[Crossposted from my blog with minor changes. I strongly prefer all commentary related to the culture war or dating happen over there.]

One of my most unpopular opinions is that "entitlement" is actually a useful concept.

It makes sense that people have a knee-jerk negative reaction to it. "Entitled" is one of those words, like "rational", that it is useful to have in your mental toolkit but if you ever find yourself using it you need to rephrase your argument. More on this later; it ought to show up later in the essay but I wanted to put in "I know that there are good reasons for you to hate the word 'entitled'" in the forlorn hope that this would keep people from writing angry comments before they read the post.

I think that entitlement is a useful concept when thinking about the interplay between these three concepts:

  1. Basic rights and expectations for any relationship.
  2. Boundaries and needs you have in some specific relationship.
  3. Needs that are completely unreasonable.

There is a very common model of social interaction which you might call "social libertarianism," beloved by poly people, sex-positive people, and jerks who don't want to get called on being jerks. Under social libertarianism, people have sets of needs and boundaries, and the goal of social interaction is to find someone who can fulfill your needs and whose needs you can fulfill, without violating either side's boundaries. The only misdeed is to deliberately violate another person's stated boundaries. No set of needs or boundaries are right or wrong, but some may be incompatible with other people's. If you enjoy screaming curse words at other people, then all you have to do is find someone else who likes having curse words screamed at them, and the problem is solved.

Social libertarianism often comes from a good impulse. Many people generalize from "I would be unhappy in this sort of relationship" to "everyone who is in this sort of relationship is unhappy and being exploited and a victim of Insert Cultural Boogeyman Here." Social libertarianism has built into it the idea that people are different from each other, an insight which is all too often forgotten. If you're the sort of person whose perfectly happy relationships get accused of being unhappy and exploitative and only existing because of Insert Cultural Boogeyman Here, there's a natural tendency to embrace social libertarianism.

But I don't think social libertarianism works as a model, because it is in fact actually possible to be an asshole.

For example, if I were friends with someone and they decided to tell me my hair was ugly, my blog is stupid, I would never fulfill any of my dreams, and all my friends secretly hate me, I would not say "I see I have not set the boundary with you that you don't get to insult me at all my most vulnerable points; my mistake, in the future please don't do that." I would say "never darken my doorstep again." This is because it is actually wrong to insult your friends. I don't have to set the explicit "don't insult me" boundary; it is understood. Similarly, I might specify that a car I'm selling is red, but I wouldn't specify that it has wheels. All cars are supposed to have wheels. It's a basic expectation.

There are actually quite a lot of these in relationships. "Don't share people's private information without their consent." "Don't forbid someone from being friends with someone else just because you don't like them." "Don't tell people they are bad people for having a feeling." Spend a few hours reading any advice column or relationship advice book and you will discover hundreds of basic rights you never knew you were respecting. (Years later, I remain boggled at More than Two spending at least a page patiently explaining why it is wrong to veto a partner's relationship because it makes them too happy and that makes you jealous.)

I realize the concept of "unspoken rules that are wrong to break" is going to give some of my more socially phobic readers hives. To which I say, as reassurance: this is literally all stuff you learned in kindergarten, it's "play fair" and "don't hit people" and "be nice." Most people get through life fine without ever being confused about this stuff. Some people are actually ignorant, particularly autistic people and people who grew up in abusive or screwed-up homes: I myself was confused until relatively recently about why I shouldn't share other people's private information. But if you are, most people will forgive you if you apologize, explain yourself, and don't do it again. There's a difference between a mistake and malice, and "don't treat people's mistakes like they're deliberate attempts to hurt you" is one of the basic expectations for any relationship.

On the other end, sometimes people have expectations that are, in fact, completely unreasonable. For example, if I don't watch myself, I tend to expect that if I just do everything right then everyone in the whole entire world will like me. So I feel a lot of social phobia: if someone dislikes me, it means I have done something wrong, and I need to self-flagellate about my wrongness and carefully search all of my actions until I determine what horribly wrong thing I have done.

I do think, in a sense, my social phobia is a form of entitlement. (Not everyone's social phobia is entitlement, of course. Probably most people's isn't. But mine is.) You can tell, because sometimes I get fed up with the whole self-flagellating/navel-gazing business and instead start being unreasonably angry. "How dare you dislike me!" I think. "I am a good person and I deserve universal adoration! I should come up with the most cutting insult possible so that you will regret your decision to have any negative opinions about me whatsoever."

Like most entitled thoughts, this line of thought is a reasonable thing to want. Being disliked feels bad; that's why we have a bunch of social rules about not explicitly saying when you don't dislike someone. It's natural to want to avoid ever having to experience this unpleasant thing. The problem is when a natural desire turns to an expectation that the world should be this way.

Also like most entitled thoughts, when you actually explain it it is crazy. Like, pretty much the only way it would be justified to think this is how people work is if you lived on a desert island for your entire life and learned about people solely through your copy of the Sims 2. Everyone has flaws, which means that everyone is going to be disliked for their flaws by someone. Sometimes people dislike each other for silly reasons: some people are going to dislike me no matter what I do because my writing style grates on them, or I remind them of their horrible ex, or they think my name is pretentious. Even if I were absolutely perfect in every way and somehow managed to talk everyone out of disliking me for silly reasons, horrible people exist, and I don't actually want them to like me. Their approval would fill me with shame.

One very common form of entitled thoughts is "covert contracts." A covert contract is when you make up a deal inside your head where if you do something, then in return someone else will do what you want, and then never tell the other person that this is the deal.

Examples of covert contracts: "if I never disagree with you then you will like me." (This one I am annoyingly prone to.) "If I do the dishes then my housemate will sweep the floors." "If I refer you to my company, then you'll do really well on the interview and impress my boss with your good judgment." "If I spend lots of time trying to solve your personal problems, then you will be my friend."

The problems of covert contracts are many:

  • The other person might not even want the thing you're giving them. (Maybe your housemate doesn't care about the dishes. Maybe your attempts to solve other people's problems are actually busybody meddling.)
  • The other person has literally no idea that this contract exists, and therefore will only fulfill it by coincidence or telepathy.
  • You didn't give the other person a chance to say "no" and they might not want to take this deal. (Maybe they aren't sure if they'll be able to do well on the interview. Maybe your housemate really fucking hates sweeping.)
  • The other person thought they were getting a favor for free and is going to be really annoyed at you when they discover that you in fact made a deal with them under false pretenses of doing a favor.
  • Sometimes the contracts are just crazy. (If someone likes you on the condition that you never disagree with them, you don't want to be their friend.)

The solution here is twofold:

  1. Do nice things when you want to do nice things for their own sake, not because you expect to get something out of it.
  2. If you want to make some sort of exchange (dishes for sweeping, referral for good interview performance, therapy for friendship), tell people about it ahead of time and give them the chance to say no.

(In Guess Culture, exchanges are often not explicitly discussed, but instead negotiated some other way. I am not Guess Culture enough to give advice about how to handle this, but I would suggest that your implicit contracts should definitely avoid the pitfalls outlined above.)

So hopefully at this point you can see why I think "entitlement" is a useful concept which identifies a specific class of distorted thoughts that cause harm to oneself and others. Why, then, is the term "entitlement" so universally despised, at least by the non-asshole population?

Two reasons. First, some people say that people are "entitled" when the thing they are is "sad that they can't have a desirable thing." It is true that it's very unreasonable to expect someone to date you even if they don't want to, but you still get to be sad that they don't want to date you! It is okay to be sad about the way the world is! This is an awful misuse of the term and people who do it should be hung up by their thumbs.

Second, and more perniciously, it is used to cover up arguments about which of the three categories-- basic expectations, expectations that can be negotiated, and completely unreasonable expectations-- something is in.

Recently I was watching an old John Oliver clip about the NCAA's refusal to pay its players. An NCAA spokesperson characterized the student-athletes protesting not being paid as "entitled athletes". You notice he didn't say what the student-athletes felt they were entitled to, because saying that would immediately reveal that his position was bullshit. Student-athletes think they should get paid because they are destroying their bodies to earn other people millions of dollars. Of course they're entitled to it! This is one of those "basic expectation" things. If someone is profiting off your labor, then you are entitled to a cut of it, and you are certainly entitled to not have all of your possible employers form a cartel for the specific purpose of ensuring you don't get paid.

But if he just says "entitled athletes," then everyone is like "ah, yes, entitled athletes, getting drunk and vandalizing buildings" and they fail to notice the bit where the student-athletes' complaint is actually totally reasonable.

This happens all the time.

So I would suggest never using the word "entitled" without following it with the word "to". Very very few people think they are entitled to literally everything they want. "Entitled" by itself should sound to you as strange as saying "in love" by itself: in love with whom? Entitled to what? And given people's perfectly reasonable objections to the term, even if you personally use it in your thinking, it might be best just to never use the word at all, instead replacing it with something like "so-and-so has a distorted thought that they deserve Thing."

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
21 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:27 AM

What I was planning to write while reading the article, you actually addressed at the end: Some people don't like talking about "entitlement" because that word is frequently abused to refer to any feelings (of outgroup). It it a way to make the target's emotions illegitimate, and generally dehumanize them.

Getting this out of the way, what you wrote generally feels correct. For example, I expect people not to stab be with a knife, even if I never explicitly communicated this desire to them; and I wouldn't accept "but you never told me not to stab you with a knife" as an excuse. I guess we could all agree about the example of (unexpectedly, without any provocation) stabbing one's parner with a knife. So there are at least some things where we have a consensus that they should be respected even without communication. (And if someone likes being stabbed with a knife, I guess it is their burden to communicate this desire explicitly, because the default assumption is that they do not.)

Now it would be interesting to move to the object level, and make an actual list of things people believe to be reasonable expectations. Not just the things that obviously belong there and the things that obviously don't, but also what is in the middle. Just to see which parts are controversial, and if we would get a ton of data, perhaps to do a factor analysis.

Because it seems to me possible that there will be things that 50% of population will call "reasonable expectactions" and 50% of population will merely call "preferences". I am curious where the line actually is. Of course it is not where the actual assholes say it is... but it still is somewhere. The exact line will probably change by country and by generation.

Tangentially: this would be a good thing to explain to software developers. For example that it is not okay to spy on us just because we used their software for some other purpose. Their excuses sound quite like the "social libertarian" arguments: "Hey, you never technically prevented me from tracking you across half of the internet and compiling a huge detailed dossier on your internet behavior... so I just did that, and if you don't like it, it's your fault for not protecting your privacy better." (Hi, Google and Facebook!)

Today I got really mad at Firefox, because the newest version again started displaying the most frequently visited websites on a new tab. Of course you can't just simply disable this behavior in the options dialog; you have to read the documentation and find out which value in configuration needs to be changed. While reading the documentation, I found that "Do Not Track" is disabled by default; you need to enable it manually, but in order to do that, you need to know that such thing exists in the first place. Does it mean that all people who are insufficiently computer literate to know what "Do Not Track" means actually consent to tracking? According to Firefox, apparently yes. Then I found something about "prefetching" pages, and...

...then I just snapped. Why the **** do I need to read the whole Firefox documentation in order to find all those violations of privacy that I never consented to in the first place? Why can't "do not be a creepy stalker, and do not cooperate with stalkers behind my back" simply be the default option for a web browser? (Or at least, ask "Do you want to give up your privacy for no good reason: Yes or No?" at installation.) I want the web browser to show me the web pages that I want to see. I did not ask anyone to compile my web history and display it on the monitor whenever I open a new tab. I do not want to notify Google or Facebook whenever I visit a page containing their ads or buttons that "yes, this is the same person who is registered at your website as X.Y." And I do not want to study extensively the web browser documentation whenever I want to opt out of any of this; and possibly do it again when a new version of the software is published. (And what about all those non-IT people who even do not have this option?)

So, this is my first LW comment written on Brave, which claims to be better in this aspect. I hope this is not too much off-topic.

Does it mean that all people who are insufficiently computer literate to know what "Do Not Track" means actually consent to tracking?

The idea of "Do Not Track" is that websites should give people content for free and they shouldn't be able to count how much of which articles the give out for free.

Calling the idea that free websites want to know something about their audience to optimize themselves "no good reason" is

I do not want to notify Google or Facebook whenever I visit a page containing their ads or buttons that "yes, this is the same person who is registered at your website as X.Y."

This has nothing directly to do with whether or not "Do Not Track" is send but with whether or not the browser has cookies.

"Do Not Track" is the idea that your browser should notify the server that the server doesn't use the data to which it has access to "track" you. Tracking then can mean a lot of things like Piwik counting visitor counts to specific subpages.

Tools like Optimizely that run A/B tests are also supposed to be tracking users and there are post that argue they should ignore users that send "Do Not Track".

I don't think there's anything wrong with Lesserwrong running Google Analytics and likely with the default configuration that does track visitor counts for subpages.

In addition you are getting Firefox for free, so someone else has to pay for it and that there aren't that many ways besides making deals with companies like Google to pay for it.

horrible people exist, and I don't actually want them to like me. Their approval would fill me with shame.

Why? Kurt Godel was probably a pretty nice guy. I don't think horrible people would have disliked Kurt Godel? I can e.g. imagine Nazis approving of the mathematical work Godel did. I don't see why horrible people liking you would fill you with shame?

More generally, reversed stupidity is not intelligence (or if you prefer, reversed immorality is not morality). Hitler believed that snow was white—that doesn't mean snow isn't white. To give a more relatable case, you think neoreactionaries are evil (you've mentioned that you ban them on sight), and neo-reactionaries love Scott Alexander. Horrible people love Scott Alexander—this doesn't fill him with shame. I think "Are your enemies innately evil?" is important for understanding why Scott is beloved by both nice people and horrible people.

Being banned from my blog does not mean I think you are a horrible person, nor are all neoreactionaires horrible people. (Not all members of any group are horrible people, although some can be good people who are sadly misled and cause grave harm for that reason.) However, many of the worst neoreactionaries dislike Scott Alexander greatly, and their disapproval certainly does say good things about his character.

If, for example, a person dislikes me because I am donating money to charity and they think I should use that money to help my perfectly comfortable and well-off family, I do not want that person's approval. If due to personal weakness I instead spent all my money on baby toys, and the person now approved of me, then I would feel unhappy about this state of affairs.

Reversed immorality is not morality.

Bad person dislikes X, therefore X is good seems like the kind of thinking that gets you to conclude that because the world's most foolish person said it's raining outside means that it's sunny and you shouldn't carry an umbrella.

I object to the epistemic policy you're adopting here.

I don't think horrible people would have disliked Kurt Godel?

Say what now?

If horrible people like you, that does usually mean you aren't doing enough for the people they hate.

Reversed immorality is not morality. The notion that horrible people must hate you sound unrealistic as per basic human psychology.

The author is a moral non-realist; in this case, “actually wrong” translates to “I condemn this and strongly prefer that it not be done.”

Also please stop insulting the post author. I strongly disagree with your assessments.

The site says there is one comment (before I post this), but there is not. Maybe one was deleted? Should the counter update?

Yep, it was deleted. And yeah, I should get around to making the counter decrement when a comment was deleted.

Actually, I just went and implemented a fix. Should be pushed in the next few hours.


Here's another bug I just encountered: when I clicked this comment from my notifications and got to the page where the comment shows up above the post, and then tried to upvote the comment, I got a "please log in" message, while being logged in.

Reported: https://github.com/Discordius/Lesswrong2/issues/199

You do realize deleting my comments doesn't stop them from being true.

You seem to be assuming some objective moral standard here? I'm interested in why:

  1. You think there's objective morality.
  2. You think that you are able to persuade a community where moral non realism may be a popular opinion by assuming objective morality.

It may be helpful to think of some social conventions as a protocol. Extended technology metaphor to follow.

The TCP/IP is full of standards that could have been done multiple ways and is in many places arbitrary; there's no such thing as the objectively correct transmission protocol. That said, if someone ignores the TCP/IP and tries to send packets between computers with their own personal protocol, they're not going to make much headway. There is a reasonable sense in which someone can say that they're forming and sending their packets 'wrong' despite the arbitrary nature of the protocol, especially if they haven't informed the other side how to decipher what they're sending. Plus, if it turns out someone's personal protocol says "if the handshake is not returned, send two copies of the original packet with their own handshakes" and therefore clogs up the network then I think it's reasonable to say there's probably something wrong with their personal protocol even if the system they're trying to communicate with knows the protocol.

Interpersonal protocols are kind of like network protocols. There's some sense of good and bad design around them, but no objective morality involved, just what works. Genuinely insulting people you like is kind of like trying to use your own personal communication standard with some shaky design choices on a public network; both ineffective at communication and capable of ruining someone else's day. Whether effectiveness and human utility are moral is above my pay grade, but encouraging good protocols is worth doing.

(This example may or may not be drawn from my garbage fire of a morning. Hope everyone else is having a good day, and (sysadmin voice) is networking considerately!)

"This is because it is actually wrong to insult your friends. I don't have to set the explicit "don't insult me" boundary; it is understood. "

This could either be someone saying that insulting your friends is against the magical laws that are baked into the fabric of reality, or it could be someone saying that insulting your friends is a action which produces low quality outcomes in most situations, with most reward functions.

Based on how ozy writes and the fact that they frequent LW, I'd be willing to bet it's the second one. They just haven't made it super explicit attempt to avoid language that sounds sort of like moral objectivism.

Human ethics aren't that divergent. There is a fact of the matter about what (WEIRD) humans generally consider to be wrong, and I think it is pretty clear that "seriously non-jokingly insulting your friends" falls into that category.

If a reader is like "actually, my value system implies I should deliberately try to hurt the feelings of people I like," I suspect they won't get much out of my blog posts.

The author does not belive in an objective morality, but the author does have strong preferences about how the world ought to be.

And why should anyone else care about his preferences?

For example, if I were friends with someone and they decided to tell me my hair was ugly, my blog is stupid,
This is because it is actually wrong to insult your friends.

What does it mean for something to be actually wrong? And how would one go about finding out which things those are? Does it matter if your hair is in fact ugly, or your blog is in fact stupid? (BTW, it is in fact stupid.)

For example, a lot more people believe that it is actually wrong to have sex outside of marriage then would agree with whatever your ideas about what's actually wrong happen to be.

In fact, this whole blog post strikes me as a case of you having the distorted belief that you deserve to not have to face reality or have any one do or say anything that makes you feel bad.