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

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

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

The passage containing values dissonance is the following:

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

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

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

“What?” said Akon.  “The Confessors?

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

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

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

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

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

There are three fundamental problems with the passage here.

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

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

And so on and so forth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does one learn to write values dissonance?

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

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

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

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