Notes and Thoughts

Discursive working and evergreen notes


Never make an unending commitment with no potential outs

I try to be a genre-savvy type of guy, and I avoid making errors that would cause me to sigh at shitty writing if I saw a protagonist doing it in a book. So things like summoning something which I can't put down, monologuing about my master plan (not including writing it down), or saying "hey let's all split up and investigate this house separately" are all out.

Similarly I think it's a bad move for a protagonist to make permanent, unending commitments. There are many reasons I think it's a bad idea, but the most important is that I often underweight the degree to which I'll change and the world will change in the future, and making permanent commitments, without careful specification, lack the flexibility to adjust with those changes.

For example I'm strongly opposed to the Giving what We Can giving pledge. I know several people who took it and regret taking it as they've learned new things and changed their minds, but they can't in good conscience abandon it. Since there is no one on the other end of the promise, there's no one who can release them from it. This almost happened to me - I made a commitment to altruistic giving in 2015/16, and even used the same basic form, but I gave myself an explicit right to reevaluate in the future and to treat career impact as a form of giving. Several years after I made it I withdrew, as I had changed my mind and now felt like it was we as a community should promote experimentation and discovery over giving money.

I think it's fair to have commitments with no specified end date, but they must have some stipulation of how I could leave the commitment. Penalties for breach of commitment, provided they are reasonable, are fair. In essence personal commitments should strive to abide by the same type of contract common law that we have in the US.

So I think a good commitment should have:

  • An operationalized description of the commitment: What counts, what do specific terms mean, how do I interpret this commitment.
  • Conditions I make the commitment under: These are background assumptions I have, conditions which, if not true, would let me reevaluate the commitment.
  • Breach penalties: If I fail to uphold the commitment, what is the penalty? Note: This shouldn't substitute for repuational cost. That's not for me to decide, that's for others to decide, and I think a failure mode would be if I start substituting in weak sauce penalties thinking they'd prevent real damage to the trust others have in me.
  • Reevaluate time: When to look back at my commitment and decide if it's still working for me.

An #open-question for me is whether marriage is the exception. It feels to me like a special case where it's good that it is made with the intention of being an unending commitment - in some sense there are still outs which can lead to divorce, but to me those are similar to the conditions and and not something that should let you "re-evaluate" it.

Not only does this prevent me from ending up in a terrible situations where I might feel I am bound by a commitment I no longer believe in, I also think this promotes a healthier mindset where I'm more likely to follow my commitments because I am fully aligned with them.

This principle draws from historical wisdom. On Yom Kippur, as part of the Kol Nidre service, we cancel all commitments and vows with G-d from the previous year:

Every possible synonym for such pledging and for nullification or cancellation of such pledges is used. Such vows, it is obvious, are sometimes made impulsively or in moments of panic, desperation or some other strong emotion, and would be impossible. Kol Nidrei also admits our moral inconstancy. We made promises and pledges to God, often at a peak feeling of devotion or gratitude—or of desperation, but our good intentions are short-lived, and we allowed the promises to slip from our attention