Bryan Caplan  

Naik on Bastards and Stigma

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Very interesting FB post on bastards and stigma by Vipul Naik, reprinted with his permission.

"When you see a redneck, you call him a redneck. Perhaps, when you see a bastard, you should call him a bastard. Shame is a powerful force."

Actually, I don't call people rednecks (I think it's incredibly rude), so this is a very presumptuous statement by Foseti. Setting that aside, though, I am puzzled by Foseti's shaming and stigma theory in the context of bastards.

Here's my understanding of Foseti's (and perhaps also Charles Murray's) shaming theory in the context of bastards -- there are two premises:

(a) Shaming a behavior acts as a powerful deterrent against that behavior.
(b) Having babies out of wedlock is a bad behavior that deserves to be deterred, because of the lower quality of life that the child experiences (compared to children of married couples) and also because of the burdens on society (e.g., need for the welfare state, particularly since single mothers tend to be poorer, or the child being more likely to grow up to be a criminal).

Even granting premises (a) and (b) (I have significant reservations about (a) and some reservations about (b), but setting them aside for now), shaming bastards makes no sense, because bastards, almost by definition, have no control over how they were born, and there is no behavior of their own they can change in the future to prevent being bastards. I can see two possible rescues:

(1) Perhaps Foseti has in mind that the parents of the bastard will feel shamed when their child is called a bastard. But point (b) implies that the parents show an unusually low degree of concern for their child -- otherwise they'd have married before having the child. It's unclear whether calling the child a bastard at the margin will deter the parents themselves from having additional bastard children, and/or deter other prospective out-of-wedlock parents. If we embrace (a) and (b), then the people who deserve ridicule are exclusively the parents, not the child. At any rate, it seems to make more sense to direct ridicule at the parents in terms of deterrent effect per unit shame.

(2) Perhaps Foseti has in mind that calling bastards bastards reduces the chances that they will engage in bad behavior. This is unclear to me. If a bastard knows that, however nice he is, he'll still be called a bastard, how does that increase the incentive to be nice? It would seem to reduce the incentive to be nice at the margin, because the "best-case scenario" for the bastard is to face ridicule as a bastard.

What am I missing? Thoughts?

Update: Vipul Naik emailed me to say, "It seems like I'd misunderstood Foseti's comment -- he/she clarified in a follow-up comment on EconLog.  I apologized to Foseti for the misrepresentation."

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COMMENTS (22 to date)
Finch writes:

In (b), I think you're missing the point, at least a little. You shame bastards because a world in which bastards are shamed is one in which your spouse is less likely to cheat on you.

Shaming a bastard makes the child worth less to the parents. He'll marry less well, if at all, and produce fewer grandchildren. It's not that the parents will feel bad when they hear the shaming, it's that the child will be less effective at the only thing that really matters to parents about children biologically. Ergo, less incentive to have bastards. Maybe not enough to make the whole calculation negative (surely some bastards still make grandkids), but certainly enough to make it less positive.

As far as the ethics go, it's similar to sanctions with respect to a dictator. Sanctions make the population worth less to him. They might hurt the population more, but that's kind of besides the point. I know that logic is sometimes critiqued around here, but outside extreme circles it's more or less accepted.

I'm not sure why the bastards' actual desert matters in the calculation. If killing puppies made there be fewer cheating spouses, maybe it would make sense to kill puppies if you were a spouse, even though the puppies don't deserve it.

David C writes:

b only implies that the parents don't care about their child enough to get married if the parents also believe b. If you believe b, but suspect many people do not, then shaming bastards is a great way to get them to also believe b. You would still, of course, want to direct ridicule towards the parents as well, but in a medieval society, the men are often likely to be difficult to find, and the women will have less control than the men over such a situation.

Hazel Meade writes:

We don't believe in punishing children for the sins of their parents anymore, do we?

Finch writes:

In the Game of Thrones world, there's no welfare system to worry about, but in a modern context, I suppose you could expand (b) to say that in a world where bastards are shamed there will be fewer bastards that you, the taxpayer, needs to support. Purely selfishly, that makes some sense. Going even further, if shaming one bastard means some other guy who would have been born a bastard is now born in wedlock, maybe this even makes sense for the potential-bastard population, if not for the current round of bastards.

I say we should start shaming Medicare recipients...

August writes:

It isn't about the parents or the bastards- it is about everybody growing up around them. It is either pointed out as a bad idea and thus people, over time create fewer bastards, or it is papered over and we get more of it.

Jeff writes:

I would suggest that focusing the stigma at the bastard child is perhaps more effective (if less just) than on the parents, due to how protective parents are of their kids.

You insult a random guy on the street, most people are likely to brush it off unless they're the type of person who likes to get into fights. On the other hand, you start throwing insults at other people's kids, you are likely to find yourself in a confrontation sooner rather than later. Humans are fiercely protective of their children and will make sacrifices for them that they wouldn't think of making for themselves. The idea of having being subject to verbal abuse and stigma one's self is unpleasant, but the idea of one's child being subject to sustained, regular abuse generates a strong negative reaction which serves as a powerful incentive for a parent-to-be to spare one's child of that fate.

I'm surprised Bryan, as a parent of several kids, didn't put this together.

RPLong writes:

Nobody really shames bastards though. Caplan made that point in his original post about it. It's weird to read so many comments defending the hypothetical practice of shaming bastards. In reality, we all know a few bastards and would never think to shame them or their parents.

I think sometimes just asking a hypothetical question warps the answers you get from respondents.

Jeff writes:

One other thing: I think Naik is reading things a bit too literally. Most people (not just Naik) do not, in fact, call other people rednecks. At least not to their faces, because that is rude. However, most people will happily laugh about "what a redneck that guy was" or whatever behind his back. And popular culture is full of jokes about rednecks. In America today, there is a pretty well accepted definition of what a redneck is and broad agreement that it's best not to be one. America is perfectly content to stigmatize plenty of behaviors and lifestyles. Why the hell single motherhood isn't one of them is a beyond me. Probably because our ruling SWPL coalition finds it so easy to buy votes from these people and the (also somewhat mystifying) reluctance on the part of western society to ever make women feel bad about themselves.

Hazel Meade writes:

@Jeff, actually I know quite a few people who pride themselves on being "rednecks". I suspect the term has lost much of the pejorative sense it had 10-20 years ago. See 'Tucker and Dale vs. Evil' for the decline in the intensity of anti-redneck bias for example.

Also, the reason for the decline in shaming of single mothers is there is (at least) a perception that an unplanned pregnancy is something that happens to you by accident, not something you brought upon yourself.

RPLong writes:

Haha, "Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil" is an excellent movie that makes some fabulous fun of stereotypes.

Vipul Naik writes:

@Jeff: I haven't met any people who poke fun at "rednecks" in real life (at least in my presence). I think it's very rude behavior and I think that if you see anybody doing so you should firmly put your foot down and say that such speech is not nice. That's common decency, and the same applies to calling anybody a bastard.

Floccina writes:

On a related not someone I know said that if you wanted to deter suicide bomber attacks you could kill all the family and friends of all suicide bombers. He said that he was against such a policy but that it is an interesting thought experiment in that it might result in less death overall. The problem being that suicide bombers are very difficult to deter since they plan to die. Similarly the poor bastard's suffering for the sin of his parents might actually reduce the misery overall by discouraging single parenthood.

Jeff writes:


Well, that's a very touching sentiment, but I suspect the folks who make a habit of sneering at lower class whites already know they're not being very nice and don't much care.

Perhaps we should try shaming them instead!


That's a good point. It's kind of a question of distributed vs. concentrated costs. You can shame and ostracize a few people who maybe don't quite deserve the rough treatment they receive, and that's a bummer for them, or you can have everybody pay via higher crime rates and social safety net costs when out of wedlock birthrates climb and more children are born to single mothers.

Rafal Smigrodzki writes:

The psychological traits that predispose to fornication and adultery, especially in societies that stigmatize these behaviors, are primarily impulsiveness and low conscientiousness. In the absence of stigma, such traits are likely to increase the number of children born to parents exhibiting them (and maybe this is why these traits are still present at current levels). By shunning and stigmatizing bastards you could, under very plausible assumptions, reduce the frequency of alleles (genes) that contribute to impulsiveness and low conscientiousness - both directly by reducing the reproductive fitness of the filial generation (i.e. the bastards themselves), and by behavioral modification of the parental generation.

Inflicting suffering on blameless carriers of negative traits leads to some interesting ethical questions. However, it is obvious that such stigmatization would contribute to the eugenic goal of improving the psychological makeup of the society.

Foseti writes:

If shaming is honestly contrasted with other methods of changing behavior, you'll see that it's very mild by comparison.

For example, other people have called for barring people with honest intellectual opinions that differ from their own from employment. This is much harsher than shaming, which at worse just hurts someone's feeling. I would never suggest anything that harsh and destructive.

Ideally, of course, shaming the people that have bastards is best. If there's some spillover into shaming the bastards themselves, that's still probably the least destructive way to obtain all the societal benefits that come with marginally fewer bastards.

Vipul Naik writes:

@Foseti, thanks for the clarification, and my sincere apologies for misinterpreting your original post uncharitably.

Tracy W writes:

I'm reminded of the story of the British cricket team touring Australia in the 1950s, and there had been a lot of fuss in the papers about the decline of gentlemanly behaviour in cricket so all the teams were meant to be on their best behaviour.

A rumour came to the ears of the captain of the British team that one of the Australian national players had called him a bastard. So he stopped by the Australian team's changing room to discuss this with the Australian coach. The Australian coach agreed with him that this was a very serious matter and assured him that he would investigate immediately, then turned to the team in the changing room and yelled:
"Okay, which of you here bastards called this here bastard a bastard?"

Bill Woolsey writes:

How can I get dragged into this! (lol)

In the dominant Andal culture of Westeros, bastards are very much looked down upon. The dominant religion, which worships the 7 gods, counts fornication as a sin. Sex should be for a married man and woman.

However, there appears to be very little stigma for men, married or not, to have sex with women who are not their wives. Having bastard children doesn't appear to create much of a social stigma for men. (Some of the commenters ignore what I see as a "fact" about this fictional world.")

Married women having sex with other men appears to be more strictly forbidden. Unfortunately, the key examples in the novels are women married to Kings, and this is counted as treason all around. It is less clear what other noble (or common) cuckolds can do. One example of a noble husband with a promiscuous wife emphasizes that the husband is simply indifferent because he is abandoning the life of a lord to choose a celibate quasi-monastic life. My guess, however, is that a higher level noble could impose very strict punishments on a wife and her lover, especially if her family and the lover were of lower status. For example, if the crown prince has an affair with your daughter, even if you are a very senior noble, there isn't too much you can do. Even complaining might get your tortured to death. But if one of your vassals is caught with your wife, you can probably chop off his head. And her future treatment, or even survival, could easily depend on the power of her family. If they are substantially weaker, or even vassals, a husband could probably execute the wife too.

While official 7 worship forbids unwed women from having sex, there doesn't appear to be too much stigma for common women who have the children of high status men. The Nobility in the capital are all taken aback when the new "Pope" starts taking this stuff seriously. And one major strike against Stannis is that he would be likely to stamp out prostitution.

We don't know much about Edric Storm's mother. Lolly was a mentally disabled young noblewoman who was raped by a mob and became pregnant. There is some evidence that she become even less easy for her family to marry her off. (She was married to a common sell sword upjumped to minor noble status.) There are at least some hints that Lyssa Arryns aborted bastard was a plus in allowing her family to marry her to a very senior lord (though a peer of her father, who was also very senior.) And it was all hushed up, which suggests a single noblewoman having a bastard child does create a good bit of stigma for her family.

I think the function of the stigma on bastards is to prevent their fathers from favoring them over legitimate children. Suppose the bastard is a son and the legitimate children are daughters. Or perhaps the bastard is more attractive, older, smarter, stronger, or more charismatic than the legitimate children. Favoring the bastard would be breaking the deal with the wife's family to have their kin inherit. So, men can create all the bastard they want, they just shouldn't treat them anything like as well as their legitimate children. Give some gold to the mother, and forget them is the right thing to do.

In Dorne, the stigma appears much less. The Sand sisters seem to have a pretty high status.

In the North, the stigma also seems less. Jon Snow was raised with his legitimate half-siblings. It was his Andal mother who couldn't understand this, which is an attitude at least somewhat shared by Jon's half sister Sansa. Jon Snow's other half-siblings seem to take the father's attitude.

There was talk of legitimizing the bastard son of some northern lord killed in battle and marrying him to some kin of his father's wife to make it all good.

On the other hand, plenty of people (but most of them Andals) see Jon Snow as a stain on Ned Stark's honor. But many of these are pointed at Ned's supposed self-righteousness. Stark is really no better than the rest of us Andal nobles who don't live up to our religious teachings.

Jon Snow's uncle tells him he should father some bastards of his own before choosing celibacy in the Night's Watch. Ned Stark is a point of view character and he never experiences shame for having an affair or having a bastard son. (Spoiler: Did he?)

And, of course, Roose Bolton does blame his bastard's crimes on him being born bad. At least most of the audience for those remarks were Northerners. It isn't entirely clear whether Roose Bolton wasn't complicit in some of the specific crimes. We don't know what Roose really thought about Ramsey Snow's hobby of chasing down and then murdering and raping peasant girls. But it is hard to believe that Bolton soldiers would have helped Ramsey take Hornwood, marry the widow and murder her, without Roose's permission. And the same goes with the attack on the Northern lords seeking to take Winterfell back from Theon. It turns out that Ramsey's birth was due to a rape of a common woman by Roose. That is a pretty evil bunch.

To sum up, the stigma of bastard is stronger in the dominant Andal culture. It is implausible that it is aimed at deterring men from fathering bastards. It isn't clear it is aimed at motivating women to only have sex when married. No, it is all about keeping fathers from favoring their bastard children. If bastards are bad to the bone, of course you shouldn't favor them. You should prepare your legitimate children to follow in your footsteps.

Vipul Naik writes:

@Jeff: There's no need to shame people for shaming (though it's perhaps morally justified) -- that would lead to unnecessary escalation. Simply declaring (privately and politely) your moral objections to such behavior and refraining from joining in can send a powerful message to people who engage in shaming behavior. If everybody did that, nobody would be wrongly shamed.

At any rate, even if one group is inappropriately shamed, that is not an excuse to endorse the inappropriate shaming of another group. Shaming bastards does not deliver justice for rednecks. If anything, the more groups you add to the shameworthy list, the more of a norm shaming becomes, with unfortunate consequences for social interaction across the board.

Hunter writes:

Can't help but think of this movie quote from "The Professionals"

You bastard." "Yes sir. In my case, an accident of birth. But you sir, you're a self-made man."

Ted Levy writes:

I agree that social stigma is a powerful force and believe it should be used more frequently, though the idea of using it to stigmatize bastards strikes me as bizarre.

I'd like to see it used more on government employees. We'll start a long trek back toward a free society when people shun friends and neighbors who choose to work for the government, people who violate rights on a regular basis as part of their job and then come home to mow the yard and grill on the back patio.

JKB writes:

I think this is being over thought here. Many people are generally unpleasant and enjoy feeling superior to others. I suppose there is the bastard as a burden to society since in times past they had no father to support them. In fact, I can't think of one instance where a child is called a bastard when they lived with their father. This seems to align with the original premise that "illegal immigrant" is the new bastard.

This isn't really some long past practice. I was a child in the '60s and '70s and while not called a bastard, I saw it on people's faces when I'd state I didn't have a fathers. I came to let it linger a bit before releasing them by appending I was an orphan. The relief was a physical change in them. People are not very good at hiding their thoughts in this.

Though now that I consider it, I could have been an orphaned bastard, which I was not. So it is even curiouser that dead father negated no known or acknowledging father in people's minds. I suppose that reaction does support the premise that the bastard child is abused as the physical reminder of a father who escaped his responsibilities.

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