Bryan Caplan  

You Will Know Them By Their Unpopular Views

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Consider a world where 80% of people are Conformists, 10% of people are Righteous, and 10% are Reprobates.  The Conformists are epistemically and morally neutral, so they believe and support whatever is popular.   The Righteous are epistemically and morally virtuous, so they believe and support whatever is true and right.  The Reprobates are epistemically and morally vicious, so they believe and support the opposite of what the Righteous believe and support.  In Dungeons & Dragons terms, the Conformists are True Neutral, the Righteous are Lawful Good, and the Reprobates are Chaotic Evil.

What happens?  There are clearly two equilibria: one good, one bad.  If the true&right is popular, then the Conformists and the Righteous have 90% of the vote, so the true&right prevails.  If the true&right is unpopular, then the Conformists and Reprobates have 90% of the vote, so the false&wicked prevails.

Now suppose that in this world, you are trying to assess an individual's virtue.  In the good equilibrium, identifying the virtuous is hard.  Only 1 out of 9 supporters of the status quo is genuinely virtuous.  The vast majority support the true&right out of sheer convenience.  Identifying the vicious, however, is easy.  In the good equilibrium, all supporters of the false&wicked are vicious.

The mirror image holds in the bad equilibrium.  Identifying the virtuous is easy: Everyone who supports the true&right despite their unpopularity is virtuous.  Identifying the vicious, in contrast, becomes hard.  Only 1 out of 9 supporters of the status quo truly qualifies.  The vast majority of supporters of the false&wicked don't support it out of conviction.  They support the false&wicked to fit in.

This model is admittedly a gross oversimplification.  But it conveys important insights about people's characters. 

1. Conformists have good effects when the true&right is popular, and bad effects when the false&wicked is popular.  But the difference in underlying virtue between good and bad societies is small.  No individual chooses what's popular in his society.  So if you're a conformist who simply supports whatever is popular in your society, the key fact about your character is that you're a conformist, not what you conform to.

2. On the plausible assumption that most real-world people are basically conformists, you can't accurately assess virtue by studying people's views in isolation.  You have to look at their unpopular views.  Believing true&right things despite their unpopularity is a sign of genuine virtue.  Believing false&wrong things despite their unpopularity is a sign of genuine vice.

Consider, for example, the fact that almost all Americans now oppose Jim Crow laws.  Is this a strong sign that they're more virtuous than Southerners in 1960?  Not really.  After all, how many modern Americans would still oppose Jim Crow if they grew up in a Jim Crow society?  Only unpopular positions on Jim Crow reveal much about your character.  Opposing Jim Crow in 1960 shows great virtue, especially if you live in the South.  Supporting Jim Crow in 2013, similarly, shows great vice: You're willing to become a social pariah rather than betray the cause of evil.

On many issues, of course, the truth is unclear.  Holding an unpopular view with a 50% chance of truth doesn't say much about your character.  But there are plenty of clear-cut cases, too - and the more you know, the more there are.  If you want to decipher virtue and vice from people's positions, these clear-cut cases are your Rosetta stone.

Hansonian caveat: If my analysis were well-known, then conformists might strategically adopt unpopular views in order to signal their virtue.  Perhaps this already happens to some extent, explaining complaints about "moral posturing" and "moral preening."  But human desire to fit in is so strong that this probably isn't a major factor in the world.  People primarily posture and preen by poetically defending the popular.  If you defy your society to embrace the clearly true&right, you're probably doing it out of virtue.  If you defy your society to embrace the clearly false&wicked, you're probably doing it out of vice.  And as Zoidberg says, "You're bad, and you should feel bad."



COMMENTS (27 to date)
Alex Godofsky writes:

The whole "if they grew up in a Jim Crow society" hypothetical is metaphysically suspect.

8 writes:

What happens when chaotic evil makes people believe that good is evil? How do you know what is Truth?

db writes:

Great post. Said another way (one I use when I'm discussing the concept of courage and heroism with folks):

There's no courage involved in driving a car with a Pittsburgh Steelers bumper sticker in Pittsburgh. Drive to downtown Baltimore, however...

This example has the benefit of avoiding an early Godwin when discussing just how popular tyrannies such as the Nazi regime come to power.

RPLong writes:

My experience is that conformists don't really adopt positions so much as they adopt language. So when, say, environmentalism is popular, conformists use a lot of words like "sustainability" and "stewardship." (I'm just choosing that issue because environmentalism goes in and out of popularity every couple of decades.)

I know a few extreme conformists, and I am always amazed at how their language shifts according to the prevailing opinions that surround them. If you try to actually get them to state outright that they take Side X on Issue A or whatever, they will squirm and equivocate until you leave them alone. So they're not really taking a side IMHO.

Hazel Meade writes:

I wonder if this has anything to do with the tendancy of partisans to see their pponents as unmitigatedly evil, especially when they are saying something that is unpopular.

After all, if MY side is right and good (which of course I think it is), and MY side is also popular, then therefore is is clear that the only explanation for the opposing view is that those people are evil and bad. (Since evil/bad people are easily identifiable by the fact that they are the minority.)

Conversely, when you're in the minority, assuming you think you are right, the "bad guys" are hard to identify. You don't want to assume that ALL your opponents are just evil, after all they might just be conformists. They might just be duped by their evil sinister masters.

So you tend to get this rhetoric with respect to dissenters from any popular consensus. If you're in agreement with the dissenters, then they are the lone voice crying in the wilderness, and everyone else is a mindless sheep. If you disagree with them, they're just EVIL.

Silas Barta writes:

Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote a great article about the the information value of someone's unpopular beliefs: Correct Contrarian Cluster.

Hazel Meade writes:

If my analysis were well-known, then conformists might strategically adopt unpopular views in order to signal their virtue. Perhaps this already happens to some extent, explaining complaints about "moral posturing" and "moral preening." But human desire to fit in is so strong that this probably isn't a major factor in the world. People primarily posture and preen by poetically defending the popular.

And while pretending that the popular is actually unpopular.

Like thinking you're standing up to power or something by being pro-single-player.

db writes:

@Hazel: good points. I can definitely see how an unconscious perception of this concept could lead partisans to vilifying those with opposing viewpoints. Is there a way for this to help explain to some degree why it is that partisans will excuse vicious behavior by their co-partisans but complain about similar behavior by their opponents? Or is that a stretch?

Because you agree with me, you are virtuous.

kebko writes:

Considering typical cognitive inertias, wouldn't people across cultures tend to interpret this to mean that free market advocates are evil? How does this help?

FredR writes:

"Believing false&wrong things despite their unpopularity is a sign of genuine vice."

I don't think this works. You're not genuinely vicious for believing that open borders would be a good thing for America, just misguided.

Phil writes:

Unless we are talking about objective facts -- and I do not think you are -- then labels such as "true" and "right" are socially constructed and evolve over time. The middle 80% are not merely poseurs or adopters, but they have a role in defining the margins.

Aaron Zierman writes:

First, this is a fun mental exercise. It's obviously not intended for modeling accuracy or anything, but is very interesting to think on.

Alternatively, one could assign "Correct" and "Incorrect" to the opposite sides of the spectrum. This would not assign any moral values, but could have a similar effect in terms of policy.

For example, minimum wage policy disputes. Some argue we shouldn't have a minimum wage, others that it is wonderful and should be raised higher. I encourage hashing out the data, but please set that aside for the moment. Most conformists (as in this model) are swayed by what is popular.

Back to Bryan's use of virtue. The good v. evil with conformists in the middle model is really interesting when thinking about things such as the Nazis. How else can atrocities such as these be explained, if not for mass conformity?

David Friedman writes:

Your point here is related to one I made some time back on my blog:

Brian Clendinen writes:

Actually I think this exercise goes a long way at explaining why Universities, Entertainment, and Journalism fields are so liberal. They are dominate by conformist on the political side.

Emi Parker writes:

C.S. Lewis has a similar observation in his book The Problem of Pain. Here's the passage. Substitute "virtue" for "kindness" and "challenging/threatening" for "annoying" and it sounds a lot like Caplan's point:

"The real trouble is that 'kindness' is a quality fatally easy to attribute to ourselves on quite inadequate grounds. Everyone feels benevolent if nothing happens to be annoying him at the moment. Thus a man easily comes to console himself for all his other vices by a conviction that 'his heart's in the right place' and 'he wouldn't hurt a fly,' though in fact he has never made the slightest sacrifice for a fellow creature."
Hazel Meade writes:

Some argue we shouldn't have a minimum wage, others that it is wonderful and should be raised higher. I encourage hashing out the data, but please set that aside for the moment. Most conformists (as in this model) are swayed by what is popular.

Right. And raising the minimum wage is always popular, because most people are economically illiterate.

So to proponens of raising the minimum wage will be inclined to think "Well, I am obviously right and everyone agrees with me, therefore my opponents must simply be evil. " (OR, they might actually be thinking "Nobody thinks the minimum wage increase is a good idea, I am a lone voice of reason!" Although that's unlikely (but some people can be really delusional on such points)).

Actually this goes a long way towards explaining Paul Krugman.

Ken B writes:

BC

Is this a strong sign that they're more virtuous than Southerners in 1960? Not really.

Can societies learn? If almost all Americans now would have opposed Smoot-Hawley or the GM bail out or Nixon's wage and price controls I think most of us would held this as a sign of learning and progress. I think that as an econ prof Bryan would be happy if by the end of term most of his freshman class felt that way, much less most Americans!

Maximum Liberty writes:
In Dungeons & Dragons terms, the Conformists are True Neutral, the Righteous are Lawful Good, and the Reprobates are Chaotic Evil.

This problem is easily solved. The orc tribes mostly kill each other and the paladins sweep up the remnants. More generally, the chaotic evil will sometimes oppose each other. Because they're chaotic. And evil.

I would mnake a comparison to some parts of the world where people kill each other a lot, but any comparison I made could be accused of being racist, and I wouldn't want to diminish my appearance of virtue.

Max
(chaotic good)

Handle writes:

Let's say that in the future they think that killing animals and eating their meat is wicked. Or, at least, the supposedly genuinely virtuous 10% and the conformist 80% think that. The supposedly evil 10% are willing to say, at least, that eating meat should not be prohibited, and some will say it is delicious and healthy and some might even go so far to suggest that its production ought to be subsidized and its eating ought to be generally encouraged, especially in the schools.

Compared to now, is this progress? Regress? Who exactly is really good and evil here?

More to the point of this discussion, what exactly do we learn from the shift in fashions and the distribution of claimed positions in this hypothetical future?

I think we learn next to nothing. We only learn that some people are willing to publically disagree with whatever people are conforming to. So what?

Moral Relativist writes:

Well, OK, I'll bite: Just what are those clear cut cases? Abortion? Obamacare? Fed inflation targets? Carbon taxes? Creation science? Food stamps? The second amendment? Affirmative action? Racial profiling? Drone strikes? Immigration? Same sex marriage? Capital punishment? Eating meat? GITMO? Banning tobacco?
Throw us a bone here. (Maybe make that a bean)

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

I would have thought virtue to be a matter of action rather than beliefs.

Steve Sailer writes:

Obviously, the unmentioned topic is the firing and excoriation of Jason Richwine.

So, is Richwine's Harvard Ph.D. dissertation unpopular and false or unpopular and true?

Floccina writes:

So what about those who accept that much more immigration should be allowed but are not willing to do anything about it but argue and vote.

What about those many southerners who accept that Jim Crow, discrimination were wrong and lynching without trail more so but are were not willing to do anything about it but to not engage in it themselves, and argue and vote against it?

And what about John Brown who was very willing to use violence to end slavery. Should we honor and emulate him or just think of him as a crazy guy?

Jacob Lyles writes:

Steve,

I'm pretty sure the motivating issue is Bryan's stance that erasing the border between the US and Mexico is the only moral thing to do.

Jed Trott writes:

There is a bit of a hidden assumption here that does not always hold. That assumption is that people universally count holding an unpopular opinion as a cost. Some people enjoy being contrarian and others don't give a fig what others think.

Jed Trott writes:

The assumptions are not hidden they are plainly stated. What I should have said is that the stated assumptions are too limited. There are at least two axes on if alignment between good and evil and the other is between conformity and contrarianism.

Carl Pham writes:

I dunno. This strikes me as one of those philosophical observations that is in practice completely useless, because it solves a problem using assumptions that would obviate the problem in the first place.

If you knew what were and were not virtuous and wicked beliefs, you could simply judge whether people were or were not virtuous directly. You wouldn't need to look at indirect evidence like how popular those views were. And if you don't know what are and are not virtuous beliefs, none of the analysis presented here is possible.

I guess you could argue that if you knew what was genuinely virtuous, you could, by finding someone who believed many genuinely virtuous but unpopular beliefs, find a person of great moral courage, if you want to put it that way.

But of what value is that? Moral courage only has practical utility when you need moral pole-stars in a chaotic and bewildering world, id est, when you cannot be sure based on your own knowledge or popularity what is and isn't virtuous. So you look for moral beacons, people who can be trusted to hew to the right and good whether or not it is popular, objective ethical standard-bearers, so to speak.

But you wouldn't need such people if, as above, you already possessed a reliable absolute knowledge of good and evil. And, once again, in the absence of such knowledge, you cannot use the analysis here to find such people.

I appreciate the cleverness of the argument. But it seems a little sterile.

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