2017-11-05 logic

When logic binds you to change your own behavior

My friends and I are fairly rational (or so we’d like to think), and this has a tendency to introduce some curious and unconventional moral dilemmas[1]. One of these is what we call logical commitment.

Logical commitment occurs when, through the act of reasoned debate, one person is now committed to a new set of behaviors they didn’t previously subscribe to. They quite literally have no choice but to align their future actions with the logical conclusions of the debate.

This is best illustrated by example:

Alex: “I do go to the gym, but not frequently enough to make substantial progress.”
Andras: “Can’t you just work out harder at the gym for the same amount of time that you go?”
Alex: “Not really, because I’m pretty exhausted after work so it’s not easy to just work out harder. I don’t really have the willpower after work.”
Andras: “You know the science around ego depletion is shaky at best.”
Alex: “True, but I definitely feel like I don’t have as much willpower after work.”
Andras: “Isn’t it possible you are rationalizing being lazy with the aid of some scientific research?”
Alex: “… Yes.”
Andras: “Why don’t you just try working out harder for the same amount of time.”
Alex: “… Hmm.”
Andras: “Then you can find out if you actually have the willpower or not?”
Alex: “Well, okay.”

It turns out that I did have the willpower after all.

a binding proposition #

There are two defining characteristics of a logical commitment:

  1. It’s governed entirely by reasoned debate; and
  2. You have skin in the game - that is, you are directly affected by the outcome of the debate

Unlike simple persuasion, which often relies on emotional channels to change beliefs or behavior, logical commitment is predicated on a solid foundation of premises and conclusions. As a result, these beliefs are much harder to renege on - you can’t just feel differently about them later and decide not to follow through; rather, you can always revisit the same logical argument and arrive at the same conclusion. Logical commitments are consistent, stable and robust.

Logical commitments are also relevant enough to your daily life to have a material, binding impact on your future behavior. These are not simply abstract debates in armchair philosophy. Because you have skin in the game, these commitments could have a substantial impact on how you spend your time, energy and money.

a tiger in the brush #

Logical commitments often come from humble beginnings.

Two people are having a normal conversation, voicing opinions which largely rely on intuition and have no particular relevance to either of their lives.

But sometimes, these conversations mature into something more structured, evidence-based and personally relevant. They evolve from petty differences into reasoned debates.

And this is from where logical commitments emerge. Should you fail to consider your arguments carefully, you may actually find that a logical conclusion forces you to change how you do things - the consequences of which are not necessarily trivial.

In this way, logical commitments fly under the radar until you’re in too deep. Like a methodically executed strategy in chess, you may only realize too late that you left your king exposed. Checkmate.

So what is one to do?

Well it means you have to be prepared that any conversation has the potential to end in logical commitment. This is not meant to induce anxiety or paranoia - it certainly doesn’t for me - but it does mean you have to actually think about what you are going to say.

It means you don’t speak before you think, and you certainly don’t unwittingly agree to a set of propositions that may force you to reevaluate your life and how you do things. It means agreeing with others for the sake of being agreeable can be profoundly consequential, so only carefully vetted arguments can pass through your filter of rational skepticism. Fundamentally, logical commitments mean you must critically evaluate what people are saying before you thoughtlessly nod your head in agreement.

And this is what I’ve largely found among my friends: you can’t get away with speaking nonsense.

the face of logical commitment #

If you find logical commitments binding, you know the stakes can be high in a conversation that innocently begins as trivial and unimportant. Fortunately the vast majority of my conversations are neither driven by logic nor are personally relevant. But as soon as you identify these two prerequisites, you know just how quickly a game of checkers can become a game of chess.

I love the moment when one becomes aware of the potential to be logically committed. It’s as though, during normal conversation, opinions and evidence have been haphazardly tossed into the arena, progressively layering into a web of logical propositions and conclusions. And then you recognize this net has been cast around you, from which you must quickly extricate yourself, else be bound by its implications.

The brow furrows and the eyes’ gaze intensifies: “Oh, we’re playing chess. Let me think about this.”

[1] Here I stretch the conventional notion of “moral dilemma”, which typically concerns abstract thought experiments on how to behave. But at a high-level, logical commitments are moral dilemmas: how ought one behave given a set of values and the best way to achieve them?