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Breaking One’s Word

Most people seem to think it isn’t a big deal to break their word. It’s a “small” error to say they will do something and then not do it. Or maybe not even an error: they seem to do that on purpose as a conflict avoidance strategy. That’s often sabotaging: if they hadn’t said they would do it, other arrangements would have been made to get it done.

This has come up with rational debate policies. Due to my ideas, several people besides me have posted policies in writing. But none of them could be relied on to keep his word, and some have broken their word. A policy offering guarantees/promises doesn’t mean much unless the author is trustworthy, and most people aren’t trustworthy.

Trust also comes up when writing policy conditions. Suppose my policy says “If you agree to do X, then I will do Y.” Unfortunately, many people will simply agree to X, get Y, then break their word. Policies based on other people agreeing to stuff only works well if they aren’t liars.

Making the other person go first can help deal with untrusted people but often doesn’t work. E.g. I might want them to agree to a condition for how a debate may end, in which case I’ll have to have to talk with them for a while before we get to the end where they might break their word. Or I might want them to agree to a condition for how to behave during a debate or what procedures to follow, and they might do what they said for a while, then break their word midway through the debate.

Potential solutions include only making agreements with people with substantial reputations or requiring people to put thousands of dollars in escrow, with a neutral arbiter who will give it to me if the person didn’t follow the rules they agreed to. These approaches are problematic and would prevent most discussions from happening. But there are no serious consequences when people with no reputation, and no money at stake, break their word. And I generally only want discussions that meet some criteria that are mutually agreed upon in advance, not just any discussion with no standards whatsoever.

It’s questionable how much breaking one’s word affects people with big, positive reputations. Often I think it wouldn’t matter much anyway. Their fans wouldn’t care or might not even find out that it happened. Most people with a lot of fans wouldn’t give me any way to tell all their fans that they broke their word. They don’t have anything like a forum where I can write something that most of their fans would see. Instead, they can communicate with lots of fans with e.g. a newsletter, tweets, or new facebook posts – but if they break their word to me, they will never give me access to those things to tell their fans what they did.

My main goal with rationality policies is to explain what is rational. I’m trying to understand what people could do that would work if they did it. Creating practical solutions, that will work today, is secondary. I try to offer realistic options, and not everyone is dishonest, but many people are and I don’t have a great solution for this situation. People could study integrity as a prerequisite for having a debate policy, but I don’t expect people lacking integrity to actually do that.

One of my main motives for placing conditions on discussions is that people abruptly leave in the middle. I don’t want half-discussions. Why? Because I’ve already had the first half of too many discussions too many times. It’s the second half that contains more new information. The first half often goes over standard, well-known issues in order to get to the point of saying new things.

If people would make it a very high priority to keep their word, they would be better people, have better lives, and treat others better. But they don’t want to.

People find it socially convenient to lie. It helps them avoid conflict by lying to hide disagreements. It helps them avoid being judged negatively by lying to avoid admitting to believing anything that the person they’re speaking with considers wrong or stupid. It helps them pretend to be agreeable by agreeing to things they won’t do. Lying helps them flatter others to try to manipulate them. Lying helps them prop up their self-esteem and reputation by pretending to be something they aren’t. Lying helps them avoid the effort of thinking about what they will and won’t do, or do or don’t believe, or under what conditions their plans might fail.

People often plan to do something, say they will do it, but don’t make reasonable arrangements to make sure it actually happens. They don’t bother to set an alarm, then forget. They have no reliable project management approach – such as a todo list that they habitually check several times per day – and then say they will do something even though they aren’t in a position to reliably do anything that isn’t a habit. They don’t want to face the reality of how unreliable they are. The core problem is often that they don’t know how to follow through on their plans, and they then tack on lying to people to avoid facing reality. They tell themselves it wasn’t lying because they said they would do something and genuinely intended to do it at the time they said that. But it is lying to say you’ll do something if you aren’t going to make appropriate plans and arrangements so that it actually, reliably gets done.

Regarding debates or other interactions, I could ask people what they’ve done to improve their integrity (and rationality and skill) to be way better than culturally normal. If they haven’t put in the work, then they shouldn’t expect to be significantly better than convention at integrity, even in their own opinion. If they claim to be better anyway, they are demonstrating a lack of integrity. And if they don’t claim to be better, then they should agree with me that they aren’t in a position to agree to the debate rules – they don’t know if they will actually keep their word about that.

There are various other ways I could ask hard questions and filter people out, but I want to allow people to actually have some discussions with me. I don’t want to reject everyone as too flawed even if I’m correct about the flaws.

There are problems here that could use better solutions.

See also my article on Lying.

Elliot Temple on January 6, 2023


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