Writing that has influenced me

Most of these pieces seemed surprising and weird the first time I read them. Instead of being forgotten, they seemed more and more true as they percolated through my mind until I can hardly remember that they once seemed odd. I would like to say these are essays that made me smarter and more moral, but most of you will probably identify these as having made me more resolutely eccentric. Paul Graham is overrepresented because his website makes it very easy to find essays I liked.

  • The Acceleration of Addictiveness“, Paul Graham. “Already someone trying to live well would seem eccentrically abstemious in most of the US. That phenomenon is only going to become more pronounced. You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don’t think you’re weird, you’re living badly.”
  • What You Can’t Say“, Paul Graham. “If you believe everything you’re supposed to now, how can you be sure you wouldn’t also have believed everything you were supposed to if you had grown up among the plantation owners of the pre-Civil War South, or in Germany in the 1930s– or among the Mongols in 1200, for that matter? Odds are you would have. [….] What can’t we say? One way to find these ideas is simply to look at things people do say, and get in trouble for. […] If a statement is false, that’s the worst thing you can say about it. You don’t need to say that it’s heretical. And if it isn’t false, it shouldn’t be suppressed. So when you see statements being attacked as x-ist or y-ic (substitute your current values of x and y), whether in 1630 or 2030, that’s a sure sign that something is wrong. When you hear such labels being used, ask why.”
  • Leah Libresco’s covenant marriage series.  I’ll attempt a possibly-inaccurate summary. Libresco promotes defining marriage as an institution “centered on responsibility and commitment, rather than on rights and affection”, and focusing more on what a married person can give to his or her parter and especially the broader community rather than what she receives.

It’s easy to abandon morals you once held, and it’s hard to notice morality drift. Libresco writes about marriage as a sort of commitment device: attach yourself to someone who shares your morals, and you won’t stray. I think this is a great idea, but I don’t think it recommends covenant marriage (which is harder to extricate oneself from) over regular marriage, since a marriage that one person wants to leave but can’t is unlikely to be morally edifying.

Reading this two years ago, I didn’t understand why this idea was specific to marriage rather than to friendship. I still don’t, but I’ve found that my boyfriend is very useful for making me a more moral person, and most people are not. My boyfriend is willing to criticize me and make constructive suggestions, has thorough knowledge of what beliefs I hold, and is close enough to agreement that we can have productive discussions. I try (and usually fail) to be open about my beliefs with my friends and invite them to criticize me when appropriate, but being the angel on someone else’s shoulder is a job few will take on. [1]

There are ethical commitment devices besides friendship and marriage. My boyfriend and I are members of Giving What We Can, whose members commit to donate some percentage of their income, or all of their income above some amount, to cost-effective charities.

  • The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle“, Peter Singer. What do we owe to other people? To whom do our obligations extend?
  • Aaron Swartz on productivity.
  • The Pervocracy on social skills: You can learn social skills. Being friendly, observant, and willing to listen goes a long way.
  • squid314 on creepiness: There’s a series. Google “squid314 creepiness”. Some general ideas: We write off men who ask women out in the “wrong” way with the crushing term “creepy”, but a lot of these men are well-intentioned but clueless about what actions make women uncomfortable. The standard advice for learning a new social skill is “do it wrong until you get it right and nothing bad will happen”, but men aren’t afforded space to learn to ask women out the right way through trial and error. Asking someone out is terrifying; let’s not make it harder.

Another point: Maybe “Burning Life-Consuming Crushes” are common. [2] “But if women make a policy of excluding guys who show strong feelings for them, then logically they will end up with either guys who have only a vague and temporary preference for them, or Machiavellian liars.”

I’ve been asked out exactly once in my life and hit on exactly once (by a super-drunk guy on the subway) so it’s not like I go around shaming men for hitting on me in a “creepy” way, but reading this series was a good exercise in compassion and understanding.

[1] If anyone wants a friend to help them be more ethical, I’m willing to try to do this. Maybe we could discuss what you believe and in what circumstances I should tell you off for violating your principles?

[2] I think these are somewhat common among my very close friends. I extrapolate that hopelessly intense and persistent crushes are also common among people who are not close to me.

About adaldrida

I'm a grad student. My interests are diffuse. Recently, I've spent a lot of time thinking about Empirical Bayes, psychiatry, and sports physiology.
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