The Iron Ring and Heroic Responsibility

Content note: scrupulosity triggers

The iron ring, on my finger, with a deep purple background.

I conceived of the following piece last saturday, on my way into the Iron Ring Ceremony, a.k.a. the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer.

The iron ring is to remind engineers to care more about human welfare than following orders or doing what’s convenient.

I’m intending to frame it personally as being about heroic responsibility. Which is, I think, the natural extension of the ritual.

The concept of heroic responsibility comes from the brilliant fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It’s from chapter 75, but the spoilers are vague enough that unless you’re at chapter 70 or something then I wouldn’t worry about it:

The boy didn’t blink. “You could call it heroic responsibility, maybe,” Harry Potter said. “Not like the usual sort. It means that whatever happens, no matter what, it’s always your fault. Even if you tell Professor McGonagall, she’s not responsible for what happens, you are. Following the school rules isn’t an excuse, someone else being in charge isn’t an excuse, even trying your best isn’t an excuse. There just aren’t any excuses, you’ve got to get the job done no matter what.” Harry’s face tightened. “That’s why I say you’re not thinking responsibly, Hermione. Thinking that your job is done when you tell Professor McGonagall – that isn’t heroine thinking. Like Hannah being beat up is okay then, because it isn’t your fault anymore. Being a heroine means your job isn’t finished until you’ve done whatever it takes to protect the other girls, permanently.” In Harry’s voice was a touch of the steel he had acquired since the day Fawkes had been on his shoulder. “You can’t think as if just following the rules means you’ve done your duty.”

The myths say that the original iron rings were made of materials from the twice-collapsed Quebec Bridge of the early 1900s (which took 88 lives during its construction). There’s no evidence that the rings were forged from its ruins, although the disasters definitely helped forge the ceremony itself. It was designed by Rudyard Kipling, who wrote its oath and also this relevant poem. The ceremony is understood to be private, so I will not be discussing anything that was not available to me prior to attending. Which makes this excerpt of the oath fair game, since it’s public on the internet:

I […] bind myself upon my Honour and Cold Iron, that, to the best of my knowledge and power, I will not henceforward suffer or pass, or be privy to the passing of, Bad Workmanship or Faulty Material in aught that concerns my works before mankind as an engineer, or in my dealings with my own Soul before my Maker.

Let’s ignore the soul part for the purpose of this post, and look closer at this one:

“in aught that concerns my works”

But what does concern my works? What works do I concern myself with? Through the broad lens of heroic responsibility, it’s not just about the deaths I might be responsible for by designing a faulty bridge that collapses. I can still hold myself responsible for the deaths that occur as a result of the technology I fail to develop or even fail to conceive of. In order for this to be at all sane, I need to keep in mind that I have finite resources and that each action therefore has opportunity costs. There’s also a risk of this just feeling overwhelming, because of all of the deaths I would understand myself to be responsible for.

Two keys to this:

1. Framing effects: remember the thing where people choose [a certain chance of saving 200/600 people] over [a 1/3 chance of saving all 600 people], but choose [a 2/3 chance of all 600 people dying] over [400 people certainly die], even though those are exactly opposite decisions?

So I’ll frame it as “lives I’m responsible for saving” rather than “deaths I’m responsible for”. Obviously it’s a bit more complex than this, but this points at the thing.

2. Avoiding self-judgment: I want to honestly appraise my own impact on the world, but I don’t want to kick myself unnecessarily when I fail. I just want to do better. This is especially important in a context where so many outcomes are probabilistic anyway—i.e. even if something turns out poorly, it may still have been the best decision. The oath includes:

For my assured failures and derelictions I ask pardon beforehand of my betters and my equals in my Calling here assembled…

One important aspect related to this is where to go on the risk-reward spectrum. It’s easy to have guaranteed small positive impact, by e.g. volunteering at a homeless shelter. But since we’re facing risks to the survival of the entire human race, and I am responsible for lives not yet created as well, I will be aiming at whatever I deem to be the most likely leverage point towards averting these and colonizing the stars.

The remainder of the post will be a brief reflection on my thinking around oaths and behaviour change, focusing on this one in particular.

Oaths that lose their original purposes

I learned this lesson early. At age 15, I found myself in a kind of long-distance relationship. As we parted ways for what we knew would be months, she left her hair elastic around my wrist. I decided to keep wearing it, and wrote her an email describing some personal change that she’d inspired me to undertake:

i’ve been wearing your hair elastic on my wrist since you gave it to me, and i’m going to leave it there as a kind of reminder that i want to change

6 months later, she stumbled across that old email, and sent it back to me, suggesting “i think you should rate yourself of how well you held up to all that stuff this far into the year!” In my response I remarked that I had done pretty well, but that I was “completely ashamed of forgetting that the elastic is for change, and not just for you… because I had completely forgotten until I saw this email again”.

In other words, it had become a kind of wedding band, and I had completely forgotten my vows.

But, at the time, FollowUpThen didn’t exist, so I couldn’t tell that email to return to my inbox every few weeks to remind me of my original purpose. FUT will likely form part of how I keep this in my consciousness long-term, though I may also incorporate some daily rituals.

Oaths that only change thought, not behaviour

Topher Hallquist writes:

The problem is that once you’ve committed to “do the right thing all day, every day,” you’ve given yourself a powerful incentive to rationalize whatever you do do as being the right thing.

It’s generally hard to change behaviour suddenly, even when that change is relatively concrete. But it’s even harder to accurately assess something like whether you’ve been “doing the right thing”, meaning that you’re likely to mess it up a lot of the time and it’ll be hard to notice when you do. And that’s without a firm commitment to doing the right thing. With a firm commitment, depending on how it’s framed, you may become actively averse to noticing evidence that you might be failing. To some extent this makes sense: if you think you’re failing, then whatever you swore that commitment on must clearly not matter that much to you. So it’s a bind.

I have lots of thoughts on this particular subject, but for now suffice it to say that this is definitely a context within which you want to commit to trying, rather than to succeeding. As long as you don’t forget, of course, that the goal is to succeed, and that that’s the ultimate metric that matters.

What my hero ring commitment looks like

So given everything above, how am I actually framing this for myself?

I’m going to regularly (daily to begin with) take some time to reflect on the following statement, periodically revising the words so they point more directly at the meaning I have in mind:

I commit myself to focusing the lens of heroic responsibility and using it in as much of my decision-making as feels reasonably possible. I am not merely responsible for following my object-level role in a context, nor the meta-level role of one-who-does-the-ethical-thing. I am responsible for doing whatever it takes to protect the world, permanently. I am not holding myself to be forced to perform any particular actions, simply that I do not accept any limit to my responsibility: no point when I can pass matters off and say “I did my job; it’s out of my hands now.” I may delegate, but I remain responsible for the outcomes.

Sometimes it might make sense to me to take a breather; I’m responsible for what happens in my absence.

Hang on, that last bit is not quite right—if the thing I need most in order to be effective for the world is rest, then there is no absence. So let me try to rephrase that:

Sometimes I might observe that I have, senselessly, distracted myself from my responsibility towards the world. I remain, in the other sense of the word, responsible for what happens as a result.

I am responsible for acting, at all levels, as best I can towards the continued survival and thrival of humanity.

This ring and I are new to each other. I feel like I’m still developing a relationship with it. But it’s going to stay on my finger, and my responsibility is going to stay in my consciousness.

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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