Bryan Caplan  

A Judgmental Typology

Jonathan Gruber's Economics... Hachette and Amazon made a dea...
Here's a generalization of my last post.  Let X be any behavior in conflict with common-sense morality: lying, stealing, adultery, drunkenness, murder, etc.  Then two pressing questions about X are: "Is X prevalent in our society?" and "Is X morally acceptable?"

Responses to these two questions yield the following four-fold typology.


Is X Morally Acceptable?

Is X Prevalent in Our Society?












1. The Apologist admits that X is prevalent, but rejects the common-sense condemnation of X.

2. The Puritan embraces the common-sense condemnation of X, and laments that X is prevalent.

3. The Antinomian rejects the common-sense condemnation of X, and laments is X is not prevalent.

4. The Naif accepts the common-sense condemnation of X, but denies that X is prevalent.

Most societies tirelessly push the Naif position; it's part and parcel of Social Desirability Bias.  But thoughtful people eventually notice that it contradicts basic facts about human behavior.  At this point, they can either dismiss common-sense morality and become Apologists, or judge mankind and become Puritans.  All the while, a small fringe of Antinomians stick with Naif view that common-sense morality governs human behavior, yet reject this morality with contempt. 

The fundamental chasm between me and Tyler is that he's an Apologist, and I'm a Puritan.  To the Naif, we're both hopeless cynics.  But Tyler's a "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" cynic, and I'm a "Who needs 'em?" cynic.

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Rick Hull writes:

First impression: Is-ought, really?

The fundamental chasm between me and Tyler is that he's an Apologist, and I'm a Puritan. To the Naif, we're both hopeless cynics. But Tyler's a "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" cynic, and I'm a "Who needs 'em?" cynic.

Second impression: Popcorn!

Bryan's typology is helpful for starting our discussion. But I suppose that careful examination will disclose fuzzy edges. Variables will have many more possible values (than simply true and false) wherever politics, democracy, or coercion (as understood by libertarians) may play.

I have written about this, aspiring to reach an audience of libertarian scholars, but not reaching more than a handful. So I continue trying to spell it out in longer form as a blog.

The question of lying and whether it works (or seems necessary) probably varies from society to society. This question has a close parallel, in my view, to the economics of development, to institutional economics.

Ivan writes:

You can chalk up a lot of apologism to social desirability bias as well. I think it stems from not wanting to appear superior and overly judgmental in the eyes of other people.

The rest of apologists seem to fall into the status quo defender camp i.e. while wrong, this is how it always was and therefore acceptable.

Grant Gould writes:

I think more charitably a certain amount of withholding of judgment can be put down to "think it possible you may be mistaken" moral fallibilism.

A large fraction of the large-scale moral judgments that elite members of society such as ourselves have made in the past have been false, as revealed in embarrassing clarity by a couple of centuries' hindsight. We should all consider that the same might be (likely is!) true today and be correspondingly marginally less certain in our moral judgments.

(To me _How the Dismal Science Got its Name_ is incredibly on point. Its dissection of the appalling racism at the heart of elite discourse a bare 150 years ago is sickening to read and has permanently changed the way I read the literature and thought of that era.)

Any one of us could become the amusingly horrifying epigraph heading a chapter of a future scholar's dissection of our society's ridiculous notions. Which of our remarks might to our descendants take a place among "three generations of imbeciles are enough" or "vile and unspeakable crime against nature" or "segregation forever"?

Yancey Ward writes:

I can't imagine the Tyler Cowen of five years ago writing yesterday's post.

Thomas writes:

I would have considered "puritan", as a moral adjective, to refer to people who took strong moral positions that are not common sense, but based on a religious or other non-consensus source.

ThomasH writes:

Another dimension is how clearly a transgression of common-sense morality the action is. The "misrepresentation" in the Gruber case is about whether a provision of the law ought to have been labeled a tax or a fine. [I happen to disagree with SCOTUS on this; I interpret that Congress wished everyone to purchase the insurance and for collections of the fine to be zero; one seldom wishes to see tax collections be zero. But the amounts collected and the incentive effects are the same whatever it is called.] Even if it is better to call the provision a fine or fee, calling it a tax would not, in my view be an misrepresentation. Unlike Gruber, I do not see a violation of commonsense morality to be either Puritanical or Apologetic about.

Roger Koppl writes:

Where does Mandeville fit in your taxonomy, Bryan?

Greg writes:

The econblogs have radically changed my opinions about a few important topics over the past 5 years, particularly those that Bryan argues (role of parenting on child outcomes, immigration).

In most of these cases it was a Bryan (or maybe an Alex) argument that tipped the balance. I feel like Tyler must have changed my opinion about something, but I can't figure out what.

But here is the kicker. Without Tyler, it is unlikely that I would have read anything by Bryan at all. And if I did stumble accross Bryan or the Econlib blog, my reaction would have been unreasonably oppositional.

I would have seen how Econlog is "established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals", and would have read that as code for "rich guys don't want their money being taken by the government to help poor people who deserve to be poor". I wouldn't have been outraged, just disinterested.

But Marginal Revolution, especially Tyler, was a closer fit to my tribal loyalties. MR is clearly libertarian, but it feels like a Blue tribe blog. It gained my trust. A MR link says "here is an idea that is interesting or worth considering". Without a referral I wouldn't have had the interest to read anything by Bryan.

Both Tyler Cowen and Bryan Caplan were necessary to change my political beliefs but neither were sufficient.

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