Incomplete Information and the No-Fault Zone

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

In the event of an emergency, the most important thing is to assign blame…. or so my friend Mick seemed to think. Mick was the sort of man who, whenever anything bad happened, Mick needed someone to be at fault.

If his wife was driving the car and a stone chipped the windshield, it couldn’t just be an accident; no, he had to blame her for taking the wrong route where a malicious stone was clearly present, or not swerving in time to avoid a pebble travelling at speeds high enough to chip a windshield. If it rained on vacation, well, clearly someone had chosen the wrong place, or the wrong time, and they must be assigned punishment.

It got to the point where when Mick’s daughter got injured in a freak accident, his wife breathed a guilty sigh of relief – because she hadn’t been in charge when the daughter was hurt. Thankfully, the kid had been in Mick’s custody when the accident happened, which meant that he didn’t have anyone else to blame.

(The daughter’s fine, by the way.)

I don’t think it’ll surprise you to hear Mick’s marriage didn’t work out. But his divorce brings up a useful tool that needs to be in the skillset of most relationships: The concept of the no-fault argument. And for the no-fault argument to work, you have to believe – really believe – in this essential truth:

Two people, both acting with the best knowledge they have and the purest intentions, can still hurt each other deeply.

That sounds crazy to a lot of folks. “She loves me, and she never means to hurt me,” they say. “So if I get hurt, it must be something she meant to do.” (Or, the flip side, “If she’s hurt, that means I set out to hurt her… and I wouldn’t do that.”)

That leads to more Mick-style arguments because blame must be assigned… and who wants to take the blame for hurting someone? Or worse yet, being so stupidly fragile that you got hurt through the vagaries of silly mistakes?

In the card game Magic, though, there are world-class players who lose even though they made, what appeared to be on the surface, a perfect play. Why? Because in Magic, you play with most of your opponents’ cards hidden from you. You can’t see what’s in his deck or in their hand. A good player can guess to a reasonable certainty what’s there, of course, but you never know for sure until they play a card for all to see.

This leads to a lot of situations where the player, thinking that their opponent has card A, makes a genius play that would utterly foil his opponent if their opponent had card A. But they don’t! They have card B, and as such the perfect play turns out to be a devastating rout.

That’s right: you can make the perfect move, only to find something you couldn’t have foreseen.

This is one of the reasons why Magic is, quite literally, one of the hardest games in the world. You act on limited information; your strategy is based on guesswork. A lot of the heavy lifting in Magic involves trying to fill in those gaps, and you do that with a variety of techniques: Looking at what they’ve played in the past, knowing what sorts of plays they like to make, understanding what sorts of decks they feel comfortable playing.

Likewise, in relationships, your partner is also a hidden book. You can never read someone’s mind. You can only act based on knowledge from their past actions –
and let me tell you, my wife and I have been close friends for over twenty-five years, and still about once a year we stumble upon some unknown trauma that’s like stepping on a wasp’s nest.

Point is, it’s impossible to catalogue everything that will hurt your partner. You can accidentally tread on some past hurt you’d have no way of knowing existed, or do something innocuous to you that seems a lot more serious to them.

And when that happens, it’s bad enough that you accidentally hurt them – but when they trust you enough to come to you and say, “What you just said upset me. I know you didn’t deliberately set out to upset me, but you did, so can we talk about this?” and you counter with, “Well I didn’t mean it,” you have just assigned blame.

Your partner’s already acknowledged that you didn’t set out to do it – but by defensively saying, “Well, I didn’t mean it!” you’re trying to change the focus on the argument from “What you did” to “What you meant.”

Listen: In many cases, good intent means nothing. You can be racist with good intentions, you can be rude with good intentions, you can exclude people with good intentions. What matters is not what you meant, but what your actions actually did. And as long as you’re attached to the idea of your good intentions being some sort of shield against all ill, you’re going to keep causing problems – because you’re so busy proving that your intentions were pure that you’re ignoring the very real lessons that “Hey, you meant well, but this behavior is causing problems.”

You must understand that we’re all operating off of hidden cards and incomplete information. You can make the perfect move based on what you knew at the time, and have it be the wrong move because you didn’t know enough. The question is, are you going to learn more so that you can make better, more-informed, and less hurtful moves in the future – or are you going to spend your energy convincing everyone that this losing move was actually the right play?

Repeat after me: Two people, both acting with the best knowledge they have and the purest intentions, can still hurt each other deeply. Life is messy. Life is weird.

Sometimes, things just happen.

It ain’t satisfying. But the truth rarely is.

(This is a revision of an old 2009 LiveJournal post, which a friend of mine asked to exhume because she wanted to reference it and I’d shut down my LJ. Here ya go!)

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous Alex
    May 13, 2020

    And now I want to see the commentary, because this seems like the sort of thing I might’ve commented on before. (And also I miss the pre-russian commentary.)

    It still takes me some conscious effort to remember to give people the benefit of this doubt, but I think I’m getting better.


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