Bryan Caplan  

How Evil is that Sheep?

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Kids, Opera, and Local Status... We Don't Need No...
And in any policy debate, I don't assume that the people on my side intellectually are somehow morally superior or more honest. In any particular case I usually give that 50-50.

--Tyler Cowen, July 31, 2008

This essay is not politically correct and at times it is misogynous and yes I believe the author is evil (seriously).

--Tyler Cowen, August 2, 2008

Moral philosophers distinguish between (a) the right; (b) the good; and (c) the virtuous.

Rightness is a moral property of actions; we should do right actions and refrain from wrong ones.

Goodness is a moral property of overall states of affairs; the more valuable stuff a state has, the more goodness is has.

Virtue, finally, is a property of a human being's character. A virtuous person is willing to perform the right action purely because it is right. When we describe someone as "morally superior" to another person, or just plain "evil," we're normally talking about their virtue, or lack thereof.

Now it's often hard to know what's right or good. Strange as it seems, for example, it's often wrong to do good. But figuring out who's virtuous is even harder. A person could do the right thing without fail, but still be entirely vicious. For example, it's right not to murder people. But if the reason why you don't murder people is that there's not enough money in it, you're still a villain.

What makes assessing virtue especially difficult, though, is the well-known fact that people are sheep. They do stuff because they want to be like other people. It's conceivable, then, that a very nice person might be no more virtuous than the typical Nazi, circa 1941. If you switched their peer groups, would they switch their behavior? If so, why do you consider one more virtuous than the other?

Note, however, that we can reverse this thought experiment. If you meet a very nice person in Nazi Germany, he's probably extremely virtuous. If you meet a Nazi in modern America, he's probably satanically evil. You have to be a serious villain to stand up for unpopular atrocities.

Questions: If you're with me so far, what does this imply about Tyler's lead quotes? Are the people who agree with you really no more virtuous than average? Is it reasonable for Tyler to conclude that Devlin is "evil"? Why or why not?


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COMMENTS (26 to date)
larry writes:

I read most of that guy's essay. I could not determine what part of it revealed its author to be evil.

And the estimable Professor Cowen didn't deign to sketch it out for us.

It pains me to say this because Professor Cowen is one of my favorite bloggers and seems to be a remarkably wonderful guy, but I think "evil" is whatever positions he really dislikes.

Jonathan W writes:

Virtue has nothing to do with mutual accord. For instance I could assert that I am going to vote for Obama because it is time that we have a black president. There is no virtue in that statement as a black politician is as likely to be corrupt as any other ethnicity. However if you someone were to reverse the statement and say that he will not vote for Obama because he is black, that appears to be villanous and anyone who agrees with that statement may be viewed to be racist. The two statements (about Obama) are virtue-neutral but they make it clearer as to how people get caught up in the sanctimony of good and evil. If my good intentions are reasonable (like Tyler's) and are thoughtfully constructed then anyone who stands against them or perhaps even questions their rationale is villanous.

It is reasonable for Tyler to assume that Devlin is evil because he has concluded that his arguments or his reason is flawless.

It is much the same with many of my colleagues. I have not and refuse to take a position on global warming. For many this constitutes an evil because in their eyes, I refuse to see the truth. I assert that there are too many scientific assumptions but concede that these assumption can still be true; not enough to save me for being branded as a villain, a climate denier who has chosen not to see the self-evident truths. Perhaps I am an evil man to be skeptical, but then I believe there is great evil in the pursuit of ignorance or action in the absence of facts. Yet I don't believe global warming alarmists to be evil; they want to be heroic and be part of a great movement (after all, what could be more heroic than saving the planet and all of mankind from itself?) In the fervor to save the planet they may actually do greater harm. Skeptics like myself may doom the planet with our inaction.

greenish writes:

He probably didn't intend it this way, but that 50/50 could be read as implying that those on his side are more virtuous, just not by a whole lot. As in, 50/50 chances that someone is more virtuous, rather than a different kind of sheep (which is probably better odds than on the other side).

liberty writes:

What if people are mistaken about what is "right"? Could they not still stand up for horrible atrocities against the masses, thinking that they are the morally superior one?

Also, can one really compare the thought-crimes of an un-virtuous person (who doesn't commit murder because it doesn't pay well) to a person who commits actual crimes? Where is that cut-off line? How perfectly virtuous does one need to be on the inside, if they purposefully keep their actions righteous?

Can a thought-crime really be a "mortal sin" or equivalent to an active-crime?

I'm not sure I agree with your definitions here.

An engineer who is good at building bridges is a good engineer. The steel he uses must be of high enough quality to do the job – it must be good steel. When building begins on the bridge, it can only be done in good weather. A good engineer is good at being an engineer. Good steel is steel that can be depended on to do the job at hand (being dependable to do the job at hand is also a feature of being a good engineer). Good weather is weather that provides favorable conditions for what work the person wants to do – in this definition, rain is good weather for a farmer, but bad for our engineer. A good person is thus a person who is good at being a person. We must work at being good – ethics is work. But ethics is not necessarily what works. One has to keep in mind the end at which one aims. We need an idea of proper ends, a proper target at which to aim. The proper end of our engineer is obvious: to build a bridge that will span the gulf at hand and remain intact. He must design and build a bridge that does the work of a bridge.

From the example above, we can now distinguish between bad and evil. A bad engineer is one who is not able to design a bridge that will do the proper work of a bridge. An evil engineer is one who is able to design a bridge that will do the proper work of a bridge but who chooses instead to design a bridge that will not do the proper work of a bridge. For the bad engineer, the destruction caused by his bad bridge is incidental to his inability to design a good bridge. The bad engineer is bad because he is ignorant. He would build a good bridge if he could. For the evil engineer, the destruction caused by his bad bridge comes about because he chose to make a bad bridge so that it would cause destruction. The evil engineer is evil because he knows the right way to build a bridge, but chooses not to do so. He can build a good bridge, but chooses not to.

I talk more about this topic on my blog. The relevant posts can be found here.

How about understanding "moral philosophy", "good", "evil", etc. as natural phenomena? A good starting point that has been recommended to me is the SEP entry on moral psychology.

Instead of using nazi germany as a trope or a foil (good america vs. bad nazi germany), how about understanding concepts of good and evil in nazi germany? I think they must have been fairly complex and robust to have kept a society of millions functioning.

As an aside, I'm wonder to what degree nazi germany was decentralized as legislative law was replaced by individual bureacratic discernments of "what Hitler wants", and if that helped its rather effective and efficient performance compared to some of its competitor nations.

liberty writes:

"The evil engineer is evil because he knows the right way to build a bridge, but chooses not to do so. He can build a good bridge, but chooses not to."

Isn't this also the Catholic thing about purposefully turning one's back on God? But, what if he decides purposefully to wish to build a bad bridge, but in fact he makes a good bridge because he wants to keep his job? Does his desire to build a bad bridge constitute as much a sin as if he actually did it?

My problem with that is that the substance of desire does not exist in real terms -- he may desire it up until the point of taking the action, you never know if he would go through with it if he had the chance. If suddenly his employer made it possible, you can't know that he would actually build the bad bridge. Only actions - demonstrated preferences - actually exist. Thoughts are only thoughts, and thought-crimes should not be punishable - by government or by religion.

(Once again socialism and Austrian critique help me work out my morality!)

mk writes:

I think we are missing the simplest possible explanation: Tyler's wife reads his blog.

Or put in a less flip way: we are most protective of ideas which directly support our way of life, especially our relationships.

If Tyler thought the linked paper undermined Tyler and his wife's shared understanding of gender relations, he would be very inclined to put up a firewall (e.g., the word "evil") to make it clear to his wife that he is not rocking the boat.

The only other time I saw Tyler call something "evil" was in reference to the writings of Internet lothario Roissy.

Snark writes:
Is it reasonable for Tyler to conclude that Devlin is "evil"?

If it is, he has no one to blame but himself:

To most people one of the big important causes of bad things in the world is evil people. Thus a central question to them is what causes people to be evil. It seems to me that a standard theory of evil is that while most of us know intuitively that we should not cross certain moral boundaries, this voice of conscience is weaker in some, and with practice, rewards, social support, and excuses, such people find they can convince themselves they are doing nothing wrong when crossing moral boundaries.

This is a big problem for we economists, as we seem to be constantly giving people excuses and social support for violating what most people see as moral boundaries. And we seem to have weak consciences ourselves. So we seem to be a big cause of evil people. - Robin Hanson

If people are sheep, their sense of virtue must be heavily anchored in what they perceive as right or wrong in terms of socially acceptable behavior. Economists, like Dr. Hanson, are acutely aware of this, yet dedicated to helping society overcome this type of cognitive bias by working around "common patterns of error or self-deception" towards a better world.

stanfo writes:

In everyday conversations, I make it a rule to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. When others assume the worst about other's intentions (in this case, that they are evil), I always correct them.

Have you ever met someone who you truly thought was evil? Evil as in having the worst intentions? Trying to do the opposite of what they think is right? I have not...

As Bayesians, we should update our probabilities to take this info into account.

P.S. Tyler's ideas are not inconsistent, since his first statement starts with "In policy debates..."

Jason Malloy writes:

No, Dr. Cowen doesn't really believe Devlin (and Roissy) are "EVIL" for their unflattering paleocon theories about feminism, "men's rights", and the female sex. The subtext in that hyperbolic condemnation cum irresistible advertisement is that he finds them original and insightful economic-minded thinkers about gender politics, but wants plausible deniability while transparently promoting them to his readership which includes friends, colleagues, and family. (both roissy and Devlin also share opinions on race that are outside of the polite mainstream)

In other words he is a coward.

(And no it is not credible he discovered the Devlin piece through Hanson, instead of roissy, whose blog he obviously follows surreptitiously since he has repeatedly quoted from it without links or citation. Even if Hanson did originally give him the tip, he mentioned this specifically so his readers wouldn't assume he was reading roissy, where he knew it was also being discussed. In other words to further mislead about his guilty intellectual sympathies.)

Jason Malloy writes:

And by the way, people generally define "evilness" by political beliefs, but in my experience that is a very poor indicator of personal character and sympathetic capacity. As you indicate, politics are mostly just social conformism. (politics I believe can be evil in their effects without necessarily being held by evil people)

'Criminality' is a character trait including willingness to lie to, cheat, physically hurt, steal from, and use others for selfish gain and purpose. This is a truer indication of what people are thinking of by "evil": lacking the emotional machinery of morals.

WWII Germans were ironically probably much lower on criminality than populations at other places and times. For instance there were low amounts of crime despite the incredible poverty of the Weimar Republic. The fact that normal Germans killed with such little compunction (not just sociopaths) suggests that they were doing so because they genuinely believed in bad information, not because they were differentially lacking in moral traits.

Americans commit more crime than other Europeans (yes, even when controlling for minorities) so I believe we really are more "evil" than Germans, both modern and Nazi. (but Russians have long been much worse)

MasterChief writes:

It would make sense to read all three (or four) of Devlin's articles: http://differing.blogspot.com/2008/07/devlin-againsorta.html http://differing.blogspot.com/2008/07/devlin-againsorta.html

Jason,
Given that Prof. Cowen's reputation seems to be much stronger than yours, do you think his choices are smarter from a reputation-maximizing perspective?

Tyler Cowen writes:

Some of these commentators are insightful. I would add you can restore equilibrium to the two propositions simply by recognizing that some of the people on your side are also evil.

Jason Malloy writes:

HA,

The very little I have written has gotten disproportionate (positive) attention. So, no, the man isn't keeping me down. But I have nothing to do with academia.

You are suggesting Dr. Cowen's intellectual circumspection has helped his academic career. I don't know, but GMU is kind of already the refuge for nonleftwing academics. And Dr. Cowen is also, relatively, not that politically correct, just clumsy when he tries to be. He also is a very talented thinker and economist, and it would be gauche to suggest his status isn't meritorious.

But, I think, the evidence does suggest that unPC academics face steep career obstacles, so you are correct that generally an academic reputation is furthered (or saved altogether) by intellectual cowardice. And still, that might make it understandable, but it certainly doesn't make it good. Especially when other people's reputations are injured to further one's own. (e.g. calling people "evil")

"But, I think, the evidence does suggest that unPC academics face steep career obstacles, so you are correct that generally an academic reputation is furthered (or saved altogether) by intellectual cowardice. And still, that might make it understandable, but it certainly doesn't make it good. Especially when other people's reputations are injured to further one's own. (e.g. calling people "evil") "

This is absolutely right. Someone with intellectual cowardice (who knows the good but does what is bad for his own benefit) is doing something evil. And when someone tries to harm someone else's reputation to benefit themselves (which we all know is unethical), they are doing something evil. There are lots of bad people who simply don't know what the good is -- which is why they are bad, and not evil. Knowledge matters.

Incidentally, "to sin" is an archery term, meaning "to miss the mark." Thus, in Christian morality, both the bad person and the evil person sin. I do prefer to make the distinction between good and evil, though. I'm just Greek that way.

larry writes:

I don't think anyone has answered yes to Bryan's last question - whether it is reasonable for Tyler to conclude Devlin is evil (and why).

I think the burden of proof, or at least the burden of explanation, almost always has to be on the person who claims another person is evil. The rare exception to this is when the evil deeds of the person claimed to be evil are well-known.

mk: I had the same thought. I can remember TC asserting someone was evil only two or three times. Once was Roissy and once Devlin. I also like your guess as to why he wrote this (although I have no idea whether it is true).

Ray Gardner writes:

I sped read that essay looking for evil and found none.

Went to Tyler's entry on it, and found no example from him that remotely approached evil.

Tyler is condemning a man as evil simply because he strongly disagrees with him. It's that simple.

Tyler has just shown himself to be outside the normal parameters of reasonable thought, and is thus, quite unreliable on matters outside of basic economics.

As for the question of morality, I don't think people who disagree with me are evil, but those that think morality is subjective - as opposed to being objective and thus universal - are foolish in a vain and self-deluding fashion.

Now, is my statement combative, or merely agreeing with the premise that people are sheep?

Academia in general strongly supports a utilitarian view that says morality cannot be objective.

And so just like the mindless German peasant in 1941 following the jingoistic fervor of their leader, the average academic follows unquestioningly in the utilitarian doctrine because to do otherwise would require more courage than the average man can stomach.

larry writes:

To Ray Gardner's point that Tyler has shown that he is unreliable on matters outside basic economics - I think Tyler is terrific on all matters related to food, on travel, and many other topics. One of the reasons he is my favorite blogger is when I open Marginal Revolution I see good writing on all sorts of topics, from markets in everything to excellent recommendations on things to see, eat, and do in Buenos Aires or Tokyo.

But I have to agree that Tyler doesn't seem to have the same quality of analysis on dating. Or maybe he is just reluctant to share it, perhaps for reasons discussed above.

sourcreamus writes:

I read the article and found nothing evil in it. Perhaps, Cowen has read other articles on the site that do contain evil and he is preemptively disassociating himself with those articles. Or, maybe he thinks the article is true but the truth is in service to an evil agenda that is only apparent by knowing the author better.

I didn't read all of Devlin's article (not enough time at the moment), but from the intro., the bit I read, that I skimmed, and the conclusion, I didn't find anything overtly evil. Sounds mostly historically accurate. He seems, in his conclusion, to overlook the fact that humans were mildly polygamous early on, and as we developed stronger sexual justice (for various reasons), true monogamy became the norm.

Now perhaps the complaint lies in the last line of the paper, which warns specifically "the Occident" that we need to restore marriage, which has the suggestion of racism to it. I think the author is thinking more of cultural Occidentalism, which is a preference and not a racist issue. But the author doesn't make it clear. It's only suggested. Certainly if the author is being racist, as is implied in the last line, and he knows racism is bad (as he should in this culture -- though we must remember that racism is not considered bad in most cultures, primarily in ours), then he is evil.

voodooeconomist writes:

tyler was probably just being a PC sheep in saying he believes devlin is evil. that's likely why he didn't give any reasons or analyses to back up his belief.

mensarefugee writes:

And Caplan was just being PC as well. Not discussing the article, but rather discussing what Tyler said about it :P

Kenny writes:

[ Answers embedded below ]

Questions: If you're with me so far, what does this imply about Tyler's lead quotes?

And in any policy debate, I don't assume that the people on my side intellectually are somehow morally superior or more honest. In any particular case I usually give that 50-50.
--Tyler Cowen, July 31, 2008

[ This may be reasonable. Where's the data? 50-50 may not be such a bad heuristic. ]

This essay is not politically correct and at times it is misogynous and yes I believe the author is evil (seriously).
--Tyler Cowen, August 2, 2008

[ He is correct about the PC-ness, it is also misogynistic (misogynous); I don't agree the author is evil, probably because I sympathize with the author's beliefs. Tyler disagrees with the author, emphatically and broadly and he made a moral judgement. I disagree with the author too, but the author is very deft in his rebuttals (and he's aware of Tyler's comments!). ]

Are the people who agree with you really no more virtuous than average?

[ In general, why not? I would like to believe that they are more virtuous, but I should minimize that implicit bias when judging any argument. ]

Is it reasonable for Tyler to conclude that Devlin is "evil"? Why or why not?

[ Yes, I think it's a reasonable conclusion (even though I disagree). Devlin believes a shift in sexual power towards women has been bad, but his alternative is 'traditional' marriage. I can understand why Tyler, or anyone, would conclude that that belief, and someone espousing it, is evil (I have a lot of progressive friends). ]

larry writes:
Is it reasonable for Tyler to conclude that Devlin is "evil"? Why or why not?

[ Yes, I think it's a reasonable conclusion (even though I disagree). Devlin believes a shift in sexual power towards women has been bad, but his alternative is 'traditional' marriage. I can understand why Tyler, or anyone, would conclude that that belief, and someone espousing it, is evil (I have a lot of progressive friends). ]

Kenny, I'm with you up until your last statement. Tyler and Devlin strongly disagree on a major issue. As you put it, Devlin wants to return to marriage as it existed decades ago. But to conclude that Devlin's position makes him evil seems to be incredible overreaching. If Devlin advocated enslavement of women, that would certainly be evil. But surely arguing for a moderate re-drawing of power between the sexes can't make one evil.

This seems to be what the PC people do. They try to win arguments by declaring one side to be beyond the pale, evil. I'm used to lefties doing this, but not someone like Tyler. I think this issue (male/female relations) has an unusually strong effect on him.

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