Extenuating Circumstances

Followup to: Tsuyoku Naritai

“Just remember, there but for a massive genetic difference, environmental factors, and conscious choices, go you or I.”—Justin Corwin

Failures don’t have single causes. We choose single causes to focus on, but nothing in the universe emerges from a single parent event. Every assassination ever committed is the fault of every asteroid that wasn’t in the right place to hit the assassin.

What good, then, does it do to blame circumstances for your failure? What good does it do? - to look over a huge causal lattice in which your own decisions played a part, and point to something you can’t control, and say: “There is where it failed.” It might be that a surgical intervention on the past, altering some node outside yourself, would have let you succeed instead of fail. But what good does this counterfactual do you? Will you choose that outside reality be different on your next try?

And yet… when I look at other people, not myself, I find myself taking “extenuating circumstances” into account a great deal. I go to great lengths to “save the world” (as I believe from my epistemic vantage point). When I consider doing less, I consider that this would make me a horrible awful unforgivable person. And then I cheerfully shake hands with others who aren’t trying at all to save the world. I seem to want to have my cake and eat it too—to instantiate Goetz’s Paradox: “Society tells you to work to make yourself more valuable. Then it tells you that when you reason morally, you must assume that all lives are equally valuable. You can’t have it both ways.”

Is this an inherent subjective asymmetry—does morality just look different from the outside than inside? If so, is that okay, or is it a sign of self-contradiction? Or is it condescension on my part—that I think less of others and so hold them to lower standards?

I’ve pondered this question for a while, and this is the main defense I can offer against the charge of condescension:

I wouldn’t tell others to take into account “extenuating circumstances” in judging themselves.

Indeed, that would feel like an act of sabotage—like slashing their tires. Too much of life consists of holding ourselves to a high enough standard.

There are people who blame themselves too easily—people depressed, falling into despair and not moving forward, because they blame themselves for things they couldn’t help.

But you really want to be very careful with applying this kind of reasoning to yourself, because a whole whack of a lot of people who were successful in life got there by driving straight through problems that couldn’t be helped. I’m minded of a recent comment on Hacker News (not sure where) about someone who wanted to work at a certain game company, only there were no jobs available and no H.R. contact listed… so they looked at the numbers listed and deduced the corporate phone prefix, then systematically dialed telephone numbers until they got the CEO’s office, and then pled their case to be hired. They did not, in fact, get that job; but, not surprisingly, did eventually end up employed in their chosen industry. Contrast to someone who reasons, “I won’t be able to get a job now—there’s a recession!”

For yea, I have watched some people be stopped in their tracks without trying by “obstacles” that other people I know, Silicon Valley entrepreneur types, would roll over like a steamroller flattening out a speedbump. That difference probably accounts for a lot of real life performance, and it probably has a great deal to do with what, exactly, you regard as a valid excuse—a condition that makes a failure not reflect badly on you.

A lot of people would regard being 14 years old as a valid excuse for not starting your own company. Not Ben Casnocha, though.

If someone has advanced to the point of explicitly pleading some excuse, then that’s probably the point at which I do begin to hold them accountable. When someone says to me, “I haven’t signed up my teenage son for cryonics because I’m religious so I must not believe in that sort of thing,” I think, Well, I can’t blame them, they don’t know anything about rationality. But if they say, “I haven’t signed up my teenage son for cryonics, because I don’t know anything about rationality, so you can’t expect me to give the correct answer to this dilemma,” then at that point I really might start blaming them.

The way a real extenuating circumstance looks from the inside is not that you think “I have an extenuating circumstance, so I can be excused for failing to do X”, but rather, that X just doesn’t seem like an available option at all, or X seems like it would have so many penalties attached that it’s not in fact the best option which you could and should perform but aren’t performing.

Similarly, if ignorance is your extenuating circumstance, you just don’t realize that X is a good idea, rather than thinking to yourself, “I am ignorant of the fact that X is a good idea, therefore I can be excused for failing to choose it.”

Like “to believe falsely”, if there were a verb meaning “to forgive due to extenuating circumstances”, it would have no first-person, present-tense indicative.

So I would advise others, like myself, not to think in terms of “extenuating circumstances” at all; I would advise people to hold themselves accountable for every dilemma they have advanced to the point of explicitly perceiving as a dilemma—the same rule I use internally. This is my defense against the charge of condescension /​ Goetz’s Paradox—that at this sufficiently meta level, I would tell others to use the same rule as I.

If I hold myself responsible for doing certain things, it is because I perceive them as morally-good, prosocially-obligatory options… which I may nonetheless have some difficulty in doing… but which I nonetheless could realistically do without overspending my mental energy budget.

That’s my own main limit, incidentally, my mental energy budget. I am constantly wrestling with the fact of its reality, because it sounds like such a hideously wonderful excuse that my reflexes keep on doubting it. On any given occasion I’m never sure if it’s a valid justification. And so when I do run up against my limits hard enough that there’s no mistaking them, there’s a certain guilty pleasure of validation, that I can feel less guilty about having done less on other occasions...

Well, that’s my own demon to wrestle with. My intended point here is that I could be wrong about my mental energy budget. I could be doing too little, relative to what I can do without overspending myself. But I couldn’t possibly say-in-the-moment, “I’m failing to choose the right option, but as an extenuating circumstance, I underestimated my own mental energy.” If I am wrong, some forgiving other might look upon it as an “extenuating circumstance”. But I cannot myself say, “And if I’m wrong, then that’s an extenuating circumstance.” From my own perspective, rather, I am obliged to not be wrong.

There are no outs. Even if someone else would call it an extenuating circumstance and forgive me for giving up, I’ll just get it done anyway.” I’m not a venture capitalist, but if I were, that’s the attitude I’d want to see in a startup founder before I invested money.

If after all that the project failed anyway, then I might really believe that everything that could be done, had been done...

...so long as it wasn’t my project, which is supposed by golly to succeed and not fail due to “extenuating circumstances”.

A true rationalist should win, after all.