Deontologist Envy


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Many consequentialists of my acquaintance appear to suffer from a tragic case of deontologist envy.

In consequentialism, one makes ethical decisions by choosing the actions that have the best consequences, whether that means maximizing your own happiness and flourishing (consequentialist ethical egoism), increasing pleasure and decreasing pain (hedonic utilitarianism), satisfying the most people’s preferences (preference utilitarianism) or increasing the number of pre-defined Good Things in the world (objective list consequentialism). Of course, it’s impossible to figure out all the consequences of your actions in advance, so many people follow particular sets of rules which they believe maximize utility overall; this is sometimes called “rule consequentialism” or “rule utilitarianism.”

In deontology, one makes ethical decisions by choosing the actions that follow some particular rule. For example, one might do only the actions that you’d will that everyone do, or actions that involve treating other people as ends rather than means, or actions that don’t violate the rights of other beings, or actions that don’t involve initiating aggression, or actions that are not sins according to the teachings of the Catholic Church. While it’s allowed to care about whether things are better or worse (some deontologists I know call it their “axiology”), you can only care about that within the constraints of the rule system.

In spite of my sympathies for virtue ethics, I do think it is generally better to make decisions based on whether the outcomes are good as opposed to decisions based on whether they follow a particular set of rules or are the decisions a person with particular virtues would make. (I continue to find it weird that these are the Only Three Options For Decision-Making About Ethics, So Says Philosophy, but anyway.) So do most people I know.

I have some consequentialist beliefs about free speech. For instance, I support making fun of people who say sexist or racist things in public. I think it is fine to call someone a bigoted asshole if they are, in fact, saying bigoted asshole things. I appreciate Charles Murray refusing to speak at an event Milo Yiannopoulous is at because he is “a despicable asshole” and I wish more people would follow his example. And when I express my consequentialist beliefs about free speech a surprising number of my consequentialist friends respond with “but what if your political opponents did that?”

I did not realize we are all Kantians now.

I think there are three things that people sometimes mean by “but what if everyone did that?” The first is simple empathy: if it hurts you to be shamed, then you should consider the possibility that it hurts other people to be shamed too, no differently from how you are hurt. I agree that this is an important argument, and we could all stand to be a little bit more aware that people we disagree with are people with feelings. But even deontologists agree sometimes it’s necessary to hurt one person for the greater good: for example, even if you are very lonely and it hurts you not to get to talk to people, you don’t get to force people to interact with you against their will. So I don’t think that the mere fact that it hurts people implies that (say) public shaming should be off-limits.

The second is a rather touching faith in the ability of people’s virtuous behavior to influence their political opponents.

Now, if it happened that my actions had any influence whatsoever over the behavior of r/TumblrInAction, that would be great. I don’t screenshot random tumblr users and mock them in front of an audience of over three hundred thousand people, so the entire subreddit would close down, which would be a great benefit to humanity. While we’re at it, there are many other places people who read r/TumblrInAction could follow my illustrious example. For instance, they could be tolerant of teenagers with dumb political beliefs, remembering how stupid their own teenage political beliefs were. They could stop making fun of deitykin, otherwise known as “psychotic people with delusions of grandeur,” because jesus fucking christ it is horrible to mock a mentally ill person for showing mental illness symptoms. They could stop with the “I identify as an attack helicopter” jokes; I mean, I don’t have any ethical argument against those jokes, it’s just that there is exactly one of them that was ever funny. 

In general people rarely have their behavior influenced by their political enemies. Trans people take pains to use the correct pronouns; people who are overly concerned about trans women in bathrooms still misgender them. Anti-racists avoid the use of slurs; a distressing number of people who believe in human biodiversity appear to be incapable of constructing a sentence without one. Social justice people are conscientious about trigger warnings; we are subjected to many tedious articles about how mentally ill people should be in therapy instead of burdening the rest of the world with our existence.

Therefore, I suspect that if supporters of social justice universally became conscientious about representing their opponents’ views fairly, defaulting to kindness and using cruelty only as a last resort when it is necessary to reduce overall harm, and not getting people fired from their jobs, it would not have any effect on how often opponents of social justice represent opponents’ views fairly, behave kindly, and condemn campaigns to fire people. In fact, they might end up doing so more enthusiastically, because suddenly kindness and charity and not getting people fired are Social Justice Things, and you don’t want to support Social Justice Things, do you?

(I’m making this argument with the social justice side as the good side, but it works equally well for literally any two sides in the relevant positions.)

Third, there’s an argument I personally find very compelling. Nearly everyone who does wrong things, even evil things, thinks that they’re on the side of good. Therefore, the fact that you think you’re on the side of good doesn’t mean you actually are. (The traditional example is Nazis, but I think Stalinism is probably better, because in my experience most people agree that your average rank-and-file Stalinist supported an ideology that killed millions of people because they had a good goal but were horribly mistaken about how to bring it about.) So it’s important to take steps to reduce the harm of your actions if you’re actually doing evil.

Like I said, I find this argument compelling. But you can’t get an entire ethical system out of trying to avoid being a Stalinist. Lots of generally neutral or even good things are evil if a Stalinist happens to be doing them, such as trying to convince people of your point of view or going to political rallies or donating to causes you think will do the most good in the world. If you were a Stalinist, the maximally good action you could do, short of not becoming a Stalinist anymore, is sitting on the couch watching Star Trek reruns. This moral system has some virtues– depressed people the world over can defend their actions by saying “well, actually, I’m one of the best people in the world by Not-Having-Even-The-Slightest-Chance-Of-Being-A-Stalinist-ianism”– but I think it is unsatisfying for most people.

(I can tell someone is about to say “you can donate to the Against Malaria Foundation, there’s no possible way that could be evil!” and honestly that just seems like a failure of imagination.)

That’s not to say that trying to avoid being a Stalinist should have no effects on your ethical system at all. Perhaps most important is never, ever, ever engaging in deliberate self-deception. Of almost equal importance is not hiding inconvenient facts. If you know damn well the Holodomor is happening, do not write a bunch of articles denouncing everyone who says the Holodomor is happening as a reactionary who hates poor people. On a less dramatic level, if there’s a study that doesn’t say what you want it to say, mention it anyway; if you can massage the evidence into saying something that it doesn’t really say, don’t; take care to mention the downsides and upsides of proposed policies as best you can. These are most important, because they directly harm the ability of truth to hurt falsehood.

And there are some things that I think it’s worth putting on the list of things you shouldn’t do even if you have a really really good reason, because it is far more likely that you are mistaken than that this is actually right this time. Violence against people who aren’t being violent against others, outside of war (and no rules-lawyering about how being mean is violence, either). Being a dick to people who are really weird but not hurting anyone (and no rules-lawyering about indirect harm to the social fabric, either). Firing people for reasons unrelated to their ability to perform their jobs. I’ve added “not listening to your kid and respecting their point of view when they try to tell you something important about themselves, even if you disagree,” but that’s a personal thing related to my own crappy relationship with my parents.

But that’s not a complete ethical system. At some point you have to do things. And that means, yes, that there’s a possibility you will do something wrong. Maybe you will be a participant in an ongoing moral catastrophe; maybe you will make the situation worse in a way you wouldn’t have if you sat on your ass and watched Netflix. On the other hand, if you don’t do anything at all, you get to be the person sitting idly by while ongoing moral catastrophes happen, and those people don’t exactly get a good reputation in the history textbooks either. (“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” quoth Edmund Burke.)

The virtue of consequentialism is that it pays attention to consequences. It is consistent for me to say “feminist activism is good, because it has good consequences, and anti-feminist activism is bad, because it has bad consequences.” (Similarly, it is consistent to say that you should lie to axe murderers and homophobic parents, but not to more prosocial individuals.) This is compatible with me believing that if I had a different set of facts I would probably be engaged in anti-gay activism, and in fact many loving, compassionate, and intelligent people of my acquaintance do or have in the past. Moral luck exists; it is possible to do evil without meaning to. There would be worse consequences if everyone adopted the policy of never doing anything that might possibly be wrong.

There is a common criticism of consequentialism where people say “well if torture had good consequences then you’d support torture! CHECKMATE CONSEQUENTIALISTS.” Of course, in the real world torture always has bad consequences, which is why consequentialists oppose it. If stabbing people in the gut didn’t cause them pain or kill them, and in fact gave them sixteen orgasms and a chocolate cake, then stabbing people would be a good thing, but it is not irrelevant to consequentialism that stabbing does not do this.

Some people seem to want to be able to do consequentialism without ever making reference to a consequence. If you just find enough levels of meta and use the categorical imperative enough, then maybe you will be able to do consequentialism without all that scary “evidence” and “facts” stuff, and without the possibility that you could be mistaken. This seems like a perverse desire, and in my opinion is best dealt with by no longer envying deontology and instead just becoming a deontologist.


In Defense of Unreliability


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In a long post mostly about a different issue, Zvi Mowshowitz writes:

I also strongly endorse that the default level of reliability needs to be much, much higher than the standard default level of reliability, especially in The Bay. Things there are really bad.

When I make a plan with a friend in The Bay, I never assume the plan will actually happen. There is actual no one there I feel I can count on to be on time and not flake. I would come to visit more often if plans could actually be made. Instead, suggestions can be made, and half the time things go more or less the way you planned them. This is a terrible, very bad, no good equilibrium. Are there people I want to see badly enough to put up with a 50% reliability rate? Yes, but there are not many, and I get much less than half the utility out of those friendships than I would otherwise get.

First of all, I’d like to say that nothing in my post should be construed as saying Zvi’s desire for reliable friends is invalid or wrong. It’s disappointing to expect a friend to come over and then they don’t. If you’re a busy person, on vacation or otherwise limited in time, a friend’s canceled plans may mean that you’ve missed out on an important opportunity to do something productive and/or fun. It is very reasonable to want to befriend people who will reliably show up places they said they will on time. However, I do want to explain why I myself am quite unreliable and how I benefit from a social norm in which this unreliability is acceptable. (We should also note that I have lived in the Bay for the majority of my adult, actually-socializing life, so I may be unfamiliar with the benefits of a non-flake lifestyle.)

I primarily get places through public transit and Uberpool. The Bay Area’s public transit system is really really good compared to public transit in most of the rest of the country (for one thing, it is possible to get places on it). However, our public transit is certainly inferior to, say, New York City’s. One of the ways this works is that sometimes, based on the Inscrutable Whim of the Train Gods, the train will choose to show up fourteen minutes late. Uberpool also has high variance in time estimates, because they have to pick up and drop off other people. What this means is that when I say “I will get there at such-and-such a time”, I mean “there is a bimodal distribution of times when I could show up which is centered around this time and probably has a standard deviation of like five to ten minutes.”

So there are ways I can fairly consistently show up on time. One is that I could take UberX wherever I’m going and eat the extra expense– although doing that consistently would trade off against my goal of using money responsibly. Another is that I can plan to show up on average ten or fifteen minutes before I’m supposed to show up, and then most of the time I will be on time. (This is what I do for doctors’ and therapists’ appointments.)

There are two problems with adopting the latter strategy in general. First, my time also has value! If it’s bad for me to show up ten minutes late because the person is waiting around being bored, then it is also bad for me to show up ten minutes early so I have to wait around and be bored. Second, in many cases, showing up early is just as inconvenient for others as showing up late. For instance, if a friend invited me over for dinner and I show up fifteen minutes early, they might be still in their bathrobe and really counting on that fifteen minutes to shove the floordrobe into the closet and take the garbage out. That would be considerably ruder than showing up fifteen minutes late (at least if you keep them posted), because at that point the food is probably only beginning to get cold.

(I guess I could arrive early and then hang out on a street corner until it was time for dinner but see above re: my time has value.)

In general, instead of trying to always show up before you said you would, I think the best strategy is to try to be early about as often as you are late, unless it is something where being early is much much better than being late (a theatrical production, a doctor’s appointment, a job interview) or vice versa (a party with lots of other invitees).

However, Zvi didn’t just talk about being on time: he also talked about flaking. My local corner of the Bay seems to have less of a flaking problem than his corner. I, a diagnosed agoraphobe, still manage to make the majority of the social events I agree to go to, and many people of my acquaintance make as much as ninety or ninety-five percent. (Maybe I am particularly charming and people don’t want to flake on me, or maybe I’m proactive and flake on them first.) But I think it is very useful that no one gets angry at me for flaking as much as I do.

I’m scared of leaving my house. This means that when I make social arrangements a lot of the time I won’t end up actually going to them because I will be too scared of leaving my house. Whether I’m going to have a good mental health day or a bad mental health day is hard to predict even a week in advance, because it depends on short-term triggers like whether I’ve fought with a close friend, whether the assholes across the street have decided to set off fireworks, whether a person has said something unpleasant about me on the Internet, whether I’ve been doing a good job of remembering that in spite of what my brain tells me doing things will make me feel better and not doing things will make me feel worse, and so on. So the only way I can achieve any sort of reliability in social arrangements is by not making them.

I do not want to not make social arrangements. Social isolation makes my mental health worse. And doing literally anything tends to make me less depressed. I am also informed that some people would occasionally like to talk to me [citation needed]. So therefore I have decided to make plans anyway, and push onto my friends the negative consequences of dealing with my flakiness.

It seems perfectly reasonable to me that one would object to this state of affairs and choose not to have me as a friend. (This is one of many good reasons why someone might not want to have me as a friend.) But I think before advocating for a complete shift in social norms one should consider the benefits the social norms already have to those participating in them.

Why Attitudes Matter


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Sometimes when I am giving ethical advice to people I say things like “it’s important to think of yourself and your partner as being on the same team” or “just remember that women in short skirts are almost certainly not wearing short skirts to arouse you in particular” or “cultivate your curiosity and desire to know what’s actually going on.”

I get pushback on this. After all, I am a consequentialist. Why am I talking about people’s attitudes instead of their actions? It doesn’t matter what I think of the woman in the short skirt, as long as I refrain from being a dick to her because of her clothing choices.

An emphasis on attitudes can be really bad for some people. Some people, having been given the advice that they should cultivate their curiosity, will spend a lot of time navel-gazing about whether they’re really curious and whether this curiosity counts as curiosity and maybe they are self-deceiving and actually just want to prove themselves right. Not only is this really unpleasant, but if you’re spending all your time navel-gazing about whether you’re sufficiently curious you’re never actually going to go buy a book about the Abbasid empire. It completely fails to achieve the original goal. If this is a problem you’re prone to, I think my attitude-based advice is probably not going to be helpful, although I can’t give any other advice; I personally get as much navel-gazing as I can stand trying to keep my obviously shitty attitudes in check, and don’t have any introspective energy left over for anything else.

Nevertheless, I think an attitude emphasis can be really important, for two reasons.

First, for any remotely complicated situation, it would be impossible to completely list out all the things which are okay or not okay. For instance, think about turning my “think of yourself and your partner as being on the same team” advice into a series of actions. You might say “it is wrong to insult your partner during disagreements.” But for some people, insults are part of resolving disagreements. Saying “I am not sure you’ve really thought this through” rather than “that is the stupidest fucking idea I’ve ever heard” feels artificial to them, like they’re walking on eggshells. For them, intimacy requires the ability to say exactly what you’re feeling, without softening it.

Or you might say “if you think of arguments for your partner’s side, then say it.” However, this might lead you to fall victim to what C S Lewis in the Screwtape Letters called the Generous Conflict Illusion:

Later on you can venture on what may be called the Generous Conflict Illusion. This game is best played with more than two players, in a family with grown-up children for example. Something quite trivial, like having tea in the garden, is proposed. One member takes care to make it quite clear (though not in so many words) that he would rather not but is, of course, prepared to do so out of “Unselfishness”. The others instantly withdraw their proposal, ostensibly through their “Unselfishness”, but really because they don’t want to be used as a sort of lay figure on which the first speaker practices petty altruisms. But he is not going to be done out of his debauch of Unselfishness either. He insists on doing “what the others want”. They insist on doing what he wants. Passions are roused. Soon someone is saying “Very well then, I won’t have any tea at all!”, and a real quarrel ensues with bitter resentment on both sides. You see how it is done? If each side had been frankly contending for its own real wish, they would all have kept within the bounds of reason and courtesy; but just because the contention is reversed and each side is fighting the other side’s battle, all the bitterness which really flows from thwarted self-righteousness and obstinacy and the accumulated grudges of the last ten years is concealed from them by the nominal or official “Unselfishness” of what they are doing or, at least, held to be excused by it. Each side is, indeed, quite alive to the cheap quality of the adversary’s Unselfishness and of the false position into which he is trying to force them; but each manages to feel blameless and ill-used itself, with no more dishonesty than comes natural to a human.

Or you might say “if your partner seems to be making a mistake, give them some friendly advice, without being overly critical.” But some people are naturally controlling– not abusive, just the sort of people who get upset when their partner loads the dishes a different way than they’re used to or prefers to read a map rather than using the GPS. Those people might very well decide that they shouldn’t give any friendly advice, for much the same reason that an alcoholic shouldn’t go to a bar. It never stops after one.

If you are thinking about the situations from a position of “my partner and I are both on Team Our Collective Happiness And Well-Being,” then the answer to all these thorny situations becomes clear. You should give a word of friendly advice, unless you are the sort of person who is incapable of stopping at a word of friendly advice. You should speak in a way that makes your partner and you feel more intimate and able to resolve conflicts, rather than less so. You should say “hm, I think the vacation you want to go on is cheaper” but you should not do the Generous Conflict Illusion. And so on and so forth.

Second, an attitude emphasis prevents rules-lawyering. Whenever you list a set of actions, there are a certain number of people who will figure out how to get as close as possible to breaking the rules, and then complain when you get annoyed at them, because technically they didn’t break any rules. (Rules-lawyering is particularly likely to happen in issues of sexual ethics, but it is certainly not reserved for those situations.) For example, they might say “you said I wasn’t supposed to yell at my wife or call her nasty names! You never specifically said I wasn’t supposed to respond to my wife forgetting to do the dishes by piling up all the dirty dishes onto her bed.”

But obviously if you are two people cooperating to solve the problem of the dirty dishes piling up, “stick the dishes on the other person’s bed” is not how you would respond. (Unless, I guess, they agreed ahead of time that this was a useful if disgusting way to help them remember– like I said, it’s really hard to make hard-and-fast rules.) That is a way you’d respond if you’re approaching the situation as a war between you and your partner, and the winner is whoever gets a clean sink while having to do the least dishes. This is, to put it lightly, not a good way of solving your relationship problems.

I suspect that action-based advice works best in relatively simple situations where there aren’t a lot of possible actions and where there are few situations that require a judgment call: for instance, it works great for “don’t hit people unless they started it”. Attitude-based advice works best for complicated situations where there are lots of possible ways of fucking up: for instance, it works well for intimate relationships, intellectual or artistic life, and career choice.

Against EA PR



Scott Alexander recently wrote about weird effective altruism. Many people (mostly, but not entirely, people who aren’t effective altruists) offered the opinion that weird effective altruists should be banned from EA, or at least shouldn’t be allowed to give talks at EA Global and have blog posts written about them. Weird effective altruist causes are (sort of by definition) off-putting to most people; therefore, if you want people to donate to global poverty relief, you should kick out all of those people concerned about farmed animal welfare/AI risk/wild animal welfare/psychedelics research/suffering in fundamental physics, lest we scare the normies.

There are many reasonable critiques of this point of view, including that it’s not remotely clear that any of those claims are more frightening to normal people than “it is morally obligatory to make personal sacrifices in order to help poor, faraway black people.” But ultimately I reject the entire premise.

I’d like to be clear about what I’m not saying in this post. I am not saying all “weird effective altruism” causes are effective; I believe some are and some aren’t. I think many effective altruists are not taking seriously enough the difficulty of figuring out how effective highly speculative causes are, and that unless we seriously address this we’re going to waste potentially millions of dollars on boondoggles. And I suspect a lot of weird effective altruism tends to over-explore certain cause areas (for example, things you think of if you read too many science fiction novels) and underexplore other cause areas (for example, boring things). I don’t intend this post to be a whole-hearted defense of weird effective altruism, but simply a criticism of a single narrow argument too often wielded against it.

So the question arises: why is effective altruism a thing at all?

Most people care about charity effectiveness, at least a little bit. They look up their charities on Charity Navigator before donating; they object to money being spent on big CEO salaries or on overhead instead of on services; they circulate criticisms of the Susan G Komen Foundation and PETA. And yet not only do most social programs not work, for the vast majority of programs we simply haven’t collected the information to see whether it works or not. This isn’t a “no one cares about starving Africans” thing; the state of the evidence on warm-fuzzies American medical and educational interventions is equally poor.

Part of the problem is that while people care about effectiveness some, they don’t care about effectiveness that much. They are willing to google a charity to see whether it is an outright scam, but they’re not willing to read academic papers to see if the charity’s intervention works. They’re definitely not going to put in the time to separate intuitive but misleading measures of effectiveness (CEO pay) from actually good measures of effectiveness (randomized controlled trials).

The other part of the problem is that all charity advertisements are a hellhole of epistemic doom and despair.

Let’s pick on Feeding America. Not because it’s an unusually bad charity (it’s not), but because it’s large and typical.

Looking on their webpage, I find out immediately that 1 in 8 Americans struggles with hunger. That sounds awful! After clicking through several pages, I find that the source is this document, in which 1 in 8 households (not individuals) are food insecure. You can click through the document to read the full operationalization of food insecure (it’s on pages 3-4). Food insecure households include, for instance, a household that sometimes worries about whether they’ll run out of food, feeds their children only a few kinds of low-cost food to avoid running out of food, and sometimes can’t afford to eat balanced meals. While obviously this household is experiencing a good deal of suffering and Feeding America can help them, it’s not exactly what the average person would think of when they hear the word “hunger.” This is actively misleading.

I click through to Our Work, where I learn that Feeding America has fed four billion meals last year. What percentage of people who would otherwise go hungry did they feed? 10%? 50%? 99%? How many of their meals went to people who would have otherwise gone hungry, versus people who would have been able to figure out some other way to get enough to eat? Feeding America does not provide any insight into these important questions.

98% of all donations raised go directly to helping people in need: according to Charity Navigator, this refers to program expenses, with 1.1% of their income being spent on fundraising and 0.3% spent on administrative expenses. Would increasing their percent spent on fundraising allow them to help more people by raising more money? Would increased administrative expenses, say, reduce the amount of food waste by hiring someone to improve their distribution practices? We simply don’t have enough information to know.

In short, Feeding America is misleading about the scope of the problem they’re dealing with and does not provide the necessary information to assess their effectiveness in dealing with it.

Again, I am not picking on Feeding America because it is bad. The reason that charity is a total epistemic hellhole is that all charities are like this. The beloved effective altruist charity the Against Malaria Foundation explains on its homepage that 100% of donations go to buy nets (because presumably in a perfect world AMF employees would not need to earn a salary to pay for such luxuries as “homes” and “food”) and entirely omits the fact that most nets will not actually prevent any cases of malaria.

Of course, I’m being unfair here. The purpose of a charity’s website is not to tell the complete and unvarnished truth, it’s to get people to donate. How many people have actually read a GiveWell charity report all the way through without their eyes glazing over by the time they get to “Niger, Burundi, Malawi, and Liberia Prevalence and Intensity Studies”? If the charity actually had a proper cost-effectiveness assessment rather than a bunch of oversimplified bullet points, everyone would get bored and decide to catch up on Game of Thrones instead and no meals or mosquito nets would be bought at all.

And the harm here seems pretty small. So maybe “100% of public donations go to buy nets” means “we got some people to allocate money towards paying our employees instead of towards nets because you’re an idiot who thinks nonprofit employees can survive on nothing more than the satisfaction of doing good.” So maybe “struggles with hunger” means “at least one member of the family has missed one meal in the past year due to not having enough money and also the children do not eat enough vegetables” instead of “is hungry most of the time.” It’s not like they’re outright lying, and it’s for a good cause. Would you rather people spend that money on a new pair of shoes instead?

But the fact of the matter is that the Red Cross makes the same calculation about disaster relief, and the American Cancer Society makes the same calculation about cancer treatment, and the Smithsonian makes the same calculation about preserving priceless historical artifacts. And that means that it’s extraordinarily difficult to figure out really basic questions about charities you might want to donate to, like:

  • How much does the problem the charity is trying to solve affect people’s lives?
  • How many people does the problem the charity is trying to solve affect?
  • Does this charity actually help with the problem it is trying to solve?
  • If I donate to this charity, will the money go to really important programs that have a big effect on people’s lives, or do they already have enough money for all of that and my donation would go to something that doesn’t actually do that much good?
  • Is this charity better than other charities I might donate to?

Which is the reason effective altruism is possible at all.

As far as I’m aware, effective altruist charity evaluators are the only people who are trying to answer this sort of question for the general public (although presumably some big foundations like the Gates Foundation are trying to answer it for themselves). This is our thing. This is the value we add over a Salvation Army bell-ringer who happens to have some fliers for Idealist.

I don’t care about effective altruists’ personal honesty. Lie to your parents about your dating life, shade the truth on your resume, compliment your friend’s hat which vaguely resembles a dead opossum, whatever. Hell, if you’re working for a top charity that isn’t an explicitly effective-altruism-branded top charity, do the epistemic hellhole thing. Everyone else is and you might as well try to grab some of the charity budget for things that actually work.

But when you are speaking as an effective altruist– don’t get complicated, don’t get clever. Just say what you think the best cause area or charity or career is. Every time you think to yourself “well, I think AI risk is more important, but it’ll turn people off, so I should probably say the Against Malaria Foundation,” the effective altruism movement takes one more step towards being the same as any other group of charitably-minded nerds.

I go pretty far on this. A lot of introductory effective altruism material uses global poverty examples, even articles which were written by people I know perfectly fucking well only donate to MIRI. I think people should generally either use examples from the cause they actually think is most effective, or use an equal number of existential risk, animal welfare, and global poverty examples, in order to reflect the disagreement in the effective altruist community.

I’m not saying you should pay literally zero attention to public relations. There are lots of things you can do to be more persuasive that don’t involve misleading people. You can show people pictures of sad animals or happy African children. You can wear professional clothes offline or write with proper grammar online. You can be kind and respectful and try to see things from other people’s points of view. But you must abjure all attempts to persuade people by doing anything other than giving people your best assessment of all the evidence, including all the nuance and all the caveats, even if it might turn them off.

We Have No Idea If There Are Cost-Effective Interventions Into Wild-Animal Suffering


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I sometimes see people claiming very confidently that wild-animal welfare is completely intractable and there are no cost-effective interventions we can do to improve wild animals’ welfare. (Exact implications of this claim generally depend on the speakers’ values.)

This is honestly a quite extraordinarily claim. Think of all the ways human beings affect wild animals already: bird feeders, wildlife tourism, hunting, pest control, failing to adequately secure our dumpsters, disease control, air and water pollution, climate change, outdoor pets, invasive species, and so on and so forth. Are you telling me that there is not literally one of the dozens of ways we affect wild animals that has a knowable positive or negative effect on them? Perhaps some deity with a particularly odd ethical system has cursed us to an eternal neutrality, such that every rat we kill humanely will cause another rat to die horribly of poison?

It is not difficult to find a counterexample to this claim. Wildlife tourism is bad for wildlife unless it is particularly carefully done; it is also often bad from a conservation perspective, although of course that depends on the counterfactual, since wildlife tourism is no doubt better for biodiversity than the land becoming a freeway. (If you wish to engage in wildlife tourism, try to find proprietors that follow responsible tourism guidelines.)

Sometimes “wild-animal welfare is completely intractable” is used in a specialized sense, to mean “I accept certain philosophical arguments that mean that wild-animal lives are not worth living, and I don’t think there’s anything humans can do to cause their lives to be worth living.” However, if you don’t think we should wipe out nature from the earth (which, in my experience, most people who accept those arguments don’t), it is still possible to make things better or worse for wild animals, and (if cost-effective) it may be desirable to do so even if wild-animal lives aren’t worth living.

It may also be used to mean “there are not any wild-animal suffering interventions that are comparable in cost-effectiveness to GiveWell top charities.” I would not be surprised if this were the case. But I’m not sure how anybody could know that.

This is not, to be clear, because ecosystems are somehow inherently unknowable. It is true that ecosystems are very complicated and anything you do can have a dozen knock-on effects you never predicted. But we do, in fact, reason about what actions to take about ecosystems, even given our great uncertainty. Many people solemnly say that it is impossible, simply impossible, to know the effects of any action on ecosystems and therefore it would be irresponsible to take any action to protect wild animals– and then they eat wild-caught fish. Or let their cat go outside. Or put up a bird feeder. Or donate money to the Nature Conservancy. If ecosystems are so damn unpredictable how do you know that nature preserves are a good way of preserving biodiversity anyway? Maybe things would be even more biodiverse if we cut down every tree in the rainforest!

The answer to this claim is that while of course ecosystems are dynamic and unpredictable systems and it is impossible to state with literally 100% certainty that cutting down the entire rainforest would be a bad conservation strategy, we do possess things like “nonzero level of knowledge about ecology” and “common fucking sense” that point to destroying their habitat being a poor way of protecting endangered species. Similarly, while there are tragic and costly mistakes, we can mostly figure out optimum sustainable yields for fisheries; most of the problem is in getting people to follow them instead of fishing as much as they damn well please. It is possible to know things about complicated systems with sufficient certainty that action is a better idea than nonaction.

The problem is that the wild-animal welfare space includes maybe a dozen people, nearly all of whom are dividing their time between wild-animal suffering and something else. As far as I know exactly one of us is a biologist; most people who do research about wild animal suffering are, by training, philosophers, social scientists, or programmers.

To be clear, this is a really terrible state of affairs. I as much as anyone want wild-animal suffering research to be done by people who have any discernible expertise in the field whatsoever. In my ideal world the field would consist of conservation biologists, wildlife managers, ecologists, ethologists and other people who can apply their academic knowledge to the question of improving wild animal welfare. However, this is somewhat difficult, because (a) only a few thousand people have heard of the concept of caring about wild animals’ welfare at all and (b) very very few scientists want to work part-time for minimum wage.

(If I have any biologists reading this blog who are sympathetic to the idea that Wild Animal Lives Matter, please email me.)

GiveWell benefited from a lot of development economics and public health research; they had to synthesize the fields, which is– to be clear– very important and very complicated, but once they did they could state their conclusions with a good deal of rigor. Animal Charity Evaluators is on shakier ground because academics tend not to find “how do we best make people vegan?” an interesting question, but at least they could benefit from decades of research about factory-farm conditions. Wild-animal welfare is a completely new field. The knowledge we need often exists– scattered across epidemiology, wildlife management, ecology, and a dozen other fields– but no one has ever collected it and applied it seriously to the issue of wild-animal welfare. It would take years simply to collect what is currently known, much less do any original research or begin to make intervention recommendations with reasonable cost-effectiveness numbers attached.

For most possible interventions– disease control, predator control, wildlife contraception, supplemental feeding, and so on–we don’t even know whether doing the thing would be good or bad. Again, not because it’s unknowable; just because there’s a limited amount you can do with twelve nonexperts working part time.

It is very easy to slide from “we do not know this” to “this is in principle unknowable and it is a waste of time to research it.” But resist the urge. Just because we don’t know something right now is no reason not to spend time trying to figure it out.

“Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” Is Bad Science



[content warning: brief discussion of suicide statistics]

Like anyone with a hobby of arguing about transness, I am used to debunking people’s dumb interpretations of studies. For instance, there’s the famous Swedish study which shows that post-transition transgender people have a higher suicide rate than cisgender controls, which is used to argue that transition increases suicide rate. There is also the National Transgender Discrimination Survey’s finding that people who have more transition-related health care are more likely to have had suicidal ideation, whch is interpreted as transition increasing one’s chance of committing suicide, even though people who are suicidal about dysphoria are probably more likely to seek transition-related health care.

But rapid onset gender dysphoria is unique. The Swedish study and the National Transgender Discrimination Survey are both good studies, and their actual findings are important: it’s useful to know that trans people are more likely to be suicidal than cis people and that people who have had transition-related health care are more likely to have a history of suicide attempts. They just don’t show the thing that people desperately want it to show. The study that allegedly shows the existence of a condition called rapid-onset gender dysphoria, however, was not even a good study in the first place.

The argument of the article is that sometimes people weren’t feeling gender dysphoric until they start hanging around with a lot of transgender people, at which point they suddenly experience gender dysphoria. How did they find evidence for this, you ask? Did they do a retrospective survey of transgender people asking how they became transgender? Did they identify transgender people, give gender dysphoria questionnaires to their friends on a regular basis, and discover that gender dysphoria increases over time if you have a transgender friend but not if you have, say, a lesbian friend?

No, they asked adolescents and young adults’ parents.

I do not think there is a transgender person in the world who disagrees with the claim that transness often comes as a surprise to one’s parents. Nor is it particularly surprising to transgender people that coming out typically worsens your relationship with your parents, that transgender people typically trust other trans people more than cis people as sources of information about being trans, and that transition often leads one to spend less time with your family and cisgender friends, particularly if they don’t accept your gender.

But here’s the question. If you’re a teenager or young adult, or you remember having been a teenager or young adult, think back to that time in your life. (My apologies for excluding any precocious eight-year-olds who read this blog; I hope this post will help you anticipate what you have to look forward to.)

For most people– even people who had pretty good relationships with their parents– it’s something like this. You carefully filtered the information about your life you gave to your parents. Band practice, favorite movies, and interesting college classes, yes; inner turmoil and struggle, not so much. You felt that your parents were probably as likely to attack or lecture you if you were vulnerable with them as they were to actually be helpful. The deceptions of ordinary teenagers are many: that some of their friends drink; that they sometimes finish their homework in homeroom; that sometimes when they’re going to the mall they’re actually getting felt up by their boyfriend.

A lot of teenagers and young adults who are facing hard times face them on their own or with the help of their friends. There are a lot of parents out there who believe they have a happy, carefree, well-adjusted teenager who happens to be unusually prone to not overheating, while the lives of three of that teenagers’ friends are oriented around helping them not to cut. Teenagers who are depressed, anxious, and suicidal are often afraid that if they told their parents they would be punished rather than supported; these beliefs are often correct. Fortunately, by the time you’re a young adult, you have medical confidentiality, so you may be able to seek therapy and psychiatric medication without your parents’ consent; unfortunately, that means that parents are likely to be even more oblivious about mental illness, since a major reason to tell them has been removed. In short, the parents of many mentally ill teenagers and young adults simply have no idea that their children are mentally ill.

Teenagers who are questioning their gender identity or sexual orientation, in general, don’t share that with their parents. You are unlikely to share with your parents your discovery of how hot gay porn is or your sneaking suspicion that your girl crushes were actually real crushes. Transness is even more unlikely to go unnoticed, because even today many transgender people experience gender dysphoria for years before they know they’re gender dysphoric; how do you explain to your mom “Mom, I keep having fantasies about having breast cancer so I don’t have to have breasts anymore and I don’t know why”? Even once a teenager has come to a stable identity, many teenagers are acutely aware that forty percent of homeless youth are LGBT; even if their parents almost certainly wouldn’t disown them, that “almost” makes the closet a very attractive proposition. A teenager often knows they’re LGBTQQA+ for years before they gather the courage to tell their parents.

You may have or have had a good relationship with your parents where you felt like you could share literally everything with them, as if they were more like a best friend than like a parent; many people do. But even if you did, probably many of your friends had the more ordinary sort of parent-teenager/young adult relationship. Most parents have inaccurate ideas of what their teenagers’ life is like, in at least some aspects; for mentally ill and queer teenagers, parents’ views are even more inaccurate. It’s no wonder that gender dysphoria– which is both a mental illness and a form of queerness– seems to come out of nowhere for many parents. And that doesn’t mean that the child hasn’t been gender dysphoric for years or even a lifetime.

Consider the finding that teenagers and young adults often have friend groups full of out transgender people before they come out as transgender. There are several perfectly reasonable, non-contagion-related explanations for this. The most obvious one is that trans people want to befriend other trans people. If a person starts questioning their gender months or years before they come out to their parents, they may have trans friends for months or years before their parents know anything about it.

Similarly, the exact same things that attract one self-closeted trans person to a group of friends may attract other self-closeted trans people. Trans people are disproportionately likely to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or asexual, and many straight trans people identify as lesbian or gay before they come out to themselves; the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance will probably have a lot of self-closeted trans people in it. Trans people have a lot of traits in common, often ones you wouldn’t really expect: it’s not very surprising if the school’s anime club has a couple of trans people. Self-closeted trans people often find out trans people strangely magnetic.

I don’t want to say that there’s never been a case of a person who believes they experience gender dysphoria when they don’t; I’ve personally known several cases. Having transgender friends may very well lead someone to believe they experience gender dysphoria when they actually experience depression, dissociation, feelings of insecurity about their gender non-conformity, or something else. But, first of all, that is clearly not “rapid-onset gender dysphoria”; it is a person being mistaken about whether they are gender dysphoric, which is a different thing. It’s a case of “I have chronic fatigue syndrome and a lot of depressed friends, so now I think I’m depressed too”, not a case of “being around depressed people is really depressing.”

Second, in my experience, people usually figure it out. Six months or a year later they sheepishly go around saying “yeah, I’m on antidepressants now and I feel a lot better and I really don’t think I’m actually a guy, go figure.” There is not an epidemic of people mistakenly transitioning for two decades because they got confused about what depression is. Of course, hormones and surgery can have long-term consequences. In my experience, while some pressure comes from overenthusiastic trans people convinced what worked for them is the universal solution for everyone, the pressure is most likely to come from people who don’t really accept trans people. If you’ve ever found yourself saying “I don’t see why I should respect his pronouns if he’s not even making the slightest effort to be a woman,” then the difficulties people who are mistaken about being trans face are on you. If we respect people’s gender identities regardless of whether they physically transition, mistaken people are far less likely to physically transition.

Thoughts on Doxxing



[content warning: quoted racist comments, brief mention of sexual harassment]

There was recently a kerfluffle about a member of the Internet right-wing named HanAssholeSolo, who made a gif that was retweeted by the president. CNN discovered his identity and did not out him, but made some statements that could be reasonably interpreted as threatening to out him if he didn’t stop being a horrible racist. I think The Intercept is probably correct that some executives decided to put in some lawyerese that happens to sound like CNN is threatening a critic with outing, and then didn’t explain themselves, because fucking executives. So I am going to blatantly ignore the kind of stupid and boring actual issue and instead discuss the much more interesting issue of whether CNN would be right to out horrible racists if this were actually a thing they were going to do.

–and let’s not mince our words here. I’ve seen a lot of people calling HanAssholeSolo a “CNN critic” or a “Trump supporter,” which seems unfairly insulting of both CNN critics and Trump supporters. To quote a Salon article on the subject:

At the same time he appears to have gone on a bit of an editing spree, knowing his posts would be under the microscope he started sanitizing some of his most offensive screeds, deleting the N-word and a comment about killing Muslims, for example. Quartz took screenshots of some of his posts before they were edited.

Despite the edits, there is still plenty of offensive material that HanAssholeSolo has posted that is still on the site (at least for now). The user, for example, posted a link to a meme that advocates running over Muslims with a tank. He or she also posted a meme that identified CNN contributors as Jews using a Star of David. The user also frequently posts racists comments that target African-Americans in particular, in one instance writing that Americans spend less on Father’s Day than Mother’s Day gifts because “most blacks don’t know who their fathers are.”

One might argue, as well, that eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth morality implies outing HanAssholeSolo is at least acceptable. After all, the r/The_Donald/Gamergate/alt-right cluster of the Internet shows no particular compunctions about sharing people’s private infomation, given that some of them are calling the journalist’s wife and parents at home with threatening messages. This is merely the latest in a long string of such incidents, which include getting a Nintendo employee fired for her history as a sex worker.

Nevertheless, I think it would be wrong to dox HanAssholeSolo, and this is why.

First, the eye-for-an-eye argument strikes me as pretty weak. When I have to give an account for my life, I hope I will have something better to say for myself than “I did not behave significantly worse than r/The_Donald.” Like, I am a better person than the average participant in r/The_Donald, that’s why I’m here defending their right not to be doxxed while they’re making unfunny memes about transgender people. (I’m too offended as a fan of comedy to be able to be offended as a trans person.) I promise there are plenty of ways we can punish the expression of horrible racism without using this particular one.

Second, when I think about doxxing, I always think about violentacrez.

Violentacrez was a vile person: among other sites, he moderated r/creepshots (which posted pictures of women’s breasts and asses taken in public without their consent) and r/jailbait (which posted sexualized pictures of women under the age of 18, many taken from their Facebook pages, again without their consent). But he also had a wife with fibromyalgia; when he was outed, he lost his job and his health insurance, putting her health in danger. While the Internet doesn’t seem to know what he’s up to now, Googling his legal name still brings up violentacrez; it seems quite likely that he has found it difficult or impossible to get a job since.

So that’s the question, isn’t it? Are you willing to sit down and endorse the statement “yes, I think a reasonable and appropriate punishment for this man’s actions is that his wife is deprived of the health care that helps keep her alive”?

And it’s not just people’s disabled partners (or, for that matter, disabled selves). It’s their elderly mother they’re taking care of and who has nowhere to go if they lose their home. Or their five-year-old who doesn’t understand anything about Reddit or CNN but does understand that Mommy and Daddy are fighting and there aren’t going to be any presents for Christmas this year. Or the better person they might be, someday, who will always be burdened by the corpse of the asshole they used to be.

It is much easier to judge people when the only thing you know about them is the worst thing they ever did.

In the case of violentacrez, yes, I am willing to bite that bullet. I am not sure that there was any other way to keep him from continuing to violate the privacy of literally thousands of girls, many of them underage. HanAssholeSolo, however, to his credit, has never been accused of harassing or threatening anyone. His comments about wanting to kill Muslims are obviously the same sort of thing as people saying “die cis scum” or “white genocide now” or “people who ship Reylo should be run over with a tank”: like, you obviously shouldn’t go around saying you want to kill people, but for every hundred thousand people who say that there’s maybe one person who actually, you know, means it. HanAssholeSolo’s racist comments were generally confined to r/The_Donald and other such places. It is not exactly a surprise to anyone that if you read r/The_Donald you will encounter racism there.

And– he would get fired. He would have a hard time finding another job. It would hurt anyone who depends on him financially. He would lose friendships and relationships. He would be harassed and sent death threats, because every time you unleash a mob on the Internet they’re going to harass you and send death threats. Maybe he would be a victim of swatting. Maybe he would be threatened or assaulted. And even if he changes, it won’t stop.

Even if you want to look at it from a practical standpoint, without any considerations of justice or mercy, presumably you (like me) want to reduce the number of horrible racists in the world. It seems to me that, to achieve this goal, it is very important that horrible racists continue to have connections with people who disapprove of horrible racism. If the people who aren’t horrible racists get you fired from your job and send you death threats, and the only place you find solace and comfort is with other horrible racists, and becoming less of a racist would not stop the non-horrible-racists from attacking you but would separate you from your source of support– would you stop being a horrible racist? Would anyone?

Those of us who have had the pleasure of having a small mob directed after them, as happens so often on the social justice Internet these days– did this get you to change your mind? Personally, I have sometimes experienced a mob where they were right and I was wrong and let me tell you at the time I would have sacrificed some of my less essential toes rather than admit that maybe the assholes had a point. I don’t know that making the mob be ten thousand people rather than a hundred would have any effect on increasing its persuasive power.

Mobbing doesn’t even consistently shut people up: I mean, sometimes it does, but there are plenty of people who get mobbed online and then respond by saying the same thing again but louder this time, and now they have sympathy including from people who weren’t on their side to start with. I mean, exactly how well has Gamergate done at shutting up Anita Sarkeesian?

Yes, yes, you should stop believing horrible things no matter how much it would personally harm you or how contrary to human nature it would be. I think it is a bit much to base your anti-racism plan on horrible racists universally being saints.

I’m not saying that anyone has a duty to spend time with horrible racists (although it’s a good thing to do if it’s something you’re personally capable of). But I am saying that at the very least one should not cause horrible racists harm in such a way that it increases their chance of continuing to be horrible racists. And that means no doxxing.

Data on Campus Censorship Cases


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I’ve noticed that people tend to only hear about campus free speech cases which fit their particular narrative (either of conservatives censoring liberals or of liberals censoring conservatives). Apolitical cases (for instance, Valencia College’s censorship of students who protested forced transvaginal ultrasounds) tend to become less widely known, as do cases of liberal censorship among conservatives and conservative censorship among liberals. In addition, people hear more about cases of censorship at famous colleges (such as Harvard or Yale) than they do about the less famous colleges that most people actually go to.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a well-respected organization which specializes in campus free speech and other civil liberties. My sample was the list FIRE maintains on its website of cases it has worked on in the past (for instance, by sending the college a letter or engaging in litigation). I took every fifth case and coded it as censorship of conservative, censorship of liberal, or apolitical censorship. There were 88 cases in my sample. I dropped five for being FIRE suing about bad policies with no clear indication of whom they would be used against, four for being sexual misconduct policies (which are not instances of censorship), and two for being miscellaneous instances of inadequate college due process (which, again, are not censorship). This left me with 77 cases.

Of the 77 cases, I coded 20 (26%) as censorship of liberals, 40 (52%) as censorship of conservatives, and 17 (22%) as apolitical censorship. An example of censorship of conservatives is refusing to allow Christians to organize a student group; an example of censorship of liberals is not allowing PETA supporters to hand out flyers; an example of apolitical censorship is suspending a professor for saying, during a review session for a test, that the questions he was asking were so difficult he was on a killing spree.

I made a few judgment calls which I want to discuss. One instance of a hate speech code was coded as “censorship of liberals” because surrounding discussion suggested it was intended to censor pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protests. While some people would consider sexual harassment law to be inherently liberal, I classified (for instance) the censorship of a crew team’s shirts saying “check out our cox” as apolitical censorship, since lewd puns are not a political sentiment. (Of course, if sexual harassment law was used to censor a political statement, I classified it as “liberal” or “conservative.”) I classified socialists as liberal and libertarians as conservative, in spite of both groups’ probable objection to such a classification. “Nationwide disinvitation of speakers,” a single FIRE case, was classified as conservative because 9/10 of the most disinvited speakers are conservative, but note that Bill Ayers is also on the list. (It is also a judgment call that I (a) didn’t treat each disinvitation as a separate case and (b) included “nationwide disinvitations” at all.)

ETA: I’d also like to note that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is not a random sample of college censorship cases. Presumably they do not pursue every case brought to their attention, and there may be systematic biases in which students contact FIRE. For example, conservative students may trust FIRE more and be more likely to call them when campus censorship occurs, or conversely FIRE may pursue more cases of liberal censorship to combat its image as a defender of the right wing. These results should be taken with a grain of salt.

In conclusion: there is a definite tendency for censorship on college campuses to be censorship of conservative viewpoints, perhaps because conservative viewpoints tend to be underrepresented in academia. However, about a quarter of college censorship in this sample is of liberal viewpoints and a quarter is of apolitical viewpoints; this suggests it is a mistake to assume that censorship on college campuses is solely of conservative viewpoints. However, given the limitations of my data, I’d strongly advise against drawing any conclusion from it firmer than “censorship of both liberals and conservatives occurs on college campuses, and conservatives probably face more.”

Bridging the Inferential Distance on Desexualization


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[Related: Etiquette for People Who Aren’t Attracted To Trans Women]

I notice that conversations about desexualization are particularly prone to people misunderstanding each other. For instance, many people seem to round any conversation about desexualization off to telling people that they have to have sex with people they don’t want to have sex with, and then say something along the lines of “didn’t the gay rights movement prove that no one should have to have sex with people they don’t want to have sex with? Rapist!” Many other people assume that the first group’s concerns are a smokescreen for not wanting to deal with their own bigotry, and thus assume that they could not have any reasonable concerns about compulsory sexuality.

I don’t have a lot to say to the second group at this time (although theunitofcaring’s Meditation on Boundaries, which has been recently going around again, is excellent, and I endorse her statement that all conversations about desexualization need to begin from the baseline that people should promptly say “no” to intimate activities that they don’t want). But I recently found an article from a few years back that I think might help explain the second group’s position to my readers who are prone to the “rapist” thing. (Please note that the author of the article is pretty mean to techies, and if you don’t want to read that you may want to skip the quoted bit.)

Here’s an excerpt:

You might think an abundance of men is a great thing, but as a wise woman once said, “The odds may be good, but the goods are odd.”

“I’ve lived in Seattle for seven years, single most of them,” Annie Pardo, a 31-year-old freelance event and communications consultant in Seattle, wrote in an email. “The only thing that has changed is the increase in men I’d never want to go out on a date with.” She added, “Can’t believe they actually strap on those new employee book bags.”

For Reifman, the number of men versus women presents a challenge for guys like him—he can’t seem to get a date or hold the attention of the women he’s courting because, presumably, he’s got so much competition. But the reality is that all he has to do is have a personality. I’m serious.

The exact same scenario has been playing out in San Francisco for the last few years. One woman, Violet, a 33-year-old who has lived in the Bay Area for eight years, with one of those in the “belly of the beast,” Palo Alto, experienced many of the same things I and other women did. They had money, but they were boring. They had a lot to say about their job, but their development as a complete human being seemed to be stunted. And they exhibited little to no interest in the other person at the table.

“There were a lot of tech men. I could talk a blue streak about them. I don’t have much positive to say. The biggest thing, the thing that bothered me the most is I felt like my intelligence was greatly devalued,” she wrote. ”I am a smart woman. I have a master’s from Berkeley in philosophy. My brain is very abstract, though, the exact opposite of so many men in tech who have very concrete/literal brains. They interpreted information as intelligence. I constantly felt like I wasn’t seen or valued by them, even though I experienced a lot of them as having a very limited view of the world.”

Carla Swiryn, a matchmatcher for Three Day Rule, a start-up that offers curated online dating services in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, said that her female clients are often hit with a double whammy: “I often hear women say they either date A-holes or nerds—or if they’re really lucky, both in one,” she said. “They feel like they’re dealing with someone who has poor social skills, not a lot of style, and isn’t that attractive, or is decently good-looking, successful, or cool, but by default knows it and acts like it, with a huge ego and selfish mind-set in tow.”

One woman, Bridget Arlene, spent three years in Seattle for graduate school, and said that she actually moved out of the city, in part because of the type of available men—most of whom had computer science or engineering degrees and worked for Google, Microsoft, or Amazon. “The type of person who is attracted to these jobs and thus to the Seattle area seems to be a socially awkward, emotionally stunted, sheltered, strangely entitled, and/or a misogynistic individual,” she wrote in an email. Arlene said that she was once contacted by a Microsoft programmer on OKCupid who required that she read Neuromancer before “he would consider taking me out on a date. He was not joking.”

It goes on like that for a while, but you get the general idea.

So here’s my guess on the reaction of most of my readers to this article:

  • You are totally allowed to have a preference not to date nerds, but it is neither kind nor necessary to write thousands of words exploring exactly how undateable you find us.
  • There are lots of women who want to date nerds, actually? Maybe you shouldn’t assume your own particular sexual preferences apply to every fucking woman on the planet? Lots of women don’t find “socially awkward with a poor fashion sense” to be a dealbreaker. Lots of women are socially awkward and have terrible fashion sense themselves!
  • You are not actually entitled to a dating market that only has people you find attractive in it. People you don’t find attractive are allowed to try to find love too. “Asking you out while being incompatible” is not something people are doing to you.
  • Obviously everyone is allowed to have their own dealbreakers, even if some of their dealbreakers are kind of stupid. But god, maybe you could try being a little more open-minded? You might be swept off your feet by a really great guy who happens to wear a new employee book bag. Also, fashion sense is totally a solvable problem, you can say to your new boyfriend “give me a $500 budget and I will buy you clothes that fit.”
  • Good fucking riddance, lady, if you’re going to be this much of an asshole we don’t want to date you either.

In particular, that last point is something I want to highlight. It is desirable that the author of this article become less of an asshole, in the same way it’s desirable that any person become less of an asshole. Presumably, if she became less of an asshole, she’d be more open-minded about dating people that she currently considers to be emotionally stunted sheltered man-children with poor fashion sense and an aversion to spending money on messenger bags. But that doesn’t mean you want her to skip the “become less of an asshole” part and start dating techies right now. For one thing, then some innocent techie would be saddled with a girlfriend who hates him. For another thing, being open to dating techies is a predicted consequence of the thing you actually care about, which is her not being an asshole. If she kept her preferences once she became less of an asshole, but no longer wrote long articles about how horrible people she happens to not be attracted to are, then this would also be a fine outcome. “If you did X morally good thing, then you would probably also behave like Y” is a different claim from “you should behave like Y.” You don’t actually want people to date people they despise.

And in my experience those points are what most people who talk about desexualization in an anti-oppression context– whether it’s about race, transness, gender expression, disability, or size– are actually saying. There are legitimate complaints one can have about another person’s sex-related behavior, which are not the same thing as trying to make them have sex they don’t want.

Some Observations On Cis By Default Identification



As the inventor of the word “cis by default” and a person who occasionally checks who’s linking to my blog, I get to see quite a lot of people using the word “cis by default.” My estimate is that about half are using it wrong.

There are two equal and opposite errors. First, many people identify as cis by default when they are in fact gender dysphoric people who don’t want to transition. I certainly understand why gender dysphoric non-transitioning people relate to “there’s no part of their brain that says “I’m a guy!”, they just look around and people are calling them “he” and they go with the flow”, since there is in fact no part of their brain saying “I’m a guy” and they are in fact going with the flow of how other people refer to them. But not having a gender identity is a quite different thing from having a gender identity and choosing to present differently from what your gender identity is. I see people write things like “I really wish I was a woman. It would make me so happy to wake up one day and everyone is calling me ‘she’. It’s so weird to look at myself in the mirror and see a man. Female bodies are just inherently softer and better and more beautiful. I don’t like sex because having a dick disgusts me. I spend hours carefully removing all my facial hair because having a beard makes me want to cry. But I’m worried about facing transphobia and that I wouldn’t be attractive if I transitioned, so I guess I’m cis by default.”

In general, if you can write an entire paragraph about all your emotions about your gender, you are probably not cis by default.

Second, many people identify as cis by default when they are in fact regular cisgender people who are bad at introspection. I suspect this is part of what’s up with the Less Wrong survey finding that half of cis people are cis by default (the other part is that rationalists are pretty genderweird in general). It makes sense that cisgender people, particularly ones with relatively weak gender identities, have a hard time noticing their gender identities: in most cases, cisgender people have a body that is aligned with their gender and are very rarely misgendered, so there’s no reason for the issue to come up.

I also think that people’s ability to notice their gender identity is affected by what community they’re in. For instance, evangelical Christian books are full of passages like this:

Sometime between the dreams of your youth and yesterday, something precious has been lost. And that treasure is your heart, your priceless feminine heart. God has set within you a femininity that is powerful and tender, fierce and alluring. No doubt it has been misunderstood. Surely it has been assaulted. But it is there, your true heart, and it is worth recovering. You are captivating.

And New-Agey books are full of passages like this:

To answer these questions, we need to understand the nature of sexual passion and spiritual openness. Sexual attraction is based on sexual polarity, which is the force of passion that arcs between masculine and feminine poles. All natural forces flow between two poles. The North and South Poles of the Earth create a force of magnetism. The positive and negative poles of your electrical outlet or car battery create an electrical flow. In the same way, masculine and feminine poles between people create the flow of sexual feeling. This is sexual polarity.

This force of attraction, which flows between the two different poles of masculine and feminine, is the dynamism that often disappears in modern relationships. If you want real passion, you need a ravisher and a ravishee; otherwise, you just have two buddies who decide to rub genitals in bed.

Each of us, man or woman, possesses both inner masculine and inner feminine qualities. Men can wear earrings, tenderly hug each other, and dance ecstatically in the woods. Women can change the oil in the car, accumulate political and financial power, and box in the ring. Men can take care of their children. Women can fight for their country. We have proven these things. Just about anyone can animate either masculine or feminine energy in any particular moment. (Although they still might have a strong preference to do one or the other, which we will get to in a moment.)

The bottom line of today’s newly emerging 50/50, or “second stage,” relationship is this: If men and women are clinging to a politically correct sameness even in moments of intimacy, then sexual attraction disappears. I don’t mean just the desire for intercourse, but the juice of the entire relationship begins to dry up. The love may still be strong, the friendship may still be strong, but the sexual polarity fades, unless in moments of intimacy one partner is willing to play the masculine pole and one partner is willing to play the feminine. You have to animate the masculine and feminine differences if you want to play in the field of sexual passion.

(After having read The Way Of The Superior Man, I never want to hear complaints about trans people’s autogenderphilia again. At least we don’t claim that sexual attraction is literally impossible unless you’re an autogenderphile.)

There are lots of reasons to object to these passages! For one thing, they assume that everyone has a gender, which is not true: my guess is that a sizeable minority of cis people are cis by default. For another thing, they assume that the way that the author happens to feel gender is the way that every other person in the whole entire world happens to feel gender. If you’re a man who feels deeply affirmed in your masculinity by cherishing and loving your romantic partner and prioritizing him over your work, The Way of the Superior Man doesn’t want to hear from you. If you’re a woman who finds that being fought over by men makes you feel awkward and uncomfortable rather than assured in your femininity, Captivating has nothing to say to you. And they erase people who understand their genders in a nonbinary or gender-non-conforming way.

But I think it’s also possible to recognize the human experience described in those passages. For the author of Captivating, feeling feminine is a real thing and very important to her– a source of pleasure, a way of connection, an aspect of herself. For the author of The Way of the Superior Man, sexuality is fundamentally connected to gender. They might not frame their experiences in the same way I do, but I think in a certain sense they’re feeling the same thing I’m feeling.

However, I think a lot of liberal communities tend to stigmatize the open expression of cisgender people’s genders. Interestingly, feminists don’t. For instance, radical feminists have a framework for gender in the form of Adrienne Rich’s thoughts about lesbianism, Janice Raymond’s work on female friendship, or Mary Daly’s… Mary Daly-ness. Queers incessantly navel-gaze about gender.

But when you venture out from the weeds of feminist theory into the way normal liberals live their day-to-day lives, I can’t help but feel that a lot of liberals feel like the open expression of cisgender people’s genders is somewhat… déclassé. Not at all what our sort of people does.

(Transgender people’s genders don’t seem to be as stigmatized, because the popular sort of feminism that filters through liberal communities tends to believe that Trans Women Are Women. Consistency is not the strong point of shallow feminist analysis. That said, I think a large number of trans-exclusive radical feminists are not really radical feminists, but instead shallow pop libfems who are clever enough to notice that trans people’s existence contradicts their ideology.)

I want to emphasize that I’m not limiting this argument to people who actively identify as feminist, or even to people who don’t identify as anti-feminist. You can identify as anti-feminist and have a framework for gender which is influenced by your culture (as everyone’s is). If you grew up in any sort of vaguely liberal community, one of the things that influences it is the feminism– often oversimplified and misunderstood– which filters down to you.

But if you don’t read theory books, and your feminist thoughts are mostly along the lines of Women Can Do Anything Men Can Do and Feminism Is The Radical Notion That Women Are People and Look At This Badass Woman Breaking Through The Glass Ceiling, it’s easy to be leery about cis people’s gender identities. If you say that you have such-and-such a trait or do such-and-such a thing because you are a woman, isn’t that sort of like saying that women have to have that trait or do that thing? That is kind of suspicious! Men and women are the same except for their genitals! You can’t just go around saying you like wearing suits because you’re a man, I literally just posted on Facebook this Buzzfeed listicle of Fourteen Hottest Women In Suits.

And if you’re in that sort of situation, and you feel like it’s sort of shameful to go around having feelings about your gender, and you’re cisgender and don’t have particularly strong feelings about your gender in the first place… it’s easy to just sort of not notice them.

Like, that’s not even on the top twenty list of the weirdest contortions people get into about their gender.

And thus you get the situation that happened on one of the links into me, where a person said they were cis-by-default and then was asked whether they would crossdress if they knew that no one would think less of them for it and said “obviously not, I’m a man.”

Unfortunately, it is somewhat difficult to police these uses of the term, particularly since there’s no such thing as an objective measurement of whether or not someone has a gender identity. But this is why I am very skeptical about getting any sort of population estimate of how many people are cis-by-default.