[Ham­mer­time Final Exam] Ac­com­mod­ate Your­self; Kind­ness Is An Epistemic Vir­tue; Priv­ileging the Future

[this is my entry for the Ham­mer­time Final Exam. I answered all three prompts but took much longer than five minutes writ­ing each part.]

1. Ac­com­mod­ate Yourself

(re­lated: So­ci­ety Is Fixed, Bi­ology Is Mut­able; Design; Rad­ical Ac­cept­ance as ac­know­ledge­ment of real­ity. this is one of the first & most valu­able les­sons I have gained from the ra­tion­al­ist com­munity, though I don’t think I’ve seen it stated in quite these terms.)

People of­ten want to make them­selves bet­ter—stronger, more hard­work­ing, more able. We com­pare ourselves to ideals and we find ourselves lack­ing; we strive to im­prove ourselves to bet­ter fit the roles we want to play in the world.

What if, in­stead of tak­ing the world as given and striv­ing to ad­apt ourselves to it, we took ourselves as given and looked for ways to ad­apt our world to us?

Examples:

  • “I can’t get around much be­cause my feet hurt—and even tak­ing pub­lic transit is bad be­cause I have to stand while I wait for the train—so I have to fix my feet or else I’m doomed” → “My feet hurt, so I’ll look for other ways to get around, like a bike or an elec­tric scooter. When I take pub­lic transit, I’ll carry a light port­able stool to make wait­ing for trains pain­less.”

  • “I have to stop pick­ing at my nails! Argh, why can’t I do it!” → “Let me see if hav­ing a thing to fid­get with re­moves this urge. Oh, it ba­sic­ally does! Good!”

  • “Argh why can’t I fol­low this con­ver­sa­tion, every­one else seems to be able to do it” → “Hmm, it seems I can’t fol­low con­ver­sa­tions well in loud spaces, let me make plans in quieter ones in­stead.”

  • “I should be more hard­work­ing and not pro­cras­tin­ate so much!” → “Hmm, it seems I don’t have a lot of en­ergy and my ex­ec­ut­ive func­tion is of­ten not very good. Let me scale back my plans to match my en­ergy levels, at least for now, and think about how I might make my work fit my brains and/​or find an en­vir­on­ment that’s easier for me to work in and/​or find a dif­fer­ent way to sup­port my­self and/​or look into ADHD med­ic­a­tion.”

  • “I don’t fit into these jeans, I’m so fat, I need to lose weight.” → “Let me find some other jeans, these ones don’t fit me.”

To ap­ply this mind­set, think of a situ­ation where a lim­it­a­tion of yours leads to fail­ure or frus­tra­tion. Now, flip your view of the situ­ation around. You are as you are; it is the world that does not fit. Now, if the world were de­signed for people like you, how would it be dif­fer­ent? What in your en­vir­on­ment would change? Now, can you make that change your­self?

The title of this piece comes from the concept of dis­ab­il­ity ac­com­mod­a­tions, but I think the use­ful­ness of this mind­set ex­tends bey­ond things com­monly un­der­stood as dis­ab­il­it­ies. Pretty much every­body is sub­ject to some kinds of ex­pect­a­tions that they do not fit. We of­ten take these as con­dem­na­tions of as­pects of ourselves, as judg­ments that our bod­ies or our brains in some way don’t meas­ure up.

But the world con­tains many kinds of brains and bod­ies. It’s not use­ful for every­one whose brain or body is bad at some task to feel bad about them­selves. Rather, we can take this di­versity as a given and work on mak­ing the world fit all of us.

This doesn’t mean there is no space for self-im­prove­ment. But, firstly, ac­com­mod­a­tion is of­ten much easier, some­times to the point that ac­com­mod­a­tion is pos­sible where fix­ing one­self is not. And second, even if self-modi­fic­a­tion is pos­sible and de­sir­able, ac­com­mod­a­tion is of­ten a use­ful first step, provid­ing some slack with which to take on the dif­fi­cult pro­ject of change.

2. Kind­ness Is An Epistemic Virtue

In or­der to learn from each other, we must first feel safe. When a battle is pitched, when op­pos­i­tion feels like a threat, when los­ing an ar­gu­ment threatens one’s felt or ac­tual safety—then hu­mans fall into battle form­a­tion, ar­gu­ments be­come sol­diers, and chan­ging one’s mind be­comes vir­tu­ally im­possible.

See­ing such a battle, some with valu­able know­ledge may reas­on­ably de­cide to stay out of the fight for their own psy­cho­lo­gical health; thus the com­batants are left without their valu­able know­ledge.

Oth­ers will join the fray, mo­tiv­ated by a sense of ur­gency; they will learn some­thing, they will share their know­ledge, but they will be wounded and triggered and enter a psy­cho­lo­gical de­fens­ive crouch from which no change of opin­ion is pos­sible, and they will lose their self-con­trol and wound and trig­ger oth­ers in re­turn.

(One time I had a par­tic­u­larly bad fight on Face­book and was ex­tremely stressed and anxious for sev­eral days—and less open and char­it­able in ar­gu­ments for months af­ter­wards.)

So if you want par­ti­cipants in your dis­course to be se­lec­ted for valu­able know­ledge and not for battle-hardi­ness and thick skins, and if you want people to ac­tu­ally have the abil­ity to change their minds—be kind.

(I want to ac­know­ledge that this con­sid­er­a­tion can com­pete with oth­ers that are also im­port­ant. Some people with valu­able know­ledge have come by that know­ledge in pain­ful ways and can­not share it kindly. So­me­times re­press­ing an­ger for the sake of har­mony is harm­ful in the long run. These are worth tak­ing ser­i­ously, and some­times they will be more im­port­ant than kind­ness. But—I claim—kind­ness should very of­ten win, and should al­ways be con­sidered.)

3. Priv­ileging The Future

Hu­man de­sires and in­tu­itions are of­ten highly biased in fa­vor of the present. If we want to make de­cisions that are wise in the long term, we have to coun­ter­act this bias; the abil­ity to delay grat­i­fic­a­tion is a valu­able skill that will serve you well if you have it.

However, a com­mon res­ult of this at­tempt at debi­as­ing is a sense that delayed grat­i­fic­a­tion is vir­tu­ous in it­self, that one should al­ways take the path that gives you en­joy­ment in the fu­ture rather than the present—or, fail­ing that, that one should feel guilty when one doesn’t do that.

For ex­ample: I used to have a prob­lem with stay­ing up far too late far too of­ten, which led to chronic sleep depriva­tion. This was clearly in part a res­ult of pri­or­it­iz­ing present over fu­ture on any given even­ing; so, I reas­on­ably felt that it was bet­ter when I suc­ceeded in pri­or­it­iz­ing to­mor­row’s well-be­ing enough to go to sleep on time. But some­times, some­thing le­git­im­ately in­ter­est­ing and unique was hap­pen­ing late at night, some­thing that was worth stay­ing up… and I would stay up, but I would feel guilty, that I was do­ing a thing that would res­ult in my suf­fer­ing later; and the next day, I would re­gret my choice, even as I val­ued the ex­per­i­ence I had had at night. In my mind, sac­ri­fi­cing fu­ture well-be­ing for present en­joy­ment was al­ways wrong, even if the tradeoff was ac­tu­ally worth it!

For an­other ex­ample: adults some­times ex­press re­gret that they quit an in­stru­ment they had played in child­hood, even if they had never par­tic­u­larly en­joyed prac­ti­cing it; I think this is of­ten a res­ult of a pro-fu­ture bias.

(Related: some­body on Tumblr sug­ges­ted that some­body should run the op­pos­ite of the ca­non­ical marsh­mal­low test, such that a child can either eat two marsh­mal­lows now or one marsh­mal­low in ten minutes, and then see whether in ten minutes the child re­grets eat­ing the two marsh­mal­lows be­cause they can no longer have one now. Their hy­po­thesis was that the child would in­deed re­gret it, even though the de­cision was clearly cor­rect—which would show that re­gret is not re­li­able in­form­a­tion about the qual­ity of one’s past de­cisions.)

If you’re fa­cing a tradeoff between present and fu­ture—weigh the op­tions and choose a tradeoff! Delay grat­i­fic­a­tion if that’s the right thing to do. (And it is more of­ten the right thing to do than your sys­tem 1 prob­ably thinks.) But if it’s not—go get the good thing in the present, with no self-judg­ment and no re­grets.