Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Good-Adjacency (Examples)

content warning: Short descriptions of non-violent sexual situations where consent is unclear. (first block quote only)


Leah Libresco asks: Is "Kindness-Adjacent" a Useful Category?, riffing off their previous post Avoiding Rape-Adjacent Sex. The latter (which came first):

I do believe them that there's plenty of sex happening now, that isn't experienced as rape by either partner, that doesn't meet the affirmative consent standards proposed. That could include sex where both partners kind of just leapt into the act, not checking in with each other, but not hitting any snags. Sex where one or both partners was somewhere past tipsy and within sight of "too impaired to consent" but no one pulled out a breathalyzer and both parties felt ok in the morning (aside from the headache). Sex with coercion/pressure, where one partner didn't back down after an initial "No" or "I'd rather not" but the reluctant party felt more like someone who's been guilted into going to a boring party they would have preferred to skip, rather than someone who was violated...

The goal of the Yes-Means-Yes law in California is to kibosh a lot of this gray area, rape-adjacent sex.

Rape-adjacent sex means that one partner can think ze is behaving appropriately, having sex as they've done it before, while zer partner experiences it as rape.

Rape-adjacent sex gives cover to serial predators, who are believed to be the main driver of sexual assaults on campus, since the kind of sex they're trying to have doesn't look very different from the sex everyone else is already having.

The proposed law is one way to engineer a retreat from the gray area and it may well not be the best way, but the strategic withdrawal itself is a very good idea. Whether you live in California or not, it's a good idea to take up the mission to discourage gray-area sex, whether using institutional or personal pressure/support. (...)

And the former (a later follow-on):

I recommend Addington's piece [on brutality-adjacent policing] in full. Seeing her extend my [bad thing X]-adjacent language got me thinking about where else this concept could be helpful. I'm pretty confident there are a lot of [Bad X]-adjacent behaviors that are useful to make as such, where the X-adjacent thing gives cover to the really bad X, and is undesirable because it means you could slip into X when you thought you were doing ok, and it makes it harder to identify people who are deliberately doing the bad X.

But I'm wondering what happens if I talk about [Good Y]-adjacent behavior. Is there any morally good Y such that I would want to encourage people to start doing something that was close to that good thing, but not quite the same, in the same way I'd encourage people not to have ambiguously-consented-to-sex, because I thought increasing the prevalence of the X- or Y-adjacent thing would increase the prevalence of X or Y? (...)

They go on to consider (and reject) politeness and courtesy as kindness-adjacent acts, for reasons which I mostly agree with, and which you can read on their post proper. But I do have a few ideas for [Good Y]-adjacent activities, just to prime thinking about the meta-class of things.


Less Meat Mondays

  • Adjacent to: Vegetarianism

I think this one pretty much speaks for itself; it seems to fit the bill of

[Y]ou wind up wanting to promote the close-to-Y thing, in order to ease the way to really doing Y. (...)

more than it represents an object-level moral good by having people just eat a lower volume of meat per anum. After all, I've found that pescetarianism+milk+eggs is a surprisingly not-large deal for me, and so I think that (1) giving people a chance to experiment with it and (2) giving food service providers some incentive to provide non-meat-based options in at least part of their menu is a very clear win.

As an aside, I've been experimenting with taking individual meals full-vegetarian (i.e. no fish) or full-vegan when I see an easy option to, and I'm grateful that this new vocabulary allows me to dub this experimentation as a vegetarian-adjacent dietary choice, and reason more abstractly about whether I think it makes coherent moral sense or not.


Using gender-neutral pronouns by default

  • Adjacent to: full-blown gender abolitionism

First, a bump to this old thing:

As part of the process of switching to ungendered pronouns, at some point people need to start being okay with using 'they' with named referents. I'm really optimistic about how 'they' is catching on among genderqueer people, but I'd like to help it along.

So: if you want to use singular 'they' to refer to me, feel free! I'm still happy to be referred to with standard male pronouns, but if you'd like to use 'they', that's equally fine.

Example usage:

  • [Ross] lost their hat.
  • When you see [Ross], can you give them this note?
  • [Ross]'s borrowing a car, so they can drive themself there. (...)

A whole mess of explanation and caveats are at the original post, though it's more about my personal case than the general principle.

As Jeff Kaufman points out, practical uses of the singular 'they' seem to range in natural-soundingness from "already mostly accepted English" (e.g. "Everyone must bring their own fork.") to "sounds weird to most people who don't know any nonbinary people" (e.g. "Whenever I meet a cute boy contra dancing I friend them on Facebook."), and that the first step to ungendering language on culturewide scale is to push the envelope of what feels natural. Ozy concurs:

We’re never going to get there to be as many nonbinary people as there are men and women. We’re probably never going to break ten percent. But if we get one in a hundred people to identify as nonbinary, then the average person is going to interact with a nonbinary person at least once a week.

A lot of nonbinary people tend to frown on cisgender people who use gender-neutral pronouns; however, I don’t think we should. They’re doing us a favor, getting more people to use and become comfortable with our pronouns, helping us hit that one percent.

In conclusion: if you want to use gender-neutral pronouns, please do -- whether you’re cis, trans, questioning, or breaking down the cis/trans binary. All it can do is help. Thank you. (...)

Of course, using 'they' to refer to your friends is a far cry from actually smashing the gender binary with hammers and things. But it's not completely useless, if your goal is to see a world where he/she go the way of Miss/Mrs. -- in fact, I argue that it's actually quite useful...precisely because it's gender-abolitionism-adjacent:

[Y]ou wind up wanting to promote the close-to-Y thing, in order to ease the way to really doing Y. (...)


Casual use of curb cuts

  • Adjacent to: Use-by-necessity

As explained by Ozy:

In universal design, there’s something called the curb cut effect. Basically, things intended to benefit people with disabilities wind up benefiting everyone. Curb cuts, which are intended for wheelchair users to be able to get on sidewalks, help bicyclists, parents with strollers, delivery people, and a dozen other nondisabled groups. Similarly, closed captioning, which was originally meant to benefit Deaf people, helps people who have trouble with auditory information processing (hi!), people who like talking during films, and people trying to watch TV in noisy bars.

The curb cut effect is accessibility activists’ secret weapon. You see, people don’t generally want to accommodate disabled people any more than they have to. Accommodating disabled people is a pain in the neck, and disabled people are generally a small and relatively powerless group with limited ability to complain. However, if any TV network tries to remove closed captioning, they won’t just have to put up with complaints from Deaf people. They will have to put up with complaints from everyone who has ever tried to watch TV in a noisy bar. The latter is far more likely to strike fear in the TV executive’s heart. (...)

Here, we throw a bit of a wrinkle into the traditional formulation of Y-adjacency (though it still seems like most of the concept applies). It's not actually per se a good action to, say, make use of closed captioning as a Deaf person -- it's just that it's good for said person to be able to, if they need. The casual use e.g. in a noisy bar is merely adjacent to such use-by-necessity, but, like most Y-adjacent actions, benefits third parties by normalizing the general form of the thing (here, closed captioning) and demonstrating to other third parties (here, media companies) that this is a thing which a nontrivial set of people care about.


Non-example: Donating 10% of your income to charity, adjacent to...donating more than 10% of your income to charity.

This was suggested by a commenter on Leah's post:

To some extent, I think effective altruism is about being good-adjacent. Maybe I'm not willing to give as much as I ought to, but I'm willing to give 10% of my income since I can maintain what I think of as a comfortable lifestyle while I do that. That's not exactly good, but it's certainly better than nothing and I can hope that over time I will feel able to give more as a result. (...)

...but I think that this is not quite right.

First, I think it rather misses the point to assume that effective altruism is primarily about giving more, where instead I see the crux of the thing as primarily as giving smarter; 'more' can wait until later. After all, as Scott Alexander does the math,

[I]f you believe in something like universalizability as a foundation for morality, a world in which everybody gives ten percent of their income to charity is a world where about seven trillion dollars go to charity a year. Solving global poverty forever is estimated to cost about $100 billion a year for the couple-decade length of the project. That's about two percent of the money that would suddenly become available.

If charity got seven trillion dollars a year, the first year would give us enough to solve global poverty, eliminate all treatable diseases, fund research into the untreatable ones for approximately the next forever, educate anybody who needs educating, feed anybody who needs feeding, fund an unparalleled renaissance in the arts, permanently save every rainforest in the world, and have enough left over to launch five or six different manned missions to Mars.

That would be the first year. Goodness only knows what would happen in Year 2. (...)

Ten percent is definitely enough. Sure, you could argue that we're never going to reach 100% participation, and so we're going to need to normalize a higher donation rate on average, but I do not think that we should set that as the standard for "doing your part", since, per Scott: "If you give 10% per year, you have absolutely done your part in making that world a reality. You can honestly say 'Well, it's not my fault that everyone else is still dragging their feet.'" And:

It's ten percent because definitions were made for Man, not Man for definitions, and if we define "good person" in a way such that everyone is sitting around miserable because they can't reach an unobtainable standard, we are stupid definition-makers. (...)

So, donating ten percent isn't good-adjacent; it's good, full stop. It's not a thing we do to ease the way to donating more-than-ten percent; it's not a thing that we do to deepen curb-cuts for people who are going to donate more; It's just a thing that we do because it, itself, is good.


Which introduces a meta-point about Y-adjacency: {X,Y}-adjacent[1] actions are usually at least somewhat per se {harmful,helpful} (or in some cases, risk being so). As Leah points out, though, there are some actions whose adjacency to greater {harm,good} is really their predominant moral characteristic -- more so than their object-level (de)merits. It is these, I propose, which it is most useful to talk about as {X,Y}-adjacent actions, since we already have the moral vocabulary to discuss things which are object-level X or Y.

A la Scott, recall that definitions were made for Man, not Man for definitions, and if we define {X,Y}-adjacency such that all {X,Y} things are {X,Y}-adjacent, then we are stupid definition-makers. If we are smart definition-makers we will define them in precisely the way which makes it easiest to talk about the compact cluster of things Leah originally minted the terms to talk about -- the things which only rise to our attention by their adjacency, rather than their own (de)merits.

Overall, though, the concept of moral adjacency seems pretty useful, and I look forward to hitting other things with the concept. I focused here on the benefits of good-adjacent things, but it's also worth considering the second-order merits of avoiding bad-adjacent things (e.g. abstaining from rape-adjacent sex, decrying brutality-adjacent policing, rejecting illegal-adjacent business practices, &c.).