13 October, 2017

On Violence

My value system strongly prefers a lack of suffering. To that end, I try to practice nonviolence.

But it wasn't always this way. Here are a few examples from when I was a child:
  • When I was young, I would play games with my friends where we would act out battles as fighters and wizards. We used long hardwood sticks as our swords and small rocks as our spells. It only count as a hit in our play if it also hit in real life. I always hit hard.
  • I practiced several martial arts in my youth, with the most emphasis on tae kwon do.
  • Both in school and at home, if I did something particularly considered wrong, I would receive corporal punishment. This included 'spankings' by a paddle and by a switch, as well as one case where I was thrown through a door.
  • We had a hill of dirt that the neighborhood kids would play upon. Whoever could stay at the top would be king of the hill; everyone else lost. The violence ratcheted up in this game to the point where one person rushed the hill with a literal fire axe. He won that day.
  • Even the practical jokes that my dumb friends played were particularly violent. Whereas some kids might wait for a mark to fall asleep and then paint their face, or put whipped cream on their hand and tickle their forehead, the joke favored by my friends was to take a sharp knife and aim it directly above a sleeping person's eyeball, then wait for them to wake up and see it looming above them.
  • On one occasion, I was in the restroom and could hear others coming to rush the door. My assumption was the the joke du jour would be them opening the restroom door unexpectedly while I was inside, so I reacted by buttressing the door shut with my bare hands. Instead, their chosen joke was to pierce the door with a longsword. It went both through the door and the palm of my hand. The emergency room visit that day was not fun.
It would have been good if I had matured away from violence, but, instead, I became an adult that viewed violence as not that big of a deal. I became a bully. I was violent with friends, with family, and in my relationships. I am not proud of what I did.

Over time, I slowly grew past violence. At first, it was a selfish change; I wanted more out of my life and I intellectually realized that refraining from violence was the best way to get what I wanted. It is somewhat surreal to read those past journal entries from a time where I avoided violence completely even while still being philosophically okay with the concept of using violence.

Eventually, as I became more philosophically literate, I began to change how I thought about violence. Over the course of a decade and a half, I went from being happily violent to being philosophically committed to nonviolence. It's a change of which I am both exceedingly proud and terribly embarrassed.

It's been seven years since I last exhibited violence out of anger. In the past seven years, I've only once exhibited threats of violence for what I felt was a justified reason.

I thought it might be helpful to list here some of the outbursts I experienced while I was still in the transition phase, in case it may help others who are also trying to curb what violent tendencies they may have.
  • At one point, I could feel myself getting angry. I felt it was important to lash out at an object rather than a person, so I punched through a window with my bare hands. It hurt. From my perspective at the time, this was an example of me holding back and being responsible by not harming another living being; but from the perspective of today, it just feels like a terribly violent moment during the period where I was actively trying not to be violent.
  • Another time, as I felt myself becoming especially angry, I decided to upend a cup of water rather than do anything actually damaging. To my mind at the time, I thought this to be a good escape valve; now I feel especially bad for the person that I got wet.
Eventually, I was able to curb these impulses entirely. I attribute the change mostly to the use of the "fake it 'til you make it" method, where I made myself be less violent for so long and so often that eventually I just wasn't violent anymore. It also helped to physically put myself into the shoes of those who are less advantaged — I did the food stamp challenge for a few weeks (while sleeping in a warm bed each night), I experienced a life of homelessness on the streets for a couple of weeks (while eating lavish dinners each night), and I went on trips to underprivileged areas to meet and interview real people and write about them in charity magazines and blogs.

Philosophical aside:
Today, I self-identify as a political pacifist, not because I think violence never works, but because I am doubtful that it has worked at the state level in any historical war. (I can imagine what a just war might look like, possibly with varelse, where extreme violence might be warranted, but I'm not sure that even WWII would qualify as a just war.) I am also vegetarian. I consider both pacifism and veganism to be closely related to the philosophy of nonviolence, which I endorse mainly because I desire suffering to be bad, and violence tends to create suffering.
By early 2011, I had finally become the nonviolent person that I had decided to philosophically become over ten years earlier. It amazes me that it took so long. It also embarrasses me to realize just how difficult it is to self-modify even behaviors that one is philosophically set against.

In the past seven years, there has only been one experience where I've exhibited a threat of violence. I've worried about and replayed the issue in my head multiple times, wondering if I did the right thing, and whether I would do the same if I encountered the situation again.

It was five years ago. A young teenage cousin of mine kept bullying both myself and those around me. It was small stuff, repeated endlessly. Stealing my phone when I wasn't looking so he could play games. Then the following week stealing my laptop. He'd do the same to his other cousins, taking their balls or other toys when no adults were looking. My reaction was always relatively meek. Eventually, he escalated. One day, at a birthday party of our cousin, he started threatening to destroy a board game piece, so that we would stop playing that game and instead play some other game with him. I explained to him that destroying the game was unacceptable behavior, but he doubled down, saying I wouldn't do anything to him even if he did it.

A part of me is proud of this moment. In the past, this behavior would have made me angry. But I realized in that moment that I was finally at the point where I could look at situations like this coolly. I thought for a second, then said: "If you attempt to destroy this board game, I will physically restrain you." He grabbed the piece from the table and started to break it — but I grabbed and held him before he could do so. I was gentle, but firm. His impression of me as someone meek evaporated that day, and he never treated me or my siblings that way in my presence again.

On the one hand, it was just a board game piece. It would have easily been replaced. Was it justified for me to react in the way I had? It did help to teach him not to bully his cousins in front of me. But I was in my thirties; he was barely a teenager. I'm honestly not sure if I acted completely appropriately.

Regardless, I am sure that I acted without anger. It feels good to know that I can honestly call myself a non-violent person now. I'm proud that seven years are about to pass where I have been completely free of violence.

06 October, 2017


I keep finding myself using disgust as a reason to deny moral value.

Intellectually, I realize this is a mistake. I'm consequentialist (at least I think I want to be, maybe), and when I look at Haidt's Julie/Mark-style situations, I typically answer as a consequentialist would. When making most moral decisions in my life, I try my best to avoid using disgust to make my decisions. And yet, disgust creeps its way into my moral landscape.

To understand why this happens, I first need to distinguish between myself (Me1), who acts in ways that I act, and the person (Me2) that I wish I could be, who acts in ways that I wish I would act. I don't currently live life to the fullest; I don't fully enjoy the pleasures of life that I could. I don't help others in need as much as I should. I don't do the proper amount of exercise, nor eat the diet that would best suit my body. There is so very much I would change, if I could get around my akrasia.

Yet it's not enough to look at who I am (Me1) and who I want to be (Me2). There's also who I want to want to be (Me3) -- this is the person that I wish I could want to be. If I'm going to take ethics seriously, then I should want to follow the demands that seem so obvious to me. I should want to help others as effectively as is sustainable and marketable for me.

As an example, I (Me1) spend a modest amount of time each week working directly with effective altruism organizations. I wish that I (Me2) would instead reorganize my life so that I could devote more time to EA stuff. But, deep down, I feel as though I (Me3) should instead wish to do as much as I possibly could do to help the EA cause.

And yet, this rundown of desires and meta-desires is not enough to fully describe how I feel about this, because there is an even deeper version: Me4, who feels disgust at the idea of dramatically changing Me1 to Me3. From Me4's point of view, it would be almost like committing suicide if I actually followed through with changing myself from Me1 to Me3Me4 represents how I feel about how I would want to want to change myself. Despite my attempts to avoid using disgust in moral considerations as I look as my desires through Me2 and Me3, I nevertheless end up acknowledging disgust when looking at my meta-meta-desires.

When a change is small enough, I'm okay with it. I get up each day only slightly feeling as though I may have died the previous night. But when I think back to the Eric of ten years ago, I cringe. I am so very, very different from that person. I think of him as an ancestor, not as me. When I think about the future Eric ten years' hence, I do not want him to be so different. I want him to share my values! Don't get me wrong: I don't mind extrapolating my volition. There are surely facts in the world that would cause me to do things differently were I to truly understand them. If future Eric makes different decisions because he's learned more true facts, then I count that Eric as myself -- it's just that he's in a better position to know what to do.

But if his values are as different to mine as mine are to the past Eric of a decade ago, then he is not just me in a different time period. No, then he is more like my offspring. A person close to me in many ways, but who is decidedly not me.

This feeling of hidden discontinuity comes about from feelings of disgust at the idea of suicide. I don't want to die. I don't want future Eric to hold such disparate values. The entire reason I hold the values I do is because those are the values that I would instantiate into infinity. I would make them the rule in extended space, in the far reaches of the future, etc. Of course, I don't mean to so universalize wrong principles, so I'm not saying that the vocalization of my values is what is sacrosanct. Rather it is the ideas behind them, of equity, fairness, etc., that I dare not express too succinctly in words. To the extent that I am mistaken in true facts about the world, the way that we would express those values might change -- but the values themselves would not should not.

To the extent that I should change my mind in the future, there is no reason not to also make that shift today, so there is no reason to suspect that future Eric should have reason to change value systems that I would not also consider reasons to change my current value system. While I am in favor of changing one's mind in the face of new facts, I am not inclined to change my value system unless there is good reason to do so (moral trade might make it better for my values if I vector-average with others' values (even acausal trade could make this happen); learning the basis of why I have a value might cause me to hold that value less or more strongly; etc.).

I do not want to die. I do not want future Eric to not be me. I do not really want Me3 to actualize. Yes, I'd like to self-improve to Me2. But Me3 is too far, even though Me3 is the better man.

It is the disgust of Me4 at the idea of committing suicide that causes me to not wish to change beyond my current desire to move from Me1 to Me2.

Death occurs much more often in a single life than most people realize. I want to be a better me, but Death is the enemy. I must become better without committing suicide.