Transgender and Transracial Philosophical Shenanigans

Orthodox Conclusions For Unorthodox Reasons

For those who aren’t connected with the philosophical, social justice or anti social justice worlds let me start with a bit of background. A few weeks ago the feminist philosopher Rachel Tuvel wrote an article (pdf) suggesting that we should be sympathetic to hypothetical claims of transracialism (i.e. people like Rachel Dolezal who claim to feel like they are a member of a different race than society classifies them as) for the same reasons we are sympathetic to transgender individuals. In particular, Tuvel suggested that it might be appropriate to prioritize internal feelings when making group classifications.

Now I don’t find Tuvel’s paper particularly convincing as an argument for it’s stated thesis. However, I do find it much more compelling as a conditional argument: if our support for transgender individuals is justified then we should adopt the same attitude toward hypothetical claims of transracial identity1. In other words, you can’t both condemn the man on the street for failing to support the right2 of transgender individuals to be gendered as they request while simultaneously insisting that the straightforward appeals (people should be able to choose their own identity) must be thrown overboard and replaced with abstruse philosophical theories of gender and race in order to even consider a prima facia case for transracialism. Either the man on the street can correctly claim that none of the arguments/evidence in the cultural zeitgeist justify claims of transgender rights or those same arguments create at least a prima facia case for transracial rights.

There was an immediate, cacophonous backlash against Tuvel’s paper and over 500 philosophers signed an open letter demanding Hypatia (the journal the paper was published in) issue a retraction. Note that retractions are reserved almost exclusively for cases of research misconduct (even studies later discovered to have erroneous conclusions usually aren’t retracted) and journals have resisted retracting papers even when those papers (misleadingly) appear to be defending child abuse and congress is applying pressure. Now the reasons given in the open letter (impolite use of other gendered name, failure to consult trans or minority individuals about their experiences, lack of literature engagement) were pretty clearly pre-textual. Papers commonly don’t cite literature the author doesn’t believe will be helpful and the fact that no one could point to existing literature that countered Tuvel’s arguments is further evidence it was a smokescreen. This becomes even more apparent if you peruse some of the pieces written in protest.

Had Tuvel’s article been written in support of an orthodox position about transgender issues, e.g., our experience with racial identity shows how important it is to respect trans identity, no one would have done anything more than make polite suggestions. However, as it was, Tuvel’s article outlined a potential political reducto of trans rights advocacy (if you accept transgender next thing you know you’ll have to accept transracial people as well) and defended an idea that many minorities find offensive.

Rather than bang on about how awful it is that philosophers are putting ideological purity above intellectual principles I’ll let this excellent response do it for me and instead try to get to the bottom of the moral case for accepting (and accommodating) transgender and transracial identification as both a practical and theoretical matter. Ultimately, I do present what I believe to be straightforward considerations that distinguish the transracial and transgender cases but as they are ultimately mere consequentialist balancings of harms and benefits they do nothing to reduce the force of Tuvel’s reasoning against those who take transgender accommodation to be an obvious moral imperative whose justification doesn’t require marshaling (or even gesturing at) empirical evidence of costs and benefits.

Reactions Outside The Community

While the philosophical community was busy having a fit because someone (in good faith without animosity) dared to publish an article that didn’t genuflect in front of less privileged groups in precisely the correct way the reaction from the rest of the blogosphere was considerably different. Both esr and poppsych.org wrote pieces pointing out that categories belong to the society that makes them not the individual who is categorized and that people had no right to demand to be placed in a different category.

There is a great deal of truth in this. No matter how much you feel like a great baseball player we don’t let that internal feeling dictate how often you get sent out on the field. We do use both race and gender categories, to some extent, for this kind of practical assortment. As few individuals are bi we use the gender category to sort people into potential dates and potential rivals. We use race as a proxy for past (or potential future) discrimination and cultural background.

While the unwashed masses are more likely to simply insist “No a man is someone with a penis/Y chromosome” they are expressing a similar sentiment. Despite attempts by parts of the social justice community (not effective transgender advocates) to insist this is merely transphobia I think that (while transphobia surely plays some role3 for some segment of the public) this sentiment is best understood as a (poorly expressed) unwillingness to modify social categories merely because someone would prefer a different categorization. This is a perfectly reasonable reaction to have when someone requests you place them in a different category based on factors you don’t take to be relevant to membership in that category, e.g., pointing out you have a great batting average is relevant to being placed in the good baseball player category while `feeling like a winner’ is not.

Thus, if you are advocating for transgender acceptance you owe the public an argument why the fact that transgender individuals desire to be classified differently justifies doing so when such desires usually don’t. Unfortunately, this controversy seems to suggest that any an attempt to formulate such an argument (rather than taking it for granted or offering pure emotional appeals) runs a serious risk of being met with open hostility from other transgender advocates. But, for whatever the reason, the choice to abandon friendly persuasion and adopt the presumption that disagreement is proof of transphobia (if not literally nazihood) does a deep disservice to trans individuals by turning potential supporters into enemies4.

Social Categories And Moral Duties

While it may be generally true that wishing to be classified differently, e.g., as a good baseball player, isn’t usually something that obligates us to change those categories it sometimes does. For instance, consider gay marriage. Despite it’s legal and religious trappings marriage is ultimately a societal category (society recognizes a certain class of people as being in a kind of approved sexual partnership). Even if we had adopted civil unions that gave homosexual couples all the legal rights of married individuals the discomfort caused by categorizing committed gay couples as merely having a civil union rather than a marriage created an obligation to change our conception of marriage to include single sex couples.

Note that, that the moral obligation with respect to gay marriage was to stop making prominent use of (both culturally and legally) a relationship category that excluded gays. The choice to recognize gay marriages as ‘marriages’ was merely the easiest way to achieve this but it would have been morally acceptable to instead promote civil unions into the preeminent legal and social standard for committed relationship, i.e., we would ask both straight and gay couples if they were civil unioned, laws would be drafted in reference to civil union status etc… Conversely, we would not have meet our moral obligation if we had accepted homosexual marriages as marriages only to demote marriage to second class status while reserving the highest social regard only for `hetero marriage.’ Critically, while cases like gay marriage appear to be about changing the definition of words they are really about changing which concepts we give cultural and legal preeminence to.

Similarly, transgender advocates want us to give concepts that recognize voluntary identification/presentation the prominent social and legal role5 we currently give to male/female (whether or not we let the same word play that role). Whatever you think male/female mean you have to acknowledge that dividing people up by claimed (leaving aside non-binary) gender identity is a coherent way to categorize people and that we could use some term that refers to this categorization in the situations we now use male/female.

Categories and Moral Balancing

Ultimately, whether or not we have a moral obligation to change which categories we give legal/social importance is a matter of balancing harms and benefits. For instance, switching to a gay inclusive category of committed relationships imposed very little cost. All of the practical purposes we use the category of marriage for (distinguishing serious/non-serious romantic relationships, assigning legal rights/duties etc..) are equally well handled by a gay inclusive relationship category. Thus, there is little cost to promoting a gay inclusive notion of marriage into egal/social prominence. Conversely, eliminating the substantial practical burdens and emotional harms imposed by a hetero-only notion of marriage provides a great benefit to homosexuals as well as their friends/relatives. The minimal cost and large benefit are more than enough to overcome the presumption in favor of existing practice6.

In contrast, consider the proposal to give the category ‘good baseball player or self-identifies as a good baseball player’ the social role previously filled by the category ‘good baseball player.’ That would mean that merely identifying as a good baseball player would warrant being taken off the bench, draw praise from teammates and even (at the college or professional level) generate income. This would be a huge cost as it would totally gut the practical value of the category good baseball player. True, there is some unhappiness associated with being thought of as a bad baseball player but I think it’s fair to say that the benefits of having such a category outweigh the costs. Indeed, it is likely sociologically impossible to adopt such a proposal as people would inevitably resume using the category of actually being proficient at baseball under a different name and failing to enter that category would instill the same disappointment and frustration that exclusion from the category of good baseball players creates today.

This kind of analysis neatly explains why we shouldn’t recognize transracial/transethnic individuals at a legal level. While it is possible there are unrecognized individuals experiencing emotional suffering because they can’t legally change races there is no evidence such individuals exist at all (excepting, perhaps, Rachel Dolezal). Moreover, the harms involved in replacing the current notion of race with one that allowed self-identification would be significant7 as we use race/ethnicity as a proxy for a variety of obstacles individuals face on account of their skin color/culture. For instance transracial self-identification would allow people to obscure attempts to identify discriminatory treatment (hey guys we need a bunch of you to identify as black so we don’t get sued) or self-servingly take advantage of programs designed to offset/remedy these obstacles without having faced (or at least being statistically more likely to have faced) the obstacles themselves8. The situation is slightly more complicated when we consider the social role of racial identification but ultimately the analysis is the same9.

So what happens when we apply this kind of analysis to the demands of transgender advocates? I find the descriptions of gender dysphoria by transgendered individuals credible evidence of substantial suffering as a result of being classified10 as the ‘wrong’ gender (more pedantically as a result of society choosing to use a categorization they dislike in everyday social and legal interactions). Now what about the cost of changing our gender categories11? This depends greatly on the scope of the change being made. If all we seek to do is ensure that in workplaces, universities and other places of public accommodation that people can use the restroom, pronoun and gender classification they (attempt to) present as then the cost is extremely minimal. Coed restrooms may take some getting used to but present no dangers or substantial harms so I see no reason not to let people use restrooms of their choice. Correct honorifics are purely a matter of convention and the downsides of coming out trans outweigh any likely benefit from affirmative action style programs (and if it proves to be a problem they can be closed to trans individuals). Thus, I think the cost benefit analysis is pretty lopsided in favor of treating transgender individuals with the social pleasantries and restroom access they request. Indeed, I would argue that the cost is so low that simple good manners demands such treatment.

Of course, if you have a more expansive notion of what it means to accommodate transgender individuals which goes beyond mere terminology and politeness to require genuinely treating trans men/women indistinguishably from cis men/women the analysis changes. For instance, if you think lesbians are morally obliged to tear down the cotton ceiling by regarding all women (even including transgender women with cocks) as potential sexual partners the cost is substantial. Our sex drives don’t give a fuck about what facts are morally appropriate to consider in evaluating dates (race, wealth, obesity, and conformity with gender stereotypes are all huge determents of sexual interest) and trying to berate them into different behavior is a recipe for pain. Even the more modest demand that trans-women be welcome in (and supported by) all feminist organizations is dangerous. While trans-women may face more hardships than cis-women on average they don’t face the same hardships. For instance, a project examining hypothetical reluctance to introduce young girls to STEM fields and/or trying to offset this with later interventions should make distinctions on assigned gender as a youth12.

Tuvel, Transgender Activism and Non-Binary Identification

The analysis above is pretty obvious. When do you change the categories you regard as important: when the cost of doing so is less than the benefit reaped. This naturally begs the question why didn’t Tuvel (or any of her visible critics) avail themselves of it. I’m sure there are multiple reasons and I can only speculate here but my guess is that the practical, empirically oriented structure raises concerns that the feminist/trans philosophy orthodoxy would rather not confront.

For one, this structure puts the phenomenological particulars of the transgender experience front and center. The reason we should change our practices to accommodate transgender individuals (while resisting attempts by fuckers like me to insist on being called ‘God Emperor’) is that the former group experiences serious emotional distress and is making good faith requests while I’m just out for a lark. However, much of the social justice world has been very reluctant to try to characterize what constitutes a representative transgender experience lest they deny someone’s unique experience. Worse, this kind of analysis may not be quite so kind to non-binary identification13 not to mention treating transgender identity as fundamentally no different in kind from the desire to amputate a healthy limb (not a bad thing just a recognition that both are brute preferences for unusual things).

This is particular unfortunate because both from a practical and theoretical standpoint any attempt to advance transgender rights hinges on the nature of the transgender experience. The only reason for treating the requests of transgender individuals as legitimate and reasonable while denying trollish requests from people like me to be addressed as God Emperor (or the nutty transspecies individuals14) stems from our divergent experiences and resulting motivations. To ensure the support of the kind social justice critical intellectuals I linked above there needs to be a cogent intellectual defense of what makes the requests of transgender advocates reasonable in contrast to most requests to change behavior/language based on personal preference. While I find the utilitarian considerations here compelling most people need some kind of difference in kind and that must be rooted in the particular nature of transgender experience. Providing such an analysis is normally the role of philosophy but this controversy suggests it is unable to maintain even the fig leaf of dispassionate intellectual inquiry on this subject.

As a practical matter the transgender community also needs to provide an emotional narrative that average citizens can understand. Homosexual marriage won because everyday people understood the message: homosexuals have the same kind of feelings I do about sex and love only triggered by same gender individuals. If transgender individuals want to get their requests for social change accepted they need to tell a story about what it’s like to be transgender that makes the average citizen think: If I was in that situation I’d also want people to treat me like the gender I identified with.. That means backing away from the position that the individual uniqueness of transgender individuals prevents the identification of common experiences and conveying those experiences to the general public. Of course, this may require leaving some unusual allies behind just like the homosexuals had to leave the committed polyamorous triads behind to ensure the Obergefell decision but that’s how real progress happens.


  1. While there are analyses of transgender (if accepted) or possible psychological/empirical facts that could be used to construct arguments in favor of supporting claims of transgender but not of transrace even most of the philosophical community (and even the transgender community I suspect) is unaware of these details. Thus, to the extent society at large has good grounds for supporting/accepting claims of transgender they can’t rely on these obscure considerations. I think Tuvel does a decent job of arguing that, if we set aside those more obscure/empirical points, the same considerations arise for transracial identity. Ultimately, my inclination is to say that it probably will turn on psychological/empirical facts that may not yet be widely known … but that kind of admission would not be acceptable by the orthodoxy. 
  2. You could criticize them for not extending to transgender people the normal human kindness of complying with requests made of us so long as they aren’t too burdensome but most trans advocates (at least in philosophical circles) tend to view any skepticism of the idea that transgender individuals have a right to be gendered as they request as proof of some moral failing. 
  3. As with homophobia a great deal of animosity (as opposed to mere difference of opinion about social structure) towards trans individuals is based on an ick factor (hence why gay men faced so much more opposition than lesbians). I think it’s important that rather than tell people they are bad for even having the feeling we let them know that it’s a common human reaction to even the thought of different physiology. When I was young I responded similarly to some aspect (her skin?) of my grandmother’s old age/illness but it dissipated quickly once it became familiar and certainly didn’t stop me from loving and respecting her. But telling people that innate human reactions they can’t control makes them a bad person is a good way to turn potential allies into enemies and ensure they never gain enough familiarity to eliminate that reaction. 
  4. Importantly, even people who would fight any attempt to discriminate against transgender individuals in the workplace may have different views on when individual preferences can justly require society to change the categories it uses. Rather than being anti-trans many people just feel that society has much less of a duty to be responsive to even very heartfelt and intense preferences. 
  5. As we will see the precise range or roles for which transgender individuals want to substitute these new categories makes a substantial difference in whether we have any moral obligation to do so. 
  6. It takes a great deal of effort to make such changes and enforcing such changes inevitably requires some level of social coercion and there is always the possibility of error. Thus, the burden is properly on the party attempting to argue we should change the categories we assign social/legal importance to. 
  7. At least assuming the policy consensus that it is good and appropriate to sometimes consider disadvantaged racial background in awarding government contracts, school admittance, hiring, etc.. If you think this consensus is harmful this analysis changes. 
  8. Of course the government/employer could simply record whether or not you were cis-black or trans-black and use that to recreate the original data (though it would make it easier to raise spurious objections based on a desire not to stigmatize transracialism). However, it’s not at all obvious merely changing the name of the box ticked from ‘non-black’ to ‘trans-black’ would offer any benefit to transracial individuals. If their status as transracial is used to deny them entry into programs open to cis-black individuals its hard to imagine they would feel they were being regarded as racially black. 
  9. The argument that we should replace the current social role of racial identification with something which allows identification based transition is somewhat more plausible. However, this too is problematic as one can’t separate cultural behavior from skin color/ancestry, e.g., the mere fact that I don’t have black skin means I can’t use the n-word with the same meaning as someone with black skin. So again the balance doesn’t favoring adopting categories that give a greater role to the feeling of identification to fill the role played by racial categories. 
  10. Whether or not that suffering is literally the result of not using the desired pronouns and gender ascriptions or merely correlates with non-acceptance and harassment isn’t clear. Maybe if some database screwup prevented trans individuals from having access to their preferred bathrooms or records made of their preferred pronouns but everyone was perfectly accepting it would be just as good but in practice we can assume that using desired pronouns and gender terms goes hand in hand with reduced suffering. 
  11. More pedantically, changing the categories we use to select pronouns, assign restrooms and use in everyday descriptive talk, e.g., “Ask the woman in the white blouse.” 
  12. Of course, while it would be appropriate to exclude trans-women it wouldn’t be appropriate to exclude trans-men but logical consistency has never done well against the rhetoric of privelege. 
  13. There are too many people claiming non-binary gender identity for purely political/expressive reasons, less clarity that using preferred pronouns/gender descriptions alleviates suffering for non-binary individuals, and the many non-binary genders impose substantial IT/forms/mental overhead costs. The real nail in the coffin, however, is the lack of any brightline to exclude clear attempts to hijack the norms for amusement/politics. People (rightly for fear of incentivizing more mischief) aren’t going to tolerate people like me asking to be addressed as Galactic Gerdes whatever the social justice scene says about galactic gender identity but once one starts accepting some non-binary identities it becomes dangerous to exclude others. 
  14. Personally, I’m not convinced they are any different than transgender individuals. They feel a certain way and respecting those feelings might make them happy. However, the feminist/trans philosophy community is certainly not willing to classify transgender as no different in kind than any other crazy, but emotionally intense and long term, life choice like voluntary amputation. 

Defending Citizen’s United

I generally sympathize with the liberal contingent on the supreme court but I think this [defense](https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2017/05/26/citizens-united-media-corporations-and-other-corporations/ of Citizen’s United is right) on.

Now I’m open to arguments against Citizens United but if you are going to criticize the opinion the burden is on you to identify a good bright line rule (to prevent gradual erosion of rights) that provides newspapers and other journalism with the kind of protection we think they deserve without handing the government the ability to distinguish responsible journalists from mere non-profits/pacs/etc..

I’ve long supported Citizens United but what this post very helpfully pointed out is the extent to which every justification to restrict Citizens United style corporate speech has applied to restrictions on journalism/editorials. Cities with a single large newspaper surely had as much reason to worry about that newspaper using it’s power in a last minute attempt to sway the election than we have to worry about corporate money in politics.

Now, I agree that responsible journalists have a special role to play in the electoral process. I’m NOT worried about the New York Times doing something dastardly. However, I most certainly do not want Trump’s administration deciding who is a journalist as opposed to an advocate of some corporate interest, Yes, as the Citizens United dissent points out we sometimes adopt balancing tests for constitutional rights and we could adopt one here. But balancing tests tend to follow the political wind and if free speech is to serve as a bulwark against tyranny and patriotic group think that’s not good enough for core political speech.

Moreover, think about what would happen if Citizens United was overturned and one adopted some kind of test to distinguish media companies or genuine journalism from other corporate speech. I think the natural response to such incentives would be to further obscure whether or not you were engaged in journalism. In other words companies would cloak themselves in the trappings of a media company/genuine journalist to avail themselves of the greater free speech rights further worsening the problem of fake news. The courts would then have to either accept the trappings of media/journalism as valid on their face (encouraging such deception) or engage in a dangerous substantive investigation of whether a company counts as a `real’ journalism company.

Disclosing Vulnerabilities

Does Wcry show the NSA should disclose 0-days?

The recent (highly damaging) Wcry ransomware worm is derived from NSA code recently disclosed by hackers. This has lead Microsoft (and others) to call on the government to disclose security vulnerabilities so they can be fixed rather than stockpiling them for use in offensive hacking operations. However, I think the lesson we should learn from this incident is exactly the opposite.

This debate about how to balance the NSA‘s two responsibilities: protecting US computer systems from infiltration and gathering intelligence from foreign systems is hardly new (and Bruce Schneier’s take on it is worth reading). The US government is very much aware of this tension and has a special process, the vulnerabilities equities process (VEP), to decide whether or not to disclose a particular vulnerability. Microsoft is arguing that recent events illustrate just how much harm is caused by stockpiled vulnerabilities and, analogizing this incident to the use of stolen conventional weaponry, suggesting the government needs to take responsibility by always choosing to report vulnerabilities to vendors so they can be patched.

However, if anything, this incident illustrates the limitations of reporting vulnerabilities to vendors. Rather than being 0-days the vulnerabilities used by the Wcry worm were already patched a month before the publication of the NSA exploits and the circumstances of the patch suggest that the NSA, aware that it had been compromised, reported these vulnerabilities to Microsoft. Thus, rather than illustrating the dangers of stockpiling vulnerabilities, this incident reveals the limitations of reporting vulnerabilities. Even once vulnerabilities are disclosed the difficulty convincing users to update and the lack of support for older operating systems leave a vast many users at risk. In contrast, once a patch is released (or even upon disclosure to a vendor) the vulnerability can no longer be used to collect intelligence from security aware targets, e.g., classified systems belonging to foreign governments.

It is difficult not to interpret Microsoft’s comments on this issue as an attempt to divert blame. After all, it is their code which is vulnerable and it was their choice to cease support for windows XP. However, to be fair, this is not the first time they have taken such a position publicly. Back in February Microsoft called for a “Digital Geneva Convention” under which governments would forswear “cyber-attacks that target the private sector or critical infrastructure or the use of hacking to steal intellectual property” and commit to reporting vulnerabilities rather than stockpiling them.

While there may an important role for international agreement to play in this field Microsoft’s proposal here seems hopelessly naive. There are good reasons why there has never been an effective international agreement barring spying and they all apply to this case as well. There is every incentive for signatories to such a treaty to loudly affirm it and then secretly continue to stockpile vulnerabilities and engage in offensive hacking. While at first glance one might think that we could at least leave the private sector out of this that ignores the fact that many technologies are dual purpose1 and that frequently the best way to access government secrets will be to compromise email accounts hosted by private companies as well as the uses big data can be put to by government actors. Indeed, the second that a government thought such a treaty was being followed they would move all their top secret correspondence to (in country version of) something like gmail.

Successful international agreements forswearing certain weapons or behaviors need to be verifiable and not (too) contrary to the interests of the great powers. The continued push to ban land mines is unlikely to be successful as long as they are seen as important to many powerful countries’ (including a majority of permanent security council members) military strategies2 and it is hard to believe that genuinely giving up stockpiling vulnerabilities and offensive hacking would be in the interests of Russia or China. Moreover, if a treaty isn’t verifiable there is no reason for countries not to defect and secretly fail to comply. While Microsoft proposes some kind of international cooperative effort to assign responsibility for attacks it is hard to see how this wouldn’t merely encourage false flag operations to trigger condemnation and sanctions against rivals. It is telling that the one aspect of such a treaty that would be verifiable, the provision banning theft of IP (at least for use by private companies rather than for national security purposes), is the only aspect Microsoft points to as having been the subject of a treaty (a 2015 US-China agreement).

While it isn’t uncommon for idealistic individuals and non-profit NGOs to act as if treaties can magic away the realities of state interests and real world incentives I have trouble believing Microsoft is this naive about this issue. I could very well be wrong on this point but it’s hard for me not to think their position on this issue is more about shifting blame for computer security problems than a thoughtful consideration of the costs and benefits.

Of course, none of this is to say that there isn’t room for improvement in how the government handles computer security vulnerabilities. For instance, I’m inclined to agree with most of the reforms mentioned here. As far as the more broad question of whether we should tip the scales more toward reporting vulnerabilities instead of stockpiling them I think that depends heavily on how frequently the vulnerabilities we find are the same as those found by our rivals and how quickly our intelligence services are able to discover what vulnerabilities are known to our rivals. As such information is undoubtedly classified (and for good reasons) it seems the best we can do is make sure congress exercises substantial oversight and use the political process to encourage presidents to install leadership at the NSA who understands these issues.


  1. Facial recognition technology can be used to identify spies, code advertisers uses to surreptitiously identify and track customers is ideal for covert surveillance and the software the NSA uses to monitor it’s huge data streams was built by private sector companies using much of the same technology used to various kinds of search engines. 
  2. A less idealistic treaty that recognize the role for land mines in major military operations probably could have done more to safe guard civilians from harm by, instead, banning persistent mines. As such a ban would actually favor the interests of the great powers (persistent mines are easier to make by low tech actors) they would have helped enforce it rather than providing cover for irresponsible use of landmines. 

Rejecting Rationality

I felt I would use this first post to explain this blog’s title. It is not, despite appearances to the contrary, meant to suggest any animosity toward the rationality community nor sympathy with the idea that when evaluating claims we should ever favor emotions and intuition over argumentation and evidence. Rather, it is intended as a critique of the ambiguous overuse of the term `rationality’ by the rationality community in general (and Yudkowsky specifically).

I want to suggest that there are two different concepts we use the word rationality to describe and that the rationality community overuses the term in a way that invites confusion. Both conceptions of rationality are judgements of epistemic virtue but the nature of that virtue differs.

Rationality As Ideal Evaluation Of Evidence

The first conception of rationality reflects the classic idea that rationality is a matter of a priori theoretical insight. This makes intuitive sense as rationality, in telling us how we should respond to evidence, shouldn’t depend on the particular way the evidence turns out. On this conception rationality constrains how one reaches judgements from arbitrary data and something is rational just if we expect it to maximize true beliefs in the face of a completely unknown/unspecified fact pattern1. In other words this is the kind of rationality you want if you are suddenly flung into another universe where the natural laws, number of dimensions or even the correspondence between mental and physical states might differ radically from our own.

On this conception having logically coherent beliefs and obeying the axioms of probability can be said to be rationally required (as doing so never forces you to belief less truths) but it’s hard to make a case for much else. Carnap (among others) suggested at one point that there might be something like a rationally (in this sense) preferable way of assigning priors but the long history of failed attempts and conceptual arguments suggests this isn’t possible.

Note that on this conception of rationality it is perfectly appropriate to criticize a belief forming method for how it might perform if faced with some other set of circumstances. For instance, we could appropriately criticize the rule: never believe in ghosts/psychics on the grounds that it would have lead us to the wrong conclusions in a world where these things were real.

Rationality As Heuristic

The second conception of rationality is simpler. Rationality is what will lead human beings like us to true beliefs in this world. Thus, this notion of rationality can take into account things that happen to be true. For instance, consider the rule that when asked a question on a math test (written by humans in the usual circumstances) that calls for a numerical answer you should judge that 0 is the most probable answer. This rule is almost certainly truth-conducive but only because it happens to be true that human psychology tends to favor asking questions whose answer is 0.

Now a heuristic like this might, at first, seem pretty distant from the kind of things we usually mean by rationality but think about some of the rules that are frequently said to be rationally required/favored. For instance, one should steelman2 your opponents arguments, try to consider the issue in the most dispassionate way you can manage and you should break up complex/important events.

For instance, suppose that humans were psychologically disposed to be overly deferential so it was far more common to underestimate the strength of your argument than it was to underestimate your opponent’s argument. In this case steelmanning would make us even more likely to reach the wrong conclusions not less. Similarly, our emotions could have reflected useful information available to our subconscious minds but not our concuss minds in such a way that they provided a good guide to truth. In such a world trying to reach probability judgements via dispassionate consideration wouldn’t be truth conducive.

Thus, on this conception of rationality whether or not a belief forming method is rational depends only on how well it does in the actual world.

The Problematic Ambiguity

Unfortunately, when people in the rationality community talk about rationality they tend to blur these two concepts together. That is they advocate belief forming mechanisms that could only be said to be rational in the heuristic sense but assume that they can determine matters of rationality purely by contemplation without empirical evidence.

For instance, consider these remarks by Yudkowsky or this lesswrong post. Whether or not they come out and assert it they convey the impression that there is some higher discipline or lifestyle of rationality which goes far beyond simply not engaging in logical contradiction or violating probability axioms. Yet they seem to assume that we can determine what is/isn’t rational by pure conceptual analysis rather than empirical validation.

This issue is even more clear when we criticize others for the ways they form beliefs. For instance, we are inclined to say that people who adopt the rule ‘believe what my community tells me is true’ or ‘believe god exists/doesn’t exist regardless of evidence’ are being irrational since such rules would yield incorrect results if they had been born in a community with crazy beliefs or in a universe with/without deities. Yet, as I observed above the very rules we take to be core rational virtues have the very same property.

The upshot of this isn’t that we should give up on finding good heuristics for truth. Not at all. Rather, I’m merely suggesting we take more care, especially in criticizing other people’s belief forming methods, to ensure we are applying coherent standards.

A Third Way

One might hope that there was yet another concept of rationality that someone split the difference of the two I provided here. A notion that allows us to take into account things like our psychological makeup or seemingly basic (if contingent) properties our universe has, e.g., we experience it as predictable rather than being an orderless succession of experiential states, but doesn’t let us build in facts like Yeti’s don’t exist into supposedly rational belief forming mechanisms. Frankly, I’m skeptical that any such coherent notion can be articulated but don’t currently have a compelling argument for that claim.

Finally, I’d like to end by pointing out there is another issue we should be aware of regarding the term rationality (though hardly unique to it). That is rationality is ultimately a property of belief forming rules while in the actual world what we get is instances of belief formation and some vague intentions about how we will form beliefs in the future. Thus there is the constant temptation to simply find some belief forming rule that qualifies as sufficiently rational and use it to justify this instance of our belief. However, it’s not generally valid to infer that you are forming beliefs appropriately just because each belief you form agrees with some sufficiently rational (in the heuristic sense) belief forming mechanism.

For instance, suppose there are a 100 different decent heuristics for forming a certain kind of belief. We know that each one is imperfect and gets different cases wrong but any attempt to come up with a better rule doesn’t yield anything humans (with our limited brains) can usefully apply. It is entirely plausible that almost any particular belief of this kind matches up with 1 of these 100 different heuristics thus allowing you to always cite a justification for your belief even though you underperform every single one of these heuristics.



  1. I’m glossing over the question of whether there is a distinction between an arbitrary possible world and a `random’ possible world. For instance, suppose that some belief forming rule is true in all but finitely many possible worlds (out of some hugely uncountable set of possible worlds). That rule is not authorized in an arbitrary possible world (choose the counterexample world and it leads to falsehood) but intuitively it seems justified and any non-trivial probability measure (i.e. one that doesn’t concentrate on any finite set of worlds) on the space of possible worlds would assign probability 1 to the validity of the belief forming procedure. However, this won’t be an issue in this discussion. 
  2. The opposite of strawmannirg. Rendering your opponents argument in the strongest fashion possible.