How To Write Values Dissonance

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[cw: Rape. Literally the entire post consists of an extensive discussion of societies in which rape is legal and not frowned upon and the justifications they may have for their existence. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, then skip this post.]

Occasionally, one might wish to write a story where the characters have values that the readers don’t (values dissonance). Values dissonance can add a lot of realism to your worldbuilding. Every historical culture approved of some things that 21st century Westerners disapprove of, and disapproved of some things that they approved of; it is likely that future cultures would do the same. Similarly, there’s no reason for secondary worlds to agree with us about everything. Values dissonance can also serve a variety of interesting thematic purposes.

Unfortunately, it’s very easy to write values dissonance in a way that doesn’t work at all. I am going to criticize the novella Three Worlds Collide by Eliezer Yudkowsky for several reasons: I like it; I have met him and am aware that he was definitely trying for values dissonance and not doing a poor job of advocating for beliefs he holds; the values dissonance is all in a particular passage which can be easily excerpted; and the book is freely available online.

The passage containing values dissonance is the following:

The Confessor held up a hand.  “I mean it, my lord Akon.  It is not polite idealism.  We ancients can’t steer.  We remember too much disaster.  We’re too cautious to dare the bold path forward.  Do you know there was a time when nonconsensual sex was illegal?”

Akon wasn’t sure whether to smile or grimace.  “The Prohibition, right?  During the first century pre-Net?  I expect everyone was glad to have that law taken off the books.  I can’t imagine how boring your sex lives must have been up until then – flirting with a woman, teasing her, leading her on, knowing the whole time that you were perfectly safe because she couldn’t take matters into her own hands if you went a little too far -”

“You need a history refresher, my Lord Administrator.  At some suitably abstract level.  What I’m trying to tell you – and this is not public knowledge – is that we nearly tried to overthrow your government.”

“What?” said Akon.  “The Confessors?

“No, us.  The ones who remembered the ancient world.  Back then we still had our hands on a large share of the capital and tremendous influence in the grant committees.  When our children legalized rape, we thought that the Future had gone wrong.”

Akon’s mouth hung open.  “You were that prude?”

The Confessor shook his head.  “There aren’t any words,” the Confessor said, “there aren’t any words at all, by which I ever could explain to you.  No, it wasn’t prudery.  It was a memory of disaster.”

“Um,” Akon said.  He was trying not to smile.  “I’m trying to visualize what sort of disaster could have been caused by too much nonconsensual sex -”

“Give it up, my lord,” the Confessor said.  He was finally laughing, but there was an undertone of pain to it.  “Without, shall we say, personal experience, you can’t possibly imagine, and there’s no point in trying.”

There are three fundamental problems with the passage here.

First, it gives me absolutely no sense as a reader about how a society with legalized rape works. For example, here are some of the questions I have as a reader about how this society works, with possible answers and further questions:

  • Am I at risk of rape when I’m walking down the street?
    • Yes.
      • What if I have an important appointment, or I’m giving birth?
      • Is ‘I was busy getting raped’ an acceptable reason to delay something or are you supposed to build in time for that?
    • No, because everyone carries pepper spray at all times.
      • Is it legal, or will you be arrested for assault?
      • How does that affect relationships with strangers? Do you have to be continually on your guard that someone might attack you?
    • No, because everyone has been genetically modified to be demisexual.
      • How does that affect other relationships? Casual sex?
      • Is it assumed that the rare non-demisexuals are all rapists?
    • No, because raping strangers is still illegal, only raping acquaintances is legal.
  • Is assault legal?
    • Yes, only if you’re committing a rape at the time.
    • Yes, in general.
    • No, rapes happen using voluntarily ingested drugs/alcohol or social coercion.
  • How often does rape happen? What percentage of people have been raped?
    • Everyone; it happens on about one in three dates.
    • Everyone; it happens about once in your life.
    • About one in five people; rapists are rare, but you know several people who have experienced rape.
    • Almost no one; we’re genetically engineered out antisocial behavior, and rape is only legal to add a little extra thrill to kinky sex.
  • Is there a way to opt out and say you’d prefer raping you be illegal actually?
  • Is there social stigma on rapists?
    • Yes; rape is considered morally wrong but is not illegal.
    • Yes; rape is considered kind of shameful because it implies you can’t get laid the normal way.
    • Rape is completely unmarked. No one notices or cares whether you’ve committed rape.
    • If you’re a rapist it’s VALID. If you’re not a rapist it’s VALID. STOP QUESTIONING PEOPLE’S SEXUAL CHOICES!!!!!!!
    • Actually, rapists are considered to be sexy, thrilling bad boys/girls.
  • Is there social stigma on rape victims?
    • Yes; you shouldn’t have led them on.
    • Yes; you should have been able to defend yourself.
    • Being a rape victim is completely unmarked. No one notices or cares whether you’re a rape victim, including the victim.
    • Rape is an unfortunate thing that happens to people sometimes, like a chronic illness.
    • Being a rape victim is high status and sexy.
  • What happens if you rape someone and you or they get pregnant?
    • Either party can force the other person to get an abortion; both people need to consent for a child to be created.
    • Rape victims can force rapists to get an abortion, but not vice versa.
    • Rapist has to raise the kid.
    • Rape victim has to raise the kid.
    • Who raises the kid is decided by something else
    • You are now married and have to be coparents.
    • Rapist has to pay punitive child support as a penalty for not using birth control.
    • Rapist is fined for nonconsensual child creation.
    • Rapist and rape victim are fined for irresponsible child creation.

And so on and so forth.

These are all very different societies! Eliezer has provided us with any details about how ‘rape is legal’ works– apparently women commit rape as often as men do or more often, rape seems to be something that occurs centrally in a date context– but not nearly enough to understand what it is like to live in a society where rape is legal.

Second, Eliezer provides only the most half-assed justification for why anyone would think this is a good idea. “It makes dates more exciting if you might get raped during them” is the beginning of a justification. But the reader is left with obvious questions. What about the very common preference to feel comfortable and safe on a date? Is that preference uncommon in this universe? Is it considered invalid for some reason? (Why?) Do people who share this preference have some way of getting it met (e.g. particular dating websites)?

In our world, rape is traumatizing. Are people in this society so jaded that running a risk of PTSD is worth it for hot dates? Do they believe (whether or not it’s true) that sexual trauma from rape is caused by thinking sex is something special instead of an ordinary recreational activity? Do they believe rape is only traumatizing because people believe it is traumatizing? Do they have incredibly good PTSD treatment such that being raped results in only a week or two of disability?

To be clear, you don’t have to have a good reason for a particular policy to be enacted. “Rape of people with no political influence is legal” has a perfectly understandable rationale: the people with political influence like committing rapes and are at no risk of becoming rape victims. But you need a reason that makes sense within human psychology.

Finally, I believe good values dissonance, where you really inhabit the alternate perspective, results in the values-dissonant position being appealing. What’s good about the policy? What might make people support it?

One way to make a policy appealing is making the tradeoffs of our current policy salient. For example, research suggests that between a third and half of all women have sexual fantasies in which they are raped. One might imagine a woman from the society where rape is legal arguing that it’s absurd to criminalize her fulfilling her own most cherished sexual fantasy; she is an adult making her own choices, and forcing her to confine her fantasies to her imagination or roleplay is fake consensualism. If she wants to let anyone who likes rape her, she should be allowed to do so.

Another strategy is to play into cognitive biases and moral intuitions that the reader already has. In the example above, I appealed to the reader’s concern for bodily autonomy and distaste for paternalism. A similar strategy might be to criticize making marital rape illegal on the grounds of a right to privacy, which presumably the reader agrees you have.

Making the values-dissonant policy appealing is obviously not necessary to write values dissonance well. But I think it’s worth considering when you’re writing values dissonance.

In Eliezer’s specific case, of course, making Legalized Rape World appealing was necessary, because the setting of Three Worlds Collide is supposed to be better than our current world and the purpose of the rape section is to convey that the better world would contain many things we find morally horrifying (as our ancestors would find gay marriage and integration morally horrifying). If Legalized Rape World is not appealing at all even a little bit, that section has failed in its purpose (as I would argue it did).

Appealing values dissonance allows the reader to understand why people in the past believed evil things. Many people in the past were involved with things we presently consider atrocities and human rights violations: slavery, footbinding, legalized marital rape, the murder of gladiators for public entertainment, animal cruelty, rape as a weapon of war, the slaughter of innocent civilians, and so on and so forth. Presumably this is not because the people of the past lacked the moral fiber we have today; their character and “baseline goodness” is likely similar to our own, and indeed many people who owned slaves or were cruel to animals were otherwise morally admirable. I believe fiction has an ability to build empathy in us for aspects of the human experience which are very distant from our own, and (sadly) being a person who is not exceptionally evil but is complicit or even actively participates in atrocities is a common part of the human experience.

Further, appealing values dissonance may bring to the reader’s attention that certain thought processes they themselves use may be suspect as a means of morally reasoning. I believe this can be a powerful tool for causing readers to question their own moral intuitions. If they can be made to sympathize with things they find appalling due to their feeling that anything disgusting is evil, or their desire for the guilty to be punished, or their sense that people far away don’t matter as much as those who are nearby, perhaps these intuitions are in general suspect.

Also, it’s often intellectually interesting and a fun stretch as a writer, which can be its own justification. Art for art’s sake and all that.

How does one learn to write values dissonance?

In my experience, there is no substitute for reading smart people you disagree with, especially people who believe strange or morally repugnant things. (Presumably conversation would be better, but befriending people who believe morally repugnant things comes with its own problems.)

Old books are sometimes your friend, but not always. For example, Thomas Malthus takes “birth control is worse than a bunch of people dying in a famine” as an axiom with which he does not expect anyone to disagree, which is less than helpful for writing a society which thinks birth control is worse than famine. Better to read the writings of modern traditional Catholics, who have to defend their beliefs. Old books often defend their beliefs with claims the modern reader would find unconvincing. While “the divine right of kings exists because all kings are descended from Old Testament patriarchs” may have been convincing in 1680, it is unlikely to appeal to the modern reader. Conversely, modern people who believe weird things likely defend their beliefs with reference to modern ideas of autonomy, self-determination, fulfillment, etc.

On the other hand, many repugnant beliefs– such as slavery being legal– are difficult to find defenses of in the modern day, and it is necessary to make do with old books. Old books may also help to create a more genuinely alien moral culture, which is desirable for some worldbuilding.

It is important to choose authors you can respect. It is easy to choose authors that make dumb arguments, but that will not result in a society that rings true. (Perhaps that is the issue with Three Worlds Collide; “all rape should be legal” is not a position typically defended by people who make good arguments, so it is difficult to crib from others.)

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The DSM-IV Believed Women Didn’t Have Paraphilias

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An interesting fact literally no one believes me about is that until relatively recently it was sexological consensus that women don’t have paraphilias.

When I say this, people are like “okay, Ozy means some weird, fringe sexologist who believes bizarre things that no one else agrees with, obviously they can’t actually mean that within our lifetimes sexologists believed women don’t have kinks.” But, no, really. Here is a quote from page 524 of the DSM-IV, published in 1994 and updated in 2000:

Except for Sexual Masochism, where the sex ratio is estimated to be 20 males for each female, the other Paraphilias are almost never diagnosed in females, although some cases have been reported.

To be clear, “paraphilia” is a term which includes most of what we’d consider to be kinks; there is no requirement that a paraphilia be obligatory for sexual arousal, and in fact it is explicitly mentioned that some paraphiliacs are aroused by sex where their paraphilia is not included. Paraphilias defined in the DSM-IV include:

  • Sexual Masochism: “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving the act (real, not simulated) of being humiliated, beaten, bound, or otherwise made to suffer”
  • Sexual Sadism: “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving acts (real, not simulated) in which the psychological or physical suffering (including humiliation) of the victim is sexually exciting to the person.”
  • Fetishism: “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving the use of nonliving objects (e.g., female undergarments).”

Special shoutout to transvestic fetishism which literally could not be diagnosed in a woman or a queer man.

The DSM-IV defined ‘paraphilia’ as a diagnosis by inclusion: paraphilias were a set of specific sexual interests, examples given above. The DSM-5 defines ‘paraphilia’ as follows (pg. 685):

The term paraphilia denotes any intense and persistent sexual interest other than sexual interest in genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, physically mature, consenting human partners.

(“Phenotypically normal” is intended to exclude visibly physically disabled and transgender people, as well as perhaps members of some other groups. Please note that “paraphilia” and “paraphiliac disorder” are distinguished; a paraphiliac disorder causes mental distress or is a threat to the psychological or physical wellbeing of others. It is possible that what the DSM-5 intends is that, for example, female crossdressers are all unusually well-adjusted.)

This is what the DSM-5 has to say about the prevalence of paraphilias:

  • “The highest possible lifetime prevalence for voyeuristic disorder is approximately 12% in males and 4% in females.”
  • “The prevalence of exhibitionistic disorder in females is even more uncertain but is generally believed to be much lower than in males.”
  • “It has been estimated that 2.2% of males and 1.3% of females had been involved in bondage and discipline, sadomasochism, or dominance and submission in the past 12 months” [about masochistic disorder]
  • “Fetishistic disorder has not been systematically reported to occur in females. In clinical samples, fetishistic disorder is nearly exclusively reported in males.”
  • “Transvestic disorder is rare in males and extremely rare in females.”
  • Silence about the prevalence of sexual sadism in women.

This is definitely an improvement on the insistence that women essentially never have paraphilias other than masochism, which has twenty men for every woman (!); still, there is an insistence that the paraphilias are extraordinarily rare in women.

Why was this a sexological consensus? I present a few hypotheses.

First, most research on paraphilias is conducted on a sex-offender population. For various reasons, women are less likely to be sex offenders. Sexual crimes by women may be underreported and underprosecuted; women may also be legitimately less likely to engage in many sex offenses.

Second, the definition of ‘paraphilia’ is androcentric. Consider omegaverse. “I get off on a man going into heat and then getting knocked up by another man with a dog dick” is certainly a sexual interest in something other than genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, physically mature, consenting human partners. However, it does not fit in any of the current paraphilias. Conversely, there are paraphilias for sexual interests that are more typically male, such as an interest in jerking off into a shoe. This is likely to be a self-perpetuating problem; since paraphilias are defined androcentrically, paraphilias are underdiagnosed in women, and there is no way for psychiatrists to discover that they should correct the definitions.

Third, there is a lot of stigma on women admitting their sexuality, and many women would feel reluctant admitting their sexual interests to a psychiatrist or even on an anonymous survey. (As a very obvious example, studies consistently report heterosexual men having a higher mean number of sexual partners than heterosexual women.)

Fourth and most importantly, women are less likely than men to be aware of what their kinks are, especially before the present day. There are both biological and cultural reasons for this. Biologically, if one has a penis, arousal is more obvious and the mechanics of masturbation are more intuitive. Having a male-typical level of testosterone also usually gives you more interest in sex than having a female-typical level of testosterone does. Culturally, women’s sexuality tends to be shamed and stigmatized as “slutty.” Female sexual exploration and curiosity tends not to be encouraged as much as male sexual exploration and curiosity, particularly historically.

Among all age groups, women are both less likely to have ever masturbated and less likely to have masturbated in the past year. It is likely that many women who have never masturbated or who masturbate rarely also don’t sexually fantasize or fantasize rarely. They may have completely failed to notice what their kinks are.

The self-hating man with a paraphilia might go to a psychiatrist for help fixing himself. The self-hating female woman with a paraphilia might very well never realize she has a paraphilia and instead conclude that she just doesn’t like sex that much.

How did this change? Why, in the past thirty years, have we gone from “women don’t have paraphilias” to “don’t be ridiculous, Ozy, of course it wasn’t sexological consensus that women don’t have paraphilias”?

I believe the answer is our friend the Internet.

Perhaps due to sexual stigma, women seem particularly averse to buying porn. In 1970, if a woman wished to purchase erotic literature, she would have to go to a literal physical store and buy it from an actual shop clerk and then maybe display it on her actual shelves where people could see it and judge her. Today, all she has to do is search on Amazon and download The Devil: Devil’s Playground Duet #1 to her Kindle and literally no one will have any idea.

We’ve seen an explosion in the past twenty years of art, erotica and porn aimed at women. I talk about fandom a lot, but I think it’s equally obvious in the romance novel world: since the development of the Kindle, there have been a lot more erotic romance novels with more and filthier sex that caters more directly to common female interests. This is a self-perpetuating cycle. If you have porn that’s catering to you– porn with sexy men in it rather than sexy women, for example– you’re more likely to notice the sorts of things you get off on.

Cards on the table: I suspect that, while men might be more likely to have certain paraphilias and women might be more likely to have certain other paraphilias, women and men are equally likely to have intense, persistent interests in sexual activities other than genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, consenting adult human partners. I believe, in the next few decades as the number of people who had access to porn as teenagers increases, we will see more and more women with paraphilias, and this fact will become obvious.

Further Objections To Three Sentences In An Interview With Ray Blanchard (They’re A Really Bad Three Sentences)

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On Monday, I wrote a post about my most important objection to this answer of Ray Blanchard’s in an interview from 2013:

[Interviewer:] Do you think autoandrophilia, where a woman is aroused by the thought of herself as a man, is a real paraphilia?

[Blanchard:] No, I proposed it simply in order not to be accused of sexism, because there are all these women who want to say, “women can rape too, women can be pedophiles too, women can be exhibitionists too.” It’s a perverse expression of feminism, and so, I thought, let me jump the gun on this. I don’t think the phenomenon even exists.

I wanted to stick to the most important issue in the first post. However, I could not in good conscience refrain from objecting to everything else objectionable about those three sentences.

First: autoandrophilia obviously exists. Autoandrophilia obviously existed in 2013. Archive of Our Own had existed for four years at the time. AO3 hosts an enormous quantity of porn written by women about men having sex with each other; many (although of course not all) of the readers insert themselves as one of the characters in the pairing. The phenomenon of women imagining themselves as men in slash fanfiction dates back to 1966, when the TV show Star Trek began and women began shipping Kirk/Spock. There is honestly no excuse for a person who considers himself a world expert in sexuality related to gender deviance to be unaware that autoandrophiles exist.

As I said in the previous post, Blanchard has recently admitted to the existence of autohomoeroticism, a sexual fetish in which people assigned female at birth are sexually attracted to the idea of being a gay man. He considers this to be extraordinarily rare. (Out of curiosity, I did a small survey on a fandom Discord I frequent and found that 60% of the respondents assigned female at birth were autoandrophiles, although I suppose it is possible that every autohomoerotic person in the world frequents this particular Discord.) It is unclear to me how the hell autohomoeroticism is supposed to be different from autoandrophilia, except that it would be embarrassing to Blanchard to admit he’s wrong because of something as minor as “the facts.”

Second: Blanchard implicitly equates pedophiles, rapists, and exhibitionists with autoandrophiles. Pedophiles and rapists either perform nonconsensual sex acts or are tempted to do so; while people who have sex in front of consenting people are also considered exhibitionists, presumably Blanchard is referring to people who want to show their genitals to or have sex in front of nonconsenting people. Cisgender autoandrophiles might strap on a dildo and get a blowjob from another consenting adult, but they don’t do anything nonconsensual nor are they tempted to do so.

I am glossing over the complicated issue of transgender autoandrophiles, in part due to the disagreement about whether they exist. I have met the occasional self-identified non-dysphoric autoandrophile who has transitioned. In general, they have tried to be indistinguishable from dysphoric trans people and to pass as their preferred gender. This is very unlike rape, pedophilia, or nonconsensual exhibitionism, where the victims know they’re involved in a sex act. It seems rather more like a person getting off on the reactions they get when they wear sexy clothes, or on secretly wearing sexy underwear, or on receiving a hair massage, or whatever: perfectly fine as long as it is not obvious to other people what they’re doing. Whatever you may think of the wisdom of their transitions, it does not seem to be a nonconsensual sex act. Blanchard’s inability to distinguish between consensual and nonconsensual sex acts is appalling.

Third: Blanchard has an openly contemptuous attitude towards the idea that women commit sexual violence. However, women uncontroversially commit sexual violence. In a study conducted in 2010, it was found that 4.8% of men had been, over the course of their lives, forced to penetrate someone through violence, threat of violence, or use of drugs/alcohol, and 6% were coerced into sex. 79.2% of male forced-to-penetrate victims had only female perpetrators, while 83.6% of male sexual coercion victims had only female perpetrators. By comparison, 98.1% of female rape victims had only male perpetrators, and 92.5% of female sexual coercion victims had only male perpetrators, and women are more likely to experience both rape and sexual coercion than men are.

Female child molesters are understudied. However, victimization surveys suggest that somewhere between 14% and 26% of children molested are molested by a woman. Official crime statistics suggest that as few as 1% of children molested are molested by a woman; it is probable that female child molesters are undercounted.

It’s true that men are more likely than women to commit sexual violence. However, a significant minority of victims of sexual violence have female perpetrators. The idea that pointing this out is laughable is rape apologism and morally wrong.

Fourth: Blanchard appears to believe the only reason one would write paragraphs like the above is some sort of bizarre “women can do anything men can do” ethos. It does not seem to occur to him that people would care about supporting the victims of female rapists. I have drafted several sentences in response to this and had an extraordinary difficulty ending them with anything other than “fuck off.”

People– men, women, and nonbinary– are sometimes raped by women. I’ve gotten anguished emails from victims of rape by women thanking me because I am the only blogger they’ve found who will even say they exist. I’ve listened to people– blog readers and friends– talk about bracing themselves when they say the gender of their rapist, because people will laugh at them, or tell them they wanted it, or question them to see if there was some sort of horrible misunderstanding, or immediately derail the conversation to talk about how Men Commit Most Rapes Though, or assume they’re anti-feminist men’s rights activists and call them misogynists, or ask intrusive details about how it could happen mechanically, or assume that they’re the perpetrator and their rapist was the victim. Our society is awful to rape victims of all stripes, but there are unique ways in which it is awful to victims of female perpetrators, and it needs to stop. Pointing out that female rapists and child molesters exist is the first step.

Ray Blanchard Lied To Try To Get A Condition Included In The DSM Out Of Political Correctness

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[content note: rape apologism]

In 2013, Ray Blanchard– head of the paraphilia working group for the DSM-5 and originator of the controversial ‘two-type’ theory of transness— gave an interview about his work as part of the paraphilia working group, which included the following passage:

[Interviewer:] Do you think autoandrophilia, where a woman is aroused by the thought of herself as a man, is a real paraphilia?

[Blanchard:] No, I proposed it simply in order not to be accused of sexism, because there are all these women who want to say, “women can rape too, women can be pedophiles too, women can be exhibitionists too.” It’s a perverse expression of feminism, and so, I thought, let me jump the gun on this. I don’t think the phenomenon even exists.

Quite frankly, I am flabbergasted.

Ray Blanchard openly admitted, in a publicly available interview, to attempting to include a condition that he does not think exists in the DSM. Why? Because feminists might get angry at him if he didn’t.

In the published version of the DSM-5, Transvestic Disorder does not include a “with autoandrophilia” specification; it existed only in the draft version. One hopes that someone read this interview, talked to Blanchard, and explained to him that the DSM should include conditions that exist and should not include conditions that don’t exist. One would hope that that was a fact a psychologist would be aware of once he has his PhD, or gets tenure, or is involved in writing the DSM, or is literally the head of a DSM-related working group. But I suppose we all miss minor details now and again.

Perhaps there should be some sort of training or orientation for people joining a DSM working group. I imagine, ten years from now:

“It is important,” the trainer might say, “that the DSM reflect reality as best it can. Psychologists and psychiatrists will use it to guide their treatment; insurance companies will allow or deny coverage based on it; drug companies will develop medications for the diagnoses we create; journalists and self-help writers will take inclusion in the DSM as a sign that a disorder wasn’t made up by crackpots. Human psychology is messy and it’s hard to create categories that aren’t at least a little bit arbitrary; we’re not expecting perfection, just do your best. A good-faith effort is fine.”

A member of the sleep disorders working group raises her hand. “So, if we’re just supposed to make a good-faith effort, what does this actually rule out?”

“Well, for example,” the trainer says, “if you would describe a phenomenon with the words ‘I don’t think it even exists,’ you should not put it in the DSM.”

“Who would do that?” the head of the depression working group says. “This is absurd. This is worse than the ‘instead of being a Nazi, consider not being a Nazi’ trainings we have to do every time we do research.”

“Yes, well,” the trainer says, “you’d think, but unfortunately Ray Blanchard fucked it all up for everyone. Please turn to page twenty of your booklets for the quiz entitled ‘In What Circumstances Is It Okay To Put A Disorder In The DSM Even Though You Don’t Think It Accurately Describes Reality At All’.”

The room is silent except for the scribbling of pens. A hand is raised.

The trainer sights. “Yes, Ray?”

“I’m stuck on number 12, ‘is it okay to put a disorder in the DSM, even though you don’t think it exists, if a feminist might get mad at you and write a mean article saying you’re wrong?'”

“That’s a no, Ray,” the trainer says.

“But what if it’s a really, really mean article? Like what if they call me a transphobe or something? Surely it’s okay if they might call me a transphobe.”

“We’ll cover that in Unit Four,” the trainer says, “where you learn about the exciting career opportunities available in pitching articles to Quillette.”

Sadly, this vision of the future would not come to be.

In fact, other than having “with autoandrophilia” removed as a specification, Ray Blanchard has faced zero negative consequences for his behavior whatsoever. There was no investigation; he was not censured; he was not removed as the head of the paraphilia working group; his previous research was not reviewed to see whether he has at other times engaged in academic dishonesty in the name of political correctness. This interview appears to have been entirely forgotten.

Indeed, Ray Blanchard has somehow gotten a reputation as a defender of science against political correctness. Presumably this is because his beliefs about transgender people are extraordinarily unpopular among trans advocates and he has faced various negative consequences, such as harsh criticism and Twitter suspension. It is easy to assume that a person facing a lot of criticism for their beliefs is a disinterested scientist following the data where it goes without regard for politics. As a recent example, Helen Joyce, an editor at the Economist, objected to Blanchard’s recent Twitter suspension by calling him “a world expert in the field… setting out his findings from a lifetime of research” and highlighting his work as head of the paraphilia working group.

Certainly, feminists and trans advocates have sometimes made arguments that contradict the best scientific evidence; certainly, it is important to pursue truth even when it goes against what you find politically palatable. But to the best of my knowledge no trans advocate or feminist has ever put a diagnosis into the DSM-5, which they sincerely believed did not exist, for the sake of political gain. Certainly, none of them have done so not because they think it would help people– which would be understandable, although morally wrong and academically dishonest– but because experiencing criticism from feminists is scary and they don’t want to.

That is literally all Ray Blanchard.

Have you considered that if you don’t like being criticized maybe you should be involved in writing the DSM?

Late in the interview, Blanchard says:

But I don’t think we should promulgate untruths for the sake of political agendas, even if they are worthwhile political agendas.

I believe this is excellent advice. Ray Blanchard should consider following it.

Two final notes:

In the interests of being more intellectually honest than Blanchard, I’d like to highlight that Blanchard appears to have changed his mind to some degree about autoandrophilia. He has recently argued that “autohomoeroticism”– a paraphilia in which female people are aroused by the concept of being gay men– may exist, although rarely. However, it is unclear to me whether Blanchard sincerely believes in autohomoeroticism, or merely has figured out that lying in order to keep feminists from yelling at you works better if you don’t openly admit to lying. It seems wise to me to view all his research with distrust.

Second, I have avoided discussing anything other than the object-level issue in this post. Although I am a trans advocate, I hope people of all political persuasions may find Blanchard’s behavior here objectionable; certainly, people who are against trans advocacy have made it very clear that they consider science to be more important than political correctness. I don’t want the conversation to be derailed by other, more controversial topics. Therefore, I have written my other thoughts in a separate post, which will be up on Wednesday.

The Life-Changing Magic Of To Do Lists

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Executive functioning is your ability to engage in goal-directed behavior: it includes self-control, planning, intrinsic motivation, emotional regulation, working memory, and focus. Executive function impairments can really fuck up your entire life.

The good news is that, for many people, non-medication coping mechanisms for executive function impairments work really well. The bad news is that the list of non-medication coping mechanisms for executive function impairments looks something like this:

  • Put your keys in the exact same place every time.
  • Use a to-do list.
  • Use a planner.
  • Write down events in your calendar along with when they occur.
  • Work in a place without distractions.
  • Do pomodoros.
  • Have a morning and afternoon routine.
  • Schedule a specific time to do the thing.

That is, it’s literally all things adults lectured you about when you were a kid and forgot about an important form– again— or didn’t do your homework– again— or can’t find your shoes– again. (Pomodoros are an exception but I feel like they have a certain offputting spiritual similarity.)

It makes sense that that’d be true. Presumably non-medication coping mechanisms for executive dysfunction were independently discovered many times and spread until they became conventional wisdom. Many people have subclinical issues with executive functioning; for genetic reasons, people related to people with serious executive functioning problems are particularly likely to have subclinical issues. They’re trying to  give advice that actually does work.

But it also means that using those coping mechanisms feels like admitting to the people who lectured you as a kid that they were right and actually the problem is that you’re Insufficiently Virtuous and if you only acquired More Virtue then you would be able to solve the problem.

I’m not sure there’s a solution to this problem other than training parents in motivational interviewing, or at least convincing them to give advice at literally any time other than immediately after your child failed to do the thing when they are already full of shame and self-hatred. Seriously, guys. You’re going to give your children lifelong planner-related trauma and they’re going to miss way more doctors’ appointments than they would otherwise.

One problem with non-medication coping mechanisms for executive dysfunction, at least as communicated via parental lecture, is that the things that work for people with moderate to severe executive function issues are usually very very specific. I know several people whose lives literally fell apart when Google shut down Google Inbox,  because they were using those features, and no you can’t just replace it with Gmail Gmail does a different thing. I know a person who can only use Habitica as a to-do list app, because the gamification aspect gives them the internal motivation they would otherwise lack.

I have several times attempted to find One Place Where My Keys And Wallet Live, Such That I Will No Longer Lose Them. However, my first attempts all failed, because I got clever and tried to put my keys and wallet in some place other than the counter next to the front door, which is literally the first flat surface I encounter when I enter the house. If I have to take more than three steps in order to put my keys and wallet in a place, I will not put them there.

People with executive function problems also often have to defend their coping mechanisms with a fervency that seems anal-retentive to people without executive function disorders. For example, many people have to enter a plan into Google Calendar immediately the second they think of it, because if they delay for even five minutes they will never enter it into Google Calendar and they will miss their appointment. Some people have to carry their planners around with them everywhere no matter what, and losing their planner is an emergency of a similar urgency to childbirth. Those who have a routine might have to do exactly the same routine in exactly the same order every day, because if they feed the dog before they drink their tea everything will fall apart and they’ll be in their underwear at 2pm.

(This is another subject on which the parents of children with executive function problems could improve. If your teenager finds something that works for them, things that disrupt it are emergencies and they cannot ‘just do it anyway’. Either prioritize getting them the things they need to handle their executive function problems or don’t lecture them when they forget to do their homework.)

Finally, unless you are very very lucky, non-medication treatments for executive function issues are not going to get you to a neurotypical level of functioning. This is often a grave disappointment to people with executive function problems and their loved ones; what’s the use of all that work if you’re just going to miss appointments and fail to run errands anyway? The answer is that successfully running nine out of ten errands is actually way better than successfully running two out of ten errands. It’s a tremendous improvement in your quality of life and your ability to do things, even if a normal person would be able to do all ten errands. It’s important to compare yourself to where you used to be, not to where other people are right now.

Consider Switching Productivity Systems Often

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A lot of people decide to look for the best possible productivity system, which they’ll use for the rest of their lives. However, I think for many people it’s better to switch between several different productivity systems.

For me, a new productivity system– Habitica, Getting Things Done, Zen to One, Complice, a brand new planner– is shiny and exciting. I am motivated to check it every day. I am convinced that this time the system will solve all of my executive function problems. I will remember my appointments! I will check tasks off my to-do list! I will accomplish my goals! I will become a productive adult member of society!

Unfortunately, over time, the new productivity system grows stale. I’m used to it; I don’t get the rewards of novelty. I am familiar with all its quirks and don’t have any exciting new features to discover. It has, in a completely unpredictable turn of events, failed to solve all of my life problems.

What’s worse, I’ve fallen into a certain automatic routine for using my system. Switching to a new productivity system is often an opportunity to reflect on how I’ve been doing things poorly and in what ways I can do things better. Should I add ‘dishes’ as a daily task because I keep running out of plates? Do I really want to write a novel, or is it just on my to-do list because I feel like the sort of person who should be writing a novel? Should I consolidate these twelve different things I need to do every morning into a single ‘morning routine’ item?

But if I’ve been using the same productivity system for a year, I haven’t had an opportunity to reflect for a long time, and the list has gotten worse. I walk around in shoes with holes in them for the past three months because it never occurred to me that I should add ‘buy shoes’ to my list. The book I’ve been meaning to read for six months is still on my to do list even though I am pretty sure I am never going to get around to reading it. There are mysterious items labeled things like ‘investigate point B’. I follow the same routines even though they’re often now uncomfortable fits for my life.

(I am informed that high-level productivity system users do things called “weekly reviews” and “monthly reviews” to prevent this problem. This has literally never worked for me.)

In the past, I used to respond to this by redoubling my efforts to make the old productivity system work and recapture the magic. Right now, I take this as a sign to switch productivity systems. 

In fact, I explicitly accept and plan for the fact that I’m going to switch productivity systems every year to eighteen months.

The part of my brain that decides that THIS productivity system is going to FIX MY ENTIRE LIFE is really dumb and incapable of learning from experience. I feel excited about the new system I’m switching to, and I can harness that to build good habits and create positive feedback cycles. I take switching as an opportunity to reflect on my goals and tasks and see if they make sense. And– since I know that switching regularly is something I plan on doing– I can switch back to old systems that I know worked well for me. (No, that doesn’t stop my brain from believing it is going to fix my entire life. My brain is really dumb.)

I think this advice might work well for some other people who work similarly to me.

Book Post for May

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Rising Out Of Hatred: This book– about former white nationalist Derek Black and how he stopped being a white nationalist– takes place at the college I attended as a undergraduate, while I attended. For that reason, I’m not sure I should give much of an opinion on the book; gossip about my college acquaintances is not of public interest, and my book on the story is going to be fundamentally affected by the fact that I took classes with Derek Black, in a way that makes it less useful for other people. I can, however, state that as far as I’m aware its description of events is accurate. There were a couple of places where I’d quibble with the description of New College, but nothing I’d consider generally unreasonable.

The Sober Truth: “There isn’t great evidence that AA works. Despite its pretensions of secularism, AA is a clearly Christian-influenced organization, which makes it problematic for both devout members of non-Christian religions and atheists. AA is prescribed over and over again for people for whom it clearly isn’t working. THEREFORE, we should use the true evidence-based treatment for alcoholism, which is psychodynamic psychotherapy.”

Inside Rehab: I started internally screaming in the first chapter, when someone described how one of their rehabs only gave you Suboxone as a reward for good behavior. I did not finish internally screaming until I finished the book.

Interesting facts: Your chance of receiving evidence-based treatment is generally higher if you’re poor or homeless and lower if you pay for rehab out of pocket, because NGOs and governments have leverage to demand that rehabs implement evidence-based treatment, while private rehabs can just do whatever sounds good (equine therapy, Reiki) even if there is no evidence behind it. Rehabs (particularly for people with mild substance abuse problems and teenagers) can make drug addictions worse by introducing the client to more severely addicted friends and teaching them about new drugs and ways of hiding them. AA specifically leads to binges in some people by teaching them that if they have one drink they might as well go on a binge. Thirty percent of people have had an alcohol use disorder at some point in their lives; this is because alcohol use disorder is defined very broadly and essentially includes anyone whose use of alcohol has ever caused a problem in their lives. As you might guess, most people with mild alcohol use disorders are capable of drinking moderately.

One thing I’m confused about is that the author complained that rehabs are very expensive, and then complained that addiction counselors are untrained people whose only qualification is being former addicts, and then complained that rehabs almost never offer much individual therapy (often less than once a week). Presumably the last two things would make rehabs less expensive? Are rehabs directing money in a useless way (towards equine therapy or administrator salaries or nice bedrooms)? Or are rehabs inherently very expensive for some reason? If it is the second thing, maybe we should transition to outpatient therapy, which is less expensive.

Highly recommended both for people who want to gain a better understanding of the rehab system in the United States and for people considering rehab for themselves or their loved ones. The lists of questions to ask rehabs seem very helpful.

Sex Addiction: A Critical History: I was really excited when I bought this book, because I think sex addiction is a problematic concept and I was really looking forward to an in-depth history of how it came to be, along the lines of (say) David Valentine’s excellent Imagining Transgender. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in the social construction of transness, Imagining Transgender is an absolutely invaluable book and I highly recommend it.)

Unfortunately, the authors have Szaszian sympathies, so instead of enjoying the book I spent the entire time raging about their terrible, terrible politics. “‘Sex addiction’ is bad because it’s another example of the psychiatric industry medicalizing normal human behavior, the way that depression medicalizes normal sadness! You can tell, because there’s a continuum between sex addiction and normal behavior and you can’t draw a non-arbitrary line between ‘sex addiction’ and ‘normalcy.’ How negatively sex addiction affects you depends as much on your environment as it does on your objective symptom severity. In some contexts sex addiction can be neutral or even conducive to your flourishing.”

But the problem is that all those things are true of literally every psychiatric condition. Psychosis is on a continuum with normal hallucinations that ordinary people experience, and it’s hard to draw a non-arbitrary line between psychosis and normal voice-hearing. How negatively psychosis affects you depends as much on your environment as it does on your objective symptom severity. In some contexts psychosis can be neutral or even conducive to your flourishing. Either you bite the bullet and go “psychosis is fake, the homeless schizophrenic guy is exactly like everyone else”– which, to his credit, Szasz does– or you realize that we have to have a way to think about psychiatric conditions that features the social model of disability and the fact that psychiatric conditions are all on a continuum with normal human behavior.

Unfortunately, the authors are so busy having stupid opinions about psychiatric diagnosis that they didn’t do anything more than touch on the genuine incoherency and thorny ethical issues associated with the ‘sex addiction’ concept.

The behavior highlighted by the PATHOS screening for sex addiction– preoccupation with sexual thoughts, hiding some sexual behavior from others, seeking treatment for sexual behavior, sexual behavior that hurts others emotionally, feeling controlled by your sexual desire, feeling depression after sex– just doesn’t have one simple set of causes. Some people might have hypersexuality symptoms associated with mania or a personality disorder. Some people might be closeted gay people in a homophobic environment, or kinky people in an environment where kink is stigmatized. Some people might use sex as a quick source of pleasure when they’re depressed. Some people might have a history of sexual trauma. These are all different problems with different solutions and I don’t think it makes sense to treat them all as one thing.

(And what’s with that “hiding sexual behavior from others” thing. I hide sexual behavior from others because I have boundaries.)

The concept of ‘sex addiction’, I think, highlights a particularly thorny ethical problem. If a system of sexual ethics is particularly demanding– in particular, if it demands that a person not masturbate, or not masturbate when in a relationship, or not masturbate using porn or erotica or sexual fantasies of people other than their partner, or only have sex with people they aren’t oriented towards– a certain percentage of the population will find themselves engaging in sexual behavior they don’t endorse. But those people are not going to have sexually compulsive behavior in general. If they stop believing that gay sex, pornography use, or masturbation is wrong, they’ll probably use porn, have gay sex, or masturbate a perfectly reasonable amount that is in balance with the rest of their lives. They certainly won’t escalate to nonconsensual behavior, adultery, or pedophilia (as is sometimes implied by sex/porn addiction discourse).

I’m not sure what we should do about that. On one hand, some part of me says that the problem here is clearly not the masturbation or porn use or gay sex, the problem is the stigma, and the therapist should destigmatize the sexual behavior in question. On the other hand, it seems to me that therapists should not impose their ethical beliefs on their patients. I certainly wouldn’t like it if a therapist tried to do CBT to my demanding ethical beliefs! The therapist should let the patient set their own goals according to their own values instead of imposing the therapist’s values. I think this is a legitimately complicated ethical issue, and saying “if you masturbate when you don’t endorse masturbating then you are a sex addict which is exactly the same sort of thing as an alcoholic” elides it. This is exactly the sort of issue I hope would be addressed by a critical history of sex addiction, and exactly the sort of issue that was not addressed.

Artificial Condition: Murderbot is back! Murderbot is on a quest to figure out whether, last time he’d hacked his governor module, he’s committed mass murder instead of his current occupation of binging TV shows. He stumbles across some humans he feels like he has the duty to protect, and much to his grave irritation has to stop watching TV in order to protect them from their own suicidal tendencies. Murderbot is one of the most likeable and engaging protagonists in recent SF, and every novella he is in is a delight. ART, a television-obsessed spaceship, is equally likeable and a delightful foil. Pick up the series next time you have a bad day and need something fun and not too deep.

Spinning Silver: A fast-paced and page-turning fantasy novel. A moneylender boasts that she can turn silver into gold catches the attention of a gold-loving fairy, who threatens to kill her if she doesn’t turn his silver to gold and marry her if she does; a noblewoman uses the fairy silver, which makes others see her as beautiful to marry the tsar, but there is more to him than it seems. Lots of fascinating plot twists; it manages to be very gripping without having any fight scenes, which is always something I like in a novel. The secondary world is Russian-influenced, which is an interesting variation on the stock European fantasy novel. Highly recommended.

Beneath the Sugar Sky: Down Among The Sticks And Bones was so good! And this was so not good! WHY.

The protagonist’s sole personality trait is being fat. She is insecure and feels bad about her body because she is fat. She is bullied because she is fat. She is an endurance athlete because fat athletes exist. She is magically transported to an alternate world and turns into a mermaid, and suddenly becomes an athlete because being fat is actually helpful in ultraendurance swimming. (This is legitimately pretty cool and I would have hella appreciated it if the character had had at least three non-weight-related personality traits.) She expects to be bullied for being fat, but everyone is tolerant. She has to go to a magical world made out of candy, where the villainess surrounds herself with candy and never eats any of it in order to stay thin, and talks to her about how if she diets she will be thin. Every five pages we get some “and Cora was tired but she couldn’t ask for a rest because people would assume it was because  she was overweight.”

I get it! I’m on board! We should be nice to fat people! PLEASE GIVE YOUR FAT CHARACTER ANOTHER PERSONALITY TRAIT.

At one point Cora is like “the only thing people see in me is fat fat fat” and I was like “yes! that’s so true it’s even affecting your author!”

There were some really interesting ideas. The “nonsense world” made out of candy felt like a real world from a genuine children’s portal fantasy novel. Kade, a transgender male side character, had some really lovely and interesting characterization (which is unfortunately a spoiler). But overall this is a very weak entry in the series.

Link Post for May

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An argument that books are a bad way to learn things.

Air pollution seems to cause dementia.

Map of self-reported life satisfaction around the world.

Fascinating interview with a biologist who specializes in invertebrate consciousness.

Missisippi prisons are somewhat horrifying: “Another time [the informant] called from prison and said, “You hear that?” The noise sounded like a busy construction site. He explained that it was metal striking metal as gang members made weapons.

““Police officers are the first ones to say, ‘Hey, that’s unfair that I’m not gonna get this promotion, because some algorithm said I might be more violent or at risk than someone else,’” Ferguson says. “And you want to turn around and say, ‘Exactly. It’s unfair that some kid gets put on a heat list because he lives in a poor area and he’s surrounded by poverty and violence.’”

This is the ideal religious figure. You may not like it but this is what peak performance looks like.

This article about incel plastic surgery is trying to nudge me to dislike the plastic surgeon who gives incels plastic surgery but honestly I respect the hell out of him. “It’s not my job to ask why you want seven-centimeter testicles, it’s my job to invent groundbreaking surgical techniques to get you them” is a position I can support. Bodily autonomy! (To be clear, the incels don’t want seven-centimeter testicles, he just separately does both seven-centimeter testicles and incels.)

TurboTax has lied to people seeking refunds, such as by claiming that ProPublica was going to run a retraction of its story about how TurboTax deliberately deceived people who should have been able to file their taxes for free into paying. (Incidentally, if you earned less than $34,000 last year and paid TurboTax, to file your taxes you may be able to get a refund. I suggest seeking it because fuck TurboTax.)

This article about ransomware data recovery firms is incredibly interesting. Data recovery firms usually just pay the ransom; the value they add is (1) plausible deniability about whether you paid a ransom and (2) long-standing relationships with hacker groups, which lets them negotiate discounts and know who is likely to flake or claim to be able to decrypt something they can’t. Ransomware has become remarkably professionalized, including special discounts for data recovery firms who use a particular ransomware group regularly. Because multiple hacker groups use the same virus, there’s competition to see who can offer the cheapest ransoms.

One from the Goodhart’s Law files: requirements that a high percentage of teenagers graduate from high school lead to heavy use of online credit recovery, which might not teach kids anything.

Medieval books of penances for particular sins give us insight into the sex lives of the medievals. Also, into the fact that sex urban legends are not a modern invention, although at least the present-day ones are less likely to involve dead fish.

Do Animals Have A Right To Life?

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[content warning: discussion of murdering babies, use of disabled people in philosophy thought experiments]

The Logic of the Larder

One important issue for effective animal altruists is the logic of the larder. The argument goes like this: if farmed animal lives are worth living, then it is good to eat meat, because if you eat lots of meat then more farmed animals will exist and live happy lives. Advocates for the welfare of farmed animals should encourage people to eat more meat to cause more happy animals to come into being.

In most cases, farmed animal lives are unpleasant enough that the logic of the larder doesn’t apply. Their lives are not worth living, so it’s good not to eat animal products. However, in some cases– such as cows raised for beef, or Certified Humane chickens– some reasonable and thoughtful people argue that the farmed animals’ lives are worth living. In those cases, the logic of the larder suggests, effective animal advocates should eat more meat.

 The Baby Farm

Imagine that, among very wealthy people, there is a new fad for eating babies. Out baby farmer is an ethical person and he wants to make sure that his babies are farmed as ethically as possible. The babies are produced through artificial wombs; there are no adults who are particularly invested in the babies’ continued life. The babies are slaughtered at one month, well before they have long-term plans and preferences that are thwarted by death. In their one month of life, the babies have the happiest possible baby life: they are picked up immediately whenever they cry, they get lots of delicious milk, they’re held and rocked and sung to, their medical concerns are treated quickly, and they don’t ever have to sit in a poopy diaper. In every way, they live as happy and flourishing a life as a two-week-old baby can. Is the baby farm unethical?

If you’re like me, the answer is a quick “yes.”

My intuition suggests three things. First, it is a harm– at least to some beings– to kill them. That is, I do not adopt the Epicurean position that the only harm of death comes from the grief other people feel, your unfulfilled plans, etc., none of which apply to the one-year-old babies in the baby farm. You might say that some beings have “a right to life.”

Second, my intuition is not a speciesist intuition. My intuition suggests we should also not farm Vulcan babies, orc babies, house elf babies, Twi’lek babies, or chimpanzee babies. Therefore, my intuition is not grounded in the fact that babies are members of the human species per se.

Third, the “right to life” does not depend on certain sophisticated cognitive capacities unique (or allegedly unique) to the human species, such as autonomy, practical reason, a capacity to form relationships with other beings, awareness of oneself as a subject of mental states, desires and plans for the future, the capacity to bargain, an understanding of one’s duties and responsibilities, etc. One-month-olds are pretty stupid and do not have any of these capacities.

I am horrified by the idea of a baby farm. I am not horrified by the idea of a beef cow farm. Perhaps I am being inconsistent and speciesist; whatever it is about babies that makes it wrong to murder them is perhaps also true of cows, except that I grew up in a society that undervalues beef cow lives, so I undervalue them as well. Conversely, perhaps my judgment of the baby farm is influenced by morally irrelevant factors, like it being very disgusting, and perhaps it is ethical to raise babies for meat.

Incompletely Realized Sophisticated Cognitive Capacities

I believe the solution here is that the right to life comes from certain incompletely realized sophisticated cognitive capacities. What does this mean?

Adult humans without certain disabilities have various sophisticated cognitive capacities, which I listed off a few paragraphs ago. It is not necessary right now to determine which ones give you a right to life. To have concrete examples, I’m going to talk about practical reason (the ability to understand the good for yourself, set goals and create plans, and reflect on your goals and plans) and affiliation (social interaction, putting yourself in other people’s shoes, and love and care for others). But this is purely for illustration and the argument works the same whatever capacities you use.

I will use the terminology “threshold capacity for practical reason and affiliation” as a shorthand for “sufficient capacity for practical reason and affiliation that we believe that you have a ‘right to life.'” It does not matter, for the sake of this argument, what threshold you adopt, assuming that you agree that nearly all adult humans are above the threshold. I believe that most people agree.

It is reasonable to believe that neither babies nor cows have a threshold capacity for affiliation and practical reason. A cow may very well have more capacity for practical reason than a newborn baby. But that doesn’t mean that their position with regards to capacities are the same. A cow has all of the capacities it is ever going to have; it has fully developed cow capacities. A baby has incompletely developed adult human capacities. When a newborn baby cries until it is picked up, or recognizes the face of its parents, that is the beginning of a human ability for affiliation. When a newborn baby waves its arms in front of its eyes, is delighted by the movement, and repeats it, that is the beginning of a human ability for practical reason. We consider not just what the baby is able to do but what its abilities are incomplete fragments of.

As an analogy, consider the difference between a blind person and a blind cave tetra. A blind cave tetra does not have eyes; it does not have any capacity to see in any form. Blind people, on the other hand, have an incomplete form of the capacity to see, in the sense we’re using it here. This has real, concrete effects. A blind person generally has eyes, eyelashes, eyebrows, a visual cortex, and so on. Most legally blind people have at least some vision, such as the ability to perceive light. Some blind people can respond to stimuli they don’t consciously see. Blind people repurpose the visual cortex of the brain to handle language. A blind person and a blind cave tetra may have an equal ability to see, but their situations are concretely different, because a blind cave tetra is not the sort of being that sees at all, while a blind person can has much of the equipment generally associated with seeing.

Running through a list of hard problems, I believe this rule gives satisfactory results. (Again, I use “practical reason” and “affiliation” merely as examples.)

Vulcans, house elves, Twi’leks, and orcs? All capable of affiliation and practical reason, and therefore have a right to life.

Sufficiently advanced artificial intelligences? Capable of affiliation and practical reason, have a right to life.

Fetuses? It is difficult to decide when a fetus begins to have the capacity for affiliation and practical reason, even in an incomplete form. There is little opportunity to plan one’s life in the womb, and it can be difficult to distinguish reflex behavior from complex planning. Nevertheless, it is important to be very very conservative about committing murder; if your plan involves even a one percent chance of killing a person, you shouldn’t do it unless you have a very very good reason. For this reason, society should improve access to highly reliable contraceptives and provide poor and single parents the support they need to avoid abortion. Abortion regulations should be considered thoughtfully, balancing the bodily autonomy of pregnant people with the potential right to life of the fetus. Abortion regulations that lead to later abortions (for example, waiting periods) should be avoided, because they increase the chance that the abortion is murder.

People with impairments in their capacities for practical reason and affiliation? This is a complicated issue and there are several possible considerations. In many cases, impaired people can exercise a threshold capacity for practical reason and affiliation if provided with appropriate support. For example, the vast majority of autistic people are capable of understanding other people with appropriate supports, such as clearly written explanations of things that neurotypicals understand instinctively. Similarly, intellectually disabled people can almost always set life goals, but may need supported decision making. In rare cases, a human may unambiguously not have any capacity for practical reason or affiliation, even in an incomplete form, as in babies with anencephaly; in this case, the human would have no right to life.

Some disabled people will have partial or incomplete capacities. This case is similar to the case of the blind person: while the blind person cannot see, and certain disabled people cannot affiliate at the threshold level, in either case the disabled person has these capacities in an incomplete form. Finally, it is very very common among the severely disabled that we can’t know whether a person has the threshold capacity. Consider a person with total locked-in syndrome: they may be able to reason or affiliate, but if they cannot communicate, how can we know? It can be very difficult to assess the true abilities of nonspeaking disabled people or disabled people with severe motor control issues. For this reason, it is important to be conservative and extend the right to life very widely.

Animals? The threshold capacity is, by stipulation, placed at a point where nearly all adult humans pass it. How many animal species have a right to life will depend on what the threshold capacity should be, which is a subject that is too large to discuss in this blog post.

It seems unlikely that there are no species in which certain gifted members have threshold-passing capacities (or an incomplete form of the same) and others do not. In theory, if we had perfect knowledge, the right to life would be correlated with species but not determined by it, as in general beings have the capacities of other members of their species. In practice, except in extremely unusual cases such as anencephaly, a conservative approach suggests that we should extend the right to life to all members of a species of which at least one member has demonstrated threshold-passing capacities.

Stupid Questions About Donation Splitting

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I’ve seen many people claim that splitting your donations (that is, donating some money to one charity and some money to another charity, instead of donating all your money to one charity) is irrational because you should just donate to the thing that you think is the best at using money on the margin.

However, I am confused about this. It seems to me that there are more complicated issues that this simple argument has not grappled with.

Imagine a toy problem where there are 100 effective altruists, each of whom are going to donate $100. There are two effective charities, the Against Paperclips Foundation and the Foundation to Cure Rare Diseases In Cute Puppies.  The Against Paperclips Foundation creates +1.0000001 utility per dollar, while the Foundation To Cure Rare Diseases In Cute Puppies creates +1 utility per dollar (the puppies are really cute). The Against Paperclips Foundation has a room for more funding (RFMF) of $9000, while the Foundation To Cure Rare Diseases In Cute Puppies has a RFMF of $1000; if the RFMF is filled, further donations produce zero utility.

In theory, the effective altruists could fill the Against Paperclips Foundation’s room for more funding and then switch to the Foundation To Cure Rare Diseases In Cute Puppies. But there are going to be coordination issues. For example, many EAs donate near the end of the year, so the Against Paperclips Foundation’s RFMF might be filled all at once before they have a chance to announce that their RFMF is full. Some people are not going to read the EA Forum and find out that the Against Paperclips Foundation’s RFMF is full. Some people are going to forget to switch their automated donations.

In short, if everyone follows the “do whatever seems the best” rule, the Against Paperclips Foundation is going to receive extra money that does far less good than the Foundation To Cure Rare Diseases In Cute Puppies.

Conversely, if everyone donates 90% to the Against Paperclips Foundation and 10% to the Foundation To Cure Rare Diseases In Cute Puppies, there is a tiny tiny utility cost, because the Against Paperclips Foundation is slightly better than the Foundation To Cure Rare Diseases In Cute Puppies. But it also totally solves the coordination problem! No one has to communicate with anyone else; no one has to learn whether the RFMF is full; no one has to remember to donate to a different place. The right outcome happens automatically.

Further, “room for more funding” is a bit of an oversimplification. The Against Paperclips Foundation’s most pressing needs might be more important than the Foundation To Cure Rare Diseases In Cute Puppies’s most pressing needs, but that doesn’t mean that any money the Against Paperclips Foundation can use productively is more important as the Foundation To Cure Rare Diseases In Cute Puppies’s most pressing needs. The first paperclip researcher might be more important than curing a sad puppy of its fatal disease, but that doesn’t mean getting them new office furniture that will make research slightly more productive is more important than even the least expensive puppy to treat.

For this reason, I expect at the size the effective altruism movement is now (likely more than a hundred million non-OpenPhil dollars moved), the optimal outcome would be charitable donations spread across many charities. However, if everyone donates to the single best charity, this is unlikely to happen.

When I’ve brought up this argument to other effective altruists, they’ve said that without donation splitting you’re still going to get people donating to many different charities, because people have different values and worldviews. But it seems very unlikely to me that people having different values and worldviews would result in the money being allocated the way I would prefer. Indeed, many such people would donate in ways other people find useless or counterproductive (as a person who doesn’t think animals matter might think about effective animal advocacy). If someone donates to Machine Doggo Research Evaluators, it still doesn’t solve the problem of how to allocate money between the Against Paperclips Foundation and the Foundation to Cure Rare Diseases In Cute Puppies.

Second issue: I have often found myself in a situation where I’m not certain which of two charities is the best to donate to. They both seem like they will have very robustly positive effects, but my uncertainty is high enough that I’m genuinely not sure which of them has the highest expected value.

The sources of uncertainty are often difficult to resolve. For example, building an effective animal advocacy movement seems likely to save animals from factory farming, but it is extraordinarily difficult to say how many animals would be saved by, say, a new translation of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. In some cases I donate to a particular grantmaker– for example, through the EA Funds– because I expect their judgment to be better than mine; I can guess ‘this grantmaker will make better decisions than I will’ without having any idea how many animals this grantmaker will save.

Similarly, in many cases figuring out how good something is would involve solving very difficult philosophical problems. If a new translation of Animal Liberation inspires a person who would otherwise not have engaged in advocacy to become an advocate, and they save ten million animals, how many of those animals do I, a donor, get credit for? Or consider comparing across cause areas– how many animals spared from a factory farm is equivalent to a 20% lifetime increase in income for a person in the developing world? These are difficult problems to solve, and while it would be nice to solve them, I am going to donate this year and not after several decades of philosophical reflection.

In situations of sufficiently high uncertainty, my 95% confidence interval for two charities can often overlap. In general, in these situations, I wind up donation-splitting.

What am I missing?