Bryan Caplan  

Two Soul-Searching Questions

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1. Suppose you lived in a society with a massive, age-old injustice.  Think slavery.  Are you the kind of person who would staunchly oppose this injustice anyway?

2. Suppose a colorful, feel-good movement advocating a massive, new injustice suddenly became fashionable.  Think communism.  Are you the kind of person who would staunchly oppose this movement anyway?

My guess is that about 10% of people could honestly say "yes" to #1, and about 20% could honestly say "yes" to #2.  Yet it's hard to believe more than 3% honestly say "yes" to both.  Most of the people who would be righteous with respect to #1 would be gullible with respect to #2, and most of the people who would be righteous with respect to #2 would be dismissive with respect to #1.



COMMENTS (30 to date)
John Roccia writes:

I believe that the people who would consistently say "yes" to both questions are those that have a solid foundation of principles upon which they base their opinions.

For example, lots of (I'd even say most) people want to "help people" or "make society better" in very general terms. However, if they don't have a lot of knowledge in areas like economics or psychology, or if they've never given any real thought to a foundation principle, it can be hard for them to act on those desires in a way that is actually consistent with them.

Take someone who has a good heart, but no knowledge of economics whatsoever. Ask them if healthcare should be available for everyone at no cost. They're very likely to say "yes." They'd probably oppose slavery, but would probably embrace communism. It's not about morality - it's about education.

I once had a discussion with a coworker who said that if she lived in that time period, she honestly would make Rosa Parks sit in the back of the bus, because - her words - "laws are important." That's it. She'd never given thought to developing a true set of personal principles, so when up against that kind of question, she had to default to what she knew. Which was a general feeling that "laws are good, leaders know what they're doing, etc."

So I suppose essentially the truth is that morality is meaningless if applied incorrectly. Instead of trying to make decisions based on your moral hunches, you should develop a First Principle that is consistent with your moral beliefs, then use education, logic, and reason to extrapolate from that First Principle when encountering important decisions.

AXW writes:

I'd be willing to bet that more than 10% of people are "staunchly opposed" to something akin to slavery ...

I really have trouble following your reasoning (may be because you don't present any)? Do you think only 10% of people care about age old injustices and 20% of people are gullible to feel-good movements? And the two sets are mostly not overlapping?

Or do you think twice as many people are opposed to communism as are opposed to slavery?

(Not That) Bill O'Reilly writes:

I feel the answers to both of these questions turn in large part on the nature of the alleged injustice, and less on their relative vintage. One could reasonably construe both anti-same sex marriage laws and pro-abortion laws as "massive, age-old injustice(s)," yet I am only remotely politically active in opposing one of the two because it is the only one I consider to be a genuine injustice. Perhaps neither issue is old or entrenched enough to meet your definition, but I hope they are at least illustrative.

I think I understand the underlying argument here, discussing deference to the old vis-a-vis deference to the new and the ability of both deferential standards to advance injustice, but I find that point much less analytically useful than Mr. Roccia's point above - the most important thing is to have a moral foundation and consistently apply it.

David N writes:

Seems to depend on your definition of "staunchly."

Ken B writes:
I believe that the people who would consistently say "yes" to both questions are those that have a solid foundation of principles upon which they base their opinions
I disagree and I note that the example you cite of the woman would have sent Rosa Parks to the back did so just precisely on that basis: she had a principle and applied it consistently, damn the consequences.

Bryan had a nice post once on utilitarians, and he observed that when they get a conclusion like we should kill all the red heads, "they check their work". That is, they recognize the limitations of their principles. Not so the ideologues, commmited to their "first principles."

Mike writes:

We have a real-life answer to this. Suppose a massively unjust war, including rendition, illegal imprisonment, and torture, all with massive civilian casualties, was started by your opponents. Would you join your partisans in opposing it?

Suppose a colorful feel-good leader took over the state but continued the same practices of unjust war, rendition, illegal imprisonment, torture, and massive civilian casualties; and most of your partisans not only fell silent but started saying they now supported it. Would you still continue to oppose it?

Justin writes:

I think 50pct of the time a coin will land heads
And 1/6 of the time a die will land '5'

But what really surprises me is that the pct of time that you get 'heads' and '5' together is not going to be more than 10pct. Shocking!

Mark V Anderson writes:

I think Bryan's ideas need to be explained in much more detail that he did.

I assume by the slavery issue, Bryan was putting us back into the early 19th Century or 18th Century, when a number of people did indeed support slavery, even many of those who sincerely thought themselves to be moral people.

Why did so many folks believe that slavery was morally defensible? I don't think the answer is nearly as un-nuanced as many think today -- merely that all these people didn't really think about it. I think many sincerely thought that Black people didn't have the intellectual capacity to be full citizens, and many also believed that Blacks had a better life in civilized America, even as slaves, than they would in uncivilized Africa. This may have been a somewhat unsophisticated view even for that time period, but I suspect it was sincerely held by millions.

I have read that many more sophisticated of the time believed that slavery was indeed an abomination, but that unwinding of slavery would cause even more misery than slavery itself. This is because a sudden freeing of the slaves would cause massive unemployment in the South, and likely some kind of violent revolution.

I am certainly not endorsing either of the views above, even the more sophisticated one, but trying to show that Bryan's comments above give us far too little information to answer his questions. It all depends on the details, and the ramifications of ending an injustice, or beginning a new one.

Brian Moore writes:

Yeah, depends on "staunchly." I consider there to be current policies today that are incredibly unjust, so I don't need to think about it hypothetically. I "oppose" them in the sense that I tell my friends or people who ask, and sometimes write about it on the internet.

But I don't take up arms, or go into politics, or even really make many political donations. I can't claim that counts as "staunchly" opposing something. I admit that I don't do more because, as bad as those injustices are, opposing them further would cost me more than I'm willing to pay in time, money or potential incarceration.

Martin writes:

I hope I would, but I honestly cannot say. I don't know if in the past I would or would not, nor do I know whether I would or would not in the future.

Support for or criticism of a movement is always a bit of a learning experience that inevitably also turns you into "that kind of person".

I therefore do not think it is a very meaningful question to ask: your choice to support or not to support will depend on the perceived cost & benefit at the time when you will have to show your support.

Tom West writes:

Not so the ideologues, commmited to their "first principles."

Indeed, the trouble with acting based on principles is that there are always corner cases where they fail. Luckily, I know of almost no-one who actually lives by principles. Most of us use our principles as guidelines, fudging when the principles produce the "wrong" outcome.

(Actually, I've only met two people in my life who persuades me that they *truly* lived by their principles. One a Libertarian who convinced me he'd truly let everyone on Earth die if the person holding the cure to a fatal disease didn't want to sell, and another who persuaded me that if he thought that God ordered him to kill someone (including his children - think Abraham and Isaac), he'd absolutely do it. Of course, he thought that God was incredibly unlikely to so order him, but if he did, it wasn't his place to question...)

Philo writes:

“Are you the kind of person who would staunchly oppose this injustice anyway?” The situation is under-described. What would I suffer for “staunchly opposing” the injustice? Immediate execution? Mild social disapproval (along with the approval of some people)? And how susceptible to reason are most of the people who are maintaining the injustice—i.e., will my “staunch opposition” do any good?

“Are you the kind of person who would staunchly oppose this movement anyway?” It is easier to oppose an innovation than an established practice, so you are right to set the latter percentage higher than the former.

Note that you did not ask: “Are you the kind of person who would staunchly oppose a practice that you were *firmly convinced* was unjust?” One reason the percentages for the questions you asked are so low is that most people are not very good at recognizing injustices as such. Many will fail “staunchly to oppose” this or that injustice *because they do not see it as unjust*.

Kevin writes:

I broadly agree. Though I think I would answer 'yes' to both, I know of relatively few people in my personal social circle who I predict would do the same; maybe one or two. Most simply don't think about such things to any extent, others think about them but seem to quickly revert to what the perceive to be the consensus.

Steve Z writes:

(1) No.

(2) Yes.

Inquiries of this kind are conducted in what Robin Hanson would call "far mode," and so they usually devolve into self-congratulation. It's probably more informative to just consider the actual historical record.

Trespassers W writes:
But what really surprises me is that the pct of time that you get 'heads' and '5' together is not going to be more than 10pct. Shocking!

Not shocking, because not analogous. In the coin/die example, your prior belief is that the outcomes are independent. In Bryan's example, your prior belief is probably that the outcomes are dependent--that anyone who answered "yes" to the first would also answer "yes" to the second, or vice-versa. So the laws of probability are the same, of course, but the reality is not shocking in the coin/die example, but (at least potentially) shocking in the case in question.

Steve Z writes:

Here is a further comment. The use of the term "massive injustice" assumes a conclusion that would normally have to be argued for, i.e., that there is such a thing as a free-floating "injustice," unmoored from social mores. As I recall, Caplan ascribes to moral intuitionism. In this scenario, if you ascribe to Caplan's moral intuitionism, then a necessary value judgment is that people are wrong if they do not oppose the massive injustice. After all, it's a "massive injustice." But if you don't ascribe to moral intuitionism, it might be meaningless to talk about a "massive injustice" in the abstract. In particular, maybe slavery and communism aren't evil in the abstract, but only evil as applied.

Floccina writes:

I and my family back in the 1950s and 60s were big supporters of civil rights but we find ourselves wanting to limit AA to government hiring and government schools where their are not market mechanisms to prevent abuse of minorities.

To be honest I think that if I lived in slavery times a would not have held slaves and would have quietly advocated against slavery but I am conservative enough to not wanted war over it and chicken enough to not stick my neck out to far. I wish that I could say better.

I was and am against communism but that has been easy because the communists are too few here to persecute me.

David Friedman writes:

I agree that the key term is "staunchly."

I oppose the War on Drugs, which comes pretty close to fitting Bryan's first category, although it isn't as age old as slavery was. And I oppose various proposals to restrict human actions in order to prevent global warming, which might roughly fit his second.

But neither opposition absorbs a large part of my energies, or is done at any significant risk to myself, so I don't know if they qualify.

Doug writes:

Depends on if we recognize it a an injustice our not. Many people cannot see injustice in things until there its great hindsight. Both of your examples are applicable in this. Many people still do not recognize the injustice in communism, despite load of real work evidence right in front of them.

Tom West writes:

I often wonder whether 100 years from now, our descendents will be appalled at the brutality and meanness with which we treated food animals, with little regard for their rights or welfare, with only a small, brave group fighting for their freedom.

After all, we seem to be on a several thousand year trajectory of increasing those that we consider worthy of having rights. It seems a little bit arrogant to assume that we've reached the end-point of that extension.

And no, I'm not in any way an animal rights advocate. But then, truthfully speaking, I can imagine that if the comfort and welfare of my family had depended on slaves back when slavery was the accepted norm, I might have been making excuses for slavery too.

Tim writes:

I think 50pct of the time a coin will land heads
And 1/6 of the time a die will land '5'

But what really surprises me is that the pct of time that you get 'heads' and '5' together is not going to be more than 10pct. Shocking!

That's a faulty analogy since those are completely independent events, and a person's views are very much NOT independent events.

Mike Rulle writes:

Justin writes:

"I think 50pct of the time a coin will land heads
And 1/6 of the time a die will land '5'

But what really surprises me is that the pct of time that you get 'heads' and '5' together is not going to be more than 10pct. Shocking!

Tim writes

That's a faulty analogy since those are completely independent events, and a person's views are very much NOT independent events."


I write

Nor are they totally dependent so I agree with Justin's point. The overlap number is highly likely to be less than either---almost a certainty.


Bigger picture,(can we call your examples extreme counterfactuals?) I think your two examples are really the identical example stated differently. Each presupposes what exists is "evil" or "bad"; from which change is required. Lets assume the greater the perceived evil of the status quo, the more likely change will occur. A higher percentage of countries dumped slavery than adopted communism. So I disagree with your specific example.

But I do not know what bigger point you are making. This was not clear at all.

MingoV writes:
Suppose you lived in a society with a massive, age-old injustice.
I do. The two biggest injustices: a criminal law system that disregards law and ethics and a federal government that disregards the Constitution. I speak up about both to family and acquaintances and in blog posts and replies.
Suppose a... massive, new injustice...
Obama, in his first year as president, cranked up federal government spending by over one-third and kept it that high. (It was supposed to be a one-time "stimulus" increase.) The pattern of continually increased federal debt is a massive injustice on younger (and unborn) Americans. I vehemently oppose this trend. I must be among the three percent.
Ted Levy writes:

Is Bryan's point that true libertarians constitute less than 3% of the population?

Lewis writes:

Substitute in immigration into #1, and I think you can get a feel for "staunchly".

shecky writes:

I think I, like most folks, would be prone to not being able to recognize a massive, age-old injustice, precisely because it's massive and age-old.

I also think I, like most folks, am prone to advocating just about any idea that feels good. Because it feels good.

Being able to answer yes to both your questions probably demands exceptional and uncommon ability to observe and reason. Not unheard of, but uncommon and exceptional.

Justin writes:

Considering the probabilities were pulled from thin air and that another hypothetical degree of dependence was supposed (joint prob of .03, not .02), I don't see how any basis for "surprised" can be made. I don't see anything that would lead me to believe the two events should have a joint probability higher than .02, .03, .10 or anything else.

The best I can make of this is that Bryan is claiming that the individuals who are vocal out about one type of injustice do not necessarily carry their zeal over to a different type of injustice. And it seems he believes that they should be consistent in their vocality, at least not for category he described. Although I don't think the hypothetical statistics help to make the point, I guess I can appreciate that the idea should cause some degree of introspection.

But people are inconsistent in their outrage with all sorts of injustices, and given the large number of factors that go into what makes a person vocal about a cause, why would anyone expect individuals to be any more consistent wrt the newness/oldness of an injustice?

Lynette Warren writes:

In 2001, the backlash to the 9-11 attacks, generated something of a trendy feel-good patriotic "movement," which advocated the War on Terror. I don't even think you could find 20% staunch opposition to it at the time. I was disappointed to see support for it among libertarians, as well. It wasn't just Reason editor, Cathy Young, who expressed the idea that there are no libertarians in foxholes. To this day, I know so-called libertarians who still espouse the War on Terror. Even Radley Balko, who does yeoman's work at monitoring police state abuses, can be spurred on to support evil for the right cause. It wasn't long after 9-11 that Balko expressed a belief that the government should have extraordinary powers to act against the will of individuals in order to stop the spread of a bird flu epidemic. More recently Michael Schermer, who has some street credibility as a libertarian, in his empathy for Sandy Hook massacre victims, jumped on the gun control bandwagon. So while, there's a great deal of self-righteousness out there, there's not a proportional amount of consistent application of principles that could get us much beyond the 3% of staunch opposition to both Caplan's #1 AND #2 examples of abuse.

John T. Kennedy writes:

Government itself is a massive age-old injustice and it's pretty clear to me that nothing like 3% oppose it.

I don't take "stunchly oppose" to mean you're lying down in front of tanks. I take it to mean you strongly oppose it in principle.

bigmac writes:

I think it comes back to interest (or lack thereof) in philosophy and their time spent (or available to have spent) on educating themselves on this.

In other words, most people don't put a lot of thought into it, unless they have a strong motive to do so.

There are also some who have seen some egregious wrong done to them or someone/something they know, and or found refuge from such with a group that provides/informs their philosophical underpinnings, which "forever" colors their view (i.e. many "staunch" members of: environmentalists, leftists, religious, atheists) - not to give them all moral equivalence.

Without that background, few will be able to take a firm stand on any one of these choices, let alone both, and staunchly oppose to boot.

Instead, they rely on a mix of "feelings" based on the norms of the group surrounding them (including from the media they consume).

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