Appeal to Consequence, Value Tensions, And Robust Organizations

Epistemic Status: Strong opinions weakly held. Mostly trying to bring some things into the discourse that I think are too often ignored.

Some updates I’ve made based on the discussion in this post are here .


Jessicata’s Dialogue on Appeals to Consequences is an expansion of a response that she wrote to me a few months ago, arguing a particular point that I agree with: Namely, if you have an object level thing you want in the world, it’s almost never worth lying or withholding information about that thing, because it breaks meta level norms about truthseeking that are much more important to accomplishing object level goals in general. However, there’s a slightly more interesting case that I think is quite murkier, that the original comment was pointing to. That is, what if your truthseeking norms are in tension with OTHER meta level norms that are important? In general, how do you deal with instances where tensions between two important values cause you to not know what to do?


Let’s imagine John and Jill are discussing John’s behavior in a private space. Jill is a leader of the space, and John is someone who frequently attends the space and has lively discussions trying to get to the truth.

Jill: John, I’ve had several complaints about your tendency to steer conversations towards the divisive topic that everyone should be a Vegan, and I’m going to ask you to tone it down a bit when you’re in our main space.

John: Are people saying that I’m making arguments that are false?

Jill: No, no one is saying that you’re making false arguments. John: Are people saying that I’m derailing the conversation? I think you’ll find that every instance I brought up veganism was highly relevant to the conversation.

Jill: Yes, some people have said that, but I happen to believe you when you say that you’ve only brought it up in relevant contexts for you.

John: Then what’s the problem? I’m stating relevant true beliefs that add to the totality of the conversation and steer it in conversationally relevant directions.

Jill: The problem is twofold. Firstly, people find it annoying to retread the same conversation over and over. More importantly, this topic usually leads to demon conversations, and I fear that continued discussion of the topic at the rate its’ currently discussed could lead to a schism. Both of these outcomes go against our value of being a premiere community that attracts the smartest people, as they’re actually driving these people away!

John: Excuse me for saying so, but this a clear appeal to consequence!

Jill: Is it? I’m not saying that the negative consequences to the community mean that what you’re saying is false—that would be a clear logical fallacy. Instead I’m just asking you to bring up this argument less often because I think it will lead to bad outcomes.

John: Ok, maybe it’s not a logical fallacy, but it is dangerous. This community is built on a foundation of truth seeking, and once we start abandoning that because of people’s feelings, we devolve into tribal dynamics and tone arguments!

Jill: Yes, truthseeking is very important. However, It’s clear that just choosing one value as sacred , and not allowing for tradeoffs can lead to very dysfunctional belief systems,.I believe you’ve pointed at a clear tension in our values as they’re currently stated. The tension between freedom of speech and truth, and the value of making a space that people actually want to have intellectual discussions at.

John: You’re saying there’s a tension, but to me there’s a clear and obvious winner. Under your proposed rules, anyone will be able to silence anything simply by saying they don’t like it!

Jill: If I find someone trying to silence good arguments through that tactic, I’ll sit them down and have a similar conversation to the one we’re having now.

John: That’s even worse! That means that instead of the putting the allowed conversation topics up to vote, we’re putting them in the hands of one person, you! You can silence any conversation you want.

Jill: I can see how it would seem that way, but I believe we’ve cultivated some great cultural norms that make it harder for me to play to political games like that. Firstly, our norm of radical transparency means that this and all similar conversations I have like this will be recorded and shared with everyone, and any such political moves by me will be laughably transparent.

John: That makes sense. Also, Hi Mom!

Jill: Second, our organization allows anyone to apply the values to anyone else, so if you see ME not following the values in any of my talks, you can call me out on it and I’ll comply.

John: Sure, you say that now, but because of your role you can just defy that rule whenever you want! Jill: That’s true, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve worked to cultivate integrity as a leader. Has there been any instance of my behavior where you think I would actually do that?

John: No I suppose not. Are there any other cultural norms preventing you from using the arbitrary nature of decisions for your own gain? Jill: There’s one more. Our organization has a clear set of values, and as the leader one of my roles is to spearhead the change the values in clear ways when there’s tension between them. So I’m not just going to talk to you, I’m actually going to suggest to the organization that we clarify our values such that they tell us to do in these relatively common situations, and I’m going to have you help me.

John: I think that makes sense. We can probably make a list of topics that people are allowed to taboo, and a list of topics people are not allowed to taboo, and then I’ll always know what it’s ok to “appeal to consequences” on. Jill: I’m afraid that particular rule would be unwise. I think there’s practically unlimited scissor statements that could cause schisms in our community, and a skilled adversary could easily find one that’s not on our list of approved topics. No, I’m afraid we’ll need to make a general value that can cover these situations in the general case.

John: Oh, so trying to avoid appeals to consequence argument can actually be used by someone looking to harm our community? That’s interesting! But it’s not clear to me that there is a general rule that can cover all the cases.

Jill: There is. The general rule is that people should give equal weight to their own needs, the needs of the people they’re interacting with, and the needs of the organization as a whole.

John: I’m not sure I get it.

Jill: Well, you have a need to express that everyone should be a vegan. It’s clearly very important to you, or you wouldn’t bring it up so much. At the same time, many of the people in our community have a need to have variety in their conversation, and you should be aware of this when talking with them. Finally, our organization has a need to not experience/​discuss scissor statements too often or too frequently, in order to remain healthy and avoid frequent schisms. By bringing this topic up so much, you’re putting your needs above the needs of others you’re interacting with and the group, instead of bringing it up less frequently, which would be placing the needs on equal ground.

John: That makes sense. I suppose by the same token, if there’s a really interesting topic that’s helpful for the group to know about, and lots of people want to talk about, it would be putting your own needs above others needs if you said it hurt your feelings so people couldn’t talk about it.

Jill: Exactly!

John: So this rule seems plausible to me, and I’m sure it would be great for many people, but I have to admit its’ not for me. I’d much prefer a space where people are allowed to say anything they want to me, and I can say anything I want to them in return.

Jill: I agree that this may not be the best rule for everybody. That’s why next week we’re going to start experimenting with The Archipelago Model. As I said, I want you to tone it down in the main room, which follows the Maturity value mentioned above. However, we’ve designated a side room that instead follows Crocker’s Rules. You’re allowed to go to either room, but when in that room, must follow the stated values of the room. And most importantly, all conversations are recorded and can be listened to by anyone in the community!

John: Cool, that seems worthwhile, but very messy and likely to have numerous hidden failure modes…

Jill: I agree, but it at least seems worth a shot!


So you probably noticed already, but this post wasn’t really about Appeal to Consequences at all. Instead, it’s a meditation on how good organizations deal with tensions in their values, and avoid the organization being overrun by skilled sociopaths. A lot of these suggestions and ideas come from the work I’ve been doing over the past year or so to figure out what makes great organizations and communities. I’d be particularly interested in peoples’ inner sim of how the organization described by John and Jill above would go horribly wrong, and counter ideas about what could be done to fix THOSE issues.