Why I Support HAES


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I’m against fatphobia because I’m thin.

I eat whenever I’m hungry. I eat until I am full. I have a Weird Undiagnosed Medical Condition that means that when I’m hungry I start crying, yelling at people, and being unable to complete such complex plans as “take food out of the cupboard and eat it”, so I often overeat if I’m in a situation where I might not have easy access to food whenever I want it. Sometimes, when I am sad, I eat food that makes me happy. When I want candy or cookies or ice cream, I have some.

Here are things I have never done: Kept a food diary. Counted calories. Weighed myself regularly. Stopped eating entire food groups for any reason other than the ethical.

A lot of the things people insist about naturally thin people seem ridiculous to me. “Naturally thin people understand portion control!” I have never controlled a portion in my life. I am as confused as anyone else about what a serving of vegetables is. (I recently discovered I regularly pour three servings of frozen vegetables into my ramen.) I just eat until I don’t want any more food. “Naturally thin people know you’re supposed to be hungry at meals!” On the contrary, I strive to avoid being hungry at meals, because nobody wants to be around a sobbing irrational person who finds that making boxed macaroni and cheese is as far beyond their capabilities as going to the moon. “Naturally thin people never eat their feelings!” Dude, if I feel like shit, and a slice of cheese is going to make me feel happy, then by God I am going to eat that slice of cheese.

On the other hand, the things that anti-fatphobia and healthy-at-every-size advocates say make sense to me. The most common claim, as I understand it, is that people’s weight naturally self-regulates at a certain “set point”. This is definitely the way it feels to me. If I eat a lot at one meal, I won’t be as hungry at the next. If I exercise really hard, I’ll probably eat more. They claim these set points are probably quite genetic, which also fits my experience. I take after my mom, who was very skinny until she had children, put on a couple of pounds with each of her pregnancies, and has been stably overweight since. I expect that I shall follow a similar trajectory.

I haven’t really seen a good explanation from the anti-fatphobia side about why people’s weights are rising so quickly. It seems clear to me that people did not suddenly acquire a willpower deficiency in the middle of the twentieth century. It seems to me like something is dysregulating our body’s natural set points, so that instead of settling at a BMI of 20 or 23 (as generally happened in the past), bodies are tending to settle at a BMI of 27 or 30. I find this fairly mysterious. (Interestingly, laboratory animals, who have very tightly controlled diets, have also been gaining weight.)

Dieting seems really burdensome to me. You don’t get to have cake! Even if you REALLY REALLY want cake, you have to resist your cravings instead of going to the store and obtaining cake! All the diets talk about all the delicious food you get to eat on them– which sometimes does make my mouth water! Nothing I love like a good Greek salad– and then they rule out perfectly normal and yummy things like cheese or popcorn or peanut-butter-filled pretzel nuggets. (Which are stupidly good, by the way.) You have to keep tracking your calories and weighing yourself and all this nonsense. I have no problem with a person deciding to diet if they want to, just like I’m okay with people deciding to do Nanowrimo or visit every continent or take up skydiving. But if someone goes around saying that everyone in the world needs to write a novel in thirty days, I would be unhappy with them. Why don’t we treat dieting the same way?

It’s not like there’s nothing fat people can do to improve their health. Fat people benefit from eating lots of fruits and vegetables and cutting back on processed food and sugar. Fat people benefit from exercise. Fat people benefit from getting enough sleep. It is not like these healthy behaviors magically stop being healthy if you are also fat while you do them.

I feel like an obsessive focus on weight loss even impairs people’s health. Exercise does not appear to help people lose weight. Studies consistently show exercise having little or no effect on weight loss, partially because most of the calories we burn aren’t from physical activity but for the basic functioning of our bodies, and partially because of compensatory behaviors. A lot of people who hear about compensatory behaviors say things like “well, then, don’t use exercise as an excuse to eat a cookie! Stupid fat people!”, but that’s only one form compensatory behavior can take. You might move around less because you’re tired, or even fidget less. There are very few people who have volitional control over how much they fidget.

I know several people who have chosen not to exercise because they’re aware it won’t help them lose weight. This is absurd! Exercise makes you live longer. Exercise is protective against depression, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart attack, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and a host of other diseases. But, you know, it doesn’t make you thin, so what’s the point?

I feel like there’s little to lose from adopting an attitude of healthy at every size, even from a “the laws of thermodynamics rule all!” perspective. Surely– if calories in calories out is the be-all and end-all of weight– then encouraging people to move more and fill up their plates with vegetables instead of calorie-rich desserts will cause them to lose weight. I mean, it’s not like the laws of thermodynamics know whether you’re taking a weight-neutral approach to health. “Oh, shit, guys, we’ve got to DOUBLE this calorie! This person’s eating vegetables because vegetables are delicious and not to limit their calorie intake!” And if it is wrong, which I believe it is, then instead of trying to get people to pursue an impossible task we can encourage them to adopt healthy lifestyle habits right now– regardless of how their weight changes.

Monogamous People Are Stupidly Oversensitive



I don’t want to say that there are literally zero polyamorous people who go around saying that polyamory is better than monogamy. The world is wide and full of many things, and God knows that people on the Internet can be blithering idiots on any topic.

However, I have literally never met such a person in my life, and yet I encounter monogamous people talking about how terrible such people are at least twice a month. It’s okay, guys! You’ve won! The enemy has been routed! You can stop discoursing now! Literally no one is arguing with you!

But then a funny thing happens when you try to get people to provide links to examples of this alleged ‘polyamory is better than monogamy’ claims. It turns out that they are actually instances of “a person saying that they are happier being poly than they were being monogamous.”

Or “a person saying that they had some problems becoming poly, but now they’re happily poly, and here’s how they did it.”

Or “a poly person being proud to be poly, in spite of the stigma they face from the rest of the world.”

Or “a silly Tumblr post about how we should resolve love triangles with polyamory.”

Or “poly people existing and being happy in public at all.”

It seems that growing up in a culture where monogamy is validated and accepted tends to leave a lot of monogamous people with a little bit of a thin skin.

Look, I get that having a relationship style you don’t share with the rest of your friends can be alienating. It can be harder to find partners. People might assume your relationship style is something that it really isn’t. People write fluffy romantic things that you don’t empathize with because they hinge on a different relationship style than yours. It sucks! I can empathize!

The reason I can empathize is that the places that are like this for me include literally the entire rest of the world.

Except that, while poly people who go around saying polyamory is better are mostly nonexistent, monogamous people who go around saying monogamy is better are not. They really, really are not. Feel free to peruse Polyamory in the News’s Critics of Poly tag if you don’t believe me. Or look at the comments of any news article about polyamory. Or come and meet my dad, who sent me a letter saying I was going to get AIDS before disowning me.

I wonder how many monogamous people asked a large and scary-looking friend to keep an eye on their family at their wedding, because they were afraid their family would make a scene about them being monogamous. Few?

I do not think there is anything wrong with monogamy. It’s not for me, but then neither are polo shirts, death metal, or ice dancing. I feel as little antipathy towards monogamous people as I do towards people wearing polo shirts, death metal fans, or ice dancers. But someone saying “I’m so happy now that I wear polo shirts all the time!” is not criticizing me as a T-shirt wearer. Someone talking about how they used to not be into death metal and now they are and here’s how is not criticizing me as a pop fan. The existence of happy ice dancers does not somehow mean I have to engage in ice dancing. The mere existence of happy people who do not share your preferences should not make you feel bad about your preferences. The fact that not everyone goes about constantly affirming how wonderful your life choices are does not mean you are being mistreated. Stop it.

Why I Promote the GWWC Pledge



[epistemic effort: I had a lot of conversations with other EAs]
[see also: On Philosophers Against Malaria; GiveWell: A Case Study In Effective Altruism; Contra The Giving What We Can Pledge; What Is The Giving What We Can Pledge?; Why You Should Focus More On Talent Gaps, Not Funding Gaps]

There has recently been some discussion among effective altruists about whether we should be encouraging people to take the Giving What We Can pledge, which commits pledge-takers to give ten percent of their income to the charities they consider most effective. I recently wrote a blog post encouraging people to take the pledge, so I thought it would be a good idea to write up my reasoning for why I think this is a good idea.

Talent Gaps and Funding Gaps

As a vast oversimplification, there are two ways that a cause can be constrained. They might not have enough money to do the things they want (buy malaria nets, hire talented people, make grants, etc.), which means there’s a funding gap. Alternately, they might not have enough talented people to do the things they want: for instance, they might really want to hire someone to focus on biosecurity research, but there are only six people who have the level of expertise in biosecurity they want and all of those people are happily employed somewhere else and don’t want to change.

(This is just an example. I have no knowledge of whether there is actually a talent gap in biosecurity.)

Of course, funding can be turned into talent, and talent can be turned into funding. If you have lots of money, you can raise salaries to attract more talented people. If you have lots of talented people, you can convince some of them to retrain into a high-earning profession and donate lots of money to you. However, in both cases, it’s sometimes not possible. There simply might not be any, say, professional economists who care about and want to research animal rights, in which case offering higher salaries will not allow you to hire one, at least in the short run. In the nonprofit sector in particular, offering high salaries can be risky if you want to hire people who share your values: it incentivizes people to pretend to share your values so that they can get your money. And some problems can be solved only with talent and not with funding: for instance, if the best way to improve the world is founding a startup that helps people in the developing world or working for the IMF or the World Bank so that they adopt better policies, then you have a problem, because it’s kind of hard to turn additional nonprofit donations into startup founders and IMF employees. (Unless, I guess, the nonprofit in question is 80,000 Hours.)

On the turning-talent-into-money side, it’s perfectly possible that you have a lot of extremely talented philosophers, who might be very useful for convincing impressionable undergraduates and developing better arguments in favor of effective altruism but who might have a somewhat difficult time switching to becoming finance quants. So it makes sense to talk about talent gaps and funding gaps as being two different things.

How much you care about talent gaps versus funding gaps depends on what causes you think are most important. Some causes are better at soaking up money than others: for instance, Give Directly has remarkably low overhead, so a single talented person can direct huge amounts of money. If you support relatively unpopular charities, it’s also possible that they’re primarily lacking funding: for instance, the Effective Altruism Foundation’s charities (Sentience Politics, the Foundational Research Institute, and Raising for Effective Giving) and MIRI. Conversely, my understanding is that Open Phil’s primary problem is finding enough talented people to give away all of Dustin Moskovitz’s money. And the animal sector in general is kind of weird, because they seem to be primarily constrained by the fact that, while it seems plausible that there is a good way to transform money into animal welfare, no one has any idea what it is. That problem can be solved through either more money (for research grants, etc.) or more talent (for researchers, etc.).

It seems true to me that, on current margins and with a few exceptions, talent is more important than funding for most of the causes effective altruists care about. But that’s precisely because people keep taking the Giving What We Can pledge! Pledgers donate a lot of money. We can expect pledgers to donate a lot of money in the future, because many of the people taking it now are broke students. And the number of people pledging has grown and the growth shows no signs of diminishing. The Giving What We Can pledge is a success, and because it is a success the problem it’s trying to fix is a lot less bad than it used to be, and we instead have this different problem. But that’s somewhat dependent on us continuing to encourage pledgers to keep their pledges and new people to take the pledge; if we don’t, then those predictions about how much money the future effective altruist community will have will be wrong, and money will be a lot more important than it was.


Part of the problem with focusing on talent is that filling talent gaps is terrible fucking marketing.

Taking the Giving What We Can pledge might not be easy, but it is simple. There is exactly one thing that all pledgers need to do. It takes one sentence to explain (“give ten percent of your income for the rest of your life to the charity that you think will do the most good”). In theory, figuring out which charities do the most good should add more sentences to the pitch. In practice, people just say “donate to GiveWell top charities.” The people they’re pitching to believe them, because it seems like well-informed people think GiveWell is good and also GiveWell’s analyses have lots of numbers and citations in. (I don’t actually think this is an unreasonable use of heuristics.)

Conversely, it’s impossible to give one-size-fits-all advice about filling talent gaps. While my dollars are pretty much the same as everyone else’s dollars, my talents are very different from everyone else’s talents. In fact, it’s quite remarkable the number of potentially high-impact careers I’m ludicrously ill-suited for. (Tech startup founder! Party politics! Founding an effective non-profit! Product manager! AI risk researcher!) Funding gaps often tend to be fairly large, on the order of twenty million dollars or so. If I identify a good opportunity, I can tell thirty of my friends that they should donate to it, without making a huge dent in the funding gap. On the other hand, a charity might have one or two unfilled positions: if I tell two of my friends to work for a charity, I will have to find other opportunities for the other twenty-eight friends. In practice, people who wish to fill talent gaps usually have to find the specific talent gaps themselves, with guidance about general areas to look in from 80,000 Hours, rather than relying on outside experts for all their decision-making.

As I said, the Giving What We Can pledge takes one sentence to explain. The Life You Can Save pledge takes about three sentences to explain. The Giving What We Can pledge is far, far more popular, even though The Life You Can Save has a lot of other structural advantages (such as being more reasonable for most people and having been founded by a far more famous philosopher). Conversely, judging by the length of 80,000 Hours’s workshops, how to fill talent gaps takes something like four hours to explain. If the one sentence/three sentences thing makes such a difference, I shudder to think of the cost of switching to something that takes four hours.

Filling a talent gap is also a much bigger life change for many people. Giving What We Can’s primary audience is students who can expect to earn a lot of money in the future. For the prototypical Giving What We Can pledger, taking the Giving What We Can pledge looks like taking a $72,000/year job once they graduate rather than an $80,000/year job. It involves essentially no suffering or change of behavior. Even for non-student pledgers, Giving What We Can targets a relatively affluent group, for whom taking the pledge might mean eating out a bit less and not going on vacation this year, which is not a huge life difference. (If this doesn’t look like you, take the Life You Can Save pledge instead, seriously. That pledge involves different donations for people of different income levels, and in my experience manages to not be particularly burdensome for most people.)

Conversely, filling a talent gap involves completely changing your career. It could involve a shift in self-image, if you’ve seen yourself as being a doctor since you were sixteen and now you’re going off to become an economist instead. It could involve learning new skills. It could involve a significant cut in pay. It could involve moving to a different place. It could involve working a job that you’re not familiar with and none of your friends are familiar with either. It probably does involve becoming significantly more ambitious than you were before and learning to believe yourself capable of things you currently don’t think you’re capable of.

In my experience, it is extremely common for people’s effective altruist stories to begin “I was donating and getting involved in the community for a couple of years, when I decided to [work for a nonprofit/found a nonprofit/go back to school/work for Wave].” This makes perfect sense! When you’re part of the effective altruist community, you’re surrounded by people who think that trying to fill talent gaps is a totally reasonable thing to do. You’ve learned in a low-stakes way about what cause areas have a talent gap. You know people who work in high-impact careers. You have more of a network and better advice. Most importantly, a high-impact career starts to seem like a thing that normal people, people like you, do– not something that’s done by serious and terrifyingly competent people in fancy suits.

Probably most people who take the Giving What We Can pledge won’t fill any talent gap: many people, through no fault of their own, do not have the abilities necessary for a high-impact career, and many other people aren’t willing to. Maybe five out of a hundred pledgers will. But I think that promoting the pledge is a far more effective way of recruiting people to fill talent gaps than doing so directly is.

(This might be a weird and kind of off-putting message for potential pledgees. Two things. One, I also think what I said above: a big part of the reason that funding gaps are less important for many cause areas is that people keep taking the pledge. I expect that your donations will produce a lot of positive value even if you never fill a talent gap. Two, while I am less aggressive than some people in terms of “we should keep out the people who don’t think like EAs from effective altruism!”, I do care about it a non-zero amount. I would prefer to attract people who consider the above to be an example of refreshing honesty and transparency, because I suspect they are more likely to share effective altruist values on other issues as well.)

Commitment Mechanisms 

It has recently come to my attention that many effective altruists seem to disagree with each other about what the term “pledge” means. Some people seem to view it as a solemn promise that binds your future self to donate ten percent of their income even if your future self thinks it has much better things to do with the money. Other people seem to view it as a statement of intent: you plan to donate ten percent of your income for the rest of your life, but if something better comes along you will do that instead.

Consider a wedding vow: two people promise to love each other for as long as they both shall live. In general, the first group would not think that this promise is completely unbreakable: they would support a divorce if, say, you and your wife hate each other and you’ve gone to marital therapy and you can’t fix it and every time you interact with each other you have a screaming match. But you might, five years into the marriage, meet someone else and think that that person would be a much better wife than your wife, even though you continue to like and get along with your wife. If you then divorce your wife, they would think, you are doing something quite wrong. You are not allowed to get out of the promise just because you think you have a better option. The whole point is to get your future self to do things even if your future self thinks it is not in their best interest. If you wanted a promise that you can get out of whenever you like, then you should have pledged to be together as long as you both shall love instead.

The second group, however, views “as long as we both shall live” as a statement of intent. Right now, you intend to stay with your wife for the rest of your life, and you predict based on your best model of your future self that you will stay with her. But if it turns out that you actually have a better option than your wife, then it wouldn’t be doing anything wrong to leave her. At worst, it is an empirical mistake: you incorrectly modeled your future self in a way that led you to make wrong predictions.

In the case of the Giving What We Can pledge, the first group feels that the pledge binds you to donate ten percent of your income, period. Of course, there are serious circumstances in which it is justified to break the pledge: the pledge does not require you to donate ten percent of your welfare check. But even if future you thinks it would be better to spend the money on something else that is not a donation, you have still bound your future self to donate. Conversely, the second group feels that you should do the best thing. If you think that there’s something other than donating money that would lead to the best outcome, then you should do the thing that would lead to the best outcome, pledge or no pledge.

I do not here mean to discuss my opinions on which interpretation of the concept of “pledge” is correct. I personally favor the former, but I don’t think that there is any necessity for there to be a broad effective-altruism-wide consensus on the definition of the word “pledge”. I am happy to work with people who disagree with me about what promises bind you to do, even though I would be quite unlikely to e.g. marry them. (For what it’s worth, the Giving What We Can pledge appears to endorse the first interpretation, although I think it would be worth doing some empirical research about how most pledgers and the target audience of the pledge interpret it. This seems like it should affect their marketing.)

Under the second interpretation, I think taking the pledge is a straightforwardly good thing to do, except that if you don’t have very much money, consider taking The Life You Can Save pledge instead.

In the first interpretation, it’s more complicated, because of issues of flexibility. Imagine that I am living in the Bay Area and choosing between two jobs: a $100,000/year programming job and a $20,000/year job working for an animal rights nonprofit. I consider the pledge to bind me to donate 10% of my income.

There are two potential problems. First, there are a lot of ways to turn money into productive work. I might use money to save time: for instance, buying a dishwasher, taking Ubers instead of the train, or hiring a cleaner. I might use money to avoid burnout: for instance, purchasing enjoyable experiences that refresh me and allow me to return to my work happier. I might use money to avoid stress and worry: for instance, if I can easily pay my rent, I don’t have to spend time worrying about where I’m going to live. If my work at the animal rights nonprofit is sufficiently important, then spending money on those things can create more value than donating it. But if I’ve pledged to donate, then the $2000 has to go to charity– even if the better way to spend the money would be on not being homeless.

Second, most people want to spend a certain amount of resources on altruism and a certain amount of resources on selfishness. If I am already forgoing eighty thousand dollars of income to work at an animal rights nonprofit, then an additional two thousand dollars of donations might very well push me over the limit of resources I’m willing to spend on altruism. That means I’m far less likely to take the job, even if I believe the job will allow me to do the most good.

Of course, there are benefits to taking the pledge as well. Many people like the automatic nature of it: you donate ten percent of your income and then you never have to worry about altruism again. I personally find that making commitments helps make me be the sort of person who wants to keep my commitments: just as my vow to be married for life makes me want to be nice to my husband, my pledge to donate ten percent of my income makes me want to be a more compassionate and altruistic person.

I personally have not yet taken the Giving What We Can pledge, because it offends my aesthetics to take a lifelong pledge by filling out a form and pressing a button, and I have yet to come up with a suitably dramatic ritual. However, I do plan to take the pledge as soon as that’s sorted. My husband and I are sufficiently financially stable that it is unlikely either of the considerations I outlined above will ever apply: we will basically always have enough money to spend money on time-saving conveniences and not experience financial stress. The situations where it might happen (for instance, if my husband becomes disabled and cannot work or if some financial disaster wipes out all our savings) are situations in which I also think it would be reasonable to break the pledge.

I think Try Giving– in which a person agrees to donate ten percent for a certain period of time they decide, and then reassesses– is a great strategy for people who want to get the benefits of committing to give, but who also think they might want to switch to direct work in the future. It makes me sad that Try Giving appears to be marketed solely to people who want to, well, try giving. I think that for a lot of people, who aren’t sure about their future financial stability or whether they’ll switch into direct work, indefinitely planning to pledge for a few years at a time is the smart move. I wish there was a program (Flexible Giving?) for them.

Encouraging Long-Term Commitments 

I’d like to highlight this excellent comment of Justis Mills’s, which points out some ethical problems with encouraging people to take the pledge, instead of encouraging people to try giving. It seems wise that commitments should be done after careful thought, rather than in a moment of passion. To return to the marriage example, most people think it’s wise to date someone for a year or two before you marry them, and perhaps cohabitate; that way, when you make a lifelong commitment, you know that it’s informed.

Holly Elmore argues that getting students to take the pledge is good because they’ve never had a stable income and they don’t know what they’d be missing. It’s harder to give up three thousand dollars than it is to take a job that pays $27,000/year. Justis apparently changed their mind in response to Holly’s argument, but I think their original comment was right. The benefit Holly talks about can be easily obtained through doing Try Giving for two or three working years before taking the Giving What We Can pledge.

My objections are threefold. First, it seems to me that encouraging people to take the pledge in a less than fully informed way makes it more likely that they will break the pledge. That means that Giving What We Can has a less accurate estimate of how much money they can anticipate moving in the future. It also weakens the pledge for everyone else by turning pledge-breaking into a normal thing that lots of people do. If everyone’s breaking their pledges, there’s less social opprobrium for pledge-breaking.

Second, I’m concerned about flexibility. If supporting the Giving What We Can pledge is good both because donations are useful and because it helps us recruit more talented EAs, then we don’t want to make it harder for people to do direct work. Doing Try Giving for a few years gives the average new effective altruist a lot of time to familiarize themselves with arguments about talent gaps and figure out whether direct work is right for them, so they can decide whether to take the full pledge, do what I’m calling “flexible giving”, or not take the full pledge and do direct work instead.

Third, I do actually care about informed consent. I care about cooperating and living peacefully with people of other value systems, which implies that I should not use underhanded methods to get them to do things that are good by my lights and not by theirs. It seems to me to be disrespectful to get someone to promise something when they don’t really know what they’re promising. I would not like it if other people did such a thing to me, and therefore I am not going to do it to others. In practice, I think uninformed pledgers are not very useful and perhaps even harmful (see my first point), so this is not a very hard principle to abide by. I understand that some people have different values, but fortunately for them my desire to cooperate with people of different value systems extends to them.

In the future, when I write posts about Giving What We Can, I will encourage people to sign up for a year of Try Giving instead of taking the full pledge.

It Does Not Matter If Trump Has A Personality Disorder



I have seen people claim that Trump has “a personality disorder” and this annoys the hell out of me.

First of all, you don’t mean “a personality disorder”. There are lots and lots of different personality disorders and most of them Trump obviously doesn’t have. For instance, he probably isn’t avoidant (characterized by feelings of inferiority, extreme sensitivity to criticism, and a tendency to avoid social interaction even though they are unbearably lonely). It is also quite unlikely that he’s schizoid (characterized by being solitary, secretive, and apathetic, although having a rich fantasy life). I’m also going to guess he doesn’t have obsessive compulsive personality disorder (characterized by being perfectionistic, obsessed with following rules, and a compulsion to make lists and schedules). What you mean is “a cluster B personality disorder”, aka the asshole cluster.

(I’m cluster B, I can say that.)

Second, we simply do not have enough information to diagnose Trump with anything. It’s true that Trump’s behavior is consistent with a cluster B personality disorder. It’s also consistent with bipolar I, an addiction to cocaine or amphetamines, delusional disorder grandiose type, and being an enormous dickbag with a poor brain-to-mouth filter surrounded by sycophants. If I were Trump’s therapist, I would have access to certain information, such as whether he is currently a cocaine user, that we as members of the public simply do not have.

Third, who cares? Trump is an impulsive and criminal person. We do not know if he is an impulsive and criminal person because of bipolar I, a cluster B personality disorder, substance abuse, a delusional disorder, or just happening to be a person who is impulsive and criminal with no diagnosable mental illnesses at all. Would it somehow be a good thing that we have elected an impulsive and criminal president if it turned out he was impulsive and criminal because he has bipolar I? Would we be like “wow, no problems here”? Of course not. That’s ridiculous. The problem is Trump’s behavior, not the mental health conditions that may or may not have caused it.

It seems to me that the most parsimonious explanation of many people’s diagnoses of Trump are not that they enjoy speculating about the mental health conditions of celebrities. (Which is a fun game. I personally am a big fan of the Ted Cruz Is Autistic theory.) If they did, they would probably specify which personality disorder he has, probably some people would be speculating about bipolar I as well, and their speculations would be tinged with empathy for the struggle that people with personality disorders go through. It is because they are using “personality disorder” as a symptom for “evil incomprehensible monster.” As a person with a personality disorder, I object to this.

Meditation For People Who Hate Meditating


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[content warning: exercise]

I hate mindfulness. Hate it, hate it, hate it. The ten minutes I spend meditating is easily the least pleasant ten minutes of my day.

Unfortunately, I am also a borderline, and mindfulness meditation is the one consistent element in every successful treatment for borderline personality disorder. So here we are.

Over the past few months, I have learned two useful things about meditation that make it a horrible and helpful experience instead of a horrible and pointless experience.

First: meditation is not relaxing. Well, evidently it is relaxing for some people, because every time I read about meditation there’s some asshole being like “I love meditation! I’m so relaxed afterward! It really gives me some time to myself! It’s so important to take some time away from your busy schedule and just be.” This always fills me with seething hatred. I don’t support this seething hatred, mind you. I hope that people who feel relaxed from meditation find their bliss and reach all their goals in life, those fucking douchebags.

For me, meditation is like weightlifting. While exercise can be fun, when you are on your last rep of squatting The Heaviest Thing, you are probably not relaxed and thinking about all the awesome time you’re taking for yourself. You are probably like “oh god, oh FUCK, why am I DOING this, I am ACTUALLY CLINICALLY INSANE, I am NEVER GOING TO EXERCISE AGAIN.” But then throughout the rest of your day you are smarter and more energetic, you can carry in all the groceries by yourself, and you feel happier– if only because, no matter what happens for the rest of your day, you are never going to squat anything again.

(Unfortunately, unlike weightlifting, meditation does not give me a sense of accomplishment at beating my previous successes, a surge of endorphins kicking my anxiety in the ass for hours afterwards, or sick biceps. If this state of affairs changes, I will write a new blog post.)

Meditation is like weightlifting for your brain. It feels absolutely miserable in the moment, but that doesn’t mean it’s not working. Just like when you lift weights you’re training your ability to pick up heavy things and put them down, when you meditate (at least for the kind of meditating I do for my BPD) you’re training metacognition. Metacognition is the ability to think about and control your own thinking. Which is skills like:

  • recognizing that just because you think everyone in the world hates you doesn’t mean that everyone in the world actually hates you
  • realizing that worrying about whether your train is going to be late will not actually cause your train to be on time, and then actually not worrying about it instead of making yourself miserable for no reason
  • focusing on the movie you’re watching or the stupidly expensive cheese you’re eating, instead of your to-do list or the dumb thing that someone said on the Internet
  • noticing when you are compulsively refreshing Facebook and not doing that
  • noticing when you feel the urge to go to and then compulsively refresh Facebook, and then not doing that

So, useful shit, especially if you are a person like me whose brain is naturally like a toddler with a kazoo who has eaten nothing but sugar in the past 24 hours and who has just been taken to a grocery store.

Training metacognition does not have to be fun or relaxing! In fact, it might be wildly unpleasant, especially if you are on Team Emotionally Dysregulated People With Monkey Minds. It’s okay. All those people who enjoy meditation are a great object of loving-kindness meditation.

Second: if the specific reason that your meditation is wildly unpleasant is that you normally block out all your emotions because you feel super-terrible all the time and then once you meditate you are aware of how super-terrible you feel all the time and you try to return your mind to the object of meditation but that just makes you feel worse and worse and then it starts building on itself and then you start crying and have a panic attack–

Well, that happened to me a lot, until I tried a technique from Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance.

When you start noticing you feel like shit, but before you get to the part where you start crying and have a panic attack, just refocus your attention on the fact that you feel like shit. Make that your object of meditation. Try to notice as many details as you can about it. Where is it located in your body? What physical sensations are associated with it? Observe your thoughts about it.

You want to approach this with an attitude of acceptance and compassion. That means that instead of being all like “ugh, why am I feeling miserable, I’m supposed to be relaxing, this is the worst, I’m so unhappy, I never want to do this again” you want to think “welp, this is what’s happening in my brain right now, I guess. I feel terrible. I hurt all over. That is what’s happening in this moment.” That’s the acceptance bit. And you also want to try to feel a sense of care and concern about yourself: like you’re a little wounded bird that’s in a lot of pain. It’s not a good thing that you’re hurting. It’s actually really bad. You are in pain, and that totally sucks, and you wish that you weren’t.

If your pain gets worse, keep observing it. If it gets better, you can refocus on your breath or your mantra or sending lovingkindness to beings everywhere or whatever your object of meditation is, and then once again when your unhappiness starts distracting you from your object of meditation return to paying attention to your unhappiness.

This is training the skills of self-compassion and actually feeling your pain instead of numbing yourself out. If you’re having this problem, those are probably pretty important metacognitive skills for you to have! (I know it seems like “feeling pain” is a terrible skill, but (a) you are still miserable if you are miserable and constantly distracting yourself from your misery (b) knowing that you’re in pain is necessary to be able to make plans to fix your pain. You can still distract yourself if you need to, but having this skill just means you distract yourself when you think it’s a good idea instead of all the time.) So you shouldn’t be upset at yourself if this is happening; it’s a great opportunity to practice.

(I had the worst time Googling for solutions for this problem, by the way. So I hope this manages to get in the top ten Google results for “adverse effect” “meditation” in case it helps someone else.)


How To Get A Therapist Who Does What You Want



[epistemic effort: I went to like six therapists that didn’t suit me before I figured this out]

If you’re like me, you’re crazy and prone to researching your own craziness, which means you probably have strong opinions about your psychological treatment.

If you’re treating your craziness with drugs or lifestyle interventions, it’s usually pretty easy to tell whether you’re getting the treatment you want: you just look at the name of the drug you’ve been prescribed or observe whether or not you’re going to a yoga class or sitting under a lizard lamp. On the other hand, in my experience, it’s very easy to get a therapist who claims to be providing the service you want, but who isn’t really.

If you’re looking for a CBT therapist, you might go to Psychology Today’s Therapist Finder and look for therapists who claim to have expertise in CBT. The problem with this is that many therapists are eclectic, which means they use techniques from a bunch of different schools of therapy. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with eclectic therapy: it can offer a lot of flexibility, so that if something isn’t working for you your therapist will feel free to try something else. To some extent, a therapist who only does CBT is like a psychiatrist who will only prescribe one drug. And some people believe the active ingredient in therapy is a kind, empathetic, high-status person who listens to you talk about your problems and helps solve them: eclectic therapists can provide this service was well as anyone else.

However, eclectic therapists– in my experience– typically list every kind of therapy they sometimes use as a kind of therapy they provide. That makes sense– after all, they do provide all of those kinds of therapy, at least sometimes. But if you’ve done the research and you really think your depression would be responsive to CBT and CBT alone, the profusion of eclectic therapists who say they do CBT means it’s a lot harder to find a therapist who will just do vanilla, manualized CBT. And it’s very easy for a person to believe they’re getting standard CBT when in reality they’re getting eclectic therapy.

How do you avoid this problem?

First, try looking for an organization that advances your preferred form of therapy; they may have a directory of therapists. For instance, Behavioral Tech’s website has a list of therapists they’ve trained in DBT. I currently go to a therapist listed on this website and she does DBT straight from the manual. (It’s great.) Not all therapists who practice a particular school of therapy will be listed on any website; even if the closest person is far away, consider calling them to get a referral.

Second, familiarize yourself with what your therapy is supposed to look like. If you’re going to a therapist for DBT and you’re not in a skills group, you don’t have to fill out a diary card, and you’ve never done a chain analysis, you’re probably receiving eclectic therapy, not DBT. If you’re going to a therapist for CBT and you don’t have to fill out innumerable tedious worksheets, you’re probably not actually in CBT. For manualized therapies, consider purchasing the actual manual– it’s costly, but you’ll know what you’re supposed to be getting and be ready to jump ship if you’re not getting it. If it’s impossible to find a list of therapists who actually perform your favorite therapy, you can brute-force it by going to every therapist who claims to practice [insert therapy here] and then dropping any therapist who appears to not actually do so. (For efficiency purposes, it is probably best to have intakes with two or three therapists at a time; the therapists will not be angry at you for doing this, although it can get really expensive.)

Note that it is likely that non-eclectic therapists will be more expensive, farther away, and less likely to take your insurance than eclectic therapists.

I’d like to reemphasize that there’s nothing wrong with eclectic therapy. It’s helpful to lots of people! That’s why there’s so much of it! But I do think more people should know that just going to a therapist who says they practice CBT/ACT/DBT/psychodynamic therapy/whatever does not mean you will actually receive CBT/ACT/DBT/psychodynamic therapy/whatever.

Epistemic Closure Challenge #4


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People who are not participants are welcome to comment to give book recommendations, talk about what other people are reading, or talk about books that they’ve read recently that they disagree with. If you are confused about what the epistemic closure challenge is, read this.

General Notes: I would like to thank this article for giving me such excellent reading recommendations; two of the books I read came from that list, I have started the other two books it suggests, and I am already a big fan of the Righteous Mind. I encourage my conservative readers to check out its companion article.

The Virtue of Selfishness: My beliefs and Rand’s are very similar in some ways, and yet they are so strikingly different in others that I want to poke at our areas of disagreement.

There are a lot of parts of Rand that– don’t just move me, but do a good job of capturing what my personal eudaimonia is. I believe in rationality, productiveness, and pride as cardinal virtues. For me, productive work is central to my happiness. Rand’s description of love is eloquent and beautiful, leaving aside its slut-shaming: “In spiritual issues—(by “spiritual” I mean: “pertaining to man’s consciousness”)—the currency or medium of exchange is different, but the principle is the same. Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character. Only a brute or an altruist would claim that the appreciation of another person’s virtues is an act of selflessness, that as far as one’s own selfish interest and pleasure are concerned, it makes no difference whether one deals with a genius or a fool, whether one meets a hero or a thug, whether one marries an ideal woman or a slut. In spiritual issues, a trader is a man who does not seek to be loved for his weaknesses or flaws, only for his virtues, and who does not grant his love to the weaknesses or the flaws of others, only to their virtues.” And yet so much of her ethics seems… not precisely wrong, but incomplete.

One difference, I think, is that Rand believes very strongly in objective values related to humans’ nature qua humans, grounded in what it means to survive qua human. She believes that one’s values ought to be objectively worked out from first principles. For me, my sense of my own eudaimonia is… perhaps not an emotion, but certainly a felt sense. It is not precisely what Rand means by ‘whim’: after all, it is quite common for my eudaimonia to be something I don’t particularly want to do in that moment, such as every time I have to wake up when my bed is nice and warm. But it is also not rational, and I am suspicious of the whole “making one’s feelings rational” project. Rand says that it is better to die a free man than live a slave, but she grounds her morality in what is necessary to maintain a human existence. To me, this just seems unprincipled: a slave’s existence is still more human than a corpse’s.

Rand is strongly opposed to what she calls the malevolent universe metaphysics: “The altruist ethics is based on a “malevolent universe” metaphysics, on the theory that man, by his very nature, is helpless and doomed—that success, happiness, achievement are impossible to him—that emergencies, disasters, catastrophes are the norm of his life and that his primary goal is to combat them.” I don’t precisely believe in a malevolent universe, but I certainly don’t believe in a benevolent universe; I believe in a pitilessly neutral universe. And thus I have no problem with the claim that right now we happen to be in a decades-long state of emergency– in which both global poverty exists and we can act to reduce it– and once that problem has been sorted out we can go back to selfishness. Rand, conversely, believes that decades-long emergencies are simply not a thing the universe allows to exist.

But I think the crux of our difference is that I seem to have– an emotion? a drive? something like that– that Rand simply does not. You might call it “lovingkindness” or “compassion” or “pity” or “empathy”. I don’t like it when beings suffer, and I want to make it stop. I have more of this emotion when I am generally otherwise virtuous– when I have more of the rationality and productivity and integrity and justice and honesty and independence and pride that Rand praises– and far less when I am cruel and petty and slothful and weak. It is distinct from what Rand calls “altruism”, which I have felt as well: “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value. Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.” (This quote is from Philosophy: Who Needs It, not The Virtue of Selfishness.)

I think Rand believes that the only reason one would have for wanting to help people you don’t know is a sense of what she calls altruism, and I don’t think that’s true, at least for me. When I am least desirous of self-immolation and self-denial, I am the most concerned about animals and people in developing countries. Indeed, the concept of not having those concerns feels like what-Rand-calls-altruism to me: like cutting out a bit of my soul to offer it up on the altar of someone else’s approval and someone else’s sense of what I must value.

Rand and I agree in the usefulness in making firm moral judgments instead of reserving them; it is important to be able to call good things good and bad things bad. However, I think we have very different ideas of what the correct moral judgments to make are. In nearly all situations, when I am making my best and most objective moral judgment, it tends to be something along the lines of “this person is trying to pursue a good, but their tactics are hopelessly counterproductive and they won’t get the thing they want. It’s sad how people wind up trapping themselves in these awful situations.” Rand, however, seems to generally respond to such situations with “that person is a brute and an altruist and does not have virtues.” I think the former is generally a far more accurate description of situations.

The Virtue of Selfishness contains a very facile criticism of anarchocapitalist thought: “what happens if a person from Defense Company A murders a person from Defense Company B? They might go to war!” Obviously, most defense companies would have contracts covering this sort of eventuality, including perhaps a specific arbitration company they go to. War is expensive and a rational company would not engage in war unless it had to. One might very well expect companies to be less warmongering than governments.

The Communist Manifesto: The Communist Manifesto is funny! I had not expected it to be funny.

I think the first part about the bourgeoisie is mostly correct: cosmopolitanism, conquest through cheap things, subjection of nature to humanity. Unfortunately, Marx seems to have been incorrect about what would happen in the future; the proletariat in the US existed for a brief time but has passed away to be replaced by the service economy. There seems to me to have been a rise in the importance of human capital (e.g. medicine, programming). The gig/sharing/freelancing economy seems really interesting to me from a Marxist perspective: the exploited worker has access to some capital (their car, their laptop, their ability to write articles) and indeed would not be employed if they didn’t, but they’re still exploited. I’d be really interested in reading a good neo-Marxist analysis of all this if anyone has a recommendation.

I have a lot more respect for Marxism, I think, than I do for Leninism; I think one could make a very reasonable case that we’ve tried Leninism and it clearly doesn’t work. But the idea of the vanguard party seems (to my admittedly uninformed mind) to go against a lot of Marxist thought: one notices that there was no vanguard party in the transition from feudalism to capitalism; while the bourgeoisie has its philosophers, they didn’t really take their marching orders from their philosophers, and the philosophers had almost no class analysis. They talked about the Rights of Man– which happened, because of class relations, to be the Rights of Man As Defined By The Bourgeoisie’s Class Interests– but they didn’t actively talk about The Rights of the Bourgeoisie. The idea of a vanguard party seems almost anti-materialist to me. And of course it’s absurdly undemocratic and leads to the authoritarianism of actually existing communist countries.

My favorite part is this bit:

But you Communists would introduce community of women, screams the bourgeoisie in chorus.

The bourgeois sees his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women.

He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.

Side Effects and Complications: The Economic Consequences of Health Care Reform: This book has So Much Math. I did not understand all the math that was contained inside this book. It made my head spin and I cannot assess the accuracy of its analysis of the situation.

That said, I did manage to grasp the broad outlines of the argument, and it seems correct. While the ACA does not officially raise very many taxes, its exchange subsidies and employer penalties create a lot of de facto taxes, many of which are poorly implemented and mean that people would earn more money by working less. They can be expected to respond to incentives by doing so, even if they’d rather have worked more and had more money. I don’t know how large the effect is but that sounds like the sort of thing that is probably true.

Philosophy for Dummies: Topher found out that I learned almost everything I know about analytic philosophy from Philosophical Foundations of a Christian Worldview and then in horror bought me this book. I very much question his choice of introduction to analytic philosophy book.

Philosophical Foundations of a Christian Worldview might be (as the title implies) Christian, but at least it treats you like a grownup. Its discussion of epistemology includes words like “foundationalism” and “coherentism” and “Gettier cases”. Philosophy for Dummies’s discussion of epistemology, however, talks about skepticism a little bit and defines “knowledge” as “justified true belief” without once bringing up the many difficulties with this definition. Admittedly, it is an introductory text, but the author had plenty of time to spend on his half-baked self-help theories. Personally, when I read a book entitled “Philosophy for Dummies”, I expect a discussion of what problems analytic philosophers are working on and what their areas of consensus and disagreement are. If I were looking for people’s half-baked self-help theories, I would be reading Tara Brach and Cal Newport, because I already know their advice helps me.

There might be two advantages of Philosophy for Dummies over Philosophical Foundations of a Christian Worldview. First, Philosophy for Dummies might more fairly represent the views it discusses. This is not true; Philosophy for Dummies had a cringeworthy two-page discussion of ethical subjectivism that is best summed up as “sometimes people argue about whether sex before marriage is wrong! CHECKMATE ATHEISTS.” (Well, (a) people argue about all sorts of dumb shit, (b) you can, in fact, argue about whether sex before marriage causes harm, is unfair, is disloyal to your future partner, etc., and that doesn’t mean that subjectivism is wrong about the issue of whether you care about fairness, harm, both, or neither.) Second, Philosophy for Dummies could better reflect philosophical consensus on issues on which there is a philosophical consensus (e.g. the existence of the external world, scientific realism, the nonexistence of God, the existence of a priori knowledge). Unfortunately, the author of Philosophy for Dummies is also a theist and definitely gives the impression that theism is what philosophers agree on. At least ‘Philosophical Foundations of a Christian Worldview’ doesn’t give you the illusion that it’s saying what real philosophers think about things.

[content warning: abuse; the statement that people sometimes do wrong things because they’re abuse victims]

Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be: A Breviary of Sin: Half of this book is an excellent and inspirational exploration of the nature of sin that really captures the Christian mythological viewpoint, although honestly there wasn’t much I hadn’t gotten from C S Lewis or Francis Spufford. The other half of this book is Old Man Yells At Cloud.

Like, come on, dude, saying “I could care less” is understatement and linguistic change, not the sin of sloth. There is no psychological consensus that listening to violent music or watching violent media leads to more violent behavior, it is a little weird to concentrate on rap music without ever once bringing up Brown Sugar, and anyway the rates of violent crime are going down.

The other thing that upset me is that he talked about abuse as an example of hurt people hurting people, which I think is a great thing to do. But he talked about it solely in a context of abuse victims becoming abusers themselves. But while being abused increases your risk of being an abuser yourself, most abuse victims never abuse anyone! I’m not saying that he shouldn’t have brought up cycles of abuse. But there are lots of other kinds of harm people can cause because they’re abused. What about the man who becomes frightened and suspicious and lashes out against innocent women who happen to look like his abuser? What about a person who becomes a heroin addict to cope with their abuse history and winds up stealing thousands of dollars from their closest friends? What about a man who is chronically depressed because he was abused as a child, wasting all his potential in endless days and nights of numbness? Just talking about abuse seems like a very shallow analysis to me.

A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law: help I think I’m a textualist

Scalia believes that the proper role of the court is to interpret the text of the law in the way a reasonable person would, in the context of the rest of the law. He dislikes thinking about the legislators’ intent. Many cases involve things that the legislators couldn’t possibly have an intent about, because they didn’t think of them; if they had thought of them, they would have put them in the law. Paying attention to legislative intent appears to go against the Constitution: the Constitution says that things that legislators vote for are law, even if they are confused about what the law is or never read it, not that their intent is law. He also dislikes activist judges. In his opinion, not only are activist judges an unwarranted usurption of the legislature’s constitutional role by the judiciary, they also go against the point of a government by laws and not men. People should have reasonable expectations about what is and is not against the law, instead of having to guess about the whims of whatever judge is assigned their case. (This is why, incidentally, Scalia also likes precedent, even precedent that he feels goes against the Constitution; precedent makes the courts more consistent.)

The Constitution is interestingly different from most law, because it’s much older. Scalia argues that it should be understood the way a reasonable person would have understood it at the time the Constitution or amendment was ratified. For instance, the First Amendment should be understood to protect the free-speech rights in the Colonies at the time of ratification. To do otherwise, he argues, leaves speech with no protection. At any time, a judge who doesn’t like free speech can decide that “freedom of speech” actually means freedom to say things that aren’t hateful (what is “hateful” is of course decided by the government). It’s true that courts have trended in the definition of more free speech for the past century or so, but there is no law that says that that has to continue. (Indeed, one could make a very good case that the Second Amendment was hollowed out in the same period, eliminating protections the Founders would have considered to be obvious.) If freedom of speech de facto means whatever judges think it means, there’s not much point to having a constitution at all, instead of just letting judges make up whatever they think is a good idea.

I think I do agree with Scalia that the death penalty is not cruel and unusual punishment, because the Constitution makes provision elsewhere that you shouldn’t kill people without due process, and it would be really weird for the Constitution to limit how you can do something that is unconstitutional in the first place.

An Emotion Regulation Technique That Works For Me


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[epistemic effort: I tried this and it worked for me, but different people’s brains work differently]

Some people theorize that borderlines experience a dialectical dilemma of unrelenting crisis and inhibited grieving. Basically, borderlines both have constant overwhelming emotions and self-destructive behavior, and also avoid emotions that they are frightened of or overwhelmed by. Although these seem like opposites, in reality they are mutually reinforcing: an emotion that is avoided often reappears as a different, overwhelming emotion. This is one of the reasons borderlines often have emotions that are wildly inappropriate for the situation, like feeling ashamed when someone hurts you, or getting angry at people they mistreat.

So that made me wonder if trying to experience emotions I’m avoiding would make me have fewer overwhelming emotions. And the answer is yes!

If I’m experiencing one of my usual overwhelming emotions– anxiety or shame– I identify the trigger of the emotion. For instance, recently, I was feeling a lot of shame about how much of my life I’ve spent being depressed instead of doing anything that was more fun or improved the world. Then I ask myself whether the emotion I’m feeling makes sense. Does it make sense to feel shame about how much of my life I’ve spent depressed? Not really! I don’t expect anyone to reject me for this. And I don’t think it makes me into a fundamentally bad or evil person, particularly given how many of my thoughts were about fun things I didn’t get to do. Not doing fun things does not make you evil.

What emotion would make sense?

Sadness. Loss. Grief.

There are years of my life I spent doing nothing but refreshing social media. There are opportunities I didn’t take advantage of and won’t get again: interesting classes I barely passed or never took, professors I didn’t talk to, college events I never went to. There’s a big gap in my resume I’m not going to be able to fill. There are skills I could have acquired, friendships I could have made or nurtured, experiences I could have had, and instead I spent the time being depressed.

That really sucks.

Next, I figured out how to act in accordance with the justified emotion. In the case of my sadness, I asked my husband Topher to hold me while I cried and not comfort me. His natural urge is to reassure me that this sort of thing happens to everyone and I still have fifty years of my life ahead of me and so on, but what I really needed was to grieve. It felt a little artificial at first– I deliberately thought “it is sad that I didn’t get to spend much time at college”— but eventually I wound up feeling very sad about it and cried for about half an hour.

This works astonishingly well for me! For instance, previously, I’d felt shame about that for a few hours a week, but since I cried about it I haven’t had a recurrence of the shame, and it’s been a couple of months. So if you have overwhelming emotions that don’t seem to go with the things that trigger them, try this! Maybe it’ll work for you.

On Polyamory Advice



Part of the problem with polyamory advice is that it usually comes from people who give advice.

This creates two distortions. First, many people who dislike commonly given polyamory advice would prefer something along the lines of “whatever works for you and your partners is great.” The problem is that this is really terrible advice.

As a comparison, consider a certain genre of sex-positive advice columns. These advice columns will answer every question with “talk to your partners! People are diverse, so you should figure out what works for you.” How do you eat someone out? “Talk to your partners! People are diverse, so you should figure out what works for you.” How do you dominate someone? “Talk to your partners! People are diverse, so you should figure out what works for you.” You like sex when you have it, but you’re rarely in the mood, so it’s easy to go weeks or months without having sex? “Talk to your partners! People are diverse, so you should figure out what works for you.” The sex is just kind of… meh? “Talk to your partners! People are diverse, so you should figure out what works for you.”

Of course, people are diverse, you should talk to your partners, and it’s a good idea to figure out what works for you. But this is also totally useless advice. If I knew what worked for me and my partners, I wouldn’t be writing to an advice column. And it’s not like there are literally zero generalities. You can say “in general, it’s a good idea to warm up your partner a bit before you approach her clit”. You can say “a lot of people find that making your partner call you ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ puts them in a good headspace.” You can say “that’s called responsive desire, it’s very common among people of all genders, and if you want to have sex more you can plan to spend some time kissing and cuddling on a regular basis and you may find that you’re in the mood for sex.” You can say “why don’t you try some different things that seem interesting? Even if most of them turn out to be silly or boring, adding a couple new things to your repertoire can stave off boredom.” Even though that isn’t going to work for everyone, it is sure as hell going to work for more people than “figure out what works for you!” without any guidance about how you do this.

Similarly, there are certain generalities among people in relationships. You should be familiar with your partner as a person, ranging from their favorite books to their problems to their deeply held values. You should try to be thankful about nice things your partner has done for you and to admire their good qualities. You should listen when they want to tell you something, even if you are a little busy. You should compromise. You should take a break when you feel like screaming at your partner.

Of course, these don’t apply to every relationship. There are people who are in happy marriages that are primarily an economic exchange and division of chores, where they don’t know much about each other beyond what is necessary to do their respective jobs. There are people who don’t mind being taken for granted. There are people who consider it an important part of respect for each other’s intellectual work that they never interrupt a train of thought with a question. There are people who thrive when their partner does whatever they want without taking their wishes into account. There are people who scream at each other and then have hot sex and feel like their conflict is resolved.

But that said, if I know that someone is unhappy in their relationship, and they don’t know how to fix it, and I know that they resolve all their conflicts by screaming at each other, I am going to suggest “why don’t you try resolving your conflicts through calm discussion and not screaming?” And I think that is much more likely to work than “whatever works for you and your partners is fine!”

I think this generalizes to a lot of the controversial polyamory advice as well. Is there somewhere out there a triad with an ecstatically happy bisexual woman partner who isn’t allowed to have sex with people outside the triad, is officially secondary, is required to love both of her partners equally, is an unpaid nanny/maid, and isn’t allowed to tell anyone whom she’s dating because they’re not out as poly? Probably! But I am not going to endorse this as a general practice.

Second, most people are reasonable, sensible people, but some people are ridiculous and terrible. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people who write to advice columns are either ridiculous terrible people or reasonable sensible people who have somehow managed to get stuck in a relationship with ridiculous terrible people, because the reasonable sensible people generally have good relationships and therefore have no need to write to advice columns.

(yr humble blogger queers the ridiculous terrible/reasonable sensible binary)

So someone writes to the advice column and says “I won’t let my husband’s girlfriend kiss him except on the cheek or through a dental dam because she has oral herpes. She’s upset about this. How do I get her to see that this is necessary to prevent me from becoming a disgusting diseased herpetic?” And the advice columnist says “Jesus fucking christ, cut that shit out, you are ridiculous and terrible and also really bad at risk analysis.”

And then some reasonable sensible people read this and say “But I am immunosuppressed! I’m lucky enough not to have herpes, but if I catch it it would be really bad! It makes sense that my partners should have to take lots of precautions to avoid transmitting herpes to me.”

And a member of Team Do What Works For You is like “people should do whatever they want as long as it works for them and their partners! There is nothing wrong with making your metamour only kiss your husband through plastic wrap!”

My position here is that:

(1) We are, of course, going to follow the John Stuart Mill rules about people who are hurting themselves– one may argue with, attempt to persuade, or entreat a person who is making a poor decision, but one may not force them to do the thing you want or visit any sort of evil upon them for not doing so.
(2) We are not going to get more liberal than John Stuart Mill and assume that tolerance requires that no one ever think you’re making a bad choice.
(3) Some people have good reasons for making their metamours kiss their partners through plastic wrap.
(4) For the vast majority of people, this is a horrible idea and your relationships would be a lot better if you instead learned how to do reasonable STI risk assessment.
(5) The majority of people would not force their partners to kiss their partners through plastic wrap, it would never occur to them to do so, and find the whole idea vaguely horrifying.

The problem of ridiculous terrible people comes up particularly with the cluster exemplified by vetoes, rules, relationship contracts, and hierarchy. Ridiculous terrible people can get up to all kinds of ridiculous and terrible shit with vetoes, rules, relationship contracts, and hierarchy. As an example, in the book More Than Two, a man vetoes his wife’s relationship, refusing to even allow her to talk to him again to say goodbye, because he makes her too happy (?!) and this makes him feel jealous (?!?!).

If I were reading a bunch of letters from similarly ridiculous terrible people or their partners, I would probably be pretty down on veto too.

But in practice, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference between Reasonable Sensible People Polyamory With Rules and Reasonable Sensible People Polyamory Without Rules. My husband does not have a veto over whom I date, but he does get to have opinions. Naturally, I respect my husband’s judgment about other people, so I will listen to him to see if he’s seen something I’m blinded to by new relationship energy. Naturally, my husband respects my judgment about other people, so he will listen to me about the merits of the person he’s judged distasteful. Naturally, he doesn’t want to make me unhappy, so he will swallow his dislike and be cordial if necessary. Naturally, I don’t want to make him unhappy, so I will avoid squeeing about the awesomeness of people he dislikes. And if in spite of all this we can’t resolve the conflict, we’ll figure out how to manage it while keeping the lines of communication open so we can maybe find a resolution.

I am dating people whose partners do have veto power, and in terms of actual relationship dynamics as opposed to rules, they do the exact same thing. “My husband has veto” translates to “I respect my husband’s judgment and don’t want to do things that make him unhappy, so if he dislikes one of my partners I put a fairly significant amount of weight on that.”

In this case, I feel like a veto is harmless. I personally don’t have one, because I dislike having a power that I would never actually exercise. If I am relying on my husband’s care for my happiness and respect for my judgment, I prefer to say that rather than having it disguised as a rule. Other people find that having a veto gives them a sense of comfort; it feels like a strong signal that their partner has respect for their judgment and cares about their happiness, which is very important in any relationship. Still other people have truly abominable taste and their partners have a veto as a way of recognizing that they must be continually saved from themselves; in this case, the veto is Past You and Present Partners conniving to harsh the buzz of Present You, who is absolutely convinced that this one-eyed three-legged dog is totally worth saving and, see, they only bite a little bit. (In my anecdotal experience, in such situations, their committed secondary partners sometimes also have veto, possibly because Present You is more likely to listen to four people yelling about why you shouldn’t date people with four restraining orders and a domestic violence conviction.) There are probably other decent ways of handling it that I’m not thinking of.

And, indeed, if ridiculous terrible people didn’t have vetoes they would probably be going around being ridiculous and terrible some other way. The core problem with “your partner is making you too happy! I’m upset! I’m vetoing your relationship!” is not the veto. It’s being upset because a person you claim to love is happy.

The actual solution here is probably something like honesty, compassion, forgiveness, courage, growth, fairness, joy, empathy, respect, a sense of humor, a sense of perspective, and all the other virtues. But “be more compassionate! The details will work themselves out” is also kind of terrible advice, because “be more compassionate” is not exactly taskified. So instead we’re stuck with the “don’t have veto” thing.