[Previous] My Early Effective Altruism Experiences | Home | [Next] Controversial Activism Is Problematic

Rationality Policies Tips

I quit the Effective Altruism forum due to a new rule requiring all new posts and comments be basically put in the public domain without copyright, so anyone could e.g. sell a book of my posts without my consent (they’d just have to give attribution). More info. I had a bunch of draft posts, so I’m posting some of them here with minimal editing. In general, I’m not going to submit them as link posts at EA myself. If you think they should be shared with EA as link posts, please do it yourself. I’m happy for other people to share links to my work at EA or on social media. Please share stuff in whatever ways you think are good to do.

Suppose you have some rationality policies, and you always want to and do follow them. You do exactly the same actions you would have without the policies, plus a little bit of reviewing the policies, comparing your actions with the policies to make sure you’re following them, etc.

In this case, are the policies useless and a small waste of time?

No. Policies are valuable for communication. They provide explanations and predictability for other people. Other people will be more convinced that you’re rational and will understand your actions more. You’ll less often be accused of irrationality or bias (or, worse, have people believe you’re being biased without telling you or allowing a rebuttal). People will respect you more and be more interested in interacting with you. It’ll be easier to get donations.

Also, written policies enable critical discussion of the policies. Having the policies lets people make suggestions or share critiques. So that’s another large advantage of the policies even when they make no difference to your actions. People can also learn from your policies and use start using some of the same policies for themselves.

It’s also fairly unrealistic that the policies make no difference to your actions. Policies can help you remember and use good ideas more frequently and consistently.

Example Rationality Policies

“When a discussion is hard, start using an idea tree.” This is a somewhat soft, squishy policy. How do you know when a discussion is hard? That’s up to your judgment. There are no objective criteria given. This policy could be improved but it’s still, as written, much better than nothing. It will work sometimes due to your own judgment and also other people who know about your policy can suggest that a discussion is hard and it’s time to use an idea tree.

A somewhat less vague policy is, “When any participant in a discussion thinks the discussion is hard, start using an idea tree.” In other words, if you think the discussion is tough and a tree would help, you use one. And also, if your discussion partner claims it’s tough, you use one. Now there is a level of external control over your actions. It’s not just up to your judgment.

External control can be triggered by measurements or other parts of reality that are separate from other people (e.g. “if the discussion length exceeds 5000 words, do X”). It can also be triggered by other people making claims or judgments. It’s important to have external control mechanisms so that things aren’t just left up to your judgment. But you need to design external control mechanisms well so that you aren’t controlled to do bad things.

It’s also problematic if you dislike or hate something but your policy makes you do it. It’s also problematic to have no policy and just do what your emotions want, which could easily be biased. An alternative would be to set the issue aside temporarily to actively do a lot of introspection and investigation, possibly followed by self-improvement.

A more flexible policy would be, “When any participant in a discussion thinks the discussion is hard, start using at least one option from my Hard Discussion Helpers list.” The list could contain using an idea tree and several other options such as doing grammar analysis or using Goldratt’s evaporating clouds.

More about Policies

If you find your rationality policies annoying to follow, or if they tell you to take inappropriate actions, then the solution is to improve your policy writing skill and your policies. The solution is not to give up on written policies.

If you change policies frequently, you should label them (all of them or specific ones) as being in “beta test mode” or something else to indicate they’re unstable. Otherwise you would mislead people. Note: It’s very bad to post written policies you aren’t going to follow; that’s basically lying to people in an unusually blatant, misleading way. But if you post a policy with a warning that it’s a work in progress, then it’s fine.

One way to dislike a policy is you find it takes extra work to use it. E.g. it could add extra paperwork so that some stuff takes longer to get done. That could be fine and worth it. If it’s a problem, try to figure out lighter weight policies that are more cost effective. You might also judge that some minor things don’t need written policies, and just use written policies for more important and broader issues.

Another way to dislike a policy is you don’t want to do what it says for some other reason than saving time and effort. You actually dislike that action. You think it’s telling you to do something biased, bad or irrational. In that case, there is a disagreement between your ideas about rationality that you used to write the policy and your current ideas. This disagreement is important to investigate. Maybe your abstract principles are confused and impractical. Maybe you’re rationalizing a bias right now and the policy is right. Either way – whether the policy or current idea is wrong – there’s a significant opportunity for improvement. Finding out about clashes between your general principles and the specific actions you want to do is important and those issues are worth fixing. You should have your explicit ideas and intuitions in alignment, as well as your abstract and concrete ideas, your big picture and little picture ideas, your practical and intellectual ideas, etc. All of those types of ideas should agree on what to do. When they don’t, something is going wrong and you should improve your thinking.

Some people don’t value opportunities to improve their thinking because they already have dozens of those opportunities. They’re stuck on a different issue other than finding opportunities, such as the step of actually coming up with solutions. If that’s you, it could explain a resistance to written policies. They would make pre-existing conflicts of ideas within yourself more explicit when you’re trying to ignore a too-long list of your problems. Policies could also make it harder to follow the inexplicit compromises you’re currently using. They’d make it harder to lie to yourself to maintain your self-esteem. If you have that problem, I suggest that it’s worth it to try to improve instead of just kind of giving up on rationality. (Also, if you do want to give up on rationality, or your ideas are such a mess that you don’t want to untangle them, then maybe EA and CF are both the wrong places for you. Most of the world isn’t strongly in favor of rationality and critical discussion, so you’ll have an easier time elsewhere. In other words, if you’ve given up on rationality, then why are you reading this or trying to talk to people like me? Don’t try to have it both ways and engage with this kind of article while also being unwilling to try to untangle your contradictory ideas.)

Elliot Temple on December 5, 2022


Want to discuss this? Join my forum.

(Due to multi-year, sustained harassment from David Deutsch and his fans, commenting here requires an account. Accounts are not publicly available. Discussion info.)