Mens Rea

First piece of context: I just binge-watched the first season of The Good Place. It is excellent, and since it’s weirdly anchored in moral philosophy (this is a sitcom that references Kant, uses the word consequentialism as a punchline, and calls its episodes things like “The Trolley Problem”) it was right up my alley. This of course means that a warning is in order: spoilers for the first season of The Good Place ahead. I haven’t seen the second yet since it’s not on Netflix.

Second piece of context: this TED talk that I ran across on Facebook recently.

It’s a great talk with a lot of interesting ideas, but a couple of lines in particular stood out to me because I just found them so… incomprehensible.

Sure, she’s dating down, she’s sleeping with a knucklehead, but it’s not like she’s going to marry the guy.

and

Dating in my 20s was like musical chairs. Everybody was running around and having fun.

Do people actually think like this? Does this phrase fit in the worldview of a normal person? Am I really that unusual in my perspective that I find this a little weird?

Now, it’s easy to assume my objections here are along the lines of “traditional Christian morality”, prudishness around sex, and a very marriage-is-the-only-permissible-outcome kind of approach. But that’s not the case. I have no problem with sex as a recreational activity, with no expectations of commitment or marriage. My problem is with the confusion of the two that is evident in these two quotes.

If you sit down with any of these people and ask them what they’re aiming for, do they have an answer? Do they even know if they want their relationship to lead to a long commitment or if it’s just for fun?

It’s fine if you’re just looking for fun, and that’s clear and everyone involved is aware. The opposite is also fine, if you’re looking for something long-term and serious. The thing that boggles my mind is that so many people don’t really seem to know?! Oh, it’s fun for now, and maybe it’ll become serious later? Maybe we’ll get married if we’re still together when I turn thirty? I really don’t get it.

Let’s bring this back around to The Good Place, and specifically motivation, which is where my mind originally started (thus the title) and is a topic that TGP deals with extensively. It is sometimes hard to know your own motivation for things; after all, most of our conscious thought is retroactive story-telling justification rather than actual forward-thinking decision-making. In this way I identify very strongly with Chidi (William Jackson Harper), the indecisive ethics professor who acts as “moral support” (how has nobody made that joke yet?) for protagonist Eleanor (Kristen Bell).

In that sense it maybe isn’t so surprising that people just don’t know what they’re looking for. As somebody who spends an inordinate amount of time worrying (for those who care the experiment was a flop and only survived about a day) about my own motivation for certain decisions and the various ethical implications there-in, this is something I am particularly attuned to and I still have no idea half the time.

But (again per the title) motivation is a critical part of what makes many actions ethical or not, in a common practical sense. Yes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and a pure consequentialist is free to disregard motivation entirely, but pragmatically it makes a huge difference. There’s a reason it’s a key part of law, and law is basically just a higher-order abstraction on ethics. Breaking somebody’s heart? Bad, but sometimes unavoidable. Breaking somebody’s heart on purpose? Legitimately evil.

If you’ve read this far, and maybe you’ve read my previous posts (1, 2, 3) on related topics, the theme that is finally standing out for me (hindsight is wonderful) is the following underlying question:

Is it possible to have an ethically sound romantic or sexual relationship?

Most people instinctively say yes, of course. I can’t disagree with the obvious conclusion without sounding crazy, but sometimes I wonder.

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Nostalgia For Ye Olde Days

In post-war America, everything was clearly magical. Everyone was happy. The future was bright. Coca Cola cost a nickel. In particular, this was an era of perfect romance: it was the golden age of the Hollywood movie-musical. From Meet Me in St. Louis to Singin’ in the Rain, the formula for love had never been so simple.

The truth is, of course, not so simple, but I’m not really here to talk about that. What I want to talk about is the idea that the formula for love really was simpler (in a sense) back then. Bear with me.

At its core a romantic relationship needs two things to (metaphorically) catch fire: a spark, and fuel. The spark can be any kind of social interaction, any chance encounter, any glance across a room. It’s just one of those weird things about human social behaviour that’s intensely hard to predict individually but is easy to talk about in aggregate. The fuel is a little easier to pin down: shared interests, shared beliefs, a shared worldview. Something to build a relationship upon. This is over-simplified of course, but hopefully fairly uncontroversial.

In post-war America, there were, potentially, a few more sparks than today. Sparks rarely happen when you’re looking down at your phone. Social mixers are less common in the age of Netflix. Still, plenty of opportunities to spark do exist today, so all is not lost.

However, in post-war America, there was way more fuel.

Not only did the pressures of the war drive people together, but it was an age of cultural homogeneity for other reasons as well. New media existed (radio, film, tv, etc) but not in diversity. Everybody read the same news. Everybody watched the same movies. The entire freaking continent tuned in to I Love Lucy on Monday evenings. And those new neighbours you hadn’t met yet? They were almost certainly the same general religion as you, and chances are they were the same denomination too. In short: the odds that you had something in common with that cute guy/girl across the dance floor were actually pretty good. Today though, one of you is a vegan Hindu who likes documentaries and yoga, and the other is a meat-eating Catholic who’s into video games and obscure science fiction.

The modern age does sort of offer a solution to this problem of course. Your “tribes” may not be physically local anymore, but they’re still connected via the internet. Facebook and memes and super-specialized message boards and conventions all keep our various tribes intact and allow this diversity to flourish, no matter the geographic distance involved. Unfortunately, attraction is still a very physical response. Sparks can happen over the internet, but they are rare. The net effect is that while sparks and fuel are both still in supply today, modern technology has… separated them. Fuel is primarily online, and sparks in person, and never the twain shall meet.

“But wait”! I hear you say. “Isn’t online dating a thing”? It is! How perspicacious!

Online dating seems ideal; you fill out a form and let computers sort through the mountains of people in your region to find those with the appropriate “compatibility” (fuel), and then you go and meet them in person, and voila! Reality is somewhat unforgiving of this hypothesis though. For whatever reason, sparks are mostly a function of spontaneity, and they rarely happen in a one-on-one setting. Going on a deliberate coffee date with somebody you met online has to be the world’s worst possible approach for generating that initial spark, no matter how much fuel is present.

I think like an engineer (I can’t say I am an engineer or else real engineers will hunt me down and sue me) so I have come up with a couple of ridiculous solutions to these problems. Among other even more terrible ideas:

  • An “offline dating form” for people to fill out when there you spark with someone in real life. It doesn’t actually increase the likelihood of a successful match, but at least it avoids wasting time on a couple of dates until you figure out that you’re just not compatible.
  • Blinded online/offline mixers. A dating company holds an invite-only real-life party for groups of its users, with the guarantee that most of the people there will be people you match with really well.

Am I done with this rambly rant? No, I am not. The other dimension I have mostly glossed over so far is the fact that in ye olden days, everybody in your social group was looking for basically the same kind of relationship. Marriage, dog, 2.49 kids, white picket fence, whatever. Today we are much more liberal: you can have whatever kind of relationship you want as long as it’s consensual; you just have to agree on it first.

In a way this just kinda falls under fuel: yet another point of compatibility to consider when filling out the form. But it’s also special, because it’s super-hard to talk about and there’s tons of room for confusion. I don’t have a problem telling a date I’m an atheist, and it’s the sort of thing that might come up in a first-date conversation. If they’re not into that, oh well, moving on. Kids though? Who talks about kids on a first date? But it’s important. Most people feel pretty strongly about it one way or the other, and if you realize six months in that you feel differently, well then… oops?

Even worse, there are so many shades of grey in this that it’s easy to fall into a relationship and not even realize that you’re in different places. Love is a ridiculously overcomplicated word. Rothfuss says it better than I ever will:

Here’s the thing, I’m not a fan of LOVE as a singular concept. It’s a ridiculously broad term that can be applied to pets, sex partners, or Oreos. When a word accretes that many definitions, it becomes virtually nonsensical.

In that second link above, Rothfuss splits “love” into five or arguably six concepts (philos, eros, agape, storge, eleutheria, romance). These are useful distinctions with compelling definitions, but they blend into one another. Where does agape end and romance begin? What about eros, isn’t that kind of a component of the others sometimes? Word definitions are fuzzy abstractions to begin with and language is socially negotiated. When someone says “I love you”, chances are they don’t even know exactly which mix of love-concepts they really mean, and god help anybody else trying to come up with a correct interpretation. It’s kind of a crap-shoot, and not a necessarily a particularly ethical one.

All of this leaves us where exactly? I don’t really know. Clearly, I think too much. I started this thing talking about musicals, so I’ll end it with one too. If you’re looking for love out there in 2017… good luck?

Worrying

On Sunday evening, I sat down and wrote a thousand words on this blog baring my soul, confessing my deepest secrets and revealing at least two deeply personal things that I’d never told anyone before. As you may deduce by the fact that you haven’t read it: I never hit “publish”. In hindsight, at least some of it was a tad melodramatic, a sin of which I am more than occasionally guilty. But the essence was right.

Now, of course, I’m sitting here two days later writing a very confusing meta-post about something that none of you have read, or likely ever will. You’re welcome. Really, as the title would suggest, I want to talk about worry, since I think it was the thread that underlies my unpublished post.

I worry a lot (this is a stunning revelation to anyone who knows me in real life, I’m sure).

There are of course a lot of posts on the internet already about dealing with worry. I don’t want to talk about that, even though I could probably do to read a few more of them myself. Instead, I want to ramble for a while about the way that worries change our behaviour to create or prevent the things we worry about. This is the weird predictive causal loop of the human brain, so it should be fun.

First off, some evolutionary psychology, because that always goes well. From a strictly adaptive perspective, we would expect that worry would help us avoid the things we worry about, and indeed the mechanism here is pretty obvious. When we worry, it makes us turn something over in our head, looking for solutions, exploring alternatives. Perhaps we stumble upon an option we hadn’t considered, or we realize some underlying cause that lets us avoid the worry-inducing problem altogether. The people who worry like this have some advantage over the ones who don’t.

But of course, nothing is ever perfectly adaptive. The easy one is the immediate mental cost of worrying; worrying about tigers is less than helpful if in doing so you distractedly walk off a cliff. The slightly more subtle concern is the fact that we don’t always worry about the right things. Every time we choose to worry about some future event we are inherently making a prediction, that the event is probable enough and harmful enough to be worth worrying over. But humans make crappy predictions all the time. It’s an easy guarantee that some of the things people worry about just aren’t worth the extra mental effort.

These mis-worries still affect our behaviour though. We turn scenarios over in our mind, however unlikely or harmless, and we come up with solutions. We make changes to our behaviour, to our worldview. We make choices which would otherwise be suboptimal. Sometimes, in doing so, we create more problems for us to worry about. These things are sometimes bad, but even they are not the worst of what worrying can do to us.

The most terrible worries are the meta-worries: worries about our own emotional state. If you start to worry that maybe you’re emotionally fragile, then you’ve suddenly just proved yourself right! The constant worry over your emotional fragility has made you fragile, and reinforced itself at the same time. These worries aren’t just maladaptive, they’re also positive feedback loops which can rapidly spiral out of control.

With all of these terrible things that can come from mis-worry, we can make bad, hand-wavy assumptions that historically at least, worry has been more adaptive than not, else we wouldn’t have it. But certainly in the modern age, there is a plausible argument that worry is doing us far more harm than good. Instead of worrying about tigers, and cliffs, and what we’re going to eat tomorrow, we worry about sports teams, taxes, and nuclear war with North Korea. (If you’re me, you worry about all of the above, tigers included, and you also worry about that girl you think is cute and you meta-worry about all your worries and then you worry over how to stop meta-worrying and then your head explodes).

For about three years now I’ve been actively fighting my mis-worries (aka my anxieties) kind of one at a time, as I realized they were hurting me. This has involved regular visits to a therapist during some periods, and has been a generally successful endeavour. Despite this, I am not where I want to be, and in some respects my meta-anxieties have actually grown. So in the grand tradition of doing bad science to yourself in order to avoid ethics boards, I am going to do an experiment. The details are secret. Let’s see how it goes.

Classifying Disagreements

Like anything else, disagreements and arguments can be broken down into their atomic components. There are three elements in the periodic table of disagreements.

Disagreements over Facts: The sky is blue. The sky is not blue.

Disagreements over Values: Freedom is more important than happiness. Happiness is more important than freedom.

Disagreements over Language: If a tree falls in the forest, it makes a sound. If a tree falls in the forest, it does not make a sound.