On mind-reading

I feel that explicit communication of preferences and emotions is frequently oversimplified as an ideal habit. Obviously, clear and open communication is invaluable in most intentional social situations, but it’s also a common (and less frequently addressed) failure mode to not place enough value on needing to explicate as little as possible because you’re being understood more effortlessly, on an intuitive level.

The subcultures I vaguely identify and interact with tend to be especially fond of explicit communication over mind-reading. This could be because many people roughly in this category (nerdy, analytic, thing-oriented) would seem to be somewhat below average at intuitively reading other people, which could make it more difficult to see how well mind-reading works when it works, and in some cases because empathy and related concepts are disvalued as a result of this (and even seen as fundamentally opposed to systemizing and rationality). Dichotomies such as the empathising/systemising divide in Baron-Cohen’s work on autism contribute to these attitudes, and I’m guessing it’s not implausible that there’s something to this divide in how the human brain works, but these thinking styles being inherently neurofunctionally antithetical to each other to the extent that empathizing should deserve its irrational reputation isn’t something I would bet a lot of money on (except on the scale of individual situations, perhaps).

However, in many social environments I hang out in both online and in person, the culture has developed a firm appreciation of explicit communication while half-ignoring that explicit communication sometimes is actually genuinely worse than the nonverbal, gut-level understanding it enhances and replaces, that it certainly takes more effort from one or both of the parties in many situations, and that many people would probably benefit from cultivating and trusting their skills in intuitive empathy more than from being told that communicating every preference explicitly is the only good way to build and maintain healthy relationships (and expecting anything else is ridiculous and just causes silly problems to irrational people who expect some sort of magical mind-reading from others).

This doesn’t mean that all functional relationships require high levels of empathy, of course, and ideally the more empathetic people should of course accommodate those who require more verbal information about other people’s internal states. But in close relationships especially, you may run into a major compatibility issue where one person expects their intuitive signals to be understood because empathizing is a fundamental and important aspect of how they think, and the other person kind of scoffs at this and genuinely believes that the more empathetic party is demanding impossible, supernatural levels of mind-reading – again, because this is how their thinking generally, kind of fundamentally works. And this may not always be solved just by increasing explicit communication, because it in turn will quickly exhaust the person who possibly has spent most of their life not needing to describe their basic emotions and preferences to other people, and this is a form of labor that really really drains their energy. (I have on a few occasions been super exhausted by people who have wanted to have this great and healthy explicit communication thing with me, and I haven’t seen what the root of the problem was until years later, because of course explicit communication in every situation is the most important mark of a healthy relationship, and it would be silly to expect anyone to read my mind, right?)

In conclusion, the way discussing every issue explicitly is valued over everything else prevents many people from seeing that a close relationship they are trying to build with someone might just never work as well as it would with someone else because of this difference. Lots of explicit communication is not always a sign that your relationship is great or even functional; it isn’t what’s valuable in itself, being able and willing to respect each other’s preferences is. Lacking this, looking at the relationship and going “yup, gotta increase verbal communication” is sometimes a patch to fix something that wouldn’t have to be broken in the first place. Similarly, trying to improve your empathy levels to fix this may also not work out depending on the extent to which empathy is part of your congenital personality (and I’m sure many (most?) subcultures also demand exhausting accommodations from the people who would prefer very explicit emotional sharing – it’s just not something I run into as often as I see the anti-empathy sentiment described here). I’m not sure I have a good solution, but respecting other thinking styles and even trying them out to the extent that you can will probably not hurt, as unsatisfying and insufficient as it may sound.

Re: “We just don’t know enough about ecology to reliably prevent wild animal suffering without causing more damage in the process”

Say there’s a horrible moral disaster going on at the moment that you (1) know about, (2) know something could at least plausibly be done about, (3) know we don’t currently have enough information to safely do much about, but (4) know how to collect at least some relevant and potentially useful information about. This is not a very difficult problem: if you know what kind of information could be helpful to alleviate the issue, the first step in alleviating the issue is in fact collecting more information, not just deciding whether or not you should help based only on your existing knowledge.

A simple miniature version of the same situation is knowing someone vulnerable is lost in the freezing cold forest area nearby, knowing you could (with your better navigation equipment and warm clothing) probably track and save them if you were there, knowing you wouldn’t be able to find your way to the forest from where you’re currently standing, but also knowing you have a smartphone you could probably use to find your way there. Ignoring other things, obviously you should consult the smartphone or otherwise seek the necessary information to help out the person in trouble: you may not immediately know the best map application or where your winter boots currently are located, but there are many ways to increase your relevant knowledge base here, and thinking about it for a while instead of dismissing the issue sure would help. If we expand the analogue to include the rest of civilization as well, there’s also the helpful folks with dogs and helicopters: maybe you could encourage them to do the job in case you think it’s not where your comparative advantage lies. What you probably wouldn’t do is shrug and accept that someone will definitely die out there just because there are multiple steps and some uncertainty in the process, and you don’t immediately know how to do the object-level helpful things.

When talking about wild animal suffering, all but the most radical utilitarians and altruists are understandably super cautious about doing anything substantial. Some people simply have strong intuitions against meddling with the natural order (no, not the natural order that directly hurts human societies, just the more natural natural order, the nature, you know) which I think is a weak position for reasons I won’t go into right now because other people have written about it in length before. Some people don’t think things are so bad for wild animals anyway, probably because they feel suffering and satisfaction are somehow hedonistically commensurable and animal lives have some good moments as well (whereas I reject this view of pain an pleasure as the opposite, positive and negative aspects of the same stuff – they can be indirectly compared using preferences for different tradeoffs, sure, but experience-wise they’re not simply opposites in valence, but fundamentally different (and the bad is more relevant than the good)).

But the majority of people I interact with seem to basically accept that the lives of wild animals are often really bad, nature isn’t inherently sacred to the extent that we couldn’t help sentient beings out there – it’s just that we don’t have enough information, so our hands are basically tied. Some of these people accept that there might be a point in the distant future where we could maybe do something about the issue, while some people don’t really think about this possibility either, because the task sounds so thoroughly daunting. Both responses ignore the possibility of actually immediately working to increase our understanding of ecosystems so as to build sufficiently informed, actionable plans to alleviate ecological suffering, which is exactly what we should urgently be doing, instead of just accepting our temporary helplessness.