Original post: Noble excuses

I was talking to a lady in her 60s who was losing weight, and exercising.  She said to me; "All my life, my husband was an iron man.  I felt terribly embarrassed, like everyone in the room was looking at me and thinking - how could he be with her".  She confided that she wanted to lose weight for completely superficial reasons, really dumb reasons of caring what people thought about what she looked like.  She asked me if this made her a bad person, that she was doing things for the wrong reasons.  We just covered Valid and invalid excuses, the territory of excuses overlaps quite heavily with the territory of goals.  We make excuses and decisions to do some things and not other things because of our goals.  Earlier in the conversation, my friend also shared the usual "get fit, be healthy" attitude that is the more noble reason to be getting fit.

I wouldn't be the first to name this concept.  There is a class of excuse that is known as the noble excuse.  A noble excuse is the excuse for the action that you are making that sounds the most noble of the possible excuse space.  Which is to say; there are often reasons for doing something that extend beyond one or two reasons, and beyond the reason you want to tell people right away.

When I tell my friends I didn't go for a run this morning because I "Don't want to be late for work". That's so noble.  It had nothing to do with me being out late the night before, it's raining, the grass is wet, I have hayfever, I didn't get enough sleep, missed my alarm and woke up late.  No it's all for caring about being late for work.

Also coming in the form of Noble justifications, a noble excuse is tricky because it acts as an applause light.  It tells the guilty brain, "okay you can stop looking now we found out why", it's safe to say that they don't really help us, so much as save face among others or even to ourselves.

Speaking of a noble excuse

"Is that the real reason or is that just a noble excuse"

"Let's not settle on the first noble excuse, what other reasons could there be for these events"

"I wish I could give a noble excuse for being late, but the truth is that I have a bad habit of leaving home late and missing the bus.  Next week I will be trying out setting my watch to a few minutes faster to try to counteract my bad habit."

"That's a pretty embarrassing mistake, is there a noble excuse that we can pass on to the client?"

Dealing with a noble excuse

Not all noble excuses are bad.  If you notice someone making a noble excuse, it usually doesn't hurt to double check if there isn't another reason behind those actions.  There's not a lot to understanding noble excuses.  It's about being aware of your excuses and connecting them back to their underlying goals.

Think carefully about the excuses you are making.

Meta: this took an hour to write.

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Not all noble excuses are bad.

I think excuses in general are bad. They reinforce the narrative fallacy. All excuses collapse to I didn't care enough about the thing to take into account the factors affecting it. Including variance in factors you couldn't control. People don't like this frame because it makes them a lot more responsible for what happens to them. Note this should be deployed exclusively internally and not as an excuse to have less empathy for others. Everyone is doing the best they can. Note also that there is a distinction between responsibility and fault. It isn't your fault that random misfortunes befell you, but dealing with them is your responsibility whether you would like to think about it or not.

I like that name for the phenomenon.

I'm not sure exactly when, but I seem to have developed a five second habit of noticing a noble excuse and thwarting it. That is, my brain will float up some noble rationalization for action X, and I'll notice it sounds noble, and that seems to be enough for me to stop and say "wait a sec, this probably isn't the real reason behind my actions."

Sometimes I can do this before I've even offered up an excuse, skip past "I'm late because traffic" and move directly to "yeah, I'm late because I'm insane and don't develop a sense of urgency about anything until it's already too late."

I don't know exactly how the habit formed, but I think it's something to do with my social anxiety. My mental model of others says that my excuses are totally transparent, that everybody around me knows perfectly well I'm feeding them bullshit; and that they view it the same way as, say, a teacher views a kid who claims that the dog ate their homework. The image is humiliating, and the only defense is to be totally up front about underlying reasons.

In theory this should lead me to lie to myself about my motivations to make the noble excuse appear true, but that doesn't seem to happen all the time. The same alief applies; I feel like others will see through the excuse even if I don't -- again, like a kid insisting that what the bullies say on the playground doesn't matter because "I don't care what they think." So I had better get my motivations correct and honest, or else suffer the contempt of anyone who hears my transparently self-serving excuses.

The second step appears to fail more often than the first; I've sometimes caught myself in webs of "reasoning" arguing that I have one motivation when the outside view suggests I have another.

The habit is moderately effective and I endorse it, but I'm not sure it's reproducible for anyone without my specific neuroses.

Learning about epistemics has helped me do something similar, and I endorse this as being helpful.

This feels related to how we can lie to ourselves and rationalize our actions. It feels like some sort of defense mechanism where we execute some sort of search for "most ego-preserving thing I can tell myself which still maintains internal consistency", which then generates the noble excuse...or something like that.