Understandable vs justifiable vs useful

by MichaelA3 min read28th Feb 20203 comments

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Relationships (Interpersonal)
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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.

Examples

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:

  1. Temper blame with understanding, nuance, and empathy
  2. 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
  3. 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.
  4. Do 1-3 even in social situations that naturally push me towards the fundamental attribution error, and groupthink, and the cherished conclusion that my conversational partner is definitely right and the other person (who’s not there) was definitely being utterly unreasonable
  5. Do 4 without having to be too obnoxious or contrarian in the process, and while still letting people have space to vent, which I think is valuable in itself and to maintain relationships
  6. Manage my own behaviour in social situations, where it’d be very easy - and very justified, thank you very much! - to get into a spiral of negativity

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.

Unnecessary postscript

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

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I like this. The most important question when I'm deciding what to do is usually to ask if my action will be useful/skillful, not if it is understandable or justifiable. That is, does this action stand a chance of doing what I intend.

This naturally then extends to how I think about the actions of others, such that I mostly wonder whether or not what they are doing is useful, and if it is not I am sympathetic to the difficulty of predicting the effects of our causes.

This is not to say that we should totally ignore norms or our sense of virtue or good in favor of useful or effective action that does something, since useful action is only valuable if it works to achieve something we care about, but given a base desire to see good done, I think usefulness becomes the dominant criterion to worry about.

Yeah, as a mostly-consequentialist (with caveats for moral uncertainty), whether an action is useful is also what "ultimately matters" to me. And I'm not really, intrinsically very interested in whether an action is in line with norms or a sense of virtue. But for practical purposes, I think having an explicit separation between understandability, justifiability, and usefulness has also itself been quite useful, for me.

For example, if I didn't have this clear distinction, I think:

  • I might sometimes have a harder time double-checking whether something I'm about to do really is useful, because it just feels so damn clearly understandable and justifiable. And if I did double-check, I might be more inclined to rationalise what I'm about to do, rather than being able to console myself that it really is "fair enough" that I feel this way and want to do this thing, but it's just still not actually helpful to do it.
  • I might have a harder time expressing empathy and understanding of others, or be forced to either (a) express empathy and understanding and also condone whatever they'd done or plan to do, or (b) just seem to be tut-tutting at them for being disgusting fleshy emotiony humans rather than ideal rational utility maximisers
  • I might have a harder time thinking clearly, for purposes of understanding and predictions, about actions that really pissed me off or actions of classic "evildoers" (serial killers, dictators), which could lead to black and white thinking and firm categories of "goodies" and "baddies", and a sense of indignation anytime someone tries to understand how a regular human actually ends up as a "baddie"
This naturally then extends to how I think about the actions of others, such that I mostly wonder whether or not what they are doing is useful, and if it is not I am sympathetic to the difficulty of predicting the effects of our causes.

Do you mean that, if you can't see the usefulness of an action, you stay sympathetic because you recognise that either you or them might just be having a hard time predicting the action's effects?

That makes sense, and I use that logic a lot with things like EA cause area preferences and career choices. But I think for everyday life, and especially but not only non-rationalists and non-EAs, people often aren't even beginning to predict the effects of their actions, just acting out of habit, norms, etc. That's the case for many of my actions.

So my sympathy would often focus more on how those habits, norms, drives, feelings, etc. that led to the action are understandable and - often - "justifiable", rather than on the prediction difficulties, as they may not have engaged in any prediction.

Just saw the following in SSC's review of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work:

Apart from whatever other exercise you’re doing each day, Gottman recommends a ritual of checking in after work and exchanging stories about your days. This time is a Designated Support Zone, no criticism allowed. You take your spouse’s side whether you secretly disagree with them or not. If your spouse gets angry that a police officer gave them a ticket for driving 110 mph through a 25 mph school zone, you are obligated by the terms of your marriage contract to shake your head and say “I know, cops these days have no respect.”
Gottman is slightly less strict in other situations, but he still thinks it’s very important that you take your spouse’s side in conflicts.

This made me wonder if the approach I often take, and that I suggest here, is unwise. That seems possible. But on reflection, I think this mostly just reemphasises what I already knew, which is that taking your partner's side is a good, simple way to stay on good terms with them. This fact is part of why I try to use the approach I suggest here, rather than simply saying exactly I think is true at all times, in whatever way feels most natural, with no consideration of tact and tone. And it's part of why I wrote that this approach allows me to "Do 4 without having to be too obnoxious or contrarian in the process, and while still letting people have space to vent, which I think is valuable in itself and to maintain relationships".

I'm guessing the difference between my rationale for my approach and Gottman's rationale for his advice (based on SSC's summary) is that I strongly value both staying on good terms with my partner and having good epistemic standards. And it seems that this approach allows me to achieve both quite well, most of the time, though there can certainly be tradeoffs and slip-ups along the way, and I'd advise proceeding with caution.

(Also, part III of SSC's review reveals major questions around the effectiveness and evidence-base of Gottman's advice, so maybe it shouldn't be given much thought anyway. But I do suspect Gottman is at least right in his apparent view about the value of taking your spouse's side for the goal of staying on good terms with them.)