Sexual Ethics 201

It’s easy to say that the concept of consent is simple and easy to understand. Communicate clearly with your partner, if they say yes, continue. If they don’t say yes, then don’t continue.

Unfortunately nothing in life is ever quite so simple. This conception of consent is good when it comes to not raping people. But not raping people is a pretty low ethical bar. It’s basically the absolute base level we should be shooting for when it comes to our sexual ethics. But many people think about consent and sex and believe that if they didn’t force their partner to do something, or if they were open about what they wanted, then everything is fine. If the other person said yes, they’ve consented and everything is fine. Good to go, right?

Well, maybe not. Because even if you’re not sexually assaulting someone or pressuring them into sex or secretly springing things on them in the middle of sex, you can still be setting someone up for really bad decisions. You can put pressure on them without realizing it. You can ask for a lot and not give much in return. Your wants and needs can end up functioning as conditions for sex (e.g. I only want to have sex with people who will have sex with my partner as well because we are a couple).

Oftentimes these things happen when we are trying to be honest about what we do or do not want. That’s ok. One of the difficult things about being in relationships is that oftentimes just saying what we think or feel or want is not enough to make sure everyone comes out of an interaction feeling good.

Let’s think of consent like a contract, just as a hypothetical for a minute.

Sometimes people write really shitty contracts that put a lot more onus on one party than the other. It might be a job contract that works one party too hard for not enough money. They might provide all of the information about that contract to the other party, and make sure the other person isn’t intoxicated or manipulated into signing. But they still put the person into a bad situation by giving them an option forward that takes advantage of them. And especially if you’re entering into a contract with someone who cares about you, it’s easy for them to forget to make sure things are set up fairly. You might not be assaulting or violating someone by asking them to enter into an unfair or harmful agreement, but you’re still being a jackass. And when that person loves you, it’s far more likely that they’ll do it.

As my friend Miri said, “I think we need a more nuanced view than “if I didn’t force them it’s ok/if they technically consented it’s ok,” and part of that is acknowledging that shit can go kind of haywire when such strong rushes of emotion are involved and that if we care about each other, we should look out for each other. Not in a patronizing “let me decide for you because you’re not in your right mind” way, but in a caring “wow I am setting up a fucked-up choice for you to have to make, aren’t I” way.”

I think one huge barrier when it comes to clear consent is when the two partners have different ideas of what constitutes sex. It might be about the progression of intimacy. Many people assume that if you start making out, you’re going to progress to taking clothes off, and if you progress to taking clothes off, then you’re going to end up having penetrative sex. None of those things HAVE to be true, and it’s very possible and often very comfortable for someone to only want one of those things. I personally have had situations where I felt this pressure (if I do x, partner will want y) and have chosen to only consent to x when I am also willing to do y. But that doesn’t always mean that I’m very excited about y. It ends up creating a lot of bitterness in the relationship because I cannot consent to just the act I want to do, and while I can do the internal work of figuring out what I want, sometimes it just feels confusing.

Part of being a good partner is that when you are asking someone else for something, especially something that tends to prioritize your wants or desires over your partner’s, you need to be very good about communicating to them what it is that you’re thinking of, but ALSO that it’s alright for them to ask for adjustments to your request. If you’re asking your partner to try out a new kink that involves getting tied up and spanked, you’re actually asking them two things: do you want to get tied up and do you want to get spanked. They may have interest in one, but not the other. It’s good to pull apart the pieces of a request and make it easy to say no to any of them. The more work you put on your partner to figure out what you’re asking for and what they are allowed to negotiate, the harder it is for them to set and keep their own boundaries.

The other element that makes things muddy is when you put unknowing pressure on a partner. Telling them just how much you really, really want sex is providing them with true information, but it also means that if they care about you they may feel as if they should have sex with you. We all need to be aware that if we’re with someone who loves us or is infatuated with us, they may do things to please us. We need to take that into account when we’re asking for things and make sure we give them the space and time to take their own needs into account. And it’s ESPECIALLY important when you’re in a long term relationship to recognize that sometimes you force “consequences” on your partner when they don’t say yes. It isn’t really forcing them, but if your partner knows that you’ll be hurt and bitter or annoyed at them after they say no, you are putting pressure on them. If they love you, they’re also imbibing the strong drug of caretaking, and that can easily outweigh their own needs. This is one of the places that we need to be very explicit about taking responsibility for our own emotions. The script “yes, I’ll be disappointed, but that’s not a problem. I can handle it,” is a really important one.

So what does that actually look like?

The best thing a partner ever did for my confidence in saying no was say no to me. That might sound odd, but it normalized the whole process of saying no to me, and made me feel as if I wasn’t the gatekeeper for all things sex. It helped remind me that it might feel kinda bad for a little bit, but that I could get over it, and so could they. It helped to actually hear someone say out loud “I’m not interested right now,” so that I could copy that script.

I also find that it helps to ask a lot of questions. Especially if you’re trying something new or entering into a new kind of relationship, spend a lot of time talking to the other person about what they want and why. If nothing else, you then know your partner better. But there is a possibility that together you’ll tease out some different dynamics. It gives them some time to process their own wants and needs. It gives you time to ask yourself if your wants are going to be really tough on them. If you foresee a place where they might be sacrificing for your wants, ask them about it.

It’s also good to pay attention to your partner’s body language. If they say yes but are shying away or not really responding to your overtures, you can always check in. Ask what sounds nice to them. See if they want to talk for a little bit before you move into other things. There’s no rush.

Finally, if your partner has a lot of anxiety about saying no, reassurance is really helpful. It’s good to hear “thank you for being honest and telling me your boundary,” after you’ve said no to something. Positive reinforcement does wonders, so if someone says no or feels uncomfortable, it really helps to do something that feels positive afterwards to help remind everyone that you haven’t been pushed apart and no one has done anything wrong.

Now a lot of people out there might be getting defensive. This sounds like a lot of work. You’re right, it is a lot of work. A lot of people might say that this is going too far, that they shouldn’t have to do all of this. And you’re probably right, you could conduct your sexual life without assaulting or raping anyone without doing any of this. You could be pretty ok to your partners without paying attention to this.

But I at least want to do more. I want to be better than pretty ok. I want to work hard to make sure my partners feel good about what I bring into their lives. Sex has the potential to be really damaging to other people, which means that I want to take a lot of care to make it a positive experience for my partners. There is a lot more to sexual ethics than just rape. All of the things that we think about when it comes to healthy relationships apply to sex as well. It’s time to start talking about all the nuance of healthy and unhealthy actions when it comes to sex.

So You Want to Live Forever

In one of my recent posts I touched on the concept of living forever, and why we may or may not want to do so. Because one of my besties is quite enamored of the idea of living forever, I’ve been thinking a lot more about it and whether or not I would want to. But there’s an element to this that I hadn’t fully explored that hit me yesterday in a giant pile of “how did I not think about this?”

Is it ethical to live forever? If it is, how could we ethically enact a system that would allow people to live forever without ingraining oppressions even further? What are the possible repercussions of living forever, not just on an individual’s life, but on society at large? Even if we want to live forever, there may be good reasons to hesitate pursuing the technology that would allow us to do so.

On a larger scale, I suppose we have to question whether giving humanity a better chance of survival as a species is a good thing. There’s no particular reason to think that humans are all bad or all good. We haven’t totally destroyed the world yet (which is cool) and we’ve invented some amazing things and we are conscious and have culture and thoughts and emotions all of which are incredibly interesting and in many ways beautiful (is beauty a value we want to subscribe to?), but at the same time we’ve drastically reduced the amount of variety in the world (variety does seem to be a value to me), we’re short sighted, we may fuck up the planet enough that nothing can live on it anymore (and life, particularly conscious life as the universe’s way of recognizing and admiring itself seems to be an important value to me), and we are self centered and cruel in intentional ways that nearly no other species is…so it’s kind of on the fence for humanity.

Based on the mediocrity of humanity, it doesn’t seem as if there’s any particular ethical push either to live forever or not (unless we assume that we would leave a void that a superior species would fill, and I don’t see any evidence for that). So what about the logistics of living forever?

The first consideration that springs to mind is overcrowding. If people are living forever and still reproducing, where do we put all of these people? What happens if/when we run out of resources? There’s always the possibility that at this point we’ll be terraforming other planets and it wouldn’t be a concern, but without that outlet, it could mean lowering the quality of life for everyone if we continue overpopulating the planet. Another alternative would be to make people stop having babies, but ethically speaking I really can’t condone controlling someone’s reproductive system (see: eugenics and all the things that are wrong with it).

If we can get past overcrowding, another difficulty would be that one of the ways humanity progresses is through new minds that have different starting premises from their parents. This generation almost takes it for granted that marriage equality should and will happen, whereas the previous generation is far more hit or miss on that. People’s brains are far more malleable when they’re young, and it seems quite likely that changing our opinions becomes more and more difficult the older we get (this is not to say it’s impossible). It’s possible we may hit a limit to our ability to remember or even process new information. Before we attempt living forever we would likely need more information about whether or not human brains can continue to develop indefinitely (yes we can grow new brain cells. Slowly. Maybe the forever livers would have to forsake all things that can cause brain damage of any kind).

There are probably two considerations here: the quality of life of the individual who is living forever and whether that is constrained by the human brain (which we could potentially enhance), and whether or not we would be able to continue to improve society with individuals who grew up in worse times hanging around. While consideration 1 is somewhat important, as long as immortality was freely entered with the knowledge of how it would affect one’s brain, I can’t see it as nearly as pertinent as consideration 2.

Say we develop our technology to a point wherein the human brain and body will not decay in our immortality. We download our consciousness into robots and live forever that way. We’re capable of learning and processing new things, growing, changing, and developing indefinitely. How do we decide who gets to live forever? The technology would most likely be expensive and not available to everyone. Should we allow rich, horrible people to live forever? Should there be a mechanism to monitor who takes advantage of the technology so that people who are criminals or a drain on society (whatever the hell that means) or mean or unintelligent or whatever else we deem “not as good” can’t live forever?

Most likely any mechanism like this would feed immediately into systems of privilege that already exist and we’d end up with even older, richer white men. There is no feasible mechanism that would keep society progressing and healthy with some measure of equality in how people are allowed to live forever. Perhaps it would be a lottery system, but it’s hardly an ideal system that potentially could leave us without some of our best minds and humanitarians.

Overall the whole concept of living forever means trying to solve all of today’s ills before we could find a way to equitably distribute eternal life (haha that’s no big deal right?), so if I were given the opportunity, I don’t know that I’d be able to feel ok with myself if I took it.

What other considerations do you see?

Featured image is Arwen for choosing to give up immortal life (like a boss).

 

The Ethics of Unplugging Your Computer

Because CONvergence is largely a fan convention, many of the panels offered involve panelists whose qualifications are “I was really excited about this topic”. Sometimes this means that you end up with a very interesting variety of perspectives, but unfortunately sometimes it makes for panels with unprepared and uninformed panelists. One of these that I attended this weekend was “When Is Turning Off a Computer Murder?”  The concept of this panel (when and how might a computer reach a state of consciousness on par with personhood) was fascinating. The execution less so.

So for that reason, I’m going to explore what makes something eligible for ethical consideration, connect those concepts with sentience and consciousness, and see if we know anything about whether or not machines have reached these stages yet.

Let’s start with the concept of murder, since the title of the panel looks at when we think a being deserves moral consideration. There is a great deal of argument within ethical spheres over what kind of beings deserve moral consideration. Religious ethics often tends to afford human beings a special consideration simply by dint of being part of the species. However most ethical systems have a slightly more objective criterion for ethical consideration. Some ethical systems believe that being alive constitutes enough of a reason to let something keep living, others suggest sentience, others consciousness, others self consciousness. I personally tend towards Peter Singer’s preference utilitarianism, which suggests that we shouldn’t cause any unnecessary pain, and that if something has a preference or interest in remaining alive, we shouldn’t kill it.

Even more complex is the fact that we have different standards about what types of beings we shouldn’t harm and which types of beings we should hold responsible for their actions. So for example, many people feel as if we shouldn’t kill animals but they do not feel that animals should be held morally responsible for killing each other.

I doubt we’re going to reach any conclusions about what types of beings deserve moral consideration and what exactly constitutes murder, especially considering the fact that the animal rights debates are still raging with a fiery intensity, but we can at least potentially place computers and machines somewhere in the schema that we already have for living beings. For more conversation on what personhood might be and who deserves moral consideration, check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or Center of Ethics at U of Missouri.

But let’s start at the very beginning of moral consideration: living things.

The current characteristics that we use to classify something as “living” include internal organization, using energy, interaction with environment, and reproduction. All of these things are things that machines have been able to do, so it doesn’t seem off base to consider some machines as “alive”, at least in some way. Some people may assert that because computers can’t reproduce or replicate in an organic way they are not alive, but this seems at odds with the ways we treat human beings who cannot reproduce (hint: they don’t suddenly become non humans). One important element of being alive that we usually take into consideration when thinking of ethics is pain: hurting things is bad. The question of whether or not computers can feel pain is wrapped up in the questions of consciousness that will be discussed later.

The next level of moral consideration is usually sentience. Most people use the words “sentient” and “conscious” fairly interchangeably, and one of the difficulties with the panel was that neither of these terms was defined. Typically, sentient simply means capable of sensing and responding to the world. Under this definition, computers have definitely reached a level of sentience, although their senses differ from human senses (this is not a problem as far as sentience goes. There are certainly sentient animals, such as dolphins or bats, that have senses like echolocation that humans do not).

Here’s where it starts to get complicated: consciousness. Trying to define consciousness is a little bit like making out with a sea slug: it’s slippery and uncomfortable and you’re not entirely sure why you’re doing it. But unlike sea slugs, consciousness is an integral part of our experience of the world and is highly relevant to our moral choices, so we probably should spend some time grappling with it and hoping it doesn’t wriggle out of our fingers (side note: my brother did once kiss a sea slug).

There are lots of things that make consciousness tough to pin down. The first of these is that depending upon what we’re trying to talk about or the context in which we’re speaking, the way we define consciousness changes. The entry on consciousness in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lists six different ways to define consciousness*:

1. Sentience

2. Wakefulness

3. Self-consciousness

4. What it is like

5. Subject of conscious states

6. Transitive consciousness (being conscious of something)

Some of these are clearly more relevant for moral considerations than others (we don’t generally consider wakefulness relevant in our moral decisions). We’ve already touched on sentience, but let’s take some time to examine the other possible definitions and how we could determine whether or not computers have them.

Self-consciousness is often a test for whether or not something should have moral standing. It’s often used as an argument for why we should afford more consideration to animals like dolphins and chimps. Currently, we use the mirror test to determine whether or not an animal is self conscious. This test is not perfect though, as self consciousness is an inner awareness of one’s own thoughts. It relies on meta cognition, inner narrative, and a sense of identity. This points to one of the serious challenges of understanding consciousness, which is that we cannot understand it simply by using “objective” data: it requires both first and third person data because it is a subjective state.

With those caveats, there is a robot who has passed the mirror test. This is a good indication that it has some sense of self awareness. What it doesn’t give us information about is “what it is like”, which is the next possible definition of consciousness. This suggestion is championed by Thomas Nagel (who is really one of the more fantastic philosophers writing today). The best example of this is Nagel’s classic essay “What Is It Like To Be A Bat” (that title alone is one of the reasons I loved majoring in philosophy), in which Nagel explores the idea of experiencing the world as a bat and posits that the consciousness of a bat is the point of view of being a bat. This may seem tautological, but it gets at the idea that consciousness is a subjective experience that cannot be witnessed or entirely understood from an external perspective. We can have some cross subjective understandings of consciousness and experience between beings that are quite similar, but (as an example) we as humans are simply not equipped to know what it is like to be a bat.

Nagel says of consciousness: “It is not analyzable in terms of any explanatory system of functional states, or intentional states, since these could be ascribed to robots or automata that behaved like people though they experienced nothing. It is not analyzable in terms of the causal role of experiences in relation to typical human behavior—for similar reasons”. We can see the “objective” facts about an experience, but not the point of view of that experience (Nagel goes into much greater detail on this subject in “The View From Nowhere”, an exploration of the fact that an objective point of view will always be missing some information because it will never know what it’s like to be situation subjectively).

While “what it is like” seems to make an intuitive sense in terms of consciousness, it doesn’t have a whole lot of explanatory of power about what it is that we’re actually experiencing when we’re conscious, nor does it point us towards a way to find out whether or not other things have a way that it is like to be.

The next potentially useful definition is “Subject of conscious states”. This doesn’t really give us a whole lot of information without definitions of potential conscious states, but luckily we can glean some of these from the elements that many of the definitions of consciousness have in common. These point towards the quality of conscious states, although are not those states themselves. They include but are not limited to qualitative character, phenomenal structure, subjectivity, self-perspectival organization, intentionality and transparency, and dynamic flow. Briefly, these are as follows:

Qualitative character: This is the point at which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy started using the word “feels”, which really just made my day in researching this blog post. Another, more pretentious word for “feels” is of course qualia. This is deeply related to Nagel’s “what it is like” and points at that experience, the quality of senses, thoughts, and feelings.

Phenomenal structure: Phenomenal structure is one of the few elements of consciousness that appears to be uniquely human. It is the ability not only to have experiences and recognize experiences, but to situate those experiences in a larger network of understanding. It refers to the frameworks we use to understand things (e.g. not simply using our senses but having associations and intentions and representations that come from our sensory input).

Subjectivity: Closely related to the previous two concepts, subjectivity is the access to the experience of consciousness.

Self perspectival organization: this is a ridiculously long way of saying a unified self identity that is situated in the world, perceives, and experiences. This again exists on a spectrum (not all of us can be fully self-actualized ya know?).

Intentionality and transparency: we aren’t immediately aware of our experience of perceiving/thinking/feeling: rather we experience/think/perceive a THING.

Dynamic flow: This is a great deal like learning or growing, however it is something more: it means that we don’t experience the world as discrete, disconnected moments in time but rather that our consciousness is an ongoing process.

It seems quite possible for a computer to have some of these elements but not all of them. I would not be surprised if at some point computers developed a qualitative character, but having a phenomenal structure seems less likely (at least until they begin to develop some sort of robot culture bent on human destruction). This would give us a spectrum of consciousness, which maps quite well onto our understanding of the moral standing of non human animals. Again, different people would have different moral feelings at different places along the spectrum: some humans have no qualms about killing dolphins which almost certainly have consciousness, while others are disturbed by even killing insects.

The most relevant definitions of consciousness appear to be “self awareness”, “what it is like”, and “subject of conscious states”. It seems to me that the latter two are really  just different ways of expressing each other since most of the conscious states that we can identify are quite similar to “what it is like”. In that case, it seems that in order to be the most relevant for ethical consideration, a being would have to be self aware and also have an experience of living or conscious states.

Unfortunately there is no real way to determine this because that is an experience, a subjective state that we can never access. At some point we may simply have to trust the robots when they tell us they’re feeling things. This may seem unscientific, but we actually do it every day with other human beings: we have no solid proof that other human beings are experiencing emotions and consciousness and feelings in the same way that we do. They behave as if they do, but that behavior does not necessarily require an inner life. It is much easier to make the leap to accepting human consciousness than robot consciousness because the mental lives of other humans seem far more parallel to our own: if my brain can create these experiences, it makes perfect sense that another, similar brain can do the same.

At the point at which computers start expressing desires is when I will start to have qualms over turning off my computer, but as a preference utilitarian, this is the consideration that I try to give all beings.

 

 

*These definitions are what SEP calls “creature consciousness”, or ways that an animal or person might be considered conscious. It also looks at “state consciousness”, which are mental states that could be called “conscious”. These are clearly related, but in this case creature consciousness is more relevant to determining whether we can call a computer “conscious” or worthy of moral consideration.

Intersectionality in Animal Rights

Last night I had the most stressful job interview in the world that also happened to be an interesting discussion. I was interviewing with an animal rights organization, and one of the questions that they asked me was how the animal rights movement might be able to grow/what they should change. I responded that I believe intersectionality was important, and that looking for ways to work with other movements was a good way to move forward, especially in terms of diversity and equity in race and gender.

My interviewer responded that as an organization they’ve made it a point not to take a position on anything but animal rights because they have a diverse membership and don’t want to alienate people who have come to a pro animal rights position through a different path. Of course this makes sense as a stance for an organization to take, but the more that I thought about it, the more I think that any vested interest in treating animals with respect requires us to take a hard look at how we treat every creature, including other human beings.

While I do think it’s possible that one could come to a position of animal rights through a religion that says animals require our protection, I also think that we have to look at the science and the logic behind our positions and that it’s important to be consistent in what we’re saying and believing. If someone says that they believe we should reduce the harm that animals suffer, they are logically saying that they also believe we should reduce the harm that human beings suffer. All of the science that we currently have points towards the fact that human beings are simply part of the spectrum of animals, with no hard and fast distinctions between us and the rest of the animal kingdom.

In order to reduce the harm that comes to animals, we also have to look at the science of pain and consciousness to understand how animals feel, what they feel, and what causes them pain. Even if you are motivated to care for animals by a religious belief, you still have to look at the actual world around you to understand what it means to care for animals. And science tells us that animals can feel pain, can identify themselves as individuals, can make friends and feel love and empathy, and generally have a rich emotional life.

And if you believe that violating these things causes pain and harm, and that causing pain and harm is something that we should not do, you have to apply these understandings to human beings as well. Now each of us gets to apply our values in the way we choose, and we may decide that there is another value that trumps causing no harm (like God’s word that homosexuality is sin), but the only other values that we can derive from the same premises as animal rights are the values that promote negating harm for all creatures wherever possible based upon what we can learn about what causes harm.

Here are things that we do know cause harm: sexism, racism, homophobia, cissexism, ableism, classism…and we know that they do so in subtle ways, including through simple language or jokes, through objectification and exotification, through discrimination or lack of access, through speaking over and ignoring experiences, through rape culture, through the prison industrial complex, through lack of job opportunities and poor wages…many of these things are directly tied to meat eating, such as the low wages for workers in the meat industry, or the symbolic ties of meat to masculinity.

At the very least, listening when people tell you that something you’re doing is hurting them seems like it needs to be a part of your value system if you want to be ethically consistent while prioritizing animal rights. Over and over we hear people saying that ignoring these elements of life harms them and leaves their lives harder and more painful.

I am not suggesting that every animal rights activist needs to put their current activism on hold and jump into all of these other debates. However you should take the time to consider how these fit into your professed set of values and be willing to back up those who ask you for help or consideration when their requests fit within your values. And it is clear that the values that underlie veganism and vegetarianism when it is pursued because of animal rights demand that we treat human beings with respect.

So while politically it makes sense for an organization not to take any stances that might alienate their membership, I also believe that it’s disingenuous to profess a belief that we should minimize the harm our lives create, respect others, and improve the world, while not at least mentioning issues like discrimination, abuse, racism, sexism, and all the other isms that plague our world at the moment. This does not demand that we take specific political positions (after all science and logic don’t lead us clearly in one direction all the time), but rather that we acknowledge that there are many things that harm both humans and animals in the world today and state unequivocally that we do not tolerate discrimination, abuse, cruelty, or violence in any of its forms.

I believe this is one of the areas that we need to take a longer view: while it may be beneficial to gain members who don’t truly believe in respect and minimizing harm but who will help you achieve your goals, this is not going to help the longer goal of fostering empathy and compassion for everyone, animal and human.  In the end, it might undermine your goals: if a church changes its position you may lose those members, but if you gain members because they have come to an ethical conclusion through their own rationality, they are much less likely to change their opinions based on the teachings of others. We may be watering down our message in order to appeal to more people, when we should be strongly advocating for respect on all levels.

Selfishness: An Inherent Evil?

When we talk about things that are immoral, evil, or wrong, we often point to selfishness. This is sometimes the root of a bad action, and sometimes is the bad action itself. Particularly in religious contexts, people are called upon to be utterly selfless, to remember that God is the source of the good works that they do, to avoid pride or self-aggrandizing, and to think of others first. Of course it’s a good thing to put the needs of others before your own, right?

Unfortunately, this rhetoric doesn’t always have fact behind it, and I worry that prioritizing selflessness as an inherent good does a lot of damage to many people. Selfishness is focusing on one’s own needs. Generally we also include to the detriment of others, but more and more I see people using it to mean anything that focuses on one’s own needs, whether or not it impacts others at all. Focusing on your own well being is not something that is inherently wrong. I cannot believe that this needs saying, but it’s actually incredibly important to spend some time on yourself, thinking about your own needs and taking care of your own needs. “It sounds nice” or “It would make me feel good” are both perfectly valid reasons to do something.

In fact doing things like this often help us improve our ability to do things for others. No one is helped by burnout, and if you want to make a difference in the lives of others you often have to spend a lot of time ensuring that your own needs are met first. This is the “secure your own oxygen mask first” principle. Sometimes you do have to put your own needs first, particularly when your needs are particularly serious.

I think this is another area in which the harm principle could be used to really clarify what the problem is with selfishness and when selfishness is a bad thing, versus when we simply want it to be a bad thing because we societally have a problem with individuals thinking about themselves and their own needs. There are instances where someone focuses on their own wants and needs to the exclusion of others. They might do so in such a way that they will actively hurt others in order to get their own wants met. This is selfishness in the more traditional sense, in the way that clearly is wrong. However choosing to do things for yourself that mean you’re unavailable to meet the desires of others, or to do things for yourself that have very little impact on others? I think that’s a very healthy selfishness.

If what you’re doing is causing more harm than good, it’s probably the wrong thing to do. It doesn’t matter if the harm is to yourself or to someone else, because your needs deserve equal respect with the other person’s. As an example, there are times that I choose not to spend time with my friends, even though sometimes that makes them unhappy or worried. Generally I do this when I’m feeling emotionally drained and really need some time for my mental health. If I were to prioritize my friends over myself in this case, I’d probably be cranky anyway and not do very much good for them, as well as leave myself feeling even worse than before, potentially susceptible to some bad target behaviors. If I look at the overall picture, it’s better for everyone if I take care of myself, then spend time with friends when I feel up to it.

An additional element to consider is whether or not being selfless is your responsibility. There are many times when I or someone that I know says that they should be there for another person, they should help their friend feel better, or they should always be on call for their significant other. It’s important to remember that while it is kind and wonderful of you to take care of another person, it is never required of you. Another person’s well-being is never your responsibility. Taking on another person’s well-being is a recipe for disaster as it leaves one party feeling overwhelmed and put upon, and the other party feeling beholden and useless. It generally doesn’t improve anyone’s situation. You aren’t doing something wrong by NOT going above and beyond.

Of course it would be a lovely world if each of us could spend all our energy taking care of others and somehow it would all work out that everyone gets taken care of. Unfortunately that isn’t the world we live in. Every human being (yes you) deserves to be taken care of, and that means that each of us needs to put aside some of our energy and time for ourselves to make sure we get our needs met. This is, by definition, somewhat selfish. That does not make it wrong. Sometimes I choose not to spend my time volunteering and I watch Netflix instead. Yeah, that’s selfish. I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to do. I deserve my time just as much as anyone else, and if I am not hurting another person, then selfishness is not the worst thing I could be doing.

There is nothing beautiful about diminishing yourself. There is nothing inherently good about it. I would rather respect myself as much as I respect anyone else.

Values and Resolutions

New year’s resolutions are odd to me. No one ever seems to follow through on them, and they’re often forgotten within a few weeks of making them. Often they look like preening or attention-grabbing. However I do think that it’s a good idea to periodically take a good long look at your life and structure some goals or ideas to aim towards. Things have been a bit on the change-heavy side in my life lately, so this feels like a good time to assess and to try to understand why I set the goals that I do and how those goals fit into my values.

 

As I was working on writing my resolutions for this year, I really found myself struggling with what I felt were the resolutions I “should” be writing. It’s been obvious to me for a while that many times resolutions are a way for people to beat up on themselves about not doing enough, but in this case it felt more like a conflict of what my values were: did I really want to resolve to work harder to overcome my eating disorder this year, or did I want to resolve to lose some weight this year? This, in my mind is the important thing about resolutions: they force you to take stock of your values and then ask you how you can actually live out those values in concrete ways. I’ve had a very hard time with values, with identifying my own values, with truly committing to any set of values, for a long time, so this year for my resolutions I’m going to start each resolution with a value that I am choosing to commit to this year.

 

  1. Family: run a 5k with my dad for his birthday.
  2. Social justice and animal welfare: be better about my vegetarianism. No meat that is not produced ethically. Do not seek out meat.
  3. Intelligence/knowledge/curiosity: read more. This means taking some time out of each day to read a real book, not just blogs.
  4. Purpose and commitment: make a decision about what I’m going to do after I finish AmeriCorps. Commit fully to it. Actively work not to feel guilty or to continue revisiting the options I did not choose.
  5. Community/friends: be more social. Get to know more people. Actively reach out to the friends I do have.
  6. Self-reflection and creation: finish a draft of my book.
  7. Work, self-improvement: learn to accept criticisms without tailspinning emotionally. Work to incorporate criticisms actively into work.
  8. Life (yes life is a value that I have to commit to and it’s one I find difficult): find things that make me happy and excited. Engage in them often.
  9. Humility: spend some real time thinking about what it actually means to be humble in a positive way. Rethink the idea that self-flagellation is humility.
  10. Self-care: eat more cake. Both metaphorically and literally.

Intersectionality: Food Ethics and Mental Health

Something that has come up a great deal in my personal life recently has been people criticizing my choices in terms of eating and exercise. As you might imagine this is fairly difficult for me to hear as someone with an eating disorder, but it’s caused me to spend some time thinking about the intersections of mental health and food ethics. America as a culture does not spend a great deal of time focusing on how the way we eat and how we relate to food can affect our mood, mental health, and overall life quality. What we do spend a lot of time doing is shaming each other for our food choices: whether on the basis of health, ethics, or aesthetics. There are debates over vegetarianism and veganism, about health and obesity, and about whether people on food stamps deserve their food. What we don’t talk about is what we can do to make food an experience that enhances people’s lives.

Food is often an extremely emotional experience. It combines taste, smell, sight, and texture into what can be an extremely intense experience. However unlike most experiences that deeply engage our senses, it is something that is required of us every day. It’s easy to write it off because we spend so much time doing it. But truly good food experiences can change your life. Many people try to approach food simply as fuel for their bodies and nothing else, but food can be incredibly powerful.

Food has cultural connotations, and often it’s part of the glue that brings people together. Food can be an extremely important part of memory, and is often plays a role in memories that hold special meaning. We use it for celebrations and for rituals, as reward and punishment. For most of us, food is emotional, and for those who take all the emotion out of food, it can seem like it’s missing something. The emotions of food are part of friendships and families, and you can miss out on a lot (like a dessert with a sweetheart or a dinner with your family) if you try to excise emotion from food.

For some reason, these emotions often get ignored when we talk about how people should eat. If anything, we look on these emotions as negative: we make fun of people who “eat their feelings”. There appears to be a stereotype that having an emotional relationship with food is inherently negative. However there are absolutely healthy ways to feel emotional about food, and loving food does not mean being unhealthy. Too often we hear about health or ethical implications without any mention of the actual experiences of eating. This is not a culture that celebrates how fucking delicious it is to bite into a piece of warm chocolate cake, or how comforting it is to smell the scent of a childhood meal.

And when we’re looking at mental health, this is important because these internal experiences are often what sets someone with a mental illness apart from anyone else. When we talk about the ethics of food and the ethics of health, we often forget that the experience of food can be powerful, and that when someone has a mental illness, this is something extremely important to take into consideration. We ignore the potential emotional benefits we can gain from eating, and we ignore the potential harm that can appear when we guilt or shame someone or deprive them of food they love.

Now there’s one really obvious example which is eating disorders. When you’re trying to recover from an eating disorder, if you can eat a reasonable amount without feeling guilty, you do it. This is a matter of your health and potentially your life because every piece of food is a struggle. If a piece of bacon or a slice of cake is what entices you today, everyone better fuck off on telling you that you shouldn’t eat it because that piece of food could be the only thing you’re willing to eat today. This is not a choice, this is a jerkbrain doing things to you. If someone is trying to recover from an eating disorder and you try to tell them which foods are appropriate for them to eat or not to eat, all I can say to you is go fuck yourself. You’re asking that individual to put themselves in harm’s way by cutting out more food and creating new food rules. You’re asking them to prioritize something over their own safety and health. This is a clear place where food ethics need to be flexible to allow for someone’s health and happiness.

But there’s more to the intersectionality of mental health and food than just eating disorders. Because of the emotional nature of food, it can either be used as an incredibly helpful tool for managing emotions or as an intensely negative coping strategy that damages the individual. Now this is different from using food to hide from your problems, but as part of a larger program of dealing with the root causes, including good food and good food experiences in your treatment can be really useful.

I’m going to use an experience from my own life because it’s what I know best. I try my best to eat vegetarian, because ethically I feel it’s the right decision. For eating disordered reasons this isn’t always possible. However when I do eat meat I eat ethically raised meat. I have one exception to this rule. When my dad makes spaghetti sauce from his family recipe, he almost never uses ethically raised beef. I eat the spaghetti sauce anyway.

For a lot of people this looks like I’m selling out on my values. Many people have told me that it’s inappropriate and that there is no excuse for not being vegetarian or even vegan. It looks like I’m prioritizing my own enjoyment of food over the life of another being. But here’s the thing: one of the few times that I feel safe, comforted, whole, and welcomed is when I am with my family eating the same food we ate when I was little. From the perspective of someone in my position, this is far more important than you might think. My depression and anxiety are very real and very life-threatening, particularly because they come with a side-helping of self-harm. Finding moments in my life where I can qualitatively feel like an acceptable human being is extremely difficult, but very important. When I don’t have these moments I start to become dangerously depressed, sometimes to the point of suicidal ideation. Taking away my ability to share this experience with my family is taking away one of my best coping skills to keep myself from potentially putting myself into the hospital.

This is where understanding the emotional and internal experiences of food can go a long way towards understanding intersectionality and towards having compassion towards people who don’t have your privileges. It may seem insane to someone who does not have a mental illness to consider the idea that a delicious mocha could be part of combatting suicide. But when you’re in the experience, you understand that the little things are the most important. The danger of mental illness is real. Mental illnesses do lead to death, injury, and pain. When we ignore the intersectionality of mental illness and food, we go a long way towards removing some of the most basic resources that the mentally ill have.

For people not in these situations it might seem selfish to prioritize your enjoyment of a steak over the life of a cow. However one of the messages that’s incredibly difficult for those with mental illness to internalize is that our own self-care is important, and often integral to our health. Allowing ourselves to make the choice to eat something that nourishes us mentally as well as physically can be a huge step, and when we’re told to cut out many parts of our diet, we lose out on the ability to easily do this. Asking us to give up simple pleasures, or criticizing the arenas in which we can find joy is asking us to prioritize other things over our own ability to function or even our own life depending on our disease.

When you live with a mental illness, often your entire life becomes about survival. This means that choices which seem to be easy or low cost for others are choices about self-defense for us. Every time we choose something that brings us joy, support, or a feeling of safety, we are choosing our own life. When you tell a mentally ill individual that they should abandon something that helps them feel good, that they should feel guilty for eating something that makes them happy, it reinforces to us that we don’t deserve good things.

Food is incredibly personal and incredibly emotional. It can be used in intensely positive ways and intensely negative ways, and we don’t always get a choice in what foods bring up what emotions for us. For the mentally ill, this can mean that shame and guilt around food is even more damaging than it might be for any other individual, and can have serious consequences.

While many of us want to make our society better and healthier by encouraging good eating, ethical food choices, and positive food culture, it would do us good to remember that these conversations may have different consequences for someone struggling with a mental illness than for anyone else.