Learning by Perturbation

Learning by Perturbation June 18, 2013

Last week, I wrote two blog posts about the danger of breaking promises and the downside of comforting yourself for doing necessary evils.  Both posts were written from a pretty Lawful (in the DnD sense) point of view, so I wanted to make sure I mixed in some other perspectives.  After the news broke about the NSA wiretapping, Moxie Marlinspike wrote an essay explaining why “We Should All Have Something to Hide” and thus are all threatened by increased surveillance.

His essay ended up arguing that occasional defections from the current understanding of the moral law are a valuable source of data.  It’s an exploration versus exploitation problem.  Because some people are willing to go out and do the thing we’ve been told is impossible or immoral, we get to overcome our positive bias and notice if we’ve been making a big mistake.

What’s often overlooked, however, is that these legal victories would probably not have been possible without the ability to break the law.

The state of Minnesota, for instance, legalized same-sex marriage this year, but sodomy laws had effectively made homosexuality itself completely illegal in that state until 2001. Likewise, before the recent changes making marijuana legal for personal use in WA and CO, it was obviously not legal for personal use.

Imagine if there were an alternate dystopian reality where law enforcement was 100% effective, such that any potential law offenders knew they would be immediately identified, apprehended, and jailed. If perfect law enforcement had been a reality in MN, CO, and WA since their founding in the 1850s, it seems quite unlikely that these recent changes would have ever come to pass. How could people have decided that marijuana should be legal, if nobody had ever used it? How could states decide that same sex marriage should be permitted, if nobody had ever seen or participated in a same sex relationship?…

The more fundamental problem, however, is that living in an existing social structure creates a specific set of desires and motivations in a way that merely talking about other social structures never can. The world we live in influences not just what we think, but how we think, in a way that a discourse about other ideas isn’t able to. Any teenager can tell you that life’s most meaningful experiences aren’t the ones you necessarily desired, but the ones that actually transformed your very sense of what you desire.

We can only desire based on what we know. It is our present experience of what we are and are not able to do that largely determines our sense for what is possible. This is why same sex relationships, in violation of sodomy laws, were a necessary precondition for the legalization of same sex marriage. This is also why those maintaining positions of power will always encourage the freedom to talk about ideas, but never to act.

You may have recognized the diagram at top from your high school chemistry classes.  When matter is in its solid phase, it’s pretty static.  Molecules still are in motion (otherwise, they’d be at absolute zero), but they’re pretty much vibrating in place.  Turn up the heat, and a solid will melt, lose its rigid structure, and its constituent molecules will slip by each other more easily.  Heat it up more, and the molecules will go careening off each other in the gaseous form of the substance.

In order to get a substance to change form, you need to take it out of its solid state from time to time.  In metallurgy, this process is called annealing — applying heat gives metal the chance to shift into a stronger form.  Previously on Patheos, Scott Herbert contributed a guest article comparing personal suffering to a process of annealing, where we emerge on the other side having “suffered a sea change/into something rich and strange.”  Marlinspike has taken this metaphor society-wide, where the transgressions of some help up have the flexibility to settle into a new shape.

It’s quite a tempting argument, which is why I don’t quite trust it.  I agree that it would be a pity for our decidedly unperfect society calcify, but I expect it’s relatively rare that I have a useful impulse to break a promise, betray a confidence, or otherwise transgress a norm.  I don’t think this is a good enough reason for the doctor who started this discussion to reveal the patient’s confession.  Better to have more of the exploration done by people who find themselves in the position described by William Lloyd Garrison in the first issue of The Liberator:

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; – but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

This conservative search strategy does, admittedly limit our chances to revise norms related to more casual spheres, like recreational drug use.  Instead of weakening our respect for ethical injunctions, I would hope to patch those errors by being more willing to ask and give answers about what a law is trying to protect.

Additionally, in our cosmopolitan world, we are not limited to our own experience. We can observe the norms of other cultures and countries and, when we notice they’ve broken the rules without any ill-effects, we have reason to question whether the taboo is necessary in our own homes (though we should remember to check if our neighbors have found a different way to contain the negative consequences, and make sure not to import the practice without the safeguard).  At a last resort, fiction — especially speculative fiction — can help us get specific when we imagine exactly how the world would suffer (or prosper) if we relaxed an old discipline.

So, let me end this post, with a fictional character exhorting a bit of chaos for the sake of good:

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  • Octavo

    Just to make sure I’m following, are you saying that Snowden, Manning, and Ellsberg’s leaks were ethically unjustifiable breaches of confidence?

    • LeahLibresco

      I think the bond of trust between employee and employer is weaker than the one between doctor and patient.

      • Octavo

        On what basis are you deciding what ethical obligations should override which promises? It sounds like we need a flowchart, or something like a long if then statement. 🙂

      • TheodoreSeeber

        I think post 1978, the bond of trust between employee and employer is non-existent.

        • Mitchell Porter

          What happened in 1978?

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Union busting began in earnest, and the stagflation hit that started the extreme slide separating the wealth of the 1% from the work of the 99%. Took several decades to progress, but trust in employment began to be broken then.

            Today, there are still a few lucky people that can count on having jobs for more than a few years running, but most of them are either academics or in government. Myself, I’ve rarely kept a job more than 18 months, always less than three years.

            I don’t trust my employers at all anymore.

  • Michael Blume

    Aren’t you conflating ethical injunctions with laws here? As an avowed Chaotic Good character, I hope I wouldn’t reveal what a patient said to me in confidence, but I happily break the law each morning to get to my BART station a few seconds faster.

  • Randy Gritter

    The trouble is that questioning everything is not the way to progress. Certainly in religion it is the lack of a doctrine of infallibility that causes protestantism to stagnate and slowly decline. If they keep digging up their foundation they can never get anywhere. In fact, I would call both same-sex marriage and legalized drug use steps backwards. They are not progress but rather the destroying of foundations on which further progress could be built but now will not be.

    There needs to be some point at which something gets accepted as settled. We don’t have that in secular ethics. Is murder wrong? The justifications for it multiply. Actually the justifications are not new but society seriously wondering whether it should accept them is. So for progress we don’t need law breaking. We need law making. We need something that cannot be overturned that can allow us to move on. But for that to exist you need that thing to be infallible when it makes those judgements. That is why Catholicism advances morally while secularism can only degrade. Catholicism has the grace of infallibility to make a new rule. Secularism can only throw out existing rules.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      I would point out though, that Catholicism *encourages* questioning. Just within the infallible judgements at the end points- both in the start point of the Deposit of Faith and the end point of Roma Locuta Est.

      • Randy Gritter

        Progress goes slow. We generally question something for a few centuries before the matter is settled. Once a matter is settled there is always another level of questions that can be addressed. It is very much like when things get settled in science through physical experimentation. It does not make science any less of a questioning discipline. It just means science can actually progress and not keep addressing the same questions.

        • TheodoreSeeber

          Exactly. When I look at cases of Roma Locuta Est, it’s hard to find one that wasn’t preceded by 600-1200 years of questioning.

          That’s why I find modern science to be a bit shallow by comparison. Of course, if we waited for 1200 years for physical experimentation to settle science, I wouldn’t be driving a prius.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    What about those of us who experience the occasional defections from the current understanding of the moral law and still end up thinking that they are immoral? Why is that data to be ignored?

  • Peter Holmes

    …still getting over the awesome fact that you used the D&D definition of ‘Lawful’. 😀 Since becoming a Catholic it has been a long time since I heard anyone talk about D&D without proceeding to rant about Harry Potter.

    • LeahLibresco

      I get to guest in a DnD game this weekend.

      • Peter Holmes

        Shhh! Still geeking out 🙂
        Seriously though, I haven’t played since they destroyed the game with 4th Ed. Pathfinder for me.

        • LeahLibresco

          Well, I’m too impatient to learn game mechanics, so I play NPCs and my boyfriend/DM does my rolls and I do the villainous dialogue

          • Peter Holmes

            You get to do the villainous theatrics? What a great gig! Wait… the DM’s GF playing the bad guys… the players are in for a bad game! 😛

    • TheodoreSeeber

      Really? In the late 1980s we used to play D&D in the back of the bus on Youth Group retreats.

  • Bill

    Well, if we look at what Doctor-Patient confidentiality is supposed to protect, I think it’s supposed to protect patients from having their medical secrets given to their employers, insurance companies or other people who might use knowledge of the patient’s condition against them. More broadly, it’s a way to make the patient feel safe in seeking treatment for any condition, even if it’s embarassing or the result of criminal or immoral activity- substance abusers could get treatment for infection they got from a heroin needle, for example, or a man who has cheated on his wife could get treatment for an std. But it’s the medical information that is protected by the doctor-patient agreement. It’s not supposed to protect people who have commit crimes from the criminal justice system. For that reason, if my doctor broke patient confidentiality to report that one of her patients had confessed to a crime, I wouldn’t feel that the spirit of the agreement had been violated and I would still trust her with all my medical data. If she was caught gossiping about someone’s hemorrhoids at the local bar, I’d feel totally different.

    Additionly, it seems that, in the UK at least, Doctors are allowed to break patient confidentially for a variety of reasons, if it’s considered in the public interest. Preventing serious crime is one of those reasons and there’s two test cases on the general medical council that deals with the same dilemma as the ethics guy wrote about.



    I’m curious to know if there are any countries without doctor/patient confidentiality…

  • grok87

    The Gospels for the past few days (Matthew 5) has been talking about law-breaking as well, the substitution of the new “Way”, the teachings of Jesus for the old Mosaic Law. Yesterday is a good example:


    Jesus said to his disciples: “You have heard that it was said,
    An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
    hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
    go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you,
    and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.”

    This kind of law-breaking seems so hard as it seems to go against our natural law, or inmost instincts. Indeed it was not so very long ago (say just 200 years) that if a gentlemen declined a challenge to duel that he would be excluded from polite society, as a breaker of society’s “law”.

    Wikipedia has some interesting commentary on the passage


    One interpretation is that the actions Jesus advocates are actually very confrontational (although non-resistant) in that they are forcing the hand of the persecutor by forcing him to break the (Mosaic) Law.

    “By giving the lender the cloak as well the debtor was reduced to nakedness. Public nudity was viewed as bringing shame on the viewer, not just the naked, as seen in Noah’s case…”

  • Erick

    It’s quite a tempting argument, which is why I don’t quite trust it. I agree that it would be a pity for our decidedly unperfect society calcify, but I expect it’s relatively rare that I have a useful impulse to break a promise, betray a confidence, or otherwise transgress a norm.

    I agree, What Marlinspike is saying strikes me as closer to “getting approval for” one’s behavior (even immoral ones), rather than “getting better at” one’s behavior. He’s putting the carriage before the horse.

    I watched CNN recently and a guest on Piers Morgan had it quite right about the NSA leaks. Snowden may or may not be justified for leaking information. But if he decided to break the law to accomplish a good, he should have stayed in the country to face his actions. Snowden should have stayed until the end of the debate he started. That’s what MLK did, what Gandhi did, Mandela did, etc. They didn’t care about the approval of the status quo. They had conviction in their cause. Snowden, however, wants approval for his actions first, before the rightness of his actions are adjudicated.

  • hypnosifl

    “but I expect it’s relatively rare that I have a useful impulse to break a promise, betray a confidence, or otherwise transgress a norm.”

    How do you judge whether the impulses are “useful”, if not in consequentialist terms? In the comments thread to the “terrible consequence of consequentialism” post, Nicholas Geiser asked some good questions about whether you would continue to say promise-breaking is the wrong choice in scenarios where the consequences are even more dire than an innocent man spending years in prison (something I would view as already a pretty dire consequence), and also made an argument for a “moderate deontologist” position which does incorporate considerations of consequences if they pass some “threshold” of awfulness. I’ll quote his comment here:

    “Leah, do you think the Doctor has an obligation to maintain patient confidentiality if the patient confessed that he was planning to blow up a major American city with a nuclear weapon? That is, do you think there are ANY thresholds that trump your obligation to keep promises?

    “I agree that the current NYT Ethicist is a shoddy moral reasoner. However, you could consistently be a “moderate deontologist” about promise keeping–you have an obligation to keep your promises, but above a certain threshold (where does the threshold lie? Good question!) your obligation dissolves. Or perhaps we might say that rather than dissolving, it is a case of “blameless wrongdoing”–you were still wrong to break your promise, but not blameworthy b/c of the harm you prevented.

    “This possibility seems like an alternative to your rejection of the Ethicist’s reasoning, where you seem to believe either that the doctor has a special role obligation to keep his promises or that this case will make him a worse promise-keeper in the future. But if you think that in extreme cases the harm to be prevented dissolves the promise or eliminates the blame in breaking the promise, there is no reason to worry about role or personal integrity _precisely because_ this is a special case.”

    • Randy Gritter

      I think this type of argument should have a name.

      Is X moral?

      Imagine a wacky hypothetical where not doing X would start a nuclear war.

      Conclusion: X is a fine thing to do.

      You see this kind of reasoning all the time. Somehow people think it is a good argument for X. The trouble is it works for any X.

      • hypnosifl

        It is common in thought-experiments to pick extreme cases to test the limits of principles–both in philosophy, and in science (really, in any subject which can be conceived of in terms of absolute principles or laws). When it comes to morality, either A) you believe that moral principles are absolute and should be obeyed regardless of consequences, or B) you make some allowance for violating rules based on consequences in your moral calculus (including the possibility that you think rules should be avoided altogether and one should choose based on likely consequences on a case-by-case basis, as in act utilitarianism which is contrasted with rule utilitarianism). Picking an extreme consequence like nuclear war is a perfectly good way to check whether someone who is using rhetoric suggestive of A) is really taking that view, or if they ultimately take option B) but just have unusually stringent requirements for when a consequence is severe enough to violate a rule. Personally, I take option B, so I don’t see it as “trouble” that it works for most any X, because I don’t take any moral principle X to be totally universally wrong to violate in cases where doing so will prevent a much greater harm. And because I take option B, I don’t think the consequences have to be nearly as dire as nuclear war to make it moral to break a promise (an innocent man wasting his life away in jail seems plenty dire enough to me, though for me it wouldn’t be dire enough to violate some other principles like “don’t torture people”), but I see the question as a thought-experiment directed at those, like Leah, who condemn promise-breaking in such black-and-white terms that they sound like they might be arguing in favor of option A. Disparaging it as unlikely in the real world misses the point, this is true of most thought-experiments (“consider a black hole evaporating until its’ diameter reaches the Planck length…”), but they nevertheless do give us better insight into how universal a given principle (whether a moral principle or a hypothesized law of physics) really is, or at least insight into someone else’s belief about the universality of that principle.

  • Cam

    “…where we emerge on the other side having “suffered a sea change/into something rich and strange.”

    Probably hardly ever. But lets just ignore data that doesn’t fit the model. Though I note you said heating metal gives it a chance to become stronger- if you shift the blame for the failure of annealing onto humans, rather than the deity, then any instance of annealing failing would not count as evidence against claims such as ‘annealing is the perfect system of the perfect creator’, ‘annealing is the best way to achieve (x)’, even ‘suffering is for annealing’, etc. Your model is kinda unfalsifiable.

    “I agree that it would be a pity for our decidedly unperfect society calcify”

    But if our society is imperfect, think of all the opportunities for annealing! Fixing social problems is like stealing personal growth from children. God knows the only way to make people perfect isn’t to create them perfect, it’s to create them imperfect and then…apply heat.

    “I expect it’s relatively rare that I have a useful impulse to… transgress a norm. I don’t think this is a good enough reason for the doctor who started this discussion to reveal the patient’s confession.”

    I couldn’t find in Marlinspike’s essay any prescriptive argument to purposefully break a law to gather data. Instead he seemed to be arguing that we shouldn’t desire a state in which transgression is impossible, because transgressions are a source of data (which you seem to agree with). It wasn’t so much about the morality of actions, but the morality of governance of actions.

    But I think the whole discussion misunderstands the nature of law. It’s not always clear what a transgression of a law involves. It’s the job of a court to decide not just what the law IS, but also what breaking a law actually involves, on a case by case basis. If we lived in a world where the government could actually stay your hand as you swung to stab someone (how would they know your intention!) we’d have much bigger problems then managing law reform.
    So I say it’s not really about law at all- for example, safety rails limit our opportunity to discover data about walking off cliff edges. It’s more of an argument that we shouldn’t do anything to limit any sort of freedom, by any means.

    I like your point about sci-fi being a tool to explore possible states. Couldn’t agree more!

    I don’t like your point about ‘asking and answering questions’. First, for my previously voiced objections to this ‘protection’ nonsense. Second, because it sails blithely past Marlinspike’s objections to just-talking-more. Not that law reform actually involves people sitting around saying ‘wait, what are we trying to do again?’. Can you front up with some sort of example, if not actual evidence, please, as to why you think this is the main problem?