another kid? No similarities based on a parent being a really angry person, or a really demanding person, or a single mom working three jobs who barely has time to take care of herself let alone a child?

The only reasonable course here is to grant “okay, maybe lead poisoning might increase criminality, and children who grow up in a house with lead paint are more likely to have lead poisoning than other children.” That opens the door for other small effects of parenting as well.

The interesting consequence of this argument, however, is that we don’t have much scientific evidence what the good forms of parenting are. There are few randomized controlled trials of parenting strategies. You can do an encouragement design, in which some parents are given free Baby Einstein videos or sent to educational classes about how you shouldn’t spank your children. Unfortunately, since many parents won’t change their behavior even with a class or a free video, you have to have a huge sample size, which is very expensive. So most people just do observational studies, which are cheaper.

Essentially all observational studies of parenting strategies suffer from healthy user bias. The sort of people who follow parenting advice are different from the sort of people who don’t follow parenting advice. They’re more conscientious. They put more effort into parenting. They care about doing right by their children. If nothing else, they’re more likely to follow all the other parenting advice, and that includes obviously correct things like “don’t let your child eat lead paint.” It’s very difficult to control for all of these factors. So if a study finds that following conventional parenting advice makes your child healthier, more talented, and kinder, it doesn’t actually tell you a heck of a lot. (On the other hand, if a study tells you that not following conventional parenting advice makes your child healthier, more talented, and kinder, you should probably listen to that study.)

One heuristic I’ve been using is thinking about the effects I can expect to have on my spouse. There are a lot of similarities: we live together, we spend a lot of time together, and we’ll do so for years. I think our intuitions about our effects on our spouses are less biased than our intuitions about our effects on our children, because we don’t have a ridiculous guilt-inducing culture that believes that if we just do everything right any spouse can make a six-figure income, live to age 100, and be ecstatically happy at all times. These are my intuitions about my spouse:

  • My husband’s basic temperament is set. He is always going to be basically himself, no matter what I do.
  • I have a huge effect on how much my husband likes me and how good our relationship is.
  • I could traumatize him if I chose to behave in an unconscionable way.
  • I definitely have it in my power to make my husband miserable, but it’s not in my power to make my husband happy– brain chemistry and other life influences have their role.
  • I am only one influence on my husband’s behavior. The effect of my actions is real, but I cannot automatically cause anything to happen.
  • I can share information with my husband that changes his behavior.
  • I can model behaviors I’d like my husband to pick up. If my husband sees me exercising, he’s more likely to exercise himself.
  • I can reward my husband for doing things I want him to do, but I shouldn’t expect that he’d keep doing the thing if I stopped rewarding him.
  • I can introduce my husband to experiences he otherwise wouldn’t have but that he enjoys.
  • I can support my husband and allow him to achieve things he wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
  • None of those five things work 100% of the time. How well they work on any given subject depends on my husband’s preferences, temperament, and choices.
  • Perhaps most of the effect I have on my husband’s personality does not come from my deliberate efforts. It comes from how he responds to my everyday behaviors.
  • If we stayed married for twenty years and then he divorced me, I’d expect my effects on his personality to decrease over time, but there’d always be an effect that came from me.

Of course, children and spouses are different in many ways. For one thing, not loving an infant causes far worse long-term consequences than not loving a spouse. But I think as a first-pass heuristic for what effects you can and can’t have, and how you can have them, this is pretty reasonable.

Thoughts on Parenting An Infant

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(You should probably take this post with several grains of salt, because my son is only seven months old, and he is also a very very easygoing baby. He does not cry unless there is a reason and is usually soothed relatively easily. I would take credit for my excellent parenting but I am perfectly aware that it is the product of his innate temperament.)

Before I became a parent, I read about attachment parenting, the Ferber method, RIE, cosleeping, elimination communication, the Happiest Baby on the Block, and various other baby-parenting strategies and philosophies. However, after Viktor was born, I invented my own philosophy of parenting babies. It is called If The Baby Wants It It Is Probably Good For Him.

I feed Viktor whenever he seems to be hungry. I put him down for a nap when he seems to be drowsy. (He does have a regular bedtime, because he’s better at falling asleep for naps than he is at falling asleep in the evening, and if he doesn’t have a bedtime he stays up too late and gets crabby.) I started solids when he started grabbing for food; when he kept grabbing for the spoon and trying to put it in his mouth, I switched to giving him soft food that he could feed himself with. I put him in his baby swing when he was fussy until he was about four months old, when it started making him cry more; I assumed that meant he’d grown out of it. I carry him and cuddle him when he is fussy but not hungry, because that calms him down.

I put all his toys on the floor so that he could crawl around and put them in his mouth, which is the thing he finds most interesting in all the world. I talk to him regularly, because he seems to enjoy it. I try out various games and repeat the ones that make him laugh. (The book The Wonder Weeks makes some dubious factual claims, but its list of games to play with babies is top-notch; Viktor loves almost all of them.) Therefore, I spend lots of time bouncing him on my knees, chomping on his ears, dancing my fingers on his tummy, holding onto his hands and pulling his torso in circles while he sits, and turning him upside down so he stands on his head.

I think this is a pretty good parenting philosophy. In the short run, I’m doing things that make him happy and not doing things that make him unhappy, which means that he probably enjoys life overall most of the time.

As for the long run, well, I think the wants and needs of babies have evolved for millions of years. Throughout most of those millions of years, no one read any parenting books or followed any American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines. No one had clocks to schedule the baby’s next feeding. It seems to me that babies probably evolved to guide their parents into doing what is best for them. It would be really weird if evolution made babies cry to be held if actually being held was really bad for them; it would be very strange if evolution made exploration, conversation, roughhousing, and music rewarding to babies if they didn’t get anything out of it.

There aren’t a lot of randomized controlled trials of parenting; the evidence about what parenting strategies work best in the long term is pretty limited. So in the short run I’m going to follow the guidance of evolution.

I think there are two general exceptions to the rule that If The Baby Wants It It Is Probably Good For Him. These are safety and sanity (parental).

First, sometimes babies are just wrong about whether things are dangerous or beneficial. For example, Viktor does not know that if he chomps on an electrical cord he could get an electric shock; he just knows that he likes exploring things with his mouth. Viktor does not know that vaccinations protect him from disease; he just knows that they hurt. Viktor does not know that eleven percent of American one-year-olds are anemic; he just knows that his iron supplement makes him gag. In all such cases, it makes sense for the parent to overrule the baby.

Second, parents need to maintain their sanity. Sometimes you need to set the baby down for a bit. Sometimes you need to set the baby down for a bit even though the baby is screaming and needs attention RIGHT NOW. RIGHT NOW!!!! No child ever died of being left to cry for fifteen minutes in a crib, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need so that you don’t scream or shake the baby.

One particularly important area for parental sanity is sleep. A randomized controlled trial has shown that letting your child cry it out has absolutely no long-term effect. While studies have suggested that bedsharing is slightly more dangerous than not bedsharing,the effect size is quite small and probably outweighed by the fact that a parent who has gotten enough sleep is less likely to get into a car accident. There is no reason to believe that there are any long-term psychological effects from any way of sleeping with your child. Bedsharing will not cause your child to be dependent, and cry-it-out-style sleep training will not result in poor attachment or lifelong trauma.

In conclusion, with a handful of exceptions such as putting your child on their back and not trying to train a newborn to sleep through the night, the right way to handle your child’s sleep is the way that gets you enough sleep.

When I first had Viktor, I thought we would bedshare. However, Viktor would sometimes roll under me in a frightening way and sometimes roll off the bed. We got a cosleeper and that worked really well for the first six months. When Viktor turned six months old, waking up three times a night to feed him became unsustainable. We tried gentle sleep-training strategies with limited success and eventually settled on putting Viktor in his own room and closing both our door and the door to his bedroom. His bedroom is very safe, infant mortality is quite low, and he usually stays in his cosleeper all night, so not being able to hear him is a risk we’re comfortable taking. He is happy and cheerful in the morning and the upstairs neighbors haven’t complained, and when he goes to sleep at bedtime he fusses for five to ten minutes before he goes to sleep.

In summary, here are the key points of the Ozy Baby Parenting Philosophy:

  • Give babies what they want.
  • Most babies want food, cuddles, music, play, naptime, conversation, and rocking motions, but your baby is the expert on what they want.
  • Parenting books should be used for ideas about what your baby might want, not as rigid rules about what you have to follow.
  • Don’t let babies do things that hurt them.
  • Don’t let babies do things that make you want to scream and tear your hair out.
  • Sleep is incredibly important and, unless there is a safety concern that outweighs the risk of a sleep-deprived person crashing a car, you should do whatever gives you enough sleep.

Near-Term Effective Altruism Discord

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I have started a Discord server for near-term effective altruists. (If you haven’t used Discord before, it’s a pretty standard chat server. Most of its functions are fairly self-explanatory.)

Most of my effective altruist friends focus on the far future. While far-future effective altruists are great, being around them all the time can get pretty alienating. I don’t often argue the merits of bednets versus cash transfers, which means I get intellectually sloppy knowing I won’t be challenged. I’m slow to learn about new developments relevant to near-term effective altruism, such as discoveries in development economics. Many of the conversations I participate in work from assumptions I don’t share, such as the assumption that we have a double-digit chance of going extinct within the next twenty years.

I suspect that many other near-term effective altruists may be in the same boat, and if so I encourage them to come participate. Even if not, I hope this server can be a fun and interesting place to learn more about effective altruism and connect to other effective altruists.

“Near-term” is hard to define. I intend it to be inclusive of all effective altruists whose work and priority cause areas do not focus on the far future, whether they work on global poverty, animal welfare, mental health, politics, meta-charity, or another cause area. I ask that far-future effective altruists and people whose priority cause area is AI risk or s-risks do not participate. This runs on the honor system; I’m not going to be the Near Term EA police. There are lots of people who are edge cases and I ask them to use their best judgment.

The server is intended to be welcoming to new effective altruists, people who aren’t certain whether they want to be effective altruists or not, and people who are not currently in a place where it makes sense for them to donate, volunteer, or change careers. If you’re wondering whether you’re “not EA enough” to participate, you probably are welcome!

Patreon Amnesty

About a year ago, I started a Patreon, and other people commissioned work from me. Unfortunately, not long after that, I had a baby. In what I am sure is a complete shock to everyone, it turns out babies are time-consuming. What with one thing and another, I have totally lost track of what things I owe to my patrons.

I have more free time now, so I’d like to restart my Patreon, because I think I will actually be able to keep up with the obligations. However, I don’t want to do this while I have outstanding obligations to patrons. If you have a Patreon reward you have yet to collect and you’d like to collect it, please post in the comments here or email me at ozyfrantz@gmail.com.

Critique of Just Love, Part One

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[Content note: this post discusses, without explicit detail, many forms of unethical sex, including rape, sexual harassment, and child molestation.]

A reader commissioned me to write a blog post about the book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, by Margaret Farley, a Catholic nun and former professor at Yale University Divinity School. (It’s “Just Love” as in “love that follows principles of justice,” not as in “only love.”) Just Love was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church for endorsing masturbation, gay marriage, gay sex, divorce in some situations, and remarriage after divorce.

I will begin by discussing why we should have sexual ethics other than “don’t rape people” at all, then explain Farley’s view of sexual ethics, then I will critique each of her proposed norms in turn. I have a lot to say about this book, so I’m splitting the post up over several days in order to save everyone from having to read a ten-thousand-word monstrosity.

A Justification of Sexual Ethics Beyond Rape

Many people adopt what I consider to be an extraordinarily deontologist view of sex. They consider sexual ethics to consist solely of not having sex with people without their consent. Everything else is strictly supererogatory. You might decide to care about your partner’s sexual pleasure, or indulge your partners’ fetishes, or avoid sex that makes you feel sick and empty and degraded inside, but these are all personal choices with no moral valence. The actual ethics is in the consent.

I admit this is a model I am continuously tempted to use. It is so simple and so elegant. A free agent in the sphere of sexuality and romance can set their boundaries and express their needs to other people. They search until they find a partner who has a compatible set of needs and boundaries. Throughout the relationship, they renegotiate as their boundaries and needs change; when their boundaries and needs no longer mesh, the relationship ends. No set of needs and boundaries is “wrong”, although with certain sets of needs and boundaries it may be hard to find a compatible partner. The only unethical action is violating someone else’s boundaries.

But it is unsatisfying in many ways. It is all very well for deontologists to have a model where as long as you follow the rules you’re okay. But utilitarians ought to object that there are many instances of consensual sex which do not produce the greatest good for the greatest number. Egoists should remark that there is no reason to assume that all consensual sex is pursuing the individual’s enlightened self-interest. Virtue ethicists might point out that it would be very odd if sex were the only sphere of human interaction in which we cannot cultivate wisdom, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Even many formulations of deontology object: sex can be consensual and still involve treating a person as a thing or following a rule that you would not will everyone else abide by.

The “only nonconsensual sex is unethical” is equally odd from the perspective of intuitive morality. Sometimes consensual sex is disloyal, harmful, or unfair. Certainly it would be very strange if sex were the only area of human life in which the sum and total of ethical human behavior is “don’t commit literal felonies.”

I think how unsatisfying the only-nonconsensual-sex-is-bad ethic is can be shown through how many other aspects of sexual morality people insist on attempting to smuggle into it. For instance, some people argue that cheating is wrong because it violates your spouse’s consent. It seems extraordinarily puzzling to me that people get to consent to sex that they are not involved in and may not even be aware of, and very unprincipled that only spouses have this capacity. (Why can’t parents revoke consent for their teenagers to have sex? Why can’t governments revoke consent for sodomy to happen between its borders?) You might argue that the difference is that you have sex with your spouse and you do not generally have sex with your government. But in that case a spouse would have no room to object if their partner had sex with someone else and then conscientiously never had sex with them again. Most people, I believe, would consider the latter decision to compound the harm, not to erase it.

I think the only logical conclusion is that the harm from cheating has nothing to do with consent; instead, the harm from cheating comes from breaking a promise. It is possible for sex to be completely and 100% consensual and also be wrong.

A lot of people have a flinch reaction to that conclusion, which makes sense. As completely reasonable sentences that are usually followed by horrible bullshit go, “it is possible for sex to be completely consensual and also be wrong” is right up there with “I’m not racist” and “think of the children.” Traditionally, of course, “it is possible for sex to be completely consensual and also be wrong” is followed with some thoughts on the evils of premarital sex, pornography, homosexuality, polyamory, birth control, feminism, sex toys, oral sex, sex outside of the missionary position, and literally everything else that’s fun. In our more modern era, it is also used by various Tumblr users who want you to know that BDSM is violence and violence is still wrong when everyone is consenting, which is presumably why they make a habit of protesting boxing matches and karate dojos.

That is what you might call act-based sexual morality. In addition to sex without consent being wrong, people put certain sexual acts on the “no” list, because those acts are considered to be inherently violent or misogynistic, objectifying or going against God’s will, disrespectful or a violation of the proper end of the human body, regardless of context or how the participants feel about it.

I think that consent-only sexual morality is right but doesn’t go far enough. However, act-based sexual morality is totally and completely wrong. After a great deal of thought, I have not been able to identify a single sex act qua act that I would consider conclusively wrong in all circumstances. (As opposed to, say, choice of sexual partner, where there are a number of choices that are wrong in all circumstances– children, your students, people who are in a monogamous relationship with someone else, etc.) Unprotected PIV is wrong if you picked up a stranger at a bar, but beautiful if you’re conceiving a loved and desperately wanted child. Calling your partner a disgusting whore is cruel if you mean it, but extremely hot for some people in a negotiated D/s dynamic. Certain forms of dangerous edgeplay are far too risky for most people, but can be valuable for certain people who are aware of and have accepted the risks.

(Sex in public where people might see is the closest I can get to an “always wrong in all circumstances” thing, but even then if there were enough sex-in-public enthusiasts that they convinced the city to allow them to cordon off a few streets every so often for the purpose, and there were bouncers checking IDs and making sure everyone knew what they were in for, I think that sex in public would be absolutely wonderful.)

The fallacy of act-based sexual morality makes sense once you try to apply it to any other subject. Is it inherently wrong to punch someone? Depends on whether they’re assaulting someone else at the time. Is it inherently wrong to play at a rock concert? Depends on whether you’re doing it in my backyard without my consent. Is it inherently wrong to give away a million dollars? Depends on whether you’re giving it away to the Nazi party. You can’t judge any action outside of its context, so why do people think this is a reasonable way to judge sexual ethics?

Three final notes: First, while I do think sexual ethics should consider issues other than consent, I do not think any form of consensual sex should be illegal. It is wrong to cheat on your partner, but that does not mean that you should go to prison for cheating on your partner.

Second, no person is perfectly ethical. This is true for every area of ethics. It is wrong to yell at your children, but nearly all parents yell sometimes. It is wrong to go on expensive vacations instead of giving that money to the poor, but most people who can afford to go on expensive vacations have gone on at least one. It is wrong to eat products that come from chickens, but I still eat the occasional cookie without inquiring too closely about whether there are eggs in it. Similarly, we would expect all people to have unethical sex sometimes. The question is whether you are doing the best you can, not whether you have reached some unattainable standard of goodness.

In particular, it is very very common for people to do wrong things because they have no other choice: for example, people eat eggs because they’re depressed and if they didn’t eat eggs they wouldn’t eat at all. It is not ever wrong to take care of yourself first. Ethical actions should be healthy, happy, and sustainable.

Third, when I say that sexual ethics must go beyond consent, I don’t mean to imply that consent is not important. In fact, consent is the bedrock of all sexual morality. Unfortunately, our society has caused many people to internalize the idea that you shouldn’t say no to sex if you have a certain relationship with someone, or if they really really want it, or if you don’t have a good reason. All sexual ethics has to come from the fundamental, baseline position that you can always refuse sex with someone for any reason or no reason at all. Even if your reason is really really stupid, you have a right to say no to sex for stupid reasons. Even if they paid for dinner, or you’re married, or it’s the third date, or you’re a man and you think men always want it you have a right to say no to sex. You should absolutely say no to any sex that makes you feel sick or gross or sad or violated.

Farley’s Framework

Farley argues that justice involves treating other humans with respect for who they are as humans: a unique person with a body and a soul, needs for food and clothing and shelter, the capacity for free choice and thoughts and feelings, a history, a social and political and cultural and economic context, a relationship to various systems and institutions, a potential for growth and flourishing, a vulnerability to diminishment and despair, interpersonal needs and capacities, and emotions. Of particular relevance to sexual ethics are a person’s ability to make free choices (autonomy) and their ability to have relationships with other people (relationality).

Farley presents a seven-item framework for sexual ethics. The first two are grounded in human autonomy, while the second five are grounded in relationality.

  1. Do no unjust harm

While this is a general principle of ethics, avoidance of harm is particularly important for sexual ethics. Violations of this principle include rape, domestic violence, enslavement, sexual exploitation, unsafe sex, deceit, betrayal, sexual unfulfillment, emotional manipulation, and so on and so forth.

2. Free consent

Free consent is the right of each individual person to determine their own sexual actions and relationships. Violations of this principle include rape, violence, coercion, sex with people who do not have the capacity to give informed consent, sexual harassment, and child molestation. Norms derivative from this norm of free consent include privacy (the right of an individual to keep information about their sex life confidential), telling the truth, and keeping promises.

3. Mutuality

Mutuality is mutual participation in the sexual act. Sex is not a thing that one person does to another person; instead, it is a relationship in which everyone involved is both active and receptive and both gives and receives pleasure. This does not necessarily imply that it is morally wrong to be, for example, a pillow princess or an exclusive top: as just one example, a pillow princess may actively participate through their obvious enjoyment of the sex.

4. Equality

While no two individuals are perfectly equal in power, Farley argues that individuals participating in ethical sex must be sufficiently equal. Severe inequalities, such as when one person is very emotionally immature or those produced by certain patriarchal cultures, may result in one person being vulnerable and dependent and having limited options. Violations of the norm of equality include sexual harassment, emotional and physical abuse, some forms of sex work for some people, and giving up your entire sense of self for the person you love.

5. Commitment

In general, Farley argues, ethical sex requires some form of commitment to your partner, although not necessarily a lifelong marriage.

6. Fruitfulness

The most obvious kind of fruitfulness is procreation. Procreative sex must be conducted in a context that ensures the responsible care of offspring, the creation of a family, and participation in the great project of building the human community. However, for many people, sex is not procreative: they might be gay, infertile, childfree, or simply not ready to have children. However, they can still have fruitful sex. Ethical sex opens you to the wider community. It is not self-involved. Good sex can strengthen you, which lets you move beyond yourself in many ways: you can nourish your other relationships, make art, help people, provide goods and services to others through work, or raise your own or help raise other people’s children.

7. Social justice

Please note that this is “social justice” in the Catholic sense of the term, not in the modern-day sense of the term.

Social justice is an umbrella term covering many different kinds of sexual ethics. It is not sexual ethics construed narrowly, as in whether or not you should have particular kinds of sex; it is sexual ethics construed broadly, as in all the ethical problems which are affected by our sexualities. All people have a right to “freedom from unjust harm, equal protection under the law, an equitable share in the goods and services available to others, and freedom of choice in their sexual lives– within the limits of not harming or infringing on the just claims of… others” (Farley pg. 228); unfortunately, some people are denied these rights due to their sexualities or in the sphere of sexuality.

In a narrow sense, social justice requires that we take responsibility for the effects our actions may have on others, such as public health concerns, procreation, broken promises, and so on. In a broader sense, social justice implies a concern for the many ways in which people are harmed based on sexuality: a brief and incomplete list would include sexism, sexual and domestic violence, racism, global poverty, oppressive religious and cultural traditions, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, lack of contraceptive access, and the harmful use of new reproductive technologies.

Unjust Harm

In general, I endorse Farley’s reasoning. If you are the sort of person who reads a long post about sexual ethics, you probably already know that you should not rape people or sexually harass them or enslave them. It is in general wrong to have sex with people if you know it will cause them more distress than pleasure.

Many utilitarians may object that “no unjust harm” pretty much covers all of sexual ethics and we don’t need any additional sexual ethics. Be that as it may, I think it’s useful to have guidelines about how you can avoid harming people, particularly for those of us who have already mastered “slavery: probably a bad idea.” These sexual ethics I will discuss in the next post.

Gentrification Analogy

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Some of my upper-middle-class to upper-class YIMBY friends have said that they don’t understand at all why anyone would be upset by gentrification. This is an analogy I use which I think helps them understand.

Imagine your neighborhood is an actually functional community. You know your neighbors; you say “hi” to people when they walk down the street; you know people who will watch your cat when you’re on vacation, or tell you about jobs they’ve heard that you’d be perfect for, or play with your kid when you’ve had a really hard day and you need a break, or help you move, or give you casseroles when someone you love has died. (For some people, this is going to be a really difficult part of the thought experiment; you might want to imagine living near all your closest Internet friends.)

Now imagine that a bunch of billionaires have decided to move into your community.

It’s not all bad at first. Billionaires have a lot of political power, so they can advocate for incredibly nice roads and public parks. The billionaires create a lot of jobs: they’re willing to pay very well for nannies and chefs.

But businesses that cater to people like you close. The taco places and Targets are replaced with yacht clubs and restaurants that serve thousand-dollar gold-plated steak. The grocery stores are full of food you’ve never heard of and can’t afford anyway, and you have a hard time buying basic staples like rice and beans.

Billionaires don’t really like having people of lower social classes loitering around, and they have much more power with the police than you do. If you throw a party that’s a bit noisy, or spend some time talking outside of a billionaire’s house, you may find yourself talked to by a police officer who tells you to stop bothering the billionaires.

Landlords realize they can sell the land to billionaires and make way more money than they can get catering to the middle-class. Some of your friends have their rent hiked up to the point that it’s unaffordable. Others of your friends are evicted, often in dubiously legal ways. Still others are unable to find a new place in the same neighborhood if they want to move because their family has grown or shrunk.

If you move away, you no longer live near your friends. It’s more-or-less impossible to coordinate dozens of people to move to the same place, so you and your friends wind up scattered to a dozen different neighborhoods. It’s not just the suckiness of living in a bunch of different neighborhoods: friendship has actual material benefits. Now you have to pay pet sitters, move by yourself, and skip Date Night when you can’t afford a sitter, and you don’t get to hear about that job that’s perfect for you.

Your new place is also far away both from your old job and all those new jobs the billionaires have created. Either you commute for an hour each way, or you stay home where there are few jobs at all.

Maybe you stay. You might have bought a house and you don’t want to give up the equity. But you can’t afford anything in any of the stores around you. All your friends are gone. You can try to befriend the billionaires, but they look at you with pity when you say you can’t afford the thousand-dollar restaurant meal and you can’t understand all their hilarious jokes about their stockbrokers. In fact, some of them notice that you’re not a billionaire and flinch away from you in the street or clutch their wallets like you’re going to steal them. Just because you’re not a billionaire doesn’t mean you’re a thief!

This isn’t a perfect analogy– as one of many flaws, I’ll point out that upper-middle-class and upper-class people can afford to, say, replace friends babysitting with nannies and daycare, which poor people often can’t afford to do– but I hope it helps people understand why many poor people would consider gentrification a harm.

Book Reviews for June: Hugo Awards Edition

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Since WorldCon is in San Jose this year, I’m going to WorldCon, which means I can vote in the Hugo Awards. For the last few months, most of the books I’ve been reading have been Hugo nominees. And now, well after I could possibly influence anyone’s vote, I’ll tell you which nominees I loved and which nominees I hated. (Since otherwise this post would be really unacceptably long, I’m skipping the ones I was meh on.)

Nominees I Loved

The Stone Sky: I have to say, when I began this series, I was skeptical. “It already won two Hugos, and now it’s nominated for a third?” I said to myself. “We can’t give every book in this series a Hugo. Are we sure none of these are spite-Hugos directed at Vox Day?”

After I finished it, I have to say: the Broken Earth series absolutely deserved both of its Hugos and, if N. K. Jemisin is not completely and unjustly robbed, will absolutely deserve its third Hugo as well. This is, without any exaggeration, absolutely one of the best science fiction series I have ever read: its sheer originality, its complex and well-thought-out worldbuilding, its deeply flawed and yet acutely sympathetic characters, and a climax that will leave you incoherent with wonder, its thematic exploration of trauma and suffering and apocalypse, on the level of people and the level of societies and the way that trauma and suffering can make you a worse person and make you traumatize others.

It is difficult to describe any of the plot without spoilers, so I won’t try. Be warned that it is very dark post-apocalyptic fiction and may not be suited to those of a delicate temperament.

Six Wakes: Locked-room mystery IN SPACE. In a world where people’s memories can be transferred into clone bodies, six clones wake up midway through a trip through space, with only memories of their first day on the ship, and have to solve the murders of their previous selves. The ending is a little bit of a deus ex machina, but otherwise it’s really clever, and I always enjoy a science fiction novel that has a relatively “small” story.

All Systems Red: A security robot hacks his own governor module, which allegedly is supposed to make him rampage around killing people. Instead, he just spends the entire time binging on TV shows. When the people he’s supposed to be guarding are threatened, he has to solve the mystery as quickly as possible, without revealing that he’s hacked his governor module, so that he can get back to watching TV. Unutterably charming.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones: Twin sisters– one forced into femininity, one into tomboyishness, by their abusive parents– walk through a portal into a Hammer Horror story. It really needed an extra chapter or two to tie up all the loose ends, but overall creepy and wonderful.

And Then There Were (N-One): A woman is invited to a convention of her alternate-universe selves, only to discover one of them is a victim of murder– and the only possible perpetrators are her other alternate universe selves. Lots of really cool details fleshing out the core concept; my one complaint is that it really could have stood to be twice as long as it was.

The Secret Life of Bots: A maintenance robot is just trying to fulfill task nine hundred forty four in the maintenance queue, but winds up accidentally saving the day. Very, very cute.

Wind Will Rove: A generation ship loses all its recordings of old media. While the older generation tries desperately to record as much as it can based on people’s memories, the newer generation questions why they need to keep any art from Earth at all.

Welcome To Your Authentic Indian Experience(tm): Philip K Dick meets cultural appropriation. I was like “meh” until I figured out the twist and then I was like “HOLY SHIT OMG THIS STORY IS AMAZING.”

The Martian Obelisk: The first half is very dull and cynical, but the second half is real triumph-of-the-human-spirit pump-fist-in-the-air awesomeness. I am actually reminded of The Martian when I try to explain the feeling this story gives me, but I’m not sure if it’s just the title.

Fandom for Robots: Exactly what it sounds like– a robot joins a fandom. Silly, funny, and intensely self-indulgent, I recommend saving this story for when you’ve had a horrible day.

The Deep: Afrofuturist Lovecraftian hiphop written by none other than Daveed Diggs. You know you want it.

Summer in Orcus: A YA novel by the author of Digger which shares Digger’s rich creativity and deeply sensible protagonists. If you’re read Digger, you’re probably already enthusiastic; Summer in Orcus is an excellent read-aloud book for a child you love (although be warned that it does have some scary content which might give nightmares to younger readers). If you haven’t read Digger, what are you doing, READ DIGGER. IT’S FREE AND HAS A WOMBAT. WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR.

Nominees I Loathed

New York 2140: This seems like an incredibly interesting RPG sourcebook and I have no idea why Kim Stanley Robinson tried to turn it into a novel. His heart is clearly not in the process.

River of Teeth: The premise sounds like this book should be on the “nominees I loved” list: it’s a Western caper set in an alternate history in which someone introduced hippos to the Louisiana Bayou and now all the cowboys ride hippos. Unfortunately, the author felt the need to Represent People, and thus all the characters are like “he’s a [rolls dice] Korean-British [throws dart] bisexual who’s [draws card] dating a nonbinary person.” Marginalized identities do not actually substitute for giving a character a personality.

Marginalized identities should also affect the characters at some point. The nonbinary character is a particular offender about this. Why is someone in the nineteenth century using they/them pronouns? I mean, I’m not refusing to buy this, it’s just that I want some sort of explanation. Did the hippos advance trans acceptance? Did they hook up with some early queer community? What is the nonbinary character’s understanding of themselves? What do the people they encounter think about this? “Exactly the same as a nonbinary person in the 21st century on all counts and I’m not explaining why” is a bad answer.

Sleeping with Monsters: I hate that late-2000s snarky feminist style with the exclamation points and the “um, wow” and the sarcasm and the ALLCAPS. I admit that I write like that, which makes this negative review a bit hypocritical, but no one ever nominated me for a Hugo.

Also, the author’s feminist criticism could be replaced by a checklist like so:

[] Is there a female character?
[] Does this story pass the Bechdel test?
[] Is the female character fridged?
[] Are there LGBTQ characters?
[] Do all LGBTQ characters end the story in happy, functional relationships in which all members are alive?
[] Is there a character of color?

And so on and so forth.

I just really don’t want to read a book of literary criticism where I ever have to read a paragraph about all the characters’ marginalized identities before I get to the part where I find out what the book is about.

Crash Override: The obvious, plus this is in no way a Best Related Work. It is not related to science fiction or fantasy! Zoe Quinn does not write science fiction or fantasy, and Gamergate was about video games. Okay, sure, Sad Puppies, but I feel like this is a very tenuous connection.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage: I was tentatively considering a His Dark Materials reread but… no. Nope. Not after reading this. I prefer my childhood memories unsullied, thank you.

I think the primary problem with La Belle Sauvage is that Pullman is trying to write Atheist Narnia instead of Humanist Narnia. There are lots of things he’s against (God, religion, the afterlife) but not a lot he’s for. It makes for dreary reading.

[content warning: eating disorders]

The Art of Starving: Do not write a young adult book about eating disorders that includes descriptions of the protagonist’s ways of hiding that he’s starving and also exact calorie counts. Why would you even do that? Some poor person might decide to give this to someone struggling with an eating disorder because They Can Relate To It and then you have a remission on your hands.

On an artistic level, while the premise was very cool (a boy with an eating disorder has superpowers that are powered by hunger), the protagonist didn’t actually do anything with his superpowers. Like, okay, you humiliate a bully, great, that’s Act 1, where’s the part where you save people? The boy’s decisions near the end of the book are particularly dubious, although I guess at that point you have the defense that he’s starving to death and therefore probably doesn’t have much spare brainpower for things like “does this plan advance my goals, like, remotely at all?” The ending was such a copout I wanted to throw it against the wall.

Link Post for June

Effective Altruism

From ~my husband~: foreign policy asks for the left; did Vasili Arkhipov really save the world?

Tips for inexpensive fun.

Preschools in Ghana have poor educational outcomes, in part because parents want good teaching and teachers believe that parents think lectures and tests are good pedagogy.

The EA Community and Long-Term Future Funds have failed to allocate over one and a half million dollars of donations.

Lessons about how to do cost-effectiveness analysis.

You can quit ICE.

Politics

GOP criticism of Trump has very real effects even if it doesn’t lead to action, including consolidating Republican opposition to Trump’s policies, causing Trump not to do things that might lead him to oppose them, and getting Trump to implement a more normal Republican policy agenda. A very interesting contrarian take.

Strange political ads of the past.

It’s okay to have fairly extreme policies because voters don’t care about policy.

Four tech optimists attempt to explain the 2016 election.

Mayor has to apologize after attempting to fine a couple $10,000 for painting their home like Starry Night.

“I fully recognize that the devil is in that “sometimes.” Some norms should be shattered, some should not. Some norm erosion undermines democracy, some enhances it. But that’s the real discussion we need to have: not a general toxin against norm erosion as somehow the bane of democracy — which may set us up for a centrist politics but not for a democratic one — but a more normatively informed discussion of what democracy requires.”

Social Justice

A deeply personal reflection on transition. “This is kind of a scary way of thinking about things because it means that trans people aren’t completely in control of our own genders. But isn’t that, in fact, the predicament we’re in? The reason misgendering feels so horrible is that, in that moment, the person misgendering you is effectively barring you from being your gender, at least socially. That’s the reason it feels oppressive. You’re literally being deprived of something important to you.”

Ronan Farrow takes down another powerful sexual harasser in entertainment.

Texas Forensic Science Commission finds that blood-spatter analysis is “not accurate or scientifically supported.”

Taxpayer-funded private schools teach that Satan created psychology, environmentalists hate people, and God used the American westward expansion to benefit the Indians.

Arrested Development’s disability humor is surprisingly progressive.

Environmentalism

How the Pentagon downplayed the threat from a family of toxic chemicals.

Environmental justice— protecting the poor from, for example, having toxic waste dumps in their backyard– is actually really important.

Luxury housing as yuppie fishtanks: explaining YIMBYism without supply and demand. (Okay, this link fits in poorly here, but it fits in worse everywhere else!)

Just Plain Neat

The history of Jell-O salad.

Eleven writers’ horniest pop culture moments.

Interviews with several actors who play ugly characters. I’m glad most of them seem to be happy to get the part!

A message from the Unitarian Jihad.