nothing is mere

Is ‘consciousness’ simple? Is it ancient?

 

Assigning less than 5% probability to ‘cows are moral patients’ strikes me as really overconfident. Ditto, assigning greater than 95% probability. (A moral patient is something that can be harmed or benefited in morally important ways, though it may not be accountable for its actions in the way a moral agent is.)

I’m curious how confident others are, and I’m curious about the most extreme confidence levels they’d consider ‘reasonable’.

I also want to hear more about what theories and backgrounds inform people’s views. I’ve seen some relatively extreme views defended recently, and the guiding intuitions seem to have come from two sources:


 

(1) How complicated is consciousness? In the space of possible minds, how narrow a target is consciousness?

Humans seem to be able to have very diverse experiences — dreams, orgasms, drug-induced states — that they can remember in some detail, and at least appear to be conscious during. That’s some evidence that consciousness is robust to modification and can take many forms. So, perhaps, we can expect a broad spectrum of animals to be conscious.

But what would our experience look like if it were fragile and easily disrupted? There would probably still be edge cases. And, from inside our heads, it would look like we had amazingly varied possibilities for experience — because we couldn’t use anything but our own experience as a baseline. It certainly doesn’t look like a human brain on LSD differs as much from a normal human brain as a turkey brain differs from a human brain.

There’s some risk that we’re overestimating how robust consciousness is, because when we stumble on one of the many ways to make a human brain unconscious, we (for obvious reasons) don’t notice it as much. Drastic changes in unconscious neurochemistry interest us a lot less than minor tweaks to conscious neurochemistry.

And there’s a further risk that we’ll underestimate the complexity of consciousness because we’re overly inclined to trust our introspection and to take our experience at face value. Even if our introspection is reliable in some domains, it has no access to most of the necessary conditions for experience. So long as they lie outside our awareness, we’re likely to underestimate how parochial and contingent our consciousness is.


 

(2) How quick are you to infer consciousness from ‘intelligent’ behavior?

People are pretty quick to anthropomorphize superficially human behaviors, and our use of mental / intentional language doesn’t clearly distinguish between phenomenal consciousness and behavioral intelligence. But if you work on AI, and have an intuition that a huge variety of systems can act ‘intelligently’, you may doubt that the linkage between human-style consciousness and intelligence is all that strong. If you think it’s easy to build a robot that passes various Turing tests without having full-fledged first-person experience, you’ll also probably (for much the same reason) expect a lot of non-human species to arrive at strategies for intelligently planning, generalizing, exploring, etc. without invoking consciousness. (Especially if your answer to question 1 is ‘consciousness is very complex’. Evolution won’t put in the effort to make a brain conscious unless it’s extremely necessary for some reproductive advantage.)

… But presumably there’s some intelligent behavior that was easier for a more-conscious brain than for a less-conscious one — at least in our evolutionary lineage, if not in all possible lineages that reproduce our level of intelligence. We don’t know what cognitive tasks forced our ancestors to evolve-toward-consciousness-or-perish. At the outset, there’s no special reason to expect that task to be one that only arose for proto-humans in the last few million years.

Even if we accept that the machinery underlying human consciousness is very complex, that complex machinery could just as easily have evolved hundreds of millions of years ago, rather than tens of millions. We’d then expect it to be preserved in many nonhuman lineages, not just in humans. Since consciousness-of-pain is mostly what matters for animal welfare (not, e.g., consciousness-of-complicated-social-abstractions), we should look into hypotheses like:

first-person consciousness is an adaptation that allowed early brains to represent simple policies/strategies and visualize plan-contingent sensory experiences.

Do we have a specific cognitive reason to think that something about ‘having a point of view’ is much more evolutionarily necessary for human-style language or theory of mind than for mentally comparing action sequences or anticipating/hypothesizing future pain? If not, the data of ethology plus ‘consciousness is complicated’ gives us little reason to favor the one view over the other.

We have relatively direct positive data showing we’re conscious, but we have no negative data showing that, e.g., salmon aren’t conscious. It’s not as though we’d expect them to start talking or building skyscrapers if they were capable of experiencing suffering — at least, any theory that predicts as much has some work to do to explain the connection. At present, it’s far from obvious that the world would look any different than it does even if all vertebrates were conscious.

So… the arguments are a mess, and I honestly have no idea whether cows can suffer. The probability seems large enough to justify ‘don’t torture cows (including via factory farms)’, but that’s a pretty low bar, and doesn’t narrow the probability down much.

To the extent I currently have a favorite position, it’s something like: ‘I’m pretty sure cows are unconscious on any simple, strict, nondisjunctive definition of “consciousness;” but what humans care about is complicated, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of ‘unconscious’ information-processing systems end up being counted as ‘moral patients’ by a more enlightened age. … But that’s a pretty weird view of mine, and perhaps deserves a separate discussion.

I could conclude with some crazy video of a corvid solving a rubik’s cube or an octopus breaking into a bank vault or something, but I somehow find this example of dog problem-solving more compelling:

Bostrom on AI deception

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom has argued, in “The Superintelligent Will,” that advanced AIs are likely to diverge in their terminal goals (i.e., their ultimate decision-making criteria), but converge in some of their instrumental goals (i.e., the policies and plans they expect to indirectly further their terminal goals). An arbitrary superintelligent AI would be mostly unpredictable, except to the extent that nearly all plans call for similar resources or similar strategies. The latter exception may make it possible for us to do some long-term planning for future artificial agents.

Bostrom calls the idea that AIs can have virtually any goal the orthogonality thesis, and he calls the idea that there are attractor strategies shared by almost any goal-driven system (e.g., self-preservation, knowledge acquisition) the instrumental convergence thesis.

Bostrom fleshes out his worries about smarter-than-human AI in the book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, which came out in the US a few days ago. He says much more there about the special technical and strategic challenges involved in general AI. Here’s one of the many scenarios he discusses, excerpted:

[T]he orthogonality thesis suggests that we cannot blithely assume that a superintelligence will necessarily share any of the final values stereotypically associated with wisdom and intellectual development in humans — scientific curiosity, benevolent concern for others, spiritual enlightenment and contemplation, renunciation of material acquisitiveness, a taste for refined culture or for the simple pleasures in life, humility and selflessness, and so forth. We will consider later whether it might be possible through deliberate effort to construct a superintelligence that values such things, or to build one that values human welfare, moral goodness, or any other complex purpose its designers might want it to serve. But it is no less possible — and in fact technically a lot easier — to build a superintelligence that places final value on nothing but calculating the decimal expansion of pi. This suggests that — absent a specific effort — the first superintelligence may have some such random or reductionistic final goal.

[... T]he instrumental convergence thesis entails that we cannot blithely assume that a superintelligence with the final goal of calculating the decimals of pi (or making paperclips, or counting grains of sand) would limit its activities in such a way as not to infringe on human interests. An agent with such a final goal would have a convergent instrumental reason, in many situations, to acquire an unlimited amount of physical resources and, if possible, to eliminate potential threats to itself and its goal system. Human beings might constitute potential threats; they certainly constitute physical resources. [...]

It might seem incredible that a project would build or release an AI into the world without having strong grounds for trusting that the system will not cause an existential catastrophe. It might also seem incredible, even if one project were so reckless, that wider society would not shut it down before it (or the AI it was building) attains a decisive strategic advantage. But as we shall see, this is a road with many hazards. [...]

With the help of the concept of convergent instrumental value, we can see the flaw in one idea for how to ensure superintelligence safety. The idea is that we validate the safety of a superintelligent AI empirically by observing its behavior while it is in a controlled, limited environment (a “sandbox”) and that we only let the AI out of the box if we see it behaving in a friendly, cooperative, responsible manner.

The flaw in this idea is that behaving nicely while in the box is a convergent instrumental goal for friendly and unfriendly AIs alike. An unfriendly AI of sufficient intelligence realizes that its unfriendly final goals will be best realized if it behaves in a friendly manner initially, so that it will be let out of the box. It will only start behaving in a way that reveals its unfriendly nature when it no longer matters whether we find out; that is, when the AI is strong enough that human opposition is ineffectual.

Consider also a related set of approaches that rely on regulating the rate of intelligence gain in a seed AI by subjecting it to various kinds of intelligence tests or by having the AI report to its programmers on its rate of progress. At some point, an unfriendly AI may become smart enough to realize that it is better off concealing some of its capability gains. It may underreport on its progress and deliberately flunk some of the harder tests, in order to avoid causing alarm before it has grown strong enough to attain a decisive strategic advantage. The programmers may try to guard against this possibility by secretly monitoring the AI’s source code and the internal workings of its mind; but a smart-enough AI would realize that it might be under surveillance and adjust its thinking accordingly. The AI might find subtle ways of concealing its true capabilities and its incriminating intent. (Devising clever escape plans might, incidentally, also be a convergent strategy for many types of friendly AI, especially as they mature and gain confidence in their own judgments and capabilities. A system motivated to promote our interests might be making a mistake if it allowed us to shut it down or to construct another, potentially unfriendly AI.)

We can thus perceive a general failure mode, wherein the good behavioral track record of a system in its juvenile stages fails utterly to predict its behavior at a more mature stage. Now, one might think that the reasoning described above is so obvious that no credible project to develop artificial general intelligence could possibly overlook it. But one should not be too overconfident that this is so.

Consider the following scenario. Over the coming years and decades, AI systems become gradually more capable and as a consequence find increasing real-world application: they might be used to operate trains, cars, industrial and household robots, and autonomous military vehicles. We may suppose that this automation for the most part has the desired effects, but that the success is punctuated by occasional mishaps — a driverless truck crashes into oncoming traffic, a military drone fires at innocent civilians. Investigations reveal the incidents to have been caused by judgment errors by the controlling AIs. Public debate ensues. Some call for tighter oversight and regulation, others emphasize the need for research and better-engineered systems — systems that are smarter and have more common sense, and that are less likely to make tragic mistakes. Amidst the din can perhaps also be heard the shrill voices of doomsayers predicting many kinds of ill and impending catastrophe. Yet the momentum is very much with the growing AI and robotics industries. So development continues, and progress is made. As the automated navigation systems of cars become smarter, they suffer fewer accidents; and as military robots achieve more precise targeting, they cause less collateral damage. A broad lesson is inferred from these observations of real-world outcomes: the smarter the AI, the safer it is. It is a lesson based on science, data, and statistics, not armchair philosophizing. Against this backdrop, some group of researchers is beginning to achieve promising results in their work on developing general machine intelligence. The researchers are carefully testing their seed AI in a sandbox environment, and the signs are all good. The AI’s behavior inspires confidence — increasingly so, as its intelligence is gradually increased.

At this point, any remaining Cassandra would have several strikes against her:

A history of alarmists predicting intolerable harm from the growing capabilities of robotic systems and being repeatedly proven wrong. Automation has brought many benefits and has, on the whole, turned out safer than human operation.

ii  A clear empirical trend: the smarter the AI, the safer and more reliable it has been. Surely this bodes well for a project aiming at creating machine intelligence more generally smart than any ever built before — what is more, machine intelligence that can improve itself so that it will become even more reliable.

iii  Large and growing industries with vested interests in robotics and machine intelligence. These fields are widely seen as key to national economic competitiveness and military security. Many prestigious scientists have built their careers laying the groundwork for the present applications and the more advanced systems being planned.

iv  A promising new technique in artificial intelligence, which is tremendously exciting to those who have participated in or followed the research. Although safety issues and ethics are debated, the outcome is preordained. Too much has been invested to pull back now. AI researchers have been working to get to human-level artificial intelligence for the better part of a century: of course there is no real prospect that they will now suddenly stop and throw away all this effort just when it finally is about to bear fruit.

v  The enactment of some safety rituals, whatever helps demonstrate that the participants are ethical and responsible (but nothing that significantly impedes the forward charge).

vi  A careful evaluation of seed AI in a sandbox environment, showing that it is behaving cooperatively and showing good judgment. After some further adjustments, the test results are as good as they could be. It is a green light for the final step . . .

And so we boldly go — into the whirling knives.

We observe here how it could be the case that when dumb, smarter is safe; yet when smart, smarter is more dangerous. There is a kind of pivot point, at which a strategy that has previously worked excellently suddenly starts to backfire.

For more on terminal goal orthogonality, see Stuart Armstrong’s “General Purpose Intelligence“. For more on instrumental goal convergence, see Steve Omohundro’s “Rational Artificial Intelligence for the Greater Good“.

 

Politics is hard mode

Eliezer  Yudkowsky has written a delightful series of posts (originally on the economics blog Overcoming Bias) about why partisan debates are so frequently hostile and unproductive. Particularly incisive is A Fable of Science and Politics.

One of the broader points Eliezer makes is that, while political issues are important, political discussion isn’t the best place to train one’s ability to look at issues objectively and update on new evidence. The way I’d put it is that politics is hard mode; it takes an extraordinary amount of discipline and skill to communicate effectively in partisan clashe.

This jibes with my own experience; I’m much worse at arguing politics than at arguing other things. And psychological studies indicate that politics is hard mode even (or especially!) for political veterans; see Taber & Lodge (2006).

Eliezer’s way of putting the same point is (riffing off of Dune): ‘Politics is the Mind-Killer.’ An excerpt from that blog post:

Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back — providing aid and comfort to the enemy. [...]

I’m not saying that I think Overcoming Bias should be apolitical, or even that we should adopt Wikipedia’s ideal of the Neutral Point of View. But try to resist getting in those good, solid digs if you can possibly avoid it. If your topic legitimately relates to attempts to ban evolution in school curricula, then go ahead and talk about it — but don’t blame it explicitly on the whole Republican Party; some of your readers may be Republicans, and they may feel that the problem is a few rogues, not the entire party. As with Wikipedia’s NPOV, it doesn’t matter whether (you think) the Republican Party really is at fault. It’s just better for the spiritual growth of the community to discuss the issue without invoking color politics.

Scott Alexander fleshes out why it can be dialogue-killing to attack big groups (even when the attack is accurate) in another blog post, Weak Men Are Superweapons. And Eliezer expands on his view of partisanship in follow-up posts like The Robbers Cave Experiment and Hug the Query.

bluegreen

Some people involved in political advocacy and activism have objected to the “mind-killer” framing. Miri Mogilevsky of Brute Reason explained on Facebook:

My usual first objection is that it seems odd to single politics out as a “mind-killer” when there’s plenty of evidence that tribalism happens everywhere. Recently, there has been a whole kerfuffle within the field of psychology about replication of studies. Of course, some key studies have failed to replicate, leading to accusations of “bullying” and “witch-hunts” and what have you. Some of the people involved have since walked their language back, but it was still a rather concerning demonstration of mind-killing in action. People took “sides,” people became upset at people based on their “sides” rather than their actual opinions or behavior, and so on.

Unless this article refers specifically to electoral politics and Democrats and Republicans and things (not clear from the wording), “politics” is such a frightfully broad category of human experience that writing it off entirely as a mind-killer that cannot be discussed or else all rationality flies out the window effectively prohibits a large number of important issues from being discussed, by the very people who can, in theory, be counted upon to discuss them better than most. Is it “politics” for me to talk about my experience as a woman in gatherings that are predominantly composed of men? Many would say it is. But I’m sure that these groups of men stand to gain from hearing about my experiences, since some of them are concerned that so few women attend their events.

In this article, Eliezer notes, “Politics is an important domain to which we should individually apply our rationality — but it’s a terrible domain in which to learn rationality, or discuss rationality, unless all the discussants are already rational.” But that means that we all have to individually, privately apply rationality to politics without consulting anyone who can help us do this well. After all, there is no such thing as a discussant who is “rational”; there is a reason the website is called “Less Wrong” rather than “Not At All Wrong” or “Always 100% Right.” Assuming that we are all trying to be more rational, there is nobody better to discuss politics with than each other.

The rest of my objection to this meme has little to do with this article, which I think raises lots of great points, and more to do with the response that I’ve seen to it — an eye-rolling, condescending dismissal of politics itself and of anyone who cares about it. Of course, I’m totally fine if a given person isn’t interested in politics and doesn’t want to discuss it, but then they should say, “I’m not interested in this and would rather not discuss it,” or “I don’t think I can be rational in this discussion so I’d rather avoid it,” rather than sneeringly reminding me “You know, politics is the mind-killer,” as though I am an errant child. I’m well-aware of the dangers of politics to good thinking. I am also aware of the benefits of good thinking to politics. So I’ve decided to accept the risk and to try to apply good thinking there. [...]

I’m sure there are also people who disagree with the article itself, but I don’t think I know those people personally. And to add a political dimension (heh), it’s relevant that most non-LW people (like me) initially encounter “politics is the mind-killer” being thrown out in comment threads, not through reading the original article. My opinion of the concept improved a lot once I read the article.

In the same thread, Andrew Mahone added, “Using it in that sneering way, Miri, seems just like a faux-rationalist version of ‘Oh, I don’t bother with politics.’ It’s just another way of looking down on any concerns larger than oneself as somehow dirty, only now, you know, rationalist dirty.” To which Miri replied: “Yeah, and what’s weird is that that really doesn’t seem to be Eliezer’s intent, judging by the eponymous article.”

Eliezer clarified that by “politics” he doesn’t generally mean ‘problems that can be directly addressed in local groups but happen to be politically charged':

Hanson’s “Tug the Rope Sideways” principle, combined with the fact that large communities are hard to personally influence, explains a lot in practice about what I find suspicious about someone who claims that conventional national politics are the top priority to discuss. Obviously local community matters are exempt from that critique! I think if I’d substituted ‘national politics as seen on TV’ in a lot of the cases where I said ‘politics’ it would have more precisely conveyed what I was trying to say.

Even if polarized local politics is more instrumentally tractable, though, the worry remains that it’s a poor epistemic training ground. A subtler problem with banning “political” discussions on a blog or at a meet-up is that it’s hard to do fairly, because our snap judgments about what counts as “political” may themselves be affected by partisan divides. In many cases the status quo is thought of as apolitical,  even though objections to the status quo are ‘political.’ (Shades of Pretending to be Wise.)

Because politics gets personal fast, it’s hard to talk about it successfully. But if you’re trying to build a community, build friendships, or build a movement, you can’t outlaw everything ‘personal.’ And selectively outlawing personal stuff gets even messier. Last year, daenerys shared anonymized stories from women, including several that discussed past experiences where the writer had been attacked or made to feel unsafe. If those discussions are made off-limits because they’re ‘political,’ people may take away the message that they aren’t allowed to talk about, e.g., some harmful or alienating norm they see at meet-ups. I haven’t seen enough discussions of this failure mode to feel super confident people know how to avoid it.

Since this is one of the LessWrong memes that’s most likely to pop up in discussions between different online communities (along with the even more ripe-for-misinterpretation “policy debates should not appear one-sided“…), as a first (very small) step, I suggest obsoleting the ‘mind-killer’ framing. It’s cute, but ‘politics is hard mode’ works better as a meme to interject into random conversations. ∵:

1. ‘Politics is hard mode’ emphasizes that ‘mind-killing’ (= epistemic difficulty) is quantitative, not qualitative. Some things might instead fall under Very Hard Mode, or under Middlingly Hard Mode…

2. ‘Hard’ invites the question ‘hard for whom?’, more so than ‘mind-killer’ does. We’re all familiar with the fact that some people and some contexts change what’s ‘hard’, so it’s a little less likely we’ll universally generalize about what’s ‘hard.’

3. ‘Mindkill’ connotes contamination, sickness, failure, weakness. ‘Hard Mode’ doesn’t imply that a thing is low-status or unworthy, so it’s less likely to create the impression (or reality) that LessWrongers or Effective Altruists dismiss out-of-hand the idea of hypothetical-political-intervention-that-isn’t-a-terrible-idea.  Maybe some people do want to argue for the thesis that politics is always useless or icky, but if so it should be done in those terms, explicitly — not snuck in as a connotation.

4. ‘Hard Mode’ can’t readily be perceived as a personal attack. If you accuse someone of being ‘mindkilled’, with no context provided, that clearly smacks of insult — you appear to be calling them stupid, irrational, deluded, or similar. If you tell someone they’re playing on ‘Hard Mode,’ that’s very nearly a compliment, which makes your advice that they change behaviors a lot likelier to go over well.

5. ‘Hard Mode’ doesn’t carry any risk of evoking (e.g., gendered) stereotypes about political activists being dumb or irrational or overemotional.

6. ‘Hard Mode’ encourages a growth mindset. Maybe some topics are too hard to ever be discussed. Even so, ranking topics by difficulty still encourages an approach where you try to do better, rather than merely withdrawing. It may be wise to eschew politics, but we should not fear it. (Fear is the mind-killer.)

If you and your co-conversationalists haven’t yet built up a lot of trust and rapport, or if tempers are already flaring, conveying the message ‘I’m too rational to discuss politics’ or ‘You’re too irrational to discuss politics’ can make things worse.  ‘Politics is the mind-killer’ is the mind-killer. At least, it’s a relatively mind-killing way of warning people about epistemic hazards.

‘Hard Mode’ lets you communicate in the style of the Humble Aspirant rather than the Aloof Superior. Try something in the spirit of: ‘I’m worried I’m too low-level to participate in this discussion; could you have it somewhere else?’ Or: ‘Could we talk about something closer to Easy Mode, so we can level up together?’ If you’re worried that what you talk about will impact group epistemology, I think you should be even more worried about how you talk about it.

Cards Against Humanity against humanity

Content note: anti-LGBT sentiment, antisemitism, racism, sexual assault

Cards Against Humanity is a card game where people combine terms into new phrases in pursuit of dark and edgy mirth and pith. Like Apples to Apples, but focused on all things political, absurdist, and emotionally charged. A lot of progressives like the game, so it’s a useful place to start talking about the progressive tug-of-war between ‘expand the universe of socially accepted speech‘ and ‘make harmful and oppressive speech less socially acceptable‘.

It’s recently come to people’s attention that Max Temkin, CAH co-creator and former Obama campaign staffer, removed the card ‘passable transvestites’ from the game a while ago, calling it “a mean, cheap joke“. Likewise the cards ‘date rape’ and ‘roofies’. That prompted Chris Hallquist to accuse CAH and its progressive fans of hypocrisy:

 

Since moving to the Bay Area, I’ve twice been involved in conversations where someone has suggested that some of the cards in Cards Against Humanity are really offensive and need to be removed from the deck.

To which I say: huh?

Not that some of the cards aren’t offensive—they are. I love the game in spite of this fact, but I totally understand if some people aren’t in to the game’s brand of humor and don’t want to play. What baffles me is the suggestion that it’s just some of the cards, and if you removed them the game would be fine.

[... H]ere are some of the cards from the very first twenty-card sheet found in the free PDF:

  • Not giving a shit about the Third World
  • A windmill full of corpses
  • Bingeing and purging
  • The hardworking Mexican (subtly suggests most Mexicans are lazy)
  • The gays (which I’m pretty sure is not how people who are sensitive to LBGT issues refer to refer to gay people)

If you’re going to remove the offensive cards from the Cards Against Humanity deck, you’re easily removing 30% or more of the deck. And there are lots of cards that may not be offensive at first glance, but are clearly designed to be combined with other cards in offensive ways. For example, the “African Children” card (also on the first page of the PDF) only sounds innocuous if you’ve never actually played the game before. It suddenly becomes very offensive if someone plays it in response to the question “How did I lose my virginity?”

[... N]ow, I understand that some rape victims have PTSD triggers around discussion of rape, and I can understand someone in that position saying, “I enjoy lots of offensive humor, but jokes about rape are something I, personally, can’t handle.” I certainly wouldn’t recommend telling rape jokes to random strangers you meet on the street.

But when people complain about rape jokes, that’s rarely all they’re saying. Instead, the line is “rape jokes are never okay,” which I find a little hard to accept, especially when the context is Cards Against Humanity. Like, do they really think rape jokes are inherently morally superior to jokes about AIDS and the Holocaust?

Let me make a proposal: if you’ve enjoyed playing Cards Against Humanity (and haven’t repented of your offensive humor enjoying ways and sworn never to play the game again), you really have no business moralizing about what kinds of humor other people enjoy.

 

If Chris is accurately picking out his friends’ core objections, that’s a fair rebuttal. But I don’t think liberal ambivalence about CAH is generally shaped like that—even when words like ‘offensive’ show up. (Though especially when critics are wise enough to forsake that word.)

Chris’ target bears a close resemblance to some standard misunderstandings of social justice writers’ views:

_____________________________________________

Straw claim #1: ‘Offensive = bad.’

Ordinary claim: Harmful = bad.

Sometimes offensive things are harmful. And sometimes they’re harmful specifically because of the extreme ways they cause people offense. But offensiveness in itself is fine. Heck, it can be a positive thing if it leads to harmless fun or consciousness-raising.

_____________________________________________

Straw claim #2: ‘Making jokes about oppressed groups is intrinsically bad, for Reasons. Deep mysterious ineffable ones.’

Ordinary claim: Making jokes about oppressed groups can be bad, if it’s used to harm the group. That’s for common-sense consequentialist reasons.

If your friend Bob just went through a horrible break-up, joking about it might cause him a lot of pain, as opposed to helping lighten the mood. If you care about your friend’s feelings, you should be careful in that context to make break-up jokes ones he’ll find funny, and not ones that are at his expense. Follow his lead, and be sensitive to context.

And don’t assume you can make dickish jokes at his expense just because he’s not in the room at the moment. If you wouldn’t want to say it to his face, think twice about saying it behind his back.

Now, if that’s true for Bob, it should also hold for a whole group of Bobs who collectively went through a Mass Societal Horrible Break-Up. As for individuals, so for groups.

_____________________________________________

Straw claim #3: ‘Making jokes about offensive topics like rape is always wrong.’

Ordinary claim: It’s hard to make a good rape joke. So, for most people, it’s probably a good heuristic to avoid even trying. But feminists recognize that there can be good rape jokes — both “good” in that they aren’t even mildly immoral, and “good” in that they aren’t shitty jokes.

People who complain about harmful jokes are often accused of being humorless killjoys. Which I’ve always found weird. Consider Hurley and Dennett’s new theory of humor in their book Inside Jokes, which can be summarized in five core claims about the psychology of humor. Their fifth claim is that when an incongruous discovery is funny, “the discovery is not accompanied by any (strong) negative emotional valence”.

To the extent a joke makes you feel really bad, you miss out on experiencing amusement from it. You aren’t just hurting people; you’re also artificially narrowing the audience that can appreciate your jokes, and not because they lack a sense of humor. How is telling inaccessibly painful jokes, and thereby making it impossible for a large swathe of the population to get any enjoyment out of one’s material, not being a ‘killjoy’?

_____________________________________________

Straw claim #4: ‘Context doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who’s telling the joke, or to whom, or to what effect. Wrong is wrong is wrong.’

Ordinary claim: …?? Huh? Of course context matters.

A group of Holocaust survivors telling zany jokes about the Holocaust can be totally different from a group of neo-nazis telling the exact same jokes. One is a heck of a lot more likely to be tongue-in-cheek (or outright cathartic), and to neither reflect nor reinforce real hate. And there’s continuous variation between those two extremes.

For example, anti-semitism is sufficiently stigmatized in my Super-Liberal Inner Circle of Friends that I, a Jew, feel perfectly comfortable hearing them tell just about any Holocaust joke at a get-together. But put the exact same jokes in the mouths of a group of Midwestern frat boys who I don’t know very well and who have been teasingly calling me ‘Christ-killer’ and shooting me dirty looks, and I will feel uncomfortable, and alienated, and I won’t have a good time.

There are lots of ways to have a good time that aren’t parasitic on others’ good time. Do those things instead.

When I haven’t personally interacted much with a group, I’m forced to fall back on base rates. The base rates for sexual harassment and antisemitism in my community simultaneously inform how likely it is that I personally have been affected by those things, and how confident I can be that a given community member deserves my trust. Those are the guiding stars for responsible-but-hilarious comedians like Louis C.K.. The Raw Badness of real-world rape v. the Raw Badness of real-world ethnic cleansing is a lot less directly relevant.

_____________________________________________

It isn’t hypocritical to endorse harmless black comedy while criticizing harmful black comedy.

There are some bona fide straw feminists out there. (Straw men are very often weak men.) But off-the-cuff rhetoric isn’t necessarily a good indicator of that, and the more serious position is the one that deserves debate.

I won’t argue here that liberals are being morally consistent if they reject ‘date rape’ and ‘passable transvestites’ while embracing the rest of the CAH deck. But I do want the case for hypocrisy to be made by citing the actual views of typical social justice thinkers. And I want the discussion of this to give people practice at being better nuanced consequentialists. And, perhaps, better friends and entertainers.

 

Cards Against Humanity. Jews. Prue thru Ar. : ivy

 

A card like ‘date rape’ is likely to cause excessive harm because it makes light of something that needs to be taken more seriously, here and now, by the culture CAH is being played in. And, of course, because a lot of people who play CAH have been raped. Is it hypocritical to let ‘a windmill full of corpses’ slide, while criticizing ‘date rape’? Not if your concerns with ‘date rape’ are consequentialist SJ-type arguments, as opposed to some more conservative appeal to propriety.

Likewise, anti-trans sentiment is a lot more prevalent and acutely harmful these days than anti-gay sentiment. With each passing day, using ‘gay’ as a slur, or treating gay people as weirdo Others, is causing the collective eyebrows of mainstream audiences to raise ever higher. Meanwhile, using slurs like ‘tranny’ or ‘transvestite’ continues to be seen as normal and acceptable even by many liberal audiences (e.g., the sort of people who might watch The Daily Show). Making fun of gay people for being weird still happens, but that no longer dominates their depiction in the way it continues to dominate media portrayals of cross-dressers.

So, although a case could be made that ‘the gays’ and ‘passable transvestites’ are equally harmful, it really isn’t self-evident. The humor in ‘the gays’ involves more of a friendly wink to gay people. Much of the joke is directed at conservatives who treat gay people as an alien monolith. Hence the ‘the’. In contrast, the humor in ‘passable transvestites’ seems to mostly depend on shock value. And what’s shocking is cross-dressers themselves—the tacit assumption being that their existence is freakish and surprising and strange. In a word, comical.

These arguments are complicated. We can’t just ask ‘is the card kind of racey and edgy?’ and call off any further moral evaluation once we have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. To partly side with Chris, I think good arguments can be given that ‘bingeing and purging’ and ‘two midgets shitting into a bucket’ are questionable cards in most CAH groups, because the joke is at the expense of people who really are widely stigmatized and othered even by the liberalest of liberals. It’s common knowledge in most friend circles that ‘racism’ and ‘not giving a shit about the Third World’ are Bad. It’s when things fall in the uncanny valley between Totally Normal and Totally Beyond The Pale that you need to put some thought into whether you’re having your fun at a significant cost to others. (And, yes, the answer will frequently vary based on who’s playing the game.)

Being a good person is about considering the harm your actions might have, which means being sensitive to how many people are affected, and how strongly. We can’t escape the moral facts’ empirical contingency or quantitativeness. That is, we can’t get by without actually thinking about the people affected, and talking to them to find out how they’re affected. If the name of the game is ‘try to make the world more fun for everyone’, there isn’t any simple algorithm (like ‘it’s never OK to offend people’ or ‘it’s always OK to offend people’) that can do the hard work for us.

Loving the merely physical

This is my submission to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape challenge: “Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in under 1,000 words. (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.)”

Though I’ve mentioned before that I’m sympathetic to Harris’ argument, I’m not fully persuaded. And there’s a particular side-issue I think he gets wrong straightforwardly enough that it can be demonstrated in the space of 1,000 words: really unrequitable love, or the restriction of human value to conscious states.

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My criticism of Harris’ thesis will be indirect, because it appears to me that his proposal is much weaker than his past critics have recognized. What are we to make of a meta-ethics text that sets aside meta-ethicists’ core concerns with a shrug? Harris happily concedes that promoting well-being is only contingently moral,¹ only sometimes tracks our native preferences² or moral intuitions,³ and makes no binding, categorical demand on rational humans.⁴ So it looks like the only claim Harris is making is that redefining words like ‘good’ and ‘ought’ to track psychological well-being would be useful for neuroscience and human cooperation.⁵ Which looks like a question of social engineering, not of moral philosophy.

If Harris’ moral realism sounds more metaphysically audacious than that, I suspect it’s because he worries that putting it in my terms would be uninspiring or, worse, would appear relativistic. (Consistent with my interpretation, he primarily objects to moral anti-realism and relativism for eroding human compassion, not for being false.)⁶

I don’t think I can fairly assess Harris’ pragmatic linguistic proposal in 1,000 words.⁷ But I can point to an empirical failing in a subsidiary view he considers central: that humans only ultimately value changes in conscious experience.⁸

It may be that only conscious beings can value things; but that doesn’t imply that only conscious states can be valued. Consider these three counterexamples:

(1) Natural Diversity. People prize the beauty and complexity of unconscious living things, and of the natural world in general.⁹

Objection: ‘People value those things because they could in principle experience them. “Beauty” is in the beholder’s eye, not in the beheld object. That’s our clue that we only prize natural beauty for making possible our experience of beauty.’

Response: Perhaps our preference here causally depends on our experiences; but that doesn’t mean that we’re deluded in thinking we have such preferences!

I value my friends’ happiness. Causally, that value may be entirely explainable in terms of patterns in my own happiness, but that doesn’t make me an egoist. Harris would agree that others’ happiness can be what I value, even if my own happiness is why I value it. But the same argument holds for natural wonders: I can value them in themselves, even if what’s causing that value is my experiences of them.

(2) Accurate Beliefs. Consider two experientially identical worlds: One where you’re in the Matrix and have systematically false beliefs, one where your beliefs are correct. Most people would choose to live in the latter world over the former, even knowing that it makes no difference to any conscious state.

Objection: ‘People value the truth because it’s usually useful. Your example is too contrived to pump out credible intuitions.’

Response: Humans can mentally represent environmental objects, and thereby ponder, fear, desire, etc. the objects themselves. Fearing failure or death isn’t the same as fearing experiencing failure or death. (I can’t escape failure/death merely by escaping awareness/consciousness of failure/death.) In the same way, valuing being outside the Matrix is distinct from valuing having experiences consistent with being outside the Matrix.

All of this adds up to a pattern that makes it unlikely people are deluded about this preference. Perhaps it’s somehow wrong to care about the Matrix as anything but a possible modifier of experience. But, nonetheless, people do care. Such preferences aren’t impossible or ‘unintelligible.’⁸

(3) Zombie Welfare. Some people don’t think we have conscious states. Harris’ view predicts that such people will have no preferences, since they can’t have preferences concerning experiences. But eliminativists have desires aplenty.

Objection: ‘Eliminativists are deeply confused; it’s not surprising that they have incoherent normative views.’

Response: Eliminativists may be mistaken, but they exist.¹⁰ That suffices to show that humans can care about things they think aren’t conscious. (Including unconscious friends and family!)

Moreover, consciousness is a marvelously confusing topic. We can’t be infinitely confident that we’ll never learn eliminativism is true. And if, pace Descartes, there’s even a sliver of doubt, then we certainly shouldn’t stake the totality of human value on this question.

Harris writes that “questions about values — about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose — are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood[.]“¹¹ But the premise is much stronger than the conclusion requires.

If people’s acts of valuing are mental, and suffice for deducing every moral fact, then scientifically understanding the mind will allow us to scientifically understand morality even if the objects valued are not all experiential. We can consciously care about unconscious world-states, just as we can consciously believe in, consciously fear, or consciously wonder about unconscious world-states. That means that Harris’ well-being landscape needs to be embedded in a larger ‘preference landscape.’

Perhaps a certain philosophical elegance is lost if we look beyond consciousness. Still, converting our understanding of the mind into a useful and reflectively consistent decision procedure cannot come at the expense of fidelity to the psychological data. Making ethics an empirical science shouldn’t require us to make any tenuous claims about human motivation.

We could redefine the moral landscape to exclude desires about natural wonders and zombies. It’s just hard to see why. Harris has otherwise always been happy to widen the definition of ‘moral’ to compass a larger and larger universe of human value. Since we’ve already strayed quite a bit from our folk intuitions about ‘morality,’ it’s honestly not of great importance how we tweak the edges of our new concept of morality. Our first concern should be with arriving at a correct view of human psychology. If that falters, then, to the extent science can “determine human values,” the moral decisions we build atop our psychological understanding will fail us as well.

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Citations

¹ “Perhaps there is no connection between being good and feeling good — and, therefore, no connection between moral behavior (as generally conceived) and subjective well-being. In this case, rapists, liars, and thieves would experience the same depth of happiness as the saints. This scenario stands the greatest chance of being true, while still seeming quite far-fetched. Neuroimaging work already suggests what has long been obvious through introspection: human cooperation is rewarding. However, if evil turned out to be as reliable a path to happiness as goodness is, my argument about the moral landscape would still stand, as would the likely utility of neuroscience for investigating it. It would no longer be an especially ‘moral’ landscape; rather it would be a continuum of well-being, upon which saints and sinners would occupy equivalent peaks.” -Harris (2010), p. 190

“Dr. Harris explained that about three million Americans are psychopathic. That is to say, they don’t care about the mental states of others. They enjoy inflicting pain on other people. But that implies that there’s a possible world, which we can conceive, in which the continuum of human well-being is not a moral landscape. The peaks of well-being could be occupied by evil people. But that entails that in the actual world, the continuum of well-being and the moral landscape are not identical either. For identity is a necessary relation. There is no possible world in which some entity A is not identical to A. So if there’s any possible world in which A is not identical to B, then it follows that A is not in fact identical to B.” -Craig (2011)

Harris’ (2013a) response to Craig’s argument: “Not a realistic concern. You’d have to change too many things — the world would [be] unrecognizable.”

² “I am not claiming that most of us personally care about the experience of all conscious beings; I am saying that a universe in which all conscious beings suffer the worst possible misery is worse than a universe in which they experience well-being. This is all we need to speak about ‘moral truth’ in the context of science.” -Harris (2010), p. 39

³ “And the fact that millions of people use the term ‘morality’ as a synonym for religious dogmatism, racism, sexism, or other failures of insight and compassion should not oblige us to merely accept their terminology until the end of time.” -Harris (2010), p. 53

“Everyone has an intuitive ‘physics,’ but much of our intuitive physics is wrong (with respect to the goal of describing the behavior of matter). Only physicists have a deep understanding of the laws that govern the behavior of matter in our universe. I am arguing that everyone also has an intuitive ‘morality,’ but much of our intuitive morality is clearly wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective well-being).” -Harris (2010), p. 36

⁴ Moral imperatives as hypothetical imperatives (cf. Foot (1972)): “As Blackford says, when told about the prospect of global well-being, a selfish person can always say, ‘What is that to me?’ [... T]his notion of ‘should,’ with its focus on the burden of persuasion, introduces a false standard for moral truth. Again, consider the concept of health: should we maximize global health? To my ear, this is a strange question. It invites a timorous reply like, ‘Provided we want everyone to be healthy, yes.’ And introducing this note of contingency seems to nudge us from the charmed circle of scientific truth. But why must we frame the matter this way? A world in which global health is maximized would be an objective reality, quite distinct from a world in which we all die early and in agony.” -Harris (2011)

“I don’t think the distinction between morality and something like taste is as clear or as categorical as we might suppose. [...] It seems to me that the boundary between mere aesthetics and moral imperative — the difference between not liking Matisse and not liking the Golden Rule — is more a matter of there being higher stakes, and consequences that reach into the lives of others, than of there being distinct classes of facts regarding the nature of human experience.” -Harris (2011)

⁵ “Whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is economics a true science yet? Judging from recent events, it wouldn’t appear so. Perhaps a deep understanding of economics will always elude us. But does anyone doubt that there are better and worse ways to structure an economy? Would any educated person consider it a form of bigotry to criticize another society’s response to a banking crisis? Imagine how terrifying it would be if great numbers of smart people became convinced that all efforts to prevent a global financial catastrophe must be either equally valid or equally nonsensical in principle. And yet this is precisely where we stand on the most important questions in human life. Currently, most scientists believe that answers to questions of human value will fall perpetually beyond our reach — not because human subjectivity is too difficult to study, or the brain too complex, but because there is no intellectual justification for speaking about right and wrong, or good and evil, across cultures. Many people also believe that nothing much depends on whether we find a universal foundation for morality. It seems to me, however, that in order to fulfill our deepest interests in this life, both personally and collectively, we must first admit that some interests are more defensible than others.” -Harris (2010), p. 190

⁶ “I have heard from literally thousands of highly educated men and women that morality is a myth, that statements about human values are without truth conditions (and are, therefore, nonsensical), and that concepts like well-being and misery are so poorly defined, or so susceptible to personal whim and cultural influence, that it is impossible to know anything about them. Many of these people also claim that a scientific foundation for morality would serve no purpose in any case. They think we can combat human evil all the while knowing that our notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are completely unwarranted. It is always amusing when these same people then hesitate to condemn specific instances of patently abominable behavior. I don’t think one has fully enjoyed the life of the mind until one has seen a celebrated scholar defend the ‘contextual’ legitimacy of the burqa, or of female genital mutilation, a mere thirty seconds after announcing that moral relativism does nothing to diminish a person’s commitment to making the world a better place.” -Harris (2010), p. 27

“I consistently find that people who hold this view [moral anti-realism] are far less clear-eyed and committed than (I believe) they should be when confronted with moral pathologies — especially those of other cultures — precisely because they believe there is no deep sense in which any behavior or system of thought can be considered pathological in the first place. Unless you understand that human health is a domain of genuine truth claims — however difficult ‘health’ may be to define — it is impossible to think clearly about disease. I believe the same can be said about morality. And that is why I wrote a book about it…” -Harris (2011)

⁷ For more on this proposal, see Bensinger (2013).

⁸ “[T]he rightness of an act depends on how it impacts the well-being of conscious creatures[....] Here is my (consequentialist) starting point: all questions of value (right and wrong, good and evil, etc.) depend upon the possibility of experiencing such value. Without potential consequences at the level of experience — happiness, suffering, joy, despair, etc. — all talk of value is empty. Therefore, to say that an act is morally necessary, or evil, or blameless, is to make (tacit) claims about its consequences in the lives of conscious creatures (whether actual or potential).” -Harris (2010), p. 62

“[C]onsciousness is the only intelligible domain of value.” -Harris (2010), p. 32

Harris (2013b) confirms that this is part of his “central argument”.

⁹ “Certain human uses of the natural world — of the non-animal natural world! — are morally troubling. Take an example of an ancient sequoia tree. A thoughtless hiker carves his initials, wantonly, for the fun of it, into an ancient sequoia tree. Isn’t there something wrong with that? It seems to me there is.” -Sandel (2008)

¹⁰ E.g., Rey (1982), Beisecker (2010), and myself. (I don’t assume eliminativism in this essay.)

¹¹ Harris (2010), p. 1.

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References

Anglish, as it never was but totally should have been

Stay warm, little flappers, and find lots of plant eggs!

By Randall Munroe of xkcd.

Kate Donovan said of the above comic “This is the Robbiest xkcd I’ve seen.”, which is one of my favorite compliments of all time. I love discombobulating words; and recombobulating them; really, bobulating them in all sorts of ways. Though especially in ways that make new poetries possible, or lead to new insights about the world and its value.

I’m very fond of the approach of restricting myself to common words (Up-Goer Five), and of other systematic approaches. But I think my favorite of all is the artificial language Anglish: English using only native roots.

Although English is a Germanic language, only 1/4 of modern English words (that you’ll find in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary) have Germanic roots. The rest mostly come from Latin, either directly or via French. This borrowing hasn’t just expanded our vocabulary; it’s led to the loss of countless native English words which were replaced by synonyms perceived as more formal or precise. Since a lot of these native words are just a joy to say, since their use sheds light on many of English’s vestigial features, and since derivations from English words are often far easier to break down and parse than lengthy classical coinings (e.g., needlefear rather than aichmophobia), Anglo-Saxon linguistic purists are compiling a dictionary to translate non-native words into Germanic equivalents. Some of the more entertaining entries follow.

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Bizarre and vulgar illustrations from illuminated medieval manuscripts

A and B

  • abduct = neednim
  • abet = frofer
  • abhor = mislike
  • abominable = wargly
  • abortion = scrapping
  • accelerate = swiften
  • accessible = to-goly
  • accident = mishappening
  • accordion = bellowharp
  • active = deedy
  • adherent = clinger, liefard
  • adolescent = halfling, younker, frumbeardling
  • adrenaline = bykidney workstuff
  • adulation = flaundering, glavering
  • adversity = thwartsomeness, hardhap
  • Afghan = Horsemanlandish
  • afraid = afeared
  • Africa = Sunnygreatland
  • aged = oldened
  • agglomerate = clodden
  • aggressive = fighty
  • agitation = fret of mind
  • AIDS = Earned Bodyweir Scantness Sickness
  • airplane = loftcraft
  • albino = whiteling
  • alcoholic = boozen
  • altercation = brangling
  • America = Markland, Amerigoland, Wineland
  • anathema = accursed thing
  • angel = errand-ghost
  • anglicization = englishing
  • anime = dawnlandish livedrawing
  • annihilate = benothingen
  • antecedence = beforemath
  • anthropology = folklore
  • anti- = nomore-
  • antimatter = unstuff
  • antiquity = oldendom
  • antisemitism = jewhate
  • aorta = lofty heartpipe
  • apostle = sendling
  • arithmetic = talecraft
  • arm (v.) = beweapon
  • armadillo = girdledeer
  • arrest = avast
  • artificial = craftly
  • asparagus = sparrowgrass
  • assassinated = deathcrafted
  • assembly = forsamening
  • audacious = daresome, ballsy
  • augment = bemore, eken
  • August = Weedmonth
  • autopsy = open bodychecking
  • avalanche = fellfall
  • avant garde = forhead
  • avert = forfend, forethwart
  • ballet = fairtumb
  • ballistics = shootlore
  • balloon = loftball
  • banana = moonapple, finger-berry
  • banquet = benchsnack
  • barracks = warbarn
  • basketball = cawlball
  • bastard = mingleling, lovechild
  • battlefield = hurlyburlyfield, badewang
  • beau = ladfriend, fop
  • beautiful = eyesome, goodfaced
  • behavioral economics = husbandry of the how
  • Belgium = Belgy
  • bestiality = deerlust
  • betrayer = unfriend, foe-friend, mouth friend
  • bicameral = twifackly
  • bisexuality = twilust
  • blame = forscold
  • blasphemy = godsmear
  • bong = waterpipe
  • bourgeois  = highburger
  • boutique = dressshop
  • braggart = mucklemouth
  • braille = the Blind’s rune
  • brassiere = underbodice
  • bray = heehaw
  • breakable = brittle, brickle, breaksome, bracklesome
  • breeze = windlick
  • buggery = arseswiving
  • burlesque = funnish
  • butter = cowsmear

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Bizarre and vulgar illustrations from illuminated medieval manuscripts

C and D

  • calculus = flowreckoning
  • campus =  lorefield
  • cancerous = cankersome
  • capacity = holdth
  • capsize = wemmel
  • carbon dioxide = twiathemloft chark, onecoal-twosour-stuff, fizzloft
  • carnal attraction = fleshbesmittenness
  • cartouche = stretched foreverness-rope
  • catechism = godlore handbook
  • caterpillar = Devil’s cat, hairy cat, butterfly worm
  • catheter = bodypipe
  • cattle = kine
  • cause (n.) = bring-about, onlet, wherefrom
  • cell = hole, room, frume, lifebrick
  • cell division = frumecleaving
  • cell membrane = frumenfilmen
  • cement = brickstick
  • cerebellum = brainling
  • certainly = forsooth, soothly, in sooth
  • cerulean = woadish
  • chaos = mayhem, dwolm, topsy-turvydom, unfrith
  • character = selfsuchness
  • charity = givefulness
  • chocolate =  sweetslime
  • circumcise = umcut
  • circumstance = boutstanding, happenstanding
  • civilization = couthdom, settledhood
  • civilize = tame, couthen
  • clamor = greeding
  • clarify = clearen
  • classification = bekinding
  • clavicle = sluttlebone
  • cliche = unthought-up saying, oftquote, hackney
  • clinic = sickbay
  • clockwise = sunwise
  • coffer = hoardvat
  • coitus = swiving, bysleep
  • color = huecast, light wavelength
  • combine = gatherbind
  • comedian = funspeller, lustspeller, laughtersmith
  • comedy = funplay, lustplay
  • comestible = eatsome, a food thing
  • comfort = frover, weem, soothfulness
  • comfortable = weemly, froverly
  • comment = umspeech
  • CD-ROM = WR-ROB (withfasted-ring-read-only bemindings)
  • companion = helpmate
  • comparative anatomy = overlikening bodylore
  • compare = aliken, gainsame liken, game off against
  • complexion = blee, skin-look
  • compliant = followsome
  • composition = nibcraft
  • concentrated = squished together
  • concentration camp = cramming-laystead
  • concentric = middlesharing
  • condition = fettle
  • condom = scumbag
  • conscience = inwit, heart’s eye
  • convergence = togethering
  • convert = bewhirve
  • copious = beteeming
  • corner = nook, winkle
  • correction fluid = white-out
  • corridor = hallway
  • corrugated = wrizzled
  • Costa Rican = Rich Shorelander
  • Cote d’Ivoire = Elfbone Shoreland
  • cotton = treewool
  • coward = dastard, arg
  • creme de la crem = bee’s knees
  • criterion = deemmean
  • cytoskeleton = frumenframework
  • dairy = deyhouse, milkenstuff
  • danger = freech, deathen
  • data = put, rawput, meteworths
  • database = putbank
  • deceive = swike, beswike, fop, wimple
  • defame = shend, befile
  • defeat = netherthrow
  • defenestrate = outwindowse
  • deify = begod
  • delusion = misbelief
  • demeanour = jib
  • demilitarized = unlandmighted
  • dependence = onhanginess
  • descendent = afterbear, afterling
  • despair = wanhope
  • dinosaur = forebird
  • disarrange = rumple
  • disaster = harrow-hap, ill-hap, banefall, baneburst, grimming
  • disinfect = unsmittle
  • disprove = belie
  • disturbance = dreefing, dreep-hap
  • divination = weedgle
  • division = tweeming

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Bizarre and vulgar illustrations from illuminated medieval manuscripts

Um, all the other ones

  • ease (n.) = eath, frith of mind
  • egalitarianism = evendom
  • electricity = sparkflow, ghostfire
  • electron = amberling
  • elevate = aloofen
  • embryo = womb-berry
  • enable = canen, mayen
  • enact = umdo, emdo
  • encryption = forkeying
  • energy = dodrive, inwork, spring
  • ensnare = swarl
  • enthusiasm = faith-heat
  • environment = lifescape, setting, umwhirft
  • enzyme = yeaster, yeastuff
  • ephemeral = dwimmerly
  • equation = likening, besaming
  • ethnic minority = outlandish fellowship
  • evaluate = bedeem, bereckon, beworthen
  • example = bisen, byspell, lodestar, forbus
  • exaptation = kludging
  • existent = wesand, forelying, issome
  • face = nebb, andlit, leer, hue, blee, mug
  • fair (n.) = hoppings
  • female = she-kind
  • fetid = flyblown, smellful, stenchy
  • figment = farfetchery
  • fornication = whorery, awhoring
  • fray = frazzle
  • fugitive = lamster, flightling
  • gas-powered = waftle-driven
  • gland = threeze
  • history = yorelore, olds, eretide
  • Homo sapiens = Foppish man
  • horror = grir
  • ignorance = unskill, unwittleness
  • impossible = unmightly
  • incorrect = unyearight
  • increase = formore, bemoren
  • independence = unoffhangingness
  • indiscriminately = shilly-shally, allwardly
  • infancy = babytime
  • intoxication = bedrunkenhood
  • invasion = inslaught
  • jolly = full of beans
  • juggernaut = blindblooter
  • kamikaze = selfkilling loftstrike
  • kangaroo = hopdeer
  • laser = lesyr (light eking by spurred yondputting of rodding)
  • limerence = crush
  • lumpenproletariat = underrabble
  • lysosome = selfkillbag
  • malicious = argh, evilful
  • maltreat = misnutt
  • mammal = suckdeer, suckledeer
  • March = Winmonth
  • marsupial = pungsucker
  • martyr = bloot
  • megalopolis = mickleborough
  • mercy = milds
  • mitochondrion = mightcorn
  • mock = geck, betwit
  • nanotechnology = motish witcraft, smartdust
  • natural selection = unmanmade sieving
  • nostalgia = yesterlove
  • nursery = childergarden
  • ocean = the great sea, the blue moor, sailroad, the brine
  • old-fashioned = old-fangled
  • orchid = wombbloom
  • palindrome = drowword
  • pervert = lewdster
  • pianoforte = softhard keyboard
  • pregnancy = childladenhood
  • prehistory = aforeyorelore, yesteryore
  • quid pro quo = tit for tat
  • revolution = whirft, umbewrithing
  • romanticism = lovecraft, storm-and-throng-troth
  • sagacious = hyesnotter, sarrowthankle, wisehidey, yarewittle
  • satire = scoldcraft
  • scarab = turd-weevil
  • science = learncraft, the knowledges
  • second = twoth
  • somnolent = sloomy
  • spirit = poost
  • sublingual salivary glands = undertungish spittlethreezen
  • sugar = beeless honey
  • tabernacle = worship booth
  • underpants = netherbritches
  • undulating = wimpling
  • unintelligent = unthinkle
  • usurer = wastomhatster, wookerer
  • velociraptor = dashsnatcher
  • volcano = fireberg, welkinoozer
  • vowel = stevening
  • voyage = farfare
  • walrus = horsewhale

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You have been gifted a new Dadaist superpower. I release you unto the world with it.

Union names: Objections and replies

Last month I proposed a new solution to the problem of choosing family names: When you’re starting a family, you and your partners construct and adopt an entirely new middle name, a ‘union name‘ symbolizing your shared life and shared values. If you have children, this union name then becomes their surname.

Many people voiced enthusiasm about the idea, but many also raised interesting concerns and criticisms. I’ve collected them here, with my responses.

Objection 1: It’s better for women to be subordinate, and patrilineal family names help reinforce that. Patriarchal families and societies are happier, stabler, and more successful.

Response: Most women seem to want more autonomy, not less (Pew 2010). That’s very surprising, if autonomy makes them worse off. In fact, that bit of evidence on its own mostly settles the question, until we get strong evidence that women are systematically wrong in this highly specific way about their own interests. We find ourselves in a position similar to an abolitionist trying mightily to refute the claim that Africans love being slaves. Five minutes of talking to people, in a setting where they can talk freely, does the job, and we can move on to more interesting matters.

If there’s compelling evidence to the contrary, I’ll need to see it before I can say much more. On the political claim, too — I need some reason to doubt the surface-level appearance ‘gender equity makes societies more prosperous (Dollar & Gatti 1991; Brummett 2008), healthy (Kawachi et al. 1999), and just (Melander 2005)’.

Objection 2: Union names are too convenient. We should retain an annoying, difficult system, because then it will be more diagnostic of future relationship woes. If people have to fight over whose name gets passed on to the kids, that will ruin relationships that wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, have lasted.

Response: In general, it’s bad policy to make people’s lives worse as a test or trial, unless you are in desperate need for the data that such a test is likely to provide. (And have no other way to acquire such data.) There may be two false assumptions going into the above objection:

(i) Small inconveniences don’t matter. Lots and lots of small inconveniences distributed over a population will add up to have a big impact. And if by chance a lot of them happen in your life at once, they can certainly feel big! People are often under an unusual amount of pressure when they’re deciding whether to have kids or begin a serious long-term relationship. If there’s anything we can do to make their challenges at that stage in life more fun, inspiring, and pleasant, we should jump on the chance.

(ii) If you break up for dumb reasons, you would have broken up eventually anyway. That’s not how relationships work. First, relationships don’t remain at the exact same strength at all times; they can grow in strength. (Or shrink, or oscillate.) Second, failing to overcome a low-level challenge isn’t proof that you would also have failed at all high-level challenges. Bad break-ups can occur just because the wrong thing happened at the wrong time. Life is chaotic, and love’s dynamics are not constrained by what should have happened.

The take-away from this is that we should have compassion and try to make people’s lives better, in small ways and large ones. People don’t deserve solitude or angst just because we find the reason behind their relationship troubles silly.

Also: Union names are challenging. They do help test the strength of people’s commitment. But they do so in a way that tests a relevant skill for romantic and familial relationships. The ability to collaborate, make mutual compromises, come up with imaginative solutions, and find common ground — that’s what union names are training and testing. The ability to be dominant or subordinate, to demand unequal sacrifices, to adhere to out-of-date social norms — that’s what more traditional naming systems are training and testing. I think the former skills are more important for more people.

Objection 3: Naming your children from scratch is hard. Our naming conventions should streamline the process, not add more complexity.

Response: I’d expect social conventions to arise that give people obvious standard choices for surnames — name X after loved one Y, give X common popular name Y, … — so that most people don’t end up inventing names from scratch. That’s how given names currently work, so it’s probably how union names will work too.

As for why we should add even a small amount of work to the process: Human names actually matter. They can have a much bigger and more direct impact on our self-image and social relations than inanimate object names can. If union names encourage people to think and talk more carefully and cooperatively about what identity they want for themselves and their children, great!

Objection 4: Parents can’t be trusted to make up entirely new names for their children. Look how terrible they are just at coming up with decent first names!

Response: It’s certainly a shortcoming of union names that they allow parents to screw up their kids’ lives in more drastic ways. However, if we have mechanisms in place for keeping parents from choosing seriously socially harmful first names for kids, then those mechanisms should generalize to socially harmful surnames.

(In fact, giving parents more leeway might force bureaucrats to take this problem more seriously and put more laws on the books. So the end result could well be fewer irresponsible name choices.)

Objection 5: Giving people so much control makes it likely they’ll later be less happy with it. If you give them less freedom, they’ll grow attached to their choice and rationalize it more readily.

Response: Entirely true! In general, giving people more freedom lets them select more personalized options, but also makes them more indecisive, anxious, and likely to regret their decision. See Dan Gilbert’s excellent talk on synthetic happiness:

I accept this as a cost, but I think it’s worth it for all the advantages union names confer. Ultimately, we’ll just have to try them and see how they work. If binding families together in a more free, egalitarian, imaginative, and collaborative way doesn’t end up having as many (foreseen or unforeseen) benefits as one might suspect, then a much simpler, more automated system may turn out to be superior.

If people really just don’t care that much about surnames, then you could, for example, flip a coin to decide whose name gets taken on by everyone else. But my suspicion is that trivializing family bonds in that way isn’t the best solution available. (For instance, the parent who randomly has to change eir name may not be the one in the better position to bear the associated social costs.)

Objection 6: So why not just use a coin flip to decide which surname the children get, but let the parents have completely different names? Or leave the parents’ names intact, but use some arbitrary system to assign surnames to the children? For example, you could give the first child the alphabetically earliest surname of its parents, the second child the second-earliest surname, then keep cycling through.

Response: Coin flips and arbitrary conventions are admirably fair. But they still bear the cost of making the whole process seem meaningless and impersonal. Why not humanize and personalize our naming conventions, if we’ve found a relatively easy and simple way to do so?

I’m also wary of systems that give different surnames to the children, even randomly. First, I don’t want to encourage parents, even a little bit, to choose how many children they have based on an implicit desire to pass on their name, or on an implicit desire to equalize the distribution of names, or what-have-you. People’s decision-making is capricious and destructive enough without society going out of its way to distract them with shiny gold Name coins.

Second, I don’t want to factionalize families. These proposals all have the disadvantage of frequently leaving one family member excluded from an important symbolic tie that binds the rest of the family together. Compared to other systems, unity names are just what they sound like. They encourage familial unity more than any alternative does. They create a symbol that ties everyone in the group together, with no one left out in the cold, favored over the rest, or cut off into separate tribes; and they do so without any reliance on pointless infighting or dominance hierarchies.

My own parents went with: ‘The kids take on the father’s surname, but the mother’s name stays unchanged.’ In some ways that’s progress, but it’s still sexist and awkward. It means my mother’s forever cut off from the rest of the family. It means we can’t all rally together under one banner, lest we incur dissonance. It’s a small thing, but some small things matter.

Objection 7: Your system requires partners to come to an agreement on challenging, highly personal issues with many degrees of freedom. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Response: It’s true that union names demand some maturity and willingness to compromise in order to work. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The alternative is to make our naming conventions unequal (so one person gets final say) or arbitrary (so nobody gets final say).

That said, if two partners are completely unable to agree on a single name, they can still fall back on creating a union name that’s a hyphenated version of their two top choices. This may not be ideal, but it’s one of a variety of compromises the system allows. And since it gets replaced by the next generation’s union name (rather than merged with it), it doesn’t run into the problem of accumulating more and more names over time, and doesn’t become unmanageably large.

Objection 8: What about single parents?

Response: For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume a parent who has never been in any unions. (Though if ey has, that doesn’t solve this problem; you probably don’t want to falsely suggest that your child is in the same family as an unrelated ex of yours.) So the parent’s name is A B.

The simplest answer would be to just name the child C B, like most English speakers do today. But that will introduce confusion, because — assuming siblings are more common than single parents in this union-name-using community — people will initially think that A B and C B are siblings, rather than parent and child.

So I recommend sticking with the union system, and having the parent make up a new name D, change eir name to A D B, and name the child C D.

This has the advantage of allowing you to later ‘adopt’ a spouse Y Z into the same union — say, if you marry someone when the kid is still very young who ends up acting as the child’s caregiver. That new spouse will then take on the middle name D, becoming Y D Z.

If you tried to ‘adopt’ someone into you and your child’s family name without constructing a new union name, then you’d end up having to either: (a) look silly by doubling your own name and becoming A B B to match your spouse Y B Z; (b) look like your spouse’s child by remaining A B and having your spouse become Y B Z; or (c) have your spouse completely change surnames to Y B or Y Z B, which abandons the union name system and all its special advantages.

Just sticking to the union system in all cases seems easier, once it’s well-established. A family with one parent is just as real a family as any other, and deserves just as much to be commemorated with whatever rituals a society uses to honor familial ties.

Objection 9: Your system doesn’t allow traditionalists to pass on the torch of their name with any staying power. All trace of our names will be erased within two generations. That means that legacy names like ‘John Jones VII’ aren’t just discouraged; they’re impossible.

Response: This is true, but I’m not sure it matters very much. Names should be first and foremost about the individuals named. If those names refer to some historical event or lineage, that should be because the lineage is of unusual personal significance to the individual, not because the individual has been pressured into conforming to an arbitrary tradition. It’s a good thing if union names encourage people to construct their own identities as they build their deepest personal bonds and carry out the project of their lives, rather than encouraging people to base their identities primarily on the echoes and expectations of distant ancestors.

File:Arms of Great Britain in Scotland (1714-1801).svg

That said, union names don’t forbid ancestral naming traditions. If you really want to preserve your name across two or more generations, you can use an alternating system: Sam Boutros Ghali can beget Uma Ghali Boutros, who begets Shashi Boutros Ghali…. You’d just need to start families with people willing to take on one of your traditional names.

As for the impossibility of giving your child your exact name under this system… that’s definitely a feature, not a bug. Union names are a relatively poor choice if domineering creepiness or ambiguity are the things you want from your naming system.

Objection 10: But doesn’t that just reintroduce the problem of one partner getting to impose eir will on the other?

Response: Yes. This will be possible on any nonrandom system. Selfishness and inequality happen in relationships. Union names don’t make it impossible for partners to pressure each other into things they don’t want to do. Union names just make inegalitarian solutions unnecessary, and make the products of name negotiations more interesting and meaningful.

Objection 11: How do we tell ordinary middle names apart from union names?

Response: Well, we could stop giving children middle names so much. If we unambiguously use them only for unions, then we have a very convenient way of knowing people’s relationship history at a glance. Perhaps most people will be satisfied expressing their naming ideas through union names themselves, shrinking the desire for other bonus names.

Then again, maybe some ambiguity is good. Middle names add noise that creates a bit more privacy for people.

Another solution is to have an optional convention for marking the transition from personal names to union / sur-names in one’s full name. For instance, although this wouldn’t be required, you could inject the word ‘of’ before the first union name, if you really want to be clear about your name’s meaning. If personal middle names ever die out, though, this convention should die with it.

Objection 12: Union names make people think of their identities as tied to their partners’ and children’s identities. That’s unhealthy and/or unrealistic.

Response: I disagree. Our identities are tied to our loved ones. They shape our experiences, and draw out of us a specific persona. Both of those factors affect our personality on a deep level. It’s healthy to have some space from one’s family, but it’s also healthy to recognize how indebted we are to our friends, family, and community for who we are.

Hiding from your environment is not rediscovering what’s Authentically You; it’s refusing to acknowledge the part of the Authentic You that’s ineradicably bound up in the outside world.

Objection 13: Union names give parents total control over their children’s names, and very little control over their own names. The reverse makes far more sense. Children should pick their names as a rite of passage, reinforcing their autonomy and self-determination and discouraging parents from thinking of their children as possessions or works of art.

Response: This is a good objection! I do worry about all naming systems that simply impose the parents’ will on the next generation. Children should have a say in their identity — by default, not just if they go out of their way to buck social pressure. But they also need to be called something before they’re old enough to self-name. Some sort of compromise is needed.

My personal suggestion is to encourage children to legally change their first name when they reach a certain age. If this coming-of-age ritual generally leaves the surname intact, then it will remain consistent with the union name system.

I’ll keep expanding the above list as people keep having new ideas!

In defense of actually doing stuff

Most good people are kind in an ordinary way, when the intensity of human suffering in the world today calls for heroic kindness. I’ve seen ordinary kindness criticized as “pretending to try”. We go through the motions of humanism, but without significantly inconveniencing ourselves, without straying from our established habits, without violating societal expectations. It’s not that we’re being deliberately deceitful; it’s just that our stated values are in conflict with the lack of urgency revealed in our behaviors. If we want to see real results, we need to put more effort than that into helping others.

The Effective Altruism movement claims to have made some large strides in the direction of “actually trying”, approaching our humanitarian problems with fresh eyes and exerting a serious effort to solve them. But Ben Kuhn has criticized EA for spending more time “pretending to actually try” than “actually trying”. Have we become more heroic in our compassion, or have we just become better at faking moral urgency?

I agree with his criticism, though I’m not sure how large and entrenched the problem is. I bring it up in order to address a reply by Katja Grace. Katja wrote ‘In praise of pretending to really try‘, granting Ben’s criticism but arguing that the phenomenon he’s pointing to is a good thing.

“Effective Altruism should not shy away from pretending to try. It should strive to pretend to really try more convincingly, rather than striving to really try.

“Why is this? Because Effective Altruism is a community, and the thing communities do well is modulating individual behavior through interactions with others in the community. Most actions a person takes as a result of being part of a community are pretty much going to be ‘pretending to try’ by construction. And such actions are worth having.”

If I’m understanding Katja’s argument right, it’s: ‘People who pretend to try are motivated by a desire for esteem. And what binds a community together is in large part this desire for esteem. So we can’t get rid of pretending to try, or we’ll get rid of what makes Effective Altruism a functional community in the first place.’

The main problem here is in the leap from ‘if you pretend to try, then you’re motivated by a desire for esteem’ to ‘if you’re motivated by a desire for esteem, then you’re pretending to try’. Lo:

“A community of people not motivated by others seeing and appreciating their behavior, not concerned for whether they look like a real community member, and not modeling their behavior on the visible aspects of others’ behavior in the community would generally not be much of a community, and I think would do less well at pursuing their shared goals. [...]

“If people heed your call to ‘really try’ and do the ‘really trying’ things you suggest, this will have been motivated by your criticisms, so seems more like a better quality of pretending to really try, than really trying itself. Unless your social pressure somehow pressured them to stop being motivated by social pressure.”

The idea of ‘really trying’ isn’t ‘don’t be influenced by social pressure’. It’s closer to ‘whatever, be influenced by social pressure however you want — whatever it takes! — as long as you end up actually working on the tasks that matter’. Signaling (especially honest signaling) and conformity (especially productive conformism) are not the enemy. The enemy is waste, destruction, human misery.

The ‘Altruism’ in ‘Effective Altruism’ is first and foremost a behavior, not a motivation. You can be a perfectly selfish Effective Altruist, as long as you’ve decided that your own interests are tied to others’ welfare. So in questioning whether self-described Effective Altruists are living up to their ideals, we’re primarily questioning whether they’re acting the part. Whether their motives are pure doesn’t really matter, except as a device for explaining why they are or aren’t actively making the world a better place.

“I don’t mean to say that ‘really trying’ is bad, or not a good goal for an individual person. But it is a hard goal for a community to usefully and truthfully have for many of its members, when so much of its power relies on people watching their neighbors and working to fit in.”

To my ear, this sounds like: ‘Being a good fireman is much, much harder than looking like a good fireman. And firemen are important, and their group cohesion and influence depends to a significant extent on their being seen as good firemen. So we shouldn’t chastise firemen who sacrifice being any good at their job for the sake of looking as though they’re good at their job. We should esteem them alongside good firemen, albeit with less enthusiasm.’

I don’t get it. If there are urgent Effective Altruism projects, then surely we should be primarily worried about how much real-world progress is being made on those projects. Building a strong, thriving EA community isn’t particularly valuable if the only major outcome is that we perpetuate EA, thereby allowing us to further perpetuate EA…

I suppose this strategy makes sense if it’s easier to just focus on building the EA movement and waiting for a new agenty altruist to wander in by chance, than it is to increase the agentiness of people currently in EA. But that seems unlikely to me. It’s harder to find ‘natural’ agents than it is to create or enhance them. And if we allow EA to rot from within and become an overt status competition with few aspirations to anything higher, then I’d expect us to end up driving away the real agents and true altruists. The most sustainable way to attract effective humanists is to be genuinely effective and genuinely humanistic, in a visible way.

At some point, the buck has to stop. At some point, someone has to actually do the work of EA. Why not now?

A last point: I think an essential element of ‘pretending to (actually) try’ is being neglected here. If I’m understanding how people think, pretending to try is at least as much about self-deception as it is about signaling to others. It’s a way of persuading yourself that you’re a good person, of building a internal narrative you can be happy with. The alternative is that the pretenders are knowingly deceiving others, which sounds a bit too Machiavellian to me to fit my model of realistic psychology.

But if pretending to try requires self-deception, then what are Katja and Ben doing? They’re both making self-deception a lot harder. They’re both writing posts that will make their EA readers more self-aware and self-critical. On my model, that means that they’re both making it tougher to pretend to try. (As am I.)

But if that’s so, then Ben’s strategy is wiser. Reading Ben’s critique, a pretender is encouraged to switch to actually trying. Reading Katja’s, pretenders are still beset with dissonance, but now without any inspiring call to self-improvement. The clearest way out will then be to give up on pretending to try, and give up on trying.

I’m all for faking it till you make it. But I think that faking it transitions into making it, and avoids becoming a lost purpose, in part because we continue to pressure people to live lives more consonant with their ideals. We should keep criticizing hypocrisy and sloth. But the criticism should look like ‘we can do so much better!’, not ‘let us hunt down all the Fakers and drive them from our midst!’.

It’s exciting to realize that so much of what we presently do is thoughtless posturing. Not because any of us should be content with ‘pretending to actually try’, but because it means that a small shift in how we do things might have a big impact on how effective we are.

Imagine waking up tomorrow, getting out of bed, and proceeding to do exactly the sorts of things you think are needed to bring about a better world.What would that be like?

Solve surnames with union names

Proposal: When you start a family, make up a new name, a union name. This name goes right before you and your partner’s/s’ different surnames, which are left unchanged. If you have children, this union name is then their surname.

… And we’re done. That’s the entire idea. You can probably just stop reading now.

OK, maybe I should say a little more about why this system is such an improvement on the status quo. What are the problems with other surname-swapping paradigms? What specific advantages do union names offer?

__________________________________________________________________________

Problems with existing systems

These are legion, so I’ll break them up into several categories. First, problems with meeting in the middle:

  • Combining names via hyphens isn’t sustainable. Mr. Gramolini-Bronkhorst marries Ms. Bennett-Moore and becomes Mr. Gramolini-Bronkhorst-Bennett-Moore. Next generation, it grows to 5 or more names. TERRIFYING.
  • Combining names frequently looks and sounds ugly. Surname phonology is not generally people’s main criterion in selecting mates.
  • Smushing surnames together is cute (Nilsen + Pattel = Paltsen) but often unpronounceable, and makes reconstructing the original names very difficult.
  • There’s still some lingering asymmetry and uncertainty in deciding whose name goes first. This isn’t trivial, because if you get to keep your name in roughly the same alphabetical position, you take on less of the social and professional cost of switching surnames.

Problems with having one partner switch to the other’s surname:

  • Making the woman always switch surnames is sexist and dehumanizing.
  • … Why even force people to have the discussion? Squeezing relationships into this asymmetric mold introduces pointless tension and conflict.

Problems with surname-changing in general:

  • Making either person switch surnames can harm careers and hinder social networking.
  • Making either person switch surnames can scramble bureaucracies — making medical records hard to find, for instance.
  • Surname-switching is extra confusing if you go through multiple partnerships/marriages.
  • Surname-switching is extra confusing if you find a new partner while you already have kids. Do your kids switch too?

Problems with leaving names completely unchanged:

  • If neither you nor your partner switch surnames, it’s hard to figure out what your child should be named.
  • If you just make up an arbitrary last name for your child, it won’t have a name in common with you, which makes identifying relatives (e.g., for legal guardian purposes) needlessly difficult.

Besides, all the existing systems are just boring. Why not have surnames actually bear some direct relevance to the individuals who have them?

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Advantages of union names

An invented example of how union names work: The Fairburn/Alexandros family tree.

Symbolism. Union names retain the ritual advantages of conventional marital name-changing. Unions do involve a name alteration, so the significance of the event is branded into your identity in a stable, concrete, visible way. At the same time, people who don’t want to change their names at all are free to skip that step and just use union names for their kids’ surnames. This sacrifices some of the system’s advantages, but a flexible system is a good system.

Moreover, it says something worth saying about consent, mutualism, and moral equality if the same name change is undergone by all partners, rather than the change being asymmetrically imposed on one partner by the other.

A name also has more personal significance if it’s lovingly crafted by partners, rather than being an arbitrary historical relic.

Creativity. You have more freedom to make mellifluous (and super badass) names for your kids — and for yourself — since you aren’t stuck with an inherited surname you have to work around.

Flexibility. Unions names are accessible to lesbian, gay, and queer couples; to polyamorous unions; and to serial unions.

Informativeness. Children and their parents always share at least one name, and in a systematic fashion that makes it easy to trace family trees if you aren’t missing any generations.

If you’ve had multiple independent unions, and don’t want to re-use the same union name for each, it’s easy to tell what order the unions came in (left-to-right yields chronological order), and also easy to tell which children are associated with which partnerships.

If you’re looking at a bunch of names in a family reunion roster, a Facebook thread, or an address book, it’s also easy to discern their familial relationships at a glance, assuming no incestuous unions. People sharing last names are siblings. People sharing middle names are spouses. And if Qiáng’s middle name is the same as George’s surname, then George is Qiáng’s child. (It’s a deliberate feature that sibling and spousal relationships are symmetric, while parental ones are asymmetric.)

As I conceive them, surnames will be more public and professional and official — hence you have them from birth to death, unless you go out of your way to change ‘em — while union names would be more private and personal. A small family unit where the parents have union name Argestes (and therefore the children have Argestes as surname) might refer to itself as ‘clan Argestes’ or ‘the Argestes family’ in Christmas cards, whereas on census forms or medical documents it will just stick to individual surnames. It’s unfortunate that this system is very different from our current one, so it isn’t the easiest to transition into. But I think it’s the simplest option available, and the most sustainable.

Listen and judge: An interview with Marwa Berro

I recently participated in a meeting of ex-Muslims in Washington, D.C., attended by Richard Dawkins, Ron Lindsay, and a number of other leaders of the secular movement. One of the most eloquent and passionate speakers there — rivaling Dawkins — was Marwa Berro, a writer, activist, and philosopher who blogs at Between A Veil And A Dark Place. At the prompting of event organizer Alishba Zarmeen, I asked Marwa about her views on Islam, cultural pluralism, and the future of secularism.

Bensinger: Marwa, you’ve written some really eye-opening critiques of Islamic culture. But you’ve also been quite critical of other critics of Islam. Do you see yourself as a Muslim? In dialogues about Islam, do you find yourself identifying more with Muslim voices, or with non-Muslim ones?

Berro: This question is to me not one of what I write about, the content and subject-matter of my work, but of what spurs that sort of work, a question of personal identity. I identify strongly as both ex-Muslim and Muslimish (the specific brand of Muslimish being atheist Muslim). One is a negative identity (ie, a descriptor of what I am not) and the other is a positive identity (a descriptor of something I am).  I think there are some potentially confusing things going on with that, so let me explain.

First, the identity of ex-Muslim: I refer to Islam, something I’ve rejected, to personally describe myself. While it might be confusing, I find this incredibly meaningful.

Because in shedding Islamic doctrine I have not freed myself of its influence on me. I can remove the hijab as clothing but I can’t so easily remove its decade-and-a-half influence on my body and mind. Its residual effects live within me in the form of memories, concepts, questions and challenges related to body image, bodily autonomy, self-worth, gender identity, sexuality and objectification. They live with me as active, probing, burning matters. They are internal struggles I bear myself through and external battles I commit my voice and pen and heart to.

They are the smallest and most everyday of things: My neck exploding in freckles this summer for the first time in my life: how strange it is to see your 24-year-old body do a thing it has never done, how alarming that so simple a capacity in your very skin could be released with a catalyst as common as the sun, how appalling that it has never had the chance to do so, and how the questions and emotions bubble up  from this. Every experience of mine that is new, joyous, painful, meaningful in some way or another resonates in a deep and compelling way with the life I’ve lived, the doctrine and culture that socialized me.

I am not just non-religious. I have shed the skin of a certain religion, and it was a clutching, shaping, smothering, burning, heavy skin, and my being non-religious is defined by pushing myself out of it, and it always will be.

I also identify as an atheist Muslim because I strongly claim my cultural belonging, and much of my culture is intertwined with, inextricable from, Islamic practices and beliefs. I am an atheist, a humanist, a secularist, yes, but much of what informs my thought and my work, and especially much of what moves me and gives me joy, comes from the heart of the Arab Mediterranean. It is a lens, if you will, for the way in which I experience the world.

Bensinger: So you see yourself as culturally Muslim or Muslimish, but not as religiously Muslim. I have vastly less experience with Islam’s culture than with its doctrines; how has that background shaped your perspective?

Berro: I’m an artist. In my day-to-day life, I write and teach fiction, and I am working on a book of interconnected short stories about my hometown Beirut, and the characters that live in my head and whose lives I spend time and words on have rich, complex, dynamic religious identities.  I watch news reports in Arabic on YouTube and yearn for the tongue. My head snaps around almost unbidden and my heart skips a beat if ever I hear somebody speak Arabic on the street here in the American Midwest. I’ve retained some traditionally Islamic practices, particularly hygienic ones, that I find to be valuable. I still celebrate Eid when Eid comes around too, in much the same way atheists from Christian families still celebrate Christmas—it has marked for me, twice every year, a time of food and family and love and friendship and commitment. I cook Levantine food, halal food, alongside my primary partner’s mother’s amazing pork chops. My sensory comforts are all from home: the sound and smell of the sea, warm weather. I still wear the same multicolored scarves with intricate designs that I used as hijabs for many years. I have a way of speech, a warmness and candor about me that is specifically Arab, because we are spontaneous, welcoming, open people. Strangely, even though I am a particularly amusical person, the poetry of the Husseini dirges during Ashouraa, their hypnotic chest-tapping grief, moves me to this day. I consider the story of Hussein to be an epic tale that, rendered in poetry in the Iraqi dialect, gives me a stronger feeling than reading epic tales like Beowulf or the Iliad ever did and ever could. I consider the stories of the prophets, and the tales of death and redemption and aid from angels tied to Hezbollah resistance culture in the South of Lebanon too, to be the equivalent of folktales that can inspire and inform new art, new fiction.

I love all of these things about my culture. I know my culture. I claim my culture, and speak of it from a position of belonging, not from the position of being a defector. It is true that I am not a Muslim—I am, however, Muslimish. Leaving Islam does not entail a separation from the cultural, societal, and political issues that have always shaped my very existence, whose intricacies I have delved in intellectually in order to find out who and what I am.

And when I go to sleep at night, it is always with the hope that I will dream of Beirut.

Bensinger: Given your background, Marwa, I can understand why your writing focuses on issues in Muslim communities. Still, looking at the hostility Western media often directs at Islam, don’t you think it’s unfair to single out this one religion for special criticism? Why not treat Islam the same as any other religion?

Berro: I do not believe Islam is singled out for criticism. If anything, there is less of a willingness to approach Islam with the same force and confidence that other religions are criticized with. The existence of a specific term demonizing the critique of Islam but no other term demonizing the critique of any other ideology or religion is very telling.

Bensinger: I assume you mean “Islamophobia“.

Berro: Yes. If the question is why I criticize Islam to the exclusion of other religions in my blogging, then the answer is simple.

I know more about it and can speak to it, and it is personally important to me. I can only speak about that which I am informed of. Likewise, I can speak best and most compellingly about that which touches me most.

The second part of the answer is that there is something unique about Islam. Islam does differ from other religions in crucial ways that do influence how it is to be dealt with. I have a blog post about that here.

Bensinger: In your view, what can moderate Muslims do to better combat extremism?

Berro: Value diversity. You interpret Islam in one way, and others interpret it in another, and others will interpret it in yet another, seventy times seven times. Thus concentrate less on defending the ‘true’ Islam because very, very few people are going to be talking about the same thing you are when you say ‘Islam’, and more on defending the right to believe and practice freely without imposing your view on others or infringing on their similar rights.

Emphasize that freedom of religion is a right, no matter how it is practiced or interpreted. That freedom is one that you yourself, as a Muslim, should value above all else.

I understand that you believe your faith to be a common good, a truth, a meaningful and enlightening thing, and that you hate seeing it denigrated either through misuse or misunderstanding. Perhaps consider that the best way to prevent this is to help create a world where nobody will have reason to denigrate your faith, because nobody will, in the name of your faith, commit the human rights violations that you consider to be misuse or misunderstanding of your faith. Recognize that those who kill or maim or hurt to defend the name of your faith do so because they don’t believe it is a human right for others to choose not to follow it or to flout its rules or beliefs.

Emphasize that human right.

Value diversity. Value choice.

Bensinger: What can we do to empower ex-Muslim and liberal Muslim critics of traditional Islam?

Berro: Listen to us. Enable our voices by hosting them on mainstream media platforms. Help make the ex-Muslim voice and the liberal Muslim voice normalized, because it is unfortunately the case that these voices are considered inauthentic and thus discounted because we are not viewed as Muslims or ‘true’ Muslims. This happens in the West sometimes because of a fear, I think, of cultural appropriation, of being racist.

But here’s the thing. There is so much talk of what we are not. We are not meant for your consumption, we are not your orientalist dream. Clamorous are the voices that say this. But tenuous is the discourse that is willing to discuss what is ours, what we can have, what can be fought for on our behalf if we do not have the means to fight for it ourselves, if it is not already granted to us by our cultural norms.

The discourse surrounding cultural appropriation powerfully rests upon the simple concept, acknowledged by many and addressed to the white West, that when you view what is ours through the lens of your own privileged understanding, you bar us from agency and choice and self-determination.

But when does the fear of cultural appropriation blend into the dangers of cultural relativism?

When it starts to enable our belonging to a cultural tradition above our individual identities. Except that we are human subjects, and our cultures belong to us more than we belong to them.

It becomes dangerous when talk of what we are not enables the delegitimization of our voices when we try to speak of what we are, what we can have. When suddenly we become defectors, apostates, and our discourse is discounted as imperialist Western brainwashing.

The irony is that we are not given that power, of the agential voice. We are not considered to be appropriating Western values when we endorse and adopt them, because to suggest that a brown woman can take Western ideas and turn them into her own brand of feminism and agency is unthinkable. Instead our discourse is thought of being a flimsy vapid imitation of the West. It comes as a surprise to some Westerners if and when we end up educated enough to teach white children their own languages, if our English is impeccable, our diction refined, our knowledge of Western identity and gender politics well-formulated.

And once accepted, this somehow discredits us as brown women, as people from Muslim cultures. We are discounted as inauthentic commentators on what was always-and-every issue governing our socialization, our actualization, our politicization because we break out of the bounds of our cultural dictates in doing so.

And when we are discounted by our cultural leaders and spaces, a fear of cultural appropriation bars us from having a platform from which to speak elsewhere.

This stems from a fear of judging. Is it then possible that in order to not judge, people tend not to listen?

So listen to us. Listen to us, understand us, ask us questions, let us teach you about our religious backgrounds so that you too can become informed commentators and help us dispel the erroneous and focus on effective solutions.

Help make it a normal thing, a universally acknowledged and accepted thing for an ex-Muslim to speak about Islam and be considered a valuable and informed commentator.

We need your help in being heard.

Bensinger: Why is help needed? Why do I hear so few people talking like this?

Berro: We are black sheep. We are rejected by many of the people and organizations that socialized us. Those of us who are public are accused of being imperialist tools of the West, of getting paychecks from Zionist organizations, of being part of a larger agenda of globalization and other such ludicrous nonsense.

Also, and this is sickening, horrifying, the women among us are often subjected to the crudest forms of misogynistic threats of rape and violence for daring to advocate for human rights. Our causes are routinely reduced to a desire to legalize sin and fornication and lewdness (all imagined evils) and any humanistic values we endorse are brushed aside as a mere front.

Many of us are also in hiding, and bear significant social and material costs for being what we are. Apostasy bears a great social burden in Muslim societies. At the very least, we are shunned, outcast, disowned if we were to go public. Others of us simply cannot. We live in places with such inescapable codes of living that we are not free to choose a nonreligious life and must continue to practice rituals of faith as though we believed, and are thus forced to suppress ourselves, and live a lie.

Others who are less lucky suffer violence in brutal ways as the recompense for sin. In many areas of the Muslim world, death is called for as the just punishment for apostasy. In other places, death or brutalization as punishment for apostasy is not technically legal but is overlooked when it does happen. The acceptance of it is surprisingly (or not) mainstream, as this Pew Poll shows.

I will quickly here note that both I and some close friends have suffered unjustifiable violence at the hands of our own families in response to perceived ‘sin’ we committed.

And for those of us who are capable of speaking—our voices aren’t loud enough on their own to cast light onto the invisible, in-the-closet apostate from Islam that has no recourse and is trapped in a way of life they cannot adhere to with good conscience and find too dangerous or costly to leave.

Bensinger: What about voices from outside the Muslim world? What can people from more secularized cultures do to effectively criticize religion?

Berro: I view the issue of secularism to be one of practical political philosophy, and when it comes to practical political philosophy, I am a moral consequentialist who emphasizes procedure. Based on that, these are my suggestions:

  • Ask yourself why you are criticizing religion. What is your purpose, goal? What valuable thing are you trying to achieve in criticizing a religion? And then line up the manner in which you critique religion with those goals. Look at what you’re doing already and ask yourself if it serves those goals and how. For instance, questions to be posed could be: How would using racializing, generalizing, stereotyping, alienating, or aggressive language achieve any of those goals? Conversely, how would being too afraid of being accused of xenophobia or bigotry to make an honest, compelling, no-nonsense critique serve those goals?
  • Stop making the mistake of separating the practices and beliefs of followers of a religion from the religion itself. That’s a cop-out that detracts from honest criticism of the ways in which religious doctrine informs, influences, and contributes to violence and human rights violations committed by religious people.
  • Be less concerned with the image of a religion, and what the ‘real’ or ‘true’ version of a religion is, and more about dealing with the real-world consequences of the actions of its followers. People are more valuable than ideas. People’s lives and wellbeing and freedom and safety are more valuable than defending or condemning an abstract concept. Here’s a hint: Nobody agrees on what the ‘true’ version of a religion is. It does not exist.
  • Don’t treat religions as monoliths. They are not monoliths. They are the incredibly varying beliefs and practices of their followers, and in order to effectively discuss them, you must discuss them according to their semantic content and their material effects. You must not equate them with each other or reduce them to either their most positive aspects or their most negative aspects. You must not lump them all together and treat them the same. Islam is different from other religions in many ways, and those differences need to be addressed when we think about how to discuss Islam. You will not fix a problem by ignoring its particular identifying characteristics.

Here are some concrete suggestions I’ve given for discussing Islam in particular.

Bensinger: Why does the issue of secularism matter? What does it mean for a society to be secular, or for an individual to be a secularist?

Berro: As commonly understood, a secular society is one in which religious institutions and the state are separate, neither interfering with the functioning of the other. It relates directly to freedom, the freedom to conduct yourself and believe what you will, insofar as that does not infringe upon the freedom of others.

It matters because societies are pluralistic. Because there is a large variety of personally fulfilling ways of living decent human lives, and no single one of these can be mandated at the level of the state. It matters because the followers of certain belief systems do want to be allowed to bring their own codes of living into public spaces where other people live.

Many religions tend to want to dictate an objective, universal code of living and belief system for humanity in general, and if they are allowed to pass legislature at the state level that enforce their particular system of belief upon others, then they will be infringing upon the the fundamental human right of self-determination.

It can range from less dangerous to more dangerous things: A comparatively benign example is holding prayer in public or state schools even if the children do not belong to that religion or do not desire to be brought into it and do not wish to pray to a god they don’t believe in or in a manner that they don’t subscribe to. More extreme is sentencing a woman who has had sex to 100 lashes because in a particular religion it is considered immoral to have sex outside of marriage.

A particular problem I’ve noticed when considering personal autonomy and freedom of religion is the tendency to discount religious influence on legislature because it is not explicitly presented as such. For instance, my home country Lebanon, which endorses no state religion and considers itself secular, has a slew of laws that are not justified in explicitly religious terms but that only exist because of religious influences on the culture. For instance, a law condemning ‘unnatural’ sex acts and thus used to arrest LGBTQ individuals. Or the repeated vetoing of a law criminalizing domestic violence based on the justification that it threatens the closeness of familial bonds.

Thus the various influences and justifications for legislature must be examined, along with whether they are based in a particular worldview that infringes upon the rights of others and is inconsistent with the existence of others. That should be the standard for whether or not legislature is secular: is it consistent with the existence of various worldviews given that no human rights are being violated?

Bensinger: The Washington, D.C. event was the first large-scale Muslimish meet-up of its kind. What did you think of it?

Berro: It was a life-changing experience for me.

Firstly, because of community:

One thing that apostates can often be heard voicing is ‘I thought I was alone.’

The concept of apostasy is so demonized and unthinkable that it sometimes is difficult for those bearing its social costs to consider that there might be others like them, a community, that they can reach out to, talk to, support and feel supported by.

I’ve been collaborating and sharing experience and insight and dreams and hopes with an online network of apostates in North America for the past few months, but the meetup in DC at the end of this past September was a thing of joy and splendor for me. I felt a sense of community, belonging, solidarity, of encompassing and welcoming that I have not felt in a long time. These were people with similar struggles, similar experiences of adversity, similar intellectual journeys and interests. I could speak my language again. I could refer to specific cultural things, have inside jokes, that other people understood and we could discuss them in open, versatile ways, without fear of being quieted or punished or being accused of an imagined crime called ‘blasphemy’.

Because our pains were similar, we could understand and comfort each other in unique ways. Because our joys, too, were things we had in common, as well as the experiences of leaving Islamic rituals behind and experiencing new things like intimate relationships, the sun on our hair, swimming in public, eating bacon for the first time as adults. That it was forbidden to us for so long made it sacred to us in a way that we probably would be at loss to explain to others.

I was also struck, and really am almost ashamed of how surprising this was for me, by how respectful and nonjudgmental everyone around me was. I have never been utterly surrounded by people from strong Muslim cultures without feeling controlled or judged or manipulated in some way, especially by men. But I was there with my primary partner and we were at a raging afterparty with booze and cuddles and romance all around and I did not feel a shred of shaming or misogyny directed at my immodest dress and conduct. It was heartwarming and nearly brought me to tears.

Secondly, because of the amazing amount of goodwill and human kindness we were given.

We met with prominent leaders of secular organizations nationally and worldwide. Present were Richard Dawkins, Edwina Rogers (Secular Coalition for America and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Ronald A Lindsay (Center for Inquiry), Richard Haynes (Atheist Nexus), and Jennifer Beahan (also CFI, in collaboration with Muslimish, which is now an official chapter of CFI).

Leaders from these organizations came to meet us in DC specifically to discuss the ways in which they could help us. How they could support us, what they could offer us. How the larger secular community as a whole could support the Muslim apostate cause.

It was made very clear that we belonged, that they considered our plight crucial, and that we were to be welcomed as an integral part of the secular community.

Also, and I say this because of the stigma attached to apostasy and its inherent voicelessness, it is incredible how we were listened to.

We were not spoken at. We were not given terms or conditions. We were offered several avenues of help, and given suggestions for ways in which we could be supported, and then we were asked.

We were asked what we thought could be done for us. We were asked what aspects of the apostate condition we thought were most crucial, and what ideas we had for addressing us.

Although we were well over 100 strong in the room, we were all given opportunity to ask questions of the secular leaders before us, and give them comments and feedback.

Bensinger: What were the most important issues and ideas you encountered there?

Berro: Some specific issues we talked about were:

  • The unique situation of women from Muslim cultures, because they are the largest sufferers under Islamism, and enabling the voices of ex-Muslim women, and broadcasting their experiences. Since then, a project called the Ex-Muslim Women’s Network has gone through several planning stages.
  • The situation of apostates in Muslim-majority countries, and strategies for creating places of freethought and skeptical inquiry where they feel welcome that are safe, undetectable, and sustainable.
  • The situation of seekers of asylum and refugees who happen to be atheists or apostates, who often lack sponsors or legal support from secular organizations, and thus have to be sponsored by religious organizations such as the YMCA.
  • The situation of reconciling positive cultural elements with a lack of faith, methods for creating families and communities that retain culture while shedding the religious doctrine and terminology.
  • The situation of apostates in the West, who often are utterly socially constrained, bringing them awareness that they are not alone, and helping them leave suppressive home situations.

Bensinger: I found the meeting moving and inspiring as well. For that matter, this discussion has given me a lot of new hope, new understanding, and a renewed sense of urgency. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself, Marwa. Is there a last word you’d like to share with people reading this? Any new projects, or ways for us to follow your work?

Berro: I’d like to conclude with a shout-out to EXMNA. Since our DC meetup, the Ex-Muslims of North America has launched the Ex-Muslim Blogs, the world’s first single website that acts as a unified platform for ex-Muslim thought in all its rich variety and insight. I think this an incredibly revolutionary and important endeavor, and am proud to have Between A Veil and A Dark Place hosted there; it is the beginning of the normalization of the ex-Muslim voice. And finally, I’d like to mention that I’m collecting stories and experiences from ex-Muslim women or women who have been influenced in one way or another by Muslim societies for a new guest-blog series at my website, the Stories from Ex-Muslim Women. Feel free to query me at aveilandadarkplace@gmail.com.

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