Bryan Caplan  

Against Human Weakness

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Whenever a politician is exposed as an adulterer, the same meme always resurfaces: "We're all human, we shouldn't have 'unrealistic' expectations, everyone has moments of weakness, so let's forgive and move on..."  Micha Gertner gives an eloquent version over at Distributed Republic:
[T]here is clearly something wrong with the social expectation of life-long monogamy. It is totally unrealistic to the point of being laughable, and seems to lead to more frustration and family disintegration than if the expectation didn't exist at all. I understand some people have trouble dealing with their petty jealousies, but maybe they should try a little Don't Ask, Don't Tell instead of the nuclear option?
I'm not a principled advocate of monogamy; it's not for everyone, and I am after all a fan of Big Love.  I am however a principled advocate of honoring your contracts and promises.  If you don't want to practice monogamy, here's an idea: Don't agree to it.  If you want a non-traditional marriage, write a contract for it.  Don't accept the standard-issue version, then pretend that you didn't have a choice.

But aren't monogamous contracts "unrealistic"?  This claim makes no sense.  If 50% of people who vow life-long monogamy keep their promise, what's "unrealistic" about it?  Monogamy is no more unrealistic than hundreds of promises that we expect people to keep - to show up for work on time, buy lunch next time, pay their workers, or give dissatisfied customers their money back.  In each instance, if you think the terms are onerous, refuse them.  Don't say yes, then blame the fates.

But what about human weakness?  Here I take a hard line: Human weakness is a choice, and it should be criticized, not excused.  I'm particularly baffled when economists say otherwise.  In what economic model is "lots of people feel tempted to do it" a reason to turn a blind eye?  I embrace a simple alternative: Do the right thing all day, every day.

Now I know what you're thinking.  "Bryan's holding himself up as a saint, but if I spied on him, I'm sure I could dig up all kinds of dirt on him."  Perhaps you're even hoping I'll issue a hubristic Gary Hart-style challenge to follow me around.  My response:

1. I do many embarrassing things every day.  I sing off-key, dance badly when no one is watching, say things about people that I wouldn't say to their faces, and much more.  I'd rather not see any of this on Youtube.  Still, I insist that my behavior is merely embarrassing.  If I thought it was wrong, I would cease and desist - not plead human weakness.

2. Public defenses of human weakness are part of an insidious pooling equilibrium.  Someone fails to live up to their marriage vows or other solemn agreements, and bystanders are supposed to either invoke human weakness or stay quiet.  What happens if you condemn the guilty party?  You risk being singled out for hyper-scrutiny, and harsh condemnation for the smallest stain on your record.  (Or alternately, you single yourself out as a bitter, pathetic victim).  As a result, wrong-doers caught red-handed deflect attention from their own bad behavior onto those who vocally disapprove of what they've done.  What kind of incentives are those?

3. Doesn't this contradict my earlier attack on hypocrisy?  Not at all.  Adulterers who publicly attack adultery are indeed worse than garden-variety adulterers, for the reasons I've previously offered.  But people guilty of minor offenses who criticize major offenses are not worse than people who commit major offenses.

My friends often chuckle at my puritanism, but it's a tolerant puritanism.  I'm not telling anyone what kind of contracts and promises to make, but merely to honor the contracts and promises they've made.  That's not too much to ask of human nature.

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COMMENTS (22 to date)
Bjorn writes:

You are one of my new heroes, love your writing.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

100% agreed. If you don't think you have a realistic chance at keeping your promise, then don't make that promise.

David Robinson writes:

I wholeheartedly agree.

However, how do you feel about the adultery at the center of Atlas Shrugged, which I know you're a big fan of? Rearden even shrugs off his wife's references to "breach of contract" late in the book.

Gary writes:

If 50% of people who vow life-long monogamy keep their promise, what's "unrealistic" about it?

Do you have any reason to say 50% rather than, say, 5%?

Nacim writes:

nth 100% agreed.

I'm always baffled by people who get married or commit to a relationship only to cheat on their partner at a later date. There's nothing wrong with having an open relationship and if that's what you have in mind just say so before making any commitments. If your partner doesn't agree, then why capitulate your principles and your preferences for them if you don't believe your actions likely to hold anyway?

RE: Gary, 50% is the usual statistic regarding how many adults have committed adultery.

Kurbla writes:

I think freedom is rationalization we need to defend our concept of the punishment. We know that punishment mostly work, and we need it badly in our society. However, what should we do with individuals who chose crime in despite of their knowledge of expected punishment? If we accept that they were not free, then we lose the right to punish them. We cannot afford that, we must punish - maybe not all people, but at least some people. So we say that criminal was free to chose between good and evil, he picked evil, so our punishment is justified. It doesn't hold only for big crimes, this is the way we treat other people, family, children, friends. In fact, we really have no clue what happens inside their brain. We know that some people with some conditions are not free. More we know about brain, more we are able to explain some kinds of behaviour.

As our knowledge progress, we have more and more reasons to say that people are not free. But we really do not have any single reason to claim that anyone IS actually free. So, my guess is, freedom is illusion we invented to hide brutal truth that we punish essentially innocent people, because only on that way, punishment works as prevention. (same for rewards, but it is less dramatic.)

Wow, that is one deep theory.

Joe Cushing writes:

Hypocrisy is built into our genes. We want our partners to be monogamous while we crave the attention of a variety of partners. It makes evolutionary sense. Although it does happen occasionally, it would be difficult for someone to get another to agree to an arrangement like this. I can't imaging someone signing a marriage contract that allows the partner to graze. So in order to get it, people cheat.

Perhaps with more acceptance of the fact that people are not naturally monogamous, we can get to a culture that is accepting of multiple partner marriages. I think both you and Mica might be advocating this change. I think you agree more than you realize. You are both advocating a change to the expectation of marriage but in different ways. Mica wants an implied change to the contract, you want an explicit one. Given human nature from the first paragraph, I think the implied amendment is more likely to stick.

Listen to the most recent Econ talk about cultural expectations to get a better idea of what I am talking about. Pay attention to the part where the guest is talking about what time to show up to teach class. It says in writing one time but everyone seems to know what the real time is, except him.

I would advocate that people not sign contracts with each other at all. Marriage is no longer necessary for survival.

Gary writes:

RE: Gary, 50% is the usual statistic regarding how many adults have committed adultery.

Thanks Nacim. What's the evidence for it?

Brian Shelley writes:


Logical morality plays little role in this. Having moral authority gives one a higher status. If you can through logic or otherwise make people feel bad or alter their behavior that gives you power and status. For those subject to this power and live at a lower status because of this, there are only a couple good remedies. Stop being bad (perceived as less fun), or turn the tables, demonize you, and strip away your status. Anyone who wants to keep doing bad and not feel bad about it will join in the attack on moral authority.

Specifically on marriage, there is a large incentive to exaggerate one's commitment to fidelity. One can expand the pool of mates through this dishonesty. The person wants the highest quality mate, so they lie about fidelity. When they get caught, to defend their status they try to nullify anyone with moral authority. It's that simple.

happilymarried writes:

Couples are free to define the terms and limits of their own marriages. The classic definition of an absolute lifelong vow of monogamy isn't necessarily what couples agree to.

Few couples are naive enough to think that pre-death divorce is not a possibility. Most couples openly acknowledge terms and conditions of pre-death divorces, and often formally so with pre-nuptual contracts. Secondly, many married couples have various types of consensually agreed upon extramarital sex (such as swinging, etc).

Neither of those two actions is irresponsible or in any way violates their agreements or contracts with each other.

aretae writes:

Bryan, while your idea is sound, it requires some priors that I don't think hold up. You need people who treat words carefully. And you need an environment where the cost of not signalling is relatively low.

May I propose a signaling theory of promises, as per Robin Hanson.

Many of us academic types have this odd notion that human beings tend to use words to mean what the words should mean, rather than to signal emotional content. While this is generous, I don't think it's a fair explanation of peoples' behavior, or even our own behavior.

I propose that in most human interaction, contracts too, that one can extract the words entirely out of the interaction with little loss. Indeed if one replaces them with long as one maintains the emotional content of the interaction...the interaction tends to be unchanged.

It is only in a legalistic/academic setting that the words actually matter. And if dealing with folks like myself who think in terms of the specific words used.

cross-posted to my blog

Tom writes:

Bryan's breach of contract theory doesn't simplify things much. We still have the huge subject of modifications to the contract and the question of reasonable expectations at the time of contracting.

Eliot Spitzer is a great example. Brian Shelley above rightly says that people promise fidelity in order to get a better mate. I bet this is true with Silda Spitzer. If Spitzer had proposed to her by saying "I will love and honor you and our children and I will also bang hookers by the truckload," Silda Wall may have decided to find another very high-quality wealthy guy.

I don't think Spitzer made that proposal. So maybe he breached his marriage vows. But even if he didn't spell out his intention to cheat so clearly, shouldn't Silda have suspected it? She probably knew him better than anyone other than his parents, if not better, and she had to know that he was an agressive and very rich guy who had huge plans for himself. That was probably part of the attraction. With that kind of man, shouldn't she have expected that the marriage proposal implicitly included cheating on his part? And if she was not willing to accept that, shouldn't she have raised it at the time, either through a simple discusssion or as part of the extensive pre-nup that rich parents like Spitzer's would require? In other words, the Spitzers' contract is not limited to the words the said in public at their wedding, and, especially if she didn't get very clear commitments from him on the subject, she may have implicitly agreed from day one that he could cheat.

And even if they did enter into the simplest form of "I will forsake all others" agreement, did Eliot come to Silda one day a decade after marriage and say "I need more" and she said "Ok, but don't be stupid about it"? Does that excuse him? Or, does it matter how she felt about it? Maybe she felt trapped into saying yes because the only alternative was divorce. Or maybe she felt at risk because the prenup said she gets no money in the case of divorce for any reason and he gets the kids? In that case, she might have been trapped, having relied on his promise of fidelity in having 3 girls and then finding herself more or less stuck when he later wanted to modify the contract because the damages were so limited. Modifications to long-term exclusive supply agreements are never simple.

So I think that the private contract theory doesn't help justify Bryan's simple judgments about cheating. They make more sense in the context of people who choose to make strong public commitments of fidelity, as in covenant marriages. And they might make sense if Bryan wants to start putting some great value on the boilerplate statements about 'sickness and health' made during the wedding, or if he was was approaching it from some religious or ethical system that was premised on fidelity or on a conservative idea that a stable society requires that all publicly-recognized unions include a commitment to monogamy. But he isn't.

Private contracts have lots of terms, express and implied, and they are subject to modification. So it's very hard for the public to know the terms of the contracts and say who is in breach.

asdf writes:

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Matt writes:

I have a simplar line on this. If politician says, "Vote for me, I'm a man of my word," which most of them do, that makes them unvotable if they break their word. But I think I'd still rather judge them on their ability to keep their word legislatively rather than personal contracts. Still, I'd probably be bothered by a politician going bankrupt so there probably isn't much of a difference.

Will Luther writes:

Kurbla: If freedom of choice is an illusion, as you claim, punishment doesn't play a role in preventing crimes. If it is a choice, changing the incentive structure can cause individuals to act differently. If it is not a choice, than changing the incentives has no effect; the individual is preprogrammed to make the decision.

It is reasonable, of course, to assume that some people will be more sensitive to changing incentives than others. We might even say the latter has a predisposition (psychologically, socially, etc) for committing crimes. Just understand that the reality of heterogeneity is not inconsistent with freedom of choice.

RL writes:

BC: "Monogamy is no more unrealistic than hundreds of promises that we expect people to keep - to show up for work on time, buy lunch next time..."

Isn't it really more like expecting people to show up for work on time EVERY DAY for the next 50 years? Isn't it really more like expecting a person who says, "I'll buy you lunch in 13 years" to follow through on that promise?

John Markley writes:

RL: "Isn't it really more like expecting people to show up for work on time EVERY DAY for the next 50 years? Isn't it really more like expecting a person who says, "I'll buy you lunch in 13 years" to follow through on that promise?"

It's quite possible to fail to show up to work on time through unlucky events like a broken alarm or bad traffic, or through very minor errors of judgment like misreading a clock or underestimating the effects of weather conditions on your commute. A promise to buy lunch can slip from an honest but busy or disorganized person's memory. Adulterous sex doesn't just happen because of bad luck, and people don't absentmindedly forget that they're married.

TruePath writes:

That's a decent enough answer for normal people, my wife and I have been pretty explicity about what we are promising and what we expect, but that's a useless answer for a politician.

I mean hell, I bet some of the sex scandals we've seen didn't even, in themselves, violate the understanding between the parties to the marriage. I mean is it really that hard to believe that Hillary had a 'just don't have sex with them and don't tell me about it' attitude? Of course the problem is that admitting you had such an understanding would be more devastating to a political career than claiming to have been weak.

Also, a marriage doesn't easily fit into the yes/no model of contract violation, at least no contract simple enough to articulate. What we really expect is that they will put in a certain level of effort and not do too much stuff we find hurtful/objectionable. I mean it might not be 'against the rules' to flirt with someone a little but doing it all the time would be equally bad as having an affair for many couples. The prohibition on cheating also spans a range from an absolute intolerance to vauge annoyance.

It seems easy to say "always keep your promises" but none of us really want that. It would be awful if your spouse really felt obligated to be home by 6pm to keep her promise that morning to watch a TV show with you even if that meant not missing a rare chance to see an beloved family member.

Kurbla writes:


punishment prevents crime, even if freedom of choice doesn't exist, because introduction of punishment changes the reality. Even population of completely deterministic robotic man will behave different if reality changes. Even the simplest material things move on different way if reality around them changes. Freedom of choice is not needed to explain that.

Charlie writes:

What's odd about this post is that we don't force people to honor their contracts. We wouldn't want to. We have a doctorine of efficient breach. We require the breaching party to make the other party at least as well off as under the terms of the contract. If it's still better to break the contract, then the break is efficient.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

I think it's terribly unfair when one person makes a promise they have no intention of keeping for the expressed purpose of getting the other person to marry them.

Evan writes:


The idea that, if you examine responsibility closely enough, no one is responsible for anything, indicates our notions of what it means to be responsible are messed up. I think you've mapped the concept, "our environment determines our actions" onto "we are being forced to act by someoneone else." Therefore, you think that people are not responsible for their actions in the same way a person forced by another is.

I've run into this problem with other people when discussing my introverted personality with them. A lot of people seemed to unconsciously think that there was a "real me" who behaved normally and that my introversion was an external force the made act abnormally. They didn't understand that introversion was me. The reason that I rarely interacted with others was that I didn't want to, not because I wanted to, but something was forcing me to stop.

When you claim that people are deterministic robots, you act as if the determinism was something outside them, but it is them. When a person makes a choice they weigh the consequences in their mind and pick the one that they like the best. Their personality determines what consequence they prefer and their personality is ultimately shaped by things outside their control. But their personality is them.

When you refer to those who are punished as "innocent people," your acting as if they have been forced against their will by determinism to make a bad choice. But what actually happened is that determinism determined who they are and then they made the choice, based on who they are. I wouldn't call that innocent. They still made the choice. Determinism isn't someone else controlling you. It's you.

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