This is a quickly written post, just sharing a rough conceptual distinction that I’ve found useful in everyday life and that I think others might find useful too.
Your boss just expected you to stay late yesterday. Your partner just shot you a pretty damn sharp comment. Someone just cut you off in traffic.
Are these actions intrinsically, incomprehensibly evil?
Or can you at least comprehend what led these people to such sins, despite there clearly being no adequate justification for them?
Or are these actions in some sense justified - perhaps from some sort of common sense or deontological perspective - but still just not helpful or not what should’ve been done?
For another example, maybe you’re about to shoot your partner a pretty damn sharp comment. Anyone would surely understand why you’d say it, in the circumstances - and it seems fair enough, really, given what they just said about The Event, which you’ve already apologised for. But is saying it going to make either of you any happier, or just spark another spiral upwards through the decibel charts?
Since I was a teenager, I’ve regularly leaned on a rough distinction between understandable, justifiable, and useful actions. I’m not sure when I “came up with it”, or if I stole it from somewhere. It’s also very possible everyone already uses something like this distinction themselves. But in case not everyone does, I thought I’d share the distinction, as I’ve found it very helpful.
I won’t define my terms; their standard definitions work quite well here, and I’ll let examples do the rest.
Let’s say someone’s complaining about something their boss did. I might respond with something like:
To be honest, I do think I can understand why your boss did that, because of incentive X and norm Y. But, I still think it was uncalled for and unfair on you [unjustifiable], and that it just made things worse [not useful].
Or I might say:
To be honest, I do think I can understand why your boss did that, because of incentive X and norm Y. In fact, I can even see how, from a certain angle, it might have been ‘fair enough’, given past-bad-behaviour-of-yours Z [justifiable]. But I still think it was just fighting fire with fire and making things worse [not useful], and I can see why it’s pissed you off. And I think a better and more mature boss would’ve recognised that and taken a more positive approach.
I also use the distinction quite similarly I’m just thinking about others’ behaviours, rather than discussing others’ behaviours.
Perhaps most importantly, I sometimes use this distinction when thinking about my own behaviours - either reflecting on what I’ve done or deciding what I should do. For example, let’s say I’m in a discussion that’s getting heated, where fingers are beginning to be pointed - a fairly sharp reply swims to mind and is just about to escape my lips, but then I think:
Actually, wait, should I say this? I think it’s totally understandable that I’d feel this way and that I’d make make that known, given the circumstances. And to be honest I think it’s totally fair - what they just said was unreasonable, and did hurt me, and I did try to let them know this situation might come up [justifiable]. But I think maybe I’m getting too heated, and this is just slinging negativity back at them, and it’ll sound like a told-you-so - and I did tell them so, but still, saying that right now is just going to make them even angrier [not useful], for pretty natural human reasons.
When that last sort of example comes up, I feel very glad I have this distinction in mind. I think it substantially improves communication and happiness for (in particular) both me and my partner.
Though note that there are some times when I think the distinction collapses, or becomes perhaps counterproductive - specifically, times when I think it’s quite important for me to just simply report what I’m feeling, with as few filters as possible, rather than running it through a check first, moderating my tone, etc. But it’s easy to set the distinction aside in those times, and I sometimes make explicit that I’m doing so and why, partly so there can be an awareness that I might not 100% endorse everything I’m about to say.
What this is good for
Roughly speaking, here’s what I think this distinction helps me do:
- Temper blame with understanding, nuance, and empathy
- Avoid the view in which “bad people” are monsters who we cannot understand - or who we must refuse to understand, because to do so is to partially accept their deeds
- Predict people, and recognise my ignorance
- I’d say that anything a person does is, in principle, understandable. Some machinery led them to do that; some combination of genes and environment, of disposition and circumstance. It is often the case that I can’t currently understand someone’s action, but “that is a fact about my own state of mind, not a fact about the phenomenon itself.”
- If I had to see “bad people” as incomprehensible monsters, I couldn’t even begin to predict or prevent their bad deeds, or what leads others to a habit of such bad deeds.
I’ve not really tried to make this distinction precise and rigorous, or to integrate or compare it with various philosophical concepts or debates. I just find it a useful, simple, pretty common-sense tool for my own thinking, and I hope it can be for yours as well.
In my informal usage, I implicitly mean this as a sort of hierarchy, where basically all actions are (in principle) understandable, some subset of understandable actions are justifiable, and some subset of justifiable actions are useful. But when I came to actually writing this post, I realised that, depending on how you operationalise each of the three key terms, there might be cases that deviate from that. In particular, there might be things that aren’t justifiable (in some sense) but are useful, such as:
- a “bad action” done “for the greater good”
- a totally weird action that has “no rational basis”, but is good from a game-theoretic perspective