Moral event horizons

I realized that there are some aspects of my moral compass which I’ve never really touched upon here on the blog before which might help readers better realize ‘where I’m coming from’.

So yesterday I was thinking about which acts people might do to me (or to people I care a great deal about) that would put them outside the narrow circle of people I’d be interested in ever interacting with again. Unforgivable acts. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept mentioned in the title, here’s a link.

Highly educated people, which most of my readers presumably are or at least will be at some point, are less likely to be religious, and they’re probably also less likely to be moral absolutists and more likely to take situational factors and -details into account when passing judgments than are most humans. If you’re better able to handle complexity you’re able to make use of more complex moral algorithms. Which probably means that readers of this blog will have a harder time coming up with unforgivable acts than are people in general.

I’d be curious to know what’s on your specific list (even if you’ve never made a list – no, especially if you’ve never made a list).

All actions for which I’d support the death penalty naturally go on my list – so burning people alive because you like to burn people alive and think that it’s a lot of fun, for example, will make you cross my horizon. But the relevant punishment metric here is permanent punishment by social rejection undertaken by an individual, not death – so limiting myself to such types of criminal behaviour is very, well, limiting; surely there are actions which I consider to be unforgivable but which I do not believe should merit capital punishment? It turns out that the answer is yes – two things which immediately sprang to mind to me was 1) violence as a (not self-defence-related) conflict resolution mechanism, and 2) serious threats used as status signals/power displays/bargaining tools. If you behave that way it’s game over – we’ll never interact again, at least not if I remember who you are or recognize you. You may think these preferences are very common, but through the chess club I’ve interacted with people from different social and educational backgrounds and I can tell you they’re certainly very far from universal. Presumably part of what sets me apart from people who think differently in the West is the fact that I do not consider alcohol intoxication (or drugs) to be a mitigating factor in such circumstances. This is relevant because a lot of bad behaviour, including criminal behaviour, is alcohol-related. My motivation for rejecting people based on these metrics is not only that I perceive of such acts as reprehensible, but also that such behaviour covaries strongly with a variety of other unfavourable traits and behaviours, and so I take it that the acts can reasonably reliably be used by me as an indicator variable for whether I’d be likely to get enough out of the relationship for it to be worth pursuing.

I have been considering if severe breaches of trust should be treated in a similar manner, and I do believe that in severe cases I would react that way. But what constitutes a ‘severe breach’ is not entirely clear to me ex ante, and to complicate matters further a breach of trust is always a two-sided affair; it’s always partly your own fault if you’re subject to such an act because you were the one who chose to trust the other party, which is the entire reason why that trust could be violated (if one trusts a fool, who’s the fool?). Most cases of rape incidentally to some extent belong in this category as well; stranger rapes only make out a small fraction of all rapes, and many of the others involve to some extent a breach of trust by one party – the concepts of consent and trust are closely interrelated.

In the past I tended to punish political divergence from my own viewpoints much more severely than I do now when it comes to social stuff. It’d not be easy for me to identify a lot of truly unforgivable viewpoints, but I know that at least one such viewpoint does exist – if you favour executing people who leave your religion, like a lot of people do even today, then we don’t have anything to talk about. Game over, I can’t ever trust you.

On a related if also different note; it’s not a specific thing he does, but there’s a certain ‘type’ of domineering male (arrogant, sense of entitlement, likes power) which I’ll actively avoid just because of his personality characteristics. I mention this type specifically because that type of person will sometimes want to interact with me; most other ‘types’ I avoid, to the extent that such types exist, generally don’t want to interact with me either so I don’t really need to do anything to achieve the preferred outcome in those cases.

My impression is that I tend to punish impoliteness much more severely than most people do. Behave like a jerk when you’re around me and you won’t be around me for long. You don’t need to be particularly polite, you just need to not be impolite – the two are not collectively exhaustive.

I should point out that I’m perfectly aware that the rejection strategy I employ involves potentially missing out on stuff – people may change their minds and become pleasant people with whom to interact even though they did something ‘unforgivable’ at some point in the past. So there’s no need to think up a counter-example where you illustrate that it’d be absurd for me to keep rejecting the guy, and so it’s better always to retain the option of reconnecting. I know such ‘counterexamples’ exist – some people do change, but on average it still seems smarter to me not to interact with people who did X, because a lot of people never did X in the first place and they’re on average more likely to be pleasant people.

As mentioned I’d love to know what you guys think about these (and related) matters. It doesn’t necessarily need to be outright unforgivable actions; it could also just be opinions/viewpoints/actions which will mean that you’ll cut contact (but may consider reinitiating later).

May 13, 2013 - Posted by | ethics, personal


  1. No doubt some will describe me as being overly judgmental after reading my list of criteria, but I consider them to be very useful for screening. Since I am highly introverted, I am very selective about whom I spend my time with.

    1. If they profess a belief in any kind of superstition — it ranges from astrology to Christianity to MBTI. Of course, it is reasonable question if I am being overly harsh for dismissing people who endorse MBTI — after all, if they have heard of MBTI in the first place, they can’t be *that* uneducated. However, I believe that it is highly probable that a person who approves of MBTI is someone who (a) lacks curiosity, or/and (b) does not care much about applying the tools of scientific inquiry to mainstream memes.

    2. If they are politically correct — it ranges from espousing third-wave feminism to saying something like “I will *never* kill an innocent stranger for *any* amount of monetary reward” to claiming that there is no difference in IQs among races.

    3. If they take themselves too seriously — for example, there are some hard-core atheists who would look askance at you when you exclaim ‘Jesus!’ in exasperation. Interacting with them is just tiring.

    Comment by Miao | May 13, 2013 | Reply

    • (Thank you for the comment!)

      We talked on Skype but it’s useful to add stuff to the discussion here too. All the factors you mention are factors I also take into account when figuring out how desirable would be a potential social relationship with the other party. But I don’t think any of them on their own would automatically lead to permanent rejection in my case.

      However it must be said that your comment made me remember a specific type of behaviour not mentioned in the post which I also tend to punish severely; when people deny facts. This most often happens in political discussions where people find it particularly hard to separate is and ought (Razib Khan put it more bluntly in a comment recently; “in politics the truth is determined by politics” – to some extent this is true, which is yet another reason why I’m not particularly keen on discussing such matters), and so as I generally try to stay clear of such discussions it’s not often an issue; but sometimes I will get into a political argument, and when that happens I most likely will make statements which aim to clarify which tradeoffs are relevant in this political area – and if someone tells me I’m wrong about which tradeoffs are relevant then they deny facts, and then that’s a black mark which is hard to get off again. It’s hard to get rid of also because as I consider it quite costly for me to engage in these discussions in the first place I as a general rule only do it when I feel that I’m well enough informed about the matters at hand to actually have an opinion, and that bar is higher for me than for most people. (hypothetical: I read 40 papers on labour market policy because that was the curriculum for my labour economics course, and now I find myself talking to some guy who’s ignoring what I’m telling him about the relevant tradeoffs and issues in the field because he’d obviously rather that the real world was different – well, screw him, unless there are extenuating circumstances that’ll probably be the last time I talk to that guy. Not knowing what to think when presented with new data is fine, withholding judgment is fine, yes almost to be expected – but denying or ignoring facts is not fine, and if you persist after I call you out on that you need to be a brother or similar to not get a (very) black mark on your record).

      You mention superstition and so I figured I should bring up religion. For many Danish people religious views will not come up in discussions unless one party in the discussion is particularly keen on bringing up that topic – it’s not something people generally talk about, at least not people in my limited social sphere. In terms of how I approach such matters I’ve become better at taking this factor into account than I used to be; by now I know that if I do not bring up this stuff people will generally not feel compelled to repeat the lies they have a hard enough time convincing themselves of. So it’s not particularly hard to stay clear of this topic, and most of the time I’ll think of that as the preferable outcome, especially considering the fact that you’ll never change anybody’s mind about these matters simply by discussing these matters with them (at least it’s much too unlikely to be worth my time – especially considering that if they’re that easy to talk out of religion, well…). So the way it works is: I’ll think less of people who hold absurd beliefs if I happen to find out they hold such beliefs, but I won’t actively ask about that stuff, and as long as people don’t talk about them when I’m around I care little about what gods they may pray to when they lay scared in their beds, fearing death. However if they feel the need to talk about their gods when I’m around, that is another black mark to add to the list – this is a good way to make me lose any desire to interact with you. And so it turns out that there’s a moral event horizon which applies here as well; if I learn that someone is a priest, well, that is game over and you’re not coming back from that. I hold similar views when it comes to the implicit permissibility of other superstitious beliefs; if he keeps quiet about it, it probably won’t matter much – but if he doesn’t that’s a big problem, and if he makes a living off of that kind of crap then I’m out, permanently.

      (I should perhaps point out in view of your comment that exclaiming ‘Jesus!’ or ‘Oh my god!’ after having, say, stubbed your toe, is not what I mean by ‘talk[ing] about their gods when I’m around’ – and besides, if someone associates God with stubbing his toe then that person is probably on the right track anyway…🙂 )

      Comment by US | May 13, 2013 | Reply

  2. “I’ll think less of people who hold absurd beliefs if I happen to find out they hold such beliefs, but I won’t actively ask about that stuff, and as long as people don’t talk about them when I’m around I care little about what gods they may pray to when they lay scared in their beds, fearing death.”

    I think this is a very sensible approach, but I still would try to find a way to find out a person’s religious and political beliefs upon first meeting them — if I discover that they are highly irrational, then I would find a way to politely terminate the conversation. I would not seek to debate them, because, as you have already pointed out, it is often difficult to change people’s minds regarding religion (or, I would like to add, any other issue on which one’s stand is likely to be crucial to identity-formation).

    The reason I do this is because I would like to know how much I can rely on a person’s opinions in general when our conversation finally progresses beyond small talk. Religious people are generally poor at analytical thinking. So if someone professes some sort of religious belief, I would minimise contact as much as possible. The alternative would be to engage only in small talk with this person — and I find this a rather insufferable proposal.

    Comment by Miao | May 17, 2013 | Reply

    • Of course, I would like to add that being irreligious does not always imply an ability to think coherently (if anyone is in doubt regarding this, feel free to take a look at Reddit). But being religious almost always implies not being able to think coherently.

      I would also like to mention that there are a few individuals in my current social group that fall into at least one of the three categories of insufferable people I mentioned in my first comment to this post. I stay in touch with them out of nostalgia or out of kinship. In the past I enjoyed very little access to intellectually like-minded people, and so I tended to be more tolerant of people’s quirks. (I am sure many would say that the old me was significantly more likeable, since I was less judgmental.) Moving to Denmark has given me way more opportunities to interact with like-minded people, and so the incentive for me to make concessions has fallen sharply. These days when I interact with people whom I have known since the days before I arrived in Denmark, I try not to talk about topics like mind-body dualism, religion and etc. as much as possible.

      Comment by Miao | May 17, 2013 | Reply

    • As we’ve touched upon before it makes sense that it’d be optimal for you to be more selective than me – being a young woman and all that. Fewer people would want to voluntarily spend time with me than you so I can’t really afford to be as picky as you are. You have the ability to reject quite a few people and still meet your social needs – this is a good thing. And the fact that you reject some people is a signal that you’re optimizing; some people are more interesting than others and you act accordingly.

      We tend to have reasonably similar preferences regarding how we spend our off-hours, and so of course if people I happen to interact with aren’t actually any good at analytical thinking I’m unlikely to find social interaction with them very rewarding – but I don’t really feel like I need to risk rejecting people early on by probing a proxy (for critical thinking skills), as literally nobody ever approaches me first in the social game. Before one’s basic social needs are actually met I do not believe one is doing oneself any favours rejecting people. (Granted just figuring out what your social needs are can sometimes be a challenge – I know that for me it’s very easy to get used to a very low level of social interaction with others.)

      Comment by US | May 17, 2013 | Reply

      • Yes. Supply and demand matters.

        Comment by Miao | May 17, 2013

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