On Laziness


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When I was a teenager, I was lazy.

When I was at home during the summer, I didn’t do my chores; instead, I read books all day. My parents were deeply frustrated. They tried everything they could think of to deal with my laziness. They explained in great detail that I needed to contribute to the household. They yelled at me. They punished me for not doing chores. They rewarded me for doing chores.

Eventually, my mom happened to write down the chores she wanted me to do on a list. When she came home that night all the chores were done.

Turns out I can’t process auditory information very well.


I once had a partner who was lazy. I told him “it’s only fair that we both contribute fifty percent to the household,” and he agreed, and we decided that he would sweep the floor when it was dirty. However, the floor just got dirtier and dirtier. Even when I nagged him to sweep the floor, he’d say “it looks clean enough to me” or– even more frustrating– he’d sweep half the floor and leave the other equally dirty half undone.

Goddamn male-privileged assholes who expect other people to do all the chores while they laze around in their underwear and play video games, this is the 21st century, we believe in equality!

One day I took him and pointed to a pile of dirt and said “do you see this dirt?” He responded with “holy shit! Our floor is extremely dirty!” and immediately got a broom and swept it.

It turns out that while I am constantly low-level stressed by mess, my partner literally just did not see it unless it was explicitly pointed out to him.


For most of my life, I’ve been lazy.

I’ve flunked classes and lost jobs and let dishes pile up in the sink until they make towers. My resume has so many holes it looks like it’s made out of Swiss cheese. When I was in college, I was so lazy I flunked a class it was supposed to be literally impossible to flunk, and the only reason I didn’t have to repeat the year was that my adviser pulled strings to get me to graduate because she didn’t want to deal with me anymore. I spent a lot of time hating myself about how lazy I was. My inner monologue usually resembled the following comic:

[Source: Allie Brosh’s book Hyperbole and a Half.]

I talked a good game about knowing I had depression, but secretly I was pretty suspicious that this was all a coverup for my innate lack of moral fiber.

Then I took Zoloft.

Magically, the pill caused my moral fiber to grow in.


Last week, I was lazy.

I had been lazy for more than a month. I was too lazy to take my infant son to the library, or to play with him, or to sing to him, or to do anything other than the bare minimum to keep him alive and not crying. I was too lazy to write. I was too lazy to read books. I was certainly too lazy to do work for my job. I spent all my time thinking about how much I wanted to sleep, which was pretty much the laziest thing I could imagine. I spent a lot of time breaking into tears about how miserable being so lazy made me and how I wished I could just willpower myself into wanting to do more things.

Then, I extremely lazily took a nap for three hours last weekend, instead of doing work that I absolutely needed to do because there was a deadline and I had procrastinated on it. I think we can all agree that was the absolute laziest thing I have done in this entire anecdote so far.

I woke up, wrapped up the thing I needed to do in a couple hours, and have been astonishingly productive for the past few days, a fact that is no doubt related to the fact that since then I’ve been making sure to stay in bed for at least eleven hours a day.

It turns out that what I was calling “laziness” was, in fact, chronic sleep deprivation.


Scott Alexander recently wrote a post called The Whole City is Center, which has a very extended bit about laziness in it:

Simplicio: I think we’re treating the word “laziness” differently. I’m thinking of “lazy” as a way to communicate a true fact about the world. You agree that the true fact should be communicated by some word, but you’re interpreting “lazy” to mean some sort of awful concept like “a person who avoids responsibilities in a way not caused by anything whatsoever except being bad, and so we should hurt them and make them suffer”. Are you sure this isn’t kind of dumb? Given that we need a word for the first thing, and everyone currently uses “lazy” for it, and we don’t need a word for the second thing because it’s awful, and most people would deny that “lazy” means that, why don’t we just use “lazy” for the very useful purpose it’s served thus far?

Here is my thought. I agree that “a person who avoids responsibilities in a way not caused by anything whatsoever except being bad, and so we should hurt them and make them suffer” is a terrible concept. “Lazy” is how I personally express that concept (well, actually my concept replaces the “and so we should hurt them and make them suffer” with “and so we should be resentful about them forever,” but close enough). That is why I am trying to avoid using the word “lazy”.

Look, if you personally use the word “lazy,” and it doesn’t come along with the connotation of “this person is bad and horrible and I should spend lots of time and energy feeling resentful and bitter about how bad and horrible they are,” and it doesn’t impair your ability to think thoughts like “maybe the reason that I, the person who does all of the nighttime parenting for a six-month-old, can’t do anything and keep fantasizing about sleep is because I am sleep-deprived,” then please keep using the word “lazy.” I encourage you to do so. My one caution is that you should take care about calling other people “lazy” unless you’re really certain that they won’t interpret you as meaning the “bad and horrible” meaning, because it is good to make sure that when you insult people it is deliberate.

Maybe you’re able to voluntarily shift the definitions of words that you use as soon as someone points out to you that the word definition is kind of stupid, no matter how many emotions you have wrapped up in the definition of the word you were originally using. That’s a useful skill. Unfortunately, like many useful skills, such as obstetrics or car repair or leaving the house promptly, I don’t have it. My brain just keeps using the word definition it’s always had.

I fully admit that I am a deeply unreasonable person in this way as in many other ways. However, I observe that when I don’t use the word “lazy,” I am more likely to notice the actual causes of someone avoiding responsibilities, and I am less likely to spend lots of emotional energy seething about how they or I are/am a bad horrible person who deserves to be hated forever. No doubt this is an unreasonable coping mechanism. As an unreasonable person, I often use unreasonable coping mechanisms. But you reasonable people, with your reasonable-person privilege, should not go around saying I shouldn’t use my coping mechanism which I was using just because reasonable people don’t need it.

Now, it might be that I’m totally unique in my unreasonableness here (or perhaps that it’s genetic, because my parents share it). However, I think a similar unreasonableness is actually quite common. Exhibit A: people keep writing blog posts about it.

Scott Alexander later writes:

Simplicio: If you’re right, I worry you’re going up against the euphemism treadmill. If we invent another word to communicate the true fact, like “work-rarely-doer”, then anyone who believes that people who play video games instead of working deserve to suffer will quickly conclude that work-rarely-doers deserve to suffer.

Sophisticus: Then let’s not invent something like “work-rarely-doer”. Let’s just say things like “You shouldn’t have Larry as a dog-sitter, because due to some social or psychological issue he usually plays video games instead of doing difficult tasks.”

Simplicio: I think people are naturally going to try to compress that concept. You can try to stop them, but I think you’ll fail. And I think insofar as you can communicate the concept at all, people are going to think less of Larry because of it. It’s possible you can slightly decrease the degree to which people think less of Larry, but only by slightly decreasing their ability to communicate useful information.

This is true. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis doesn’t really work. I can prevent myself from using the concept “a person who avoids responsibilities in a way not caused by anything whatsoever except being bad” by not letting myself use the word “lazy” and– if I observe the concept attaching itself to another word– adding that word to the blacklist too. I can’t prevent everyone else from using that concept by blacklisting the word: anyone who doubts it should see the snarl some people can put on the word “transgender.” Nevertheless, I have two objections to Scott’s argument.

First, most people do not have a particularly sophisticated ontology of language, so when they say “laziness doesn’t exist” they mean “the concept we unreasonable people use the word ‘laziness’ to describe doesn’t exist”. Scott Alexander actually agrees with their point.

Second, even if it wouldn’t work that well if everyone adopted it, if I personally adopt it, then I am less likely to be chronically sleep deprived for several weeks because I think taking a nap would be Extremely Lazy and that if I am going to be lazy I should at least have the grace to be conscious so I can hate myself about it. This is a win. Since I am not a Kantian, I do not have to go “hmm, well, this works for me, but if I check it against the categorical imperative it probably wouldn’t work for everyone, guess I’m going to have to be sleep-deprived until I have a failure of willpower and take a nap anyway.”

Scott Alexander has talked a lot about the typical mind fallacy and how it’s a mistake to assume that everyone is the same as we are. Unfortunately, awareness of a fallacy doesn’t necessarily stop you from falling victim to it. (As I know very well, because as I said above I am a deeply unreasonable person.) Scott is a very reasonable person, with reasonable coping mechanisms; he should not in this way generalize to those of us who behave in stupid and counterproductive ways constantly and are desperately trying to figure out how not to.


Polyamory Is Like Everything Else, Part One of ∞



I recently had an experience which I think encapsulates some of the things I mean when I talk about polyamory.

Recently, I had to speak on a panel for my job. I have social anxiety and, while public speaking might not actually be more feared than death, it is certainly terrifying. I really needed my husband’s support. Unfortunately, my husband’s parents were in town to visit our infant, and he wanted to spend time with them.

Here’s what I don’t get to say: “I’m the primary. I’m most important. You made a commitment to me. I have my first panel ever and I need to do a good job for the sake of my career, plus it’s going to drain all my ability to cope and I need you so I don’t end up melting down in the bathroom. You’re not allowed to sacrifice my legitimate needs for the sake of some ‘desire’ to have ‘fun’ with your ‘parents.'”

Instead, we compromised. My husband was very busy that weekend. His parents got to see less of him than they would have wanted. And while the panel went fine, I had a really awful meltdown the day before. It was a shitty situation and it made everyone unhappy– and I don’t get to fix it by saying “I’m your spouse, so only my needs matter.”

Here’s what I also don’t get to say: “I don’t consent to have a relationship with your parents. It’s okay if you want to have a relationship with them, I guess (although as your spouse I should really be allowed to veto your parents). But I don’t ever want to have to talk to them or be nice to them and you should arrange the visits so that I don’t have to see them.”

Of course, I don’t have to be friends with my husband’s parents. If it stresses me out to interact with them, I’m allowed to be busy the entire time they’re in town (even if “busy” means “in the middle of the Broken Earth series”). And if my husband has a toxic relationship with his parents, or his parents are mean to their grandkid, or if one of his parents deliberately ran over my cat, I could say “hey, maybe you should consider cutting these toxic child-hating cat murderers off.”

(None of those are true, by the way, my husband’s parents are lovely people and very kind to both children and animals.)

But there are very very few people you can date who are not embedded in some sort of social fabric. If it’s very important to you, you can only date asocial, friendless orphans; that’s fine, you’re allowed to have dealbreakers. If you’re dating a more ordinary sort of person, sometimes you will find yourself having to be civil to and make small talk with people you (for understandable reasons) have no particular emotional investment in, because someone you love has an emotional investment in them. And sometimes you will find yourself having to give up things– sometimes things you really need– in order to fulfill the needs of people you don’t particularly care about, because someone you love cares about them. That’s life.

Whisper Networks, Callout Posts, and Expulsion: Three Imperfect Ways of Dealing With Abuse


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[Commenting Note: This post is absolutely not a place to host discussion of certain recent events in the rationalist community. Comments referring to those events will be deleted and the commenter banned.]

Let’s say you have a community. Like most communities, it has harassers and abusive people in it. For whatever reason (the actions don’t rise to the status of ‘crime,’ the victims would prefer not to bring the police into it, or your community is leery of the police), you can’t go to the police. What do you do about the problem?

There are three primary ways I’ve seen people I know respond to the problem, and all of them– while suited for some problems– are imperfect.

Whisper Networks

A whisper network is when someone pulls you aside and says “hey, watch out for Alice– she’s a rapist.” When you see Alice flirting with someone new, you pull them aside and warn them.

There are three big problems with whisper networks.

First, whisper networks are often inaccurate. Sometimes people make false accusations, for various reasons, including most tragically an abuser accusing the person they’re abusing of abuse. Sometimes the accusation itself is not false, but gets changed or exaggerated as people gossip: I myself have seen an accusation of harassment transform into an accusation of rape. Sometimes people hear “so-and-so is a harasser” from three or four different people and conclude that they’re a serial harasser, when in reality the person fucked up one time while they’re drunk. Neither the accused nor people who might have witnessed the event have the chance to give their own perspective on events.

It’s not just inaccurate in the “false accusations” direction, either: whisper networks can make it really fucking hard to put together a pattern. Many people won’t bring up an interaction that made them feel somewhat uncomfortable but isn’t a big deal, unless they know it happened to a dozen other people. Sometimes there are four or five events, each individually somewhat minor, that together add up to a pattern of serial harassment– but no one knows about all five of the events.

Second, whisper networks never get to everyone. New people, relatively marginal members of the community, and people who are widely disliked will almost never hear the accusations. These people are likely to be some of the most vulnerable to abusers and harassers. Whisper networks might protect the well-connected, but they do so at the expense of those who are less well-connected.

Third, whisper networks have a major missing stair problem. Even if you manage to warn everyone to stay away from Alice, the result is that Alice continues to be part of your group and you have to put constant effort into making sure that everyone is aware of Alice’s bad behavior. Eventually you’re going to think someone else told the new person, eventually someone’s going to not believe you and decide to give her a chance, eventually someone is going to forget to assign her her Rape Babysitter…

And then someone gets raped.


A callout is when someone publicly posts– perhaps on social media or a blog that many members of your community read– a list of all the misdeeds a person commits.

Callouts get a bad rap. Partially, this is because a lot of callouts are about genuinely trivial issues, and many callouts that aren’t about trivial issues pad themselves out with a bunch of trivial issues. (“Alice not only commits rape, she’s also an aphobe!”)

But there are also lots of problems even with callouts about genuinely serious issues.

A callout is inherently public. That’s its advantage over the whisper network: new and marginal people can see the callout and the accused can write up a defense. But that also creates a whole host of new problems.

It is really, really unpleasant to be a victim making a public callout. You have to think about an experience that might be painful or traumatizing. People will be passing judgment on your reliability. Sometimes people will send you hate, or dig through your past to find reasons you’re a Bad Victim, or deny your pain and trauma. You can lose friendships. For sufficiently public callouts, it may show up on Google for your name, and you can find yourself explaining the situation to future employers. (You can use a pseudonym sometimes, of course, but then you have to worry about being doxxed.)

Because the experience is so unpleasant for the victim, many victims refuse to participate in public callouts. It’s generally considered unethical to share private information against someone’s will, particularly if it causes them misery. If you anonymize the accusations to protect the victim, they’re less credible. If you just say “I’ve investigated it and Alice is a rapist,” it’s less credible still.

If the accusation is false, it can be really hard to retract the accusation.

If the accusation is true, it may follow the perpetrator for the rest of their lives. That might be a desirable outcome for some misdeeds, like rape or abuse. But if you harassed someone when you were eighteen, and it was ten years ago, and you’ve changed and haven’t harassed anyone since, the callout might still be in the first page of Google results for your name. (Some victims, aware of this, will refuse to participate in callout posts because they don’t think it’s fair to punish someone forever for harassing them; then you get the problems I discussed with public callouts.)

Some communities, such as the kink community and the feminist community, have counter-communities of unpleasant people who hate them. Members of these communities can access public callout posts and use them to smear the entire community. In addition to being unpleasant, this makes victims less likely to want to participate. Similarly, the callout post may be a subject for voyeuristic gossip on the part of uninvolved people, which the people involved may find very unpleasant.


Expulsion is simple. You investigate the claim. In some cases, you might have a designated point person whose job is to investigate claims of rape, abuse, and harassment; in other cases, this might be part of the job of the moderator, store owner, party host, or other person who gets to decide who’s allowed in a particular space. If the person in charge finds that the charge is validated, that person is no longer allowed in the space.

Assuming the person doing the investigating is honest, capable, and willing to expel harassers and abusers, expulsion is absolutely the best method of dealing with harassment, rape, and abuse accusations. It protects future victims and allows past victims to participate fully in the community.

However, it only works for relatively centralized communities. If you’re no longer allowed in a game store, a church, an online forum, or a club, you can be successfully expelled from the community built around that game store, church, online forum, or club. On the other hand, some communities are relatively decentralized: they’re extended groups of friends, and the community spans dozens of meetups, parties, events, knitting circles, and book clubs.

There’s a word for communities where the leaders can say “no one talk to this person anymore” and that immediately causes everyone to stop inviting them to every meetup, party, event, knitting circle, and book club. That word is “cult.”

In non-cultish communities, sometimes a person is going to decide that Alice is her friend, she believes Alice and not some silly community leader, and Alice is absolutely going to come to every one of her parties. That’s actually good: it’s an important protective factor against Alice being expelled from the community because she brings up uncomfortable truths or says things popular people disagree with or defends abused people. But it means that expulsion is inherently limited as a tool to protect against abusers, harassers, and rapists.

Universal Design for Parenting


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Due to family history, I have a child at higher risk of certain disabilities: mood disorders, borderline personality disorder, ADHD, and autism spectrum conditions. Even if I don’t have a child who is disabled enough by these conditions to qualify for a diagnosis, they may have subclinical symptoms.

So there’s sort of an interesting question, which is how– as a parent– you deal with knowing that your child is at elevated risk of having one of these conditions.

My philosophy as a prospective parent has been affected by the principles of universal design. Basically, it is much easier and less expensive to design things ahead of time with the needs of disabled people in mind, rather than to retrofit a building or an object which was designed without thinking about disabled people. Think about architecture. If you’re planning for disabled people ahead of time, you can incorporate a ramp into the original blueprint and build it along with everything else. If you wait until the first person with a wheelchair wants to use your building (or until regulations require you to let them in), then retrofitting is probably going to be really expensive, result in an ugly and awkwardly positioned ramp, and require you to close the building for six months for construction.

I think there’s a similar thing for parenting disabled children. Parents of disabled children often grieve the loss of their expectations and hopes for their child. In some tragic cases, the parents become bitter and angry at their children for not being the children they wanted, in some cases going so far as to accuse the children of ruining their lives. Discovering a child is disabled involves a major reworking of a number of aspects of family life, whether that means setting aside time for physical therapy with your child each day, learning techniques to manage your emotionally or developmentally disabled child’s meltdowns, searching for wheelchair dance lessons, or simply shuttling your child from appointment to appointment.

There’s also a cost for the children. Children with many disabilities– particularly invisible disabilities– may go undiagnosed for years, in which time their needs are not accommodated, they aren’t learning the skills they need to succeed as disabled people, and they may acquire toxic shame and anxiety that follows them for the rest of their lives. In some cases, a lifelong disability may not be diagnosed until the person is an adult, in which case they’ve gone through their entire childhood without appropriate accommodations or support.

Universal design for parenting doesn’t mean assuming that all children are disabled: of course, even in families with a history of disability, many children will be abled. But it does mean parenting in a way that would be good parenting whether the child is disabled or not.

For instance, I’ve mentally prepared myself for the prospect that my child is disabled, including forms of disability I might otherwise have a particularly hard time dealing with (such as intellectual disability, the child being nonverbal, or violent meltdowns). I’ve talked to my husband about disability to make sure we share the same values, the same way I would talk about other parenting issues like discipline or education or screen time. My children are at risk of childhood-onset depression, so I’m taking the perhaps unusual step of proactively taking them to psychological checkups. Hopefully, they will feel comfortable talking about their symptoms with a therapist, even if they don’t want to bring them up with a doctor. (Of course, I am not going to look at my children’s therapy records; since children have no legal right to confidentiality, it’s particularly important for parents to be conscientious about allowing them their privacy.)

There are also some accommodations I can implement without a disability. I can make a particular effort to validate my children’s feelings, because invalidating environments tend to exacerbate symptoms in children with a genetic predisposition to borderline personality disorder. I can proactively teach emotional regulation skills. If it seems like my child might benefit from social stories or visual schedules, commonly used to help autistic children, I can use them. I can purchase toys that help develop fine and gross motor skills, which autistic children are particularly likely to have trouble with. I can have a daily routine, which helps children with ADHD and autism. I can avoid shaming my child for forgetting or losing things, which leads to the comorbid anxiety that causes so many problems for adults with ADHD. I can try giving children clear instructions (“put your toys on the shelf,” not “clean your room”), which helps children with ADHD remember things.

Naturally, I haven’t done universal design for parenting for every conceivable disability. For instance, there is a step outside my front door, even though this would be inaccessible for a child who uses a wheelchair. I haven’t learned ASL, even though Deaf children with access to sign language have higher academic performance, and have no intentions of raising my children bilingually in sign and English. That’s because both of those would be fairly costly for me– I’d have to move, I’d have to learn a new language– and I have no reason to expect my children are any more likely than average to be Deaf or use wheelchairs. But I think if your child has an above-average chance of having certain disabilities, it’s worth it to be prepared.

Link Post for July

Effective Altruism

Normal emotional challenges faced by altruists.

Lots of great advice about how best to run an EA group. Related: why groups should consider direct work.

Reducing risk of value drift.

Black people, Christians, and women are more likely than average to be interested in EA.

Advocating for diet change costs $310 per pig saved, which is inferior to GiveWell top charities.

Wiki of effective altruist cause areas. This is an incredibly cool resource.


From the Onion: tips for staying civil while debating child prisons.

Five myths about the gang MS-13.

Jared Kushner’s grandmother was a refugee.

The Discourse

A really great explainer about the Supreme Court’s recent crisis pregnancy center decision and why it might be a win for free speech.

The SPLC is the victim of [ETA: a threatened] frivolous defamation lawsuit.

Is economic research biased by partisanship? “There’s another problem with praising a “libertarian”, or any researcher with strong beliefs, for honesty when their research conclusions don’t fit narrow priors. It puts their research that does fit narrow priors under a cloud. But only people with strong beliefs are put to this test. No one gets suspicious when a moderate democrat produces lots of research that fits moderate democrat priors. Why not? Do you assume reality is moderate?”


How beautiful prose can conceal bad reasoning. (I like this because I’m a terrible prose stylist.)

Strategies for problem solving explained with mazes. I am not just linking this because of its use of Disney mazes, although that definitely helped.

Everyone is using the phrase “loss aversion” wrong.


One disabled woman’s experience of sexuality and body image. “When I realized I was essentially free, cast aside in the wild frontier of unacknowledged sexuality, things began to change for me. It’s not that I ceased to care how I looked altogether or that I stopped showering. It just meant I realized I had the power to choose what mattered to me.”

Disability-inclusive stock photos. This is really cool activism from a company one wouldn’t expect, actually!

Quad hands.

“In the total study population of more than 23,000 people (excluding the people on antidepressants), 6 percent reported depression. Among the users of just one of the drugs that have depression as an adverse effect, the prevalence increased to 7 percent. Among people taking two or more of the potentially depression-inducing drugs, the prevalence went up to 10 percent. And among people taking three or more of the drugs, the prevalence was 15 percent.” If you’re depressed and on any medication, it’s worth checking your meds against this database.

Modest goals for disability awareness.

Videos about scoliosis surgeries and whether it counts as “inspiration porn” if it reflects the disabled person’s own experiences.


Sharp spike in unmarried 22-35-year-old men who haven’t had sex in the last year, starting in 2008. At present, nearly twice as many men are celibate as women (14% vs. 8%). Internet porn?

Body positivity has been coopted. “An alarming percentage of the public conversation about which bodies our culture values or rejects pivots around models, actresses, and other professionally beautiful people reassuring what they seem to believe is a dubious public that they are, in fact, super hot.”


Just say Trump is racist.

AAVE is not Standard English with mistakes. Related: outline of AAVE grammar.

Telling white people they’re outnumbered makes them hate welfare.

Should indigenous tribes have the right to commit infanticide?


Christians work with prison guards to help them cope with the trauma of their jobs.

“Notice here that James does not say “Well done you good and faithful rich, for your industrious perseverance has made you successful.””

In contrast to historical depictions, Americans generally see God as young, Caucasian, and loving, but perceptions vary by believers’ political ideology and physical appearance. Liberals see God as relatively more feminine, more African American, and more loving than conservatives, who see God as older, more intelligent, and more powerful. All participants see God as similar to themselves on attractiveness, age, and, to a lesser extent, race.

Just Plain Neat

The Pyramids of Giza are near a Pizza Hut, and other disappointments.

Dirtbag Catullus.

The Fermi paradox has been solved.

In defense of slice of life stories.

Wild Animals: A Rights-Based Approach



Disclaimer: I’m not a deontologist, but sometimes I play one on the Internet.

Introduction to Regan’s Rights-Based Approach

Tom Regan, one of the most famous philosophers of animal rights, articulates a rights-based approach to animal rights in his classic The Case for Animal Rights. Although Regan’s rights-based approach is usually understood as being totally noninterventionist with regards to wild animals, in reality his viewpoint implies that we should intervene in nature to help wild animals, at least in a few limited circumstances.

Regan argues that many animals– most obviously, but not limited to, mentally normal mammals over the age of one year– are subjects-of-a-life: that is, they have beliefs, desires, perceptions, memories, a sense of the future, an emotional life, preferences, the ability to take actions to support their goals, an identity over time, and an individual welfare in the sense that their life can fare well or badly for them independently of their usefulness for others or others’ opinions on the matter. As subjects-of-a-life, they have inherent worth.

Regan argues that beings with inherent value have a right to be treated with respect. He outlines five principles for respecting the rights of beings with inherent value:

  1. Beings with inherent value must be treated in ways which respect their inherent value: specifically, they must not be treated as mere receptacles of valuable experiences or as if their value depended on their utility relative to others, and prima facie we must assist those treated in this way by others (the respect principle).
  2. We have a prima facie duty not to treat beings in a way that detracts from their welfare (the harm principle).
  3. Special considerations aside, when we must choose between overriding the rights of the innocent many or the innocent few, and each individual will be harmed in a prima facie comparable way, then we ought to choose to override the rights of the few, not the many (the miniride principle).
  4. Special considerations aside, when we must decide to override the right of the innocent many or the innocent few, and the harm experienced by the few would make them worse-off than any of the many would be if any other option were chosen, then we ought to override the rights of the many (the worse-off principle).
  5. Special considerations aside, if all involved are treated with respect, any innocent individual may act to avoid being made worse-off even if doing so harms other innocents (the liberty principle).

He also lays out four situations in which we may override the respect and harm principles without worry:

  1. Self-defense by the innocent.
  2. Punishment of the guilty.
  3. Innocent shields (a guilty person sets up a situation where preventing them from harming others requires harming an innocent person).
  4. Innocent threats (a moral patient threatens harm, or a moral agent accidentally threatens harm, and there is no non-rights-violating way to prevent the harm).

Regan’s View of Wild Animals

Regan extensively addresses wild animals in the The Case For Animal Rights: in chapter nine he discusses the rights-based view’s attitude towards hunting and trapping and towards endangered species, and in the 2004 preface he discusses his opinions on wild animals more generally. “With regard to wild animals,” Regan claims, “the general policy recommended by the rights view is: let them be!”

Hunting and trapping, Regan argues, are not always wrong: for example, an animal might pose an innocent threat to other beings, in which case we are justified in killing them. However, the rights view is entirely against hunting for sport or for profit. The benefit to hunters cannot outweigh the violation of the animals’ rights. Some people argue that hunting and trapping are justified from a humane perspective: if animals are not hunted or trapped, then there will be too many animals for the environment to support, and the animals will starve. Regan disagrees for three reasons:

  1. Being hunted or trapped is not necessarily a less painful death than starving.
  2. Current wildlife policy (“maximum sustainable yield”) is to try to maximize the number of animals hunted or trapped over time, not to hunt or trap the minimum number necessary to prevent starvation.
  3. By the respect principle, it is wrong to kill an innocent animal who is not a threat or a shield, even to maximize overall wellbeing.

Some ways of preserving endangered species, Regan argues, are valid. Of course, if hunting and trapping are wrong in general, then hunting and trapping members of endangered species is also wrong. In addition, animals can reasonably be considered to have a right to habitat, so destroying their habitat is causing them harm. When we have harmed members of endangered species in the past, we should seek to make up for it by devoting more resources to the preservation of those species in the future. However, in the process of preserving endangered species, we must never violate the respect principle. We should not value the lives of members of endangered species over the lives of other species; we should not decide which species to preserve based on the benefit to human beings, and we should not use wild animals as tools in order to have a beautiful and stable ecosystem.

Our Duties to Wild Animals

Some people believe that Regan’s view of animal rights requires that we not intervene with predators, because predators have a right to life. A close reading of his arguments shows that this is not so. Regan is opposed to predator control programs as they actually exist, because these programs are intended to increase the profits of livestock farmers; it violates an animal’s rights to kill them in order to increase the profit of your business, just like you shouldn’t kill a baby or your grandma to increase the profit of your business. The fact that the business is itself unethical only strengthens the case.

It is also true that, when a lion hunts a wildebeest or a buck attacks another buck, neither animal is violating the other animal’s rights. As moral patients, lions and bucks are incapable of committing rights violations. (The same is true of many other causes of wild-animal suffering– storms, fires, floods, inadequate food, diseases, parasites– which are from Regan’s point of view not even moral patients or subjects-of-a-life.) However, intuitively, if someone observed someone who was about to be eaten by a lion and refused to warn the victim because lions aren’t moral patients, we’d think they were kind of missing the point.

Regan’s solution is that, in addition to duties of justice, we have duties of beneficence, that is, duties that involve doing good to others. Regan does not go into detail about what our duties of beneficence are, but it seems plausible that they could include some duties towards wild animals. Duties of beneficence are fairly limited: you should never violate a being’s rights in order to help another being

That seems like it implies that we shouldn’t kill predators to protect prey, because that would be violating the predators’ rights in order to help prey. However, that is not a logical conclusion of Regan’s argument. One exception to the harm and respect principles is innocent threats, which includes moral patients which are going to harm other beings. It is permissible to harm the innocent if they are threatening other innocent beings and there is no other way to get them to stop. Absent science-fictional proposals such as genetically engineering lions to eat grass, the least invasive way to prevent lions from hurting other animals is to kill them.
Regan does not buy this argument. He argues that animals have a “general competence to get on with the business of living”. If animals did not have this competence, the species would go extinct. Therefore, the best way to protect an animal’s rights is to allow them to “live their own life, by their own lights, as best they can.” He contrasts this with the other primary example of moral patients, babies. Babies are not generally competent to get on with the business of living: they have no realistic hope of surviving without intervention from adults. To put a baby in the wilderness in order to allow it to live its own life, by its own lights, as best it can would be criminally negligent.

There are several problems with this argument. First, evolutionary success does not imply competence on the part of the individual animal, even if it implies competence on the part of the species. For example, if nine hundred and ninety-eight out of a thousand members of a species die within fifteen minutes of being born, while the remaining two survive and produce a thousand offspring, the species would survive even though the individual species members are not competent in the slightest. Indeed, since most babies would survive longer than fifteen minutes in the wild, the average member of this species is less competent than the average baby.

Second, animals themselves have babies. While some species of animals, such as deer, are competent as soon as they’re born, that is not true for many species of animals: for example, kittens do not eliminate feces on their own without the licking of their mothers. Presumably baby animals are taken care of by their parents, but the parents could be reasonably argued not to be competent: if a human parent left her children alone and they were eaten by a wild animal, she would be charged with negligence. Further, the parents often die: if nothing else, if Regan accepts that we have a duty of assistance to orphaned human children, he must accept that we have a duty of assistance to orphaned animal children.

Third, animals, just like human beings, face unusual situations they are not competent to deal with. If a human’s house was destroyed in a hurricane, we would generally assist them, even if the human was normally competent to handle their own affairs. Similarly, there is a justification for disaster relief as part of our duty of beneficence.

Finally, Regan argues, even if we have a duty in an individual case– for example, a duty to save a specific wildebeest from a specific lion– we do not have a duty to wild animals more generally. We have a duty to save a child menaced by a lion, but that does not mean that advocates of children’s rights must go around killing every predatory animal lest one of them menace a child. While that is true, we would consider a society to be very negligent about children’s rights if lions were allowed to regularly wander through the streets and threaten children. Even if no individual has a responsibility to prevent lions menacing children, society as a whole does have such a duty. When there is no way for a species to eat other than to harm children, such as parasitic worms, we consider it a good thing to eradicate that species. Since there is no way for lions to eat other than to cause grave harm to other animals, it must (all things equal, setting aside practical considerations of the proper functioning of the ecosystem) be a good thing to eradicate lions.

Everett’s View

In Environmental Ethics, Animal Welfarism, and the Problem of Predation, Jennifer Everett complicates Regan’s view. She argues that our duties of beneficence exist when, as a matter of course, this assistance is necessary for the being to flourish according to its nature. Humans (including human babies) are social animals who are naturally part of societies; therefore, being assisted by other humans is a core part of humans flourishing in accordance with their nature. Conversely, the nature of wild animals is to be wild; as such, routinely providing assistance would not be conducive to wild animals flourishing according to their natures.

However, it is not the nature of all wild animals not to interact with humans. Some animals are synanthropic: that is, they live near humans and benefit from human habitats, such as houses, gardens, and garbage dumps. These species include rodents, house sparrows, pigeons, gulls, waterfowl, and even insects such as cockroaches. In many cases, these species have evolved to fill ecological niches that only exist because humans exist, such as eating our garbage. As such, it is conducive to the flourishing of a house mouse or a pigeon to receive significant benefits from humans, which implies we have a duty of assistance to those species.

Further, many animals have evolved in environments that are fundamentally shaped by human intervention. For example, many animals evolved in an environment without megafauna, because humans drove the megafauna extinct. Others evolved in environments fundamentally changed by humans, such as Scotland, which has been severely deforested for thousands of years.
While these animals mostly live independently on a day-to-day basis, the conditions of their lives are set by human intervention. For this reason, a rights-based approach would imply that we have intermediate duties of assistance to those animals. It would be unethical to transform wild areas into a sort of very large open-air zoo, but we could and should fulfill our duties of beneficence in a minimally invasive way. For example, it may be ethical to eradicate predators in these areas, to set up a long-term contraception program, or to try to prevent flooding in areas where lots of animals live.

In conclusion, advocates of Regan’s rights-based approach believes we should leave wild animals alone. However, a reasonable analysis suggests that our duties of beneficence to wild animals require that we help them, at least in certain limited cases, such as synanthropic species, disaster relief, or care for orphaned animals. In addition, if it is necessary to kill a predator to protect the prey, it does not violate the animal’s rights to do so.

On Culture War Bubbles


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Sometimes I say something like “look, you need to have a sense of proportion about culture war stuff. There are a bunch of people who are trying to make you scared and outraged and defensive about things that aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things. But your fear and outrage and defensiveness makes them seem really important. If you take a step away from it and look at the rest of the world, you’ll discover that millions of people honestly don’t care about your pet issue, or haven’t heard of it at all. And if you do that you’ll be happier, you’ll be better able to prioritize your time to deal with the more important issues, and even when you decide to engage with culture war stuff you’ll be a lot more relaxed.”

Of course, it is rather hard to take this on faith if you are currently trapped in a culture war bubble.

So. I want to point my readers to Reddit’s gender critical subreddits [cw: transphobia, read with caution if you are transgender], a central hub for trans-exclusionary feminists. This is particularly useful for my readers, because most of you guys (both social justice and anti-social-justice) tend to be fairly trans-accepting. So their particular culture war bubble is different from yours. (My apologies to my three trans-exclusionary feminist readers.)

There are a bunch of normal reactions to perusing the gender critical subreddits. For example, “I don’t think it’s very good allyship to detransitioned women to talk about how their bodies are irreversibly mutilated by testosterone.” Or “regardless of the accuracy of your statement that real lesbians don’t want to ‘have sex with penis’, I feel like you could say this in a way that doesn’t make me visualize women having sex with enormous disembodied penises.” Or “wow you people really really hate trans women. Like, a lot.”

However, a reaction I have to it very strongly is “wow, you people are really obsessed with trans people.”

At the time of writing, 12 of the 20 top posts on the subreddits are about trans people. The most popular thread on r/gendercritical, the Peak Trans thread, consists of people telling their stories about how they realized that trans activism was wrong. (Notably, there is no Peak Patriarchy thread in which they talk about how they realized that sexism still shapes women’s lives.) Even posts which aren’t originally about trans people often become about trans people, including the mind-boggling tendency to respond to articles about obstetric fistulas and sex-selective abortion with “but trans people claim these women have cis privilege!”

And, like, they’re not wrong. Trans advocacy has made tremendous progress in the past decade or so: we’ve passed local nondiscrimination acts, made it easier for people to legally change genders, improved access to transition care, raised awareness among cisgender people about the discrimination we face, and so on and so forth. Caitlyn Jenner and Chelsea Manning are in the news a lot. And inn many subcultures (the queer community, the rationalist community), it can feel like trans people are everywhere and it’s impossible to get away from us.

And yet– trans people are less than one percent of the population. Even from a trans-exclusionary perspective, it’s really implausible that trans people cause 60% of the world’s sexism. If we all worked overtime, individually causing ten times as much sexism as the average cisgender person, we’d still only be responsible for three percent.

But it can feel that way. Maybe you start out in a community with a lot of trans people, maybe you have a formative negative experience with a trans person, or maybe you just get into a lot of arguments about it on Facebook. Eventually you find yourself reading r/gendercritical, Feminist Current, and other trans-exclusive feminist websites. Naturally, these websites don’t provide you with a randomized selection of things that happened, or even of sexism-related things that happened. Every time a trans woman punches someone, or commits a crime, or says something obnoxious (or even just poorly phrased) on Twitter, you will learn about it. These websites are notably free of articles with headlines like “Crime Committed By Cisgender Woman,” “Man Punches Other Man Because He Is Drunk, It is Completely Unrelated To Trans People In Any Way,” and “Person Makes Obnoxious, Or Possibly Just Poorly Phrased, Tweet About Dog Breeding.”

Trans people might not be sixty percent of the sexism in the world, but they are sixty percent of the sexism you read about.

Every website full of culture war bullshit is like this. You read Breitbart, you find out about immigrant crime. You read Feministing, you find out about sexual assault and harassment on university campuses. You read pro-life blogs, you learn about Alfie Evans. You read anti-racist blogs, you learn about cops shooting black people.

And then because of how people work, when you ask yourself “what are the most important problems in the world?”, your brain goes through all the examples it can think of and spits out “sexual assault on college campuses” or “immigrant crime” or “censorship on college campuses” or “cops shooting black people” or “trans people” or “trans-exclusionary radical feminists.”

(I know, I know, you are so outraged to see your personal issue on that list. Don’t I know that your pet cause is actually important?)

Your brain does not spit out (for example) “macroeconomic policy in developing countries,” because unless you are a somewhat unusual person you do not read articles about developing-world macroeconomics for fun. I work for an effective altruism organization and I don’t read those articles. I open them up, make a firm resolution to read them at some point, and feeling an aura of virtue go back to reading about Catholic Twitter drama.

“How many articles have I read about this topic?” is not particularly well-correlated with “does this topic, like, matter at all?” But if you’re not careful your brain might think it is.

If you enjoy your current level of interaction with culture war bullshit and it’s not interfering with your ability to achieve your other goals, then by all means continue. I’m not the sort of hypocrite that writes articles about transness and then turns around and tells people to stop caring. But if it makes you stressed and depressed and you can’t tear yourself away because this is important, this matters, what if the misogynists or the SJWs ruin video gaming forever

Try a detox. A week, maybe two, away from culture war bullshit. Read books: I’d suggest both something that’s trashy and fun and lets you turn your brain off, and an academic work on something you find interesting. Go for walks. Bake banana bread. Call somebody you haven’t talked to in a while. Play with your kids. Play with someone else’s kids. Culture war bullshit has been going on for at least sixty years, it’s still going to be there when you get back.

Who knows? Maybe it’ll still be important after you’ve had a chance to rest and fill your brain up with examples of other things. Maybe it won’t. But I think it’s worth a test.

Conservatives As Moral Mutants


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[Related to: Three Worlds Collide; the True Prisoner’s Dilemma]

[This post has been linked by Slate Star Codex and as such will be more tightly moderated. Accusing anyone of wanting to commit genocide, kidnap children, commit murder, put people in concentration camps, etc., unless the person has specifically stated that they want to do so, will get your comment deleted. In general, I expect people to maintain a high standard of charity, intellectual honesty, and integrity. Please try to understand your opponents rather than humiliating them. Comments that fail to do so will be deleted. I am considering closing comments and will do so if the conversation gets too heated.]

According to moral foundations theory, liberals tend to primarily think about morality in terms of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity– that is, liberals tend to be primarily concerned with whether people are happy and treated equally and justly. In addition to being concerned about harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, conservatives tend to be concerned with three other moral foundations: ingroup/loyalty (sticking with people who stick with you, patriotism, self-sacrifice for the group, avoiding treachery and betrayal); authority/respect (obedience, deference to those in charge); and purity/sanctity (avoiding disgusting and contaminated things, elevating sacred things).

Of course, as with any psychological research, this may not replicate. But all the liberals I know are like “see, I told you conservatives believe in nonsensical bullshit” and all the conservatives I know are like “see, I told you liberals are literally incapable of moral reasoning,” so I suspect it’s getting at something real.

(Note that this post applies to conservatives and liberals only in the Anglosphere: people in other countries have different arrangements of moral foundations. While these are two common ways moral foundations are arranged, many people have their own unusual arrangements. Some liberals still use loyalty, purity, and authority foundations but care about them less than the primary liberal foundations. In addition, some conservatives only have the “liberal” moral foundations, and some liberals use the “conservative” moral foundations: for example, liberal opposition to GMOs is likely rooted in a purity foundation. However, I am happy to declare that the relevant conservatives are on My Side, and that the people who hate GMOs are not.)

Many of the centrists I know seem to take this as a reason that liberals ought to change our values. This is most prominent in Jonathan Haidt’s the Righteous Mind, which argues that we harm/care and fairness/reciprocity people need to expand our moral foundations in order to include all five. (This is a pretty good summary of his argument, for people who haven’t read the book.) I strongly disagree.

As an analogy, consider aesthetics. One could very reasonably make the case that the natural human aesthetic sense prefers realistic paintings of beautiful landscapes with water, trees, large animals, beautiful women, children, and well-known historical figures. The Wikipedia page provides an example of a generally preferred image:

However, art of this sort leaves me cold. The art I find most heartbreakingly, exquisitely beautiful looks like this:

The first time I saw it, Joan Miro’s The Birth of the World moved me to tears from its sheer beauty. I make a special effort to visit it every time I am in New York City, including taking my husband to see it on our honeymoon so he could understand my aesthetics better. (Unfortunately, the picture doesn’t capture it; the painting is much more beautiful in person.)

Needless to say, my aesthetics don’t line up with normal human aesthetics very well at all. Does this mean I should try to shift my aesthetics to correspond to what normal humans value? Is there, perhaps, some deep evolutionary wisdom I am missing in why trees are prettier than abstract shades of grey? Of course not. I like what I like; the things that give me pleasure are the things that give me pleasure. It is irrelevant that this is an unpopular human preference. And while evolution did give me my aesthetic sense in the first place, its purpose in doing so was maximizing my number of grandchildren, which is not a metric I particularly care about.

Similarly, I value the things that I value. I don’t want to change myself so I value different things, because then I would waste resources on things I do not currently value. I am not going to sacrifice my own moral sense because other people do morality differently, any more than I’m going to decorate my house with a painting of a nice landscape because other people do aesthetics differently. (This is the Gryffindor Primary in me.)

Of course, from a conservative perspective, I am an incomprehensible moral mutant. I can put myself in their shoes. When I read writing by a person who only has the fairness/reciprocity intuition, I seethe with anger; I imagine a conservative feels the same when I say “from a moral perspective, an American is worth no more than an African.” From their perspective, I don’t simply have different values, I actively rejoice in evil. I tell cute childhood stories about replacing “Respect Authority” with “Question Authority” in the Girl Scout Law. I urge people with all the eloquence I can muster not to prioritize their ingroups over other groups of people. I talk about the beauty of Serrano’s Piss Christ; my strongest criticism is that I feel it’s bad form to court controversy when your art cannot stand on its own. I imagine someone actively rejoicing in denying a person a fair trial because they deserve to be in prison– not just accepting this as a grim reality, but thinking it is good and right and virtuous– and I shudder. They must feel similarly about me.

However, from my perspective, conservatives are perfectly willing to sacrifice things that actually matter in the world– justice, equality, happiness, an end to suffering– in order to suck up to unjust authority or help the wealthy and undeserving or keep people from having sex lives they think are gross.

There’s some conflict here.

Conservatives and liberals fundamentally cannot both get what they want. A society that is pleasing to conservatives will, from a liberal perspective, hurt vulnerable people for no reason other than the country they were born in or their interest in things other people find disgusting. A society that is pleasing to liberals will, from a conservative perspective, have three-fifths of ethics only present by sheer coincidence.

There is, I feel, opportunity for compromise. An outright war would be unpleasant for everyone. Conservatives do care about what liberals care about, even if they care about other things. From a harm/care perspective, you don’t want to do things that hurt other people, as long as they’re not excessively burdensome: from the liberal-values perspective, you should avoid drawing Mohammad or desecrating the Eucharist, although you are under no obligation to ensure your sex life is appealing to others.

And yet, fundamentally… it’s not true that conservatives as a group are working for the same goals as I am but simply have different ideas of how to pursue it. It’s not true that conservatives simply think that lowering taxes will stimulate the economy or that economic growth works better than foreign aid to help the global poor or that, as regrettable as it is for gay couples who long for children, children will be severely traumatized unless they are raised by heterosexuals. I would certainly prefer it to be that way. I want to have respect for all belief systems; I want to believe we’re all working for the same goals but simply disagree on certain facts.

But my read of the psychological evidence is that, from my value system, about half the country is evil and it is in my self-interest to shame the expression of their values, indoctrinate their children, and work for a future where their values are no longer represented on this Earth.

So it goes.

Effective Altruists Should, In General, Marry the EA-Sympathetic



In some recent discussions of values drift, it was noted that, anecdotally, one of the major causes of people not having as large an altruistic impact as they had hoped is people marrying or getting into committed relationships with people who are, at best, apathetic about effective altruism. Some people pushed back against advising effective altruists to marry people who share their values, on the grounds that it “seems culty.”

If that’s true, lots of people are culty. Evangelical Christians warn regularly about the dangers of being unequally yoked. Catholics aren’t even allowed to marry non-Catholics without a special dispensation. Interfaith marriage is also limited in Islam. It’s not just religions: “if he’s not a feminist, dump him” is a common subject of feminist thinkpieces. And whenever I go on OKCupid I find myself surrounded by people who only want to date anti-capitalist anti-colonialist anarchists who want to smash the patriarchy with gay sex.

Indeed, for any major life plan, it’s important to make sure that your potential primary or primaries are on board. If you want to have children, you should not marry someone who is childfree, or even uninterested in children. If you want to travel the world, marry someone who loves to travel. If you want to become an artist, marry someone who is going to rejoice at your gallery opening and not mind too much if they have to pay all the bills. If you want to retire at forty, marry someone who gets a kick out of figuring out how to save money.

Let’s say you have a goal to donate thirty percent of your income to charity. You marry someone who doesn’t care about effective altruism. As part of your marriage, you merge your finances. Maybe your spouse will tolerate this as a quirk of yours for a few years. But at some point they’re going to say “you know, if you didn’t donate that thirty percent of your income, we could buy a house.” Or “going on a vacation to Hawaii has been my dream for my entire life.” Or “our son is getting bullied in public school, and we could afford private school if you stopped donating. Do you want him to be bullied?”

Maybe your goal is to do direct work. If you’re like many effective altruists, you might be giving up tens of thousands of dollars in potential income to do direct work. Is your plan that your spouse is not going to, like, notice?

Maybe you have some really ambitious goal: you want to found your own charity, or completely reorient your career so you can work on AI risk, or run for office. Do you want to be married to someone who says “yes, absolutely, I’m 100% behind you– I understand that there are sacrifices and I am willing to make them by your side”? Or do you want to be married to someone who says “ever since you founded that stupid charity I never see you anymore” or “why can’t you just work a normal job”?

As the cliche goes, you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time around. Some people, maybe, can maintain an altruistic motivation without the encouragement of the most important person in their lives and while sometimes having to debate it with them. But why make yourself do that?

There’s an idea that you should marry someone you’re in love with, who gives you butterflies in your stomach and hearts in your eyes, and not really worry about compatibility. Thinking about finances and life goals is unromantic.  All those issues will work themselves out because love conquers all.

This idea is really really stupid.

It might be easier for me to notice that, because I’m polyamorous. I already have a category for “person who gives me heart-eyes and stomach-butterflies but with whom I have deep incompatibilities about dreams and goals and values.” That category is “secondary.” Perhaps it is more difficult for monogamous people.

But I do think we should, in general, cultivate an appreciation of the romance in a person who has your back, who will lift you up when you fall and celebrate with you when you succeed, who understands the stupid quixotic goal you’ve committed your life to. The person who makes you a better person because when you’re uncertain of whether you’re willing to make a sacrifice they encourage you and because when you think about doing something wrong you imagine the look of disappointment in their eyes.

Of course, being married to a supportive person isn’t the same thing as being married to an effective altruist. Indeed, because a plurality of the effective altruist community is heterosexual men, it is impossible for every effective altruist to be in a romantic-sexual relationship with another effective altruist.

Effective altruists who are concerned about animals should try to find dates within the vegan community, which is predominantly female and also has a heavy LGBTQ presence. Many religions have more female adherents than male, and many consider charity to be a moral duty, whether it’s zakat, tikkun olam, or the preferential option for the poor. (Of course, it’s important to filter heavily for people whose beliefs you can respect, who actually follow their religion’s teachings about charity, and who are willing to prioritize effectiveness at least somewhat.) Some effective altruists might also be interested in a platonic primary partnership with other effective altruists: you don’t have to have a romantic-sexual relationship to have many of the benefits of having a life partner.

Man Should Allocate Some More Categories



My friend M. Taylor Saotame-Westlake wrote a blog post during my parental leave from this blog, in which he disagrees with Scott Alexander’s The Categories Were Made For Man Not Man For The Categories and in true dialectical fashion I am disagreeing with both of them.

No one wants to read two long blog posts about the epistemology of transness before they can read my blog post, so let’s sum up the argument so far. Scott argues that categorizations don’t come from the Big Dictionary Up In The Sky: they’re justified based on usefulness. For example, a whale is not a fish to a biologist, because whales are more closely related to other mammals like humans. But a whale is totally a fish to King Solomon, because King Solomon mostly cares about whether a whale is in the ocean or on land. Neither definition is strictly speaking “wrong”: it just depends on whether you’re talking about evolution or planning a hunting trip.

Scott then extends this argument to apply to trans people. Trans men may not be male in a certain biological sense, because they don’t produce small gametes and usually produce large gametes. However, it makes trans men happy to be called men, so we might as well classify them as men.

Taylor points out that there are totally shenanigans going on here. There are two different senses of the word “useful.” Calling a whale a fish is useful in the sense that it captures a group of creatures that share certain traits in common, such as swimming and typically having an aquatic habitat and being the sort of thing you would use a boat to hunt. Calling a trans man a man is useful in the sense that it makes him happy.

You can perfectly well agree that definitions aren’t objectively true and we should use the one that is most useful in the first sense, without agreeing that we should use the one that is most useful in the second sense. For example, if there exists a person who has read entirely too much Strunk and White and insists that “flammable” should mean “not capable of being lit on fire,” they may feel very strongly about this, but I am going to ignore their opinion and instead use it to mean “capable of being lit on fire.” I do not want to hold my language use hostage to every pedant with an opinion.

Now, there are several perfectly good definitions of the word “man” which Taylor and I agree on. First, there is the biological definition, a human who produces small gametes. (Since humans are not yet a sequentially hermaphroditic species, we also use “man” to refer to people who produced small gametes in the past or are going to produce small gametes in the future.) This definition is useful for writing scientific papers and speculating about evolutionary history.

Second, “man” can refer to a particular cluster: people who have XY chromosomes, penises, the ability to grow a beard, testosterone-dominant hormone systems, no breasts, no ability to get pregnant, the capacity to impregnate others, etc. This is a cluster: for example, some (cisgender, non-intersex) men have breasts, can’t grow beards, are infertile, or lost their penises during World War I. This definition is useful for a variety of reasons, ranging from predicting who needs prenatal care to deciding who is likely to empathize with the horrors of the female reproductive system.

By this definition, while some trans people are clearly in one cluster or another, any trans person who has biomedically transitioned is in between. For example, a trans man who has biomedically transitioned can’t get prostate cancer, but is as likely as a cisgender man to go bald.

Saotome-Westlake argues for the existence of a third definition, based on psychology. He argues that (some) trans people are psychologically different from cisgender members of their identified genders: if you graph, say, how likely cisgender women are to be members of the rationalist community, and how likely transgender women are to be members of the rationalist community, these charts will not look very much like each other at all. Therefore, it makes sense to consider trans people to be members of their assigned gender at birth for some purposes.

I’m not going to argue with the claim that trans people are unusual psychologically; it would be silly to do so. However, I note that transgender people are also not particularly similar to their assigned genders at birth. To pick an easily observable example, trans men are vastly overrepresented in gender studies departments, slash fiction writing communities, and lesbian events, while trans women are vastly overrepresented in esports, computer science, and lesbian events. Conversely, as far as I can tell, there has yet to be a single transgender NFL football player, while statistically there ought to be five currently playing.

So by Saotome-Westlake’s argument, any group of women whose interests and personality traits, on average, observably differ from that of women as a whole ought to be classified as not actually women at all.

By extension, lesbians are not women.

OKTrends's list of lesbian interests

Source. Sorry, lesbians, you really should have thought of this before you decided to be so obsessed with the L Word.

Autistic women also are on thin ice.

List of common autistic female traits.


And what about horny women? Sex drive is one of the best-attested differences between men and women. Of course, we wouldn’t want to mis-classify anyone, so let’s make the rules as strict as possible: if you’re a woman and you jerk off to visual porn, enjoy casual sex, have had sex with a stranger, and want sex five to six times a week, you will have to go by “he” pronouns from now on. You may pick up your testosterone shot by the door.

Of course, “is this person from a group the distribution of whose personality traits is identical to that of women as a whole?” is not actually the criterion anybody actually uses to classify whether someone is male or female. That is why there is a general consensus that lesbians, autistic women, and horny women are in fact women.

Nor are the problems that Saotame-Westlake identifies best solved through creating this category. In fact, both are solved by allocating new categories:

He quotes a female member of a rationalist community:

There have been “all women” things, like clothing swaps or groups, that then pre-transitioned trans women show up to. And it’s hard, because it’s weird and uncomfortable once three or four participants of twelve are trans women. I think the reality that’s happening is women are having those spaces less—instead doing private things “for friends,” with specific invite lists that are implicitly understood not to include men or trans women. This sucks because then we can’t include women who aren’t already in our social circle, and we all know it but no one wants to say it.

I observe that I have never been invited to any all-female rationalist events.

This is a good thing! On pretty much every conceivable axis, I would be a terrible person to invite to your all-female event. I am attracted to women, so there wouldn’t be the comfort of knowing no one here is sexually attracted to anyone else. I don’t know anything about fashion or makeup. I find many female social bonding rituals somewhere between offensive and incomprehensible. I would be very irritated at being invited.

“That’s not fair, Ozy,” you might say, “you’re transgender, they wouldn’t invite you!”

So consider my friend theunitofcaring, who has graciously agreed to be a cis female example of a person you should not invite to your female-only event.

Once again, she is attracted to women. She does not care about most stereotypically female interests. She finds many social bonding rituals somewhere between offensive and incomprehensible. She has a personality that is different from the stereotypical woman on many axes, and for this reason finds women-only spaces unwelcoming and unpleasant. And, yes, she would be very irritated at being invited.

She has also never received an invite to any of these events!

So far, the organizers are 2/2 in terms of never inviting people they shouldn’t invite. This is a pretty good track record and they should be proud of it. However, if they replaced it with a cis-woman-only system, or a people-who-produce-large-gametes-only system, or whatever, they would invite me or theunitofcaring. The best-case scenario is that we would be irritated and not go. The worst case scenario is that we would be confused what sort of event you were running, show up with the intent to swap clothes, and ruin your event.

The actual category they should be using is not “cis women.” The actual category they should be using is “people who would be contribute to the atmosphere you made this a woman-only event for.”

You might argue that there are not that many cisgender female outliers. Well, let’s assume for the sake of argument that all psychological differences between men and women are correlated into a general factor of Psychological Femaleness. If the Cohen’s d effect size is 1 (commonly glossed as “large”), a full 24% of women will have less psychological femaleness than the average man, which means that 98.67% of your problem is a cisgender female problem.

Or you might argue that that’s all very well if your community is 0.3% trans women, but if ten percent of the people in your community are transgender then that’s a different story. Of course, if your community is full of trans women, it is probably attractive to unusual women in general, and you should expect lots of cisgender outliers as well.

[NOTE: Upon request, the second quote has been removed. If you are interested in reading what I am replying to, please go here and control-F “another (cis) female friend of the blog.” I have also been informed that the person who provided this quote does not identify as a cis woman.]

I do not understand the relationship between this and psychological gender differences. It seems quite obvious that the relevant category here is “people who look like the vast majority of street harassers” versus “people who do not look like the vast majority of street harassers.” The former group uncontroversially includes some trans women (closeted trans women) and some trans men (Buck Angel) and has nothing to do with psychology anyway. No matter how female-typical a trans man’s psychology is, if he has muscles like Chris Hemsworth and a beard like a lumberjack, he belongs in the men’s room.

Indeed, I would argue, there are many cis men in the former category. Even today, and much more so in the past, men’s bathrooms are not equipped with changing tables for babies. When in such a poorly-designed bathroom, some fathers will go into the women’s bathroom and use the changing table there. While obviously we should put changing tables in the men’s bathroom, I think that this use does not erode the protection women’s bathrooms have against harassers. Harassers do not carry around babies in order to have plausible deniability in the event that the woman they are harassing enters a woman’s bathroom at the same time the baby happens to poop.

Similarly, early-transition trans women can be placed into the former category. In our culture, it is generally very stigmatized for men to wear dresses, skirts, makeup, and other signifiers of womanhood. In particular, catcallers and sexist harassers essentially never do: if you’re a catcaller or a sexist harasser, it is probably because you are invested in a particular style of masculinity that is completely incompatible with wearing a skirt. Therefore, allowing all dress-wearing people to use the women’s bathroom has minimal risk of allowing catcallers in. In the event that men wearing dresses and makeup is completely destigmatized to the point that even sexist assholes do so, I am happy to reexamine this statement.

In fact, because of the usefulness of female clothing as a signifier of transness, there is far more danger to norms from early-transition trans men and some butch and gender-non-conforming cis women using the women’s bathroom. If followed to its logical conclusion, this argument suggests that some cis women should be using the men’s room. If strangers regularly refer to you as “sir’, then you may resemble a street harasser or a catcaller far more closely than the average early-transition trans woman, and according to the premises of this argument should use the men’s room. It’s true that cis women in the men’s room might be harassed, no matter their gender presentation, but trans women in the men’s room might be harassed too.

This is not, of course, what I believe. While public bathrooms as refuge from harassment is an important purpose, more important is the primary purpose of public bathrooms, that is, a place to pee. Every person should have the ability to use the bathroom in public. Many trans people and some cis people (both assigned male at birth and assigned female at birth) are not read consistently as male or as female. People who harass and assault other people are far more likely to use the men’s room than the women’s room– that is the point of this entire discussion. If the choices are (a) never pee in public at all, (b) pee in a place where you run a moderate chance of being harassed or assaulted, or (c) slightly erode the norm that people who resemble sexual harassers should not use the women’s bathroom, I think (c) is the only ethical choice.

Finally, I would like to discuss the category I think we should allocate that would make all the discussion of transness much clearer.

Think about money. What do Bitcoin, gold, the little pieces of paper you get from the US government, and cigarettes in a prison have in common? What is the thing that makes all four of those things– all seemingly very different– money?

The answer is that everyone agrees that they’re money. Because everyone agrees that they’re money, you expect that you will be able to exchange them for valuable things in the future. You have an incentive to accumulate cigarettes, gold, or dollar bills even if you don’t smoke, have no interest in making jewelry, and already have perfectly good toilet paper.

I don’t mean to imply that there is no fact of the matter about whether things are money. Clearly there is. Dollar bills are money; Beanie Babies are not. It just happens that the reason that dollar bills are money is that everyone agrees they are money.

I also don’t mean to imply that the definition of money is “things we agree upon to be money.” That would be circular. The definition of money is “any item or verifiable record that is generally accepted as payment for goods and services and repayment of debts in a particular country or socio-economic context.”

Social gender is like money. For example, some cultures have more than two social genders, because everyone agrees that more than two social genders exist.

Social gender is distinct from sex: no cultures have more than two sexes because they decided they did. Social gender is distinct from gender presentation: if you meet a woman with a shaved head and a fondness for cars who has cried twice in her entire life, you will not experience the slightest confusion about whether she’s a woman.

Social gender is useful for prediction. Here are some things you can predict about a person based on their social gender:

  • Pronouns
  • Which gendered terms (“husband”, “groom”, “father”) they use
  • Which gendered insults are used against them
  • Which gendered holidays (Mother’s Day, Father’s Day) they celebrate
  • Whether they wear dresses, skirts, or makeup
  • How vicious the harassment they receive is, if they are Internet famous
  • Whether people feel comfortable letting them hold their baby
  • Whether they experience street harassment
  • How many messages they get on a dating site
  • Whether people expect them to know how to cook, clean, lift heavy things, or fix cars
  • How likely they are to be considered a “slut” if they have lots of casual sex
  • Whether they change their name upon getting married
  • Whether they are expected to make career sacrifices to take care of their children

And so on and so forth.

Returning to the money example: if a person says that fiat currency isn’t real money, what do they mean? Obviously, they aren’t saying that you can’t exchange fiat currency for goods and services: taking them to the local WalMart will not change their opinion. Our goldbug friend isn’t suggesting that fiat currently isn’t money; they’re suggesting that it shouldn’t be money. They think that everyone should stop agreeing that fiat currency is money, and instead agree that only gold is money. It’s not a definition of what is money; it’s a criterion for what should be considered money.

Similarly, “you’re a woman if you identify as a woman!” is not a definition of womanhood. It is a criterion for who should be a woman. It states that our social genders should be fully consensual: that is, if a person says “I would like to be put in the ‘woman’ category now,” you do that. Right now, this criterion is not broadly applied: a trans person’s social gender generally depends on their presentation, their secondary sexual characteristics, and how much the cis people around them are paying attention. But perhaps it would improve things if it were.

Since it is not, properly speaking, a definition, the decision of who should be socially gendered male or female, and how many social genders we should have is not an epistemic decision. This decision can and should be made on purely utilitarian grounds.