Against an Originalist Interpretation of My Beeminder Goals

May 2014

Your Beeminder goal is to hold down calorie intake, and you are close to derailing. You arrive home from work to find that your friends have decided to throw you a surprise birthday party! They have gone to considerable trouble to arrange a sideboard groaning with all of your favourite food and drink. If you partake, you will certainly derail. If you don’t, your friends will be hurt and insulted.

Let’s be clear here: you will be worse off if you obey the letter of your goal in this situation. Or you will pay a possibly quite large fee when there is no justice in the fee whatsoever! Had the possibility of a surprise birthday party been foreseen when the goal was written, the framer (i.e. you) might well have specified that in such circumstances the binding could be relaxed for an evening.

But it is impossible to foresee every possible similar circumstance, and if you were to try, you would find that your goal definition became pages long!

It is obvious that the framer of the goal was writing at a time (perhaps months ago!) when surprise birthday parties simply weren’t part of life, and also working within quite a small textbox. Do you have any obligation to hold yourself to this outdated and frankly maladaptive goal?

I answer no.

We must look beyond what we understand as the original meaning of the goal, and even beyond the original intent, to discern the motivating objectives that supported them. For instance, in this case the objective is quite likely to be to lose weight. This objective is one that can allow occasional and responsible indulgences, as part of a healthy diet.

Remember, in our “hypothetical” situation, both the framer and yourself at this time, could you discuss it, would be in agreement: a temporary relaxation of the goal is quite appropriate in this situation. Neither you or the framer disagree, it is only the goal text that stands in the way of the right action, a few words in a text box! Why would we allow a piece of paper to stand between us and what is right?

There are several alternatives open to you should you wish to avoid injurious penalties:

You may lie to Beeminder. After all, it is a tool to use for your purposes, not the law or a friend you must not let down. The legal status of the checkbox you checked on the goal form swearing not to “weasel” (a regrettably perjorative term) has not been tested in court yet to my knowledge.

A less drastic alternative is to conceive of a post-hoc safety buffer to average today with the next 3 days. After all, people forget to enter their data all the time, and sometimes for days at a time. And Beeminder will not mind if you delay data entry and then return after 3 days to enter the (full & correct) figures, as long as the average for those days is then below the goal rate. This has the advantage that no one is being lied to in the long run. Since returning to enter the correct data is a commitment, you may even beemind it to make sure!

Some objections may have occurred to the reader, which I will address in the rest of this note.

The author is a weaselling weaseller. But this is simple name-calling! If you have nothing more substantive to add then this may be quickly dispensed with.

There is an amendment process already defined and available. We should use that process if the goal is no longer fit for purpose.

True, it is possible to amend the goal, but the amendment process by law takes at least 7 days, which is simply too long in our hypothetical where the need is pressing and dire.

It may have taken considerable time to reflect on and generate the goal which it is not necessary to go through again. It may have been drafted in consultation with other people who would not agree with our interpretation, despite the justice of it.

Since it is not desirable or possible to try to encode every possible temporary revocation in the text of the goal, trying to amend the goal now to address the surprise birthday party situation may not be effective to deal with the surprise leaving party that occurs the month after, and we are back to the same problem.

No, far better is for a respectful and compassionate judge (i.e. you again) to interpret the goal in line with both the underlying objective that it reflects and the needs of the time. What is important is the spirit of the objective, not the precise wording of the goal text.

It is your own fault for not building up a reserve that can be used in situations like this.

To deal with this point it is only necessary to point out the possibility of three surprise birthday parties occuring on consecutive days.

If we behave like this, then we will lose our respect for the law. We will do what we wish and it will be as though Beeminder doesn’t even exist.

Finally we come to an objection with some force. First of all I will say that in the alternative option, to delay data entry for a few days to allow it to average out (which is the alternative I would recommend), we are still keeping our commitment to Beeminder in the medium term.

But perhaps you would think that even this is disrespectful to Beeminder, which demands accurate data promptly, or that this is the beginning of a slippery slope.

I point out that Beeminder is a tool for achieving your own objectives, and nothing in what I have argued changes that (participating responsibly in surprise birthday parties definitely being a part of your weight loss objective). If the goal is an ass, why must we obey it? We may disobey a bad goal without losing respect for the good goal.

But to finally answer this I must demonstrate the proposition that the force of a goal is not derived from it’s text, which I will now do.

I have observed that my goals lie on a continuum from goals which important, and a central part of my identity, to goals which I hardly care about at all. It’s odd that goals of the latter type ever get written, and yet somehow they do end up on the books.

For goals that are central, the prospect of permanently derailing is mortifying. and I will do anything, or happily pay large fees, to ensure that the goal retains it’s force for me. For goals that I don’t care about, I will do anything short of lies to ensure non-derailment. Say: do one second of the required activity, or even in one memorable occasion redefine the meaning of the number “1” in the context of the goal.

So my not caring about some of the goals has not affected at all the force imposed on me by the other goals.

So, if this is true and goals can have different levels of force, then the obligation to obey them cannot be solely generated by the Beeminder system and the goal text. They are empty mechanisms without moral feeling.

For instance, consider all those people who sign up to Beeminder and then never enter any data and leave and derail. Obviously they feel no obligation on them to obey the Beeminder system or their goal text.

The obligation is built up from other things: It is built from the power and long term stability of the objective behind it. It is built from a long track record of sticking to the goal (even through derailments). It is built from knowing that if you do this, you will achieve your objectives.

It is these cultural norms and precedents that create a goal that obligates, not a simple piece of text that was entered into a box in perhaps one minute of drunken tomfoolery!

And since all of these things are intrinsic to you and contingent on the goal and the circumstance, it is very possible to feel yourself completely bound by some goals and hardly bound at all by others.

In this case, the weight loss objective may also be defined a goal in itself, and one that you consider very important, while the calories goal is of lesser importance, and perhaps one of several sub-goals you are pursuing for to achieve your objective. To say that a temporary relaxation of the sub-goal will destroy your motivation for your main goal is absurd, when they are of such different relative importance.

This should demonstrate that if your goal is one which is central, then a temporary relaxation will hardly affect your motivation, and if it is not, then it is not. If it is important to you, it will remain important to you.

Having dealt with the most prominent objections, I think I have demonstrated those who advocate the originalist, hyperformalist interpretations of Beeminder goals are hidebound conservatives simply not attuned to the needs of the present.

And therefore, I am going to eat this slice of flourless chocolate cake I won in a work teambuilding exercise.

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