On (Toothbrush) Standards

I listened to a Very Bad Wizards podcast the other day; episode 84, which is about “stepping outside of your own perspective in ethics, science, or politics”. Given such a topic, I was a bit surprised by the discussion at the start of the episode about “litmus test” books and movies; i.e. about the idea that a person’s liking (or not liking) a particular book or movie  might serve as an indicator that your relationship with them would fail. Sure, I used to say I would never marry anyone who hates True Romance. But, I’ve changed my mind – now I think that maybe one of the great things about relationships is that by liking things you don’t like (or the other way around) friends and partners actually force you to step outside of your own perspective. A sort of “A Whole New World” type attitude to love, y’know?

Anyway. I can’t remember Dave or Tamler making that link, but they did eventually get around to the impossibility of stepping outside, which did all sorts of “stepping outside” things to my mind.

Because, because, Moral Tribes and toothbrushes!


Let’s start with the Moral Tribes book, by Joshua Greene. I really liked it, if that’s the right thing to say about a book that frustrated me so much.  I think the problem was (is) that although I agree with his argument, I was left feeling like… “so what?” Like the argument he was making wasn’t going to help in any way; that instead of even saying “let’s agree to disagree – but here’s a way forward anyway”, it was saying “let’s agree to agree – and that will solve all our problems!” Which means that those who agree already agree, and those who disagree can just be like “nope”. I know that doesn’t really make sense, but it’s a good book; you should read it and maybe you’ll see what I mean.

And, it is related to toothbrushes. When buying a new toothbrush, I have to choose between soft, medium, and hard brushes, and the various options that combine soft, medium, and hard bristles all on the same brush. This makes me think about a joke I heard once,  about how the combined-bristles brushes probably came about because someone was having difficulty choosing between the soft, medium, and hard options, and thought they could “solve” the problem by creating a 3-in-1 brush.

It’s not a very good joke, but xkcd put it as well as anyone (albeit in a different domain):

The point is that if you want to solve the problem of competing standards (or toothbrushes, or ethical/political systems), it won’t do to simply introduce a new standard. Even if you think it is “better” by some objective (?) measure, you still. have to. convince. everyone. to adopt it.

And so I think Greene is going to have a hard time getting everyone to agree to agree; for essentially the same (well, related) reason that Dave and Tamler think that the stepping outside (e.g. “veil of ignorance”) approach of Rawls’ bakes in various assumptions about the original position. How do we know that the combined-bristles toothbrush is better? I would rather argue with/be convinced by someone who isn’t so focused on “stepping outside”, but who rather wants to “step in”, and try to see things from a shared perspective. And then maybe we can watch True Romance together.

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