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This Is About The Time When You Say, Damn, Law School Has Really Messed With Your Brain

December 18, 2009

I’ve been considering writing a book on practical ethics for a while. Then I realized Aristotle already accomplished that 2000 years ago.

So what is left is the beginning of a project that will likely out me as a sociopath, but might spark an interesting debate.  Aristotle laid out four different kinds of people: the virtuous, the evil, the continent, and the incontinent.  I’m not really concerned with the first two (someone whose passions are aligned with the ethical path, as opposed to someone who is aware of the right thing to do but disregards this because he doesn’t value it).

The middle two types are far more interesting, and… existent.  Those exhibiting continence and incontinence are both aware of the correct path but must overcome counter-ethical impulses (generally short-sightedly self-interested in gaining pleasures and releasing anger) to follow it.  The difference between the two is that the former is more able to defeat them than the average person, the latter less so.  For most of us, at least if we strive towards the ideal of a virtuous life, the goal should be to be as continent as possible – the practice of doing so may eventually subdue the passions enough to align them with our rational sense of what is right (about here is where you can begin to suspect a Catholic upbringing).

For me, and I suspect many analytical types, this overcoming process is difficult without a code or principle to live by, some external authority from which we can judge our actions.  Without a code, it becomes very easy to forsake a long-term commitment to excellence and virtue for decisions that seem/are pleasurable right now. Furthermore, concrete ideas as opposed to impromptu decisions based on feel are an indicator of wisdom.

So what follows is what I have in mind.  There are several common social interactions which create frustration, hurt feelings, and lead to damaged reputations.  It would be productive for all of us seeking to live a continent life to follow an explicit code designed to minimize the above, constructed to help us make decisions reasonable people affected by them could not be upset over, even if their impacts are negative.

Ok.  Enough of why I’m posting this.  The first I’m going to cover is the extent to which we should always honor commitments we make to others, such as accepting an invitation to go to a dinner party, a wedding, to make a meeting, or a coffee date. Well-intentioned people often agree to plans because they don’t want to disappoint others or because they feel bad saying no.  Then they are placed in situations in which they feel obligated, looking for a way out later.  Others agree to things and back out of them out of such unacceptable reasons as laziness and other plans.  I think the rules below would help such folks do the right thing even when their motivations and impulses are pulling them not to.

Since I have really begun to be brainwashed by internalize law school, the code looks a lot like, well a code.  I’d be very interested to see if y’all think that I have this right.  Or whether you think the second-person plural is appropriate, I’m sort of up-in-the-air about it.  (Note: I’m definitely not saying that I follow this all the time, but I do think it’s attainable and I’d be a better person if I did.  That’s sort of the point of this: a code that ensures excellence and wisdom in our interactions with others.)

There are only three rules to live by, but since the situations are often complex, the subheadings cover exceptions and qualifications that a reasonable person would understand upon explanation.


A. Never agree to do something you don’t actually want to do.

i. Others have no right to your future time.

ii. Agreeing to do things you don’t want to do will lead to difficult choices under B.  It is better to avoid making commitments so as to avoid gaining a reputation as a flake or a liar.

iii. Generally people invite us because they think we’ll have a good time.  Accepting an invitation when you won’t defeats this expectation, and thus the purpose of the acceptance.  If someone invites you because they think you will have a bad time, they aren’t worth making commitments to.

iv. This rule will prevent you from biting off more than you can chew.  If being busy will make you not actually want to do something normally fun, you can go back to the principle to prevent yourself from making poor choices.

B. Only break an obligation under extreme circumstances.

i. Habitually or flippantly breaking promises to be at a certain place and at a certain time can only lead to the conclusion that you

1. are undependable

2. don’t value the other person’s time

3. don’t value the other person

4.  are not excellent because in breaking promises to others you have demonstrated infirmity of character.

ii. These are not extreme circumstances:

1. Something more fun has come up.

2. You don’t really care about the person you’ve committed your time to.

  • a. This line of reasoning could have spill-over effects on your reputation and future decisions.  The delineation of who you ‘don’t really care’ about will become fuzzy without a steadfast dedication to this principle.  See ‘Yes Man.’

3. The person who has committed to you has broken promises in the past.

  • a. This is not an excuse because spitefulness is not an excellent quality.
  • b. Reputation can still be negatively affected by breaking commitments to those who’ve upset plans with you.  Though hypocritical, such a person can still rightfully be upset especially if the commitments, from his/her point of view, differ in kind.
  • c. Keeping your commitment can break this cycle.
  • d. The better solution is to not make plans with people who can’t keep plans.  Or to tell them that’s why you are not making firm commitments if they ask.

4. You no longer feel like it.

  • a. Generally you’ll be glad you went anyways.
  • b. You run a very real risk of not only being perceived as, but becoming a flake when you use this excuse.
  • c. If this might be a possibility (you weren’t that excited to begin with), simply don’t accept the invitation.
  • d. Another alternative: “Oh, I’m not sure if I can make it.  Is it ok if I call you on the day of, or play it by ear?”

5. You can’t get others to go with you (unless this was an express condition of the original commitment).

  • a. This is one of the lamest possible excuses.  Many commitments are only bearable with a companion.  But making this excuse is insulting to the person on the other end of the commitment. It also makes obvious that you only made plans out of obligation, which is further damaging to your reputation and may necessarily hurt the other person’s feelings.

iii. These are exceptions:

1. Unforeseen (reasonably unforeseeable) conflicts with work and family obligations.

2. Canceling with enough time ahead to allow the person to make other plans, as long as it is accompanied by a sincere apology and a both sound and true explanation.

3. The plan was expressly conditional from the outset.

  • a. “I will go as long as I don’t have a lot of schoolwork.”  This excuse lets the person know you probably won’t be coming.
  • b. “I will go as long as I find a few other people to join me, I need to be able to split a cab ride back.”
  • c. “I will go as long as Michael cancels his plan with me that Friday, which he probably will.”
  • d. “I will go as long as this concert doesn’t run over time.”

4. Your presence at the gathering will not be missed and the reason isn’t B(ii)(1).

  • a. This is important because the worst of all social mistakes is breaking a commitment only to then go do something else.  If that person finds out what you did, you’ll deserve the consequences.
  • b. There are extreme circumstances: you have just been invited to participate in a game show for example.  Or you found out your favorite band is playing and you still have plenty of time to cancel.
  • c. Use this exception with caution: at poorly attended parties your absence will not only be missed but resented.

5. If you find out later what you agreed to is significantly different from what you thought.

6. You don’t have enough funds, and this could not be rectified by making the reasonable sacrifices.

7. Other situations that would make your commitment impossible to fulfill.

iv. All other extreme circumstances would be a judgment call.  Consider whether the decision would be understandable to you, assuming that you were really excited about the plan.

C. In the case of conflicting commitments, always go with the one you made first.

i. This will upset the person you made plans with later, but if you tell them that the reason is principled, i.e. not personal, a reasonable person cannot be rightfully upset.

1. This situation is common enough that the person should understand it is not a personal affront.

2. Upon reflection, this person should understand that your principle is the only fair way to approach this problem without signaling that you value some people more than others.

3. Significant others will probably not understand this as much because you have a special relationship.  However, flaking on friends for the sake of new plans with boy/girlfriends is the quickest way to shrink your social circle to 1.  Avoid the impulse as much as possible.

ii. It is absolutely irrelevant how much more fun the later plan is, given C(i)(2).

1. For this reason it is extremely important not to break a commitment, lie about the reason, and go do the other plan.  Others will not know your lie and are probably obligated NOT to spread it.  You cannot contain who knows what you are doing, and this course of action will inevitably come back to bite you in the ass.

iii. The only exception to this rule is when your later commitment has in some way caused that person to rely on you going – for example they have purchased you concert tickets, or can’t find anyone else to go with.  And only if the former commitment hasn’t also caused such a reliance.

1. Regardless of your principle, it would make any reasonable person bitter with you for causing them to lose money or miss out on a fun opportunity on account of your careless promisemaking.

iv. This rule is not supposed to incentivize not having your shit together enough to make non-conflicting plans all the time.  A pattern of this behavior is extremely annoying.  Thus, you should only seldom have to exercise this rule.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kurt permalink
    December 19, 2009 1:17 pm

    What happens when you just stop coming to, say, a weekly event like, oh, say, wing night? What are the guidelines that govern you in that type of situation?

  2. J W permalink
    December 19, 2009 3:48 pm

    In this case I don’t think you need worry about the author missing wing night.

  3. Cortney permalink
    December 23, 2009 1:19 am


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