A Policy for Biting Bullets

[Cross-posted from Grand, Unified, Empty.]


The CFAR Hand­book has a re­ally in­ter­est­ing chap­ter on policy-level de­ci­sion-mak­ing (pages 170-173). It’s ex­cel­lent, grounds much of this post, and comes with some clas­sic Calvin & Hobbes comics; I recom­mend it. If you’re too lazy for that, I’ll sum­ma­rize with a ques­tion: What should you do when you’ve made a plan, and then there’s a de­lay, and you re­ally don’t want to do the thing you’ve planned any­more? The hand­book starts with two ba­sic per­spec­tives:

“Look,” says the first per­spec­tive. “You’ve got to have fol­low-through.
You’ve got to be able to keep promises to your­self. If a lit­tle thing like a fe­w
hours’ de­lay is enough to throw you off your game, there’s prac­ti­cally no point
in mak­ing plans at all. Some­times, you have to let past you have the steer­ing­
wheel, even when you don’t feel like it any­more, be­cause oth­er­wise you’ll
n­ever finish any­thing that takes sus­tained effort or mo­ti­va­tion or at­ten­tion.”
“Look,” says the sec­ond per­spec­tive. “There’s noth­ing to be gained from­
lock­ing your­self in boxes. Pre­sent you has the most in­for­ma­tion and con­text;
past you was just guess­ing at what you would want in this mo­ment. Forc­ing
y­our­self to do stuff out of some mis­guided sense of con­sis­tency or guilt or­
what­ever is how peo­ple end up halfway through a law de­gree they nev­er­
ac­tu­ally wanted. You have to be able to up­date on new in­for­ma­tion an­d
adapt to new cir­cum­stances.”

Policy-level de­ci­sion-mak­ing is the hand­book’s sug­gested way to thread this nee­dle:

[W]hat policy, if I fol­lowed it ev­ery time I had to make a de­ci­sion like this, would strike the right bal­ance? How do I want to trade off be­tween fol­low-through and fol­low­ing my feel­ings, or be­tween stay­ing safe and seiz­ing rare op­por­tu­ni­ties?

It’s ob­vi­ously more work to come up with a policy than to just make the de­ci­sion in the mo­ment, but for those cases when you feel torn be­tween the two ba­sic per­spec­tives, policy-level de­ci­sion-mak­ing seems like a good way to re­solve the ten­sion.


There is a pe­cu­liar ma­noeu­vre in philos­o­phy, as in life, called “bit­ing the bul­let”. Bit­ing the bul­let in life is to ac­cept and then do some­thing painful or un­pleas­ant be­cause you don’t think you have any bet­ter al­ter­na­tives to get the thing you want. Want to swim in the ocean, but it’s the mid­dle of win­ter? You’re go­ing to have to “bite the bul­let” and get in even though the wa­ter will be freez­ing cold.

Bit­ing the bul­let in philos­o­phy is analo­gous; it means to ac­cept weird, un­pleas­ant, and fre­quently counter-in­tu­itive im­pli­ca­tions of a the­ory or ar­gu­ment be­cause the the­ory or ar­gu­ment is oth­er­wise valuable or be­lieved to be true. If you think that sim­ple util­i­tar­i­anism is the cor­rect eth­i­cal the­ory, then you have to deal with the trans­plant prob­lem, where you have the op­tion to kill one ran­dom healthy per­son and use their or­gans to save five oth­ers. Really ba­sic util­i­tar­i­anism sug­gests this is a moral ne­ces­sity, be­cause five lives are more valuable than one life. One way to deal with this ap­par­ently ap­pal­ling rule is to “bite the bul­let”; ac­cept and ac­tu­ally ar­gue that we should kill peo­ple for their or­gans.

Bring­ing this back to policy-level de­ci­sion-mak­ing: I re­al­ized re­cently that I don’t have a policy for bit­ing bul­lets, in philos­o­phy or in life.

In life, a policy for bit­ing bul­lets is prob­a­bly use­ful, and I’m sure there’s an im­por­tant post to be writ­ten there, but at least per­son­ally I don’t feel the lack of policy too painfully. If there’s a thing I want and some­thing in the way, then it’s a pretty stan­dard (though fre­quently sub­con­scious) cost-benefit anal­y­sis based on how much I want the thing and how much pain or work is in the way. If the anal­y­sis comes out right, I’ll “bite the bul­let” and do the thing.

Philos­o­phy, how­ever, is a differ­ent mat­ter. Not only have I re­al­ized that I am bit­ing bul­lets in philos­o­phy some­what in­con­sis­tently, I also no­tice that it’s been the source of many times where I’ve ag­o­nized at length over an ar­gu­ment or philo­soph­i­cal point. I think a policy for bit­ing philo­soph­i­cal bul­lets would help me be more con­sis­tent in my philos­o­phy, and also save me a bit of san­ity on oc­ca­sion.


So what’s a good policy for bit­ing philo­soph­i­cal bul­lets? As a start­ing point, let’s copy the hand­book and ar­tic­u­late the most ba­sic (and ex­treme) per­spec­tives:

“Look,” says the first per­spec­tive. “Philos­o­phy is fun­da­men­tally grounded in our in­tu­itions. You’ve got to be con­sis­tent with those, in the same way that any the­ory of physics has to be con­sis­tent with our em­piri­cal ob­ser­va­tions. If a philo­soph­i­cal the­ory asks you to deny an in­tu­ition, then that the­ory can’t be ul­ti­mately true; it might still be a use­ful ap­prox­i­ma­tion, but noth­ing more. And any­way it’s a slip­pery slope; if you ac­cept bit­ing bul­lets as a valid epistemic move, then ev­ery the­ory be­comes equally valid be­cause ev­ery ob­jec­tion can be ‘bit­ten’ away.”

“Look,” says the sec­ond per­spec­tive. “Our in­tu­itions are ba­si­cally garbage; you can’t ex­pect them to be in­ter­nally con­sis­tent, let alone uni­ver­sally cor­rect. Hu­mans are flawed, com­pli­cated crea­tures mostly built on hard-wired heuris­tics de­rived from a mil­lion years liv­ing on the sa­vanna. A philo­soph­i­cal the­ory should be free to get rid of as many of these out­dated in­tu­itions as it needs to. After all, this is one of the ways we grow as peo­ple, by re­plac­ing our moral in­tu­itions when per­suaded by good ar­gu­ments.”

Ob­vi­ously both of these po­si­tions are some­what ex­ag­ger­ated, but they do raise strong points. We don’t want a policy that lets us bite any old bul­let, since that would sig­nifi­cantly weaken our episte­mol­ogy, but at the same time we do want to be able to bite some bul­lets or else we end up held cap­tive by our of­ten-flawed in­tu­itions. But then how do we de­cide which bul­lets to bite?


In­stinc­tively, there are two sides to the ques­tion of bit­ing any par­tic­u­lar philo­soph­i­cal bul­let: the ar­gu­ment, and the in­tu­ition. In a sense, the stronger of the two wins; a strong ar­gu­ment coun­tered by a weak in­tu­ition sug­gests bit­ing the bul­let (the ar­gu­ment wins), whereas a weak ar­gu­ment faced with a strong in­tu­ition sug­gests the op­po­site (the in­tu­ition wins). This is a nice model, but only suc­ceeds in push­ing the ques­tion down a layer: what do we mean by “strong” and “weak”, and how do we com­pare strengths be­tween such dis­parate ob­jects as ar­gu­ments and in­tu­itions? What I re­ally want is Google’s unit con­ver­sion fea­ture to be able to tell me “your in­tu­ition for athe­ism is worth 3.547 tele­olog­i­cal ar­gu­ments”. Alas, real life is some­what messier than that.

“Strong” and “weak” for an in­tu­ition may be hard to pre­cisely pin down with lan­guage, but at the very least I have a clear felt sense for what it means that an in­tu­ition is strong or weak, and I sus­pect this is com­mon. Some­what sur­pris­ingly, it is how to con­sider “strong” and “weak” with re­spect to ar­gu­ments that seems to give more trou­ble. As­sum­ing of course that the ar­gu­ment is log­i­cally valid (and that the em­piri­cal facts are well-speci­fied), what makes a philo­soph­i­cal ar­gu­ment “stronger” seems to boil all the way down to in­tu­itions again: a stronger philo­soph­i­cal ar­gu­ment is backed by more and/​or stronger in­tu­itions.

But if it’s true that ar­gu­ment strength is ul­ti­mately just in­tu­ition strength, then our policy for bit­ing bul­lets can be sum­ma­rized as “choose whichever side has the stronger in­tu­itions”. This defeats the whole pur­pose of the ex­er­cise, since the pre­vi­ous times I’ve found my­self ag­o­niz­ing over bit­ing a bul­let was pre­cisely be­cause the in­tu­itions on both sides were already well-bal­anced; if there was a clear win­ner, I wouldn’t have had to work so hard to choose.

Per­haps this is a fun­da­men­tal truth, that choos­ing to bite a bul­let (or not) has to be a hard choice by defi­ni­tion. Or per­haps there is some other clever policy for bit­ing bul­lets that I just haven’t man­aged to think of to­day. I’m cer­tainly open to new sug­ges­tions.


All of this talk of bit­ing hard things has re­minded me of a poem, so I’ll leave you with these two stan­zas from Lewis Car­roll’s You Are Old, Father William:

“You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak
For any­thing tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak—
Pray, how did you man­age to do it?”
“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,
And ar­gued each case with my wife;
And the mus­cu­lar strength, which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life.”