On being an agent
“Hey, do you mind if I steal one of those cookies?”
“I brought them to share.”
Denial of agency
I feel compelled to correct people when they jokingly ask permission to “steal” something. At first I assumed this was just due to some general pedantic impulse, but recently I’ve been noticing that this particular usage annoys me more than other casual semantic misusages. My current hypothesis is that this particular phrasing bothers me because it implicitly denies my agency.
Often I will have more of something on hand than I personally need, specifically because I anticipate that other people might need or want it too. I care about being the sort of person who thinks ahead like that, and I care about this thoughtfulness being understood and acknowledged. When a friend pretends that they’re stealing, they’re crafting a narrative where their good fortune happens by accident, that I just happened to have a thing they wanted, that they seized a random opportunity. It denies me the right to feel proud of having anticipated my friend’s probable needs, and to have the rightness of that pride acknowledged.
I felt a similar irritation in other circumstances where no one actively denied my agency, but people simply assumed that I wouldn’t have put work in:
- Guests at a dinner party assumed that the first thing I brought out (a few small bowls of light snacks) were the whole dinner with which they would have to make do. (In fact, there were a few proper courses planned for once we got to the dinner table.) I’ve since resolved to try and say in advance what future courses will be, but it would feel especially good if people would simply assume that if I invite them over for a meal, I’ll take proper care of them.
- I was going to meet with a couple of people in my room to work out some interpersonal issues, and I’d made sure in advance to have a few clean glasses and a pitcher of water available. It felt bad that one of them went directly to the kitchen to get a glass of water, instead of trusting that I’d make things work.
- A friend assuming that our ease of communication on an issue they’d found difficult to talk about was because we had the general quality of being good at communicating at each other, rather than the result of careful preparation on my part, having paid close attention to modeling them in prior conversations, and talking with other friends of theirs beforehand to get clues relevant to the thing we were talking about.
- People at an authentic relating workshop telling me that they could tell by looking at me how genuine I was, where in fact I’d put hard work into learning how to enter the physical and mental state I was in because I knew it put other people at ease and made it easier for them to be open with me.
I don’t think that my hope was strictly reasonable in all of these cases; I’m simply trying to accurately report on cases where I felt bad at the time in a similar way.
Affirmation of agency
There are cases where people do the opposite and I feel good. It pleases me when friends ask me for tea or cocktails, noticing that I’ve offered to make these before and assuming that I’ll be able to throw something good together on the spur of the moment and that I’m glad to do so. It especially pleases me when they’re not apologetic about it. It pleases me when people ask me for help thinking through a tough problem, not because their need is especially acute, but because they think I’d be especially helpful, or that it would be an especially interesting problem for me, or that it’s something I’ve already been doing some thinking about.
A friend was recently trying to assess the pros and cons of moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, in a conversation with me, and observed, “you’re doing a good job staying neutral about this.” Not, “I’m lucky to have a neutral friend to talk with about this.” Not, “I’m glad you don’t feel strongly.”
You’re doing a good job. On purpose. Because you probably do feel strongly, but are being the friend I need you to be right now. That felt good. Not just for the acknowledgement of the service I was doing my friend, but for the affirmation of agency.
There’s a pattern of calls to action in the Bay Area Rationalist / Effective Altruist communities that I also find aversive, in a way that feels vaguely similar to denial of agency. Calls to action in order to be the community we hope to be.
I’ve attended two successive Winter Solstice celebrations in the Bay Area, and on both occasions a speaker was asked to talk about what we need to do to be a more welcoming community. I don’t object to any of the specific things either of the speakers suggested, as policy recommendations. The more recent one, in particular, worded things in a way that I didn’t perceive as a threat or obligation. But the implied assumption that we need to have such a speaker, that I’m signed up to be part of this welcoming community that takes care of its own, seems vaguely icky and morally coercive to me.
I was fortunate to have started a bunch of friendships before I moved here, and those friendships persisted and grew once I was around and could hang out with people more in person. I was able to leverage this to meet more people and form more friendships. But at no point did I expect a thing called “the community” to do anything for me, or perceive such a thing happening. Certainly some individuals who do seem to think of the community as a thing enriched my life by connecting me with others in their social network. But the gratitude this generates is directed towards them, towards people like them, and towards the particular kinds of situations they value. I do try to connect people I think would do well to know each other, when I have the time. On my own initiative.
There have also been a variety of appeals to help particular people in a tough spot. Some of these feel good to me - I especially like ones that talk about how this person could be awesome, but they’re stuck in this stupid trap that it takes money to get out of, and we have the opportunity to pitch in and try to fix that. But others seem to hold up a standard of what a community ought to be, and imply that we’re failing to meet that standard, that the existence of this person whose life could be so much better if they get through this rough patch is not an opportunity, but a failure. Not a way to build something good, but a defect in this thing we claim to already have. These pitches are careful not to imply that everyone has to help in every case - they typically have specific disclaimers to avoid implied moral coercion on the particular case they’re about - but they do not seem so careful not to imply that everyone sees the community in this way.
I’m invested in a lot of individuals, and it pleases me when they are invested in each other as well, because this reduces the cognitive burden on me of managing those different relationships. But I don’t perceive there to be this thing, a community, that I expect help from over and above my ability to appeal to individuals one by one.
One reason I feel bad about these appeals might be that I feel like I’m being held to rules I never signed up for. If I join a club, it might have bylaws. If I join a friendship, I can see who the friend is and have some sense of what we might owe each other, I know their character well enough to anticipate what they might ask of me. But I never met the community. I haven’t read its by-laws. There’s no limit on what surprises I might encounter, what I might be unknowingly signed up for, what types of inaction on my part might be seen as betrayals of an implied bargain. I want to know what my debts are, because it’s very important to me to be able to pay them.
Community and agency
Why do I feel like it denies my agency to frame my actions in the context of a community effort? It seems as though others perceive the community as a sort of superorganism, with its own group cognition. They expect or hope that information about their needs will propagate through their social network, and that shared norms and trust will enable people to coordinate to meet the perceived need. No one person needs to go to a heroic effort to respond to or even notice the needs of anyone else, because ordinary interactions are enough to propagate the news, and ordinary responses are well-enough aligned that everyone can do a little bit and jointly they can get the job done. When it works well, this can be a very good thing. The distribution of burdens - both the burden of gathering information and the burden of responding to need - can be spread among many people, so that community members can expect to be reliably caught when they fall down.
But these community efforts work when people function as community-parts, through some analogue of group empathy. I don't want people to expect me to be warm and fuzzy just because I'm benevolent, or that I'm not benevolent just because I'm not warm and fuzzy in the right way.
Moreover, when any social capital that accrues is mediated by the community, this makes helping others less appealing to my pride. If I personally bothered to think through what to do, and decided to do it for my own reasons, then I want my actions to be attributed to me, not to group cognition. When my cognitive role is read as secondary to the group’s, then I expect that people won’t notice when I bothered to model them precisely, that I figured out a thing they needed that no one else did. I’m lucky to have some friends who do appreciate this thing about me. But I perceive the reification of community as a hindrance to it.
Finally, I don’t want my loyalty as a friend to be perceived as contingent on continued group membership. Some of my friends worry about becoming socially isolated if they don’t live up to the EA or Rationality community’s expectations. I want it to be intuitively obvious to my friends that if they are abandoned by everyone else, this doesn’t automatically mean they’ll be shunned by me. But when my actions are attributed to the community, then my friends don’t get to form that intuition. My actions are just read as more evidence that the community as a whole is valuable.
Appeals to community imply that it’s a resource we can all draw from if and when we’re in need. This feels to me like a false promise. I expect my social network to fulfill a valuable vetting function, where if someone is a known person to my friends, they’re probably interesting enough to me that they’re worth spending time and attention on if I run into them. Networks also make friendships more robust, pass along news, give me more opportunities to hear about what my friends are doing, how they’re doing, what to ask them about, what they might need help with, and even who else would be interested in cooperating to help out a mutual friend.
But I don’t expect to be able to draw directly on the help of this network, except through specific individual connections I have, and the resources those individuals have access to. I don’t expect the needs I have to be legible, I don’t expect my appeals for help to be memetically fit, I don’t expect that I’ll be able to adequately perform my need for help until after my period of great need is over. I’ve occasionally been able to reach out for help from individuals I trusted, who I thought might be able to understand how to help me. But I don’t expect “the community” to take action.
What would it take for me to feel I had a community to lean on in hard times? Material assistance isn’t likely to be the thing I personally need. And I can generally get by without empathy, cheering-up, people just being with me. The thing I need most, when I’m struggling, is decision support, epistemic and moral. A community whose norms steer me away from big mistakes, whose members will help me grapple with difficult decisions when I’m under too much stress to manage them well on my own.
A member of a conservative religious community might find that they can turn to others when struggling with decisions. They wouldn’t have to explain their values to get help. They could talk about the temptation to engage in nonmarital sex, and trust that they’d get empathy and encouragement to live out their values rather than a neutral “do what’s right for you” or worse, active encouragement to sin. They could talk about a difficult relationship with a family member and trust that the people they’re talking with will help them honor their obligations, and not suggest unacceptable solutions like just talking with their parents less. Fellow community members might even step in and intervene if they see someone stumbling, confident that their shared values and world view give them enough information to help in the right way.
A member of a community with a high value on autonomy might go to friends with the same problem, and trust that they’d get support for the project of exploring their own preferences, and not be pressured into obeying some rigid set of norms that they never signed up for.
The thing in common is that when values and world views are shared, people can help one another with decisions, help others live as they would want to live, if they had more free attention, a firmer resolution, more reflectiveness, better impulse control, fewer exogenous stressors. But this only works if the values and world view are actually held in common.
I’ve had bits and pieces of that. I’ve found friends who are sometimes willing to point out when they think I should work on some character flaw or other, when they understand me well enough to know what they’re talking about, and are confident enough in their judgment that they’re likely right. A few days ago I was wondering whether the mathematical model I was building really said what I thought it did, and I was able to check with a couple of housemates, and they were able to affirm that my conclusion was plausible - and if they hadn’t known, they’d likely have said so. But these are fragments, painstakingly pieced together, and not all the shards are part of the true structure - sometimes I try to lean on someone, and they just let me fail. Or they offer up a kind of help that, while a good guess, is completely unrelated to what I need.
This small, fragmentary network of friendships is sometimes enough to give me a hand up, and I can on occasion bounce ideas off a friend. Sometimes the help I get is really, really good. Once, an hour before an event I’d been looking forward to, I was stressed about being behind on work and decided to work a couple of hours first. A friend basically browbeat me into accepting sunk costs and using the next hour to troubleshoot why I was behind, rather than try to catch up. Another time, I was so stressed about relationship trouble that I could hardly talk for the crying, and a friend sat with me and patiently drew out each of the considerations, writing them on paper, to clear up my working memory so that I could face the problem myself, head-on, instead of using up all my energy worrying.
But a few friendships don’t have the kind of coverage a community would offer to reliably catch me when I’m really screwing up, and I don’t think there’s a community on Earth I’d trust to do any of the crucial steering for me right now, even in my most desperate moments, even when my decision-making capacity is drained to near total depletion. I certainly don’t expect the people around me to notice and tell me when I’m making critical errors. And that means that when I’m really in trouble, then in the deepest sense, I’m alone.
I don’t mind helping others in cases where I don’t get anything directly in return. I care about people, especially my friends and others who share my values and sense of life. I don’t mind calls to action where the only benefit to me is the good directly done by my action. That’s a very real benefit, and can be very enticing. I am grateful to those who spread the word about people who need help it’s easy for me to offer, in order to reach their potential.
But I very, very much dislike any hint of pretending that I’m contributing to some general pool of resources that I can count on when I’m in need. And I dislike the implication that I’m not trying to help this individual, group, or project out of my own independent judgment and sense of the good, but rather out of a desire to conform to and cooperate with community spirit.
I like taking care of my friends. I like taking care of good people around me who aren’t yet my friends and maybe never will be, when I’m well positioned to do so. But I want my agency affirmed. I want it to be me who helps, in order to further my own agenda, not to obey, not to conform, but to fulfill my own preferences. I don’t endorse pushing out the discourse where people do act as part of a group, tribe, or community, it seems like some good people are primarily motivated in that way, but I want space in that discourse for people like me, who selfishly, individually, independently want to help other people, who are willing and eager to cooperate when cooperation makes sense, to act alone when acting alone makes sense, but whose motivation is always and only our own.
Group empathy and responsive help is a way of caring, and so is solo cognition for the benefit of those I care about.