Rational Relationships: Video and Thoughts

I was very lucky to be an invited panelist for FTBCon 3’s panel: “How Does Our Skepticism Influence our Romantic or Non-Romantic Relationships?” with Wesley Fenza, Miri Mogilevsky and Franklin Veaux.

Wesley did a great job moderating, framing the discussion as a jaunt through several cognitive biases and how they affect our relationships and relationship choices. Enjoy!

Additional thoughts:

  • We talked a lot about how cognitive bias affects our choices to get in or stay in relationships at the beginning, and towards the second half talked more about cognitive bias *in* relationships, but I think you can apply all of them to both. For instance, if you’re trying something new with a partner, especially if it’s an attempt to improve the relationship, it’s easy to be subject to the sunk cost fallacy, where you’ve already tried this thing for so long you might as well keep going. I also like the idea of a partner as someone you can bail out with, where it’s safe to say “this isn’t working, let’s quit”
  • As has been said before (and Miri said in the panel), many of these biases are or can be adaptive in interesting ways.
    • Just as we are happier when we have a slightly inflated sense of our worth or value, I’d imagine we are happier when we let the halo effect work its magic, letting us overlook unimportant flaws in our partners and keeping the relationship on happy ground.
    • If you’ve invested time and effort into a relationship, it’s true that that cost has already been spent, no matter what happens now, but it means that you also have a relationship “for free”, as it were, since you’ve already paid the cost, and that really can be better than investing all of that again. It’s a framing I find helpful – for instance, if you paid 20,000 for the first year of college and you’re deciding where to go, it’s true that that money is gone, but now your choice is between a free year of college or doing something else, which matters.
    • I brought up the idea that the scarcity model vs the abundance model of love might just be an empirical question for some people. Nonconventionally attractive people with unusual kinks or very specific attractions might genuinely have a lot of trouble finding people. But I do want to emphasize that while as a thought experiment that’s true, it’s probably true for a vanishingly small proportion of the population, and Franklin was probably right that a more optimistic approach will, in and of itself lead to better outcomes.
    • I really like thinking of things like this – what are other ways cognitive biases can be adaptive in relationships?

For me the most important takeaways were:

  • The idea of a game-changing relationship that raises the bar for all future ones is both nerdy/rationalist and really heart-warming
  • Not a new idea, but one worth repeating – if you think it would be the worst thing in the world to not be with your current partner, you are probably wrong. You would probably be ok, and everything would probably work out.

Your thoughts? What would you have said if you were on the panel?

How Should Rationalists Approach Relationships and Marriage? or, I was on a panel!!

As some of you may know, I was lucky enough to be on a panel at Skepticon about how rationalists should view sex, relationships, marriage and love. I was replacing Greta Christina, who couldn’t make it because of her recovery, and I’m sure I did her no justice, but it was an absolute blast and really such an honor. The recording of that video is up now, so, if you want to listen to me, Adam Lee, Matt Dillahunty and Julia Galef talk for a little over an hour, moderated by the ever-capable Jesse Galef, here it is!


Update: The transcript is up! Thank you so much to Julie! Here it is:

Jesse Galef:  Hello denizens of Skepticon! Welcome and thanks for coming so early in the morning. I know 11-11.15 is pretty early after a wild night at Skepticon but we have a panel here on how rationalists should approach relationships and marriage. This is something that I think all of deal with at one point or another in our lives: trying to find relationships, figuring out marriage, figuring out the structure of our relationships. And one of the things I really wanted to address with the panel is a common misconception that I think many of us have heard that reason can’t figure out love, that there’s something beyond science, beyond rationality, that love and relationships are just – you have to take them on faith and you can’t figure them out; and that’s, I think all of us would agree, absurd. And so I have here four fantastically intelligent, eloquent people. I’m really excited about this: Matt Dillahunty, Chana Messinger, Adam Lee and my sister Julia Galef, whom you just saw giving a talk on rationality, so let’s give them a hand and get right to it! [audience applauds]

If you guys could introduce yourselves – let’s start with Matt.

Matt Dillahunty: I’m Matt. [pauses, audience laughs and cheers] I’m President of the Atheist Community in Austin, host of our Atheist Experience TV show, I got married about a year or so ago and so I guess this qualifies me for this panel. That’s it! – I’m at my first Skepticon, wooo! [applause]

Chana Messinger: My name is Chana Messinger, I’m a fourth-year mathematics major at the University of Chicago, I’m President of our Secular Alliance and I recently, with some colleagues, ran Carl Sagan Day Chicago, which went very well. [giggles] And I’m really excited to be here! I also have the honor of being the least famous person on this panel. [audience laughs]

Julia Galef: Chana, what did you do to celebrate Carl Sagan Day?

Chana: We had apple pie. From scratch! [giggles] No cosmos because school didn’t allow us to have alcohol, but then we had three wonderful speakers talk to us about the amazingness of science.

Julia: Cool!

Adam Lee: Hi. I’m Adam Lee, author of the blog Daylight Atheism and also the book of the same title, which you can buy if you like – no pressure! Like Matt, I’m married. I got married about two years ago in a Unitarian Universalist church so I guess that qualifies me to have an opinion on this topic.

Julia: I’m Julia. In case some of you just came in, I’m President of an organization called The Centre for Applied Rationality that teaches decision making, how to make better decisions, and I’m the host of the podcast – or the co-host of the podcast Rationally Speaking. And I just wanted to share that I did an interview for the documentary they’re doing about Skepticon and one of the questions they asked me was Do you feel nervous or, you know, insecure when you speak publicly about atheism? and I said No, not at all, I have the good fortune of having always lived amongst solidly secular empiricist communities, but I am doing a panel tomorrow on relationships and marriage, which I have never talked about publicly so that’s the thing that I’m nervous about! So yeah, this marks my debut talking about love in public. [giggles]

Jesse: Let’s welcome the speakers [audience applauds] and let’s start with one of the ways that – I like to dive into topics and talk about some of the ways people often get it wrong. What do you think some of the most common clichés and unexamined beliefs are that you think are wrong about love and relationships?

Adam: Julia actually gave a talk at the last Skepticon that I thought bears on this topic; she called it The Straw Vulcan, about this very narrow and artificially restricted view of rationality. [interrupted by audience] Can you hear me now? Okay, thank you. I was saying Julia gave a talk at the last Skepticon I think bears on this subject, which is the idea, this straw Vulcan, sort of artificial, narrow, restricted view of rationality. And I think one of the common fallacies that enters into relationships when you try to apply reason to them is the idea that there is a right way to do a relationship, there’s a set of rules and you just have to learn what they are and you can follow these rules and the other person is obliged to date you or to sleep with you or to marry you.

Julia: I think that there are – I spoke in my talk about this class I do called epistemic spring cleaning and how there are all of these unexamined beliefs that we have, we picked up somewhere as children or from fiction or from the culture we live in and never really examined but they shape the way that we make important life decisions; and I think – and I’ve noticed that beliefs about relationships and love and sex and marriage are solidly represented among the unexamined beliefs that we’ve, you know, uncovered in epistemic spring cleaning. Just one example I think is the belief that you only find love when you’re not looking for it, which is – like, I know people who believe this and there are various theories where they might have internalized this but it’s definitely harmful if you have limited time to find someone you’re really compatible with. And then fiction is definitely a common source of beliefs, it’s just so easy to pick up expectations and ideas about how relationships are supposed to go or what love is supposed to be from fiction and because when you watch a movie or read a novel, you’re not in the frame of mind of I’m hearing an argument that I need to examine, it’s very easy for those expectations to just sort of seep into your brain and shape the way you view the world and the decisions you make without you ever thinking about it.

Chana: Love conquers all. [shakes head, audience laughs] No, not precisely. There are other factors in one’s life and as Julia said, we may fall in love more than once and they can’t all conquer each other so we have to have some way of making good decisions about love.

Matt: I’ve talked about before how I think religion poisons people and then offers and antidote; and I think that we do that even without religion within our culture, giving people these false ideas about relationships and then hoping that they can find the antidote, the idea that there’s a soul mate or one person for everybody or one person who’s the perfect match. And we also tend to portray relationships as if they’re kind of magical and while mine is magical [audience giggles], I think that there’s a lot more to it than that and we build up false expectations in people and don’t give them the tools that they need to handle the difficulties that come with a relationship.

Jesse: What do you think are some good examples of corrections? I know – Julia, you talked about fiction being particularly bad at creating these unexamined beliefs that are false and harmful. Can you think of any good examples that teach proper lessons? Matt, you also mentioned religion teaching a lot of these ideas especially poorly. Do humanistic communities do it better; do humanistic works of fiction do a better job?

Matt: I don’t know. I’m kind of new to the married thing but I’ve watched relationships in the groups that I’ve been involved with and I think that by and large in this anecdotal sample that I have we are doing it better. I think that while there’s still a lot to learn and a lot to teach people, the people that I’ve met in these secular communities tend to have kind of a better grasp of the realities of a relationship, but not all of them.

Adam: I think part of that is that among humanist communities there’s at least more of a tendency to say that marriage and relationships can be more individual, we don’t make everyone conform to this one-size-fits-all model that’s found in religion and doesn’t actually work for a lot of people.

Julia: I think it works best to look at real life examples for inspiration, at least you know that the thing you’re using to inspire you actually happened at least once [audience laughs] so there’s more of a chance of you being able to achieve it yourself than, you know, if you’re modeling after a fictional story. I find my parents’ marriage really inspirational. Yesterday I read a passage I think from an interview with Carl Sagan’s wife that made me tear up, talking about the bond that they had with each other and how lucky they felt that they had found each other and – I’m not gonna do it justice, there’s no way, but, you know, that’s a pretty inspirational real life relationship.

Chana: So, a few things. Obviously, we have Tim Minchin’s If I Didn’t Have You [audience laughs and applauds], which is a brilliant analysis of, an excoriation really, of the idea of a soul mate. But for me, I didn’t really find those real life examples so I’ve often turned to fiction. One example is John Green’s Paper Towns, a young adult book in which he really, through fiction, examines this archetype that I think we all know well of the manic pixie dream girl. A bruiting, soulful young man trying to find himself encounters this delight, this woman, this girl who’s more fiction than real, who brings to him life and light; this is like 500 days of summer before he finds out that it’s not true etc. and I think that really does it justice. And then – this is separate – does anybody watch How I Met Your Mother? Yes! So one of my favorite things – you know, whatever, there are flaws to the show but in terms of sex positivity, in terms of seeing sex, especially in married life, as like normal and great and wonderful is that Marshall and Lilly, the married couple, when they talk about their sex lives in a bar in public, they high-five each other [giggles] and I think that’s just great! They’re just happy about it and we all should be, too.

Jesse: I’m really glad you brought up Tim Minchin’s If I Didn’t Have you, that’s such a fun example. You know, if I didn’t have you, I’d probably have somebody else [audience laughs] and statistically speaking, there are other people as good as you are. I think that’s very probably true. Is there a danger of either sounding or being too analytical in approaching relationships? Is there a risk of – that applying rationality to a relationship is actually a bad thing; what are the harms, costs and risks versus the benefits?

Julia: I can think of several ways in which it could be harmful. I mean, I think definitely the optimum amount of analysis in your love life is greater than zero, I’m not gonna sit here and tell you that everything should always be analyzed and that will always make you better off. One way in which it makes you worse off is if the person you’re dating does not find analysis romantic [giggles]. That could definitely be bad for your relationship and often is; and there’s other channels as well. I’ve read some interesting analyses of, I guess evolutionary psychology would be the right classification, that suggest that maybe the rational strategy in choosing a mate would be to, you know, enjoy the mate you’re with but if someone comes along who is better on like the dimensions you care about, then you should transfer your affection to that person. And, you know, if the mate that you’re with thinks that or knows that you have a view of love that works that way, then they’re not gonna feel very secure, they’re not really gonna  be that inclined to invest very much time and energy into a relationship with you so it can – from that perspective, the rational strategy could actually be to fake, or if you can’t convincingly fake, actually adopt a view of love that’s immune to any considerations of someone else being better for you than your current partner. So, this was sort of an explanation of how what some people call rationality in love might have arisen, that’s a sort of, it was a game theory way for our genes to get people to stick around with us because we seem like the kind of people, you know, who wouldn’t leave if a better prospect came along.

Adam:  I just wanted to say about that song If I Didn’t Have You – my wife and I always agree that whenever you start dating a new person, the first thing you should do is show them that song and if they don’t laugh, don’t go out with them [audience laughs]. And I like that point about – there’s such a thing as over-analysis. So you can analyze or you can over-analyze and you can, you know, if you’re dating someone you can make a list of their positives or their negatives and Charles Darwin famously did this when he was trying to decide whether to marry his wife –

Julia: I’m so embarrassed for him! [laughs]

Adam: But I think the dilemma is – it depends on what your expectations are. Am I looking for someone who’s perfect, who will match me in every way, you know, who’s my perfect soul mate and will make me happy. And I don’t think there is such a thing, I think any person you could possibly date or marry, there will always be personality differences and personality clashes. And I think there comes a point – you can analyze up to a point am I compatible enough with this person to work it out? and not be chasing forever for that one perfect soul mate who will complete you in every possible way because I don’t think there is such a thing.

Matt: So, in addition to the whether or not they agree on everything and figuring out the analysis, I don’t know how many people know this but I’m kind of an anal analytic person and I discovered very quickly that when my wife something that’s wrong [audience laughs], it’s best if I just don’t assume she’s a caller to the show. [audience laughs]  One of the things that I think you have to look at is do you even understand your own desires well enough to know whether or not you’re finding the person that fits well enough with you? How much analysis do you do; do you bother doing any? I don’t hold to this idea that love and emotional attachments have to be separate from reason, I think we can rationally asses those things. I know for a fact that during the time we were dating and considering being married, I know there were days when I was like You know, this could be a good tax break [audience giggles]. You run through those things in your head, I don’t see anything wrong with that, it doesn’t diminish how much I actually love her and if it turned out that there were a lot of bad reasons for us to be together, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it would outweigh the happiness that I experience by being with her. This idea that somebody else might come along and you have to – I think Julia said transfer your affections, which I know some people look at it that way; I’m not convinced that that’s actually the only option either. I may have enough affection, of different affections, for different people so I don’t necessarily have to transfer that. I do deny this thing that love is limitless because, you know, as much as I love all the people who write in and enjoy the show, I really don’t have the emotional capacity to love thousands of people. You [Julia] mentioned in your talk about how the ability of the brain to produce enough neurotransmitters to care for a hundred thousand losses versus one but yeah.

Chana: Jesse asked about whether you can be like over-rational or over-analyze and I think it’s important to split it up into two questions. There’s the questions you ask yourself: am I doing this right?, is this the right relationship for me?, am I happy? And certainly you can ask yourself that so much that you kind of – you’re paralyzed in a decision and that’s a problem. But I don’t think you can be over-rational in that; I have trouble thinking about over-rationality at all, frankly. If the analysis is too much, rationally you should stop. But it’s never wrong to ask yourself whether you’re still happy. Julia told us about status quo bias earlier, that’s really strong in relationships: we know that people think they will be happier in a relationship than alone no matter what, but to continually ask if you and your partner or multiple partners are the happiest in that relationship rather than any options you currently have I still is really important. And then there’s when you’re asking questions of each other, when you’re talking in a relationship, whether you can be over-rational. To mention again Julia’s talk from last year, The Straw Vulcan: I think that one of the reasons that people think that the straw Vulcan is so unappealing actually not even because they make classic rationalist mistakes and therefore are not rational but because they frame things so poorly. They talk like you’re a game that they have to figure out, they act as if the world is a machine and I don’t believe that rationality works that way, I think that we use rationality to make our lives better and to make our partners’ lives better. I use rationality in my relationship because I care about my partner deeply, because I care about my own well being deeply and if we frame it that way, if we say things are working, yes, let’s negotiate our needs and wants but not like – I can’t even, I don’t watch that much TV, but not as if we’re exchanging tokens this is my token, I get, you know, three hugs a day and this yours and we exchange them but rather we really care about each other and want this to work and know that rationality is the best way to achieve our goals and why wouldn’t we use it?

Julia: Just to follow up on that: I’m so glad that you made that distinction between rationality and analysis! When I answered the question, I was thinking I guess of analysis but I’m completely on the same page as Chana about rationality – the way in which the word rationality is used formally in cognitive science and the way I and Chana tend to use it, it just means, you know, either the best way to reason the evidence that you have, or  the best to achieve your goals, whatever your goals are. So if using too much analysis is bad for achieving your goals, then it is not the rational strategy and the rational strategy is, instead, going to be being smart about when to use gut judgment and emotional cues and when to use analysis, you know, and when to override one with the other.

Adam: I think there are some books I’ve about neurology and you can say some people who have some highly specific kinds of brain damage kind of lose the ability to link emotions to rational analysis and what happens is they become paralyzed by options because no matter what choice there is, they think of some reasons to do one and some reasons to do the other and they just can’t commit to one or the other. And I think Antonio Demasio has a book where he talks about how his patients – he would ask Do you want to come to your appointment next Tuesday or the week after? and the man pulled out his appointment book and he started debating: Well, this day I wanted to go food shopping and this I had some other errands to run and he would have – Demasio said he would have done this for hours if I hadn’t interrupted him. And I think the role emotions play is sort of to serve as a cut-off point to rationality to say I’ve optimized enough, this is where I can stop and I can just pick something.

Julia: One more thing: I think that the reason that people often think that analysis doesn’t fit into considerations of love and the reason why sometimes people use analysis poorly in considerations of love is that – well, I’ll tell you a story. There is a study in which psychologists asked two groups of people to pick a car that they wanted to buy and the first group the psychologists instructed just go with your gut, whatever the first car is that you really feel you wanna buy, go with that or, I don’t know, consider all the cars and then just pick the one that you feel best about intuitively and the other group the psychologists instructed to do a cost/benefit analysis, to like list all of the important considerations like mileage and price and safety and cost – yeah, price – and then pick the car that measured up the best according to that analysis. And six months or twelve months later, the people who had made their decision using their gut were actually happier with their car and the interpretation of this is not that analysis is, you know, fails across the board, but that when people do analyses they often neglect the things that aren’t easy to quantify, like how much do I enjoy being in this car?; and that’s a really important factor in how happy you’re gonna end up being with your choice and I can imagine that love would work the same way, that, you know, if people think that they should be doing an analysis of love or of what relationship they should be in, it somehow doesn’t feel natural, or it doesn’t feel like you’re supposed to, or maybe it’s just not obvious how to quantify or how to weigh things like your feeling about the person. But that’s obviously incredibly crucial.

Jesse: Yeah, this is taking us into at least three or four of the questions I was going to ask so I’m gonna try to pick one and stick with the current topic. How do we reconcile that intuition, the emotions and the analysis? I think Hume famously said that reason must be a slave to the passions but clearly there are some ways that emotion can lead us astray, emotions that we do think it would be a bad idea to act on, especially in love. So how do these relate to each other and how do you find the balance between going with your gut and your emotion and well, this seems like a good partner and taking it too far with well, I’m extraordinarily jealous and angry about this or I’m head over heels and I think I’ll stand outside their window with a boom box, which personally I think is a little creepy? But what is taking it too far and how do we figure out how to reconcile these two drives?

Matt: This might be the only place that I think or I know that I disagree with Hume, about reason being a slave to the passions, although I might be misunderstanding what he actually meant. I’ve talked before about how we live our lives primarily by inference and induction. We are in the process constantly of using our gut to make better decisions and we do that through the continued application of reason and rationality. That part I think is kind of backwards and I’m in agreement with Chana about the idea that we need to apply rationality to everything. And I can’t even believe I’m having to say that, it just seems so intuitive! I don’t think this – I don’t think it separates from the emotions. We talk a lot about, and I’ll speak some tomorrow, about in debates when people are making emotional arguments and I was asked about this yesterday. I love emotions and I’m fine with making emotional arguments as long as they don’t sacrifice the actual merit to the case, as long as they’re not fallacious and leading you in the wrong direction. I can’t give you a toolkit for how to strike that balance other than to use your gut and to keep trying to train your gut to do a better job.

Chana: I think – tell me if I’m wrong but I think you [Jesse] meant balance emotions and reason. I think a different way to frame the question would be to sort of frame short-term emotions like I really wanna go stand outside in the rain with a boom box, an emotion I can safely say I’ve never had, and long-term emotions like I don’t wanna get hypothermia, I want this person to like me and not think I’m a creepy stalker because I didn’t know their address before and I just looked it up [audience laughs] etc. I think a really interesting way to do this is to come up with your own red flags if you will, things that – that’s a bad term because that makes it sound like they’re all bad. Just pins. Things that when you reach them require more thought, require you to sit back. The things that are safer you can trust your gut more on because like cars, the drive will go better that way. So things like – I’m thinking especially for people who are sort of younger, maybe in high school or middle school. When you’re thinking about things like “first times”, right? Those are emotionally fraught, things to think more about; those are not things to make light decisions on. Whether or not to go to the movies with someone maybe is a safer choice: you can back out if you need to, you can leave, you can call your mom, etc. And when you get older, the same kind of things apply. When you’re thinking whether to move in with someone, I would pin that, I would think about that more. Whereas decisions that have a lesser weight you can sort of trust your gut more on and so to think about those things beforehand so that you know when you hit those that this requires more analysis. That’s probably a solid plan.

Adam: I think the role that rationality can best serve in a relationship is sort of establishing the parameters of what you’re willing to accept or not accept, like Chana, you mentioned green flags and red flags, green flags, that kind of thing. If a person does X, Y or Z, then I know that they’re probably bad for me, or if a person does these things, they’re probably good for me. I think that we shouldn’t discard the role of intuition, like with the car example. There’s an anecdote in that book Blink about how students were asked to rate college professors based on I believe a thirty-second clip of teaching, so really nothing – you couldn’t draw any conclusions about their educational style, all you could really do is make a gut decision about, you know, their aspect of presentation. And it turns out that people who rate professors based on these very brief video clips – the ratings tend to correlate with the people who have been in their classes for the whole semester. So you could either take that to me that people are incredibly accurate at forming intuitive gut decisions or you could say that people form gut decisions in the first few minutes they meet someone and then stick with it no matter what the subsequent evidence is. I think when rationality really comes in is to say, you know, these are the things I’m willing to accept in a relationship, these are the things I’m not willing to accept in a relationship and once you’ve sort of made those rules for yourself, then I think you should go out and look for people and see people who fit those rule and also give you a good gut feeling, I think those are the keepers.

Julia: I see the relationship between analysis and intuition, or analysis and emotion, as being like just this sort of back-and-forth that you weigh until you reach an equilibrium. For example, your starting point might be I feel jealousy at the idea of my partner having a friend of the opposite sex or whatever sex they’re attracted to, and so that’s your initial emotional judgment and then you can feed that into your ability to analyze and ask yourself okay, why do I feel this way, like, is there – is it because…?, and then you can do thought experiments to figure out why you feel jealousy. Is it fear of losing your partner? Is it fear of being compared and being judged to be inferior in some way? Is it fear of looking bad to other people or is it just – do you have like an unexamined belief that it’s bad for your partner to have a friend of the opposite sex? And then you can ask yourself where that came from and if you actually endorse it consciously now that you’re thinking about it. So you can go through this whole process and oftentimes, I think more often than most people assume off the bat, actual emotion can change once you’ve really subjected to investigation. But then sometimes you also end up at the point where you’re just like I just feel really badly about this and that’s just a sort of fundamental thing and I can’t explain it in terms of other things, I can’t, you know, change that emotion by reasoning with myself and then the rational thing is to say okay, I’m gonna work with that and what’s the best that I can do given that I have this emotional reaction, what choices would work out best for me? So it’s just sort of a back-and-forth feedback cycle between intuition and reason until you find the best strategy for you.

Chana: I just wanna add. I think that’s a really good point and I think that’s one of the other instances in which really thinking about what you’re doing is warranted whereas in other times you can think a little less is when you have patterns of things that don’t work out in your relationships, jealousy being a prime example. If you know this something that comes up for you or you know it comes up for human in general, you can crowd-source difficulties, it’s a really good idea to examine those problems that arise frequently because maybe there’s a solution that will then have enormous effect on yours and if you speak to a large group of people, other people’s relationships as well.

Jesse: We’ve been touching a lot on the idea that we don’t necessarily know our values or preferences and that they can change, both intentionally and over time. How does that affect a relationship status, especially with commitments like marriage and public statements of going steady, boyfriend/girlfriend

Chana: What decade are you [Jesse] from? [giggles]

Jesse: I’m from the ‘90s thank you! [laughs]

Julia: Getting pinned! [audience laughs]

Jesse: Getting pinned, even better! [laughs] How does this fit with the dynamic that we often don’t know what we want or what we want changes over time? How can you overcome this problem that you might not be compatible with another person later or you don’t even know if you’re gonna be compatible with them later?

Adam: I guess the married people will start on this one. I think this kind of gets into the problem of to what extent can you make promises that bind your future self. The values that you hold when you make that promise, you don’t know if they’re going to be the values that you have twenty years down the line and obviously the classic example would be two religious people who get married and then one of them becomes an atheist. And since you can’t really know whether the commitment you make you’ll be able to keep. I lost my train of thought… You know, the values that you hold now may not be the values that you hold in the future but hopefully you know that when you go into a marriage, if you change that your partner may change in compatible ways. That’s really the ultimate goal, not for two people to stay in this sort of emotional statis for the rest of their lives where they both always value and desire exactly the same things but that as one partner’s preferences change, the other partner will be willing to explore those changes along with them and hopefully – you know, there’s no way to know in advance if you’re going to get to this point or not. If that happens, though, that’s how you know you have a good relationship.

Matt: I actually get not just email, I mean telephone calls from  people who are in that situation where they entered a relationship on some terms and one of them has now changed their religious views and it’s a nightmare. And they don’t know what to do about it. I think one of the best things that hopefully the secular or rational community has to do is to make some people aware that life is fleeing and that my views may change. Beth knows that there’s some tiny, tiny, tiny possibility that I could end up being a Christian at some point and if she leaves me, that’s fine. It’s – There’s an understanding that I think needs to take place about this is who I am now, this is who I think I’m likely to be but I could be wrong and am I with somebody that’s willing to explore that with me and if not, we have to go into the relationship with the understanding that as sad as it may be, sometimes relationships end and sometimes it’s not sad, sometimes it’s right thing to do for everybody. And this doesn’t necessarily, although it could, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a bad person or that you’ve failed. But I what tell the people who are in these positions is it is your responsibility as the individual who has changed in the relationship to own that change but it’s not your fault and you should not be in a position where you are beaten up emotionally over this, that you are being true to yourself and that if the person actually does love you, they should love the fact that you’re being true to who you are and if that means that you have to go your separate ways, that may be the way it is. [pause] But that won’t happen to us! [looks at wife, audience laughs]

Julia: I basically agree with all of this about, you know, not expecting people to necessarily stick to promises that their future self won’t feel bound by but I do think that maybe you’d agree that there’s an extent to which you can bind your future self to, in ways that you want yourself to, continue being. I think I misconception that I had for a while about monogamy was that it entailed preventing yourself or preventing your partner from being with someone else who they, you know, actually wanted to be with because they were constricted by this rule that you’d set up. But it’s actually a little more meta than that. The conclusion that I’ve come to now is a little more meta than that, it’s more about binding yourself to not get into a position or about reducing the chance of getting into the position where you actually want to be with someone else. And I think that probably labels like boyfriend/girlfriend or the official institution of marriage just serve to further reduce the chance that your future self will end up wanting something different than your current self does and that your current self wants your future self to want.

Matt: I just wanna jump back in for one half second. All I can say from experience is, with regard to what’s worked, I don’t know what my future self’s gonna be but I know that my current self has this passion for honesty and a desire to share that and so when I change, unless the value that changes is this passion for honesty, which would seem absurd to me, I am committed to being honest about it and let’s have the actual conversation because for me, the relationship is built on respect and openness as much as or more than love.

Jesse: I’d actually like to focus a little bit on the – yeah, then we’ll jump straight to Chana – the idea that different relationship structures might weigh in on this. So monogamy versus polyamory in particular, how does that affect the dynamic of commitment? With monogamy in particular the idea is that you’re trying to foster a pre-commitment to be with one person and I think Julia you were saying be in situations that would make you more likely to be with other people. Does polyamory give you more freedom in a good way, does it counteract this beneficial commitment or can it be really important to allow people to change and experience different ideas as they explore their preferences? And let’s jump straight to Chana.

Chana: I think we already really have a system in place for evaluating differences and whether they are good or bad for a relationship. That’s what happens when you start dating. Everyone thinks it’s okay to have different values when you start dating and you kind of come to consensus or you agree to disagree, and you understand each other and understand why the other person feels the way they do. I really see no reason why that should stop at any point and I take Matt’s point pretty strongly that your current self wants something and so your current self is making decisions about your future self. So, you date someone and you come to like them and you realize that your differences are not insuperable and you go ahead and make a relationship but then I don’t see why you should stop at that point reevaluating at every point when people inevitably change and you ask each other is this still something that we wanna do?, and I think when pre-commitment comes into that is that if your current self wants your future self to be something, than you have to increase the barrier, you have to make it harder to not be that. While you’re evaluating at every point or – well, there’s an infinite number of points – but some points along the line, then it will be harder for you to change once you’ve done that evaluation so the evaluation is I’ve changed a little bit but not enough to overcome that I bound myself, say, in marriage and it’s kind of hard to get a divorce so it’s not enough to want a divorce but one day I may change enough that divorce is warranted and I really think it fits into exactly the same system, it’s just that you’re making it harder for your future self to change and if your current self it’s a good idea, so be it, but that’s not a reason to stop asking questions. At least for me, I like changing. I’m 20 years old, I just turned 20, I don’t – I’m not gonna stay the same, and for me, polyamory definitely gives me the freedom to change because all those people are changing, too, and there’s a lot of – it’s almost a chaotic system, there’s a lot of dynamics going on and it allows all of us to change more and I think polyamory also requires that people assume that more changes are gonna happen because you have more than two people changing.

Matt: I’ll go. I’ll keep this fairly short. I think one of the things is that – I’m in complete agreement for the most part – complete for the most part! [audience laughs] I drank a lot last night. [audience laughs] I think it’s best if everybody involved in the relationship, whether it’s two or more, attempt to come to a consensus on exactly what the nature of the relationship is and everybody understand it and agree with it and that when that changes, it needs to be addressed openly and honestly. Beth and I are married, we had a traditional and awesome ceremony, there’s pictures all over her Facebook page, but it’s – and currently I have no interest in partnering with anybody else and as far as I know she doesn’t either at the moment but we haven’t necessarily excluded those options forever because I think anytime you start excluding options forever, you are demonstrating from the  get-go that you are irrational, that you somehow think you can predict the future or force yourself or someone else to be something. And that just seems to me backward.

Julia: But there’s a trade-off, right, between cutting off flexibility, cutting off potential things your future self might want and reducing the likelihood that – how should I say this? – your current self is trying to decide what’s gonna make me happiest overall?, and – currently leave out the other person’s happiness, just to simplify, not that it’s not important, but just for your own happiness. You know, if you think that you’re likely to get into situations in which you’re temporarily more interested in someone else and that if you have the flexibility to go off with that other person, you’re gonna lose this actually wonderful relationship that would have made you much happier in the long run, if you expect that’s something that your future self might be likely to do, the rational choice might be to sort of bind your future self and not allow it to get in situations where – I mean cut off some flexibility. You’re sacrificing flexibility for sort of overall expected happiness. And it’s a tough call to make but I don’t think that all flexibility all the time always is necessarily the optimal solution.

Matt: Well, when I talk about flexibility, it’s not about – it’s about – we constantly discuss, we constantly reevaluate at every point, well, I mean we don’t spend all day talking about what we’re gonna do, but the opportunity to reevaluate things is always open. I just don’t find it that likely, at least now, that things are gonna go that way.

Jesse: Actually, Adam, I wanted to bring up something that you and I have been talking about, this idea that there’s some amount that we should be perhaps seeking out temptation versus not allowing ourselves to be too tempted. I know we may be making fun of some of the prohibitions at I think it was Brigham Young and Liberty University that won’t allow women in the car with men alone because who knows, that might lead to dancing, but – [audience laughs]. So we look at that and we say it’s absurd, people can resist temptation but it seems like the same principle, just a different matter of degree of how much we are trying to allow ourselves to be tempted. I know you [Adam] had some thoughts on this.

Adam: Everything that social scientists have researched about the brain leads us to believe that self-control works like a muscle: if you exercise it too much, then it gets fatigued and you can’t use it anymore, if you don’t exercise it at all, then when you need it, you don’t have it. For instance, you know, if you’re dieting, the classic example is don’t keep junk food in the house. Dieting, you know, it’s hard, it’s really hard to lose weight and one of the reasons for that, as Julia mentioned earlier, is this like evolutionary appetite for fatty and sugary foods. If you constantly expose yourself to that temptation and you make it available, sooner or later your self-control will fatigue, you won’t be able to resist it anymore. But on the other hand, if you never give yourself an opportunity to exercise self-control, then sooner or later you’re going to need it and you don’t have it, you’ve never like flexed that muscle, you’ve never strengthened it. And I think that’s my biggest objections to programs like the ones at Brigham Young or religious schools like that: if you try to shelter people from all temptation, if you try to make sure there’s never a situation in which they might have a chance to do the wrong thing, sooner or later they are going to have the chance to do the wrong thing and they have no willpower because they never needed willpower.

Chana: Well, I think that’s what so helpful about pre-commitment, right? Getting married to someone in my understanding is that doesn’t mean you lock them in a box so they can’t see other people I hope [audience laughs]. I mean – people do all sorts of things. [audience laughs]

Julia: Don’t judge my box marriage! [giggles, audience laughs]

Chana: Consent isn’t everything [giggles]. Anyway, so – right, the idea of pre-commitment I think is the idea that you are tattering yourself to somebody, in this case marriage, that you care about, you’re sort of putting social and emotional bonds on yourself but not physical ones, unlike the ball and chain metaphor, you don’t – you do still see other people around of the gender or sex you prefer, and therefore you do have to exercise self-control and pre-commitment doesn’t eliminate the need to exercise self-control as we know from married people who cheat on their spouses. It just means that you have even stronger legal, emotional, social incentives to hold by them, and therefore make yourself – make your future self what your current self wants to be in the future. [giggles] Here we go!

Jesse: If I could -. A phrase that I never thought I would say but Don’t judge my box marriage! [audience laughs] Certainly not on the stage. But how much do you think relationships rely solely on the consent of the people involved and how much do you think society can or should judge other people’s relationships? I know that it’s a really common belief that you should let consenting adults do what they like and I don’t know that that’s been fully examined, especially when we look at the times that we do disagree with polygamy and perhaps other relationships where there seems to be consent but we do want to pass judgment perhaps.

Matt: I don’t know – it seems like we’re talking about two different things because actually if you ask me how much does consent weigh in a relationship?, it’s one hundred per cent. There’s nothing –

Julia: But is it enough, right? Is the like verbal consent of the parties in the relationship sufficient for us to say, you know, legally and ethically are different questions, but to say like okay then, whatever you’re doing is fine and we won’t try to intervene? Is that the question you’re asking, Jesse?

Jesse: Yeah.

Matt: Yeah, that’s a harder question. [audience laughs]

Jesse: I didn’t bring you up here to answer easy ones. [audience laughs]

Matt: I – wow. [pauses] I think we define, we’ve done a pretty decent job I think defining this, like consenting adults so that just because you manage to get a twelve-year-old to consent, we don’t necessarily count that the same so I think it’s clear that there are situations where society has a moral obligation to actually step in and weigh in on these things but those seem to be extremes I would say and by and large among consenting adults I don’t know – I don’t know much else than consent matters. Go ahead [Adam]!

Adam: I was going to say that we judge, we should judge consent by a rational ideal that there are things that a person of sound mind simply could not consent to. I believe there is an example of a person who posted a personal ad asking for someone who wanted to be killed and eaten. I think some of you may remember this story. And I think we rightly judge that this is something that no rational person could possibly consent to. So I think that just because a person says yes, that doesn’t have to be enough, I think we also have to – you know, I don’t want to sound too authoritarian but I think we also have to ask the question of can people consent to things that are not in their own best interest?, and I think that sometimes society does have a role to play, like particularly in these very patriarchal religious communities where polygamist marriage is kind of the norm and where women are sort of treated as property and given to the wealthiest and most influential men and a lot of the women, if you ask them, they might actually say that they consented to this because, you know, this was what their god and their family and their culture taught them they had to do. And maybe it doesn’t work to say this is, you know, your consent is wrong, we’re not going to let you make this decision. Maybe sometimes there’s cases where intervening does more harm than good. But I think that we shouldn’t start from the principle that anything a person says yes to must be okay. I think there are times when we have to say there are things that people cannot consent to. [audience applauds]

Chana: Yeah, I’m totally on board with that. To clarify, when I made the joke earlier and I said consent isn’t everything, I meant it may not be sufficient, not like it’s not important. Part one. Part two, I think  [sigh] I actually think there’s more than that, I think that certainly when it seems like rational people could never consent to something, society might step in. But I think there are cases that are even tougher and even harder when consent is simply not sufficient. There are these red flag where we simply question more, things like a large age gap between people in a relationship, especially when one person is fairly young let’s say, not a minor, those are legal issues, but I think it is right not that we necessarily intervene or necessarily dismiss but that we question more, that those people have to be held to a higher standard because there’s more potential for harm, and I think friends, people who know a couple or a trial or a polycule – well, have the responsibility to be stepping in; and again: not intervening, not ripping people apart, but questioning because certain activities require a higher standard of proof that they are safe and happy for people. We’re rationalists, we know that people make really bad decisions; and if our friends are making the same bad decisions, not just like they’ll get their heart broken, but something really bad is gonna happen to them, something incredibly emotionally painful is gonna happen to them if they keep making the same decisions, and if something is gonna hurt both or all people in the relationship, I think it’s time really to say as great that you consented is, you need to provide more proof that this is gonna be a good idea.

Adam: Can I step in there? I think the term you’re looking for is enthusiastic consent, something that the feminist theory has come up with that I think is a really good idea: that if people say yes but they say yes, you know, under distress or reluctantly or just to get the other person to give – to give in and get the other person to stop bothering them, then maybe we should say that’s not enough to constitute consent, there needs to be a higher standard where it’s clear that the person is going along with what’s happening not just reluctantly but enthusiastically and, you know, maybe even joyfully.

Chana: Yeah, but I’m saying something even more than that. I’m saying two really enthusiastic eighteen-year-olds who wanna elope and run away to Alaska maybe shouldn’t, even though they’re eighteen and they’re adults, maybe their parents or friends should step in and say you are making what is potentially a bad decision and you have the responsibility to provide more evidence that you can take care of yourself in that situation.

Julia: I definitely –

Matt: Well –

Julia: Oh, I’m sorry –

Matt: Go ahead!

Julia: I definitely agree in principle and I would – I wouldn’t wanna endorse a policy that said that as long as two adults gave their explicit consent, then  no one should try to intervene at all, I don’t endorse that, but I also still feel really uncomfortable at the idea of having a policy where we can judge, we can judge that, you know, no rational person would possibly actually really want the thing that they say that they want because we know, we’ve seen again and again, scientists have shown again and again that people overestimate their ability to understand other people’s preferences and experiences, and that we project our own preferences and experiences and emotions onto other people, and I can think of a lot of examples when many or most people in society would say, for example no, a woman can’t possibly actually enjoy commitment-free sex, she must really want a relationship with the guy, she must actually be hurt or feel bad about herself if she’s willing to have casual sex and, you know, if that’s how they or other people they’ve known fell, then I can understand why they would be tempted to project that onto the woman in question and say well, she can’t really want that you know, deep down she’s just confused or insecure or self-loathing or something like that. And it’s true, poly-relationships, too, I’ve heard again and again that, you know, especially women in poly-relationships but also in general people in poly-relationships can’t really be happy, they must actually be jealous or heartbroken that their partners are seeing other people or – the women especially must be, you know, doing it because the guy wants them to and they’re being coerced in some emotional way. So there’s just so many failure modes of this policy and – but I don’t know what the right level  of intervention to advocate is.

Matt: I think, you know, when I originally talked about this a little while ago, I talked about that it’s probably the extremes when I would say that society had some obligation to jump in, which is why I’m not actually quite sure that I understand what you [Chana] were saying, which is this idea of two eighteen-year-olds wanting to elope and people having an obligation to say that’s a bad idea and telling them that they need to provide some better evidence. Evidence for what? For who? Because my position is they’re on the side of freedom, they are adults who are consenting, adults are and should be allowed to make mistakes and society should intervene only when there’s some compelling interest to prevent, you know, serious harm, not just two teenagers eloping.

Jesse: So I think –

Chana: Can I just respond?

Jesse: Sure!

Chana:  Yeah, no. I’m definitely on board with that. What I meant was higher standard than any – if you have some abstract couple, right? the sort of some, the platonic idea of a couple – and then if you have a couple or whatever it is that falls outside that standard in such a way that you think there is higher possibility for harm, I think there is, in terms of your approval, giving your approval – of course eighteen-year-olds can run off, they can do whatever they want! – but in terms of me, as a friend – I think that that is important, I hope that friends would be better at analyzing their needs and preferences and motivations, though they’re not always – my approval would be contingent on a slightly higher knowledge. Let’s say it’s my girlfriend who’s gonna run off with a guy. I would wanna know the guy in order to give my approval. She can still do it, she’s still an adult, but a slightly higher standard of evidence if there’s a higher possibility for harm.

Jesse: And I think that goes to questions of prior assumptions and prior probabilities for harm where we say if 95% of the time that eighteen-year-olds elope, they later report regretting it and wishing somebody had stopped them and in those cases, shouldn’t we as a society look at that and say oh no, this looks like a case that they will end up regretting? How do we weigh autonomy versus a sense that ooh, this tends to go poorly and we don’t want our friends to be in pain? It’s not going to be settled in half an hour or  – I think we have about twenty minutes – but do you have any way to weigh in on this?

Julia: Can I jump in and vent my frustration at this common thing that I hear, which is that well, you can’t know for sure, therefore you don’t know anything, you have no expectation about what the sure answer is? So, you know, even though I was advocating as a policy being hands off with the understanding that you’re probably worse at understanding other people’s psychology than you think you are, that’s sort of as a policy. Epistemically, as in: in terms of what you should actually expect is true about the world, if it is the case that 90% of the time, I’m pulling this number out of thin air, but if this is the case that 90% of the time women in poly-relationships actually are uncomfortable with it and did feel emotionally coerced or manipulated in some way, then it is a reasonable expectation for people to have, even if a woman says no, I’m really happy. If that’s what all the women say and 90% of them are actually unhappy, then it’s not unreasonable for you to have more confidence in the fact that she’s unhappy. It just might be unreasonable for you to act on that.

Matt: I agree. And actually, after clarifying the confusion from a minute ago, when you [Chana] were talking about for you to give your consent versus maybe some kind of “legal” action or society stepping in, I think that we are kind of on the same page with that. So, okay. [giggles] I don’t know what else I was going to say.

Jesse: A quick follow-up for you, Matt: is there any level of expectation that we should step in legally? I think that we do that with minors, in various states it’s different ages but clearly we’re comfortable using legal power in some cases. Why do you think that principle is and is it an appropriate level?

Matt: Yeah, I don’t – I think it’s one of those things that we continue to work on and kind of refine as we get more and more information. I completely agree with Julia that this idea that because you don’t know everything means that you know nothing, it’s absurd. That just – that is one of the things that drive me crazy as well, and it goes to the limits. I’ve talked about this when talking about secular morality, the idea that you don’t necessarily know the best answer doesn’t mean that you know nothing about it and can’t then assess the situation. I think that we’re doing a pretty good job in a lot of areas but I think the best thing that we’re doing is recognizing that we can do better and we should refine the way that we go about making decisions on these things based on reason and evidence and things like that.

Jesse: One of the things that we’ve touched on a couple of times is vows and the labels and sort of predetermined models of relationships that people have in expectation of monogamy or marriage or even certain expectations of some of the people who accept the label boyfriend. What do you think the benefits of these labels are in terms of signaling to people and how do they do harm?

Matt: I think they can do harm in the sense that a lot of them are tied to ideas of property, very narrow views of ownership. And I’ve struggled with this a little bit. Beth’s my wife. And when I say that, there are people who will go oh, he’s bought into this ancient patriarchal system of ownership and he’s now labeled his property and I prefer to say no, I’m her husband and there’s an equality there where you’re using conventional labels and we are trying to use in a way which demonstrates that they don’t have to mean this idea of property. Our commitment to each other, the vows that we made, don’t need rings, we didn’t need the government to come in and say that we’re married, we didn’t need the approval of the people who attended the ceremony, we didn’t even need Aaron [points] to officiate it although I’m damn glad he did. All we needed was our honest enthusiastic consent to one another. Why did we choose to go this route of a more traditional method and it may be just that – well, I’m was gonna say that maybe I’m just a little old-fashioned but it was actually Beth who cared more about having the ceremony and stuff than I did. I’d have gone down to the Justice. I think that it sends a statement, and we talked about it at our wedding, that it’s about more than us, that these types of relationships, whether they’re monogamous or polyamorous, they’re still about building communities. And they are communities of different sizes and interacting with different people and we wanted to make sure that the people that we cared about knew that we had made this commitment, not that it makes it necessarily – binds us tighter, it might, but because we wanted to share that portion of our lives with the people that we cared about; and it was a good excuse to have a really cool party [audience laughs and applauds].

Adam: Definitely the best part of a wedding is just throwing a party for about maybe two hundred of your closest friends. I think labels have value insofar as they communicate to other people the way you see yourself. And I think the same is true maybe about the label atheist. You know, it says something important about your worldview, it says something about how you want other people to view you and I think the same is true of marriage. But, of course, the potential downside to this is that the existence of labels kind of creates pressure on people to fall into a few neatly defined categories and I think, you know, there are plenty of people who don’t believe in God but do not wish to call themselves atheists and I don’t wanna tell them they have to label themselves that way. And similarly, there are people who want maybe a long-term commitment to their partners but don’t want to get married because they don’t like the patriarchal property assumptions built into that ceremony and I certainly wouldn’t want to tell them that their commitment is less real or less valid than mine just because they don’t choose to commemorate it the same way.

Julia: I think that’s a great point about labels pushing people into sort of pre-set boxes of here are the choices of a relationship model I can have and I think that the status quo bias that I talked about in my talk applies a lot to the process of thinking about what type of relationship works best; and here I don’t mean status quo in terms of what relationship you currently happen to be in but what happens to be the default relationship mode in your culture or your community. Discussions about monogamy and polyamory often take monogamy as the default, the privileged hypothesis, because it’s the status quo, and then you would need some sort of special reason to adopt a polyamorous relationship or an open relationship of some kind. And in fact, that’s a stage to which most people do not even get; they don’t even consider other hypotheses beyond the status quo of monogamy. So, I mean, having labels and sort of associated assumptions of what the label entails definitely reinforces the status quo bias and keeps people from maybe choosing relationship models that would be better for them personally. That said, I think there is, you know, a fair bit to say in favor of labels, not least of which is the fact that they’re convenient to use in conversation [giggles], I mean, it sounds like a small thing but I have felt frustrated sometimes when people don’t wanna use a label like boyfriend but clearly the relationship that they have is like right in the center of the cluster of things that we refer to as boyfriend/girlfriend relationships and like you just may – it’s just so much quicker than saying this person who I feel excited about when I think about and who I am attracted to and enjoy having sex with and intend to spend a long portion of my life with etc., etc.  Like, we have words for a reason! [audience laughs and applauds] But I also wanted to add, Matt, that I – not that I thought you were committing this fallacy, but that I often hear people committing the fallacy of well, it’s irrational to just like marriage because of the idea that, you know, I don’t have a good reason to like it and so it’s irrational; maybe I’ll do it anyway but it’s still irrational. It’s not necessarily irrational! Like, you can like something or not like something, you can have – fell warm fuzzies about a concept or not; and that’s not irrational anymore than liking chocolate ice cream and not liking vanilla is irrational or the other way around. And it is, in fact, rational in terms of trying to get of more you value in life: if you know that you feel happy about the idea of being married, the rational thing to do is to get married and ensure more happiness.

Matt: This is the same example I was gonna use, I love ice cream.

Julia: There you go!

Matt: Quick story at this point about labels because this is my favorite story: Beth has a relative who refused for a long time to refer to me as her boyfriend or now won’t refer to me as her husband, does not seem to acknowledge that I’m a person. She’s extremely religious and of course they are incredibly hung up on sex, so when talking to Beth one time, she referred to me as that man who gives you sexual pleasure [audience laughs]. I’m putting that shit on a fucking t-shirt and wearing that to the family reunion; that is the best ever! [audience laughs and applauds]

Chana: That’s a – that’s a good story! I like that, we should all get those t-shirts [laughs]. So, I’m really on board with Julia in terms of using labels for other people because they are useful. When I was in tenth grade, I was – because, I was so uncomfortable with this idea of “possession”, “my” boyfriend, “my” girlfriend, I didn’t let my boyfriend at the time call me that and it was really like pretty dumb; I regret that now. But in terms of how we see their self, throw those damn scripts out! Like, they’re useless! I think there is so much wrong with the way we see what a boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife has to be. They are almost completely useless, they are worth starting from scratch and asking your partner or partners what it is that they want and you want; and using it only as a convenient way of labeling to other people. [audience applauds]

Julia: I’m gonna object slightly to that. I generally agree about, like I said, I agree about the importance of just asking, focusing on your case, what would make you happiest, not which of the predetermined models you like best. But, you know, there is some evidence contained in the fact that one model is much more popular than others; and it’s not necessarily always a ton of evidence because sometimes, you know why one model is more popular and it’s, you know, because Judeo-Christian values rang supreme and there had to be single monogamous pairings in order for the system to work. And the fact, then, that it’s the dominant one doesn’t necessarily provide you with that much evidence that it’s the one that makes everyone the happiest. So I guess I’m just stating a general principle that I wouldn’t throw the traditional model out the window without first asking is there any valuable information I can learn from the fact that it is the traditional model?, and maybe sometimes the answer is not much but I think it’s a good idea to at least ask.

Chana: Agreed but, you know, not much, so… [audience laughs]

Jesse: We’re running short on time. Alright, I know that Matt and Adam, you both had ceremonies and from rituals and vows that you wrote yourselves from them. What do you think the importance of ritual and ceremonies is? Why did you choose to have them and what did they end up meaning to you?

Adam: I think the importance of ritual is that I think it’s perfectly okay to commemorate important transitions in life, and I think this is one of the few things that religion gets right and that humanist and atheist community should learn to emulate, that when you go through a major inflection point in your life, you know, a coming of age, a marriage, a birth, a death, that I think it’s perfectly acceptable and appropriate for the community to acknowledge this and for them sort of – for you to clear your intentions to the community, to say this is the change I’m going through and then for the community in turn to say we acknowledge this change and we’ll support you in it, we’ll help you through it. I think that’s really the value of marriages, just to clear your intentions and to ask people to come together to support you.

Matt: Yeah, and I wasn’t kidding that one of the primary reasons for doing this was so that we could have a fun party but I’m – In my transition from being a fundamentalist Christian to being an absolute enemy of Christianity, I had to struggle with what I was gonna keep and what I was gonna jettison: do I give them all the good curse words? hell no! do I stop using words like “belief”? absolutely not! I had an argument later I think with someone about “belief” versus “knowledge” and which is actually more – not you [Julia], I didn’t mean to look at you [giggles] although we could. But rituals are who we are and they’re not all bad and I think they provide a lot of good. How many people have been to every Skepticon? How many have been to four of them? [part of audience applauds] How many people have been to three of them? You’re becoming gradually entrenched in ritual! [audience laughs] This is my first. I wanna make this a ritual [audience applauds] and it’s because – alright, thank you Springfield! [audience laughs] That wasn’t for the easy applause line, it’s because rituals have some value in keeping us on the track that we value and sharing that with other people. Yes, you can do stupid rituals, too, but I think I’ve said before when it comes to religion or anything, keep the good, jettison the crap and get on with living.

Jesse: What can we learn from the way religion approaches relationships and marriage? What good is there? We know there is some crap we wanna jettison but what do you think we should keep and learn from? [pause] Nothing? [audience giggles]

Matt: Well, first of all, religion isn’t one thing so there’s as many views on what religions have to say about relationships as there are people probably. I think we can pretty much jettison most of the crap because the very ideas, I mean, I speak primarily about Christianity, first of all its idea about marriage isn’t about monogamy in the first place and it’s not about polyamory as we’ve been discussing it amongst, you know, equals and partners, it’s about hey, I’m the boss and I get lots of women and you’re gonna give me your daughter in exchange for land. Those things obviously we can jettison. I don’t know – I try to think back to the Christian ceremonies that I went to and the people who are in Christian marriages that I know. I don’t know that there’s anything about their religion in their relationship that I want to keep that didn’t probably come from somewhere outside the religion in the first place.

Chana: I don’t necessarily advocate this but do you guys know Leah Libresco? No, really? She’s awesome! I know she’s the enemy now but she’s an atheist turned Catholic blogger at Patheos, she runs a blog called Unequally Yoked and she wrote a really intriguing set of blog posts about advocating for non-Christians to engage in covenantal marriage, which involves basically making it almost impossible for you to exit this. That’s a little scary, again: not advocating. But if you are someone who has found someone who you think makes you a better person across the board, if you think they literally make you the kind of person you more than want to be and continue to do that in the future, and that it is hard for you to be a good person without them, then it might not be a bad idea to yoke yourself as strenuously as possible to them.

Julia: I don’t have a great answer to this but there’s – I can see there being something about the religious worldview or just generally religious worldviews that puts a relationship or a marriage in a larger awe-inspiring context; and that there are humanist secular equivalents of that, like I alluded earlier to this passage of Ann – Druyan is I think you say her name? – talking about her relationship with Carl Sagan and she said people used to and frequently still do ask her about, you know, whether Carl was a deathbed conversion and whether she expected to see him again in the afterlife and she of course said no, I don’t expect to see him again in the afterlife, Carl and I were always very aware and we accepted the fact that death seems to be final and, you know, we don’t expect to reunite ever in the afterlife but understanding that death was final didn’t prevent us from feeling just incredibly, awe-inspiringly lucky about having connected with each other at least just this once; and when they talked about how when they thought about just the vastness of time and space and the fact that just pure blind non-intentional chance gave them this amazing relationship, that that put the relationship in this really beautiful, awe-inspiring context. That was really what made me tear up when I read it. So that’s, you know, I think it accomplishes I think to a greater degree, just better, the thing that religion tries, to put marriages in the context of what God wants you to do and how you’re best serving him.

Jesse: We are coming to the end, just a couple minutes, and I would like to give each of the four panelists a chance to offer some closing thoughts, ideas that you might not have gotten to say or points you disagreed with so that you can get a last shot, a last chance of response. I see Matt furiously scribbling but – I don’t know –

Matt: Love who you wanna love however you wanna love as long as they’re willing to go along with it. You get to decide what you’re gonna do. I don’t want to make the kind of blasé point that there’s no right or wrong, there is, but sometimes things are gonna go bad; it’s how you start off the relationship and how you communicate throughout that relationship. As long as you’re honestly representing what’s going on, I suspect that things will tend to be a lot easier. And if you’re one of those people who’ve found a whole bunch of people who wanna sleep with you, well, good for you! [audience laughs] I mean, you know, we can talk about it later but it’s steering your own ship and doing so based on reason is what I think we, and by that I’m talking about the skeptics/humanists are all about.

Chana: This is really within the same vein but it really continually breaks my heart every time I hear stories of people I don’t know or, even more acutely, my friends, who tell me stories about their bad experiences with relationships and sex and marriage and all of those things. I can’t believe I have friends who are married but – and especially when it comes down to something like I expected it to be this way and it wasn’t but we never talked about it or they wanted something that I couldn’t give but we never talked about it or I thought we could work this out but we never figure out how. Because that’s fixable! If we reconsider what relationships should be like, which is about building of a structure from the ground up that satisfies both or all members, makes everyone as happy as possible, makes everyone the best person they can be, then maybe we can really achieve something.

Adam: I think reason is a tool to get what you want but it’s only a tool, it shouldn’t be the be all and end all of your life. And I think there is a quote from Carl Sagan, I don’t know the exact wording, I’m probably gonna butcher it, but he said In the vastness of this universe and the space and time, the only thing that really binds us together and the only thing that really makes our lives meaningful is love. And it can be love of another person, or it can be love of an abstract ideal, of beauty, of pleasure… but love is really what I think makes our lives meaningful and reason is just a tool that we should use to figure out how we can get the most of it that we can.

Julia: I talked earlier about this ideal that I find very inspiring about the idea of being intellectually honest and changing your mind and treating disagreements as opportunities to figure out what’s true as opposed to battles you can win. And I think that’s especially useful in relationships: trying to figure out what’s true, especially in, you know, emotionally fraught situations and being mindful of the fact that your initial impulses and reactions and judgments might be biased and often are, being open to questioning the things that your brain is telling you about how the other person was wrong or how you were right, or being open to question the naïve realism that tells you that how things appear to you actually is how they really, fundamentally, objectively are. I think it’s not recognized often enough how useful those rationality tools that are usually described as tools to figure out the world around you, how useful those tools are for having really fulfilling relationships, too.

Jesse: Let’s thank the panelists. I’ve had a fantastic time, thank you all so much! [applause] And thank you for giving us the opportunity to have this panel on a tricky subject, and I think we got all the answers so –

Julia: Now you all have no excuse to not have amazing relationships, we gave you all the answers! [audience laughs]

Objectification and Sexism on the Interwebs

So, the atheo-scientific-feminist-liberal blogosphere sort of exploded over the last few weeks about a post I can’t link to because it’s been taken down over at Common Sense Atheism. The blogger decided to create a list of 15 Sexy Scientists, which was composed of both professional looking pictures and photos clearly intended to have some kind of sexual value (such as a woman in a bikini or some such). This has been discussed to an extent I couldn’t hope to match in all of the places mentioned here . As a result, I won’t be commenting a great deal on whether what he did was ethical or not, but rather some general lessons to be learned from the experience.

Lesson 1: Women are different from men

Don’t misinterpret: I think that gender ought to be completely abstracted out from sex, that the dichotomy of gender identity is harmful and obsolete, that gender is clearly a spectrum rather than a duality, and that placing people into two categories that they have little control over and making judgments and decisions based on those classifications is a major problem and leads to a great deal of misunderstandings at best and highly unethical actions at worst. Regardless of these opinions, which I might discuss another time, the fact remains that we do not live in a genderless society. We may never live in such a utopia, but that’s irrelevant. The point is that, at this moment, despite the fact that based on the criteria you choose, I might be much better categorized with female-bodied people who identify male, or male-bodied people who identify as male or any possible combination you can think of, there are things I have in common with female-identified people that I do not have with male identified people. And I mean this in the societally-identified way, not the self-identified way. We are a political minority. In many ways, we are marginalized, harassed, mistreated, oppressed and discriminated against. It is hard to be a woman.

It should be eminently clear from this lesson that therefore, arguments like, “well, it was ok when we did it to men. You feminists are all about equality, right? So this must be ok. Shut up” simply do not hold water. Making a list of sexy men is different from making a list of sexy women. They are seen differently, treated differently, and the ramifications are vastly different for the people involved. More later.

Lesson 2: The actions of individuals have implications for the culture as a whole, whether they are intended to or not

This list perpetuates the notion that women are always first female, then scientists, first to be judged based on attractiveness, then on quality of work. For the women in the photos, they have been sexualized, perhaps without their desire, in a way that is simply impossible for men. For those not in the photos, they simply didn’t make it. Their unattractiveness makes them invisible to the world of the internet, and there’s really nothing they can do about it. For all women, especially women in science, it sends the message that their work, their vocation, is secondary to the ratios of their nose to the length of their face and other such meaningless qualities.

The post also just made science feel that much less appealing for women. Whatever the intent of the blogger, it felt skeevy and creepy. I heard the argument, online and from a male friend, that because the photos were on the internet, it was no longer up to the women to decide what was done with them. To some extent, that’s true, but we can still criticize the way in which they were used. For the professional looking pictures, it’s like women who go out in public and are ogled by strangers. Of course they’re in a public place, of course it’s legal, but it can still create a culture of discomfort no matter what a woman is doing or wearing. For the sexier pictures, it implies that women aren’t allowed to organize their lives the way they see fit. If they were ever a model, or have ever publicly demonstrated that they like to be found attractive, from then on, the professional work they do will be colored by that fact. For example, see Olivia Munn from the Daily Show.

I realize that emotion-based morality is not particularly tenable, but in this case, it’s relevant. If women feel that in the male-dominated world of science (or atheism or whatever), all of the same rules apply about proper conduct that make it very difficult to be a woman, to be female, to be visible, it will almost certainly make science a less appealing prospect. And that’s really a shame. The ratios in math, physics and other disciplines are skewed enough as it is. Let’s not waste more talent through poorly thought out jokes.

Lesson 3: What does objectification mean?

Ok, there are a lot of spectrums in many dimensions to get a hold of here. What should women look like? According to whom? What should they wear? In what contexts? Should they do what works for them or pay attention to the messages they’re sending? Can we compartmentalize? Essentially, what does it mean to be a woman?

My basic analysis looks something like this. Women should feel comfortable going about their daily lives. In one sense, that means they should wear what makes them feel comfortable, whether that means sweatpants because they don’t give a damn what people think, pencil skirt and heels because they feel like powerful professional women who matter, jeans and a T-shirt because who gives a damn what you wear to the lab, or a hot dress because dammit, they’re a sexual being comfortable with their attractiveness and sexuality, and that’s what’s up. All of that is important. What makes it ok for them to do such things and not as ok for men to comment or ogle or catcall or make judgments is that when the women take actions they are comfortable with, they are subjects, active conscious participants in their own lives. When men comment in disparaging or sexist ways, they are objects, sexual or otherwise. And therein lies the difference. There are some other subtleties that go along with this, too. For example, I would find it inappropriate for a girl to wear very sexual or revealing clothing to class, because she would be perpetuating the culture of women being perceived first as sex objects, then as, in this example, intellectuals, which would reflect negatively and make things harder for me. But in general, the lesson is that it’s very important to understand objectification and how it works in society.

Lesson 4: Sexism is not only perpetuated by sexists

The blogger at common sense atheism is not sexist. He seems to be an intelligent, deep thinking intellectual who values ethical conduct. He had a mature and appropriate response, and sought to learn from the process and in general reach a better understanding of the topics at hand. Even so, he screwed up. We need to learn then, to give people the benefit of the doubt, and make sure that while they realize their error, they are not thrown to the gutter in an instant. Feminist men are great; let’s not alienate them. At the same time, just because a man feels he is not sexist does not mean he can use that as a defense. In fact, he should work to maintain that classification by remaining sensitive and keeping his judgments mutable.

I think these are sort of the broad ideas that should be explored in further depth if we are to reach a consensus on appropriate, respectful, community-oriented behavior online, IRL, and in general.