Being, Acting, and Feeling Responsible
I’m going to be moving flat in the next few weeks - I decided that living with three other people (two of whom are key workers and thus going into work) during a pandemic was too high risk for me, and that by living on my own I could safely bubble up with my partners (who I was already seeing. Carefully, but not remotely socially distanced).
Living on my own on a PhD student stipend is an interesting choice. If you’re wondering how I can afford that, the answer is that I can’t, but fortunately I have plenty of savings to fall back on - I figure in a year or two again I’ll have a tech salary again, and if I don’t then the pandemic will have mostly settled down and I’ll downgrade back to living with flatmates again. I have run the numbers and this plan is 100% financially viable: I’m spending a non-trivial chunk of savings in the worst case scenario, but there is no risk of me running out of money.
On family WhatsApp I expressed that I was a bit anxious that the flat I’ve ended up is over budget and my dad said “Looks perfect (and to hell with budget in the circumstances).”
Setting aside the fact that dad has violated the dad code and will be hearing from the enforcement team, dad is entirely right, but that doesn’t necessarily help me stop worrying about it.
This is definitely the correct call on my part, but it feels like the wrong call. Specifically it feels like I’m being irresponsible, even though I’m actually being quite responsible in making a decision to minimise risk, at a price I have decided I’m willing to pay for doing so.
I’d like to unpack what’s going on here a bit.
Being and Acting Responsible
If you are making good well thought out decisions that taken into account the situation and the risks involved, you are being responsible.
If you are behaving in a way that makes other people think you are being responsible, you are acting responsible.
(this is an idiosyncratic distinction that I will not insist on in general, only for the purposes of this newsletter)
A lot of the time these two will line up - people’s judgement isn’t so horribly compromised that the things they think of as responsible are completely wrong - but it’s entirely possible to be responsible without appearing to be responsible (being responsible without acting responsible), and it’s entirely possible to go through the motions of being responsible without actually taking the real risks into account.
To continue our COVID-19 theme, I think the following are two examples each way:
Me seeing partners: (Mostly - it’s not ideal, but it was the best option in the circumstances, hence the move) responsible, in that I cycled to see them and have been careful about not doing it when there was a specific illness risk, but looks irresponsible because it’s violating the guidelines.
Going to a pub: Highly irresponsible, because it exposes you to and creates high and fairly uncontrollable risk, but is treated as responsible because it doesn’t violate the guidelines.
In this case the way people judge responsibility is by delegating to an authority figure, the government: Doing what the government says is deemed responsible (even when it might be a terrible idea), and going against those guidelines is deemed irresponsible (even when it might be fine).
The key problem here is that the way to act responsibly is to avoid doing things that you will be blamed for. You can go to the pub because the government says you can do that and everyone else is doing it - it doesn’t matter whether it’s bad, your ass is covered - but if you do your own risk analysis and go “OK no matter what the government says, this is definitely safe”, you are exerting a degree of agency that opens you up to blame - effectively you are taking responsibility where none was required, and now can be judged irresponsible in a way that you would not otherwise have been.
This is how it works even in the absence of a central authority granting authority, because we tend to grant conformity the same power. If you go along with what everyone else is doing, you generally will not be held personally responsible, but if you do something safer but unusual and it still goes wrong (which absolutely can happen! Even a safe choice is never going to be entirely risk free), you will be blamed for that.
An example I see a lot of is looking at polyamorous vs monogamous relationships.
Does poly have risks? Do poly relationships often go wrong in messy and horrible ways?
Absolutely, 100%, this is definitely a thing that happens.
Of course, this is also a thing that happens with monogamous relationships. Famously so in fact. Divorce is quite hard in the UK, and still incredibly common (brief Googling suggested that 42% of UK marriages end in divorce, but this statistic is unsourced and thus probably lies. It sounds plausibly in the right ballpark though).
I couldn’t tell you what the stats are on whether poly or monogamy is riskier, and it would be complicated to even know what to measure, but I can tell you this: Regardless of what the stats are, when a poly relationship goes wrong you’re going to get a lot of people blaming that failure on poly, because by being in a poly relationship you’ve bucked the trend, and that means you’ve taken responsibility and thus can be blamed for the failure.
This pattern repeats over and over again: If you conform to norms, you will not generally be blamed for problems that result from following those norms. If you deviate from norms, you will be blamed for any problems that occur even if that was actually the safer option. Asserting your own agency takes responsibility, and thus opens you up to blame.
The problem is that, for reasons that I touched on in a previous issue, Unusual Foundations, following the norms is often the wrong call in any individual case. Norms are, deliberately, designed to be simple rules of thumb that work well as good defaults - for most people, in most situations, conformity will produce a better result than just naively doing something, but in a situation where you have more information, and are willing to put in the effort to think through the problem, you should often be able to do better than the norm.
My renting this one-bedroom flat on a PhD student is an example of that. I am, according to all the advice about how much you should spend on rent, absolutely acting fiscally irresponsibly. This is not what the norms around finances encourage you to do at all, and for good reason. So, in the sense that I am violating the norms and if this goes wrong people who buy into those norms would tell me I had it coming, I am definitely acting irresponsibly.
But, in the circumstances, I have decided that the plan is viable and the pandemic puts enough of a premium on solo living for me that the plan is good. I have examined the risks, I have examined the courses of action available to me, and I have determined that this is the best one. I am equally definitely being responsible.
Acting and Feeling Responsible
So given that I know that I am being responsible, why doesn’t it feel that way?
This is basically simple: Moral emotions don’t actually work like that.
As I talked about in Jiminy Cricket Must Die, our voices of conscience are largely the internalised voices of other people judging us. We learn that a certain action will produce a certain response, and we feel an internalised version of that response when we make the action. When we feel guilt, it is in large part because we know that others will deem us guilty.
A lot of the time, that’s fine (my opinions on cricket murder have softened somewhat since I wrote that post). A lot of the time those moral judgements are in fact entirely correct - if I feel guilty when stealing something because others will deem me guilty for stealing and punish me accordingly, then good. Stealing is bad, and they’re correct to deem me guilty for that.
But this breaks down when other people’s judgement is wrong. What this means is that we internalise the emotions appropriate to whether we are acting responsible, not whether we are being responsible. If we behave in a way that will cause other people to judge us as irresponsible, we will feel irresponsible, because the moral emotions system is acting to predict that judgement, not assessing the risks we are taking.
As a result, whether you feel responsible will tend to track whether you are acting responsible, not whether you are being responsible.
Taking Responsibility for Responsibility
This is really bad. As I argued back in Intuition as Search Prioritisation (and probably some other places I’ve forgotten), the accuracy of our feelings about a problem are a huge determiner of how well we can reason about it, and our ability to reason about responsibility is impaired because our feelings about it do not track what is needed to actually behave in a responsible way - it’s hard to do the right thing when you’re going to feel guilty about it (let alone when you might be punished by it).
Unfortunately, as long as acting and being responsible diverge, your internal feeling of responsibility will track acting rather than being. I’m afraid this is the moral emotion system working more or less as intended, and so is really hard to change.
This means that if we want to fix this problem, we need to start with fixing our communities and our relationship with them. Once we have, we’ll probably still have the emotional disconnect between acting and being, because it’s emotional legacy code (arguably that is what is happening to me here - I can’t think of anyone who will actually judge me for this - and probably once I sit down and poke at it a bit the feeling of guilt will dissolve), but until the feeling is inaccurate it will persist.
Ideally this would consist of making everyone better at being responsible - improving our ability to do risk assessment over our own actions, and I may have more to say in a future letter about how to do that, but that’s hard work to learn a difficult skill, so any plan that relies on its mass adoption is probably a non-starter.
A more modest approach which I think has some success is to just be a bit less judgemental about other people’s risk when you might not have enough information. Your default assumption should be something closer to “Well that sounds like a bad idea, but I don’t have all the facts” unless you have really compelling evidence that it actually was a bad idea (e.g. I still plan to be judgemental about people going to the pub during the pandemic).
This, of course, only helps other people, it doesn’t help you so much unless other people adopt it. In terms of reducing other people’s impact on you, I think the best approach (if you cannot persuade them to adopt this one) is this: When you notice someone passing judgement for what is objectively the responsible thing to do, remember that, and in future try to care significantly less about their opinion.
Not allowing people to make you worse at safety is, after all, the most responsible thing to do.