This post is inspired by the recent Ziz-revelations posted here and elsewhere.

Chesterton Fence injunction: Do not remove a protective barrier unless you know why it was put there in the first place.

Schelling fence injunction: Do not cross a generally agreed upon guardrail, lest you end up sliding down an increasingly slippery slope, not noticing until it is too late.

I think a term like a Chesterton-Schelling Fence injunction might be useful: Respect an ethical injunction even if you think you know why it was put there in the first place. 

A somewhat simplified example: There is a rather strong Schelling fence against, say, killing someone. Suppose the stated reasoning behind it is "God commanded so". Some day, you deconvert and start questioning the tenets of your faith, throwing one injunction after another, assuming you know why it was there, not realizing that this particular Chesterton fence is fake, the real reason is an unstated Schelling fence that has little to do with religion, but a lot with living in a society.

I said "respect" not "obey", because it is often hard to tell whether there is a hidden Schelling fence behind a Chesterton fence, and how strong the former is. Or vice versa. Or how many of the various hidden fences are there. Is it okay to cheat in an unhappy marriage? Maybe, maybe not, but noticing that this is an unsafe territory, that respecting the societal norms is generally a safe default, and that crossing it is likely yo backfire in both expected and unexpected ways can be quite useful.

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Yes, and:

Chesterton's Fence is often invoked by the people who tore down a Chesterton's Fence.

A really quite facepalmingly excellent example of this is American middle-class attitudes toward child-rearing; in between 1900 and 1960 we medicalized almost everything about how kids are born and cared for and raised, in the sense that we promoted what random doctors think over the established collected wisdom-of-the-ages.

Which, to be clear, is not a thing I'm fundamentally against; actually checking our assumptions against the data is how progress is made, and how we get things like handwashing and vaccines, and kids do die way way less now than they did in the year 1900!

But a bunch of things unrelated to the actually important medical stuff were also outsourced to doctors talking out of their asses (er, excuse me, "outside of their domains of expertise"), and a bunch of how kids have lived and been socialized for approximately forever was suddenly pooh-poohed and delegitimized and subsequently vanished or began slowly drying up.

Cut to a few decades later, and most people think that the way it's been done for about two or three generations is the way it's always been done (it isn't), and if you try to do something different, they invoke Chesterton's Fence and shout "don't tamper with this, it's the received Wisdom of the Ages!"

When it really, really, really isn't.

This is a single example of a thing that happens A LOT. Cultural memory is short and fickle, and often it is precisely the Dangerous New Experiment that gets defended as being the Timeless Wisdom.

(There were of course other things going on with child rearing besides medicalization, such as e.g. the development of national media causing people to be afraid of a lot of things that were extremely unlikely to happen to them.)

There's a different principle that's important here, which is that the space of bad ways to do things is almost always larger than the set of good ways to do it, and appealing to what has been sufficient so far is at least a great way to ensure you don't do far worse. I'm not going to try to make the argument fully right here, but in general, doing things differently means you're risking new failure modes - and the fact that it was once done this way doesn't avoid the problem, because the situation now is different. (On the other hand, this is a fully generalized argument against trying anything, which is bad if overused. It does function as a reason to exercise significant additional caution.)

Yeah, I agree with that, and it is an important consideration to keep in mind, that anything outside the yellow brick road is a minefield, but sometimes you have to bring a minesweeper and carefully make your way. I guess my point is that it pays to be aware of and to respect the minefield.

I don't want to speak for Duncan, but that's not the meaning I took away from his reply. What I took away was that the received traditional wisdom often times is neither traditional, nor especially wise. Very many of our "ancient, cherished traditions", date back to intentional attempts to create ancient cherished traditions in the roughly 1850-1950 era. These traditions were, oftentimes, not based on any actual historical research or scientific investigation. They were based on stereotypes and aesthetics.

To return to the fence analogy, it's important to do a bit of historical research and try to determine whether the fence is actually a long-standing feature of the landscape or whether it was put up (figuratively) yesterday by someone who may not have known more about the territory than you.

EDIT: One common example is "blue for boys, red for girls". In the past, red was the preferred color for males, because it was considered to be more "active" and "energetic", as opposed to the "cool" "passive" energy that blue exuded. At some point this flipped, with blue becoming the color of reason and consideration (and thus associated with "rational" males) and red becoming the color of passion and emotion (and thus associated with "passionate, emotional" females). Why did it switch? Some people blame some marketing campaigns that were carried out at the turn of the 20th century, but the reason isn't totally clear cut. What is clear to me, however, is that when people started associating blue with male-hood and red with female-hood, it wasn't because of some careful consideration and close examination of the previous era's choices regarding color associations. So, today, when associating colors with gender, I don't feel any particular loyalty to "blue = boy; red = girl", because that association wasn't chosen via a considered process and hasn't been in place nearly long enough to have established itself as a truly time honored tradition.

Definitely a common situation, where "our ancient traditions" are barely two generations-old. I think that was Duncan's point, as well as yours. Sometimes there is a good reason for the tradition to exist, and sometimes there is not. And sometimes there was a good reason but not any longer, and it is impossible to tell without earnest historical research, as you say.

I never heard "red for girls" (or "red not for boys", for that matter), only "pink for girls".

Cut to a few decades later, and most people think that the way it's been done for about two or three generations is the way it's always been done (it isn't)

As possibly one of those people myself, can you give a few examples of what specifically is being done differently now? Are you talking about things like using lots of adderall?

I wasn't thinking adderall, although that's a plausible example.

I'm thinking of things like "it's not safe to leave ten-year-olds alone in the house, or have them walk a few miles or run errands on their own." It's demonstrably more safe now than it was in the past, and in the past ten-year-olds dying from being unsupervised was not a major cause of death.

(More safe because crime is lower, more safe because medicine is better, more safe because more people carry cameras and GPS at all times, etc.)

Up until three or four generations ago, people routinely got naked to swim in creeks and ponds and quarries, casually and easily, and it was fine and not a major vector for sex crimes or moral corruption.

Up until three or four generations ago, people (in America) weren't insanely terrified of cosleeping and didn't erroneously believe that it was putting your infant at irresponsible risk (it isn't; the data are clear and cosleeping is done in the majority of the world, including many nations with lower infant mortality than the US).

Up until three or four generations ago, kids would rub shoulders with way more adults, in way more contexts, rather than today, where lots of people think that kids should never be around adults who aren't currently doing a professional kid-oriented job (and should restrict their interactions to the domain of that job).

It wasn't even three or four generations ago that our system of taxation (in the US) was wildly different, and now many people act as if wanting to increase taxes on the wealthy is an affront to the Founding Fathers.

These are just off the top of my head, and they're skewed in the direction of some of my areas of interest; apologies for that. The main point is, it doesn't take very long at all for people to forget—if your parents raised you insisting that X was commonplace, and the people around you largely got the same programming, it's hard to know (unless you check) whether X was actually brand-new at the time, or maybe just a generation old.

EDIT: The "nuclear family" is baaasically an invention of the twentieth century; the term wasn't even coined until the 1920's iirc and it didn't become the assumed default until post WWII.

EDIT II: Suburbs! Levittown.

EDIT III: the number of foods that people think we've had forever (bananas, broccoli) but are actually quite recent additions to the human diet.

My mom (who had children starting in 1982) said that doctors were telling her (IIRC) that, when a baby was crying in certain circumstances (I think when it was in a crib and there was nothing obviously wrong), it just wanted attention, and if you gave it attention, then you were teaching the baby to manipulate you, and instead you should let it cry until it gives up.

She thought this was abominable; that if a baby is crying, that means something is wrong, and crying for help is the only means it has, and it's the parent's job to figure out how to help the baby.  Furthermore, that if the parent's response was to not help the baby, that would be teaching the baby something extremely bad about the parents' relationship to it.  And generally she was in favor of mothers listening to their instincts.

I believe she said that, as time went on, some actual research was done, which generally favored her views.

A quick google turns up a study: , which says this:

In April 1971, Sylvia Bell and Mary Ainsworth presented a paper at the Society for Research in Child Development. Using data from Ainsworth’s now famous ‘Baltimore Study’ of 26 mothers and their infants, they reported that infants whose mothers responded more quickly to their cries in the first 3 months of life were less likely to cry at 9–12 months of age than mothers who responded more slowly. The following year, a paper including these data was published in Child Development and in the nearly 50 years since it has been cited more than 1,500 times. The paper challenged then the dominant view of behavioral theory, which held that responding to crying reinforced the behavior and fostered dependence.

I guess the "behavioral theory" was what my mom found abominable (and what the doctors she complained about subscribed to), and the Ainsworth study favors her views.

The linked study seems to say that further evidence looks ambiguous.  Not gonna dig into it now, but I would lean towards trusting my mom's opinion.

This post is excellent.

Rather than thinking in terms of "safe" and "dangerous", I think it makes more sense to think of it as "more risk" and "less risk" where marginally increasing risk is effectively increasing a tax on the expected value of a change. On individual cases it might depend on individual risk premiums, but for larger groups it's more about the risks from causality cascades.

This strikes me as a fully general argument against making any form of moral progress. Some examples: 

  1. An average guy in the 1950s notices that the main argument against permitting homosexuality seems to be "God disapproves of it".  But he doesn't believe in God. Should he note that there is a strong cultural guardrail against "sexual deviancy" according to the local cultural definition, and oppose the gay rights movement anyway?
    1. Does the answer to this question change by the 1990s when the cultural environment is shifting? Or by the 2020s? If so, is it right that the answer to an ethical question should change based on other people's attitudes? (Obviously the answer to the pragmatic question of "how much trouble will I get into for speaking out?" changes, but that's not what we're debating.)
  2. A mother from a culture where coercive arranged marriages are normal notices that the culturally-endorsed reason for this practice is that young adults are immature and parents are better at understanding what is good for them, so parents should arrange marriages to secure their offspring's happiness. She notices that many parents actually make marriage decisions based on what is economically best for the parents, and that even those trying to ensure the young person's happiness often get it wrong. Should the mother think "this is a guardrail preventing breakdown of family structure, or filial respect, or something important, I will arrange marriages for my own sons and daughters anyway?"
    1. NB: I'm trying to be clear I'm talking about arranged marriage of adults, not child marriage, although that is also a practice that has been endorsed by many cultures, who would presumably be able to name "guardrails" that banning child marriage would cross.

I get that you said "respect" not "obey" guardrails presumably for reasons like these, but without more discussion about when you "respect" the guardrail but bypass it anyway, this seems roughly equivalent to saying that there is always a very heavy burden of proof to change moral norms, even where the existing norms seem to be hurting people. (In the two examples above, gay people, and everyone who gets married to someone they don't like).

An average guy in the 1950s notices that the main argument against permitting homosexuality seems to be "God disapproves of it". But he doesn't believe in God. Should he note that there is a strong cultural guardrail against "sexual deviancy" according to the local cultural definition, and oppose the gay rights movement anyway?

Gender equality, contraception/sexual revolution, gay rights, etc., all seem to be part of a pattern if society switching from treating the purpose of sex as being building families to treating the purpose of sex as being pleasure and expressing relationships.

This leads to several questions he could philosophize about:

  • Is having children good or bad? Is pleasure good? Is equality good? Is freedom good?
  • How big of an effect will the cultural changes have on families and pleasure and equality and freedom?
  • Are there any cultural elements that are good or bad for reasons other than their consequences? If so, what are those reasons?

Chesterlling fence? :)

there is one main problem with this argument, and this that people who want to cross Fence aren't safe on their current position. 

for example, high-commitment communities is "safe" social default, one very old that survived from before we were humans. but, as Ozy wrote, "One of the most depressing facts about high-commitment communities is that they almost all cover up child sexual abuse."

this is the safety of the Fence. this "safety" sucks. 

the sister that went no-contact with her rapist father is the black sheep of the family. she is the radical, the revolutionist. all her family think she is bad daughter and she should not deny her father his granddaughter. her sister, who send her little boy unsupervised to his grandfather, even after he start to wetting himself again - she is the conservative, who respect the status quo.

i want to be the black-sheep sister. i can't see the other option as anything but abomination. 


different argument: what is the fence? because if you ask me, cheating in unhappy marriage IS the fence, the conservative view. the unconservative view is you can just divorce. very new, was definitely not like that during most of the history. while constant cheating, sometimes with "self-respecting woman have husband and lover" as folk-wisdom idiom, was the norm in some times and places.

so how can you be respectful of the fence, with you don't know what side is the conservative one? 

(it's like what Duncan said, but from different angle)

DM me for my discord and I will send you my first comment draft for this post, containing my thoughts on Chesterton-Schelling deontology and on rules generally. I spent a good 9 hours writing it and it's very verbose and dramatically non-metacontrarian; it would get downvoted to hell for pretentiousness and I might wake up tomorrow largely in disagreement with it.

I suggest thinking about it some more, doing an editing pass, and publishing. Perhaps with appropriate disclaimers. And if it's long and stands sufficiently on it's own, you can publish it as a top level post.