"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Setting The Default

[Epistemic status: I predict everyone except me will respond to this with “Duuuuuuuuh”, but I found it changed some views of mine]

I.

I recently did couples therapy with two gay men who’d gotten married a year or so ago. Since then one of them, let’s call him Adam, decided he was bored with his sex life and went to a club where they did some things I will not describe here. His husband, let’s call him Steve, was upset by what he considered infidelity, and they had a big fight. Both of them wanted to stay together for the sake of the kids (did I mention they adopted some kids?) but this club thing was a pretty big deal, so they decided to seek professional help.

Adam made the following proposal: he knew Steve was not very kinky, so Adam would go do his kinky stuff at the club, with Steve’s knowledge and consent. That way everyone could get what they wanted. Sure, it would involve having sex with other people, but it didn’t mean anything, and it was selfish for a spouse to assert some kind of right to “control” the other spouse anyway.

Steve made the following counterproposal: no. He liked monogamy and fidelity and it would make him really jealous and angry to think of Adam going out and having sex with other people, even in a meaningless way. He argued that if Adam didn’t like monogamy, maybe he shouldn’t have proposed entering into a form of life that has been pretty much defined by its insistence on monogamy for the past several thousand years and then sworn adherence to that form of life in front of everyone they knew. If Adam hadn’t liked monogamy, he had ample opportunity to avoid it before he had bound his life together with Steve’s. Now he was stuck.

Adam gave the following counterargument: yeah, marriage usually implies remaining monogamous, but that was all legal boilerplate. He had wanted to get married to symbolize his committment to Steve – committment that he still had! – and he hadn’t realized he was interested in fetish stuff at the time or else he would have brought it up.

Steve gave the following countercounterargument: okay, this is all very sad, but now we are stuck in this position, and clearly only one of the two people could get their preference satisfied, and given the whole marriage-implies-monogamy thing, it seemed pretty clear that that person should be him.

So then of course they both turned to me for advice.

The rules for psychotherapy are a lot like the rules for Aaron Burr: talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for. This last principle is generally known as “therapeutic neutrality”, and it demands that we not take sides in our patients’ disputes or dilemmas. Instead, we try to remain an impartial discussion facilitator, teasing out our patients’ true values and concerns until they are able to come to a conclusion on their own.

On the other hand, their friends probably don’t have the same scruples and are going to be offering them advice. And I wondered what advice I would give, if I were their friends and not stuck in metaphorical Switzerland.

II.

Assume Steve’s analysis is right; this is a zero-sum game and there’s no way for them both to come out of it happy. Which side do we choose?

A quick retreat to a simpler situation: suppose Adam really wants to keep all the windows in the house open all winter with no heat on, so that the inside temperature is 10F and the house is full of snow. Steve does not want to do this. Both of them want to stay together for the sake of the kids, but this do-we-freeze-our-house thing is really getting in the way.

This problem is easy. Adam, you’re crazy and your preferences are stupid and don’t count. Suck it up and keep living with Steve at normal-person temperatures.

Another retreat in the other direction: suppose Adam wants to sometimes take a shower, but for some reason the thought of Adam being in a shower pisses Steve off and he refuses to allow it. Once again, both of them want to stay together for the sake of the kids, but this can-Adam-take-a-shower thing is really getting in the way.

This problem is also easy. Steve, this time your preferences are stupid and don’t count. Suck it up and let Adam take a shower.

A third new situation. The one Unit of Caring recently discussed on her blog. A transwoman wants to have Christmas with her family, but her family doesn’t believe in transgender and insists on calling her by her original male name and male pronouns. Both her and her family don’t want to “ruin Christmas” by refusing to get together as a family or making a big deal of this. Who is in the right? Unit of Caring writes:

Anyone who does not respect their siblings enough to call them by the name of their choosing does not then get to go “oh! you not wanting to let me repeatedly hurt you is breaking apart our family, how unreasonable of you!” If you want people to spend time around you, call them by the names they chose. If you wouldn’t repeatedly slap your siblings in the face, don’t deliberately misgender them either. (And if you would repeatedly slap your siblings in the face, then you shouldn’t have to look too far to figure out whose behavior ruined Christmas.)

If it doesn’t bother you that you’re hurting someone, then you don’t get to act wronged when they decide you’re not worth spending time with.

I agree with this assessment, but only because I agree with Unit about the object-level issue of transgender. It seems like if you wrote in the same question to your local priest, they’d say the trans woman was being unreasonable. I don’t think there’s any good way for Unit and the priest (or the woman and her family) to resolve their differences except by one convincing the other of their position on the object-level issue of transgender.

(well, if you really really really understood utilitarianism, you might be able to say you should take the highest-utility solution, but no one understands utilitarianism that well)

This seems to be true of my patients’ problem too. Unless we can decide whether wanting to go to a fetish club and have sex with people besides your husband is a reasonable request, we can’t solve Adam and Steve’s disagreement. I mean, Steve’s argument about the contract isn’t bad, but if it were something we disagreed with – let’s say some old-timey marriage contract where the woman vowed to always serve and obey her husband, and now she’s a feminist and wants out – we would probably be pretty sympathetic despite the precise wording of what she’d “agreed” on.

III.

I come to the table with personal baggage. I come from a very permissive subculture. I’ve had some very happy open relationships and wanting to be open seems like a reasonable request. I’ve had some friends who are very kinky, and wanting to be kinky seems like a reasonable request too. I’m not personally very good at feeling jealous, so wanting your husband to never go to a club, even if he doesn’t tell you about it, or make you think about it, or even agrees only to do it when you’re away on a business trip in another city – seems a bit odd. Honestly I would be tempted to take Steve aside and ask him whether he’s sure that he couldn’t deal with Adam going to this club, and whether maybe he wants to give it a chance, and whether maybe he just wants what’s best for Adam even if that makes him a little uncomfortable.

But go back two hundred years and ask the people of that culture, and this choice is a no-brainer. Fetish clubs (or the closest 19th century equivalent) are weird, vile, sinful things, and Adam’s desire to go to one is totally beyond the pale. He should never even have made the request. But since he did, we can strongly and clearly tell him that this is morally wrong, that he should apologize to Steve for the trouble he put him in, that he should realize there’s more to life than kinky sex, and that he should want what’s best for Steve even if that means he can’t satisfy his libido quite so much.

If Adam and Steve were in the traditional culture of the 1800s there would be no debate. If they were in some ultra-permissive sexually-open subculture of the 2100s, there would also be no debate. The culture would tell one of them that they were wrong, just like someone who wants to make the other live in a 10 degree frozen house is wrong, that person would grudgingly agree, they would stay together, and that would be that. The problem only comes when they’re in a culture with a lot of different subcultures that haven’t made up their minds yet. Like ours.

We all hear the stories of the economists who start by assuming perfect rationality, and then add in deviations from that assumption when they come to them. I kind of like to start from a liberal assumption of perfect atomic individualism and add in deviations when I encounter them. And, well, this is the latest one I encountered.

Adam and Steve’s individual personalities and situations will help resolve their conflict, but the tiebreaker vote is always going to be cast by the culture around them. Realizing this has made me more open to activists who are trying to change the culture – and, symmetrically, to conservatives who are trying to prevent the culture from being changed. People with unusual sex lives like to say that what they do in the privacy of their own bedroom doesn’t hurt anyone else – neither breaks their nose nor picks their pocket – but the fact is that the partial social acceptance of fetish clubs and of open relationships is what gives Adam a leg to stand on. And some religious conservatives like to talk about how they only want to defend their own right to practice and express their beliefs instead of being forced into the broader cultural revolution all around them, but the fact is that their beliefs are what’s supporting Steve. My sympathies will always be with the atomic individualists who want to come up with some clever Adam-Steve contract that solves their problem on the meta-level as long as all actors are rational, but I am starting to worry the culture warriors have a point here.

UR said that “the sovereign is the one who sets the null hypothesis”. Once you’ve let the culture set a default – going to fetish clubs is a reasonable request, going to fetish clubs is an unreasonable request – then given sufficiently good liberal norms people who want to deviate from the default can absolutely do so, but as soon as a conflict springs up the identity of the default option still matters a lot.

I’m not suggesting a total war of all against all, and there’s always the Archipelago option, but I guess sometimes culture wars do need to be fought beyond the point where you just leave people alone, if only to shift the default in your direction.

Speaking of culture wars, an apology to gay people. I always obfuscate details about my patients to disguise their identities, but I feel particularly bad about making this couple gay because it reinforces the stereotype of gay people as hypersexual and bad at committment. I made them gay anyway, because when I tried to write them hetero, their gender seemed to skew the problem too much to one side or another – for example, when Steve was a woman, he was the poor innocent wife wronged by a horny husband who insisted on thinking with his crotch. I worried that if I made the couple hetero, my readers for one reason or another would bring their own baggage and wouldn’t be able to see it as the difficult and evenly-balanced problem it seemed like when I was in the office with them.

Which itself says something about how our culture sets default hypotheses.

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1,091 Responses to Setting The Default

  1. Pku says:

    This is really good. But I also think there’s a reason our base cultural values are used as a tiebreaker – they’re designed to minimize the average actual distaste the average person has with the status quo (You can’t have a cultural norm if too many people object to it too strongly, it ends up changing). And to some degree (though not totally, unfortunately), this mirrors people’s actual preferences instead of stated preferences – it’s much easier to change a social norm if changing it doesn’t really hurt the people opposed (for example, gay marriage matches this perfectly, and seems like by far the most successful social change of recent times).
    So basically, going by the social norm is to some degree saying “we can’t decide, so we’ll let the global betting market make the decision for us.” Which actually seems like a pretty reasonable way to settle things – to take your snowpiles example, it seems likely that it’s easier to learn to live without snow in the house than the reverse, based on overwhelming social evidence, so it makes a good default position.
    It’s also why I have a lot of distaste for some forms of social engineering – not the “this kind of racism hurts people and should stop”, which matches the above algorithm, but the kind where people reason that something is racist and decide to fight it because of that, rather than because it bothers them personally. (Deciding which is which is a nontrivial problem).

    • Izaak Weiss says:

      What makes you think that it doesn’t bother them personally? I don’t want to say that no one has ever said, “I’m fine with this on a personal level, but we should get rid of it anyway because”, but to be honest it kinda defies my mental image of the people who are fighting for cultural change – these people honestly are bothered by the problems they see.

      • Valhar2000 says:

        Maybe he means people who make tortured arguments that something is racist or sexist, when their real motivation is that they, personally, don’t like it.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          Or that they, personally, don’t like the person who’s doing it.

        • Loquat says:

          Or maybe people who like to take offense on behalf of groups they don’t belong to, without bothering to find out if anyone in the group they’re “defending” actually has a problem with the thing being fought.

    • I think the problem with this is that ‘the average’ or meeting in the middle isn’t a fair strategy if people can actively change behaviour to take advantage of this.

      For instance if I go into a negotiation wanting a price of $100 but you want $60, I should bid $140 so the ‘average’ is $100. But I just got what I wanted.

      In democratic society, it’s not enough to campaign for the outcome you want. You actually want to (long-term) spike the voting pool to have the ‘right’ values, so from their frame the obvious decisions always go your way. This is close to the concept of an Overton window, I think?

  2. candles says:

    I think the other absolutely crucial thing about defaults is that they can protect weak partners in relationships from overly assertive / aggressive partners. The Adam and Steve story looks quite different if Adam is a much pushier person, and Steve isn’t good at pushing back. Good norms can help push back in situations like that. The general liberal / libertarian ideal of “consent is king” requires parity in negotiations that doesn’t actually exist in a lot of real life interactions between people.

    • Pku says:

      OTOH, defaults can easily be abused by the pushy person to win debates – eg, all their arguments can go “I want X” “well I don’t and the default is on my side, so I win.”

      • Pete says:

        Well, but in many situations, e.g. the hypothetical examples of do-we-freeze-in-our-house-thing and can-Adam-take-a-shower-thing we *do* want the disagreement solved in a way that matches the social default, no matter which party is more pushy.

        A situation of “the social default always wins” isn’t perfect but is acceptable, however a situation “couples do as the most pushy person decides” is not acceptable.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          Or “the default wins unless stated otherwise.” Which has the advantage of not needing to explicitly state out every godforsaken thing until we have a 3000 page contract.

          If someone wants to live in 10F weather indoors, he knows he has to make it explicit up front. There’s a bunch of stuff that is just assumed in any human relationship. If you are weird (like me), you need to speak up, if for the very least to find others who can accept your preferences.

          • Albino Gorilla says:

            Agreed, unless these are 2 people coming from wildly different cultures, I think it’s disingenuous to claim post-facto that you were unaware that your preferences were outside the norm. It’s fine to have “weird” views, just let them be known up-front. Make the agreement explicit, and it cuts away all of the icky, nebulous “whose cultural norm is the better one” nonsense. (It could be argued that this is an attempt to support personal integrity as a cultural norm, which I guess I am ok with).

            I get that this post is all about what happens *after* that line is already crossed, so just saying “Don’t cross the line” isn’t really a great answer. My inclination to the Adam/Steve scenario is to have them hash out between them what they are ok with, which can be one or the other submitting, or might involve them splitting altogether (again, cultural norms biasing us to consider the split-up a failure case). It’s not exactly as if it’s a supreme court case that establishes precedent for all future similar scenarios.

            I guess it seems weird to see Scott of all people trying to defend the necessity of a deontological absolute.

        • Pku says:

          But “default always wins in case of tiebreakers” can easily be used selectively to enforce aggression. For example, my relationship with my older brother growing up frequently involved him saying some variation on “that’s not how X is done”, while I (as the younger brother) wasn’t in a good position to use it back at him.

      • ryan says:

        When the relationship involves a pushy person and a doormat, should we really be surprised by who gets their way?

    • Valhar2000 says:

      The general liberal / libertarian ideal of “consent is king” requires parity in negotiations that doesn’t actually exist in a lot of real life interactions between people.

      Establishing the belief that a disparity in negotiations exists can be an excellent tool to force others into compliance.

    • NA says:

      “The general liberal / libertarian ideal of “consent is king” requires parity in negotiations that doesn’t actually exist in a lot of real life interactions between people.” This.

    • Alia D. says:

      I think another important aspect of the a clear and strong social default is the important stability it can give to the relationships wear both partners are poor or weak. When you are dealing with people who haven’t been trained in constructive conflict resolution, who have port social networks, who routinely have other stresses like money troubles weakening their relationships, a clear outside default can serve as a Great Amphibian. The default may or may not be right in an absolute sense, but if it is consistent and widely agreed to, it can serve as an outside reference point that is disinterested enough that both sides accept it. If the relationship on the whole is a net good for each party that can use the social default to get past the argument about object level reality and move on from there.

      Adam and Steve sound like fairly rational people and at least they have access to a good therapist, so they’ll probably be able to solve this issue if the relationship it really in both of their best interests. Just like marriage statistics among the middle and upper class have stabilized. But marriage culture amount the poor has been devastated as social defaults have become less clear and more a matter of individual choice. These are just the type of people how will be helped most by stable relationships and whose children to be hurt by their parents having a series of short thermo and stormy relationships. But the lack of a clear pattern that society reinforces continually and that has over the years proven to work OK for most people, seems like it would have the most negative affect on the relationship stability of these same people.

  3. nico says:

    Speaking of culture wars, an apology to gay people.

    Apology accepted.

    I always obfuscate details about my patients to disguise their identities, but I feel particularly bad about making this couple gay because it reinforces the stereotype of gay people as hypersexual and bad at committment.

    You mean we’re not?!

    Anyhow, the thing that disturbed me most about the story was that a couple would adopt within a few years of getting married. Now that the couple was actually hetero, my mind is at ease.

    • Randy M says:

      He didn’t say they were, and I doubt he’ll clarify.

      • Chevron says:

        Exactly, just as any number of other details are changed in any of Scott’s anecdotes. He draws from his experiences but how grounded any example is in this reality is much less important than the narrative purpose of the hypothetical.

      • boy says:

        The argument might have been over something other than kinky sex, or it might not have been marriage counseling, or any number of things. Scott has said in the past that he changes his patient’s biographical information to the point where not even they would recognize themselves.

        • Graeme Sutton says:

          That’s actually the standard all doctors are supposed to use in discussing their patients, as taught in the first week of medical school.

    • Izaak Weiss says:

      He doesn’t say the couple is actually hetero. He says that it was harder to write them as hetero, and that he’s sorry for making them gay – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the couple originally was hetero. I don’t know what level of deception Scott is playing, but I think I’m not too far off when I say he’s probably not playing at level 1 or 2.

    • Chevron says:

      Why is it less disturbing for a hetero couple to do so than a gay one?

      • I will come up with a clever name later says:

        Because presumably they made them the old-fashioned way instead of adopting.

        • Chevron says:

          Why is either of those scenarios disturbing?

          • Adopting shortly after getting married is disturbing because at that point there is a significant risk the marriage won’t work, which imposes serious costs on the adopted children.

            The same is true to some extent for the heterosexual couple having their own children, but there are some balancing elements, in particular the fact that the woman is getting less fertile as she gets older.

          • Moshe Zadka says:

            For the record, my wife and I are a heterosexual couple (and our kids are ours biologically). But since we got married in our late thirties, even if had wanted to adopt, we didn’t have too long — if you adopt after you’re 40, it’s much harder to have the energy to deal with a teenager when you’re 55. Perhaps Adam and Steve also got married later in life?

          • andy says:

            Are you sure kids in foster care are better off then adopted kids whose parents divorced?

          • Virbie says:

            > Are you sure kids in foster care are better off then adopted kids whose parents divorced?

            The parents wouldn’t be choosing between adopting the same kid at an ‘earlier’ or ‘later’ stage. I.e. there’s no reason to assume that adopting a child X years later means you adopt a child who’s been in foster care X years longer.

            It’s of course true that you’re increasing the amount of child-years spent in foster care by X (in a fairly simple model), but the key difference is that those extra years aren’t borne by your adopted child. If Steve and Adam were interested in simple utility maximization across all children in foster care, then your question would be relevant, but I don’t think it’s super unreasonable for them to put more weight on the experience of their adopted child than on an arbitrary child in foster care.

            TL;DR: Adopting X years later means having an arbitrary child spend X years longer in foster care, but critically, it doesn’t mean having _your_ adopted child spend X years longer in foster care. So the comparison is not “+X years in foster care vs adopted immediately and divorced”, it’s “adopted immediately (from the child’s perspective) vs adopted immediately and divorced”

      • nico says:

        Well, the distinction I’m actually getting at is adopted kid vs standard pregnancy, and I’m assuming that the adopted kids detail was added only to comport with the gay detail. Thus, when I mentally adjust the couple to be hetero, the kid becomes not-adopted.

        With that in mind, for a couple to adopt within a “year or so” of getting married means that they would have had to start the process basically immediately after getting married, which seems foolishly early* to me.

        The pregnancy case differs in two way:
        1. Pregnancy is faster than adoption by a few months, so that means the couple was considering things for at least that much longer.
        2. The kid was probably an accident, anyway. This means the couple accidentally rushed things rather than deliberately rushed things, so somehow that’s better.

        * Actually, on review it has occurred to me that the hypothetical gay couple may have only gotten married recently because of changing marriage laws, and so the decision to adopt could have been very well-considered.

        • Tom Womack says:

          Again the odd assumption about the order in which people get married and have children. A straight couple having her eight-year-old by a different father as ringbearer at the wedding scarcely counts as unusual nowadays.

        • Anthony says:

          Actually, on review it has occurred to me that the hypothetical gay couple may have only gotten married recently because of changing marriage laws, and so the decision to adopt could have been very well-considered.

          Many hetero couples are “together” for years before getting married; I assume that of the subset of gay male couples that get married, many are similarly together for a long time before getting married, even modulo the legal ability to get married. It would not surprise me to find an Adam and Steve who got married specifically so they could start the adoption process, after having lived together for a decade.

        • A lot of people get married precisely *because* they want to have kids. They date for years, finally decide that yes, this is the person they want to raise a family with, and then within a year of the wedding, they have a kid. What is the point of dating for years, getting married, and then hanging out for another year? If you are unsure whether or not your marriage is going to work out, don’t get married. If you think you need another year of dating, well, date for another year. But there’s no sense in putting another year of “trial period” into the relationship *after* the wedding.

          • Slightly Anonymized Poster says:

            Many people don’t date that long before they get married. Others may not live together before marriage due to logistical or moral barriers. For people like that the trial period is a great idea.

          • I’m not sure. I’ve read that a significant number of people live together happily for years but then find they can’t cope after they get married.

            That said, I’ve been happily married for, um, fourteen years now, and our first child was born the first year. Then again, my wife is exceptional. 🙂

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “You mean we’re not?!”

      I think a reasonable defense of not-stereotyping would have to start with the admission that stereotypes are very often true. They’re not bad because they’re false, they’re bad because they imprint a statistical fact deeper in people’s mind than the statistical fact ought to go.

      The best example of this is the debate about whether companies should be banned from asking about past convictions on job applications. People with convictions have a really hard time getting hired because people think they’re bad people. It’s probably true that ex-convicts are on average worse people than non-convicts, but when that leads to no convicted person being able to get a job ever again, I would say we’re past the point of reasonable reaction to the accurate statistical truth.

      And if the media always portrays people with past convictions as evil, I would blame them for contributing to that.

      This is obviously not a complete theory of stereotyping, and maybe I’ll write one up, but it’d explain where I’m coming from with comments like the above.

      • Randy M says:

        I think that’s the first reasonable defense of non-stereotyping I’ve seen, then.

        • Jiro says:

          I’ve made a point similar to Scott here, but with race instead of conviction. It may very well be that people of one race are more likely to be criminals. But if you allow race to be used in hiring, and employers don’t have much other information from which to deduce criminality, the employers are going to pick all the people from less criminal races over all the people from more criminal races. A 1% difference in propensity to commit crimes could become unemployment at near 100%–all out of proportion to the difference in crime rate. And this is really bad for society.

          • Not Robin Hanson says:

            I suspect there’s an unfortunate interaction with Goodhart’s Law here as well—when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure, but its remaining effectiveness is still enough to ensure that nobody can abandon it.

          • satanistgoblin says:

            Only if they could not compete in wages.

          • What you describe only happens if there is legal pressure forcing the employer to pay the same wages to the disfavored group. If there isn’t, wages adjust to make the favored group member and the disfavored group member equally attractive as employees, with the employee who is slightly more likely to be criminal receiving a slightly lower wage.

            If that isn’t obvious, apply your argument to show that, as long as some job applicants graduated from Harvard, anyone who graduated from VPI will be unemployed.

          • Publius Varinius says:

            @David Friedman:

            > wages adjust to make the favored group member and the disfavored group member equally attractive as employees

            So far, this is a just-so story.

            Maybe there’s a more detailed version somewhere, with proper assumptions and arguments?

          • Anonymous says:

            @David Friedman

            What if the expected value of a disfavored employee’s contribution is zero, or negative?

          • JBeshir says:

            The Harvard bit is incorrectly assuming an idealised model where every employer has an otherwise-identical Harvard graduate applying for every VPI graduate applying. It’s not reasonable to make predictions from a model assuming absurdly perfect market conditions in a tiny labour market + one assumption you disagree with, then say that assumption must be false because the predictions are absurd.

            If you remove the assumed idealised labour market, if you didn’t believe in significant wage discrimination and thought everything significant was being done through disfavouring hiring, you’d predict Harvard graduates to show a higher employment rate since where things are equal they win, but some Harvard graduates to be unemployed at a rate explained by either their poor fit on other attributes or failure to apply to roles while VPI graduates were also employed. You’d also predict no wage gap after compensating for all confounders.

            Whereas if you believed wage discrimination dominated and there was no significant disfavouring of hiring, you’d predict near-identical employment rates for otherwise identical candidates. This would be hard to measure but you could send out a realistic distribution of applications (not unrealistically good or bad), each copied twice with a different university filled in, if you found university failed to predict response rate that’d be evidence in favour. You would also predict a wage gap.

            Both of these are much more realistic, and reality probably lies somewhere between, where given the choice employers do a mix of wage gaps and disfavouring of hiring. A similar comparison you could make would be university graduates with irrelevant degrees vs non-graduates, which are much bigger groups we have better data on, and we’re quite sure that there’s both a wage gap and a difference in attractiveness to employers.

            There’s lots of reasons why, once you go beyond very simplistic models of a market, even given the legal option of a wage gap an employer might choose not to create one. Off the top of my head:

            1) Nominal wage stickiness, especially against downward moves, is a thing. While hire/fire events tend to reset it over time, they don’t always reset all of it. In particular, for any employer which operates fixed wage bands rather than individualised negotiation, which is a *lot* of the lower to middle end employment where the people we actually need to be worrying about are, there’s a lot of stickiness against offering a subset of applicants a lower wage, even though they’re new applicants.

            One cause of this is morale effects (if someone knows they’re being paid less well, they will work less hard), but there’s a lot of things going on here that I don’t know if we have good models for.

            2) Social pressure. Repealing the Civil Rights Act in America will not, realistically, permit any major chain to openly discriminate on wages- the PR costs involved would be massive. I doubt it would happen at a noticeable rate for small employers, even. Again, this is a bigger problem for employers with fixed wage bands, which are where the bulk of people who actually need worrying about are, because they *would* have to change their processes to permit it.

            3) Risk aversion. There’s no insurance market in worker productivity, which means you can’t insure against a worker turning out to be unproductive, which means risk averse behaviour on the part of employers, especially medium and small ones. This means the wage gap demanded to compensate for an increase in risk of being unproductive may be very large relative to the size of that gap. It’s pretty plausible that the larger it is, the worse morale effects, internal culture gaps, and other downsides of having a wage gap are, such that the worker would at all configurations be a loss to you.

            Humans are pretty complicated. Ghettos and shunned groups predate modern regulation, and while we can reasonably ask if market regulation makes them better or worse we can know from history that there aren’t reliable forces that render all people equal in attractiveness to employers that market regulation is blocking.

            Edit: Also worth noting that “lower pay” may not be that much better than “lower rate of employment” when it comes to risk of having stereotypes overemphasised, create self-fulfilling feedback loops, etc. So even if wage discrimination did dominate and disfavouring of hiring was negligible you *still* might need to worry about stereotyping.

          • Anonymous says:

            @JBeshir

            Ghettos and shunned groups predate modern regulation

            They have also managed to solve themselves without modern regulation.

            It seems plausible to me that much of this effect – immigrant group moves in, is isolated for a while and gradually integrates – is more a case of changing preferences than irrational discrimination. People are suspicious of change and might well have a preference not to mix with these weird new people. Their children have grown up around the weird new people and so are fine with them. Unless you are to assume that the preference of not mixing with people you don’t like is fundamentally wrong and shouldn’t be included in utility calculations, I don’t see why this is so obviously a wrong outcome. (And if you do make that assumption then I’d ask you why you choose to hang out on SSC rather than doing all your political discussion on Facebook.)

          • Chalid says:

            only happens if there is legal pressure forcing the employer to pay the same wages to the disfavored group

            Libertarian reflex? It’s nearly universal for employees at a similar level in a company to be paid similar wages and what differences there are don’t map well to expected productivity. Legal reasons don’t seem like a major reason for that, with the notable exception of the minimum wage.

            Edit: of course JBeshir said it much better.

          • JBeshir says:

            @Anonymous:

            I’d agree that a case for uneven distribution of people between neighbourhoods being bad would need to rest on arguments for additional consequences that were bad rather than assuming innate badness.

            I don’t think you need to assume preferences quite that strong to get uneven distribution; http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/04/seeing-around-corners/302471/ talks about how a preference for not being a minority or at least not being *overwhelmingly* in the minority is enough once iterated, and (I speculate) it wouldn’t surprise me if you could get it even without a specific preference like that if you had preferences which panned out that way in practice, e.g. liking being near relatives. But either way you don’t directly throw out human preferences, no.

            The main case I know of for economic disadvantage being more of a problem when concentrated in an ethnic minority is less “it will cause lack of integration” and more that “given families are not 100% integrated and kind of can’t be, it will turn lots of families having a few people unemployed each into a smaller number of families in which most have never known productive work, and this is really bad for crime rates, creates hopelessness, etc”, though.

            Edit: Stacks nastily with other things that help employment, like intelligence and conscientiousness, also being heavily genetic. Which interestingly makes a case that there’s non-trivial risk to making society increasingly meritocratic.

          • Anonymous says:

            @Jiro

            The problem with that argument is that different jobs create different amounts of value, and employers seeking workers for high-value jobs will outbid employers seeking workers for low-value jobs. I’m sure the supermarkets would prefer to have the world’s best workers, but they aren’t prepared to pay them an executive’s salary to stack groceries.

            Also note that propensity to commit crimes is only one of many, many factors that employers are interested in.

            @JBeshir, Chalid

            Regarding whether employers will pay different employees different amounts depending on their differing value, I will point out that it doesn’t really make sense to observe that they don’t do this today, in a world with extensive anti-discrimination legislation, and conclude that they would therefore not do so in a world absent this legislation.

            The default assumption, surely, is that prices will adjust to make supply equal to demand. Anti-discrimination legislation is very effective at preventing this from happening, because (as far as I’m aware) it applies not just to wages, but to all treatment and compensation in the workplace.

          • Chalid says:

            I simply don’t see any particular reason to favor “legal reasons” over the many alternatives.

            Note the international comparisons too – my impression is that non-American companies are generally even more rigid in their pay structure and AFAIK they’re not likely to be as worried about anti-discrimination laws.

          • baconbacon says:

            @JBeshir-

            “1) Nominal wage stickiness, especially against downward moves, is a thing. ”

            it is very curious that you would cite NWS- NWS was specifically invented in an attempt to describe what happened in recessions, because economists were otherwise so sure about the interaction between supply and demand that they lacked another explanation. Bringing up NWS is essentially conceding Friedman’s point- that prices should naturally adjust barring some bizarre circumstance. Since proponents of NWS don’t generally apply it outside of recessions it is strange that you would apply it here.

          • Anonymous says:

            @Chalid

            I’m writing from the UK and can’t speak for what it’s like in other countries, but I can say that anti-discrimination legislation is absolutely a factor here.

          • JBeshir says:

            @Anonymous:

            “Price adjusts to fit demand” is a sensible starting point for modelling, a fair default, but it simplifies out some important things. In particular, it predicts a zero unemployment rate (with a minimum wage, a zero unemployment rate amongst anyone who is able to produce value above the minimum wage). It makes no predictions on, given a non-zero unemployment rate, who will be in it.

            We do have some observations of the world, based on non-protected groups, that odds of being hired and so employment rate does differ between groups predicted to have different capabilities, such as college graduates with irrelevant degrees vs non-degree-holders, as well as there being wage differences.

            I would suggest that if your theory predicts a zero unemployment rate for all groups, you should probably not split that into separate claims that “unemployment rate is equal for all groups” and “unemployment rate is zero”, discard the latter as clearly an error, and claim the former as solidly predicted.

            @baconbacon:

            Well, it implicitly agrees that wages adjust based on demand, yes. I’m not rejecting basic economics.

            I don’t think you’re right that stickiness is always and necessarily irrelevant outside of bizarre circumstances. My understanding is that it’s held to exist most of the time, and just isn’t generally a problem for wages adjusting to demand when your sector of the economy is doing okay, basically because inflation makes sticky nominal wages a slow gradual pay cut. If you’re worth more you get raises, if not it sorts itself out slowly, and it’s only when what you’re worth drops sharply that it becomes a noticeable problem breaking adjustment.

            I think it could certainly be a component of the reason why, in practice, many employers prefer to hire the best they can get within a fairly narrow price bracket or even an entirely fixed wage band, rather than hire anyone with non-zero productivity and just vary amount offered.

          • Publius Varinius says:
            “Maybe there’s a more detailed version somewhere, with proper assumptions and arguments?”

            How do you think wages are determined in a market economy? If you want me to point you at a price theory textbook, mine is webbed at:

            http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Price_Theory/PThy_ToC.html

            Anonymous asks:
            “What if the expected value of a disfavored employee’s contribution is zero, or negative?”

            Then he doesn’t get hired. Just like anyone else the expected value of whose marginal product is zero or negative.

            That’s more likely in a legal regime where firing is difficult. With at will employment, the employer has the option of hiring the employee, keeping an eye on him for a while, then firing him if he turns out to actually be a criminal, keeping him if he isn’t. That option raises the expected return of hiring him.

          • baconbacon says:

            @ JBeshir

            ” My understanding is that it’s held to exist most of the time, and just isn’t generally a problem for wages adjusting to demand when your sector of the economy is doing okay, basically because inflation makes sticky nominal wages a slow gradual pay cut”

            Your understanding is slightly off. Nominal wage stickiness is used to explain why labor markets appear to clear during normal times but not during recessions. There is no theoretical difference between 0% inflation and 2% inflation during non recessions according to monetary theory (see Milton Friedman on the optimal quantity of money).

            Further NSW would not apply to someone that never had a job (you could come up with circumstances, but I think they amount to calling the UE highly irrational and unable to learn).

          • JBeshir says:

            @baconbacon:

            That part about it never applying to people who haven’t previously had a job assumes that wage stickiness is solely a matter of the employee being unwilling to accept lower wages than their previous position, as opposed to the employer being unwilling to issue lower wages than their existing staff.

            I’m not clear if you’re saying I’m wrong for considering the latter to be a form of “nominal wage stickiness” but it is definitely a fairly major thing; many employers define fixed wages or wage bands for given job positions, even in the absence of unions.

          • baconbacon says:

            @JBeshir

            “That part about it never applying to people who haven’t previously had a job assumes that wage stickiness is solely a matter of the employee being unwilling to accept lower wages than their previous position, as opposed to the employer being unwilling to issue lower wages than their existing staff.”

            I think that in every job I have ever had at least 2 of the following were true and in some cases all

            1. New employees are paid less than current employees.
            2. There are divisions/titles within the firm where higher rank = more pay, even in situations where there is lots of overlap in responsibility.
            3. The early period of employment was essentially a trial period with fewer benefits (vesting in retirement programs, partial eligibility for health insurance, uncovered maternity leave until X date, to name a few, even low end hourly jobs had small perks that hit after 60 days).
            4. Reasonably large pay range for new hires based on their desirability.
            5. Pay reductions before termination due to performance.

          • Anthony says:

            David Friedman says: If there isn’t, wages adjust to make the favored group member and the disfavored group member equally attractive as employees, with the employee who is slightly more likely to be criminal receiving a slightly lower wage.; Publius Varinius objects.

            So I seem to recall that exactly what David Friedman suggests actually happened in the U.S. relative to black versus white labor; at least some of the deliberately racist state-level legislation was explicitly to prevent this sort of thing, in order to favor whites over blacks. Perhaps someone who is an economic historian can elaborate.

            Returning to the topic of Scott’s post, this seems to be legal enforcement of a societal default which Northern or nationwide employers were violating in the South.

            Returning to the economics of the matter, Publius seems to imagine that this sort of disparate wage setting will occur within firms, when in reality, it’s more likely to occur between firms. Some, perhaps most, firms, will just not hire convicts. Others will, while maintaining a generally lower wage level for all their employees. The firm which pays less and which hires convicts will have (on average) somewhat less-productive employees – among non-convict employees, because they’re paying less, and among convict employees because some will be unsuitable – but they will also have lower costs, leaving them competitive in the market.

            I work in the construction field. I know that some contractors do hire ex-convicts; some are even willing to hire sex offenders, because construction has no minors, and very few women, so the handicap is less. (Also, construction workers in general are more likely to f*** you up if you assault them.) But I’ve mostly heard about/seen ex-cons working for the smaller contractors.

          • @Anthony:

            The case I remember reading about where equal wages legislation was used to keep the minority out was South African. As best I recall, the Nationalist (pro-apartheid) government supported such legislation. On average blacks were less qualified than whites, so requiring equal wages meant they could not compete by being willing to accept less.

            My source for that is probably something written by W.H.Hutt but I’m afraid I can’t provide an actual cite.

          • Leit says:

            @David

            I also can’t provide any sources, but from experience your recollection is accurate. Further, the bantu education policies meant that blacks could effectively never achieve “equivalent” qualification.

            This of course didn’t mean that there weren’t situations where blacks were accepting lower than legal wages, and it wasn’t even uncommon. It just meant that said blacks had no recourse when their wages were garnished for whatever reason by their employers, and they ended up being screwed even harder.

            The only point I’d contest is that your definition of “minority” must be pretty interesting, given the demographics of SA.

        • Captainbooshi says:

          Are you sure it’s the first, or is it just more thorough than you’re used to seeing? I mean, it’s practically a cliche to say that there’s some basis to stereotypes (usually worded as “a grain of truth” when I hear people talking about it), but it’s just unfair to tar everybody with the same brush. Scott went more in depth than that, explained in more detail why they’re unfair, and gave a concrete example, but the basic argument is fairly common.

          • Randy M says:

            Of course I’m not sure, I said “I think” but the much more common attack on stereotypes does not grant that they are useful hueristics, but rather that they are fallacies born of ignorant bigotry.

        • Jeff H says:

          Really? I find it surprising that “small statistical averages between groups should not be used to pass judgment on all individual members of those groups” would strike anyone who hangs around here as a new, non-obvious thought.

        • Muga Sofer says:

          To all the people saying “but that’s obvious!” – this is an inferential distance thing.

          Scott didn’t just say “you shouldn’t judge people based on small statistical differences”. If he had, the obvious reaction (to someone who does not already believe this) would be “but it’s valuable evidence!”

          Scott gave an ACTUAL REASON why you should not do this – because people tend to overestimate how big the difference really is, because people are idiots, and it messes up society as you can see in the following non-politicised examples.

          The fact that a lot of antiracists are actually thinking this, but unable to express it because it’s just too obvious, is IMO a pretty good argument for the Principle of Charity.

          • Mary says:

            There’s a serious limit to how willing people will be to dismiss evidence in order to benefit society at their own (possible) expense.

          • RCF says:

            Given the preponderance of Privilege rhetoric, it appears that a lot of so-called “anti-racists” do not, in fact, think that one shouldn’t evaluate members of a group based the statistical properties of that group.

      • nico says:

        That makes sense, and I look forward to the completed theory!

        And while we’re on the topic of truth:
        1. The proposition that gay men are hypersexual relative to straight people seems to be obviously true to me, based on my limited sample. That said, the answer is probably boring either way.
        2. Alternatively, I’m now really curious whether commitment actually operates differently in gay couples and straight couples, once you correct for the right variables.

        • Pku says:

          According to OKcupid’s survey, hypersexual gay men are a small but intense minority (2% of gay men account for roughly a third of all gay sex). I think they also got that gay men are more physical and less into commitment, and gay women are the reverse.

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            2% of gay men account for roughly a third of all gay sex

            Goodness. They must be very busy.

          • Suppose the ordinary gay man has sex twice a week. 2% must then have sex about fifty times a week. Seven times a day.

            I don’t believe it.

          • Anon says:

            Closer to 5 times a day based on the twice a week estimate. I still think that number is unreasonable. Maybe gay men on OK cupid have an unusually low sex rate though? Closer to twice a month than twice a week.

          • chaosmage says:

            At least two of my gay friends had a prostitution phase, so I can kind of believe it.

            Also, OkCupid is mostly a dating platform, so I’d guess most members (of any sexual orientation) maybe have less than the average amount of sex (and try to fix that), leading to a more lopsided distribution.

          • Murphy says:

            @David Friedman

            I think you may be setting the average too high.

            Assume some reasonably beefy fraction of lonely people who spend most of their time at home alone. Throw in some old couples having sex once a week and it becomes easier for the top 2% to account for a large fraction of sex.

          • gattsuru says:

            The claim comes from OkTrends, saying that 2% of gay men have 23% of gay sex. Given the context of the claim, however, this likely revolves around number of sexual partners rather than number of incidents of sex.

            ((Caveat: I’m not sure their data generalizes very well. This claim comes right after claiming straight-to-gay fantasy is nearly non-existent, which… uh, is a wrong interpretation of the data.))

          • Magma says:

            Jesus. It’s possible to not be celibate and not a “lonely person who spends most of his time at home alone.”

        • My assumption is that gay men are “hypersexual” for the same reason straight men are–the obvious evbio advantage to males of having sex with any female who is willing. The difference is that straight men have sex with straight women who, for their obvious evbio reason, are a lot more choosy.

          So it isn’t that straight men are less inclined to promiscuous sex than gay men, just that they have less opportunity to act on that inclination.

          And for similar reasons, I would expect ff couples to be more stable than mf couples. Whether they actually are I don’t know.

          • Toggle says:

            Evobio reasoning for gay men is a little fraught, isn’t it? We’re still arguing about whether obligate homosexuality is maladaptive at all levels, or whether there’s some kind of sneaky rider effect or something.

            If homosexuality in men is a selected-for biological phenomenon with a degree of internal sophistication (not just a single maladaptive toggle or something), then there’s no obvious reason to think that the male tendency towards promiscuity would be preserved. It’s sex as an entirely social act, which could go either towards promiscuity or monogamy.

          • Ano says:

            You don’t need to go into evobio for it; it’s pretty obvious that more testosterone means more sex drive, and gay men don’t have any less testosterone than straight men.

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            Historically, women have at various points in time been regarded as the hypersexual gender, and as late as the early 20th century this was held as true (watch movies from that era sometime, and pay attention to the sexual dynamic).

            Be careful not to confuse biology with culture.

          • Urstoff says:

            @Oprhan Wilde

            Let’s not confuse having a higher libido with having a higher libido than is socially acceptable for a particular culture. It’s unsurprising that a male-dominated culture would paint women as “unable to control themselves”. I don’t know what empirical test would divorce actual sex drive from culture, but I’d put good money that men will end up as the gender with the higher sex drive (on average).

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            Urstoff –

            Media from the early twentieth century often depicted women as having a higher base sexual drive, and women attempting to seduce men was a not-infrequent plot point.

            We “reinterpret” this, through our modern cultural lens, as being about men having a higher sex drive, and women attempting to exploit it – but the exact same dynamic plays out, in the reverse, in modern entertainment. Men were expected to play the role of sexual gatekeeper, and it was their honor that was at stake if they failed.

            Go back further, and you see signs of this role being flipped back and forth between the genders throughout history, with men and women trading back and forth the role of seducer and gatekeeper. I’d guess that it’s driven by disparities in social power/marital market value between the genders.

          • Urstoff says:

            Yes, the cultural representations of gender sex drive change, but that doesn’t really tell us what the actual sex drives of the genders are. After all, the modern sitcom trope of the husband begging for sex from his wife who really doesn’t want to have sex isn’t accurate, so why would other cultural representations of sex drives be accurate rather than driven by other factors?

        • RCF says:

          “once you correct for the right variables.”

          It’s not like the question of what the “right” variables one is an objective one.

      • anonymous says:

        You should totes write up a complete theory of stereotyping

      • GCBill says:

        “This is obviously not a complete theory of stereotyping, and maybe I’ll write one up…”

        Please do!

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        The best example of this is the debate about whether companies should be banned from asking about past convictions on job applications. People with convictions have a really hard time getting hired because people think they’re bad people. It’s probably true that ex-convicts are on average worse people than non-convicts, but when that leads to no convicted person being able to get a job ever again, I would say we’re past the point of reasonable reaction to the accurate statistical truth.

        Individual employers are following their incentives when they refuse to hire ex-convicts; just because the system ends up having a disproportionate effect on ex-convicts does not mean any individual employer is committing the error of believing an ex-convict is more likely to be dangerous and unreliable than statistically warranted. Banning inquiries about past convictions seems therefore analogous to your proposal to ban questions about degrees.

        But it seems to me that the real problem is the economy. Back when there were still jobs, an ex-convict may get a slightly shittier job than average, but not be unemployed; that seems like a reasonable and proportional punishment and consequence. Now that the jobs are gone, somebody is going to end up unemployed regardless, and if you ban questions about criminal background you merely leave it up to chance whether that will be the ex-convict or the law-abiding man, as opposed to ensuring that it is always the ex-convict. Is that really an improvement? So long as someone has to suffer horrible circumstances no matter what, might as well be the criminal.

        Likewise if a black man can still get a slightly worse job in the black community, or if a college dropout can still get a slightly worse job at an assembly line. Real problem is that we are fighting over scraps; coming up with slightly better ways to distribute the scraps is a distraction. Real solution is to increase the size of the pie; real solution is to bring jobs back.

        • Anonymous says:

          >if you ban questions about criminal background you merely leave it up to chance whether that will be the ex-convict or the law-abiding man, as opposed to ensuring that it is always the ex-convict. Is that really an improvement? So long as someone has to suffer horrible circumstances no matter what, might as well be the criminal.

          This seems correct to first order but I think there might be significant social-psychological benefits to everyone feeling like they at least have a chance (and that they aren’t totally hopeless and locked out of society), even if it means that the outcome is less naively efficient.

        • Ano says:

          There are negative effects associated with long-term unemployment and “two-tier” economies, though.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Suppose that every job has exactly five applicants, of whom one is a convict and the other four aren’t.

          If everything is random, then everyone gets a job after, on average, three or four attempts.

          If there’s a bias against convicts, others get a job after two or so attempts, and convicts never get a job.

          I’m not sure this is the right model, but i’m not sure it’s wrong either.

          • Anonymous says:

            You’re ignoring that when someone gets a job, they exit the pool of applicants.

            There are not five times as many people wanting jobs as there are jobs. If there were, not only would all the convicts not get jobs, but so would 3/4 of the non-convicts.

          • Jiro says:

            Scott: I’ve said that before. The usual reply is that rather than not hiring the people with the higher risk of crime, the employer would just pay them less, the difference in the wages being such to compensate for the higher risk of crime.

            I am not convinced of this, however, because of risk-aversiveness on the part of the employer.

          • JBeshir says:

            They have to not hire someone, for any unemployment rate above zero.

          • JB says:

            The specific people who are employed now and who are unemployed now won’t necessarily be the same people who are employed vs unemployed in 6 months, a year, 2 years, etc.

            Let’s say those 5 people are competing for 4 jobs, each of which has some typical duration. Then over 5 periods, the comparison might look like:

            With hiring bias (last row is the convict, columns are time period)
            EEEEE
            EEEEE
            EEEEE
            EEEEE
            UUUUU

            without hiring bias it might be
            EEEEU
            EEEUE
            EEUEE
            EUEEE
            UEEEE

            The unemployment rates are the same in either case, but in the first case the convict is unable to ever get a job, while in the second everyone moves in and out of the employed group.

          • Anonymous says:

            @Jiro

            However risk averse an employer is, they are never going to be able to get the best workers for the jobs they want done because they will be outbid by employers who want those workers for more valuable positions.

            @JB

            If you consider that being a convict is just one of very many things that lower a worker’s value, and that there are a great many jobs which each create different amounts of value, your scenario seems unlikely. No reason to expect convicts to have any worse an employment rate than any other worker of similar value.

        • Magma says:

          “Back when there were still jobs”

          Did you somehow miss the fact that we are at full employment?

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            With extremely low workforce participation…

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            ShadowStats disagrees with the official statistics, and my lying eyes agree with ShadowStats.

          • Trevor says:

            Shadow Stats also says we’ve had negative growth for decades. Those stats are completely worthless and not taken seriously by actual economists and policy makers.

          • Nathan says:

            I don’t think the US is at full employment, though it’s not at a terrible level and things are certainly trending the right direction.

          • Wrong Species says:

            @Vox

            The low lfpr is probably a separate issue. If there is this group of people who have dropped out for economic reasons, why is it that they are still not looking for jobs? The economy has been creating something like 200k jobs a month for a while now, with job opening rates being fairly high and the unemployed getting jobs. Why are these discouraged workers not responding to the improving labor market? I wouldn’t say the labor market is fully healed but every month that argument gets more and more unpersuasive and it seems more likely that something else is causing the decrease in lfpr.

          • anonymous says:

            I’d think lfpr would be expected to go down as society becomes wealthier. More couples that would prefer one parent stay home have that as an option, fewer teenagers need to work as their parents can support them, people can retire younger as they have the savings to do so, more generous welfare policies mean single mothers and the disabled don’t desperately need to work despite preferring not to, and so on.

            That said, the apparent lack of wage inflation is puzzling given the reported unemployment rate.

          • Trevor says:

            Why is the lack of wage inflation surprising anonymous? Price inflation is low and productivity growth is low so if you are at full employment you should expect low wage growth.

          • Salem says:

            @Trevor:

            Because some people are implicitly regurgitating the long since discredited notion that the Phillips Curve is a causal relation. Even the terms used reflect this implicit theory – the meaningless phrase “wage inflation” reflects a “cost-push” notion of inflation. In layman’s terms, the argument is that with low unemployment, workers demand higher salaries, which leads to higher costs and hence higher prices, and hence inflation. What’s missing, of course, is any notion of the quantity of money.

            It’s not a moral failing. I’m sure there are all sorts of subjects in which I have hazily imbibed the conventional wisdom of 50 years ago, because I don’t know any better.

        • Brian Donohue says:

          There are 140 million jobs in America today, more than ever before, and median wages are the highest ever.

          • Nornagest says:

            Jobs as a percentage of population? Wages in constant dollars of PPP?

            I’m not trying to pull a gotcha here, I genuinely don’t know the answer (though I have suspicions). But raw numbers don’t mean much when the population’s growing and the value of money is changing. There’s a new box-office record every couple of years, but film is probably declining.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            A lot of those jobs, on paper, are “real” full-time jobs, such as the one I am currently performing. On paper, I am a forty-hour-a-week professional – exempt, with health benefits and a 401(k) for all. Amen!

            In reality, I am a highly paid temp, subject to dismissal at any time (this is an at-will state, but still) even if I perform well and make the company money, and my salary is nothing like high enough to pay for the benefits I am offered, much less to save for retirement.

            Count up how many people are caught in the placement/temp/gig economy (Hint: you can’t. There is no way. As I said, on paper and in any government report, I look like a full-time professional.) and then tell me how we have “more jobs” than ever before. I will nod politely, admit that mathematically you are correct, and then dismiss anything you have to say on the subject (something about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.)

          • HlynkaCG says:

            @ Marc

            I’m in the same boat and of a similar mind.

          • Brian Donohue says:

            @Norn, as a % of the population, employment rose throughout most of the second half of the 20th century as women increasingly joined the labor force.

            Now, there is 4% of the 25-54 male population that used to be in the labor force but now isn’t. That’s a problem. Lotta theories there.

            But the fact is that there are as many jobs out there paying better than there have ever been.

            Social Security publishes a distribution of wage history by year back to 1990.

            https://www.ssa.gov/cgi-bin/netcomp.cgi?year=2014

            In 1990, the median average wage was $14,498.74; in 2014, it was $28,851.21

            As far as inflation, CPI increased 83% between 1990 and 2014, so the 1990 median wage adjusted to 2014 is $26,490.22.

            OK, so a 9% increase in real terms over 24 years. No cause for a parade, but a 9% increase in purchasing power ain’t so bad, unless 1990 was an even worse hellhole than today.

            Of course, many think CPI overstates inflation (take a look at what your money could buy from a 1970s Sears catalog). An alternative measure of erosion in purchasing power is the Personal Consumption Expenditure index (preferred by the Fed), which is only up 63% since 1990.

            On that basis, median wages have risen 22% in the past 24 years (and average wages 36%!)

            @Marc,

            I’m not sure I grok. Sounds like you are pining for some kind of Japanese style lifetime employment scheme. If so, I might recommend a career in the exciting, fast-paced world of the public sector.

            Perhaps you also live in a high-cost area, in which case, it’s probably a good idea to have a high-paying job. Most of the people in flyover land can get by with 9-22% higher wages than a generation ago.

          • Nornagest says:

            take a look at what your money could buy from a 1970s Sears catalog

            Hmm. I found a few pages from 1972; kids’ bicycles were going for about $50 (about a quarter of today’s prices), kitchen chairs for $20 to $25 (half to a quarter, if Sears is comparable to Ikea), boys’ jeans for $2.50 (more like a tenth, and $25 is some pretty low-end jeans). CPI says that one 1972 dollar is comparable to 5.69 2015 dollars, so that looks about right on average. You’d need to make some subjective calls about average quality to do better.

            Let’s look at 1990. A sofa for $399, vacuum cleaners for between $54 and $150… I think I’d expect to pay more than 1.82x that for an equivalent sofa now, less than 1.82x for an equivalent vacuum. Did something happen to textiles over the late 20th century?

          • Marc Whipple says:

            @Brian Donohue:

            I’m not pining for anything, save perhaps a few hundred million dollars and a volcano lair.

            I’m pointing out a serious discrepancy between what most people think of as a “full-time job” and what economists/the government count as a full-time job. On paper, and logically speaking, I have a full-time job right this minute. In actuality I am a temporary worker.

            Do I want lifetime employment? No. (Well, maybe. But I’m not complaining that I don’t have it.) But normally when people think of full-time work, they think that the worker is employed by a company which will continue to employ them so long as there is work to do, the worker does it to the company’s satisfaction, and the company makes money. In the strictest sense, one could say that applies to my job. But in fact I do not work for the company that needs the work done. I work for a company that provides my services to that company. I am in another sense a piece of leased equipment. If nobody wants to lease me, my actual employer keeps me on the actual payroll but does not actually, you know, pay me.

            We can discuss whether this is a more “natural” form of labor, vis-a-vis whatever historical period we wish to select, and I won’t say there isn’t an argument there. Likewise, one might argue that from an economic point of view this is a more efficient arrangement and therefore somehow in the end we’re all better off. But the fact of the matter is, responding in this context with comments like “there are more full-time jobs than ever before” is, in my opinion, misleading when you consider that quite some number of them are jobs like mine, which most people would not consider as belonging in the category of a traditional full-time job.

        • cypher says:

          > Real solution is to increase the size of the pie; real solution is to bring jobs back.

          That’s actually really difficult. Also highly political.

      • Mason B says:

        On the question of the defense of not stereotyping.
        Working Definition Stereotype- a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.
        Assumptions- Assume information has value, Assume Stereotypes are frequently true in nature
        1) The burden. The burden of stereotyping being a negative in the world is that the negative impacts of stereotyping outweigh the benefits in terms of the capacity to make decisions with the default view that stereotypes allow for.
        2a) The Negatives. As outlined by Scott, the overcompensation of statistical facts on decision making can lead to a negative in some instances. Ex: Scott’s example of Convicts and Job applications. For elaboration refer to Scott’s post as the crux of this argument is centered on 2b.
        2b) The Negatives. an aside on identity politics. The second impact of stereotypes would be the constriction of identity and ability to express identity. (Assumption: expression of identity has value). Stereotypes limit the ability to allow individuals to define themselves beyond and outside of the space stereotypes create, this is bad because limitation on ones identity are an intrinsic bad. The manner of which stereotypes carry out this harm is primarily through the presumption and preemption of expression through the avenue upon the stereotype holds. Ex. Asians are good at math. When meeting an Asian they assumption is they are good at math this limits the part of their identity (being bad at math). Being bad at math may be a part of an identity that has little value but other portions of identity expression may have more tangible value.

      • Toggle says:

        Here’s a fun corollary: which groups of people are insufficiently stereotyped?

      • Fedor says:

        I think that this would make a very interesting blog post.

      • Vaniver says:

        The best example of this is the debate about whether companies should be banned from asking about past convictions on job applications.

        It astounds me that people think that reducing the flow of information is a net social good. Here, the cost is obvious: if companies cannot check criminal status directly, they’ll check it indirectly, by discriminating on race.

        (Now, the argument about whether employers should be allowed to discriminate based on arrests that don’t lead to convictions, or immaterial convictions, is one worth having. But conviction status at all is horrifying.)

        • Troy says:

          It astounds me that people think that reducing the flow of information is a net social good. Here, the cost is obvious: if companies cannot check criminal status directly, they’ll check it indirectly, by discriminating on race.

          Yes, exactly. This study, for example, finds that employers are much more likely to hire blacks, especially black men, when they perform criminal background checks verifying that said blacks are not criminals: https://gspp.berkeley.edu/assets/uploads/research/pdf/Holzer,_etal-PerceivedCriminality-oct2006.pdf

          For what it’s worth, I think some employers should give ex-convicts a chance. But the state shouldn’t be forcing them to do so by not letting them find out information about their potential employees. Businesses know better than you do who they can employ, and as always unintended consequences loom large.

          • Jiro says:

            They can’t make it up in profit sharing bonuses for the same reason that they can’t make it up by just not paying them less. The profit sharing bonus has a cost to the employer and the employer is making up for the increase in crime rate by reducing costs.

          • The risk due to an employee being an ex-criminal depends a lot on what he is being hired to do. With information on previous convictions, employers can hire ex-criminals for positions that don’t depend on trust, other people for ones that do.

          • Anthony says:

            Troy – this sounds intuitively correct, but is there more research?

            Mark Atwood – there are whole fields where certain types of convictions wouldn’t really matter, though hiring only ex-cons is likely to be a problem. There are ex-convicts, including sex offenders, all throughout the construction business, but I suspect the potential for problems is much more manageable if many of the employees are not ex-cons. I have a hard time imagining a General Contractor being terribly happy with the prospect of a subcontractor’s crew (who will form a cohesive unit…) all having criminal records for assault and the like.

          • Troy says:

            Troy – this sounds intuitively correct, but is there more research?

            I don’t know. I bookmarked that study sometime back, and I’m not sure where I came across it.

            If anyone knows of any other research I would be interested to know about it.

          • Loki says:

            @Mark Atwood: I’m not sure ‘go back into crime or live in a dystopian surveillance state forever’ is much better than ‘go back into crime or be unemployed’. I mean, sure, they don’t *have* to work for this company, and they don’t *have* to allow them to extend the surveillance into their non work lives, but the notion of choice becomes a little sketchy when you’re the only person hiring convicts and people need jobs to live.

        • JBeshir says:

          Both your arguments worth having are reducing the flow of information, too, and create similar economic inefficiency; if a business wants good representatives they can trust to project a dignified air to their clients (especially their rich, upper class clients), avoiding people who have been arrested in the past even if not convicted is just as sensible a thing to do as avoiding people who have been convicted; statistically, they are probably worse and more likely to have personal troubles you can’t easily spot, or be prone to be a firebrand.

          It’s just that you see a social benefit which maybe accomplishes more good than the reduced flow of information causes harm, so preventing access to information about arrests seems maybe justified.

          Other people make their object-level assessments of the amount of harm caused by making hiring decisions less optimal and the amount of benefit gained by various restrictions differently and so come to different conclusions on what issues are sensible. There’s no general rule that limiting use of information/availability of evidence can never be beneficial on the whole.

        • Toggle says:

          It astounds me that people think that reducing the flow of information is a net social good.

          You didn’t specify ‘in the realm of economics’ or anything- are you astonished by active social filtering in any situation? (“Nice to meet you! I think your shoes are ugly.”) That seems like a fairly radical position, if so.

          I’m not just being pedantic here- you’ve brought up a point that seems very interesting to me. Depending on regulations and technology, the economic game can be one where all players have perfect knowledge of one another’s pieces, or one where agents have a private hand of cards that they keep to themselves. Why is it obvious to you that the game without a private hand has a higher global utility? Especially given the fact that there are many types of information asymmetry, with many different possible rules to shape the kinds of ignorance we preserve. There is only one way to be fully transparent, so it’s not configurable.

      • Ilya Shpitser says:

        This is super complicated, though.

        What we are talking about is this: sometimes society needs to set rules about how we are allowed to react to evidence (because some reactions to some evidence we deem a net harm, or perhaps not a net harm in a consequentialist sense, but a deontological problem of some sort like “don’t be racist”). But phrased this way, this sounds super difficult to get right. I think I agree with the example of convicts and work, but I don’t think this paints a clear picture of how complicated this problem is.

        It’s serious business to tell people not to act on evidence (people in law, being streetfighting philosophers, have some sensible notions of bad evidence in places, but even there the problem seems hard).

        • ryan says:

          My take is that companies just find it convenient to be able to reject applicants for having a conviction. In this job market they have to come up with a reason for rejecting almost every applicant so they can’t be begging for better options.

          So I wouldn’t really shed many tears if laws prevented them from asking about criminal records generally. I think it’s just laziness we’d be outlawing. If your a bank and don’t want to hire someone with a money laundering conviction then the law should find a way to make an exception for you.

          • Mary says:

            And why on earth should we inconvenience anyone because you think they’re just being lazy?

          • ryan says:

            @Mary

            Because I think people who commit a crime and “pay their debt to society” are entitled to a fresh start.

          • Mary says:

            Why on earth should we inconvenience other people to do something you’re too lazy or whatever to do yourself?

            If using a criminal record to determine whether to hire someone is lazy, what is not even trying to hire them in the first place?

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            Companies prefer not to hire people with conviction records because it opens them up to liability for exposing their customers to risks their customers haven’t agreed to.

          • ryan says:

            @Orphan

            I definitely find the insurance/liability hypothesis extremely reasonable. Some actuary may have thrown it into boilerplate language a decade ago and it could have simply metastasized throughout the industry.

            However, if a company is statutorily required not to inquire about past criminal status (with necessary exceptions), they could not be liable in court or under an insurance policy for not doing so.

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            ryan –

            I’m not sure about yours, but my own government levies massive fees against companies for failing to use technology that doesn’t exist.

            Which is to say, I lack your faith that they wouldn’t have liability, they’d just lack effective tools to do anything about it.

      • gbdub says:

        My general thought with regard to stereotypes is: they are often true or at least somewhat true when applied to groups. But individual variation is large compared to inter-group variation, so one should be very, very careful applying stereotypes to an individual.

        Incidentally, I feel the same way about “privilege” – fine as a concept to talk about inter-group variation, dangerous when applied to individuals without more information.

        • JBeshir says:

          I have trouble parsing the question of whether a stereotype is “true”; it feels like asking whether a category is “true”.

          I would agree to say that stereotypes usually describe non-zero statistical variation in their direction, and remain suspicious that agreeing to the idea that a stereotype is “true” might be asking me to agree with more hidden things, maybe moral judgements/status assignments, that I might not agree with.

          • gbdub says:

            No objections to your point- “true” wasn’t really central to my argument, but to be explicit, what I really mean is “Reflect an underlying statistical reality”. E.g. the stereotype “Asian kids are good at math” reflects the statistical reality that Asian-Americans score higher on standardized mathematics exams than Americans of non-Asian descent, but emphatically does not mean that Joe Chang over there can be presumed to be good at math without additional facts in evidence.

      • ryan says:

        A point you might want to make about stereotyping is how it interacts with the cultural null hypothesis. The stereotype about gay men and monogamy exists in large part because of gay male cultural norms on monogamy. If the advent of gay marriage causes a the cultural views to change then overall behavior and common stereotypes might change as well.

      • Kyrus says:

        Well how deep ought the statistical fact be imprinted in people’s minds? Maybe we should measure expectations vs reality and drive the media narrative by that – claiming one year that yes, black people do more crime and the next year when the expectations have changed, that black people don’t after all do as much crime as you would think.

        At least your framework should allow for a situation of “not sufficiently stereotyped”, if the public knowlage about some fact is not as strong as the effect itself. Or maybe we just stop saying “black people do more crime” and always speak quantitatively and say “black people do 50% of the homicides, while being 10% of the population” or something similar.

    • Tom Womack says:

      I am confused by Nico’s preconception that marriage and adoption had to come in that order: at least in England, adoption has been independent of marriage since 2002. I was fairly sure I had heard of gay couples with adopted children in America before the gay-marriage legislation came in.

      • nico says:

        Even if there’s no legal requirement involved, surely *most* people marry before adopting (though as I noted elsewhere, ante-2015 gays are the clear exception). Right?

        Anyhow, I’m pleased that this whole comment tree is examining the socially-set “defaults” regarding adoption. I didn’t intend that, but it’s so delightfully germane.

    • Troy says:

      I always obfuscate details about my patients to disguise their identities, but I feel particularly bad about making this couple gay because it reinforces the stereotype of gay people as hypersexual and bad at committment.

      In the intro to psych class I took many moons ago, our professor mentioned a study comparing the sexual activity of gay men with the sexual activity of (straight) college football stars or some such. The thought was that the latter, unlike most men, can pretty much get all the sex they want. The study found that both groups had roughly similar numbers of partners.

      On the other hand, it’s perhaps dubious to assume that there’s no difference between the sex drives of most men and college football stars, just a difference between how able they are to get sex.

    • Deiseach says:

      Some people use kids as sticking plaster; if the relationship is a bit rocky, they think having kids proves real commitment and at the least both parties will stay together “for the sake of the children”.

      If A was feeling concerned about B’s behaviour and B wanted to throw A a bone (because of guilt or simply wanting A to shut the hell up) they both might agree “Well, we’re married now and it’s been two or three years, if we adopt a kid or even two that will make us The Perfect Family”.

      I also imagine A and B have been cohabiting for a while before deciding to get married, so we don’t know how long their relationship has been in total (which again makes me wonder: how the heck didn’t one or the other realise ‘A likes things kinkier than I do’ or ‘B is too vanilla, I prefer when I can go to the fetish club’ before now?)

  4. Chevron says:

    As a radical individualist it is interesting to see what complications come up when stay-together-for-the-kids-type conditions are given in these sorts of circumstances. In a way (and I guess this is what you’re talking about near the end) that kind of factor, which kicks a leg out from under the individualist position of “an it harm none do as ye wilt”, is a very situationally specific instance of the general problem that everyone has to live together and influence the lives of others to varying degrees through their “individual” choices. That is, Adam and Steve are forced to deal with this conflict because of the very immediate and obvious factor of shared children, but more generally people in society are forced to not just ignore everything everyone else does that they don’t like because some of those things affect their mutual environment (though again, to differing degrees; you can make a noise complaint but not every time your neighbor slams his front door).

    BTW, is it appropriate to point out grammar/typos here?

    I think “…if only the shift the default in your direction” should say “if only *to* shift the default”.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Thanks.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Spelling: committment → commitment x3

    • Deiseach says:

      An it harm none, do as ye will/thou willt

      But it is harming Steve. We are supposed to say that the emotional harm caused to Adam in the Bad Old Days of “you’re married and marriage means monogamy” is so terrible we should welcome the new enlightened days of “let your spouse go to fetish clubs and/or commit adultery”.

      Therefore, the only conclusion to draw is that Steve’s pain is considered less than Adam’s pain, or not real pain, or not worthy of consideration.

      This is not ‘greater liberty = more happiness’. It is simply tilting the scales to one side rather than the other. Steve should be less repressed and hung-up about sex and if he won’t do it gladly, we’ll nag and shame him into being liberated! Either he puts out for Adam’s kinks or he lets Adam have sex with people who will do it the way Adam likes, and he should do this gladly, without reserve or any kind of show of protest, in order to make Adam happy, because if he really loves Adam he should want his happiness.

      This is uncomfortably like the complementarism talk where the wife should submit to the husband as head of the household and never, by word act or look, show any kind of dissent or protest but gladly serve and obey. This has even extended to some “edgy” megachurch pastors doing sex advice where the wife should have sex when and as the husband wants it, including what would formerly have been though of as kinky sex (your husband wants anal sex? You smile and say “of course, honey!”)

      I’m not seeing a huge difference here between “Steve should agree to have the kind of kinky sex Adam wants, if he really loves him and wants to make him happy” and the attitude that “wives should have sex when and as the husband wants”.

      I am so glad to be aromantic, you have no idea 🙂

  5. abner says:

    Ah, excellent. It’s finally getting full non-cognitivist around here. I call it Atheism 2.

    • Izaak Weiss says:

      Care to explain more fully? I don’t see the connection.

      • ivvenalis says:

        Scott says that moral questions like “is a married man wanting to patronize a fetish club a reasonable request” don’t actually have anything to do what’s right or wrong, rather being expressions of socialized personal sentiment, which is pretty much the definition of noncognitivism right there.

        As an aside, “therapeutic neutrality” is pretty clearly just noncognitivism by another name.

        • Alex Z says:

          Not really. You don’t have to be a noncognitivist to believe that certain questions are not moral questions and that the expression of social sentiment is a common guide for behavior.

          As for your aside, therapeutic neutrality is likely less a philosophical stance than a technique to foster conflict resolution. If the therapist takes sides then the person whose side they are not on is unlikely to further cooperate with the process.

        • DES3264 says:

          I’m pretty sure that Scott would NOT say that the answers to “should I smash a brick through the window of this car I am walking by, whose owner I have never met”, “should I deliberately stomp on a cat’s tail” or “should I donate 10% of my income to improving human welfare” are mere social norms. Noncognitivism is the claim that all moral questions are actually questions about social norms; anyone agrees that some questions are merely about social norms.

        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          Noncognitivism is just as inane here as it is in any other context.

          Even if I grant (for the sake of argument) that “right and wrong” are equivalent to “socialized personal sentiment”, this simply moves the question back one step: is the socialized personal sentiment reasonable or not? Is the socialized personal sentiment adaptive or maladaptive with respect to reality?

          You simply cannot say that there is no cognitive answer to this question. There are four possibilities:

          a) All socialized personal sentiments are reasonable/adaptive.
          b) No socialized personal sentiments are reasonable/adaptive.
          c) Some socialized personal sentiments are reasonable/adaptive, and this can be determined by reference to facts of reality.
          d) Some socialized personal sentiments are reasonable/adaptive, but this is somehow a completely arbitrary and subjective decision.

          Adam thinks his socialized personal sentiment that he ought to be allowed to patronize sex clubs is reasonable/adaptive. Steve thinks his socialized personal sentiment that Adam ought not to be allowed to patronize sex clubs is reasonable/adaptive.

          The sentiments are in conflict, so they cannot both be reasonable and adaptive. It’s possible that neither of them are adaptive (e.g. if marriage is a bad idea in the first place), but let’s set that aside for now.

          The question is: is there any objective basis in reality to decide which one is more reasonable and adaptive, or is it entirely arbitrary and subjective? The answer is: yes, there is!

          Adam and Steve (we presume) share broadly similar goals: they both want to live, to be happy, and to raise happy children. The question of which sentiment is more reasonable and adaptive is merely the question of which one is actually more conducive to achieving these goals.

          This doesn’t immediately give us an answer, but it tells us where to look. For instance, is it objectively true or false that Adam would be able to give up his sex club escapades with little long-term distress? Similarly, is it true or false that Steve would be able to give up his jealousy and desire for monogamy? Is going to sex clubs physically and psychologically healthy, or is it likely to leave people with long-term problems? Are Adam’s fetishes innocent pleasures, or are they likely to confirm in him psychological habits which may be deleterious to him and his children—such as a sadistic delight in the pain of others?

          These and similar questions are what one would appeal to in order to resolve the dispute. As long as Adam and Steve’s goals do not fundamentally conflict, there is a possible resolution other than “war of all against all” (the resolution may be divorce, but it’s a resolution).

          • nil says:

            On what grounds are you using reasonableness or (especially) adaptiveness as the measure by which to judge a moral preposition or system?

            (To save time, I’ll add: I think you’re ultimately expressing a “socialized personal sentiment” in favor of the continued, reasonably pleasurable existence of people who share your values/tastes/possibly genes. And that’s a fine sentiment I’m personally in full agreement with, but, to me, that’s obviously all it really is)

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ nil:

            I certainly don’t mean evolutionary adaptiveness! My apologies if it came off that way. I simply meant it as: suited to the goal they are trying to pursue in the environment in which they are pursuing it.

            But as to the “on what grounds” question, let me put it this way. Adam and Steve both have values they want to pursue. Not all of these values are terminal: the vast majority of them are means to achieve other values. Either they have multiple terminal values, or they all converge into just one ultimate value.

            Multiple terminal values is going to lead to a bad time, as it is simply impossible to perform any sort of rational tradeoff between multiple terminal values. (If they can be compared by any standard, that standard is the real higher value.)

            Suppose they just have one terminal value: the achievement of happiness / eudaimonia. There is an objective fact of the matter as to what will promote or detract from this goal. That ought to be the standard for deciding what sentiments about monogamy, sex clubs, and thermostat settings are reasonable.

            In the same way, I think it (what actually will produce happiness) ought to be the standard for judging “right” and “wrong”. If “morality” is supposed to mean something other than what will achieve for people a happy, flourishing life in accordance with their desire for such, then I’m against it.

            Now, the natural point to make here is: “Why should anyone choose his own personal happiness as his terminal value, rather than any other random thing?” I agree that there is no sufficient reason for anyone to choose happiness. But I think everyone in fact does naturally value his own happiness to some degree—which I believe is a reason in itself, though again not a sufficient reason.

            Often, people are convinced by some specious argument or other that there is a binding, categorical reason for them to place some other “duty” above the achievement of their own happiness. I do not think that any such duties actually exist, and I think that if people recognized this, they would return to the desire they naturally have to be happy.

            But I confess that if someone declared that his sole terminal value were to hit people with hammers—not because he has any rational argument showing a “duty” to do so; not because he thinks it will make him happy; not for any higher reason whatever—there is nothing that I could say to him. All I could do is lock him up for the good of the rest of us.

          • nil says:

            I think the potential for multiple terminal values and conflicts between them is greater than you seem to, and also that while most people could converge on happiness / eudaimonia, the definition of that brings in bushels of trickiness, but otherwise I think we only differ semantically. I certainly agree that moral rules/prepositions can be objectively judged based on their effectiveness in achieving certain ends valued by the agent!

      • abner says:

        Explain how non-cognitivism is Atheism 2?

        A big part of the experience of atheism is rejecting millions of man-years of human thought stretching back for millennia as nonsense based on wishful thinking, manipulation, etc. Non-cognitivism extends that experience to all ought-language, which is stunningly and universally invasive in human discourse. Being a non-cognitivist now and reading moralism is like being an atheist among 16th century anabaptists – there is zero impression that this kind of thinking could ever end.

    • Paul Kinsky says:

      Y’all need to adopt semantic versioning conventions. It goes: MAJOR.MINOR.PATCH, where MAJOR versions make incompatible API changes, MINOR versions add functionality in a backwards-compatible manner, and PATCH versions make backwards-compatible bug fixes.

      For movements, something like SCHISM.REORGANIZATION.ERRATA might help provide additional information.

      • Izaak Weiss says:

        I’d love to see a history of Christianity using this nomenclature. Maybe I’ll write one.

        • Evan Þ says:

          I’m a Christian, and I endorse this request.

        • Hmmm… This is rough, but:

          0.1beta – Jesus and the 12 Apostles
          1.0 – Primitive Christianity as propagated by St. Paul (c. 100AD)
          1.1 – Episcopal polity
          1.2 – Anti-gnosticism
          1.3 – Asceticism
          1.3.1 – Cenobiotic monasticism
          2.0 – Nicean Christianity (Arianism runs a fork off of 1.2)
          2.1 – Full godhood of the Holy Spirit
          2.2 – Theotokos
          2.2.1 – Cult of the Virgin Mary
          3.0 – Chalcedonian Christianity (Nestorians run a fork off of 2.1, Copts from 2.2)
          3.1 – Dyotheletism
          3.2 – Iconodoulia
          3.3 – Hesychasm (essence/energies)
          3.4 – Filioque (incompatible, but not recognized as such at first)
          4.0 – Latin Catholicism (Orthodox run a fork off of 3.3)
          4.1 – Papal Supremacy
          5.0 – Protestantism (Romans run a fork of 4.1)
          5.1 – Sola Scriptura
          5.2 – “Soul competency”
          5.3 – Anti-sacramentalism
          5.4 – Congregational polity
          6.0 – Progressivism

          Timeline is a little weird (the term “Theotokos”, for example, is pre-Nicene, but the term doesn’t become a theological touchstone until Nestorius, so that’s where I put it), and version 5 is a mess because it has like a billion forks. Needs a lot more detail, but I think this gets the gist of it.

    • frnzkfk says:

      I’ve never understood the meaningful difference between error theorists, non-cognitivists and other forms of anti-realism. Like, I understand they have different “beliefs” and I think I understand them, but I’m not sure what non-linguistic implications the argued differences could ever have.

      • stillnotking says:

        It’s pretty simple, really. Error theory is the view that all moral statements are false. Non-cognitivism is the view that they are neither true nor false.

        It’s the difference between viewing morality as people claiming the sky is green, or people claiming the sky is blorgle.

        Edit: Perhaps a better analogy for non-cognitivism would be people claiming the sky is pretty, in some postulated objective sense that isn’t actually meaningful.

  6. I will come up with a clever name later says:

    You’re giving a surprisingly small amount of weight to the marriage contract here. Even given how little marriage is worth these days, is there any kind of contract where one party can unilaterally renege on their obligation and still demand the other side to keep up their end?

    That seems like an even bigger cultural erosion than the question of adultery. You can’t run a society at all if people can’t trust that their neighbors will keep inconvenient promises. At that point you’re literally operating at a less civilized level than Barter Town from Beyond Thunderdome.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yeah, my particular reason for giving that low weight is that I don’t think people mean it. It’s like banning people from leaving America because they pledged allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands in fourth grade. Or banning doctors from doing surgery because they swore the Hippocratic Oath which includes a part about leaving that to barbers.

      Some rituals take the form of binding contracts, but the parties to the ritual don’t necessarily intend or even think about the contract terms. If the two parties explicitly did something like a covenant marriage, or said in their vows “By the way, we really personally mean the stuff about being monogamous, we’re not just saying that because we’re supposed to,” I would have a lot less sympathy for Adam.

      • I will come up with a clever name later says:

        I had a bit of trouble parsing that. Do you mean that you don’t think that people beleive marriage constitutes a binding promise to be monogamous, or that you don’t think that particular couple did?

        The Hippocratic Oath part implies the former but it would be a rather baffling claim.

        • I think the issue is similar to that of arbitration, EULAs, or noncompetes. Since these things are virtually forced upon people by society and the terms are not really negotiable, it is loses meaning that another mutually negotiate contract might have. The rough “edges” of the contract are kinda expected to be broken.

          When everyone is expected to get married the agreement to be monogamous loses it’s strength in the same way.

          • Nobody is forced to include in his marriage ceremony a promise of sexual exclusivity, and some people don’t. So if you do, it is reasonable to take it as an actual promise.

            A gay couple is already altering the content of the marriage agreement. It isn’t very persuasive to say “we are abandoning a central feature of the marriage relation in almost all societies at all times, but of course we are forced to go along with a much less central feature of the marriage relation in recent western societies.”

          • Aapje says:

            Even if the legal contract required monogamy (it doesn’t), you’d still have the option of having a ‘side-letter,’ with additional/real rules. This is similar to how a couple can decide before marriage not to have children. If one of the partners would later decide that s(he) wanted children, that person would violate their agreement. In a situation where they agreed to have children beforehand, the person deciding not to want children would violate their agreement.

            In this case, Adam specifically claimed to have dismissed part of the marriage contract, without telling Steve. That puts him in the wrong, as Steve’s assumption that the contract would be binding unless noted otherwise, was reasonable. The belief by Adam that Steve would share his dismissal of this part of the contract, without checking this assumption with Steve, was quite unreasonable. So Adam was wrong, QED.

            Although in reality, Adam may not be able/willing to stay in a relation with Steve unless his desires are catered to (more). So the actual best outcome may depend more on how strongly Steve feels about monogamy vs staying together and how likely it is for the marriage to fail if Adam is not catered to.

          • ivvenalis says:

            Marriage contracts are mutually negotiated. You’re also not exactly clicking past the Apple Store’s 40-page terms of service.

          • Scott Alexander says:

            I don’t think they did a special marriage contract. I think they just swore some kind of normal marriage oath and Steve assumed that monogamy was part of it.

          • Slightly Anonymized Poster says:

            @Aapje:

            Actually, in most states which still allow divorce for cause, infidelity is a perfectly valid cause, which is another way of saying that it is a breach of the marriage contract. (The most common historical example is the “implied duty of good faith and fair dealing.”) It is very common for contracts to have terms imputed by the operation of law. This is an example of such a term.

      • keranih says:

        Some rituals take the form of binding contracts, but the parties to the ritual don’t necessarily intend or even think about the contract terms. If the two parties explicitly did something like a covenant marriage, or said in their vows “By the way, we really personally mean the stuff about being monogamous, we’re not just saying that because we’re supposed to,” I would have a lot less sympathy for Adam.

        …You really are a horrible, lousy, really, really bad advocate for extending marriage to same-sex couples. “We shouldn’t expect people who have fought and argued for decades for the right to stand up and say “We will hold ourselves true to each other for now and always” to actually, y’know, mean it.”

        I get that there are – and have always been – people who have entered into the state of marriage with the expectation that monogamy (*)wasn’t going to be a struggle for them (or at all). But this idea that we should take it as a given for the average marriage that, well, people just don’t think of the vows of marriage as important is incredibly frustrating.

        (*) My thoughts on the formation of multi-party marriages are more complex than this might indicate. I think its possible for three or more (as well as just a pair) to enter into a binding pledge. But I hold that this should be immediately and readily recognizable as a variation on “one man one woman” and not a variation on “one main squeeze and as many sides as I might like, you know, whenever”.

        • “We shouldn’t expect people who have fought and argued for decades for the right to stand up and say “We will hold ourselves true to each other for now and always” to actually, y’know, mean it.”

          Gays could always do this. They probably could even have entered into a legal contract to enforce it, just not under the name of “marriage” and not with the governmental recognition and benefits afforded to marriage.

          What I’m getting at is that this was probably not among the chief reasons gay people wanted to gay married.

          • nydwracu says:

            Right — the only reason I saw that had anything to do with actual marriage was that long-term gay couples wanted their long-term relationship recognized by bureaucracies. This could just as well have been done with civil unions, but that option was never really on the table, because the real intent was to force the government to make a convenient symbolic stand and allow it to redefine elements of American culture — civil unions would have separated marriage-as-cultural-institution from civil-union-as-box-on-government-form, whereas gay marriage makes marriage-as-a-cultural-institution-separate-from-government effectively cease to exist: the default concept of marriage is whatever the government says it is.

          • Ano says:

            > They probably could even have entered into a legal contract to enforce it, just not under the name of “marriage” and not with the governmental recognition and benefits afforded to marriage.

            Well, you beg the question of why the government was in the business of recognizing and granting benefits to married couples anyway. This seems like another instance of asking Rome to solve your succession crisis and then being surprised when they don’t leave.

          • @Ano: yes, I agree with you. I don’t think the government should be involved in marriage. I think the ideal case would be that civil unions would confer government benefits (such as joint tax filing, visitation rights, etc) for both gay and straight couples – even those in platonic relationships. Marriage, meanwhile, should be a cultural and/or religious practice with minimal to no government involvement.

            (Disclaimer: this is sort of a gut feeling that I haven’t fully thought through the implications of.)

          • Ano says:

            > I think the ideal case would be that civil unions would confer government benefits (such as joint tax filing, visitation rights, etc) for both gay and straight couples – even those in platonic relationships.

            What are the limits of this legal status? If there’s no romantic or religious element, can we extend this legal relationship to include children or close family members? Is there any reason the government should limit it to two people? Can I engage in a civil union with my boss so I can’t be compelled to testify against them when they get arrested for tax fraud? Can my civil unionee get a green card to come to the US?

            That marriage has romantic and cultural meaning prevents it from being abused (although it still happens, with green card marriages and Debrah Lee Charatan). The very reason we allow marriage such privileges is precisely because of that cultural context; to divorce it entirely from that context is to invite abuse.

          • Tracy W says:

            @Mitch and @ano, marriage is a marvellous social invention. The issue is that people fall in love and insist on making long-term investments based on that love (eg pooling money to buy a house, one person quitting their job to help with the other’s business, one person quitting their job to look after the kids, etc), and then eventually this relationship ends, through decision or death of one of the couple. The ending often involves all sorts of property disputes (in the case of death, the dead one’s blood relatives may try to claim the property), and of course both parties have an incentive to lie about their original intentions, or one party is dead and thus unable to testify.

            So it is good for people to indicate their intentions ahead of time. People could write wills, negotiate individualised contracts, etc, but to a large extent they don’t. And it’s hard for people who have just fallen in love to negotiate a set of rules about what happens if they fall out of love!

            But, western society has marriage! A lovely romantic gesture! That incidentally leaves a signed record and three witnesses! Not entirely unfakeable or fool-proof, but much better than relying on a he-said she-said situation maybe decades later. And because it’s tied specifically to romance, people don’t think of it as signing up to a set of rules for what happens if our relationship ends! Brilliant! Society’s best life hack!

            Any ideas on ways of making it similarly emotionally appealing to sign written contracts before lending large sums of money to family members and the like will be met with much gnashing of teeth by lawyers.

          • @Tracy:

            And because it’s tied specifically to romance, people don’t think of it as signing up to a set of rules for what happens if our relationship ends! Brilliant! Society’s best life hack!

            But isn’t this precisely the problem? People get married because that’s the romantic thing to do (or, really, just the thing to do; it’s considered pretty weird to never get married). But I suspect that, often, they don’t really consider the implications of marriage if the relationship ends. This has some negative consequences which I think might be avoided if people were forced to think through what they actually want in a marriage contract rather than signing up for a bunch of commitments they may not have actually considered because they wanted to make a romantic gesture.

            I take your point that things get messy if two people have pooled their finances but don’t have some sort of a contract or legal basis to decide what happens when the relationship ends, but this is already a problem today for couples who cohabit but aren’t married. (Incidentally, long-term cohabitation without marriage is much more common in some countries, such as Sweden.) Some jurisdictions solve this through common-law marriage; I’m not sure what happens in those without common-law marriage. I could be entirely wrong, but my contention is that the outcomes of failed relationships would be better on average if default behavior were to separate financial considerations from romantic considerations so that couples could make informed decisions about these sorts of things when they started pooling finances.

            Of course, this is only ever going to happen in a fantasy world, so it’s purely a thought experiment. Mainly I just think it’s kind of weird that the government is so involved in people’s romantic lives.

            @Ano: I don’t see why the existing system couldn’t apply more or less as-is to civil unions. An American friend of mine married a foreigner and they had to submit a bunch of documentation, including photos of the two of them together, to prove that they had a genuine romantic relationship. A similar process could be used to demonstrate romantic relationships or serious platonic relationships for civil unions. We might have to only allow one civil union per person at a time, which is unfortunate for polyamorous people, but AFAIK it’s no worse than the status quo with marriage.

          • Tracy W says:

            @mitch: all of what you say might well be true, but it’s moot unless you have a way to force couples through an in-depth, real negotiation.

            The government’s not involved in romantic lives, it’s involved in property disputes when the relationship ends, be that through death or divorce.

            In countries without a common-law/defacto-relationship set of laws, often the party in the weaker financial situation gets shafted in a breakup, eg because the house goes to the person’s whose name it is, or they gave up their career to work on their ex-partner’s business but never got a share of the shares. (In countries with said rules, there’s issues working out if two people were actually in a relationship and if so when.)

        • roystgnr says:

          Scott was pretty up front (well, up back, at least) about the fact that “gay” was a red herring here.

          This does seem like pretty damning anti-advocacy for polyamory, though. “People shouldn’t be punished for falling in love twice so long as everyone consents” could become common wisdom in half a generation, so long as nobody’s dumb enough to fuck that up by conflating it with “adultery is fine, what’s your problem?”

          • Aapje says:

            “This does seem like pretty damning anti-advocacy for polyamory, though.”

            For cheating, not for polyamory.

            There is a huge difference between two people in a relationship who decide early on that polyamory is allowed in their relationship vs someone who made their partner believe that their relationship is monogamous and then acts differently; or demands the right to act differently at a point where the investment by the other partner is very high. The latter is wrong because it is cheating, not because it is polyamory.

            It’s also effectively coercion (“We agreed on X, but now that we are married/have children, I want Y or it’ll cost you”).

          • baconbacon says:

            @Aapje

            “It’s also effectively coercion (“We agreed on X, but now that we are married/have children, I want Y or it’ll cost you”)”

            There would be a cost to both parties in this scenario- unless the cheater doesn’t enjoy being married/having kids (in which case the solution is obvious!). If the cost to one party is much higher then any concerns about divorce will appear to be “coercion” in this definition, which essentially means that one spouse being happier than the other is the problem and cause of coercion.

          • Deiseach says:

            Trouble is, Adam is not talking about “I fell in love with another person”, he’s talking about “I want to be able to have kinky sex with strangers as and when I like”.

            It probably is that “falling in love with another person” is a greater threat to the marriage, because the model there is Adam divorces Steve and moves in with new soulmate Jake, but that does not seem to be Steve’s main worry in this situation.

        • Captainbooshi says:

          …You really are a horrible, lousy, really, really bad advocate for extending marriage to same-sex couples."

          This line seems like a weird non-sequitur to me. He wasn’t trying to advocate that in this post, and the most you could extrapolate from his position in the post is that he doesn’t expect gay people to treat marriage any differently than straight people, which just seems reasonable, and I can’t see how it would make him a “horrible, lousy, really, really bad advocate.” You could condemn it as an unhealthy or incorrect outlook on marriage in general, but it seems really out-of-place to immediately go to the same-sex marriage controversy in a post that never brings it up to begin with.

      • Randy M says:

        I think you are wrong about people not meaning it, perhaps you are projecting a bit?
        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/29/gallup-poll-reveals-ameri_n_3354778.html
        Surely not all the objection to adultery is simply about the deception.
        Of course, by the same evidence, a majority of people obviously don’t mean the “’til death do us part” bit.

        In any case, I am in favor of shifting the default towards taking people at their words, particularly when they publicly swear to it. What’s next, the congress not taking upholding the constitution as a personal duty?

        • roystgnr says:

          Exactly.

          There’s an easy option available to people who don’t want to promise to be monogamous: don’t promise to be monogamous. What exactly is supposed to be the advantage of “promise to be monogamous, tacitly assume that we’re both lying, and don’t double-check that assumption before making the promise” instead?

          Suppose we did instead allow marriage to be a lie, and for the non-liars we invented “ubermarriage”, in which vows ended in “we’re not just saying that because we’re supposed to”. Wouldn’t the same social pressure that today pushes people from cohabitation toward marriage instead push people from marriage toward ubermarriage, and wouldn’t we just be having the same argument about ubermarriage 20 years later? Would vows then need to end in “we’re not just saying ‘we’re not just saying that because we’re supposed to’ because we’re supposed to” before they be respected?

          “What the Tortoise Said After Achilles Caught Him Sleeping With Polyxena”…

          • no one says:

            That’s almost what covenant marriage is! It’s a form of marriage in a few states that makes divorce more difficult by getting rid of no fault divorce, possibly requiring counseling etc. In other words, “Hey, we really do mean the ‘until do us part’ that everyone else stills says but doesn’t mean anymore.”

          • Anonymous says:

            @no one

            But “I want to do X, and I accept consequences Y if I don’t” is different from “I want to do X, but I don’t want consequence Y if I don’t” is different from “I don’t want to do X, but I am saying I want to do X because that’s what people do”. It seems unreasonable to me to assume that anyone who isn’t getting a covenant marriage has no intention of being faithful to their partner.

          • Anonymous says:

            @Anonymous

            Covenant marriage is available in, what, three states of one country? And I haven’t heard of it before, which leads to the suspicion that many people haven’t heard of it either.

            How many people enter covenant marriages, relative to the population to which these are available?

          • Loki says:

            You kind of don’t have the option of not promising to be monogamous.

            By which I mean, you can totally not make that promise, but it makes no legal difference – in a situation where having a cause for divorce matters, infidelity is a valid cause.

            In the UK, according to the gov.uk website, specifically *straight* adultery is grounds for divorce. No idea how that interacts with gay marriage.

          • Anonymous says:

            @Loki

            I live in the UK, am not and have never been married, but am not under the impression that the requirement for there to be grounds for divorce is anything other than a formality. As far as I know there is a reason, something like ‘irreconcilable differences’ that covers all divorces without any other grounds. And I haven’t ever seen anyone have any difficulty in getting a divorce, nor seen any indication in any form of media that being unable to get a divorce due to not having sufficient grounds is an event that ever happens in this country.

      • Are things different if the couple weren’t married, and Adam just said he’d be monogamous offhandedly, because it’s something couples usually do?

        As for the overall point of the article, well, soceital defaults tend to work for the majority of the people in them most of the time. And while it’s certainly extremely inconvenient for the 1800s feminist to have to renegotiate what she wants every time she interacts with a new suitor, if she gets up in front of a bunch of people and takes a vow to obey her husband and submit to him in all things, and everyone around her (specifically her husband) expects her to actually do so, then she needs to affirmatively talk about changing her expectations before she goes out, reverts her last name, and sets up her own bank account, even though those are all perfectly reasonable things for someone to do.

        Isn’t this really important? I mean, I don’t think you’d have much sympathy would you have for your employer saying “Salary? Oh, that’s just boilerplate! We’re actually not paying you what we agreed on for your last two week’s work.”

        • Daniel Speyer says:

          I recall one engineer who came to work at Google, found that the employment contract contained clauses he couldn’t fulfill, and was basically told “that’s boilerplate, we don’t expect you to fulfill it”. He was too committed to honesty to accept this, and took the matter all the way to the founders (which is how I and everyone else learned about it). No compromise could be found, and he resigned a few weeks later.

          • God Damn John Jay says:

            I think all contracts contain an implicit if this is impossible or unfeasible then it cannot be enforced.

            And even when it can be, you can only be held accountable for damages caused by failing to meet the criteria.

            [Paging Dr. Friedman]

          • anonymous says:

            If I had to guess I’d say some engineer took something unreasonably literally. Like for example maybe he saw a clause like this:

            I agree that I will promptly make full written disclosure to the Company, withholding trust for the sole right and benefit of the company, and hereby assign to the Company, or its designee, all my right, title, and interest in and to any and all inventions, original works of authorship, developments, concepts, improvements or trade secrets, whether or not patentable or registrable under copyright or similar laws, which I may solely or jointly conceive or develop or reduce to practice, or cause to be conceived or developed or reduced to practice, during the period of time I am in the employ of the Company

            and complained that it would be impossible for him to make full written disclosure of all concepts he conceives during his employment.

            That’s a fairly frequent error mode for people who think that are so smart that they can do any job in any field without the need for anything as prosaic as training.

          • Seth says:

            anonymous, one doesn’t need to take things unreasonably literally to object to a clause like you cite. Just on the face of it, it grants the Company *all* your copyrights for *everything* you do, work-related or not. It says, write a screenplay in the evenings/weekends, the Company owns that screenplay and all movie options and right. Write a short story and get it published in a magazine, the Company own that story. That sort of clause is exactly the type of thing where you’re often told “that’s boilerplate” and won’t be strictly enforced. But a cautious or honest person will not rely on such empty assurances.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            I’ve seen a few (one of them for me to sign) extremely egregious employment agreements. Most companies hide behind “it’s boilerplate” as “we want to see how desperate or careless you are.”

            Waiting until someone relocates to put the fine print in front of him is also bullshit.

          • anonymous says:

            @Seth
            The contract I pulled this language from had limitations and exclusions. Regardless, there is a difference between claiming a contract is undesirable and saying they can’t be fulfilled.

        • baconbacon says:

          “Salary? Oh, that’s just boilerplate! We’re actually not paying you what we agreed on for your last two week’s work”

          While retroactively cutting pay for work performed would clearly not be boilerplate, the vast majority of employee/employer relationships do allow for deviations in compensation. Docking of pay, year end bonuses, raises along with all kinds of fringe benefits that are implicit, but not explicit.

          • Adam Casey says:

            But notice all of these are either a) pure gains given to one party at the other’s whim which are not in the contract or b) renegotiations that happen *before* the change is put into force.

          • baconbacon says:

            @Adam Casey-

            These things are also usually explicitly written into a contract with both signatures and details about 3rd party adjudication, penalties and conditions for breaking the contract and even then there is generally some wiggle room. Basically no contracts are made by promising something to another person in front of friends and family in non specific terms, and basically none are expected to last a lifetime. Functionally marriage is either not a contract or the strangest contract out there. Either way most of the comments equating it with a contract are off base.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            @baconbacon
            I’m not sure where you get off saying that “retroactively cutting pay for work performed would clearly not be boilerplate”

            At the most basic level, the assumption that people will abide by previously made agreements is “just boilerplate”.

          • Deiseach says:

            the vast majority of employee/employer relationships do allow for deviations in compensation

            Sure, but the basic assumption between employee and employer is that you took the job on the basis that for X hours of work you would get Y amount of wages. Even if you then get hit with “Okay, so we expect you to work Z hours on top of that and you won’t get paid for them”, the basic expectation everyone has going into a job is “This is how I will earn a living” (unpaid internships being the exception here).

            An employer turning around and telling you “No, actually, this is an unpaid internship and we expect you to work for nothing, and that job advertisement that said we offered standard salary was just boilerplate and we didn’t really mean it and you should have known that” is going to find themselves taken to court for violation of labour laws.

        • Leo says:

          Salary isn’t just boilerplate, but my contract says I’m entitled to over 20 days off a year and am supposed to only work 37.5 hours a week, and no one ever expected that to be obeyed.

      • Hyzenthlay says:

        It might not help Scott and Adam much, since they’re already stuck in their situation, but their case is a good example of why people need to talk about this kind of stuff before marriage and not just assume that their partner shares their ideas about what it means.

        Currently the prevailing cultural norm is that marriage=monogamy. People still negotiate open marriages, but they’re considered the exception. I’m monoamorous so I may be bringing my own biases into play here, but it seems to me that Adam is playing dumb with his, “well, I didn’t think you took all those vows literally!”

        Going in, he had to be aware that there was at least a strong possibility that Steve would consider the marriage a commitment to monogamy. The fact that he went to a club without telling Steve, rather than discuss it openly to make sure it was okay with him, suggests that he knew Steve wouldn’t be comfortable with it and did it anyway.

        On the other hand, if Steve wanted Adam to give up masturbation or porn I would consider that a totally outrageous and unreasonable request…but there are probably some conservative religious subcultures that consider those things just as destructive to marriage as infidelity.

        • Bugmaster says:

          In Scott’s scenario, Adam didn’t know himself that he had all those kinks, so it would’ve been incredibly difficult for him to foresee this exact situation arising in the future.

          To use an exaggerated example, let’s say that Steve makes Adam promise to never take drugs of any kind, and Adam is happy to oblige. Fast-forward to 20 years later, when Adam develops some medical condition that requires him to take a pill on a regular basis, or face extreme discomfort (though neither injury nor death). Now what ?

          • Jiro says:

            The default is that a pledge “not to take drugs” doesn’t include medical drugs unless that’s specifically indicated. And it wasn’t specifically indicated.

            Defaults can simultaneously be non-literal interpretations.

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            I’d say that “don’t take drugs of any kind, even legal ones prescribed by a doctor” is a pretty bizarre request. Why would Adam agree to that in the first place? If someone ever gave me a broad, blanket ultimatum like that I’d run fast in the other direction.

            Though it’s also not hard to tweak that scenario to be a little more realistic. Say, Steve is an anti-marijuana activist and makes Adam promise to never smoke weed under any circumstances. Adam agrees because he’s never been into weed anyway. Then he develops a pain condition, tries a bunch of legal meds that don’t work, then discovers that weed is the only thing that helps, but Steve still doesn’t want him to smoke it because of his principles. I would say in that case, Steve is being the unreasonable one.

            I wonder if kinks are really like that though, especially ones that develop later in life. It’s one thing if a person has always had a paraphilia and only recently came to terms with it, but here the impression I get is not “these kinks are absolutely integral to Adam’s identity and sexuality” but “Adam is bored with vanilla sex and wants to spice things up.”

            In that case, using the marijuana example, I’d say it’s less like a pain relief drug and more, “Adam promises Steve never to use marijuana, because he doesn’t think he’d like it anyway. But then he tries it and discovers he does like it and really wants to keep doing it.” And in that case I’d say, well, sucks for Adam, but he did make a promise.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @Jiro:
            Ok, so what if we’re talking about some anti-anxiety drug, or even a sleeping pill, etc. ? Steve would say that these are mind-altering substances that are no different from Ecstasy, other than that they are for some reason legal and Ecstasy is not. Adam would reply that, without altering his mind in these specific ways, he experiences continuous anxiety, insomnia, etc., which, though not immediately life-threatening, is quite painful. Now what ?

          • Jiro says:

            In order to avoid the default, Adam would have to promise “I will never take drugs, not even legal drugs for medical purposes”.

          • gbdub says:

            “Adam didn’t know he had these kinks” to me makes things worse for Adam in this negotiation, because it makes it explicit that he’s the one altering the terms of the deal.

            I mean, it’s fair to say “I’ve experienced an unexpected change of preferences and would like to renegotiate”, but the other party isn’t obligated to accept this. After all, protection against unexpected changes is kind of the whole point of a contract.

          • anon1 says:

            > In order to avoid the default, Adam would have to promise “I will never take drugs, not even legal drugs for medical purposes”.

            Not true – “I promise not to take drugs that will alter my state of mind” will do it. It’s a bit fuzzy around the edges (beta blockers, painkillers, etc.) but mostly clear enough to work with.

            Also: been there, done that, and the default being against it didn’t really help except in getting commiseration after the relationship imploded for other reasons.

        • nope says:

          >The fact that he went to a club without telling Steve, rather than discuss it openly to make sure it was okay with him, suggests that he knew Steve wouldn’t be comfortable with it and did it anyway.

          This. Everyone, go back and try reading the story as about two people, rather than about principles. Steve should not divorce Adam because Adam did something bad. Steve should divorce Adam because Adam *is* bad.

          Two people who are compassionate, deliberate and thoughtful never end up in this situation, because even though there may be an incredibly difficult, seemingly intractable, problem like the problem of a kinky/nonkinky pairing or monogamous/nonmonogamous one, there will almost always be a way for these sorts of people to patch things up in a satisfactory, if not perfect, manner that isn’t soul-killing for anyone. We don’t have enough information about Steve to make a call, but Adam at least is the sort of person who breaks instead of renegotiates contracts, and who thinks Steve’s emotional wellbeing is so far beneath his consideration that it’s not even worth a conversation before going and doing whatever he likes. Steve shouldn’t divorce just because of himself, either. What kind of kids does Adam’s apparent ethical framework produce? Kids that are better off than kids of divorced parents?

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ NOPE

            A Consequentialist Adam’s thought might be: “I am increasingly unsatisfied, and if Steve hasn’t already noticed, he soon will. A sex club might help me, or it might not. Better to find out without upsetting Steve. With that information, I can consult a therapist as to whether, or how best, to approach Steve about my problem.”

          • nope says:

            That wouldn’t be an unreasonable course of action, but a safer course of action would be to go to a therapist individually before going to the sex club. Arrogance in thinking that one has come up with the best possible solution without consulting anyone else, when the problem is a very messy one involving other people’s feelings, can be pretty disastrous sometimes. A sex-positive therapist might, for instance, recommend that Adam take an exploratory step less drastic than *actual sex with other people* and go to a munch or do some non-genital kink play, because while these situations can be highly sexual for a kinky person, vanilla people generally don’t get this and are consequently much less (if at all) hurt upon finding out.

          • chaosmage says:

            I agree that’s where the badness lies. But why give up trust forever and divorce? Can’t you imagine some sort of “price of forgiveness” arrangement that creates a strong enough disincentive to make Adam trustworthy again?

          • Tom Womack says:

            @chaosmage: ‘price of forgiveness’ arrangements strike me as an attempt to legitimise abusive relationships and a way to heap up a great stockpile of resentment for the future; I’d expect them to make the divorce hearing longer and more contentious without having any particular advantages over the period before the divorce.

            @nope: I would have thought ‘going to see a sex-positive therapist’ was probably harder to explain away than ‘going to a sex club’; therapists tend to work office hours, and unless you’re going to keep it absolutely confidential (in which case I would say ‘just go to the sex club and keep it absolutely confidential’ – my disquiet about the whole case is the question of how Steve ended up finding out about what Adam did), telling your partner that you’re doing something unspecified and medical which you are not willing to expand on when asked seems unkind and a recipe for awful distrust.

          • nope says:

            @chaosmage

            Those exist and can be useful, but probably not in this situation. The problem to be solved isn’t Adam’s untrustworthiness, it’s his lack of regard and empathy for his partner. Cases of “X cheats impulsively and doesn’t want to keep cheating but doesn’t have the willpower to stop on their own” may be able to function with some sort of patch, but this is not such a case. Adam thinks he’s right, in the sense of having a right to the thing he wants, and this is unlikely to change.

          • baconbacon says:

            “This. Everyone, go back and try reading the story as about two people, rather than about principles. Steve should not divorce Adam because Adam did something bad. Steve should divorce Adam because Adam *is* bad”

            This is just your personal judgement. People are a combination of virtues and vices, and perhaps you put enough weight on this deception to judge Adam as divorce worthy, but you should not assume that everyone else should weight it so. Steve has masses of information not only about Adam but about himself and you have literally none of that. The default position should be to appreciate that Steve could have justifiable reasons to stay with Adam even with this misbehavior.

          • lliamander says:

            @chaosmage: I think the only thing that can be the “price of forgiveness” is repentance. Either Adam sincerely wishes to change and makes efforts to do so, or he doesn’t think he did anything wrong. Employing any kind of additional burden is just going to build up bitterness and resentment (on the part of Adam).

            Likewise, I think asking Steve to “try out” an open relationship is a terrible idea, and also likely to only add bitterness and resentment.

          • Anthony says:

            chaosmage – my wife was in a relationship (well before with me) where she did something bad and ended up in a “price of forgiveness” arrangement, which seemed worse than having broken up on the spot.

            In the case Scott presents, if Steve and Adam make such an arrangement, Steve would be able to justify demanding all sorts of things which might otherwise have been subject to negotiation or compromise, by using “but I need to be able to trust you after the sex-club incident” as a club.

          • Deiseach says:

            Ah, that’s being tough on Adam. I definitely wouldn’t say he’s bad. I can even understand why he’d think trying out going to a club in secret would be a good idea.

            The major problem here is not the going to the kink club, it’s the “when I made that promise I had no intention of keeping it, I just said it because that’s what you do”. That really is the big deal-breaker here, because suppose Steve agrees to try the kinky stuff Adam likes, or to let Adam go to kink clubs? That’s not solving their problem, because what other promises is Adam likely to break because he doesn’t think they really apply or are a big deal?

      • name says:

        What about if Adam had married Steve, covenant marriage at a young age, because he falsely believed that stopping being alone was the only way to have a tolerable life, realizing a few years after that his view of the world was completely different than reality and if he had just waited a little before selling his freedom for a false sense of security, he wouldn’t be stuck in a marriage with someone who he actually turned out to have nothing in common with? I know it’s a totally different example, I’m just interested in your level of sympathy.

        • Hyzenthlay says:

          I would have more sympathy for Adam in that case. And normally in situations where couples get married at a young age and then realize they’re totally wrong for each other I’d just say they should get divorced and start over, but the presence of kids complicates that.

      • danfiction says:

        Don’t actually mean it, or don’t think they mean it?

        I’m a vanilla person from a vanilla culture, but my understanding has certainly been that most people who get married at least THINK they believe they’re committing themselves to strict monogamy and cherishing etc. (I certainly do, and if my wife were to turn to me one day and say “you didn’t believe any of that, right? Me neither, which is why I just had sex with a bunch of strangers” I would probably not even make it to the marriage counselor.)

        It’s a fair ways from both, but it’s closer to an oath of office it is standing up with 30 other people to pledge allegiance—you prepare for months, you gather all your friends and family, you make specific vows that you’ve often written yourself.

        Most people in my vanilla circles believe they’ve committed themselves to this long before they’re married, for that matter—my guess is that a huge majority of my friends would consider this thought experiment clear infidelity from the time you’re, I don’t know, official on Facebook.

        • Anthony says:

          If Adam and Steve really are a gay male couple, I’d cut them some slack about monogamy before they got married, but if they married without having discussed whether they intended to be strictly monogamous or not before marrying, I’d conclude that there was an intention to remain monogamous.

          Among hetero couples, there’s more of a norm of monogamy in sexual relationships unless discussed otherwise, but there are edge cases. If you and he end up in bed after a night of drunken revelry are you a couple now? If you’ve made a date for a month out, does that commit you to forswear all possibility of dates before that one?

      • The Anonymouse says:

        The just-boilerplate argument is self-serving bullshit. At some point you need a clear point of agreement, as best signified by two human minds through clear, unequivocal language spoken to each other and witnesses.1 If “forsaking all others” is not clear enough to two persons who understand English, I’m not sure what could be.

        To take the just-boilerplate argument to its natural conclusion, no amount of “and I really really mean it” addenda can ever indicate anything other than “but not really” in the face of someone who retorts “that’s just some crap my culture makes me say.” The original vow has a clear and unambiguous meaning, and any honorable Adam is left with, at the very most,2 1) living up to his promise, or 2) explicitly repudiating it and divorcing Steve.

        1 In old-timey parlance, a “wedding.”
        2 Of course, a strong argument can be made that a truly honorable Adam is left with but the one choice.

        • Aapje says:

          “The just-boilerplate argument is self-serving bullshit”

          Exactly, the only way that works is if you cannot communicate with your partner, to clarify beforehand.

        • Anonymous says:

          I don’t even think the words ‘forsaking all others’ are necessary. Simply the fact that you’re getting married very strongly implies an expectation of fidelity. I would assume that anyone who was married was expecting their partner to be monogamous unless I knew that they had explicitly agreed to non-monogamy.

          Now, if you bring divorce in, then no, I would not assume that anyone who is married will stay married. But I would assume that an incident of infidelity within a marriage would be viewed as a Bad Thing by the other party, possibly leading to a divorce, unless I had the aforementioned knowledge that the marriage was explicitly non-monogamous.

        • baconbacon says:

          “The original vow has a clear and unambiguous meaning, and any honorable Adam is left with, at the very most,2 1) living up to his promise, or 2) explicitly repudiating it and divorcing Steve.”

          So no contract should ever be amended or renegotiated?

        • anonymous says:

          @Anonymous 8:47
          Now you aren’t talking about even boilerplate, much less dickered terms, but rather what contract law would call industry custom. Whatever weight you give to boilerplate you should put less on custom not more.

        • moridinamael says:

          @baconbacon

          Amending or renegotiating a contract explicitly like the marriage contract is extremely susceptible to abuse. Once both parties have agreed to the contract, and invested ten years of resources into it, one party “defecting” by demanding a renegotiation will put extreme pressure on the other party to accept the terms of the renegotiation, even if those terms are nearly intolerable.

          More explicitly, if a wife tells her husband she wants to open the relationship, and the wife is willing to “play chicken” on the issue, not relenting even in the face of divorce, then she is holding the husband’s family/children/happiness for ransom. It’s not a “renegotiation”, it’s blackmail in extremely bad faith.

          Thus, one should really only demand a renegotiation in situations where the status quo truly is already intolerable for the party making the demand.

        • baconbacon says:

          @ moridinamael

          “Amending or renegotiating a contract explicitly like the marriage contract is extremely susceptible to abuse. Once both parties have agreed to the contract, and invested ten years of resources into it, one party “defecting” by demanding a renegotiation will put extreme pressure on the other party to accept the terms of the renegotiation, even if those terms are nearly intolerable.”

          No its not. Or more specifically the above is only true under an extremely limited and rarely likely to be true set of conditions (in the US in this time period).

          Marriage is an iterated game if we are talking game theory. Saying that one party could unilaterally open up negotiations and impose costs immediately implies that the counter party can do the same. Following some stereotypes “I want to have sex with other women” is countered with “I want my mother to move in with us”. The only way that your fears are true is if a proposal is either mandated as accepted or rejected and the other party cannot reopen negotiations at a later date. If these conditions are not met then the first negotiation can blow up in your face. The only way it wouldn’t is if one party was perfectly blissful and the other party was not- which isn’t a fair position to be in any case.

        • moridinamael says:

          I think when it’s reached the point of discussing the terms and conditions of a marriage contract in the language of game theory, the marriage is mostly fucked already. There’s a transactional portion of a marriage which serves a pragmatic function, and then a separate human-relationship component which is as fraught with complexity and feedback loops as any other domain of human interaction. Any discussion of quid-pro-quo that leaves out the indelible emotional damage done by betrayals of trust is pursuing a lost purpose. You can try to perform CPR on the marriage, but the relationship is already brain dead.

          Also, and maybe I’m completely misunderstanding you, but the “holding the family for ransom” aspect can’t be ignored. If the wife says “I want to have sex with other people” and the husband just really really really doesn’t want this to happen, and there’s nothing she could give him that would make it okay, then he doesn’t have a counter-offer. He might as well churlishly respond, “Fine, give me one billion dollars.” I mean, there’s no law that says the husband has to have some commensurable need that his wife can address in exchange for getting what she wants.

          So she’s not offering him anything. Or, she’s offering him “complete implosion of his family via divorce” on the one hand versus “extreme dissatisfaction with his marriage and nominally functional family existence” on the other. This type of offer is blackmail.

        • baconbacon says:

          “I think when it’s reached the point of discussing the terms and conditions of a marriage contract in the language of game theory, the marriage is mostly fucked already.”

          I don’t know about anyone else for sure, but basically 100% of the constructive conversations with my wife are based on cost/benefit analysis for both of us as individuals, and the recognition that each choice doesn’t have to be a net gain to both as long as the balance is there in the long run.

          “Also, and maybe I’m completely misunderstanding you, but the “holding the family for ransom” aspect can’t be ignored. If the wife says “I want to have sex with other people” and the husband just really really really doesn’t want this to happen, and there’s nothing she could give him that would make it okay”

          If both people want to remain married then the man can counter with divorce as a threat. The point isn’t that one person gets A and the other B is that this negotiation tactic fails (or is at the least fraught with danger) because it can always be flipped around to some degree IF it is insincere.

          If it is a sincere issue the best chance for the marriage to survive in a way acceptable to both is an actual discussion of the issue (hopefully before anyone visits a sex club).

      • 578493 says:

        I too was going to bring this up, and suggest that Scott gave too little weight to the fact that both parties voluntarily promised to stay monogamous.

        “Yeah, my particular reason for giving that low weight is that I don’t think people mean it. It’s like banning people from leaving America because they pledged allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands in fourth grade. Or banning doctors from doing surgery because they swore the Hippocratic Oath which includes a part about leaving that to barbers.”

        I feel like this must be heavily influenced by the culture you find yourself in, because it clashes really strongly with my intuition. Most people I know well are (or strongly appear to be) sincere about monogamy — which isn’t to say that I’m sure they all unfailingly abide by it, but anyone caught cheating who then pulled the ‘oh you didn’t think I actually MEANT all that stuff did you?’ card would be angrily and tearfully laughed out of the room/relationship. If they don’t give the monogamy-promise section of their marriage vows much thought, that’s because monogamy is such a strong default that it literally goes without saying.

        Do you know couples who have made a vow of monogamy on the understanding that neither of them really meant it? If so, has it ever been just a tacit agreement, or have they talked about it beforehand? (Surely the latter?) I remember reading a post by Eliezer Yudkowsky that only seemed explicable if he assumed that the average person was trapped in some kind of insincere ‘monogamous by default’ equilibrium, rather than actually really truly valuing monogamy, voluntarily and sincerely committing to it, and expecting their partners to do the same. I don’t mean this in a nasty way, but is it possible that you’re in a bit of a polyamory-bubble and have forgotten how the regular folk live? (Obviously the reverse explanation could be offered for my intuitions, but I guess my point is that your expectations are far from universal — I’m sure the same goes for mine.)

        • 578493 says:

          Also I wonder if your expectations of ‘monogamous’ folk might be heavily influenced by the set of rich and powerful people who, at least if one believes what one reads, apparently *do* live their lives on the tacit understanding that monogamy only matters to the point of keeping up appearences. Certainly those people exist, and no doubt there are plenty of other less prominent people privately living the same way, but they might be less common than you think.

        • Saint_Fiasco says:

          I think this has something to do with Scott being cis-by-default.

        • Jiro says:

          In the flag example, the default is that people pledge to the flag without meaning that they are never going to leave the country. If you interpret it as meaning you can’t leave the country, you’re going *against* the default. It’s true that the flag pledge can be literally interpreted that way and the marriage vows can also be literally interpreted as monogamy, but that doesn’t make the two interpretations equivalent just because both of them are literal–the default can easily be in favor of literalness in one case and against literalness in another.

          I must admit it never even occurred to me that Scott was in a polygamy bubble and thought that the default was that the monogamy pledge was to be ignored, and I’m still skeptical that that’s what he actually meant. I would think that even if you are polygamous and deliberately lying about it in your marriage vows, you’re only lying about it for the sake of spectators. Between you and your partner, the default is still monogamy and has to be overriden by explicitly saying otherwise.

          • Cord Shirt says:

            Besides, the Pledge of Allegiance is about not being a *traitor*, not about not being an *emigrant*. Any pledge of allegiance to a country is.

            (Irrelevant here, but the USA’s especially is–take away the “under God” awkwardly inserted in the ’50s to show off how anti-communist we were, and it becomes much clearer that the USA’s “Pledge of Allegiance” is a reaction to the Civil War written by Yankees who saw the Rebels as traitors: “…and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible…”)

        • lliamander says:

          > …but anyone caught cheating who then pulled the ‘oh you didn’t think I actually MEANT all that stuff did you?’ card would be angrily and tearfully laughed out of the room/relationship.

          Indeed. I’ve known people who have worked through infidelity in their relationship, but never after saying something like that. That is pretty much universally a relationship ending move.

        • Mary says:

          “but anyone caught cheating who then pulled the ‘oh you didn’t think I actually MEANT all that stuff did you?’ card would be angrily and tearfully laughed out of the room/relationship. ”

          That would, in the Catholic Church, constitute grounds for an annulment.

        • HlynkaCG says:

          anyone caught cheating who then pulled the ‘oh you didn’t think I actually MEANT all that stuff did you?’ card would be angrily and tearfully laughed out of the room/relationship.

          That is my initial reaction as well. If fact it’s puzzling to me that someone who claims to value “truth” would be so blase about such behavior.

        • Cord Shirt says:

          “anyone caught cheating who then pulled the ‘oh you didn’t think I actually MEANT all that stuff did you?’ card would be angrily and tearfully laughed out of the room/relationship.”

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxmsRK4IG6o (1992)

          😉

      • Stuart Armstrong says:

        I’d look at it from another angle. The best reason for government intervention in marriage is divorce. Basically, people in love consistently make promises to each other (eg “for as long as we both shall live”) that they often systematically come to regret. Divorce law is saying “these types of contracts are unenforceable, because those signing them are often especially bad at realistically assessing their consequences at the time of signature”.

        So I’d put marriage vows in the category of promises/contracts that are already known to have systematic failings, and give them less deference on those grounds.

        • Anonymous says:

          On the other hand, there are ways for government to intervene in something while still being largely hands-off. For example, a law against selling yourself into slavery does not require the government run a centrally planned economy. In the marriage case, it seems to me that it’s possible to have laws against marrying on terms that totally disallow divorce, while still allowing people to marry on terms that require one party to pay the other a penalty if they wish to divorce.

          • Anonymous says:

            Why exactly would one disallow a non-dissoluble marriage?

          • anonymous says:

            ^^
            For the same reason we refuse to enforce slavery contracts.

          • Mary says:

            Suppose it was slavery only for a term? Really, the evil of slavery is not that it was life-long.

            And to equate them in any other way is — counter-intuitive enough that you should substantiate it.

          • anonymous says:

            Let me back up a little bit. What’s we won’t do is enforce through specific performance personal service contracts. In other words there is never a situation where a court will say “you contracted to paint the house, now I’m ordering you to go paint the house.” In fact specific performance in general is disfavored, the most common place it is used is in contracts for the sale of land.

            There’s probably many reasons for this policy, but the two most relevant are: we want to encourage efficient breach and the government forcing people to take specific actions even pursuant to a contract is considered tyrannical. (Efficient breach is where one party to a contract does not perform, pays expectancy damages to the other party, and still comes out ahead. It is a Paerto improvement over performing the contract as written. At least in theory.)

            While non-dissoluble marriages aren’t exactly the same because marriage isn’t exactly a (personal service) contract and refusing to dissolve isn’t exactly ordering specific performance* the parallels are I think pretty clear. Though one can view the old rule that a husband wasn’t legally capable of raping his wife as a sort of order of specific performance by proxy.

          • Tracy W says:

            Anonymous: how could the court meaningfully enforce a non-dissolubule marriage? Send a bailiff to stand over someone 24-7 and force them to be a good spouse?
            Courts can order transfers of money fairly easily as banks have strong incentives to follow court orders, and transfers/sales of other property (eg houses) with more difficulty as an unwilling spouse has more options for blocking. Even back when divorce was virtually illegal, courts didn’t tend to do much at all to chase down runaway unfaithful husbands and force them to go home and actually act married. (Gendered language deliberate, courts also didn’t do much to stop a man from beating his legal wife so a runaway wife was in a tougher position.)

          • “Efficient breach is where one party to a contract does not perform, pays expectancy damages to the other party, and still comes out ahead. ”

            Not quite. Efficient breach is where the breaching party would still come out ahead if he did pay expectancy damages. Actually paying them is not part of the definition.

            A more intuitive way of putting it is that efficient breach is where the gain to the breaching party is greater than the loss to the victim of breach, so that the total welfare of the two parties together is increased by the breach.

          • The problem of enforcing the marriage contract is the subject of one of my medieval Islamic law and econ stories:
            —-
            A woman stood waiting on the road for the Vizier Hamid ibn ‘Abbas and complained to him of poverty, asking alms. When he had taken his seat, he gave her an order for two hundred dinars. The paymaster, unwilling to pay such a sum to a woman of her class, consulted the vizier, who said that he had only meant to give her two hundred dirhems. But as God had caused him to write dinar for dirhem, gold for silver, so the sum should be paid out as it was written.

            Some days later, a man put a petition into his hand, wherein he said that the vizier had given his wife two hundred dinars, in consequence whereof she was giving herself airs and trying to force him to divorce her. Would the vizier be so good as to give orders to someone to restrain her? Hamid laughed and ordered the man to be given two hundred dinars.
            —(From al-Tanukhi, _Tabletalk of a Mesopotamian Judge_)

            In traditional Islamic society men could divorce their wives but women could not divorce their husbands. Yet the vizier, and presumably al-Tanukhi, took it for granted that as a practical matter the wife could force a divorce, and not even the vizier could prevent it. She simply had to make being married to her worse than not being married to her.

          • Mary says:

            ” What’s we won’t do is enforce through specific performance personal service contracts.”

            There is no specific act you must perform to remain married.

            All that life-long marriage requires is that having made a commitment to enter a life-long binding commitment to the exclusion of all others, you are then required to NOT enter into a different (allegedly) life-long binding commitment to the exclusion of all others.

          • anonymous says:

            Okay, I guess I misunderstood the proposal. If it’s to allow people to per-commit to only get married once, I guess it isn’t as objectionable as I thought. That’s different than a non-dissoluble marriage though. Because it wouldn’t block you from getting divorced (i.e. a process whereby a married couple separates out into two economic units).

          • Mary says:

            “That’s different than a non-dissoluble marriage though. ”

            Nonsense. It is the DEFINITION of non-dissouble marriage.

            “Because it wouldn’t block you from getting divorced (i.e. a process whereby a married couple separates out into two economic units).”

            Nope, that’s legal separation. The essence, the definition, of divorce is “dissolve this permanent, life-long bond so I can enter another.”

          • anonymous says:

            That’s quite an over the top reaction for a point that amounts to semantics.

          • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

            The semantics are important because marital-vows represent speech-acts rather than descriptions. Playing fast and loose with semantics in this case is like borrowing $50 and repaying in monopoly money.

          • Slightly Anonymized Poster says:

            “Every time I hear someone put the word ‘mere’ in front of the word ‘semantics,’ I bite my tongue hard and remind myself that I too am greatly ignorant.”

            –Phillip, Callahan’s Lady

          • anonymous says:

            Okay … even if we grant that semantics is super-duper important, still and all the meaning that Mary insists is “the essence, the DEFINITION” leaving any other as “nonsense” appears to be idiosyncratic. It doesn’t appear in any of the dictionaries I consulted, it doesn’t appear in at least my State’s codified laws. If I had to take a wild ass guess I’d say it assumes some kind of Christian doctrine as defining what we mean when we use words.

            I would think it would behoove someone attempting to push a non-standard definition to at least not be a jerk about it.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @anonymous:
            “I would think it would behoove someone attempting to push a non-standard definition to at least not be a jerk about it.”

            Different commentors have different patterns in how they comment.

            I, for instance, tend to point out when people are being jerks about things, and/or especially when they are frequently jerks about things.

          • Mary says:

            Idiosyncratic?

            If so, anonymous, what do you think the difference between divorce and legal separation is?

          • TheWorst says:

            @HeelBearCub:

            Out of curiosity, what’s your opinion on other commentors following the same pattern?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @TheWorst:
            I’m not sure if you mean my pattern, but assuming you do, here is my take.

            Generally speaking this is a fairly charitable space for discussion. Scott has set that tone, but it’s on every commentor to keep it that way. I think a certain amount of community approbrium is appropriate when people stop being charitable (or were never charitable to begin with). Of course a tidal wave of negative reaction isn’t appropriate either, but I don’t see that as a pressing concern at this time, in this space.

            So, a gentle statement of “hey, that was kind of jerk-like” seems appropriate, especially if such behavior is repeated multiple times.

            That seems to work frequently. Even if it doesn’t, I think it can still be helpful as means of indicating to the recipient and others that the unpleasant behavior is outside community norms.

          • anonymous says:

            At least in my state, a separation agreement is a contract between the parties. Courts take them into account but do not approve / endorse them. They do not bind third parties and the artificial entity that is the marriage continues to have legal personality. For example, tenancies by the entirety are no dissolved, taxes cannot be filed single but must be filed as married filing separately.

            We can imagine a religion Foo that absolutely forbids remarriage. Devout couples of the Fooist religion might well still desire to civilly divorce despite having no intention of ever remarrying so as to legally separate thier lives from the estranged spouse. A legal separation would be a poor second best. Such a religion would be markedly different from one that under penalty of of hell and/or shunning, required married adherents to act as a married couple for their entire lives.

            Moving from the apparently super important issue of what to call what we agree on to the substance, I’d have no problem with a rule that allowed people to irrevocably opt in to one marriage per life time. I’d even let them do so before even getting married the first time so they could signal their intent in the dating world. Since I’d like to see civil marriage abolished altogether that seems like a step in the right direction. What I wouldn’t want to see is civil marriage but no civil divorce. That’d be a quagmire at best. N.B. The Supreme Court might not agree re opt in no remarriage, in fact I have a feeling they wouldn’t, but that’s not my fault.

          • TheWorst says:

            @HeelBearCub:

            Thanks for the response. I ask because there are several handles I frequently see above posts that seem a bit out of line, but I’m usually not inclined to comment on it (partly because a disproportionate amount seems to come from my own tribe, which makes me kind of uncomfortable).

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @TheWorst:

            I think it is especially important, in terms of creating and maintaining community norms that allow co-existence of multiple tribes, for people to call out members of their own tribe when they see things that are are “uncivil”. Given that you have a firm “in your tribe” identity, it is then much harder for the person who has had the behavior noted to rationalize the feedback as simply the attempt to suppress another tribe.

            Also, I think we are less likely to notice uncivil behavior in our own tribe, so if you are noticing it, it is more likely to be bad enough to deserve calling out.

        • anonymous says:

          Divorce doesn’t necessarily mean that marriage is unenforceable, it just means it isn’t subject to enforcement by specific performance (which is disfavored generally in Anglo-American law). No fault is closer to saying that the contract is unenforceable but prenups can have a notion of fault and a breaching party.

          • Anonymous says:

            Except, at least in the US, prenuptial agreements are not enforceable, because judges routinely throw them out.

          • anonymous says:

            That’s a gigantic exaggeration. There’s some uncertainty around what provisions will and will not be enforced in some jurisdictions (especially California) but prenuptial agreements are not “routinely” disregarded in the US.

          • Off hand, I can think of at least three ways in which elements of marriage could be made enforceable by specific performance, although I don’t think any of them would fit with current legal and moral views:

            1. Make adultery either criminal or tortious. So unless you have done whatever it takes to end your marriage, you cannot legally have sex with anyone other than your spouse.

            2. Don’t recognize marital rape. This is unfairly asymmetrical, given the mechanics of intercourse, but it was a common legal rule until pretty recently.

            3. Until you are legally divorced, all income and property is the joint property of the couple. That, of course, requires some rule for decision making for the couple. The traditional one, again asymmetrical, was Blackstone’s dictum:

            “In law, husband and wife are one person, and that person is the husband.”

            In a modern society, the rule could simply be that all income of either party was divided evenly between them.

            There are probably other possibilities. Possible material for constructing fictional worlds.

          • Anonymous says:

            I don’t think any of them would fit with current legal and moral views

            Applies only mostly to mainstream western thought. As your own book draft (which is highly interesting) shows, effective measures to enforce marriage are still alive and well in minority cultures like the Amish and Gypsies, and the Islamic world.

            Do you have any thoughts on the relation of fertility and marriage/sexual conduct laws/customs?

          • “Do you have any thoughts on the relation of fertility and marriage/sexual conduct laws/customs?”

            Any thoughts?

            In some systems, such as Rabbinic law, marriage is linked to fertility. Part of the requirement to be an adult, hence free to marry, is signs of puberty. The age requirement is low enough (twelve and a half for women) so that practically any fertile female is free to marry.

            Rabbis in Israel in the 20th century raised the age of consent. Their justification was indefensible. But part of the reason may be that, with infant mortality rates down to 20th century levels, it was no longer necessary to take full advantage of female fertility in order to maintain the population.

            On another thought … . Paternity testing eliminates the obvious basis for mating customs that give a male exclusive sexual access to a female, as the mating customs of almost all societies have done. Whether that results in substantial changes in institutions will depend on whether male sexual jealousy is hardwired or merely a means to a hardwired desire to know which children are yours.

          • Jaskologist says:

            The goal isn’t to know which kids are yours. The goal is for the kids to be yours. Paternity testing doesn’t help with jealousy if you find out you’re not the father.

          • Anonymous says:

            Rabbis in Israel in the 20th century raised the age of consent. Their justification was indefensible.

            Please tell me this is a typo.

          • Anonymous says:

            @Anonymous

            It’s not a typo. Their justification was that modern females were less able to bear the physical strain of pregnancy than pre-modern ones. This is patently false, given access to modern medicine, which Israel has. Childbearing and birth has never been safer.

            @David Friedman

            What Jaskologist said. What exactly are you supposed to do with a woman who cheats on you and has a child of another man, even if you know that she did so? Paternity testing discourages cuckoldry, certainly in the case of smart females, but doesn’t do anything to help deal with its effects.

          • Anonymous says:

            It’s not a typo. Their justification was that modern females were less able to bear the physical strain of pregnancy than pre-modern ones.

            Sure, the particular reasoning given here is pretty weak, but so is the vast majority of Jewish law. But was it morally defensible to try to prevent children from going through childbirth? Of course.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Thinking more, I missed the obvious. We already have an example of people perfect certainty of parenthood: women. And while they may be marginally more tolerant of infidelity, any man who tries to rely on that is going to have a bad time.

          • Anonymous says:

            @Anonymous

            But was it morally defensible to try to prevent children from going through childbirth? Of course.

            From a perspective not biased by a modernist worldview, they aren’t children, but young women.

          • @jaskologist:

            Imagine a mating pattern such as Heinlein’s line marriage–several men married to and sleeping with several women. From time to time one of the women gets pregnant and produces a baby. Paternity testing determines who the father is, the father then spends his resources, material and emotional, on that child.

            The men are getting about the same number of children who are theirs and they know are theirs as if each was in a monogamous marriage. But they don’t need sexual exclusivity to do it.

          • @jaskologist:

            Women know which children are theirs. And, while monogamy is the most common mating pattern, the other common one is polygyny. Polyandry is a whole lot rarer.

            Various people here seem to think I am suggesting that paternity testing solves the problem of a wife cheating on her husband in a nominally monogamous marriage. That wasn’t my point. It was that the pattern of monogamous (or polygynous) marriage made sense as a way of making sure a man knew which children were his. An alternative way of achieving that goal opens the possibility of other mating patterns.

          • @anonymous:

            “Sure, the particular reasoning given here is pretty weak”

            The particular reasoning given was patently bogus. The claim wasn’t “it’s always been a bad thing for young women to have children, so rabbinic law has been wrong for the past two thousand years and we are now fixing it.” It was “women are more fragile now than they were two thousand years ago, so the traditional rule was right then but wrong now.” That was obvious nonsense, given the progress in medicine over the intervening time period.

            My guess is that the actual motive was that the Sephardim in Israel were marrying off their daughters young, the Ashkenazim, who had absorbed much more of modern attitudes, thought that made them look bad to modern non-Jewish eyes, and so wanted to change the law. They didn’t have any good excuse for doing so within their system, so fudged up a patently bad one.

          • Anonymous says:

            @Anonymous, from a perspective not biased by a pre-modern, patriarchal worldview, they’re still children.

            @David Friedman, I think you’re understanding a different point from the I am making. Plenty of fudged up, patently bad legal justifications can be found in Jewish law, starting with the entire basis for not eating meat with dairy and ending with the eruv. If you’re going to single one out as indefensible, maybe don’t pick the one that kept children from engaging in sex and becoming pregnant.

          • Anonymous says:

            @Anonymous

            You appear to consider childbearing something awful, that only adults who’d signed at-your-own-risk disclaimers should possibly even consider, rather than a natural, desirable, necessary thing. Why?

          • Slightly Anonymized Poster says:

            @jaskologist:

            Obviously you’ve never watched Maury or Jerry. I wandered in on an episode someone was watching once and they had a woman who was on her fourth accused-baby daddy. It wasn’t his either.

          • @Slightly, she may have not known who the father was, but she probably knew who the mother was! That I think is what Jaskologist was talking about.

      • I beg to differ a little:
        (a) Most marriage vows are pretty unambiguous. It’s a bit unfair to ask people to say “oh and I really mean it” at their weddings – and what if that becomes normalised and they have to add “oh an I really meant that too”. It feels more reasonable to expect people to just mean what they say, especially on important matters. It’s socially acceptable to live de-facto now after all, so the social pressure thing isn’t the kind of issue it used to be.
        (b) It’s possible some people don’t really mean it, but it’s waaay too strong to say all people don’t mean it. It feels like there’s room to be a bit more accommodating of people that do mean it, even if we don’t think that’s anywhere near everyone.
        (c) Considering marriage is like the strongest social contract we have for monogomy, isn’t it more optimal for people who don’t really mean it to find a different social contract (de facto) to make their own and defending it, rather than crowding into the monogomous one because its a nice gesture, undermining it and leaving monogomous people nowhere to go? I feel like each group having their own social contract allows people a bit more room to have a happy life of their choosing. Choice of subculture seems like a reasonable and permanent compromise on this issue? (let’s assume government is not involved in anything beyond basic civil union legal status)
        (d) Marriage fidelity is normally enforced by social sanction rather than by law. A fair analogy would be like defriending someone or saying they’re a a-hole because they migrated, not imprisoning them. And even then its still kind of different, because people seem to pledge allegiance as children before they fully understand its meaning, whereas marriage is done as an adult with full knowledge.

        • baconbacon says:

          “(a) Most marriage vows are pretty unambiguous”

          Really? “I pledge to Love, Honor and Obey” is fairly common. Does that mean every second of every day I will love you? > 50% of the time? I will obey every command/request? Most? All reasonable requests? When you pledge monogamy are you pledging never to have sex with anyone but your spouse, or are you pledging to have exclusive sex with your spouse? And how often then must you have sex to satisfy your commitment?

          Most vows are very ambiguous, I would say intentionally so.

          • Tracy W says:

            I don’t know anyone who has pledged to obey, but I would presume that anyone promising that is promising to obey every single order. Which explains why no one I know promises it.

            Monogamy of course means your first option.

          • Actually thinking about it more I guess you are right on the ambiguity of the vows themselves (eg. Catholic vows do seem a bit vague of that). However, I feel that the interpretation that adultry=breaking vows is common in most social circles I can think of. The tradtional Anglican vows have that God’s law stuff, but then they also have the obey stuff there which is a bit dicey. In any case I’m happy to concede that point is a very hazy, though I maintain the other points.

      • Outis says:

        This is ridiculous. This is way beyond “I come from a very permissive subculture”. It’s closer to “I live inside an ultra-permissive bubble that completely blinds me to how normal people feel about these things”. Which is actually very interesting!

        Before I go on, note that I am actually applying a charitable interpretation of your suggestion that the average person thinks the ‘monogamy” part of marriage is just some empty words nobody means. Less charitable alternatives would be “wishful thinking” or “a convenient, self-serving delusion”.

        You don’t have to go back 200 years to find a culture where the average person thinks that going to a sex club while married (and not in an open marriage) is beyond the pale. You can just go back to 2015. But the interesting thing here is the extremity of the time reference. Even an ultra-progressive, who thinks “it’s 2015, people!” and all traditional views are outdated and abhorrent, would normally place the “bad old days” around 1950. The fact that you feel the need to go back to the 1800s suggests that your perception of the accepted mores is skewed to a previously unimagined degree.

        On the other hand, the fact that you place your position’s dominance in 2100 (a much shorter distance into the future!) suggests that you think it is well on its way to inevitable victory. AFAIK, however, younger generations have actually shown to put an *increasing* amount of importance in sexual fidelity and commitment, even as marriage rates drop (I welcome citations to confirm or disprove this).

        But there are even more interesting observations to be made. For example, minorities (real or perceived) often seek to exclude the majority from the conversation on the grounds that they don’t have the “lived experience” to understand them – with the underlying assumption that this does not apply in the other direction, what with the majority’s experience permeating all of culture. Yet in this case we can see that someone belonging to a tiny minority of hyper-permissive open-relationship types has an utterly distorted view of how the majority lives and feels. I wonder if that can be generalized!

        Also, your impression of marriage seems to vindicate the oft-ridiculed position of traditionalists who claim that liberal innovations are an “attack” on traditional marriage. You assume that nobody even means those vows any more! If that does not cheapen and debase their marriages, I don’t know what would.

        • Lasagna says:

          This. Well put.

          There’s definitely a little bit of “OK, granting that everyone agrees that the institution of marriage is an unnecessary and meaningless construct that we can (or at the very least should be able to) opt in or out of and dice up as we please without repercussions, is Adam or Steve correct?” going on. There’s a lot of strange assumptions here, I think.

        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          Well said.

          I also found the assertion that you’d have to go back to the 1800s—to find a time when going to sex clubs behind your spouse’s back was not nigh-universally condemned—simply bizarre. (Not to mention that Scott used a gay marriage for his example.) As you said, you merely need to travel to right now!

        • LeeEsq says:

          Yeah, this. The polyamorous interpretation of monogamy as weird out of date cultural institution is bizarre. At least in Greco-Roman derived cultures, i.e. the West, monogamy has been the default assumption from before monotheism became widespread even if adultery occurred with some frequency. Westerners assumed default monogamy for several thousands of years by now. People want to know that their spouses are not going to cheat on them for a variety of reasons from practical to emotional. This isn’t going to change soon.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Even outside the West, members of polygamous marriages are generally expected to stay loyal to their spouses. I’d be very surprised if, say, Islamic law looked favourably on a man going to a sex club when he was already married.

          • Slightly Anonymized Poster says:

            Then prepare to be surprised, because in some Islamic cultures the whole marry-divorce-thank-you-ma’am thing is used to operate brothels and is viewed as completely legit. Since every brothel is at least a little bit sex club, there you have it.

          • Slightly Anonymized Poster says:

            I respond to you as I saw someone else respond to a comment about the leader of ISIS not being a “true Muslim.”

            He has a PhD in Islamic Studies. What are your qualifications, and what are your specific refutations to his dogmatic assertions?”

            (Note: This is a response to a post which has been deleted which asserted that the example I gave is rules-lawyering which isn’t approved by actual Islamic scholars.)

          • Anonymous says:

            The response was deleted due to realization that you were referring to nikah mut’ah, not talaq.

          • On the subject of extramarital sex in Islamic law:

            A man is entitled to have up to four wives, plus concubines. But having sex with a woman who is not either his wife or concubine (usually, perhaps always, a slave) is a capital offense.

            Some Shia sects have an institution of temporary marriage, which is probably what SAP is referring to. I don’t believe the Sunni, who are a large majority of all Muslims, recognize that.

          • Nornagest says:

            in some Islamic cultures the whole marry-divorce-thank-you-ma’am thing is used to operate brothels and is viewed as completely legit.

            IIRC, that’s specifically a Shia thing in modern times, and only one branch of the Shia at that. Sunnis don’t do it, and most Muslims are Sunni.

            You did say “some cultures”, but this is a pretty big distinction we’re talking about.

        • HlynkaCG says:

          I’m late to the party as always, but yes, well said.

      • Adam Casey says:

        *blink* … wow. …. That’s not what I expected even someone in the cultural penumbra of the Bay Area to say.

        Don’t make contracts if you don’t intend to exactly keep the literal terms of them interpreted reasonably. Humans are weak and you might break your contract sometime. But the idea that someone would just flat not feel it was binding at all without *explicitly in so many words* saying that at the time is absurd!

        What is the point of marriage at all under this theory? Why not just throw a party to celebrate being together, surely that has the same effect?

        • baconbacon says:

          “Don’t make contracts if you don’t intend to exactly keep the literal terms of them interpreted reasonably.”

          This is crazily vague. Few people have a clue as to what their libido will be like over the next 40 years, fewer still can predict what will happen to their spouses’ over that same time frame. Taking a vow of monogamy in this context to mean anything other than “I will try to be monogamous” is foolish, and the false equation with a contract is the large part of problems in marriage.

          • Anonymous says:

            Does not that mean that you can throw out any kind of contract when you change your mind later? Do past-self’s agreements mean nothing to future-self?

            Sounds like asking for a low-trust society, where you cannot rely on other people’s word.

          • baconbacon says:

            @ Anonymous-

            All contracts are breakable by either party, by simply not living up to the terms. It is then on the second party to determine if they want to enforce that contract/end the contract/enact penalties.

            “Sounds like asking for a low-trust society, where you cannot rely on other people’s word.”

            Being able to break a contract is essential for a high trust society, it is the fluid nature of agreements that make high trust possible, it is low trust that relies on absolutes.

            The fact that my wife can cheat on me without having her hand cut off is indicative of a high trust society.

          • Anonymous says:

            The fact that my wife can cheat on me without having her hand cut off is indicative of a high trust society.

            No. It’s indicative of a weak, pampered society. High-trust/low-trust has nothing to do with it.

            (Dishanding is the punishment for thieves, not adulterers. Adulterers get death by stoning.)

          • baconbacon says:

            “No. It’s indicative of a weak, pampered society. High-trust/low-trust has nothing to do with it.”

            I don’t know how to put this nicely- you are flat out wrong. High trust is valuable because it cuts out all kinds of waste and allows for greater flexibility. Low trust societies fall back on extreme punishments because the only alternative they can conceive of is eternal vigilance (really low trust societies rely on both, like women being forced to go accompanied by a male relative along with violent retribution if they are caught cheating).

            High trust is the only way my wife can leave the house and interact with other men all day every day while I can still be confident that I am raising my own children.

          • Magma says:

            I don’t know about “high trust”, that sounds like the usual trend of right wingers dressing up the views they’ve always held in science-y language, because somehow the same old tired arguments are supposed to be compelling if you spam “evolution wills it” at your interlocutors instead of “god wills it”. But certainly efficient breach is required for a wealthy society with a modern economy.

          • Anonymous says:

            @baconbacon

            You do live in a high-trust society, and your very trust in your wife is proof. However, societies which are low-trust but don’t have draconian punishments do exist, primarily in the form of communist dictatorships (excepting, of course, the arbitrarily chosen public enemies; petty criminals get off light). Likewise, it is possible to live in a high-trust society with draconian punishments, such as Victorian Britain.

            The draconian punishments are an attempt to damage control on the lack of trust, but they lag after societal changes. Only long-term-stable low-trust societies get close to a one-to-one match, as is the case in Africa, for example.

          • Adam Casey says:

            >Taking a vow of monogamy in this context to mean anything other than “I will try to be monogamous” is foolish,

            It seems like the following thing is not an unreasonable thing for a human to say:

            “Unless and until we renegotiate this agreement explicitly if I do anything sexual with another person I have wronged you.”

            I don’t see how that’s hard? It’s possible to renegotiate or terminate all agreements. But that doesn’t mean that it’s ok to break them *without* an explicit renegotiation or an explicit termination. Everything changes about humans, that does not mean contracts are impossible in romance or in anything else.

          • baconbacon says:

            @ Adam Casey

            “I don’t see how that’s hard? It’s possible to renegotiate or terminate all agreements. But that doesn’t mean that it’s ok to break them *without* an explicit renegotiation or an explicit termination.”

            I don’t disagree with the principle, or the idea that you should try to broach the subject well before you cheat.

            I disagree with the idea that most people enter into marriage in a way that likens it to a contract. To take an earlier statement of yours

            “Don’t make contracts if you don’t intend to exactly keep the literal terms of them interpreted reasonably”

            I have been to far more weddings where some variation of “till death do us part” has been used than some variation of “to have no others”. Should people not get divorced if they say till death? Or do we recognize that the wedding is a ceremony, with ceremonial language, and not a contract negotiation, to be considered as a contract negotiation.

          • brad says:

            In contract law anticipatory breach is not in general favored or disfavored over breach by non-performance. Though it can change the damages depending on the details.

            In general, I think the metaphor of marriage as a contract is unhelpful, both because it encourages conflating legal rules and moral ones and because it gets the discussion off into tangents about contract law that don’t apply and have never applied to family law.

            Basically we should either be talking about marriage law as it exists (is) or what we think the ethics of the situation require (ought) and principles of American contract law aren’t relevant to either.

          • baconbacon says:

            @ Jiro, I guess now we get to definition/semantics

            When boilerplate was brought up I took it to mean “generally to be ignored unless specific circumstances force us to bring it up”, at which point it will be clarified.

        • Deiseach says:

          What other “oh come on it was just boilerplate nobody really means it” understandings are we to assume are in operation?

          Money for official purposes should not be spent for personal ends? Or is that just meaningless boilerplate that he only agreed to because he had to in order to get the job?

      • Jaskologist says:

        So, given that we can’t expect a woman to honor her vows if she hears about feminism at some point in the future, and we can’t expect anybody else to either if they feel like sleeping around later on, I think one thing is clear:

        We need to program our FAI to be a conservative traditionalist. Liberals cannot credibly pre-commit. No doubt MIRI is focusing on this as we speak.

      • This ground has been pretty well covered by other commenters by now, but the fact that Scott thinks that monogamy is “meaningless boilerplate” says a lot more about Scott than it does about broader social expectations.

        • baconbacon says:

          Considering that studies put cheaters in “monogamous” marriages from 25-75% (and simple blood typing has demonstrated that >15% of children are not from the listed father on birth certificates) the conclusion is that at the very least a large minority do treat these vows as “boilerplate”.

          • Anonymous says:

            What are these studies? I have heard that non-paternity is a serious issue in Latin America, but the studies I recall from Europe put NPE at about the same incidence as homosexuality (meaning low-single-digit percent).

          • baconbacon says:

            I’m recalling from memory, if I remember I will look those numbers up later.

          • Anonymous says:

            The rate of non-paternity is commonly quoted to be around 10%.

            However, a 2005 scientific review of international published studies of paternal discrepancy found a range in incidence from 0.8% to 30% (median 3.7%), suggesting that the widely quoted figure of 10% of non-paternal events is an overestimate.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-paternity_event#Rates_of_non-paternity

          • FacelessCraven says:

            “We believe in Masters and Johnson.
            What’s selected is average.
            What’s average is normal.
            What’s normal is good.”

          • Svejk says:

            Non-paternity rates are consistently overstated. The rate of extra-pair paternity in western European and western-European-descendant populations is closer to 3%, and some Y-chromosomal studies in multiple contexts (Belgium, South Africa, etc) suggest that extra-pair paternity has been well under 5% in many western populations for centuries. Figures like 10% attach to populations with extended periods of paternal absence, like Mexican itinerant laborers or African long-distance drivers, or are extrapolated from rates of non-paternity in cases were paternity was questioned (i.e. pre-existing suspicions of infidelity). If you have no prior reason to suspect non-paternity, probability of non-paternity worldwide is between 1.5-3%. The 30% figure is for men who do not think they are the fathers of their children – they are correct 30% of the time worldwide. However, the evidence suggests that this low-confidence proportion of the population is relatively small, especially in the west, and that average non-paternity lies well under 10%. [see Greef and Erasmus Heredity 2015, Voracek et al. 2008, Anderson 2006 Current Anthropology]
            Also, the lifetime rate of infidelity in heterosexual marriages in the US is estimated to be under 25%; these studies track marriages, rather than persons, so the effects of serial cheaters may mean that the modal risk is lower.

          • Chalid says:

            Of course the infidelity rate has to be much higher than the non-paternity rate.

          • Jiro says:

            the conclusion is that at the very least a large minority do treat these vows as “boilerplate”.

            That’s not right, even if those numbers are accurate. Adulterers have decided not to follow the monogamy agreement, but they understand that they are expected to be monogamous and that they are violating the expectation. They know that they are violating their vows and don’t actually believe that their vows allow for adultery.

            There are people who commit robbery, too, but that doesn’t mean that robbers consider robbery laws to be boilerplate. They understand very well that the law tells them not to rob. What they are doing is lack of obedience, not lack of understanding.

          • baconbacon says:

            I will back away from the numbers that I stated as I was remembering a chapter from “the third chimpanzee” which apparently was 10% from an unnamed doctor and an unpublished study, but stand by the general principle of high infidelity rates.

            Citing the study listed in the Wiki entry that Svejk appears to be referencing

            “Nevertheless, female adultery is also common in Western society, typically occurring in 15–50% of all relationships “

          • Randy M says:

            Regardless of whether or not that is true, the conclusion isn’t proven. People may also cheat because they are too weak to live up to ideals they truely hold.
            I do not think that makes the unachievable ideals necessarily worse than promoting the opposite vice.

          • Anonymous says:

            High infidelity rates, I’ll buy (it’s just what you get for decriminalizing adultery, fornication and subsidizing single motherhood). With the common use of contraceptives, those won’t immediately become high rates of nonpaternity.

          • baconbacon says:

            Jiro-

            “Adulterers have decided not to follow the monogamy agreement, but they understand that they are expected to be monogamous and that they are violating the expectation.”

            What is the monogamy agreement? What is it conditional on? What constitutes a violation? Vaginal intercourse only? Any intercourse? Kissing? Heavy petting? Caressing? Lusting? There is no universal social definition of monogamy, casting this as an us vs them clouds the issue.

          • Svejk says:

            Baconbacon, the 15% to 50% figure is an estimate for all relationships, and the 50% edge is not well supported. When data for marital relationships is collected, they consistently find lifetime rates well under 25% in the west, even allowing for dishonest respondents. Rates are lower for females than males.

            25% is disturbingly high, but there is little data concerning heterogeneity in the population(eg repeat offenders driving up averages)

          • ” (and simple blood typing has demonstrated that >15% of children are not from the listed father on birth certificates)”

            I do not believe that is close to true.

            There was one report from England quite a while back which claimed rates of false paternity on that scale, but I’m not sure it was ever verified, although much quoted. Large scale studies, I think in Iceland and Switzerland (I’m going by memory) show much lower rates of false paternity, I think about one percent.

          • Outis says:

            Like Chesterton once wrote (more elegantly than I can quote from memory, I assume): a thief does not deny the concept of property; he just wants that property to become his. But an anarchist is against the concept of property itself.
            A cheater is as different from a Scott as a thief is from an anarchist.

          • Svejk says:

            I think the monogamy agreement is pretty well understood in the modern west: any of the activities commonly understood as sex definitely count, heavy petting almost certainly counts, and kissing/caressing – unless immediately followed by a sharp intake of breath, hand-to-mouth gesture, and flight away from your co-conspirator – counts as well. Lusting in one’s heart Jimmy Carter style is left to one’s confession to adjudicate. This is not the ‘bases’ metaphor we’re talking about, the rules are pretty broadly understood across a variety of cultures that one might encounter at the G8 summit. And it seems that most people try very hard- against their evolved natures, to some extent – to uphold the understood agreement.

          • gbdub says:

            I just finished re-reading Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age and there’s a passage on hypocrisy that seems apt:

            You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others-after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism? … Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour-you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.

            We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,” Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception-he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”

            “That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code,” Major Napier said, working it through, “does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.”

            “Of course not,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It’s perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved-the missteps we make along the way-are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.”

          • Jiro says:

            What is the monogamy agreement? What is it conditional on? What constitutes a violation? Vaginal intercourse only? Any intercourse? Kissing? Heavy petting? Caressing? Lusting? There is no universal social definition of monogamy, casting this as an us vs them clouds the issue.

            Here you’re committing a fallacy by assuming that because the boundaries are unclear, every single case to which the rule is applied is also unclear.

            The type of adultery where someone has full vaginal intercourse with a partner and conceals it from their spouse is clearly prohibited by monogamy vows, and someone doing this is knowingly violating them, not understanding them differently. Just because there are some actions for which the prohibition is much less clear, and where you *could* say that a partner understands them differently, doesn’t change that.

          • baconbacon says:

            “Here you’re committing a fallacy by assuming that because the boundaries are unclear, every single case to which the rule is applied is also unclear.”

            That is not what I am getting at. My point is that few people actively define monogamy prior to marriage, and fewer still think about the conditions where they would violate it. People may earnestly believe that they will never cheat on their wedding day, but that belief is rooted in little experience. A 22 year old male might have gone through a substantial stretch without sex, but he has likely never gone through it while women were making themselves available to him.

            Trying to get back on track, many couples do treat monogamy as “boilerplate”. Not that they think it is unimportant, but the details, the fine print and the uncertainty of life are not given weight.

          • Jiro says:

            People may earnestly believe that they will never cheat on their wedding day, but that belief is rooted in little experience.

            What you are describing is a situation where one partner, after gaining experience, now wants to violate the contract. But that’s still not the same thing as thinking the contract is just boilerplate. He wants to violate the contract by cheating. He doesn’t want to *obey* the contract by cheating. If he believed the contract was just boilerplate, he would think that cheating doesn’t violate the contract at all. In fact, if he truly thinks the contract is just boilerplate, he’d have no problem telling his spouse that he plans to cheat.

          • baconbacon says:

            Just a note that is relevant to some of the above discussion- we actually don’t know the extent of the “cheating”

            “I recently did couples therapy with two gay men who’d gotten married a year or so ago. Since then one of them, let’s call him Adam, decided he was bored with his sex life and went to a club where they did some things I will not describe here. His husband, let’s call him Steve, was upset by what he considered infidelity, and they had a big fight.”

            All we know is that Steve considered the action infidelity, as far as we know Adam could have just entered the club and hung out for a while, engaged in a 40 person orgy, or anything in between.

      • Leit says:

        There’s already quite a few folks in here making the point, but it deserves to be hammered in:
        The default assumption, unless explicitly negotiated otherwise, is that marriage means fidelity.
        This may not be your default assumption, and the fact that you’re assuming yours is some sort of generally accepted social standard is… I’m not sure. Disquieting.

        Some people cheat. Imperfection is the human condition. Still, regardless of what you’d like the norms to be around open relationships, the default – backed by the ritual – is that it’s a betrayal of troth.

        Worse still, the bald-faced presumption of going to a kink club without consent and then protesting that the pledge to their partner is just a technicality!

        • Anonymous says:

          Your objections are noted. We got it four outraged conservatives ago.

          • The Anonymouse says:

            Is it just me, or are we seeing a recent uptick in snide anonymous commenters? I generally don’t mind snide, but at least give us a distinctive username so we can keep track of who is who.

            (Yes, I am aware of my own username. It is, however, distinctive, and to my knowledge no one else posts under it.)

          • Nornagest says:

            I think it might just be one guy. The Gravatar isn’t consistent, but the writing style is.

          • Jaskologist says:

            We are, but judging from the icon it is consistently the same anon who is doing it.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            Using my amazing detective skills, I think I have a pretty good idea who it is: the guy who posts under /u/MarxBro on the subreddit.

            Similar criticisms of Scott for being taken in by bourgeois prejudice, ignoring the all-pervasive power of corporations, not enough dialectical materialism, etc.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            @ Vox

            I disagree, MarxBro’s style is a bit crunchier and one gets the impression that he likes the sound of his own voice more.

            This particular anon trends more towards snide and submissive.

          • Leit says:

            I just find it entertaining that they decided to be snide about “outraged conservatives”, when the discussion is peppered with folks explicitly going “Uh, Scott, I’m blue tribe but…” and a whole lot of others who’ve previously identified as blue tribe making the same point.

            Edit:
            @HlynkaCG
            > submissive
            Do you mean dismissive?

          • HlynkaCG says:

            @Leit

            I did but it seems that my phone’s autocorrect is smarter (and more sarcastic) than I am.

        • FacelessCraven says:

          …if the new definition of conservative is “thinks cheating is bad”, I think liberalism might be a whole lot less ascendant than previously thought.

          • Loquat says:

            Seems to me the new definition is actually “thinks most humans do in fact prefer monogamy over polyamory/open relationships”, which if anything is even worse news for liberalism.

      • FJ says:

        I think this is an example of where Scott’s analysis would be enriched by a more thorough understanding of contract law.

        This same problem arises very frequently in ordinary legal contracts as well: you and I agree that I will deliver “a truckload of nuts” to your pecan-pie factory on Wednesday, and when I arrive my truck is full of peanuts, which are totally useless to you. Did I breach the contract? Peanuts are legumes, not tree nuts; but everyone except botanists call them “nuts” anyway. I claim that you should have been more specific, but in truth it’s impossible for a written or oral contract to specify all contingencies and give airtight definitions of all terms. It’s a tough problem.

        Contract law’s solution is similar to what Scott describes here: we look to the default background rules. But there are a few twists, like the question of whether certain terms have a commonly-understood meaning in the relevant business community. So, for example, if the couple’s friends overwhelmingly supported Adam, that might imply that *this* community commonly understands marriage not to imply monogamy, even if broader American society is still a bunch of fuddy-duddies.

        But I think Scott (and the couple) is mistaken in focusing on the terms of the original marriage agreement itself. Adam isn’t claiming that he believed, at the time of the wedding, that sex clubs were excluded from the fidelity agreement. Adam admits that he agreed not to go to sex clubs. No one disputes the terms of the original deal, the dispute is only whether Adam and Steve are going to amend the deal (totally permissible under contract law with mutual consent) or whether they will dissolve the agreement (also totally permissible under contract law, either by mutual consent or in the form of unilateral breach). In other words, it’s now a negotiation. Societal expectations may matter somewhat for such negotiations, but only to the extent that society condemns the previous agreement so much that it overcomes the normal status quo bias.

      • John Schilling says:

        Yeah, my particular reason for giving that low weight is that I don’t think people mean it.

        This would perhaps be a good question for the next LessWrong/SSC survey. Or perhaps a pair of questions, to distinguish between what people thing marriage ought to be, and what they think it is presently understood to be when not explicitly specified otherwise.

        I would bet that the majority of people even in this blue-grey, roughly Bay-Area centered bubble, believe that marriage means really committing to monogamy unless explicitly specified otherwise. But it would be nice to have the data.

      • Deiseach says:

        If the two parties explicitly …said in their vows “By the way, we really personally mean the stuff about being monogamous, we’re not just saying that because we’re supposed to”

        That’s part of the problem with the post-Romantic cultus of romantic/erotic love as The Greatest And Highest. Marriage has become the basket into which all the eggs are placed. Family love, friendship love, love of country or an ideal – none of these things are supposed to come equal to, much less before, romantic love. Your marriage partner is also your lover (because the only acceptable reason to marry is to marry for love) and your friend and your whole emotional support system and your life partner and soul mate and One True Love and I don’t know what-all.

        But because we’ve also put emotional fulfilment as part of The Greatest And Highest, when we’re not getting emotionally fulfilled (or feel we’re not) any more, then we break the shackles holding us and free ourselves of the dead hand of laws and rules and seek the real soul mate etc. who will engender in us a lasting transcendent romantic love that will be all-in-all.

        Hence no-fault divorce, which was less about liberty and rational estimation and more about “these cursed laws which bind a woman to an abusive man or deny a man freedom to love again when his wife is no more a wife through illness or depravity”.

        So we have the weight of expectation that, cut free of religious meaning re: monogamy, the cultural capital about the meaning of marriage will continue to exist and not be squandered by society like drunken sailors on shore leave (as I maintain it has been), even though we permit divorce and all kinds of arrangements and have come to accept them as normal and indeed inevitable and necessary.

        Adultery/cheating is probably the last vestige of that cultural capital, and because we have put this huge freight of meaning into romantic love, and because we have extended this to all sexual relationships (as long as they are love relationships, e.g. you are sleeping with your boyfriend/girlfriend and not with a sex worker), we have not alone transferred marital monogamy to all cohabitation/romantic relationships, we have built it up to be the equivalent of treason to one’s nation or treachery to one’s monarch/kindred.

        If romantic love is the sine qua non of all human experience, then exclusivity is naturally a part of it (how many One True Loves can you have simultaneously, after all?) And if it is assumed that exclusivity and monogamy are the ‘natural’ state of romantic relationships, which are The Greatest And Highest, then breaching that assumption by being sexually unfaithful is the greatest possible personal betrayal, and one of the last few remaining sins (along with racism, homophobia, and not believing in climate change).

        So I’m afraid Adam is out of luck on this one. He could cut the Pope’s throat and get praised for his brave stance against the oppressive forces of superstition, but cheat on his husband and he’ll be up (or down) there with Benedict Arnold.

        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          So I’m afraid Adam is out of luck on this one. He could cut the Pope’s throat and get praised for his brave stance against the oppressive forces of superstition, but cheat on his husband and he’ll be up (or down) there with Benedict Arnold.

          I completely and sincerely agree with the mentality behind this, which you are disparaging. (Okay, I don’t literally think you ought to be allowed to murder the Pope…)

          The difference between betraying one’s romantic partner vs. betraying the Pope, one’s country, or one’s “kindred” is that one chooses one’s romantic partner. Whereas the Pope is allegedly the vicar of Christ, one’s country is a matter largely outside one’s control, and one’s kindred is a matter completely outside one’s control.

          If Adam openly says that he wants to renegotiate the marriage into an open relationship (or else dissolve it), I may think he is acting foolishly, but it’s not a betrayal and I don’t hate him.

          But if he goes behind Steve’s back, that is a betrayal and despicable.

          On the other hand, I think it is perfectly admirable for someone born in Iran to “betray” his country and kin by handing secrets over to America—or even to slit the throat of the Ayatollah.

          • Anonymous says:

            On the other hand, I think it is perfectly admirable for someone born in Iran to “betray” his country and kin by handing secrets over to America—or even to slit the throat of the Ayatollah.

            What? How could that possibly not be despicable?

          • Lyn Waters says:

            @Anonymous

            Theocratic dictators’ assassins don’t usually catch that label, but I suppose the lot loyal to his rule would disagree. Most secular Persians would probably be OK with killing a guy who enforces the law of stoning adulterous women, hanging gays, and decapitating apostates.

        • blockcaster says:

          You’re painting with far too broad a brush here. In my eyes, and those of many people I know, infidelity is (or at least has a strong tendency to be) bad because it is a betrayal of a promise made to a loved one, marked by lies and deceit and who knows what subtle or not-so-subtle deleterious effects on the relationship, and by intense, lasting emotional pain if discovered. And I’m a godless progressive who has no problem at all with consensual polyamory and promiscuity — I condemn cheaters because of the harm they do and the trust they violate. You can give a sweeping socio-cultural analysis of why most of us care a lot about monogamy in the first place if you like, but that doesn’t really shed much light on the separate (and easily explained with reference to some pretty simple moral principles) issue of why we morally condemn people who hurt their loved ones by violating a voluntarily made commitment that is known to be important to the other party.

      • HlynkaCG says:

        I would hope that you’d agree that a marriage agreement is a bit more serious than clicking past the EULA or not showing up for jury duty. And even if you don’t I’m pretty sure that Steve does.

        Adam’s behavior raises the question of just how much of that agreement was “just boilerplate”? Are there any terms at all that they could be reasonably held to?

      • onyomi says:

        I wonder whether there’s a general conceptual term for this sort of creep which goes on which requires you to eventually rename something in order to recapture the original sense?

        I thought of this today when I saw an advertisement for a “Live Nativity Scene.”

        The original nativity scenes were with live people, but then most were replaced with statues, etc. Now we have to specify when we mean real people. And this, I’m sure, is not the most obvious example; just one I noticed recently.

        It strikes me that most people today want to have their cake and eat it too with respect to marriage. They want the respect and social sanction and romantic quality that comes with supposedly pledging one’s undying loyalty, fidelity, and love, but they also want to be able to get out of it later if it doesn’t work out, as one might with simple cohabitation.

    • Watercressed says:

      The marriage contract is a pretty atypical contract

    • Nero tol Scaeva says:

      “Even given how little marriage is worth these days, is there any kind of contract where one party can unilaterally renege on their obligation and still demand the other side to keep up their end?”

      Sexless marriages are a thing.

      The situation Scott describes is just a different twist on a typical sexless marriage. But the same theme remains: One partner isn’t getting their sexual needs met.

      The whole deal with monogamy is the implicit assumption that this one person is going to fulfill the other’s sexual needs. Without that assumption, monogamy makes no sense; this is the rationale for marital rape being legal until about the 1980s. Without that assumption about the role of monogamy, one side can unilaterally renege on their obligation (fulfill their partner’s sexual needs) and still demand the other side maintain their monogamy.

      • Dr Dealgood says:

        The situation Scott describes is just a different twist on a typical sexless marriage. But the same theme remains: One partner isn’t getting their sexual needs met.

        (I’m “I will come up with a clever name later” btw. Seems I never came up with a clever name.)

        That strikes me as an equivocation: confusing a sexual embargo with not being optimally fulfilled. It’s justifiable to steal a loaf of bread when you’re starving but that explanation is much less convincing if you’re claiming that you’re starving for want of cheesecake.

      • Anonymous says:

        Sexless marriages are a thing.

        Strange times we live in, that marriages are somehow valid before consummation.

      • Randy M says:

        “The whole deal with monogamy is the implicit assumption that this one person is going to fulfill the other’s sexual needs.”
        This is true to an extent, but I think that modern society, including the rationalists here, would bring both a wider interpretation of legitimate sexual needs (apparently ranging beyond monogomy, presumably stopping somewhat short of, say, necrophilia) and a narrower interpretation of the duty to regularly meet the legitimate needs, than was understood traditionally (say in the 1800’s referenced).

      • At a slight tangent …

        Islamic law is explicit on this. The wife is obliged to have sex with her husband any time he wants, subject to good reasons, such as illness, not to. The husband is obliged to have sex with the wife at least a fixed number of times a month–I don’t remember how many.

        • Anonymous says:

          According to Wikipedia, failing to have sex with your wife for more than two months is grounds for divorce. Not sure if this is the same amount as the obligation.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divorce_in_Islam

        • LeeEsq says:

          The Rabbis in the Talmud also created a table of how many times husbands and wives were supposed to have sex based on the husband’s profession. It could range from at least twice a year to as often if the wife isn’t menstruating.

      • Tracy W says:

        From a historical Western Christian viewpoint, marriage was often regarded a second-best alternative to celibacy. One was meant to turn ones thoughts to God, and to supress *any* carnal urges. Sexual fulfilment was not valued, even if some grudging concessions were made to procreation.

        And of course there were a few generations where syphillis was a thing but antibiotics wasn’t. Syphillis, even with mercury treatments, is a strong argument for monogamy if you can’t stand celibacy.

    • Diadem says:

      A marriage contract is already non-binding. Either party can end a marriage at any time, for any reason. And that’s a very good thing, for a great many obvious reasons that we hopefully don’t need to discuss here.

      Given that you can end a marriage, it seems obvious that you are also allowed to renegotiate its terms. And in fact people do this all the time. All good relationships require regular maintenance, which includes talking to each other about stuff that’s bothering you, and trying to fix those issues, or reach a mutually satisfactory compromise on them.

      There’s no fundamental difference (apart from the one Scott describes in this post) between one partner saying: “I’m tired of doing the majority of the household chores. You should take out the trash more often” and one partner saying “I’m tired of monogamy. You should let me sleep around with other people”. And both can reasonably be followed up with “and if you do not accept this, I will end this relationship”. In both cases you are renegotiating the terms of your relationship.

      In if you are renegotiating your terms, then earlier terms, whether implicit or explicit, aren’t binding. They are still relevant, perhaps, in setting expectations and determining how reasonable your proposed new terms are, but they are not binding. Marriage vows in that sense aren’t binding agreements, they are promises of intent. It is not that people don’t mean them, but it is accepted that people can change their mind later on.

      The one thing you absolutely cannot do, morally speaking, is sacrifice someone else’s happiness for your own. If your partner tells you: “I want to sleep around” you can either accept this, try to work out a mutually acceptable compromise, or part amicably. Bluntly refusing your partner’s request is, dare I say it, morally wrong.

      • Lasagna says:

        There’s no fundamental difference (apart from the one Scott describes in this post) between one partner saying: “I’m tired of doing the majority of the household chores. You should take out the trash more often” and one partner saying “I’m tired of monogamy. You should let me sleep around with other people”.

        There’s a pretty massive difference. Equating sexual fidelity with “chores” is silly, and doesn’t accurately reflect reality. If you doubt it, try it out on someone sometime, see how it works for you.

        And it is perfectly reasonable to bluntly refuse your partner’s request to screw around. Particularly when you have children. Not everything in life boils down to “this is what I want to do today – take it or leave it.”

      • anonymous says:

        Again, because apparently this is very confusing, lack of specific performance as an option in breach does not mean a contract is non-binding. It is the usual case in Anglo-American law.

        • Anonymous says:

          As far as I’m aware, there are no consequences at all for breach of marriage contract, specific performance or anything else.

          • gbdub says:

            Huh? Proven infidelity will at a minimum get you a lot less sympathy from the judge who divides up your stuff in the divorce.

      • Anonymous says:

        The one thing you absolutely cannot do, morally speaking, is sacrifice someone else’s happiness for your own.

        What about if you’re sacrificing your partner’s happiness for your own by telling them “I want to sleep around”?

      • Deiseach says:

        Why is it morally wrong to say “No” when your partner says “I want to sleep around” but not morally wrong to say “no” when your partner says “I want us to be monogamous”?

        So far as I can see, this is more of the notion that sex is the most wonderfullest thing ever and the only good in life is more sex, so any thing that lets someone have more sex is right and good and proper, and anything that reduces sexual opportunity is bad and wrong.

        How would your argument play out with two or three cellmates in prison? “Hey, No. 3658, I’m really desperate for sex and we’re all stuck in here with no access to sexual partners of our preferred gender or orientation for the next five years. How about you give me a blow job? I promise I took a shower earlier and everything!”

        Would a blunt refusal be morally wrong in that context?

        • Jiro says:

          Why is it morally wrong to say “No” when your partner says “I want to sleep around” but not morally wrong to say “no” when your partner says “I want us to be monogamous”?

          Because sleeping around contradicts both the literal and common understanding of the marriage contract. Monogamy doesn’t.

          If the contract explicitly included a “no demanding monogamy” clause it would be different.

    • Dr Dealgood says:

      Replying to my own post because there are too many responses to comment on individually and this isn’t quite a direct response to any of them.

      Given that a lot of people here seem to think that marriage vows are just boilerplate and/or coercive and they are in the right to have affairs, what specific steps should I as a mid-twenties guy take to identify and avoid such people in advance? Is it down to just “exclusively marry women from the second world or Utah” or is there a reliable way to weed out people with these views?

      • The Anonymouse says:

        “Move to Utah” is–here, and as it usually is–generally good advice.

        • TrivialGravitas says:

          While ‘move to Utah’ is generally good advice, I don’t think the non Mormons here deviate from non Mormons anywhere else in the country, so unless you also want to convert it’s not going to help your marriage much.

      • Saint_Fiasco says:

        You can ask them. In any relationship that is serious enough, the topic of marriage and what it means for each person will come up at some point. Since you have a strong preference, you just have to breach the subject sooner rather than later, to save you time.

        • Dr Dealgood says:

          I’m pretty explicit at the start about what I expect in relationships and do what I can to tease out the girl’s preferences. It hasn’t had any perceptible effect: I’m reasonably sure I haven’t been cheated on but there has been a lot of “But I didn’t think you meant it when you said it!” over the years about more minor stuff.

          The main worry to my mind is that if someone is the kind of person who says that she only agreed to be monogamous because that’s what was expected when it comes to marriage vows then what is actually stopping her from saying that about any other agreement to be mongamous you come up with? At that point there isn’t a reason to trust her to hold any deal, because she can play the same card to back out of it.

          • Saint_Fiasco says:

            what is actually stopping her from saying that about any other agreement to be mongamous you come up with?

            I would hope the fact that she likes you and wants a relationship with you should stop her from defecting, as long as you can credibly pre-commit to ending the relationship if she defects.

            It’s hard to make a credible precommitment that doesn’t put some people off, though. Maybe a prenup agreement?

      • Alex C says:

        All I can suggest is the approach I went with, which was to explicitly bring up the topic of communication on the first date. If you’ve got a good communication principle in place, these things can all be discussed openly.

      • Patrick says:

        Don’t sweat it. These people barely exist in real life. The default cultural assumption is overwhelmingly one of fidelity.

        Now, that doesn’t mean someone won’t cheat on you, and it doesn’t mean they won’t try that line when they get caught. Dishonesty and rationalization are still a thing.

        But the fact that they tried to hide it in the first place shows that it’s all lies. If your partner genuinely thought you didn’t mean the fidelity stuff and were just saying it out of ceremonial tradition, they’d casually mention having sex with your best friend over breakfast or something, the same way they’d discuss any other issue.

      • brad says:

        FWIW “second world” is pretty ambiguous these days and depending on which definition you go with maybe the empty set.

        The first/second/third world schema is a product of the cold war, and was basically: industrialized western democracies = 1st, industrialized communist countries = 2nd, everyone else = 3rd.

        There’s a bunch of replacements, but perhaps the most common is developed (e.g. US, Germany), developing (e.g. Brazil, China), and underdeveloped (e.g. Haiti, Afghanistan). There is a bit of conundrum there about how to label countries like Poland which have half the GDP per capita of the US but twice that of China, which is why there are more complicated schemes with more categories.

        • Dr Dealgood says:

          I like the original trichotomy better: to my mind it groups countries in a more logical way. Eastern Europe and China have a lot of important differences but are a hell of a lot more similar to one another than to the Developed or Developing world, particularly in this context.

      • Deiseach says:

        Make it very plain up front that “I’m just looking for a fun date”, or “I want a relationship” or “I’m looking for something that will lead to marriage, and by marriage I mean the whole nine yards including monogamy” when you’re out and about looking for company?

        I apologise, I’ve never dated in my life so I don’t know how you go about it. But I imagine being plain about what you want from the start is probably best? I mean, even if all you want is “sex for tonight and we part in the morning”, that seems the best for avoiding trouble all round?

        • Anthony says:

          Sex doesn’t always work that way – negotiating boundaries and making explicit certain things which are normally understood is a HUGE turnoff for a large number of people, especially before sex has been had. (I can think of reasons why this might be so, but it undeniable *is* so.)

          However, society has managed to provide situations and scripts for these sorts of things without having to “be plain about it”. If you {go home with/go to a motel with/give a blowjob in the bathroom to} someone you meet at a nightclub, there’s no social expectation of anything more than a single encounter. If you ask someone on a date whom you met at the local Christian church singles group, it’s obvious that you’re “looking for something that will lead to marriage, and by marriage I mean the whole nine yards including monogamy”. There are gradations in-between, but in general, the more structure to the setup, the more commitment is the hoped-for result.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            I find it strange that this needs to be explicitly stated.

            …but it seems like it needs to be explicitly stated.

            well said.

    • Alex Z says:

      “is there any kind of contract where one party can unilaterally renege on their obligation and still demand the other side to keep up their end?”

      But that is not what is going on at all. One party is requesting that the contract be amended and the other party is not agreeing to the proposed amendment. By default the original contract remains in force. It just so happens that neither party is happy with the present situation.

      • Dr Dealgood says:

        You may have missed the part where the guy(?) actually went out and cheated at a sex club. The “renegotiation” only started after he(?) was caught and they went to see a psychiatrist. It was only then that the justifications about marriage vows not meaning anything started to come out.

        • Alex Z says:

          First, it’s unclear when the renegotiation started. All we know is that Adam went to a sex club and that Steve considers that infidelity. It is possible that Adam had opened the discussion of opening their marriage prior to that event.

          Either way, I don’t think this is consequential. I think it is clear that Adam violated the reasonable expectation of fidelity which Steve held. Marriage has no real enforcement mechanism so I guess he should sleep on the couch for a while for that.

          But it does not appear from the story that Adam intends to continue violating the marital agreement and expects Steve to just go along with it. Adam is now asking that the agreement be amended. The fact that he violated the present agreement should certainly be factored in Steve’s decision (after all, it may speak to Adam’s likelihood to keep to the present agreement) but it does not transform a request for an amendment into a unilateral modification.

  7. Anaxagoras says:

    This is interesting, but I have two questions:
    * Why are you, a psychiatrist, doing marital counseling?
    * Why do so many commentators no longer have icons next to their names? EDIT: Hm, the icons reappeared after I posted this.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      1. Complicated reason I am leaving out to protect identity of me/my clinic/my patients, but if it matters to you then email me and I will tell you in private.

      2. As far as I can tell they all do; maybe your computer isn’t loading them.

  8. Both of you secretly write down a dollar amount. Reveal. Whoever writes down the highest amount gets his way on this issue but must give the other person the dollar amount that the other person wrote down.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      We’ve been over this before. This just incentivizes people to come up with stupid disagreements to get money. Even if I’m perfectly fine with your kinky sex, I say “I cannot tolerate this!”, write down an amount lower than I expect you will, and get free money.

      • Very true in a repeated game, but it might work if you as a therapist suggested it to a couple that never anticipated being put in this game, and you told the couple that this problem solving technique can never again be used by them.

        • Alsadius says:

          Also, in most marriages, finances are joint(whether de jure or de facto). Hard to move money around in a single account.

          • Error says:

            As a cohabitor with joint finances, *not* being able to handle some things by passing money around is sometimes irritating.

            (most notably, I really like the Hansonian “a bet is a tax on bullshit” method of resolving empirical disagreements, but it’s not one we can make use of.)

          • Moshe Zadka says:

            Error — find something that is reasonably fungible and bet on that. I don’t know how your couple dynamics are like, but my wife and I bet on “TV shows” (as in “do you want to bet 2 shows to my 1 about that?”). Then whoever wins gets to choose this many TV shows we’ll watch together. (Shows are kind of coarse-grained — it takes us >1 month to finish one, so I guess it’s equivalent to betting in thousand-dollar bills…but it’s the one thing we settled on. Still exploring.)

          • Error says:

            Moshe: I’ve thought of that but could never think of something that would work as a bet. Most of our interests are either stuff we don’t really have to negotiate doing because we’re already on the same page (e.g. anime) or things we do separately anyway because we don’t share the interest at all (e.g. programming).

          • Our two adult kids live with us. From time to time they make a bet about how long it will take each of them to finish a current project. If my son wins, my daughter has to bake a cheesecake. If she wins, he has to make dinner.

            A version of betting which has positive externalities. Especially when she wins. There are surely versions that could be used by a married couple.

          • Anaxagoras says:

            I’d throw those bets every time. And maybe start making new ones: “Bet you I can finish making this dinner before 7:30!”

          • baconbacon says:

            @ Error-

            You can still bet free time!

        • Vilgot Huhn says:

          But if the person have different wealth then the rich one will be willing/able to give more money for less “caring”. The richer partys interest become unfairly prioritized.

      • Theo Jones says:

        What if it goes to a mutually agreed charity instead of one of the parties to the dispute? Although even in that case its probably a dubious idea, because there isn’t really a strong distinction between person A’s money and person B’s money in a married couple.

      • Can you point me to previous discussion on this? This is, in all seriousness, what my partner Bethany Soule and I would do. Have an auction to decide who wins. We do this literally every day for small things. And we once almost submitted bids in the 10s of thousands of dollars for naming our child before coming up with something we both liked. Fittingly, that name is “Faire”. (I was just reading through the email threads from when she was born and noticed that “Bayes” was another brief candidate.)

        Anyway, faking preferences to get free money would be such an asshole move that it’s never even tempting. Also I think it would backfire dramatically — your opponent would spitefully underbid you and make you pay to violate your own preferences. That’s speculation though. If anyone has seen this failure mode in practice I’m extremely interested to hear about it!

        • Luke Somers says:

          > make you pay to violate your own preferences

          Well, I agree that it would backfire in general, but all an underbid would accomplish is saying that they get their way on something and don’t need to pay a lot for it.

          • But in this case “get their way” is “get what they were pretending was their way in hopes of getting free money”. So it’s a serious backfire from the cheater’s point of view.

            (Now having an interesting side discussion about it with Scott. Hopefully one of us will write about it more at some point!)

        • Deiseach says:

          How do you pronounce that name? “Fair”? “Fay-ree”? And does your daughter want to disown you both and run away to join the circus for giving her that name? 🙂

        • I remembered reading about a couple who used this system in some article, and was getting ready to share it with you. But when I tracked the article down, it turned out to be written by your wife about your own system.

          For those who want more detail on the system, the article is Messy Matters – For Love and/or Money: Financial Autonomy in Marriage by Bethany Soule with assistance from Daniel Reeves.

    • Umber says:

      Also seems much less useful for married couples if they have already pooled their incomes.

    • Aapje says:

      That only works for people who can (or think they can) buy happiness to offset their unhappiness over not getting their way.

      It wouldn’t work for me, as I have plenty of money to buy anything that I want in my current lifestyle. I don’t have enough money to drastically change my life, but that would require so much money to be unreasonable to settle a dispute.

    • Vaniver says:

      Why the lower amount, instead of the difference between the amounts?

      • The amount people bid will be influenced by the payout structure. Ideally, you want a structure where the winner is the person who has the highest valuation. It can get really complicated because each person has uncertainty over how much the other person values winning, and uncertainty concerning how much the other person thinks he is going to bid.

      • Vitor says:

        This is called a second-price auction (also Vickrey auction, or VCG mechanism), and it has some nice properties along the lines of eliminating incentives to game the system, i.e. under this scheme it is always in your self-interest to state your true valuation of something.

        In this particular case, I think it would be required that the money goes to a charity of the choice of the one paying out, to avoid the issue of baiting money out of the other party as mentioned elsewhere in the thread.

  9. Joeleee says:

    In regards to the epistemic status line:

    In my view, this is one of the best kinds of writing. The kind that everyone goes “duhhhhh” to, but most people had never actually seen it written/said that way. Lots of real insight should be ridiculously obvious after you’ve learned it, so that you feel like you always knew it. I like it when someone explains multiple levels of abstraction to a problem on which I usually just skip over most levels. Kind of like showing your working in a maths problem.

    • no one says:

      Scott Adams, the Dilbert guy, mentions in a few of his blog posts that a key to good writing (meaning writing that does well on interwebs, not for writing the great American novel) is to say something that your audience was already thinking, but in a way that was more articulate than they could ever say themselves. After reading that, I’ve noticed that this gives a pretty good heuristic for detecting the sort of things on the internet I really enjoy reading.

      • Peter says:

        say something that your audience was already thinking, but in a way that was more articulate than they could ever say themselves.

        Oh yes, that’s what really got me reading SSC.

    • Pku says:

      A bit different, but this is why I loved the Snape thing in HP7 – because after reading it I went “duh, I *really* should’ve seen that coming”, but I never thought of it beforehand.

    • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

      That “social convention sets the default” isn’t a novel insight to me either. But I still learned from this post. As someone who leans gray-tribe, gay marriage in the past seemed obvious to the point of “why is this even controversial?” I’ve found it especially odd when reds complain “the gays are destroying the legitimacy of our marriage!” Even though I knew there was probably a good reason behind their complaints, I could never convince myself of one beyond “reds are just butthurt”. But having read this post allows me to better sympathize with the red side of the argument.

      I feel like rigorous formalization of trivial insights is math’s entire shtick. By distilling the insight, we can extend it to weird contexts. So I think the real story here is lies in Scott’s new-found appreciation for social activists.

      • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

        For the record, I don’t have any stake in the gay marriage debate. “my own biases caused me to desire not-X” and “want to hurt me” feel too strong. So I don’t think we can chalk it up to Bulverism (in this instance). My reasoning was closer to

        0. assume atomic liberalism and add deviations.
        1. assume ramifications of gay marriage are purely local.
        2. I’ve never heard a cogent reason why gay marriage is bad.
        3. Any possible reason I haven’t thought of will not effect others. (1)
        4. There is no actual reason gay marriage is bad. (exhaustion 2, 3)
        5. Therefore, there is no reason to oppose gay marriage. (0, 4)

        It wasn’t driven by desire, so much as an absence of evidence (which, statistically, is indeed evidence of absence). On a higher level, I knew there probably was a good reason. But as someone who’s not invested in the debate to begin with, I never went hunting for it. This leaves me with whatever impression I get from Rush Limbaugh (which is not very impressive). But since my pool of knowledge was small, I also recognized it wouldn’t take much to change my views.

        Scott seems to be asserting that Proposition 1 is false. I.e. gay marriage has global ramifications because it affects society’s default. If you had asked me a week ago whether “culture sets society’s default”, I would have said “of course”. But I guess I just never propagated this belief back down to the level of “the gay marriage debate will set society’s default”.

        I get just as cynical as you when I hear things like “Muslims are lunatics, period” [0]. I will concede however, that I have yet to rid myself of the antipattern (at least on the alief level). And therefore I am still a brash arrogant punk. (oo, I like the firebrand comment. Boundless energy and lack of commitments are probably prerequisites though.)

        [0] not a straw/weak man. I have encountered this in the wild.

        • Anonymous says:

          So what was the good anti-gay marriage argument you discovered after this process? (Sorry, I’m sure it’s there somewhere, but I seem to have missed it.)

        • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

          You didn’t miss anything. It’s not in my comment.

          I’m saying I now realize that reds might have skin in the game after all. Because reds and blues are competing for mindshare, which is a scarce resource. And control over this resource determines the context of negotiations for (not just gay citizens, but) all citizens.

          If you’re looking for a specific way in which controlling this resource benefits the reds, I don’t have one. What I’ve recognized is only that freely ceding this resource to the blues would somehow represent a surrender of political power.

          I still think gay marriage is a good idea. But I’ve turned an unknown unknown into a known unknown. The known unknown represents a free parameter in my model, which makes me much less certain of the pro-gay contention and slightly more sympathetic to the anti-gay contention.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          One argument, which conveniently fits in with the theme of the OP, is that gay marriage turns the dial of societal expectations further away from the point marked “Marriage is about raising a family” and towards the point marked “Marriage is about expressing your romantic love”, and so make it more likely that couples will divorce if they hit a rough patch or one of them decides that they actually have feelings for their milkman/fitness instructor/guy who walks the dog. This affects everybody who is/plans to get married (as they will now have a harder time keeping their marriage together), as well as any children involved (the sociological literature on the negative effects of divorce on children is quite large); this in turn will have pretty large effects on everybody down the line (living in a society full of people who are psychologically maladjusted due to their parents’ divorce is going to be worse than living in a society full of healthy well-adapted people).

        • Anonymous says:

          @FullMeta_Rationalist, but of course they have skin in the game. Of course they surrender political power . . . I’m assuming everyone pretty much agrees on this? (I think I’d need a bit more concreteness to be able to fully appreciate the points being made here.)

        • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

          Scott Aaronson has a cute story about debating a theist on a plane once. The theist’s reasoning was blatantly circular (actually I reread the post, and I’m not sure what to call that). From this experience, he hypothesized that “fundamentalists use a system of logical inference wherein you only have to apply the inference rules two or three times before you stop.” As opposed to an ideal rational agent, which will can apply chains of inference infinitely many times (and hopefully settle into reflective equilibrium).

          Regarding Gay Marriage, my old line of thinking was “What two consenting adults do in the privacy of their own home is none of my business.” This seems reasonable to me. It’s none of my business; nor is it the reds’ business. Yet the reds have raised a lot of hoopla about criminalizing it. Why?

          Well according to our benevolent host, “What two consenting adults do in the privacy of their own home” is the reds’ business. This was not obvious to me, but it should have been. Though I had the knowledge required to have made this inference, the inference never happened. Because in the eyes of economists (and Scott Aaronson) I am insufficiently rational. Similarly, when Scott Alexander complains that both group X and group Y aren’t going meta enough, in a way he’s complaining that they’re not following a chain of inferences to their natural conclusion. (Cue existential angst that I’m no more rational than a stupid fundie.)

        • John Schilling says:

          Regarding Gay Marriage, my old line of thinking was “What two consenting adults do in the privacy of their own home is none of my business.”

          Except that the Gay Marriage debate had almost nothing to do with what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their own home. That was decisively settled by Lawrence v. Texas more than a decade ago, and I think most conservatives had given up on that fight well beforehand. Two gay men locking the bedroom door behind them and fucking like bunnies, then drawing up the paperwork to be co-owners of the bedroom and the house it is part of, that’s not the gay marriage debate.

          Gay Marriage is about what two consenting adults do in the tax assessor’s office when they say “you have to give us the discount rate because we’re married”, about what two consenting adults do to an unconsenting third in court when they say “you have to make this bigot bake a fancy cake for our party because it’s a wedding party”. And of course the all-important hospital visitation rights.

          That’s not private, not limited to consenting adults, and that’s stuff that Red Tribe still cared about even after they had given up on the male-on-male bedroom sexygames stuff.

        • @Mark, I’m jumping in here without having reviewed the entire thread, so perhaps I misunderstand, but isn’t there an important difference between “how does gay marriage threaten your marriage” and “how does gay marriage threaten your political power”?

        • Hmmm. I think I’m too distant from the political process in question to follow your point. But that probably means I wouldn’t follow it no matter how much detail you filled in, so please don’t bother on my account. 🙂

          But if people were saying things like “this threatens the very foundations of the institutions of marriage” (which I think they were) while actually meaning “this could threaten my/our political power” I don’t think calling them on it would have been improper.

        • Anonymous says:

          @Mark Atwood, I was talking about political power rather than individual couples’ particular marriages. I see these as distinct (despite your subsequent comment above). So, yes, I thought it was a given that conservatives would be losing out politically with SSM. (IDK about the cheese game.)

          Is there really a need to reply in as disagreeable a manner as you’re doing?

        • Anonymous says:

          @FullMeta_Rationalist, although we both support SSM, we seem to have approached the issue very differently. So even though what you’re saying is rational and sound, it will probably resonate more for other readers.

  10. MawBTS says:

    The uncomfortable part (to me) is that there are some things that will likely NEVER be the default. Coprophagia, for example. How do you shift the default towards that? It repulses everybody except coprophiliacs.

    Proponents of gay marriage often say things like “if you oppose it, society will move on without you”. Coprophiliacs don’t even have that comfort. You could speculate about a post-human society where disease doesn’t exist and it’s okay to eat fecal matter if you want, but that’s science fiction territory. It’s realistic to expect that coprophilia will remain “not default” for as long as humans exist in their current form.

    Maybe the way to help coprophagists (if you want to) is to reframe away from even wanting to be the default. After all, why should the default be intrinsically desirable? Why not seek out the unique, different, and the novel? A “default Windows desktop” is just a picture of a field. A “default painting” is (probably) just a blank canvas. Who wants to be a normie?

    • Error says:

      While I find your example gross, I think I’m in agreement with your point. I’ve never liked the conflation of “normal” with “acceptable”; to me, “normal” is often stark raving mad, like a dwarven alcoholic after a dragon burns all the beer. Certainly not something to aspire to or seek out in others for its own sake.

      • Pku says:

        “to me, “normal” is often stark raving mad, like a dwarven alcoholic after a dragon burns all the beer”
        I’m confused – in this metaphor is the dwarven alcoholic crazy once he gets sober, or are you the dwarven alcoholic getting sober and then finding the sober world weird, since it has beer-burning dragons?

    • Pku says:

      It shouldn’t be a rule, but it’s useful as a tiebreaker – coprophiliacs who don’t hurt anyone else don’t come up against this in the first place. I guess one place where this can be a problem is if coprophiliacs want to eat someone else’s stuff, and that person doesn’t let them, they get unfair discrimination, but this doesn’t quite seem disastrous – if they’re just into eating anyone’s stuff, they just have to find someone who’s okay with it, and if they want that particular person, that’s a form of social interaction with that person, and I feel like that person should have the right to say no.

    • Adam Casey says:

      Surely the claim is not that defaults should never be defied. Only that you should explicitly agree to do so. I think if couples agree that they want to both do that then that’s clearly fine. The fact that where couples disagree they shouldn’t doesn’t prevent that.

  11. glorkvorn says:

    Hmm… I suggest drugs. Steve should take libido-boosting drugs, and Adam can take libido-reducing drugs, and hopefully they’ll meet each other somewhere in the middl.e

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      Assume that Steve has a strong self-image as a wholesome gay men, firmly in control of his libido and committed to monogamy and raising children, determined to show the world that he does not fit into the stereotype of a sexual degenerate who spends every weekend at a standard fuckparty.

      And further suppose that Adams’s self-identity involves being a gay man who is assertive in his sexuality, able to enjoy safe sex with various partners while not loving his husband any less for it, confident in the knowledge that his lifestyle and morals are superior to those 19th-century old fogies who would condemn a perfectly harmless and pleasure activity because of silly superstitions and outdated traditions.

      Now you have the same problem, one meta-level up; neither of them approves of liking or wanting as the other does, so they refuse to self-modify.

    • chaosmage says:

      I don’t think there are libido boosting drugs without too many other effects, and all of them (AFAIK) except Bupropion are illegal.

    • Deiseach says:

      Steve should take libido-boosting drugs, and Adam can take libido-reducing drugs

      It’s not about frequency of sex, it’s about type of sex. Adam wants things Steve doesn’t want to do/Adam wants sex with strangers.

      Boosting Steve’s libido will do nothing if, for instance as in MawBTS’ example, Adam wants to engage in coprophagia.

      And if the thrill for Adam comes out of having sex with strangers, then Steve agreeing to have sex six nights a week instead of three still won’t solve the problem.

  12. Doug S. says:

    How would it have sounded if you wrote them as a lesbian couple?

  13. Alsadius says:

    Suggestion re genders: Make them lesbians. It’s got a lot vastly less of the hypersexual baggage, and none of the “he did this, she did that” baggage.

    Alternately, just use gender-neutral names. http://www.babynames1000.com/gender-neutral/ seems a good resource.

    • nico says:

      Are there lesbian kinky sex clubs? I’d google it, but I don’t want the NSA to think I’ve gone gynephilic.

      • Nornagest says:

        There are, at the very least, lesbian kinky sex events.

      • Slightly Anonymized Poster says:

        With few exceptions, if you ask “are there kinky (x) clubs,” for any value of x not so depraved or dangerous as to risk massive government intervention at the very possibility, the answer is “yes.” Sometimes these clubs are permanent and have permanent locations, sometimes not. But whatever it is, for reasonable values of it, there are groups of people who regularly gather to indulge in it.

        Here is an example: you are certainly aware that there are BDSM clubs. There are many of these, including many which have permanent locations. There are not that many lesbian BDSM clubs which have permanent locations, but many BDSM clubs have basically Lesbian Nights (as well as equivalents for men, bisexuals, etc.) Those Lesbian Nights are, essentially, lesbian BDSM clubs.

    • Izaak Weiss says:

      Lesbians aren’t oversexualized too? Have you been to a porn site?

      • Michael Watts says:

        Those are not actual lesbians.

        • Izaak Weiss says:

          Well, obviously, but that doesn’t mean that the concept of lesbians isn’t oversexualized, and much of our society wants to oversexualize them.

          • Michael Watts says:

            The stereotype isn’t that the concept of gay men is oversexualized. It’s that gay men, the people, are oversexualized. If anything, views of the concept are quite negative (among men) or amused (among women).

      • Alsadius says:

        Oh, they’re oversexualized, but not usually by each other.

  14. Doug S. says:

    As a practical matter, how hard is it for the vanilla partner in a kinky/vanilla couple to act out a “kinky” role for their partner’s sake?

    • Alsadius says:

      Depends how kinky, and more to the point how often. If it’s a birthday present once a year, it’s presumably a lot easier than if your partner wants to break out the ball gag three times a week.

    • chaosmage says:

      At a sexologist conference recently, an old sexologist / couples counselor said that kink has been coming up so much more recently he can only conceptualize it as a fad. It’s definitely not an orientation. Few people say they need kink, but many more find it enjoyable.

      Dan Savage (kind of the expert on kinky relationship counseling) says lots of people in the kink scene started out not kinky, tried it for a partner, and really grew to like it a lot. I don’t think there are good numbers available on how often this is the result of trying kink.

    • gattsuru says:

      It depends very heavily on the kink, role, and person.

      If you want a partner who’s not into spanking to spank you, most people can probably manage it. They might not be enthusiastic or understand the more subtle parts of the kink, but it’s not exactly incomprehensible or going against some hard-placed social norms. It’s not as easy to pretend to enjoy being spanked if it’s not your kink. Foot fetishism takes some time and effort to prep, but the actual act itself just involves lying back and thinking of England unless you’re exceptionally ticklish.

      On the other hand, some types of penetration can be genuinely unpleasant for many people, sometimes too much in any attempt. Some harder stuff, people without the kink will be very hard-pressed to even understand the kink enough to roleplay it.

      And if you’re a committed pacifist or struggled with anger issues, even spanking might be something you’re not comfortable trying.

    • Deiseach says:

      And like everything else, familiarity dulls the shock of novelty.

      Over time, what was a shocking degenerate perversion becomes something filthy naughty but not unknown becomes something daring you try to spice up the routine becomes normal becomes oh that old vanilla thing everyone does (see fellatio).

      So kink gets kinkier. And the vanilla partner may justifiably not be comfortable with what their kinky partner regards as a bit daring but not too far out.

    • Slightly Anonymized Poster says:

      Usually, not that hard (the other commenters have hit the high points.)

      However, for many people acting is not enough.

  15. keranih says:

    I worried that if I made the couple hetero, my readers for one reason or another would bring their own baggage and wouldn’t be able to see it as the difficult and evenly-balanced problem it seemed like when I was in the office with them.

    Maybeso because all the other people involved in the public support and enforcement of a public contract like marriage already knew that it’s not, actually, an evenly-balanced problem out in the real world. Which is why we have marriage contracts, for the social institution of marriage. To help make it even, and fair, for the man and the woman – and their kids, and the rest of the community – in the contract.

    I swear to God Scott, you’re a really smart guy, but sometimes you’re dumber’n a box of rocks.

    • Paul Kinsky says:

      Marriage is just an example chosen to illustrate a scenario. If Scott simplified the example to get as close to the platonic form of the scenario as possible, that’s an entirely valid rhetorical strategy.

    • I have no idea what you’re getting at here, so I guess I’m also dumber’n a box of rocks.

    • Outis says:

      I fail to see how the marriage contract presently available in the US makes things even in any way, for anyone. If I were to get married, I would be giving another person the opportunity to, at any time, walk away with half of everything I have, and a sizable portion of my future earnings. In exchange, I would get… what?

      • Tom Womack says:

        I think if you’re asking that question you’re probably not in a position to consider marriage.

        How vicious are American laws on disentangling non-marriage relationships? I would expect to end up obliged to pay child support to the hypothetical mother of my non-existent children, if the relationship broke down after we’d lived in a financially intermingled manner, whether I had been to the registry office or not.

        • gattsuru says:

          Child support is expensive, but it’s an entire different class of things than alimony and divorce proceedings, and goes to someone that you usually don’t like.

        • Outis says:

          I think asking that question *is* a necessary part of considering marriage. I agree that you should not proceed with marriage until you can answer it. So humor me: what’s your answer?

          Under American laws you are going to pay child support to the mother of your children period. There does not need to have been a relationship or any financial intermingling. The woman can be your rapist and you still have to pay child support (yes, this has actually happened in child molestation cases).

          In the US, men have no reproductive rights, and child support is treated as a strict liability.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            Child support is completely orthogonal to men’s reproductive rights.

            The justification for child support as a strict liability is: a) we’ve got a child here, b) somebody has to pay for it, and therefore c) it makes more sense to have the father pay for it, even if he didn’t really want it, than to have the taxpayers pay for it, as they surely didn’t want it.

            Since the woman actually bears the child, it naturally becomes her decision whether to have an abortion (as it is not thought proper to allow men to force women to have an abortion). And if she has custody over the child, she can choose to give it up for adoption (as can a man if he has custody).

            I don’t necessarily agree that forcing men who were raped or deceived to pay child support (or indeed forcing them to pay child support at all to women who can afford to bring up the child themselves) is either necessary for children’s welfare or just in regard to the men. But the issue is one of the rights of the child, not of the reproductive rights of the father.

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            Vox –

            Abortion is completely orthogonal to women’s reproductive rights.

            The justification for banning abortion is: a) we’ve got a child here, b) somebody has to birth it, and therefore c) it makes more sense to have the mother birth it, even if she really didn’t want to, than to have someone else birth it, since that would involve complicated and risky surgery.

            Maybe you don’t agree that a fetus is a child. But that’s beside the point, since almost everyone who opposes abortion -do- think that.

            There are several major faults with your line of reasoning, in general:

            First, you omit the possibility that the -mother- pay for the child, as opposed to either the father -or- taxpayers. This is the modern world, after all.

            Second, you claim it makes more sense to make the father pay for it than taxpayers. (Why does it make sense to force anybody to pay for children they don’t want? Why should one person make more sense than another?)

            Third, child support doesn’t go to the child, it goes to the mother. Yes, in theory, she’s supposed to spend it on the children. But – well, I’ve seen women who deliberately have children for the child support, of which relatively little is spent on the child. This is particularly true when the father is more affluent, and thus more is extracted from him.

          • anonymous says:

            @Vox
            I agree that the state has an interest in not having to pay to support a child, but that isn’t always the only alternative. I never quite understood / agreed with the state’s interest in seeing that a child is raised with the standard of living the state thinks his parents can afford. As long as no one is asking for welfare and no one is being abused through neglect, I don’t see any reason for the state to intervene. Even if the case where the parent that wants custody can’t afford the child without state assistance if the child is adoptable transferring custody to willing and able third parties seems preferable to dragooning in an unwilling one.

            As for the child of a female rapist, as she should in jail and unavailable for parenting duties, the child should be put up for adoption (with right of first refusal to the victim).

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Orphan Wilde:

            Abortion is completely orthogonal to women’s reproductive rights.

            The justification for banning abortion is: a) we’ve got a child here, b) somebody has to birth it, and therefore c) it makes more sense to have the mother birth it, even if she really didn’t want to, than to have someone else birth it, since that would involve complicated and risky surgery.

            Maybe you don’t agree that a fetus is a child. But that’s beside the point, since almost everyone who opposes abortion -do- think that.

            Precisely. If you believe the fetus is a child with rights, abortion is completely orthogonal to women’s reproductive rights. Anti-abortionists don’t think women shouldn’t be allowed to decide when and if they get pregnant by using birth control (okay, maybe Catholics do…). They simply think they ought not to be allowed to murder their children.

            Pro-abortionists also think women shouldn’t be allowed to murder their children. The dispute is a factual one, over the question of whether the fetus is a child and thus a person capable of being murdered.

            No disagreement from me on this.

            There are several major faults with your line of reasoning, in general:

            First of all, it’s not my reasoning. Perhaps you didn’t see the part where I said I don’t necessarily think the current child support regime is either necessary or just. But I’ll repeat it. In fact, I’ll just come right out and say I think it is in need of great reform.

            First, you omit the possibility that the -mother- pay for the child, as opposed to either the father -or- taxpayers. This is the modern world, after all.

            Second, you claim it makes more sense to make the father pay for it than taxpayers. (Why does it make sense to force anybody to pay for children they don’t want? Why should one person make more sense than another?)

            Third, child support doesn’t go to the child, it goes to the mother. Yes, in theory, she’s supposed to spend it on the children. But – well, I’ve seen women who deliberately have children for the child support, of which relatively little is spent on the child. This is particularly true when the father is more affluent, and thus more is extracted from him.

            In any case, I return to the guise of at least providing a semi-logical basis for the current system.

            First, the mother does always pay for the child. Child support occurs when the mother has custody and thus directly incurs all the expenses of raising the child. In the rare cases when the father has custody (the rarity is its own issue), the mother must pay.

            Second, the logic is presumably one of moral hazard. If the state offers to pay for all the illegitimate children a man fathers and doesn’t want, perhaps he is less eager to use a condom, or to take similar precautions. Even in cases where crazy women poke holes in condoms or such things, the man at least has a certain ability to avoid having sex with women who seem crazy (or whom he has not known long enough to tell). If he’s worried the woman might be crazy and put him on the hook for child support, he thinks twice. If the taxpayers are footing the bill, he doesn’t.

            Third, this point is sort of irrelevant. The purpose of child support is to support children. The state just doesn’t have the perfect ability to enforce this. Similarly, the purpose of disability payments is to prevent cripples from starving on the street. But the state isn’t able to stop all cases of malingerers abusing the system.

            @ anonymous:

            I’m very sympathetic to your position.

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            Regarding the mother paying, I think you miss my point. But I ascertain that your argument focuses on furthering the interests of the state, which is a fundamentally different perspective. Given that the state has any [edit: any->no] inherent interest in providing for children, the state’s interests are best supported by spending no resources addressing the problem at all. Provided the state does have a fundamental interest in providing for children, it should do so itself directly, rather than imposing additional costs to achieve the same ends by maintaining/enforcing a larger legal code.

            You ignore the moral hazard of the woman, who also has agency; her decisions (abortion versus not aborting) impose risk on the man. To treat sex as a fundamentally reproductive choice is to ignore the realities of modern existence; most sex is not a reproductive choice, and the reproductive elements of sex are an undesired potential side effect which only one party has full power to avoid (women, given abortion).

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Orphan Wilde:

            Regarding the mother paying, I think you miss my point. But I ascertain that your argument focuses on furthering the interests of the state, which is a fundamentally different perspective. Given that the state has any [edit: any->no] inherent interest in providing for children, the state’s interests are best supported by spending no resources addressing the problem at all. Provided the state does have a fundamental interest in providing for children, it should do so itself directly, rather than imposing additional costs to achieve the same ends by maintaining/enforcing a larger legal code.

            People don’t want children to be left dependent on the goodwill of strangers for their survival (presumably, they think this means children would be starving in the streets), and so they demand that the state ensure children are provided for. (Whether they are right to think this is another matter.)

            The state wants to limit the number of children it has to provide for. Thus, it wants to discourage both parents of a child (it does usually still take two to tango in this day and age) from burdening society with superfluous children.

            Rightly or wrongly, it is thought that mothers already have a good deal of incentive to refrain from having child after child: pregnancy is painful, inconvenient, and expensive, and the mothers usually have to raise the children anyway. But fathers could (and quite often did, in the days before child support) freely “sow their seed” in every available field with no consequences.

            The solution is to internalize the fathers’ externality (which is of course created by the state’s provision for children in the first place) by making them pay for some of the costs of raising the child. This makes them more cautious and reluctant to get into situations that might lead to the birth of illegitimate children the state must support; this limits the state’s costs.

            In sum, the reason the state does not provide all the care directly is that it doing so would actually increase the size of its burden. (It would also be unwieldy, but that’s a separate issue.)

            Again, however, I’m not saying that this is all perfectly necessary and just, but that seems to be the rationale.

            You ignore the moral hazard of the woman, who also has agency; her decisions (abortion versus not aborting) impose risk on the man. To treat sex as a fundamentally reproductive choice is to ignore the realities of modern existence; most sex is not a reproductive choice, and the reproductive elements of sex are an undesired potential side effect which only one party has full power to avoid (women, given abortion).

            Her decision not to get an abortion does result in the man having to pay additional costs. But those costs are also caused by the fact that he did something to get the woman pregnant.

            Since it is not thought appropriate for the man to be able literally to force the woman to have an abortion without her consent, the result is that if the woman chooses not to abort, a child will exist whether the man likes it or not. The child needs someone to pay for it.

            The state compels the man, a partial cause of the child’s existence, to pay for it.

            That is the reason. Whether this is the only good way of doing things is another matter.

          • alexp says:

            “The dispute is a factual one, over the question of whether the fetus is a child and thus a person capable of being murdered.”

            Vox- While this is true from a idealized, logical grey tribe perspective, I think in the real world people choose a position on abortion based on the implications of that position and their opinions of reproductive rights and what political tribe they belong to, etc. and then decide which side of the factual dispute they fall on.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ alexp:

            Are you suggesting people don’t adopt all their political beliefs rationally? Tell me more! 😉

            (In all seriousness, of course you are correct. In that sense, abortion is connected to reproductive rights. But then it’s also connected to gun rights and whether we should abolish the Federal Reserve.)

          • Outis says:

            Orphan Wilde already made excellent points. I want to stress the fact that the concern of adding millions of unsupported children to the taxpayers’ burden is unwarranted.

            Women from the middle class and upwards are able to support the child on their own, and so would not burden the state. Instead, removing the ability to extract support from an unwilling man would encourage women to enter a stable relationship before having children. This would decrease the number of children who grow up without a father, and thus would produce a net benefit to the children’s outcomes.

            Women from the lower class are unable to support the child, but in most cases, so are their men. Many men in this class become delinquent on child support, change jobs and fly under the radar, and get maybe one paycheck garnished in a year. The taxpayer ends up picking up the tab anyway. Removing strict liability won’t make things any better or worse in this stratum of the population.

        • vV_Vv says:

          Generally speaking, if you want to internalize externalities, you have to identify those who are most responsible for them and have them pay the appropriate costs.

          In the case at hand, the mother has usually the most responsibility for the existence of the child, since the mother can opt-out by having an abortion. Therefore the most efficient way to internalize the externality of supporting a child is to make the mother provide support.

          Except if during the pregnancy there was a reasonable expectation (a social default) that the father wanted to take care of the child, e.g. if the couple was married. In this case, it would be reasonable to have both parents contribute in roughly equal parts (with some trade-off between time and money).

          But how much money should be payed, anyway?
          Most arguments in defense of child support conjure images of starving children, but then why do actual child support laws mandate the “non-custodial parent”, aka the father, to pay support regardless of whether the “custodial parent”, aka the mother, can afford the basic needs of the child?
          And why is the payment proportional to the father’s income, instead of being a flat fee? It’s not like the child of a billionaire needs to eat $1 million worth of food per month in order not to starve.

          It seems to me that the explanation for this apparent idiosyncrasy is that child support is actually a form of covert alimony or alimony for unmarried mothers.
          The underlying principle is that just by letting a man use her vagina and impregnate her, a woman is entitled to a good share of the man’s resources. That is, society sees sex and reproduction essentially as an economic transaction: her womb in exchange of his resources.

          This may have made more sense in ye olde times where this moral view was explicit and men were expected to marry women and stick around in order to have sex with them. If some guy still knocked up a girl and refused to marry her, or ran away after marriage, he was the one breaking social norms (social defaults, again) and he was at least expected to pay her what he “owed” her. After all, she was “damaged goods” at that point, in terms of her future marriage options. Men who did stick around weren’t at risk of losing child care and thus having to pay child support by no-fault divorce anyway, so arguably it wasn’t really a bad deal for them.

          But in modern first-world societies, where sex is allegedly a mutually pleasurable act between peers with no implied premise of reproduction or commitment, the existence of these moral intuitions that underlie child support laws is quite puzzling and arguably a symptom of widespread hypocrisy regarding sexual mores.

      • Anonymous says:

        Hospital visitation rights, apparently.

        Otherwise – nothing you couldn’t get without marriage.

        The marriage law in the US is horrible, especially for men.

    • Deiseach says:

      Being fair to Scott, we don’t know the actual circumstances of what A and B said or what they did. We’re getting a heavily edited and altered version where it’s easy to take sides, but if we had the actual couple in front of us and heard their story, it might indeed be more even-sided than we think.

  16. Watercressed says:

    I am not sure how good the ten degree frozen house/showers example are. When I ask my brain why those preferences are stupid, it says something like “no human actually has those preferences, so the person claiming them has some ulterior motive”.

    • Pku says:

      I actually have a (less extreme) preference in that regard (I never, ever close the windows, which isn’t as bad in Jerusalem as it would be in Michigan but still annoyed the hell out of my family).

    • JBeshir says:

      My experience has been that people switch to “your preferences are a pretence for an ulterior motive” for significantly less weird preferences than actually exist in reality, so it might be difficult to get “distant, to the point we think they’re completely unreasonable” without it triggering that reaction, and yet have it be a fair point that this is an issue for dealing with actual humans.

    • Anonymaus says:

      I would assume that the “default” set by the culture gives us some prior information about the distribution of human preferences. Someone living in the 1800s with everyone living monogamously would assume that monogamy is really important for people in general, and that Adam is probably getting less utility from infidelity than Steve is losing.

    • Nathan says:

      I personally feel like being asked by my spouse to constantly live in a frozen house would be significantly less unreasonable than being asked to allow her to go off and bone random strangers.

      I think this is an inevitable problem of redefining concepts. Whether ‘marriage’ is better defined as two monogamous heteros, two non-monogamous gays, multiple people of indeterminate gender or whatever is more or less irrelevant to me. But as long as there is a clearly agreed standard meaning, then people who want something different can say “I want something like marriage, except for X”.

      As an example, to the extent that there is a common agreement of what marriage constitutes in Western culture, it includes the understanding that it can be dissolved by divorce. When I got married I made it clear to my now-wife that I wanted an alternative version, which involved a commitment and not merely an intention to stay together forever. She was pretty happy with that and so we both went into it knowing exactly what we were agreeing to.

      Same reason I like socially accepted gender roles. Not because I care who does the laundry, but because it allows for a starting point for discussions.

  17. 1. Start out by pointing out that any successful marriage isn’t a 50-50 proposition. If both parties don’t think they’re on the giving side of a 60-40 relationship, it won’t work.

    2. Ask Steve whether there’s any chance he’d be happy with an increase in the amount of kink in the relationship. Ask Adam whether a somewhat wilder monogamous life with Steve would be satisfying enough to keep him from straying. It’s kind of important to ask both questions in the presence of the other so they each see that the other would be making a sacrifice in order to continue the exclusive relationship that they both wanted at some point. If they go for it, you have a win. [A variant of this worked for me.]

    3. The general situation you present is still interesting. If there’s no halfway position that works for both, you need a Schelling point or a split. Breakups are seldom the best outcome, particularly when children are involved.

    • Evan Þ says:

      2) Suppose Steve says yes, but six months down the road, he realizes that he’s really, really uncomfortable with acting out a kink that repulses him. And suppose Adam says yes, but realizes six months down the road that he’s still not feeling satisfied.

    • Alex Z says:

      I would argue breakups are the best solution much more often than people think, especially when children are involved. Parents that grow to resent and despise each other is not particularly fun when you’re a child and spend many years stuck in their presence.

      • Tom Richards says:

        Very much seconded. I wish my parents had divorced years before they did. Sure, the ideal would be happily married, but I’d take amicably divorced over unhappily married any day of the week.

  18. 27chaos says:

    I don’t have a problem with not adhering to cultural standards, but cultural standards are the default presumption automatically and only an idiot would not know this. In edge cases, the proper course of action for a minority group is to talk about your opinions, not to pretend the possibility of disagreement does not exist. For example, it would be unethical for me to marry a Catholic without proactively disclosing my atheism to them. Avoiding the subject and tagging along when they go to Mass or take communion might not technically be lying to them, but it’s close enough that the technicality is stupid.

    I find it somewhat unlikely that this person only discovered their fetish for sex-clubs very recently, that their betrayal of their partner’s trust was just some kind of accident, and that they honestly believe it’s none of their partner’s business and they’ve doing nothing blameworthy here. That conjunction of layered defensive arguments smacks of “I didn’t kill the man, your honor, and also it was in self-defense”, though at least it is not outright contradictory. Failed communication by intentional omission is blameworthy, in my eyes. Maybe they’re telling the truth and they didn’t discover the fetish until they’d gotten married. But even if so, they should still have talked about the fetish before acting on it, for all the same reasons we’d expect someone to disclose their opinions on marriage before agreeing to marry someone. If they didn’t outright know their partner would frown on their attending the sex club, it’s got to be because they’re so selfish that they didn’t care to ask. No one but an imbecile could genuinely fail to recognize the possibility of such actions hurting their partner or the marriage, and imbeciles should not be married anyway.

    If you discover that you’ve accidentally miscommunicated with your partner and betrayed their trust or expectations, and your partner is very important to your life, then you should probably immediately start making concessions and attempting to rectify the situation. It should be shocking and heartbreaking to be someone who discovers that they failed to understand their partner’s expectations in such a dramatic way. But it sounds like the sex club person is being quite stubborn and trying to deny that they have played a significant role in the problem. That speaks badly for their priorities and empathy for their partner.

    I don’t think jealousy is necessarily a good reason to leave the sex club spouse, but expecting future lies or manipulation certainly is. Even in the most generous interpretation I can think of, if the sex club person is so bad at communicating with their partner that they can unknowingly engage in a perceived betrayal this dramatic, the future of the marriage will likely involve lots of similar troubles.

    Have fun playing Switzerland, this sounds like it’ll be a doozy.

    • Jiro says:

      I think that’s the right answer. Just because you can describe each partner’s situation in symmetrical terms of violating the expectations of the other partner doesn’t mean they’re in symmetrical situations. Violating the expectations of a partner with a default expectation is *very different* from violating the expectations of a partner with a non-default expectation.

      And lying by omission is still lying. Defaults are what makes there even be such a thing as lying by omission.

    • Anon says:

      I think you’re getting hung up on the object-level details in the post.

      That Adam has already gone to the club is pretty much irrelevant to the interesting part of the post. If you like, just remove that one paragraph, leaving you with the rest: namely, Adam has recently (post-marriage) found out that he requires kinky nonmonogamous sex to be sexually satisfied, and Steve doesn’t want him to. Now what do you do?

      Whether or not this is empirically likely is also beside the point, but I can say with some experience that it does happen as described.

      • 27chaos says:

        In my view, the interesting part of the post is that it points out how cultural defaults shape people’s assumptions. My response to the post is that this means good communication is important, especially if you’re someone who can anticipate your spouse will likely disagree with you. I don’t see what’s interesting about the post that isn’t answered by that response. I don’t think there is any particularly justified way to resolve disagreements between people who disagree about how disagreements ought to be resolved, if that is the aspect of the post that interests you. That question seems mostly pointless and like it will depend on specific facts about the relationship to the extent that it is even vaguely answerable, so I’m not eager to tackle it on the meta level.

        • Anon says:

          I think the interesting part of the post is not just “cultural defaults shape people’s assumptions” but also “cultural defaults shape people’s perceptions of which preferences are reasonable, and this affects how disputes such as this are resolved or at least which person will receive external support”.

          And I’m not sure good communication buys us much, here. Suppose Adam learns he has a strong preference for sexclub sex after getting married. He immediately goes to Steve and says “I have this strong preference”. Steve responds “I have a strong preference that you not do that”. There isn’t really much more communication they can have, but the situation still needs to be resolved one way or the other just as it does as originally described.

          The observation this post makes is that how this conflict is resolved – or at the very least, which of the people will receive support from the people around them – will often depend on which preference is culturally regarded as the default.

          • nope says:

            I think the way this scenario was drawn is causing a lot of confusion. There’s usually a lot more gray and possibility of mutual compromise, even in this situation alone, that is not being represented.Here there is an obvious choice that most in the kink community would think of immediately: why not try non-sexual play with other people?

            The problem with your versions of hypothetical Adam and Steve is that they’re incredibly unempathetic with one another, which makes conflict resolution very hard, and probably impossible in the long run. Adam tells Steve “I’m unhappy” and Steve doesn’t care enough to discuss the issue any further than that? Even if it is an issue with the potential to hurt Steve, he doesn’t just tell Adam to suck it up if he’s properly compassionate, he tries to find a solution, or tries to find someone else who can find one.

            Scott’s Adam can be interpreted in one of two ways: a) he’s a complete asshole who doesn’t give his partner’s feelings a thought before acting, or thinks his feelings are more important than his partner’s, or b) he trusts Steve so little to actually give a shit about his feelings that he doesn’t bother discussing this thing he feels he needs with him and decides to just look out for #1, consequences be damned. The whole “did it without telling Steve first to avoid hurting his feelings” is a red herring because if he thought these kinks were important enough to act on, then he knew there was a good chance they weren’t going to just go away after he tried it once, and that in that event Steve was going to have to find out and be a lot more hurt than if all that happened was Adam making these desires known to Steve.

          • Deiseach says:

            The question is tangled because there are two things going on:

            (1) Steve expects monogamy. I am going to assume that even if they weren’t married but were cohabiting, Steve would not be comfortable with Adam cheating on him and would probably break up with him.

            (2) Adam does not see this as cheating. He came out and said he had no belief in or intention of holding to the literal expectations of monogamy in marriage. Again, whether they were married or not, Adam would probably look for sex with other people/kinky sex.

            So it’s not the marriage as such that is so urgent, it’s the expectations of fidelity and monogamy in a committed relationship. Being married has just made this more stark a choice. Maybe Steve was aware Adam liked a bit on the side before they married and thought getting married meant Adam was giving all that up. Maybe Adam didn’t realise he really liked kinky club sex until after he was married and had to go without it for a while.

            The main problem is differing expectations of what commitment entails. Adam thinks commitment means – I’m not sure what, that he romantically loves only Steve? Anyway, sexual fidelity is not part of it. Steve thinks it is. If they can’t sort that out, then whether they’re married, living together or dating, this relationship is going nowhere.

      • Jiro says:

        Then Adam got really, really, unlucky. He now owes something that he finds it unpleasant to provide.

        Situations where one partner says that he really doesn’t like keeping to the agreement that he put down on paper are typically stupidity, willful ignorance (or lying to oneself), or an attempt to maintain plausible deniability about a contract that he never had any intention of keeping to in the first place, but where he wants the benefits without the costs. In all those cases the partner who wants to violate the contract is at fault, though in different ways. Having one spouse genuinely come to a sudden and unpredictable realization that he can’t stand monogamy is a rare and noncentral example.

        And even in that rare case, the other spouse’s reliance upon the promise was reasonable. The kinky spouse did not similarly make reasonable reliance upon something.

        • Anon says:

          > And even in that rare case, the other spouse’s reliance upon the promise was reasonable.

          OK, but how do you decide what “reasonable reliance” is? It depends on the cultural default, presumably. (For example, I’m not sure in modern times it would constitute reasonable reliance to assume one’s spouse will never ever want a divorce, since a majority of people [in some reference classes] who say “until death do us part” eventually wish to renege.) Which is part of the point of this post.

          This is especially true when making the contract is part of a ritual: I’m not sure you can reasonably rely on such contracts any more than you can on the contract which is the pledge of allegiance.

          Similarly, there are some things you can contract for such that people will not regard it as reasonable to hold you to the contract even if you meant it in full when you made it: a wife promising obedience to her husband in all things, for example. How do we know which things are in this class?

          • Patrick says:

            The way in which reasonable reliance depends on cultural defaults does not require normatively ratifying those cultural defaults. It only requires acknowledging that we make decisions based on available information, and cultural defaults are part of that information.

            I also feel some obligation to point out that the ritual of marriage is typically voluntary in our society. The idea that the pro forma nature of ritual promises means that one cannot reasonably rely on promises made in a voluntary ritual that exists almost entirely for the purpose of publicly committing to those promises is the sort of argument is expect to hear from Satan in a Mark Twain story: a clever-clever turn of phrase that seems plausible as long as you aren’t given time to think about it.

          • 27chaos says:

            Relying on defaults is necessary in order for communication in general to function.

    • alexp says:

      It’s possible Steve discovered he had the kink while browsing porn.

  19. Briefling says:

    In this case it may not matter which man we sympathize with. For minor disagreements it matters a great deal which spouse has society’s support — because that spouse has a much stronger game theoretic negotiating position. “I am going to yell at you until you stop behavior X because X is widely considered insane” is a very credible (hence strong) position!

    But the misbehaving spouse always has the nuclear option — to dissolve the marriage and continue behavior X — and if X is sufficiently important to him, game theory will not prevent him from exercising that option. It seems likely that Adam is willing to use the nuclear option, since his actions have already seriously endangered the marriage. Which means there are only two outcomes here: either they stay married and Adam continues going to sex clubs, or they break up and Adam continues going to sex clubs.

    So the only choice belongs to Steve, who will either divorce Adam or not. And he will likely choose the highest-utility option for him and his children. The only purpose of advice is to help him work through the utility calculus (which is nontrivial, of course).

    One caveat: it sounds like maybe Adam just needs kinky sex, and is willing to be monogamous if Steve will give it to him. If that’s the case, I would strongly advise Steve to try to give it to him.

    And, an unrelated side note: Scott, I feel like you’re always saying, “I support arbitrary contracts in principle, BUT…”. Have you considered that maybe you don’t actually support arbitrary contracts? I personally think unconditional government enforcement of arbitrary contracts would be completely insane — not to mention completely antithetical to the libertarianism you espouse elsewhere.

    • Randy M says:

      “not to mention completely antithetical to the libertarianism you espouse elsewhere.”
      Eh? Is it Wednesday already?

      • Briefling says:

        What does this mean?

        • Randy M says:

          Scott has said something to the effect of his being a Libertarian on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, iirc. He’s also written an anti-libertarian FAQ. I was just pointing out that you may be assuming more strength to what libertarian convictions he has than there is.

          • Briefling says:

            Gotcha. But it doesn’t matter that Scott doesn’t fully identify with libertarianism — I certainly don’t either. I think anybody with any sympathy for libertarianism should have sympathy for the contracts-are-unenforceable-by-default position.

    • Daniel Speyer says:

      > And, an unrelated side note: Scott, I feel like you’re always saying, “I support arbitrary contracts in principle, BUT…”. Have you considered that maybe you don’t actually support arbitrary contracts?

      Supporting with many exceptions is still different from opposing. It’s the difference between “you need a good reason to make that contract” and “you need a good reason to prevent that contract”.

      • Briefling says:

        Absolutely — but to me it seems very clear that contracts should be unenforceable by default, rather than enforceable by default. If contracts are enforceable by default, it’s way too easy to blow up your life by putting your signature on a piece of paper.

        Plus, you know, the libertarian argument. The government should only use force (or threaten force) against me if there’s a significant societal benefit in doing so.

        • nope says:

          Well, here’s a societal benefit: unenforceable contracts derive their utility from personal honor – a person who breaks his word is dishonorable, and is punished by being excluded from those things that require personal honor to participate in. This works great, until you get into situations where personal honor is either not important, or not as important as a person’s whims.

          For instance, monogamy is still important in marriage to many people because jealousy is a huge source of misery and conflict. Marriage largely revolves around creating a workable family situation. Family situations cannot be left easily, especially when the younger members come along. Let’s take a housewife as an example: if she left the relationship, she would be at a great economic disadvantage and possibly be unable to handle single parenting if child support and alimony didn’t exist, giving her no leverage in a scenario that makes her miserable but which the husband wants. However, child support and alimony make her husband’s commitments to her enforceable. There are lots of non-sexual, non-romantic ways to apply this concept as well, of course. Most of them involve money.

        • Salem says:

          That’s a funny kind of libertarianism.

        • JBeshir says:

          I would very much agree with you if I could work out a decent definition for what kinds of contracts were permitted that covered almost all contracts which were good for everyone involved.

          As is I can only define this by enumerating what contracts are *bad*. Contracts which suffer from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unconscionability in one way or another are the main set. Standard contracts (ones which aren’t individually negotiated- EULAs, terms and conditions, typical contracts with service providers) which effectively mislead as to costs/benefits or shunt risk onto the consumer in negative ways or fail to provide exit equitably (the latter two because empirically, humans are bad market agents at valuing those things). And so on.

          I do think the current system works okay, because a lot of the reasons for invalidating a contract are very vague, like unconscionablity, and so can be adapted for any bad contract. It does mean we lean on social default to judge legality of contract quite a bit though.

  20. Jiro says:

    If Adam and Steve were in the traditional culture of the 1800s there would be no debate.

    If Adam and Steve were in the traditional culture of the 1800s, just being in a gay marriage would be seen as as kinky and as unacceptable as the actual kinks that one of them is complaining about. Presuming that they were in the 1800s, and interested in a secret gay marriage, they would have to be well aware that anything they do is frowned upon by society, so the claim that society had demanded monogamy for thousands of years wouldn’t make sense–society has demanded separation from each other, not monogamy.

    This would also apply to modern-day gay couples appealing to thousand year traditions of monogamy. Just by being a gay couple, they are inherently violating thousand year traditions no matter what they do–not obeying them.

    • anonymous says:

      I once read on here that it was rude to introduce an object level objection in a meta-level discussion. But I guess if gayhate is just bursting out of your chest, you gotta do what you gotta do.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      Tradition violation is not a binary state. There are degrees of violation. If one family has a pizza for their Thanksgiving dinner and another one doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving at all, I think it makes plenty of sense to say that the second family is violating society’s Thanksgiving traditions way more than the first. A shoplifter is violating the tradition of obeying the law and not hurting people way less than a serial killer is.

      Similarly, gay nonmonogamy is a much bigger violation of tradition than gay monogamy. Gay monogamy differs from an archtypical relationship in one way (the gender of the participants), while gay nonmonogamy differs in two (the gender and number of participants).

      This makes me wonder if many opponents of gay marriage have a binary view of social norms, and that is why they intuitively seem to consider it a much bigger change than I do. If this is true it helps me understand their position better, though not sympathize it. The idea that all crimes and norm violations are equal is an extraordinarily harmful one that completely destroys the incentive structure that crimes and norms are supposed to create.

      • Nathan says:

        Speaking as an opponent of gay marriage, from my perspective that’s not a motivating factor. I can’t speak for anyone else, obviously.

      • 27chaos says:

        I agree with your perspective, but in defense of that perspective, if most people believed that we should weigh the specifics of norm violations and punish them commensurately it seems reasonable to think it would produce more rule breaking than if most people believed the law was sacred and acted accordingly. Even a version of the second belief involving some self-inconsistencies might be superior to the first belief. I believe there’s actually been some research done on this issue, and the extent to which people view the law as intrinsically moral is a good predictor of crime rates. Humans are algorithm executors, not utility maximizers, in this view.

      • HlynkaCG says:

        I wouldn’t social norms as binary. But I do think that once you establish that the terms of a norm “negotiable” that people will try to negotiate it.

        The definition of marriage is now negotiable so who’s to say that your concept of marriage is more valid than any other.

    • blockcaster says:

      “This would also apply to modern-day gay couples appealing to thousand year traditions of monogamy. Just by being a gay couple, they are inherently violating thousand year traditions no matter what they do–not obeying them.”

      I don’t really get this. When an old institution is opened up to a new set of people, why would/should the traditions of that institution fail to apply in their case? We don’t usually renegotiate a system of norms from scratch whenever a single one is changed. And I can’t think of an analogous claim about, say, women or African Americans in a realm that they used to be excluded from, that doesn’t seem silly at best.

      • ” When an old institution is opened up to a new set of people, why would/should the traditions of that institution fail to apply in their case?”

        In this particular case, there is at least one obvious reason. Part of the function of marital fidelity is making sure that that the wife’s children are the husband’s children. Male homosexuals don’t get pregnant. So that function does not apply.

        The same point is at least one reason for the familiar double standard. Husbands don’t get pregnant either.

        • blockcaster says:

          Sure, the traditional form might not suit the new group so well, and that might lead them to fork off their own set of norms, and/or cause a shift in the shared set. In this case, gay people might tend to be less committed to monogamy (and/or the rest of society might care less about enforcing gay monogamy), and eventually we might reach a point where (gay) marriage no longer implies monogamy — each couple will be expected to negotiate their own set of ground rules, with no strong social default to fall back on. But the traditional norms don’t just melt away automatically as soon as the new group is admitted. At least at first, the traditional understanding of marriage will continue to shape people’s expectations and default assumptions, despite having been modified in one important way.

      • You know, I don’t think “marriage is between a man and a woman” actually was a tradition. I’d call it instead an assumption.

        To call something a tradition is to acknowledge that it is a choice. Now, some traditions have very good reasons behind them, some are more or less entirely arbitrary, some are strongly enforced and some are entirely optional, but not following the tradition is always a possibility – it may be a choice that shouldn’t be taken, but it is nonetheless recognized as a choice.

        For most of human history, though, gay marriage wasn’t recognized as a choice, not because doing so would violate tradition, but because doing so was inconceivable. To fall back on my favorite gay-marriage analogy, the electric car, “cars can seat five passengers” is a tradition, but “cars are powered by fossil fuels” was an assumption.

        … once people started writing laws against gay marriage, then it might have become a tradition, except that I don’t think said laws lasted long enough to count.

  21. Daniel Speyer says:

    These “simpler situations” (the hypothetical window and shower) don’t seem so simple to me. I tend to agree with the object level conclusions, but I’m not convinced there’s a general rule here.

  22. Bugmaster says:

    I realize this is going to sound callous, but still: I’d be very interested to find out how this situation ended up being resolved. It sounds to me like the kind of incredibly sad no-win scenario that humans run into every day, so if Scott manages to fix it, then… well, “Scott for Supreme Overlord 2020” may be going too far, but still…

  23. HeelBearCub says:

    I think there is a forest and trees problem here.

    Adam and Steve ae both concerned about being right. That concern is a tree in the forest.

    The forest is their marriage, which does not hinge on who is right on this issue. It hinges on what kind of a relationship is acceptable to each person. Unless they can agree on the terms of the relationship, their marriage will fail.

    The words you say in the marriage ceremony are largely irrelevant. But the marriage ceremony itself is symbolic and clearly embodies the concept of a shared agreement on what the relationship consists of. To the the extent that Adam and Steve did not have a clear understanding of what they were agreeing to, this already constitutes a severe problem, regardless of the default. To the extent that they did have a clear understanding, and one party wishes to enforce a new agreement unilaterally, this also constitutes a severe problem.

    The default is only useful because it makes communication easier. For instance, at one time asking someone if they wanted to “go steady” was an explicit offer of fidelity if accepted. If accepted both parties were agreeing to remain faithful while the agreement was in force. Ending the agreement could be done by either party by informing the other party. That is a lot of words, but “going steady” communicates them all.

    But that doesn’t mean this is the only possible form of dating. It just means that you have to be clear on what you want.

    • Slightly Anonymized Poster says:

      “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be married?” is a phrase practically-minded marriage counselors more or less have tattooed on their hands for easy display.

  24. samedi says:

    Tell them to break up. I think this leads to the spouse with more to gain from continuing to stay together (not necessarily vis-a-vis the other spouse, but perhaps on an absolute scale of utils?) to compromise MORE in order to keep the marriage a going concern.

    It seems somewhat fitting that the spouse that values the relationship more should compromise more for the sake of the relationship. Almost Solomonic, if a bit callous in how it’d be a rule in life that rewards, yet again, the game-player with more-sociopathic traits.

    My layman’s impression is that IRL family court tends to favor the sexually more-conservative spouse, and that’s certainly a decisive resolution, which perhaps will enter into the “who needs who the worst” calculus I alluded to above.

  25. blacktrance says:

    If it were only a matter of determining what agreement was made, and using the default to fill in ambiguities, it would be less of a problem than it really is, because you could just negotiate a contract that deviates from the defaults in your preferred aspects. But the culture wars affect not just the default but the more important Overton Window, outside of which it can be dangerous to even ask for a non-default contract. “I acknowledge monogamy as the default but I don’t want it, so here’s a different marriage contract” may be fine in some subcultures, but in many it will not just be met with “no” but with “how dare you?!” and the end of the relationship. And when you don’t want certain contracts to be made, you have a reason to fight in the culture wars to push culture in your desired direction.

    • DavidS says:

      In terms of it being ‘dangerous to ask’: surely you’re not suggesting it’s responsible/ethical for people to go into a marriage knowing they want to be non-monogamous, but not raise this ahead of the ceremony because their spouse might respond the wrong way…?

      • blacktrance says:

        Definitely not – when you make a promise, you ought to keep it, and “I was afraid to ask for what I actually want” doesn’t get you out of anything. But if you want people to be monogamous, you can largely ensure that by pushing non-monogamy out of the Overton Window via culture war. For some things, the details of the contract can be negotiated away from the default, but for others, even proposing an alternative is dangerous. And if, for a specific person, your preferences are open marriage > closed marriage > no marriage, and revealing your preference for open marriage can cause no marriage, it can be rational to keep quiet. So those of us on the pro-polyamory side of the culture war need not make polyamory the default, we just have to make it not sound crazy or for the desire for it to be an automatic reason to end a relationship.

    • Randy M says:

      If the relationship were to end in that scenario, that would be a good thing if the other person were really so hostile to the concept (and the first were sincerely asking).
      If you are saying that they were objecting to the point of breaking up reflexively but would consider it in a more open society, perhaps that’s a point, but I think that the current overton window in that regard has evolved to the point of satisfying more peoples long term preferences, so if people aren’t easily convinced to deviate, that is probably a good thing. There is no reason to re-invent every detail of an arrangement with no consideration of what has grown to accommodate human nature, especially as people aren’t perfectly introspective.

  26. Anonymous says:

    If they were in some ultra-permissive sexually-open subculture of the 2100s, there would also be no debate.

    Isn’t that a big Whig of you, Scott? 🙂

    I mean, Steve’s argument about the contract isn’t bad, but if it were something we disagreed with – let’s say some old-timey marriage contract where the woman vowed to always serve and obey her husband, and now she’s a feminist and wants out – we would probably be pretty sympathetic despite the precise wording of what she’d “agreed” on.

    There is the POV that freely made agreements are binding against your future self. And there are people who disagree that the wife would have a leg to stand on. In this very comment section. Living. Breathing. Making comments!

  27. Vadim Kosoy says:

    First, IMO the Archipelago is not “an option”, it is “the option”. Any sufficiently large body of people should have the right to segregate and live according to their own laws and customs, and this should be a right as basic as other human rights.

    However, I also think that a good society doesn’t put social pressure on people to adhere to its cultural defaults. People should resolve personal disputes by bargaining based on their own preferences and disregarding everything else. There is no god given “right answer”, there’s just the game theoretic outcome they arrive at in the end. If they’re close enough to superrational and know each other sufficiently well, it’s an approximately pareto efficient outcome (maybe in some sense the Nash bargaining solution is the right answer).

    This applies to all of your examples: the freeze-house person, the no-baths-allowed-person, the transgender woman and the original couple. If freezing the house is super important for one person and the other is willing to compromise to stay with them, then freezing the house it is. In the transgender woman example, Kelsey’s advice is sound not because of strong assumptions about transgender but because it is likely the woman will be happier away from her family so it is the rational choice *for her*.

    • JBeshir says:

      As someone who isn’t a fan of Archipelago, I think letting people form arbitrary subcultures is good and we should probably even try to facilitate this process above and beyond “if you can get enough people and find some unclaimed land somehow no one from outside stops you”, given similar kinds of limits and exceptions to those Scott’s formulation came up with about child rearing, cross-regional compensation for costs, no limits on exit, etc, although I’d probably add some more myself. Simply because it’s the liberal thing to do and we expect it to make people happier on average.

      The issue I’d take is with this actually being able to cure what ails us, so to speak. There’s a whole bunch of reasons why, but one particular concern I have is that Exit is simply not ever going to be nearly fluid and cost-free enough to avoid needing to worry about whether the society we’re in works well. In particular, it’s much more fluid and cost-free for people with lots of status, money, connections, and personal productivity, so they can get out of things and brush off issues by responding with “Exit”, instead of being inclined to use their power to actually tackle the thornier problems involved in making people better off here.

      And this is kind of what the problem here is. They *can* split up, but Exit is not costless, it’s very expensive with children involved, so costly that both would rather their preference go unsatisfied than do it. This means they are stuck dealing with the object level disagreement, and the liberal “well if you don’t like it you can leave” thing offers little value. Internal trading of preferences doesn’t work if the two don’t have anything else to bargain of comparable value, so it comes down to which one of the two is willing to play brinksmanship harder if they can’t find some cooperative way to agree on what’s more important and what’s best for both of them.

      And surrounding culture strongly influences what everyone suggests and what they may believe to be best for both of them, and I think this is where the culture wars having impact even given liberal attitudes may come into it.

      • Vadim Kosoy says:

        Saying that the exit option offers little value sounds weird to me. It’s like saying that open borders is a pointless idea since nobody is going to use it.

        When I mentioned bargaining, I didn’t mean money, I meant bargaining in the game theoretic sense. Basically it amounts to talking, understanding each other’s preferences and eventually deciding on either one or other compromise or on breaking the package. Just business as usual in personal relationships IMO, no reason to bring society into it.

    • Muga Sofer says:

      Archipelago reminds me a lot of the various kind of “Anarchism” – in that we already have it, people just used that “freedom” to form nation-states instead so they could go to war with each other. Freedom is the base layer of reality all other layers were built upon; it’s like suggesting a revolutionary new system of programming based on AND, NOT and OR gates.

      It’s incredibly weird to me that Scott apparently thinks even his idealised, powered-by-magic Archipelago is in any way stable, let alone the version he occasionally suggests might be formed by the splintering of society into internet-based subcultures. Have you seen internet-based subcultures? They’re in a state of constant warfare and self-censorship!

      • Vadim Kosoy says:

        I don’t think Archipelago is anything like anarchy. Archipelago assumes a global government that has important powers and responsibilities: solving disputes between the constituents (peacefully) and other legal questions that fall outside individual jurisdictions, protecting freedom of movement, solving global coordination problems etc.

        • Gbdub says:

          But here we’re explicitly talking about “marriage” a concept with legal meaning imposed by the relevant government, and with cultural norms within that larger society. If you want a marriage to be an island of 2, that’s fine, but that doesn’t mean you can sail over and find a spouse from Marriage Is Monagamous Atoll and expect them to exit that society and all its norms without explicitly consenting.

        • 27chaos says:

          Muga is saying that they expect Archipelago will create to a society much like today’s society, just as some forms of anarchism fail to provide any mechanisms that prevent government from existing. They are not saying Archipelago is an anarchy, they are making an analogy between those two aspects of those systems.

  28. mindreader says:

    To let you know, I’m gay–your example felt like I was reading about myself.

    I am actually going through this situation right now with my boyfriend. From a pretty early time in our relationship, I was open with him about how I am sexually adventurous and want to let some of that energy out since I’m not going to be in my 20s for much longer. I told him that I wanted us to be a very casual thing as I’m just not ready to settle down. He told me he was ok with me going out to see other guys in town but he didn’t feel like doing that himself, and he just didn’t want to hear about my escapades. I sensed at the time that he said it but just didn’t mean it, and I really liked him, so I never did go sleeping around.

    Well, about a year passed and we started to go steady and later on even settled down more. I felt worried about continuing in the way we were going and did feel like my libido wasn’t getting all of what it needed, but brushed it aside because I love my boyfriend. All of a sudden, he told me he wanted us to get married since gay marriage had been legalized and he is more traditional like that, always looking forward to when he could get married. I had my doubts about it, and so I opened up about my feelings on still wanting to see other guys before or during marriage. I told him about my feelings in an open and honest way, but instead he took this as a huge insult and now wants nothing to do with me. He’s treating me like I did something to hurt him, but I never did anything but be honest about who I am inside and what kind of life I want to live. I even told him I was willing to stay monogamous if it means we can be together still but he wasn’t having any of that.

    Am I a jerk for telling him this now? Am I the bad guy?

    • Aapje says:

      He is a major jerk, you are a minor one. Let me explain:

      You made him think that your desires were unimportant to you, by not acting on your stated desires. His stupid assumptions on this issue make him a major jerk. But you did realize that he probably was lying to himself and you didn’t act sufficiently on that, which makes you a little guilty of stringing him along and thus makes you a little jerk.

      Telling him again about your desires when he proposed marriage made it really clear to him what you wanted, so that part makes you less of a jerk, not more (having married him without discussing this again would have been the jerk move).

      That said, I think the best action on your part would have been a ‘shit test.’ You could have left some (real or fake) evidence of ‘an adventure’ for him to find and that would have forced him to come to terms with his self-deception.

      So my advice: don’t feel bad about yourself, but see this as a learning experience. A lot of people deceive themselves and sometimes it’s better to give them a reality check.

      • mindreader says:

        “You made him think that your desires were unimportant to you, by not acting on your stated desires.”

        But he has no way of knowing whether I did or didn’t act on my desires. (I didn’t, but that’s besides the point).

        “But you did realize that he probably was lying to himself and you didn’t act sufficiently on that”

        I did act sufficiently. I stayed monogamous at that stage of the relationship, knowing it would hurt him if I did anything else.

        “That said, I think the best action on your part would have been a ‘shit test.’ You could have left some (real or fake) evidence of ‘an adventure’ for him to find and that would have forced him to come to terms with his self-deception.”

        That seems a bit worse than just breaking up to save us both a fight.

        “So my advice: don’t feel bad about yourself, but see this as a learning experience. A lot of people deceive themselves and sometimes it’s better to give them a reality check.”

        🙂

    • Murphy says:

      By my personal standards you’re ethically in the clear here.

      You were open and honest. Your partner’s goals and yours couldn’t be fully reconciled but that doesn’t mean one of you is the bad guy.

      • Gbdub says:

        Please note that I am being intentionally a bit harsh here to give the other side a fair shake.

        In some sense, mindreader was NOT open and honest, in that he seems to have suppressed his actual desires and doubts and continued being monagamous even though that’s not what he really wanted, for a long enough time that his boyfriend started making the understandable assumption that he wanted to be monogamous, or was at least happy with it. Even now, mindreader is trying to offer monogamy to save the relationship – so which is it? Is the relationship more important, or is non-monogamy?

        From the boyfriend’s perspective, they’ve been lead on. They thought they were making the person they loved happy, when really they weren’t, and now that’s been sprung on them after a year of monogamy. Now the person they love is saying “well, you’ve been enough for me for a year, but now the shine’s wore off and I might need more”. They’re going to be full of self doubt and am-I-the-jerk thoughts too in all likelihood.

        I don’t think either one of them is necessarily a jerk. They are probably just two people who love each other but want mutually exclusive things. I’m just saying that I don’t think mindreader is completely blameless – he did the right thing by being clear up front at first that he intended to be non-monogamous, but then entered a de facto monogamous relationship anyway. For better or worse, the social norm is that even if a relationship starts casual and non-monogamous, it “evolves” into greater exclusivity – mindreader even uses the term “going steady”, which is part of this norm.

        Actually blame is not really the right word either, but just that I understand the boyfriend’s hurt and don’t think it’s totally unjustified.

        • Gbdub says:

          Going back, I notice two more key things in mindreader’s account: first, that he sensed from the beginning that the boyfriend was uncomfortable with non-monogamy, but continued the relationship anyway. Also, he describes the marriage proposal as “all of a sudden”… I would personally not describe a marriage proposal after a year of increasingly serious relationship sudden, and I doubt the boyfriend did either. These things give me additional sympathy for the boyfriend.

        • mindreader says:

          “In some sense, mindreader was NOT open and honest, in that he seems to have suppressed his actual desires and doubts and continued being monagamous even though that’s not what he really wanted, for a long enough time that his boyfriend started making the understandable assumption that he wanted to be monogamous, or was at least happy with it.”

          But like I said above, “he had no way of knowing whether I did or didn’t act on my desires. (I didn’t, but that’s besides the point). For all he knows, I did fuck other people like he told me I could.”

          “They are probably just two people who love each other but want mutually exclusive things.”

          That’s true and sad right now.

      • mindreader says:

        That’s what I’d thought!

    • Publius Varinius says:

      Meta-advice: wait until someone else comes along, and in the meantime, don’t rely too much on Aapje’s answer.

      • nope says:

        Um, wow, that’s… incredibly callous. I mean, I know people do this with significant others, I just didn’t think anyone with a conscience did.

      • Aapje says:

        Can you clarify why you say this? There are several people who agree with me on this issue, so I don’t think I’m saying something extreme.

    • nope says:

      🙁 I’m really sorry you’re in this situation. This is what happens when two people love each other so much that they refuse to see a fundamental incompatibility that is probably not reconcilable.

      I’m going to go out on a limb and take a wild and totally uninformed guess that the real reason your partner is mad at you is for not breaking up with him. He can’t live with nonmonogamy, but it seems really important to you, and he sees that this is not going to change over time in the direction he would prefer. He probably expects you to either be lying about the concession you tried to make, or sees it as an impossible promise about future feelings (along the lines of “I will never value my partner’s feelings less than I value my own sexual satisfaction”, which is a promise many, many people make and fail to keep). He feels that his choices are either to stay and be secretly cheated on/wait in misery for the day he’s less important than “just sex” to you, or to break up with you. Since the former is untenable, sense is telling him he has to break up with you, but he feels he can’t because it’s just really damn hard to break up with someone you love. Which is why he wishes you would do it for him.

      • Dirdle says:

        Second nope’s thoughts on the motivations behind this behaviour, and reiterate the note that being open about what you want is overwhelmingly likely to be the right thing to do, and it’s just sucky that things turned out this way :(.

      • mindreader says:

        “I’m going to go out on a limb and take a wild and totally uninformed guess that the real reason your partner is mad at you is for not breaking up with him. He can’t live with nonmonogamy, but it seems really important to you, and he sees that this is not going to change over time in the direction he would prefer.”

        Then he should grow a sack and break up with me right?

        “he has to break up with you, but he feels he can’t because it’s just really damn hard to break up with someone you love. Which is why he wishes you would do it for him.”

        It’s not like it’s any easier for me though.

    • FJ says:

      I’m hetero but have been in a similar situation (mutatis mutandis, of course). You have my sympathies.

      Without knowing both you and your boyfriend well, I’m reluctant to pass judgment on your specific situation. But I have no such compunction about myself. In my case, I also sensed that my partner was only reluctantly agreeing to an open relationship (my ears sensed this, when she said out loud, “I am reluctantly agreeing”). I took this as consent. Maybe technically it was “consent,” but I should have realized that such grudging consent was no basis for even a casual relationship. I was honest about what I wanted, which was necessary but not sufficient. I ought to have been a better caretaker of my fellow human’s feelings, even to the extent of refusing a relationship we both thought we wanted but that I knew she would later regret.

      I want to emphasize that I suspect your circumstances are different from mine in important ways and that none of the above necessarily applies to you.

      • DavidS says:

        Agreed with this. In practice, I do not think this is one of those things where it is healthy for one person to put up with it because they want the relationship. And in fact, I have ended a relationship because I didn’t want to commit and she did even though I was offered this as it was obviously a terrible idea (for us).

        Not saying it’s always wrong or that it never works out (you can move past that phase into a resolution one way or the other where they’re actually happy or you’re actually monogamous). But it’s unstable at best. And the ‘but they said they didn’t mind’ or worse ‘but they knew I was like this and didn’t leave me’ are not brilliant foundations for relationships.

      • mindreader says:

        “In my case, I also sensed that my partner was only reluctantly agreeing to an open relationship (my ears sensed this, when she said out loud, “I am reluctantly agreeing”). I took this as consent.”

        It’s such a tough call!

        “I want to emphasize that I suspect your circumstances are different from mine in important ways and that none of the above necessarily applies to you.”

        Have you found a good polyamorous situation for yourself?

    • Alex Z says:

      “Am I a jerk for telling him this now? Am I the bad guy?”

      You won’t get anything good out of even attempting to answer those questions.

      Being open about the boundaries of your relationship is important if you want said relationship to succeed. Not telling him would have likely left you in the situation later on where you would have to choose between violating the implicit rules of your relationship or yourself being unhappy. That’s likely something you want to avoid. In the future, you may want to consider that even though you like or love somebody greatly, you might not be able to have a fulfilling relationship with them. It can be difficult to see because as a human being you probably want to fool yourself in that regard. But you will probably make better choices if you consider the question “can I have a good relationship with that person?” separately from whether you like or love them.

      • mindreader says:

        “Not telling him would have likely left you in the situation later on where you would have to choose between violating the implicit rules of your relationship or yourself being unhappy. ”

        Unfortunately I ended up unhappy anyway. I’m an idiot for not leaving in the beginning…

        “In the future, you may want to consider that even though you like or love somebody greatly, you might not be able to have a fulfilling relationship with them.”

        You’re right.

    • caryatis says:

      You essentially turned down his marriage proposal. (Or, to be precise, you said you didn’t want to be married under monogamous terms.) So I don’t think either party did anything wrong; you were honest, and you’re entitled to turn down a proposal. But you should not be shocked that the BF is hurt and questioning the future of the relationship.

    • Deiseach says:

      No, you’re not a jerk. You were open about what you wanted and intended. He may have some hurt feelings, and that’s a natural human thing because we’re not all always perfectly rational and we put things in the best light for ourselves.

      If this really is a sticking point for him, and if you really think you will be unhappy in a completely sexually monogamous marriage, then it’s probably best not to get married yet. I’m not going to say “You should break up!” because that’s none of my business and it’s your choice.

      But being honest all the way from the start is definitely better. The worst thing would be to pretend to agree to his terms, never say anything, let things get really serious and even marry, and then either have the feeling of being unfulfilled turn to resentment which would eat away at the relationship, or end up cheating on him which wouldn’t be good for either of you. (If you both know about it and agree to it, it can’t be called cheating. If you both don’t know about it and/or haven’t agreed to it, it’s cheating).

      I wish you luck, whatever happens. Some relationships don’t work out, even if both parties really like or even love one another. And someone getting hurt when a relationship ends is often unavoidable. Be as careful of both yourself and him as you can be, but keep on being honest. Don’t make a compromise now that you are not sure you can stick to for the future.

      • mindreader says:

        “If this really is a sticking point for him, and if you really think you will be unhappy in a completely sexually monogamous marriage, then it’s probably best not to get married yet. I’m not going to say “You should break up!” because that’s none of my business and it’s your choice.”

        It looks like we’re breaking up at this point, but it’s a tough one.

        “then either have the feeling of being unfulfilled turn to resentment which would eat away at the relationship”

        This is what happened.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      we started to go steady

      That’s not language I hear very often in this day and age.
      What do you mean by it?
      Is it the term you or he used?

    • Acedia says:

      “He’s treating me like I did something to hurt him, but I never did anything but be honest about who I am inside and what kind of life I want to live.”

      Those things aren’t mutually exclusive. You can hurt someone BY being honest about who you are inside, if who you are inside isn’t what they expected or wanted.

      • Aapje says:

        “You can hurt someone BY being honest about who you are inside, if who you are inside isn’t what they expected or wanted.”

        Exactly. Furthermore, when dealing with an irrational person, behavior that assumes rationality may not be appropriate. And everyone is irrational to some extent.

      • mindreader says:

        You’re right about that

    • pdan says:

      You’re not in the wrong. You were trying to make a concession to your partner’s feelings, and have now realized that you can’t continue. Relationships aren’t guaranteed to work, they’re experiments. In this case, it seems that the two of you aren’t compatible. Better to know that now, than later.

      Now that you know, you should probably maintain open relationships in the future. It’s easier for someone who’s on the fence to adapt early, before they are emotionally invested. And then as the relationship gets more serious, they don’t see it as a new threat. My GF initially wasn’t happy with me seeing other people, but now she doesn’t care- she feels loved, and isn’t afraid that me having other dates will mean that she’s not part of my life.

      • mindreader says:

        “Now that you know, you should probably maintain open relationships in the future. It’s easier for someone who’s on the fence to adapt early, before they are emotionally invested.”

        I did try to do that by telling him from the start, but he lied to me about it.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      @ mindreader
      “I even told him I was willing to stay monogamous if it means we can be together still but he wasn’t having any of that.”

      Sounds like a good outcome, at least temporarily.

      I don’t know if you’re rooming together or involved in other practical ways. If not, then it sounds like a good time to back off, continue your life on your own, find your other resources. Let him do the same. Maybe he will cool off and reconsider.

      Hopefully he will reconsider his whole philosophy and seek therapy. And/or, after you sow your wild 20s, you may get tired of that and be ready to settle further down, and you two may be better suited for each other.

      But you’ve done nothing wrong, except perhaps the very human thing of trying to go along with his way as far as you honestly could. Good for you, for biting the bullet and telling him before it went further.

  29. Spaghetti Lee says:

    there’s always the Archipelago option, but I guess sometimes culture wars do need to be fought beyond the point where you just leave people alone

    What I’ve never understood about the Archipelago (which is an interesting and useful concept, I hasten to add) is what to do with the groups for whom “leave people alone if they’re not harming you” isn’t a viable option, according to their own code of conduct. For example, religions that see evangelization, even of the unwilling, as a divine commandment, or racial supremacists who see their control and domination of the weaker races as totally righteous and justified, or SJers who decide UniGov is just another tool of cisstraightwhitemale oppression and declare its rules against cultural infiltration null and void, for the causes of justice and diversity.

    The obvious solution is just to tell them no, you can’t do that, but that kind of defeats the whole purpose, doesn’t it? They have the right to their norms, and their norms conflict implacably with other people’s. Someone is walking away unsatisfied.

    I admit this doesn’t do much for poor Adam and Steve (as if I was qualified to talk about relationship troubles anyway), who I hope can come to an amicable conclusion, but I wasn’t around for the original archipelago post. But there are certainly parallels. The realization that some problems in life are just there, and can’t be rationalized, incentivized, or even structuralized away, has taken me pretty far into an anti-political mindset I couldn’t even conceive of having a few years ago.

    • blockcaster says:

      The Archipelago option parallels liberal neutrality in general and Scott’s fondness for going meta and avoiding ‘object-level’ disputes in particular, I think. It has plenty to recommend it as a political solution, but it can be misleadingly sold as somehow setting its proponents above the fray, painting them as too advanced for low-level squabbling about values, when really it’s just an attempt to impose yet another set of values, albeit one that has more chance of achieving a relatively broad consensus and leaving 80% of people mostly satisfied. Some people’s lower-level values will still be ridden roughshod over, and those who support this can only do so because they’re confident it won’t be theirs.

  30. Rehill says:

    When I read this, I immediately thought of the Coase theorem which leads me to think that both Adam and Steve have both caused the problem. If Adam and Steve didn’t have their preferences, there wouldn’t be a problem.

    Given this, it just becomes a question of bargaining in my eyes. The two could negotiate a compromise by giving up other things. The real important question is what would it take to set up the necessary institutions to enforce an agreement?

    • Aapje says:

      “If Adam and Steve didn’t have their preferences, there wouldn’t be a problem.”

      The difference is that Steve’s preference was explicitly made clear at the beginning, which makes his preference part of an existing agreement. Changing an existing agreement isn’t as simple as bargaining to end up in the middle (which can’t really be done here anyway).

      You can’t be expected to compromise to half your pay when your boss demands that you work for free. And if you need that money to live on, you can’t just accept non-monetary compensation to ‘make up’ for the loss in income. So people have hard limits and it’s not for you or me to say that it is reasonable for them to compromise on a certain issue, just because it is not our hard limit.

      • Tom Womack says:

        We don’t know whether it was explicitly made clear.

        Using the standard words for the marriage service because they are the standard words, honed over hundreds of years, part of the ritual, embedded in every piece of romantic literature, and not particularly caring about what they explicitly say isn’t that unreasonable an action to take; personally-written vows can come across amazingly clunkily in that finely-crafted context.

        I don’t know whether there is a degree of pre-marriage counselling in which it is pointed out (to both sides separately, and to the couple together) exactly what they are committing to and they need both to confirm that they’re happy with it. I’m not really prepared to accept that going through the Standard Ritual Like In Four Weddings And A Funeral actually counts as that degree of fully-comprehending mutual acceptance.

        • Adam Casey says:

          Do you think that if one uses the standard employment contract downloaded off a government website that makes the contract automatically unenforcible because it’s just the standard?

          • Error says:

            Seems to me there’s a difference between a contract that can be enforced, and one that should be. How many contracts out there only exist — only can exist — because almost nobody reads them or enforces them as written?

            I am thinking of things like EULAs, apartment leases, and the like.

          • Aapje says:

            The main issues with EULAs is that there are too many of them too read, too little at stake for normal people and no way to renegotiate if you disagree.

            None of that is true for a marriage contract.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          @ Tom Womack
          Using the standard words for the marriage service because they are the standard words, honed over hundreds of years, part of the ritual, embedded in every piece of romantic literature, and not particularly caring about what they explicitly say isn’t that unreasonable an action to take; personally-written vows can come across amazingly clunkily in that finely-crafted context.

          This. Polite society runs on white lies. Standing in white lace reciting words to make my parents happy, I used the standard words to make them happy.

          I’m rather squiked at the idea of a ‘marriage’ depending on words spoken years ago rather than how one really feels each new day. Dagny Taggart Flower Child, here.

          (Yes, no children.)

          • It would be easy enough to recite the usual words during the ceremony but take the precaution of first informing your husband to be that you did not really mean them and intended an open marriage (or polyamory or whatever).

            That’s why I am unconvinced by the people who claim that Adam was forced into a promise of monogamy by social custom. Pretending that a marriage is monogamous when it isn’t is mildly dishonest to third party observers. But the person the promise is actually being made to is Steve, and Adam had lots of opportunities before the wedding to make clear and explicit to Steve the real terms he was agreeing to.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ David Friedman
            … forced into a promise of monogamy … the person the promise is actually being made to … the real terms he was agreeing to

            Let’s leave aside Adam and Steve. Your words are begging the question. They assume that reciting some poetic cliches while in fancy dress in front of an audience, somehow constitutes a ‘promise’ that’s being ‘agreed’ to. It never occurred to me that he might take this socially required ceremony any more seriously than I did. (In fact I hope and trust that he did not, but really stayed with my by daily love, as I did him … for our 50 years till death.)

          • John Schilling says:

            @houseboatonstyx:

            How does a person go about making a promise in your world? How do you make promises that you intend to keep even if you later change your mind about their ongoing desirability?

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ John Schilling
            How does a person go about making a promise in your world?

            Email is pretty good. I prefer top-posting.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            Email is pretty good. I prefer top-posting.

            That is really weird to me.

            Is it the act of writing it out that determines a promise’s epistemological status? or is there something special about the medium of EMail and/or top-Posting in particular?

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ HlynkaCG
            Is it the act of writing it out that determines a promise’s epistemological status? or is there something special about the medium of EMail

            Once it’s clear what’s in the proposed agreement, and why, then the parties can decide how much certainty to give each part of it. With a written record, in plain current language, there’s no problem of forgetting and less problem of misunderstanding. The negotiation (defining, hashings-out, etc) is all right there together for later reference and re-negotiation if necessary. The more brainstorming and research the better, and email facilitates that.

            Here’s an example of a reasonable long term promise. “Okay, I’ll give up our nice house here if you promise that all our future homes will be comparable: old houses with lots of trees, in nice small towns.”

            In my Blue Tribe World, this wouldn’t even come up till we had been living together for long enough to know we wanted to stay together, and had become very familiar with each other’s feelings about the current house, town, etc. So the negotiation and promise should be all in private, to avoid outsiders’ defaults for ‘nice’, ‘old’, ‘lots’, ‘trees’ etc; what matters is what we’ve discovered matters to each of us over the years. Where our own disagreements have been … those are the points to spell out in an agreement.

        • Aapje says:

          “Using the standard words for the marriage service”

          That is not necessarily the marriage contract, which consists of a mutual agreement, that can go much further or even be at odds with what was said at the service. But in the absence of a specific agreement, people can be expected to stick to the default.

          “I don’t know whether there is a degree of pre-marriage counselling in which it is pointed out exactly what they are committing to and they need both to confirm that they’re happy with it.”

          Sane, rational people don’t need to be told, but realize that they need to work out the main issues before getting married.

  31. DavidS says:

    Hah, I was thinking about exactly your disclaimer point halfway through “Bit tasteless to make them gay. Wait a sec, if they were straight you’d have to have either ‘kinky husband’ or ‘kinky wife’ and that brings baggage too. Huh”

    I think one huge thing is that personally I feel ‘who is in the right’ can be a quite damaging question in close relationships (romantic or otherwise). Many times, I would advise my friends to try to do what’s most considerate of the other person either in the Adam or the Steve role. And try to do the same myself. The list of ‘what I expect other people to do to be morally acceptable’ and ‘what I am willing to do’ should not be the same thing!

    Also just a side-note: I may be wrong, but growing up with my main experience of church being liberal Church of England, the idea of a priest siding against the trans person feels completely alien and horrible. And linked to the ‘I agree at the object level’ point – I used to basically thing trans people were posers. Even then, I’d have thought someone refusing to use the name they preferred was shitty. And I’m pretty sure I read something very similar on an earlier blog of yours (in the context of the principle of a strong default to openness and being nice to neo-cons if I recall correctly)

    • On the name/gender/trans case …

      I think the reasonable solution, if you see someone as of one gender and that person wants to be seen as the other, is to avoid gender specific language. I’ve been in that situation, although not with someone literally trans. It feels wrong, dishonest, to call someone “she” who I perceive as “he.” It’s rude to call someone “he” who self-identifies as “she.” The solution is to do neither.

      So far as names are concerned, I have always been unreasonably bad at remembering the names of people whose names I ought to know—colleagues, for instance. So long ago formed the habit of avoiding the use of names most of the time.

      But it might be considerate, if someone wants to switch gender identification and name, to select a name that isn’t gender specific.

      • Lignisse says:

        I agree with much of your comment. This was the solution my parents adopted when I first spent Thanksgiving with them after transitioning, and I found it suprisingly workable (superior, even, to an insincere use of my chosen pronouns, since that would have created a sense that I was controlling them, which would have been mutually unpleasant). Of course it’s my hope/expectation that eventually they’ll move to a sincere use of my chosen pronouns and remove the conflict, but in the meantime, your suggestion is highly endorsed.

        Your second suggestion (gender non-specific names) does have that same small advantage, but there’s also a large downside that you may not have fully considered. Unlike you, many (most, in my geographical region) sincerely desire to call people by their chosen pronouns. When physical gender presentation is ambiguous or confusing, a strongly gender-marked name clears up the confusion nicely – thereby satisfying their preference to know what pronouns to use.

    • Deiseach says:

      Even then, I’d have thought someone refusing to use the name they preferred was shitty.

      For the family side – for X number of years they have known this person as their son, their brother, their nephew. The name may even have significance as a family name from a grandfather or other close male relative.

      And now all of a sudden their son is claiming not to be their son and wants to be called some strange name. And if they slip and call him by the name they know him, they are bad horrible people who are deliberately being shitty. And they are supposed to do all the changing and compromising when they don’t even know what is going on – is he gay? is this a phase? a mental illness? what is trans anyway?

      It’s not easy for either side here and yes, maybe the best solution is to avoid the family event altogether. But surely you can see why people might have pain themselves when their son turns around and tells them all their memories, all their years with him, never existed because that person wasn’t real? That they were wrong when they thought they had a son and instead they are supposed to switch immediately to thinking, acting and remembering about a daughter instead?

      • DavidS says:

        I understand they might find it difficult – as some parents do if they find out their kid is gay, or doesn’t want to do the job they always saw them doing, or whatever. But I didn’t say them ‘slipping’ made them shitty – mistakes happen. What I said was shitty was ‘refusing’ to use the preferred name/pronoun. There’s a massive difference!

        Your pain that your child is not as you expected does not justify you DELIBERATELY taking a stand that undermines them as they are.

        Incidentally, I think this is true of siblings/friends etc. as well but part of the different feelings here might be about the parent/child relationship. My upbringing etc. are very much permeated with the sense that the main responsibility here is for parents to nurture and support children, and kids basically don’t have a responsibility to be what their parents expect, obey them, follow their principles etc. beyond the degree to which this is inevitable in childhood. Obviously a worldview where the child is seen to owe more of a duty to the parent than vice versa might skew views on this.

        • Anonymous says:

          Your pain that your child is not as you expected does not justify you DELIBERATELY taking a stand that undermines them as they are.

          What they are is the salient point of contention here! The transdenialists don’t accept the self-identification as valid, even if it is made honestly. The transcredulists simply accept it at face value.

          The transcredulists would have it so that the transperson’s self-identification is binding on other people’s interaction with them, even when they disagree with the transperson’s choices.

          • DavidS says:

            I don’t mean ‘what they are’ in a deep way. Taboo the question ‘what sex are they actually’ and we can describe the person, e.g. ‘has XY chromosones’, ‘earlier in life had appearance associated with being a man’, ‘now identifies as a woman’.

            My point isn’t that the parent not using their preferred pronoun is undermining them ‘as a woman’ – it’s undermining them as a PERSON.

            Now, the answer to this might be ‘good, I want to undermine them, I have decided that trans is a social evil of some form and I will confront it wherever I see it’. But at that point you can’t act surprised that this is causing conflict!

            Also, you talk about disagreeing with their ‘choices’ which seems weird here. If my son married a woman I disapproved of, I wouldn’t respond by refusing to describe her as his wife…

          • Anonymous says:

            >My point isn’t that the parent not using their preferred pronoun is undermining them ‘as a woman’

            Because they’re not (barring some weird case of ambiguously-sexed children being assigned the wrong label and cosmetically altered based on the physician’s best guess).

            > – it’s undermining them as a PERSON.

            No. Female humans and male humans are both fully persons.

            >Also, you talk about disagreeing with their ‘choices’ which seems weird here.

            Transgenderism is determined by self-identification. Unless you’re truscum, you don’t even need to claim to feel dysphoria over your physical sex. From the standpoint of an external observer, it is impossible to tell what reasons the transperson has to act this way – which, in itself, contradicts observed facts of their physicality.

            >If my son married a woman I disapproved of, I wouldn’t respond by refusing to describe her as his wife…

            Because being married takes more than just deciding one day to call yourself married – the consent of another, a written contract, witnesses, etc, etc. If your son came home with a woman he called his wife, but whom you could verify was not married to him, you would be well within your rights to call her his concubine, or lover, or girlfriend.

          • DavidS says:

            I think we’re just coming at this from radically different contexts. E.g.

            “If your son came home with a woman he called his wife, but whom you could verify was not married to him, you would be well within your rights to call her his concubine, or lover, or girlfriend.”

            In dealing with those I care about I don’t stand on my RIGHTS like that and (to keep the term I started with) I think doing so is deeply shitty. I have the right to call my son’s (alleged wife) ‘Your current strumpet’ if I want. But I’m not going to, because why would I be deliberately offensive. Do you REALLY think it’s reasonable to respond to ‘hey mum, meet my wife’ with ‘I demand to see the marriage certificate and verify this with the listed witnesses. Until then, I will call her your concubine’?

          • Jiro says:

            DavidS: You’re talking abut a situation where someone *tries to find out* whether they are married, while he’s talking about a situation where you *already know* whether they are married.

            Those aren’t the same thing.

          • Anonymous says:

            @DavidS

            First of all, I would expect you’d be mad that he didn’t invite you to the wedding, didn’t ask for your opinion on his bride, hidden the fact of marriage from you until that point, etc, etc. It would be quite reasonable for you to doubt that said marriage was quite legit.

            Consider a different situation: Your son out of the blue announces he’s married to some woman, and has been for years. He takes to wearing a wedding band, but his supposed wife never seems to be around – except when you’re not around. No-one else has seen her, either. Sure, he might be telling the truth, but a reasonable person might suspect that their son has gone crazy, with continued lack of substantial evidence that his wife exists, and even if she does exist, the situation is quite bizarre enough.

            I guess the question here is – is it okay to feed a crazy person’s delusions to keep the peace between you two?

          • DavidS says:

            So to clarify, the idea here is that the people refusing to recognise transgender and insisting on using previous names/pronouns are either
            a) just being factual because ‘they already know’ the truth to the point that they can just blank ignore the position of the person involved. Maybe they’re baffled as to why this person keeps using the wrong pronouns!
            and/or
            b) have decided that trans is some sort of delusional mental illness… and that the best resolution to this is to make them miserable at Christmas and drive them away from the family

            Just doesn’t sound hugely plausible, I’m afraid.

          • @DavidS:

            I don’t think you are correctly describing the attitude.

            Some people strongly object to lying. If I perceive someone as male and that someone insists that he is female, for me to use female pronouns is a lie, since it clearly implies that I accept the claim, and I don’t. It doesn’t follow that I am unaware of the claim or that I regard it as a mental illness, still less that I want to drive the person away from the family–any more than the person making the claim implies that he wants to drive the family away from him.

            Consider, as an analogous case, a traditional Catholic interacting with a family member who has married a divorced woman. To refer to her as his wife is to imply that he believes she is his wife, and he doesn’t. If he wants to avoid conflict, the solution is not to refer to her as a wife but to avoid referring to her in ways that emphasize the fact that he doesn’t–for instance to refer to her by name instead of as “your wife.”

            Similarly here. Making a point of the use of male pronouns might be an attempt to drive away. Avoiding the use of female pronouns is not.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ David Friedman
            Making a point of the use of male pronouns might be an attempt to drive away. Avoiding the use of female pronouns is not.

            That sounds like a good strategy, for whatever reason. Though I accept “A woman is anyone who says she is”, I prefer to avoid collateral damage to third parties. At a holiday dinner, it’s not nice to confuse some elderly relative by using counter-intuitive pronouns.

            To avoid offending the TG person by using the accustomed pronoun, some of us may need some practice using sentence fragments.

        • DavidS says:

          @DavidFriedman: Fair enough, I think this might be a very strong Typical Mind thing. I used the wife example elsewhere as an example of a similar thing on the assumption people wouldn’t act that way and that the trans issue was an outlier.

          I think there are two things here, though. The person who is just unwilling ‘to lie’ (who I think takes themselves and their own sense of purity far to seriously compared with the wellbeing of others) and the person who thinks that trans people are either ill or footsoldiers in some army of social change, and that either way, this must be confronted. The difference between ‘lying’ and ‘giving aid and comfort to the delusion/enemy’.

          The latter I can understand if you really think you’re right, but you shouldn’t be shocked that the person you think is mad/enemy doesn’t see you as a friend! The former I literally don’t think I’ve ever encountered in real life. If their concern for truth over politeness to others (e.g. refusing to call someones alma mater a university if they considered it a polytechnic, refusing to call the charity someone works for a charity because they consider primarily govt funded things not to be charities or whatever their views are) then I wouldn’t see it as an anti-trans thing. Though I doubt this makes them fun to be around and it would worry me if they’re in positions where you might need to be closesly involved with others who disagree with you (which ranges from ‘being a boss’ to ‘being a parent’)

          • Anonymous says:

            (I think you replied to the wrong post.)

            It is fully possible to believe both that the transperson is both delusional and a footsoldier, whether willing or not, of undesirable social change – these are not contradictory.

            Re: purity. It’s not simply about personal purity, which is important in itself, but also a matter of resisting false propaganda. When you knowingly lie under social or legal pressure, you become, to some extent, an agent of the propagators of the falsehood.

            “In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, not to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is…in some small way to become evil oneself. One’s standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to.”

            ― Theodore Dalrymple

            Calling a polytechnic a university and vice-versa is not lying unless the speaker knows the difference and considers it substantial enough not to fit under general approximations (I wouldn’t call saying it’s half-past six, when in reality it is 18:34, lying). People in general do know the difference between a male and female, on an instinctual level, and these terms cannot be taken as approximations of each other.

          • Anonymous says:

            People in general do know the difference between a male and female, on an instinctual level, and these terms cannot be taken as approximations of each other.

            Trans people also know the difference between male and female, and do not believe these terms can be taken as approximations of each other, otherwise they would not be trans. You’re problem is that their definitions don’t accord with yours.

          • Anonymous says:

            Well, yes, obviously.

  32. DavidS says:

    PS: on social norms, sometimes (not always) these also feed in to the ‘contract’ argument. I.e. the implicit sense of a marriage contract (in the UK…) now does include not cheating, doesn’t include actually committing to not get divorced even if you’re miserable. So in that sense if your values are wildly dissonant with the social norms, I think it’s fair to say you should give people fair warning! This does allow for more localised social norms, i.e. if all Adam+Steve’s married friends are in open relationships then maybe the presumption of monogamy is weaker, or if Adam+Steve are Catholics (OK, maybe not…) then the assumption that divorce is regrettable but OK might not apply.

  33. Kevin C. says:

    “We all hear the stories of the economists who start by assuming perfect rationality, and then add in deviations from that assumption when they come to them. I kind of like to start from a liberal assumption of perfect atomic individualism and add in deviations when I encounter them.”

    I see this, and I immediately think of my half-written essay (entitled “Society is not a van der Waals Gas”) arguing against this view. Given that we are social animals, embedded in a culture, and shaped non-trivially by our relationships, social role(s), and surrounding people; and that as individuals approach isolation, they approach not an idealized “atomic” individual reflecting the “true” humanity to which social forces add “deviations”, but instead weirdness and dysfunction. (My essay further discusses Xunzi’s view of what distinguishes the human species from other animals; as I rephrase it in modern terms, humanity is the animal that constructs social roles.) If one needs a physics analogy, humans are more like quarks in QCD.

    Society is a network, not a gas; the edges are at least as important as the vertices (rather than a perturbation to be added as a second-order “correction” to the model of atomic vertices). In fact, I would argue that if there are “atoms” to society, it is interpersonal relationships rather than individuals, and that one should model society in the reverse of your method, starting with the “edges” of relationships and then adding the “deviations” of individuals as the correction.

    • I wholly approve of this model. It seems obvious at this time in my life that society is a network, and relationships are primary social units, rather than epiphenomena disturbing the pure individualist substrate. OTOH I remember how long it took me to come around to this view, so it’s definitely something that needs to be argued for.

    • Jaskologist says:

      Worth pointing out that Aristotle independently reached the same conclusion:
      “Man is a political animal.”

      Confucius (obviously this is in the same thought-stream as Xunzi) quite clearly conceives of the relationship as the fundamental unit, and getting those into proper shape was his whole project.

    • Harold Lee says:

      I’d be very interested in reading this essay.

    • moridinamael says:

      Mainly just fourth’ing that I think this is an excellent insight.

      Since I was a child, I’ve been aware that my personality, including my thoughts and unconscious attitudes, alter in response to who I’m interacting with. I automatically tailor myself to my friends. I don’t think I’m some kind of weird alien, I think everyone does this, with greater or lesser degrees of self-awareness.

      It’s almost impossible for my to nail down my “actual preferences” outside of interpersonal contexts.

    • W.T. Dore says:

      This essay sounds very interesting!

  34. Anthony says:

    Imagine you were good friends with both Adam and Steve, and one day, Adam called you out of the blue to complain about Steve’s sexual blandness. It would be uncomfortable, wouldn’t it? It would be strange because Adam would be asking you to inject your judgments into a sphere over which you have no legitimate agency — that being, Adam and Steve’s relationship. The only who people who have a legitimate say over that are Adam and Steve.

    You’re correct that morality is contingent on time and place. Your archipelago idea hints, accurately, that it’s also contingent on the actors involved. A close relationship begets a peculiar moral code that binds only that relationship’s participants. What that means is that you, the friend, pronouncing on who is morally justified in Adam and Steve’s relationship makes as much sense as it would for me, a secular left-wing Jew, to tell a conservative Baptists how he or she should feel about adultery.

    Morals are common norms which are both accepted by, and simultaneously define groups of people. When two people marry, they make a moral pact with one another which henceforth defines their relationship. That moral pact can be as close to or as far from the general moral pact of the larger society as they’d like it to be. Culture warriors are troublesome not because they have the wrong viewpoints, but because they attempt to reach into other people’s personal relationships and dictate their moral terms.

    I think you’re right that modifying cultural attitudes towards what makes a “normal” marriage harms some folks’ ability to use those mores as leverage in fights with their spouses over how their relationships should look. I also think that using those mores as leverage in that manner is confused and leads to bad outcomes. If you’re appealing to the values of family, friends, or (god forbid) “society,” for why your partner should behave in the way you want them to, you’re doing the whole relationship thing wrong.

    Unless your marriage contract is all about the community getting up in your and your spouse’s business, in which case, God bless.

  35. Cord Shirt says:

    Rather than “duuuh” I’ll say that yes, “culture sets the default” is intuitively obvious to me, and it’s why I became a feminist, started supporting same-sex marriage etc.

    But I’m uncomfortable with how willing you are to just up and declare things “reasonable” or not. I have too much experience with being an outlier to be comfortable just…dismissing someone’s unusual preferences quite as completely as you do. (Yes, I know you’re exaggerating for effect; *even so*. It just…makes me very uncomfortable to see anyone ever flat-out told, “Your preferences are stupid and don’t count”–even a fictional anyone, even as a joke.)

    (Of course, this discomfort with just dismissing someone makes me a sitting duck for insincere crybullies. No matter how out of touch with reality their attack is, I look for the grain of truth or “what philosophy they’d have to hold to make it seem true” or etc.)

    “suppose Adam wants to sometimes take a shower, but for some reason the thought of Adam being in a shower pisses Steve off and he refuses to allow it.”

    …just have him take a freaking bath, yeesh. 😉

    Meanwhile, this:

    “But go back two hundred years and ask the people of that culture, and this choice is a no-brainer”

    made me LOL. In “Belmont” (as opposed to “Fishtown” as well as, apparently, “many other places Murray didn’t address”) you’d only have to go back 20 years, if that. (Example: I knew a couple who got divorced in the ’90s because he wouldn’t stop going to *strip* clubs. Everyone who knew this agreed the divorce was his fault.)

    Personally, my reaction to Adam and Steve’s story is that it’s very sad, and unfortunately they’re going to need to go ahead and divorce. And Steve gets the kids.

    That’s because my experience with different individuals and different cultures has taught me that you really can’t rely on the assumption that something is “just boilerplate,” you really can’t. For relationships not to crash and burn, you always, always have to pay attention to the actual words, the actual agreement. And if there’s anything we really need culturally enforced, it’s that. The agreement is the agreement–and so the non-violator gets the kids.

    (Indeed I *would* be sympathetic to a woman who wanted out of a sexist marriage, and I would feel a great deal of sympathy for her likely desire to save her kids from being raised with those beliefs; even so. Steve still gets the kids.)

    • Vladimir Slepnev says:

      Yeah, that was my reaction as well. Divorce and let Steve have the kids. Adam can’t be very serious about marriage anyway. Marry, adopt and cheat within one year? I don’t think that will be reasonable even in 2100.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      I think that looking at marriage as a cause (rather than an effect) of the relationship contract is incorrect.

      I think it’s very rare for the rules of a relationship to change in much if a substantive manner because of a marriage itself. If you expect fidelity from your spouse, you expected it before the formal ceremony.

      • Anonymous says:

        You can expect things with different degrees of confidence, and make plans based on those expectations. I think people typically expect their spouse to make more of an effort to sustain the relatoinship, and to try to repair it if things go wrong, than they would expect of them before the marriage.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          But going into the church, saying the words, and signing the marriage certificate don’t actually cause these changes. Sure, there is some extra cost to terminating a relationship once the marriage has occurred, but I don’t think those costs are what drives the behavior of, say, fidelity.

          Rather, agreeing to the terms of the relationship is the pre-condition for engaging in the ceremony. There may be some people who intended no fidelity even when planning the marriage, who then are changed because of the marriage itself, and some more who won’t go through with the marriage because they realize they can’t be faithful, but I would posit that the overwhelming majority go through the ceremony and then do what they would have done.

          • Anonymous says:

            I don’t disagree, but the problem is you have no way to see into someone else’s mind, and so can only understand their intentions by their actions. Someone marrying you is evidence that they intend to put more effort into sustaining the relationship in the face of hardship. I’m not saying marrying causes them to change their mind and get serious but that it’s a way of demonstrating their seriousness.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Anonymous:
            Oh, I completely agree that one useful feature of the marriage ceremony (and the whole of the marriage ritual) is that it makes possible a very clear communication of commitment.

            But again, that doesn’t make it the cause of the commitment. The desire and willingness to commit is the cause. One can have the exact same commitment without ever having had a ceremony or certificate or ring. This is one reason why we have the term “common law marriage”.

      • Nornagest says:

        I’m not sure I agree.

        There’s a lot of cultural weight behind calling yourself “married”, a lot of norms and expectations linked to it. Maybe there’s not much physical difference if you were already living together, pooling your finances, and so forth, but people often change their behavior when they’re exposed to a new set of norms even if they don’t come with any material changes. And then there’s those vows, of course; I reckon there are still a few people that take them seriously.

        This might be less true for gay couples than straight ones, since that form of marriage is so new, but they’d still share some of it.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Oh, I agree there is a great deal of cultural weight.

          But this weight is understood by those going into the marriage. It’s not a surprise. Therefore it is the willingness to be bound by those expectations, as modified based on the individual couples communication, that is the precursor. Marriage is a useful shorthand for the terms of the agreement and makes good boilerplate to be modified by mutual agreement.

          But if, say, someone is cheating on their S.O., or even having agreed to sex outside of the bonds of the relationship by mutual agreement, up until the day of the marriage, it seems to me that the mere fact that one signed a marriage certificate is highly unlikely to result in a long term working monogamous marriage. You won’t just change your behavior or preferences on a dime by dint of being married.

          • Nornagest says:

            It’s not entirely about the expectations, it’s also about the participants’ responses to them, and that’s often a surprise even to the people in question. I’ll bet you’ve seen someone’s personality change in ways you didn’t expect after a promotion at work, or found yourself hating a friend after moving in with them as a roommate? Same principle.

            If you’ve only ever known someone in one cultural context (“boyfriend”; “colleague”), you’ll usually find yourself discovering plenty of new things about them when they move into another. The preferences behind those things probably existed already, of course, but you’ll never know all someone’s preferences.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Nornagest:

            Did you just “move the goalposts”? You are the one who brought in the significance of the cultural weight and now you seem to be eschewing it.

            In any case, I certainly agree that for many the act of marriage marks an inflection point. Cohabitation starts for many at this time. Sexual activity may start if it was not present, although this is not as common as it was in the past. Reproduction may now be considered when it was not before. Perhaps for one party there is a clarity that they have now made a lifetime commitment and this may be problematic.

            But of course it’s possible for all of these things to happen without being married. Marriage marks the time when a couple has agreed that they will make these changes in the relationship. At some point arranged marriages forced these changes on people, but not anymore (in the West, for the most part, etc.)

            So again, it seems to me that marriage is a useful short hand for people to use to explain their feelings about the relationship. The ceremony seems to me to be very useful, don’t get me wrong! I cherished my wedding day. Still, the fact that we got married was a result of my desired relationship with my wife, and the fact that she agreed, not the cause of it.

          • Nornagest says:

            Did you just “move the goalposts”? You are the one who brought in the significance of the cultural weight and now you seem to be eschewing it.

            The cultural weight is where these changes come from, but it’s significant in different ways for different people. You can’t just look at the institution and predict exactly how your fiance is going to handle it, unless you know them much better than most people know their partners.

            It’s true that marriage doesn’t mark as big a change in a relationship, on average, as it did fifty or a hundred years ago. But even if every couple was cohabiting, having sex, considering kids, etc. before marriage was on the table, I still think that just calling yourself married has serious enough cultural implications to bring out parts of your fiance’s personality that you might not have seen before, especially if they’ve been brought up in a somewhat different cultural environment. And I think they might not always be aware that that’s going to happen, or of how predictable it is from the outside if so.

            At least in 2015. Maybe “married” will be synonymous with “shacked up long-term” in 2115, I don’t know, but that’s not the world we live in.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Nornagest:

            How is that different from “I thought I wanted to be in this relationship with you, but I don’t”? And how is “being married” a different stress than “moving in together and considering having children”?

            Now, if what you are trying to say is that some people agree to getting married who don’t actually want to be married, then, sure, I agree with that. But people also agree to date monogamously when they want to play the field.

          • Nornagest says:

            How is that different from “I thought I wanted to be in this relationship with you, but I don’t”?

            It’s analogous, but “married” has different cultural connotations than “in a relationship”, or even “moving in together and considering children”. It means you’ll be presenting yourself to others as a wife or husband, and that means people will expect different things of you, respond to you differently. The rules, to bring this back around, have changed. You might not find yourself comfortable with your new status. Or you might find yourself more comfortable. My point is that it’s hard to tell beforehand, even if literally nothing material about the relationship has changed other than that you spent one afternoon at the courthouse signing papers.

            I saw this happen firsthand a couple years ago when my dad married his girlfriend (now my stepmother), whom he’d been living with for something like fourteen years — about as close to marriage-as-formality as you could hope for. The rules, to bring this back around, had still clearly changed.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Nornagest:
            OK, I don’t disagree with anything you are saying there

            But I still don’t see how that maps onto “not faithful before marriage, but faithful after”. Perhaps the wearing of the ring changes how people react to you? But then married men have a tendency to take off their ring when they are out cheating, if they are the type do that. And even then, that isn’t the individual changing their own expectation nor their expectations of their spouse.

          • Nornagest says:

            I was responding to this:

            I think it’s very rare for the rules of a relationship to change in much if a substantive manner because of a marriage itself.

            …more than this:

            If you expect fidelity from your spouse, you expected it before the formal ceremony.

            I agree that monogamy (or non-) will usually be established before marriage is on the table, though there’s exceptions to everything in a custom this complicated. But cheating (or not yet actual cheating, but chafing at the bonds of monogamy) can be an effect of stress in a relationship as well as a cause.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Nornagest:

            I agree that monogamy (or non-) will usually be established before marriage is on the table, though there’s exceptions to everything in a custom this complicated. But cheating (or not yet actual cheating, but chafing at the bonds of monogamy) can be an effect of stress in a relationship as well as a cause.

            It seems important to me to differentiate the desire for (and agreement to) the basic terms of the relationship as separate from the psychological effect it has on the individuals to actual meet the terms of the agreement (or the effects that come with societal expectations which happen to differ from the actually agreed contract).

            Certainly the psychological effects happen, but that is different than whether the marriage itself creates the basic agreement or results from it, especially when we are talking about the basic fundamental pieces like fidelity or cohabitation.

            Now, sexual activity seems like it could be a confounder here. Among those who strongly believe that sexual activity must be abstained from until marriage, I can easily see people having a primary goal of sexual activity and everything else being secondary. I think that is why my wife’s grandmother got married at 16 (crossing state lines to do so), but that (mostly) isn’t the society we live in today.

    • Deiseach says:

      The cynical part of me thinks that yes, Steve probably ends up with the kids, because having to take care of and at the very least arrange child-minding/babysitting for two kids is going to drastically cut into Adam’s time and opportunities to visit fetish clubs. Bit hard to get a good scene going when you have to be home by half eleven to let the babysitter home on a school night!

      Ignore me, I’m not a nice person 🙂

  36. wanderer2323 says:

    “Once you’ve let the culture set a default then given sufficiently good liberal norms people who want to deviate from the default can absolutely do so.”

    And, in deviating, of course, they pave the way for the next cultural conflict that sets the next default. This is what is called the slippery slope.

    Also, 2100s are “ultra-permissive sexually-open” only as far as dissociative neurostimulative VRs allow, publicly the “neo-victorian chill” sets tone for the behaviour (so no kink clubs north of Bombay); otherwise this article is perfect.

  37. Dan Davis says:

    “Once you’ve let the culture set a default”

    Isn’t that the last thing an “atomic individualist” would do is let the statistical collective decide? Particularly in a romantic relationship, do I have to give a shit what “culture” thinks?

    Win-win, or no deal.

    This is what those two jokers are missing. What they’re trying to do is cudgel each other over the head with an argument presupposing an objective standard of value to appeal to, *instead* of trying to appeal to what the other *actually* values, which presumably is their relationship above all.

    They’re negotiating over a new division of the surplus value their relationship generates for each. They could actually *negotiate* that, trading value for value, instead of playing winner take all mortal combat.

    If you really want something you know your partner doesn’t want, are you willing to give anything in return? This is a very tricky thing, as it requires a lot of *trust* in the good faith negotiating of the other person, and even trust in their own self awareness, and sense of fairness.

    (From your description, I don’t think either has that, or either merits that.)

    I don’t have a good solution for dividing surplus value, but the *start* is at least an acceptance that neither has the right to demand subordination of the other. Your life is your own, and my life is mine, and we’ll see if we can find a way to have a life together we can both be satisfied with. Win-win, or no deal.

    • One thing the surrounding culture does determine is the meaning of language. The link between a particular sound or pattern of letters and a meaning is a matter of social convention.

      In a society where the normal meaning of marriage includes sexual fidelity, saying “will you marry me” is an offer of sexual fidelity unless explicitly qualified. The moral issue is not “is sleeping with someone else immoral,” a question which would not be answered by social convention. It is “is breaking promises immoral,” where social convention isn’t what makes it immoral, but is (via language) what defines the promise you are breaking.

      • Dan Davis says:

        Sure.

        I would also assume that marriage included fidelity, unless otherwise specified.

        Well, Super Freak wants a new deal. And I don’t think “until death do us part” is considered anything more than aspirational these days. People know that marriage is subject to renegotiation and cancellation.

        So again, it’s up to what they can negotiate together, and neither need feel bound to accept the general societal preference as a binding tie breaker then they preferences clash.

        • JBeshir says:

          In practice, deviating from “default” contracts and actions is something people only do if they’re motivated and aware enough to consciously act to do so. Otherwise, they stick with the default. There’s somewhat of an art to exploiting this under the name “nudge theory”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nudge_theory, used for altering behaviour without altering anything that would, to a perfectly rational agent, be a non-negligible incentive.

          I tend to think of this as a “transaction cost” to being non-default; it probably isn’t one and probably doesn’t follow the model of transaction costs in other respects for all I know, but it is a bit of friction that has to be overcome in reality before people act in the manner theories would predict.

          Because of this, I’d predict that most people would agree to whatever the default marriage agreement was, and only deviate insofar as it was very important to them most of the time, which would give culture noticeable weight.

  38. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    Somewhat related, Jane Galt’s “A really, really, really long post about gay marriage that does not, in the end, support one side or the other”. Galt’s piece mostly deals with economic incentives, but also notes that when those incentives push the first few marginal cases to break the cultural norm, that makes it more socially acceptable for other people to break the norm, too, which in turn creates the next batch of marginal cases which is just barely willing to break the norm, and in short order the norm is destroyed.

    • Nornagest says:

      The trouble with this line of thought is that it doesn’t allow you to change anything unless you have some way of figuring out the magnitude of the feedback. Not even the Amish are that conservative.

    • onyomi says:

      That piece is really excellent, though might bias one too strongly in a conservative direction, as Nornagest suggests. Still, it’s striking to think how slippery some slopes have truly been, historically, considering how often people still scoff at slippery slope arguments.

    • And somewhat related to that: does anyone have an example of a society where (a) something similar to our conception of marriage existed (i.e., with both ceremonial and legal aspects, and amounting to more than a property relationship); (b) romantic homosexuality was socially acceptable for both partners (i.e., not Ancient Greece); and (c) marriage was heterosexual only?

      That is, I’m looking for an explicit example of a society that was completely comfortable with homosexuality but nonetheless prohibited gay marriage, in support of the claim that there must be a good reason why marriage has always been heterosexual-only in the past. Bonus points if we know why said society prohibited gay marriage. 🙂

      PS – since a recent discussion elsewhere went rather sour, and I’m still a bit sensitive about it, I’d like to explicitly state that if I do not get any responses to this question that should not be interpreted as evidence that no such society existed. I guess that goes without saying around here, but YMMV.

      • onyomi says:

        In premodern China same-sex marriage would have been unthinkable, yet same-sex relations, though mildly frowned upon in some cases, were much less stigmatized than in the west. Certainly not a mortal sin; more like a weird preference no one worried about so long as it didn