Bryan Caplan  

Question-Begging and Victim-Blaming

Confirmation bias?... Beyond victims and villains...

Jonathan Ichikawa joins Jason Brennan in the philosophical symposium on the Ashley Madison hack.  He begins innocuously:

Here is a sadly familiar story: a teenage girl sneaks out of her parents' house, goes to a party, and gets drunk. A man rapes her. Here is another sadly familiar story: a black man in the wrong neighbourhood shouts angrily at a police officer, who kills him. While this isn't yet settled ground in the culture at large, I suspect that most reading here will agree that victim-blaming in cases like these is both morally repugnant and practically dangerous...

Victim-blaming comes in stronger and weaker forms--the stronger straightforwardly asserts that the victim is responsible for the harm undergone; we also recognize a weaker form of 'victim-blaming' where one focuses inappropriately on the victim's actual or perceived wrongdoings: she shouldn't have drunk so much; he should have been more deferential to the police officer. Whether or not these criticisms are true, they are highly inappropriate under the circumstances...

Are these analogies apt?
In case it needs saying--I hope it doesn't--in the vast majority of cases, I do not think that the harm the Ashley Madison victims are suffering is equivalent to rape or murder; nor are Ashley Madison users systematically oppressed in the way women and black people are. But victim-blaming is problematic, even for lesser and more episodic harms... And the harm done to many of the current victims is by no means trivial. Families are being broken up. People will lose jobs. It's not at all hard to imagine that lives will be lost. For many, it is all too easy to trivialize these harms and blame the victims: 'I have no sympathy for cheaters,' or 'the real victims are the spouses.'
Strangely, Ichikawa never addresses the obvious question: When would it be appropriate to "blame the victim"?  If you say, "Never.  Victims by definition should not be blamed," you'd be right.  But only trivially right.  Since victim-blaming is never appropriate, attacking "victim-blaming" is as pointless as attacking "evil."  The real question isn't "Should we do evil?" or "Should we victim-blame," but "What's evil?" or "Who's a victim?"

Constructing hypotheticals with blameworthy pseudo-victims is easy enough.  Imagine someone attacks you with a chainsaw because you failed to kiss his feet.  When he misses your head, he accidentally saw offs his own hand.  Telling him, "This is your fault" as he clutches his bloody stump is not victim-blaming.  Or to take a less egregious case, suppose a worker feigns sickness so he can go to the basketball game.  Co-workers spot him on t.v. in the audience and he gets fired.  If he decries is fate, "This is all on you" is the bitter truth.

Or, to get a lot less hypothetical: Imagine you swear a solemn vow of fidelity to your alleged one true love.  Then you get bored and sign up for an adultery website.  Your life seems fine until hackers steal your information and publicly post it.  Your spouse discovers your betrayal and divorces you.  The obvious victims in this story are the betrayed spouse, children, and other family members who trusted and depended on you.  Not you, the adulterer who's sorry he got caught.

Ichikawa does point to potentially mitigating circumstances:
While there are individual cases deserving of little sympathy--one name in particular comes conspicuously to mind--I think it's a mistake to have this reaction in general, for many reasons. One is that many of the 33 million users whose privacy has been violated weren't cheaters: they signed up, had a look around, and left and forgot about it; or they were just there for the thrill of thinking about the possibilities, with no intentions of any physical connection.
This is a weak defense when you reflect on the fraction of Ashley Madison customers who didn't cheat because they couldn't find anyone who wanted to cheat with them.  (In fact, it looks like Ashley Madison facilitated near-zero cheating, because near-zero women ever used their accounts!)  But even for all the purely thrill-seeking customers, dire familial consequences are a strong sign that merely signing up is a major betrayal. 

Suppose you ask users with no intention of cheating, "What would your spouse think if they knew what you were doing?" They answer, "They'd want to divorce me."  The obvious reaction is, "Then it's a major betrayal, you shouldn't do it, and if you get caught you only have yourself to blame."
Some were in ethical open relationships;
A solid counter-example.  But if they're really in open relationships, there's little reason to fear dire relationship consequences.
[S]ome were closeted LGBTQ people who needed discretion.
Conventional marriages are solemn vows of fidelity and commitment.  If that conflicts with your LGBTQ orientation, you should marry someone that wants an unconventional marriage, or stay single - not enter a conventional marriage and cheat.  "What if you have to marry under false pretenses to save your life?" is a fair question for Saudi LGBTQs to pose, but it's bait and switch for all the LGBTQs who's lives are patently not on the line.
And even when we're talking about the actual adulterers, it's a serious lack of empathy broadly to vilify them or consider them unworthy of privacy protections. People cheat for many reasons, some of them very understandable.
People also feign illness to attend basketball games for many reasons, some of them very understandable.  Like, "My job is boring and I like basketball."  But we appropriately give their reasons little weight.  Conventional jobs provide two recourses for disgruntled employees: negotiate with your boss or quit.  Conventional marriages provide two recourses for disgruntled spouses: negotiate with your partner or divorce.  If you find these rules draconian, negotiate a prenup or don't marry.  Don't pretend you want the conventional deal, then break it because your reasons are very understandable.

COMMENTS (18 to date)
E writes:

I largely agree with this. But it's not the relationship consequences that people in open relationships fear, it's the family, social, and job consequences.

Pseu writes:

I think that part of the problem is that some people think that assigning some blame to the hacked reduces the quantity of the blame that belongs to the hackers. But it doesn't. Blame is not a "conserved quantity". The amount of blame in the universe is not constant. There will always be more than enough blame to go around. ΔBlame_universe >= 0.

And some kinds of blame are completely orthogonal: e.g. "s/he should have known better" blame vs "s/he did evil" blame - same word, very different blame. If I leave my car unlocked with a pile of money on the seat, and that money gets stolen, the former type of blame accrues to me, and the latter to the thief. But the thief's blame is not lessened by acknowledging my own.

I think your enthusiasm for prenups is misplaced. I recently got engaged, and my reading into marriage law led me to conclude that state marriage laws are (1) mostly (I don't claim entirely) reasonable and (2) courts frown on prenup provisions that try to alter the terms of marriage too much (for example they tend to frown on alimony wavers). Basically, you get to chose whether you want community property rules to apply to your marriage and that's about it:

Daniel Fountain writes:

I'm not sure what you're trying to get at here Bryan. A victim is someone who is harmed as a result of an action, be it their own or another's. E.g. cutting down a tree and having that tree land on oneself makes one a victim of an unfortunate accident. The individual in question is also fully to blame since he was the agent to fell the tree. This does not mean he was statistically mistaken in taking the action (i.e. in the wrong) however because the action had an expected positive outcome and low standard deviation for all parties. This is why bad drivers can be victims of their bad driving, to blame for an accident, and not be mistaken for driving.

For the analogies given: The girl is a victim, not to blame since she did not perform or assist in the rape, and not in the wrong for performing the actions leading up to the rape. She would be in the wrong for walking into a neighborhood where she knew the likelihood of being raped is like 95%, but of course would not be to blame for the rape itself.

All 3 things (being a victim, being to blame, being in the wrong) are different and distinct questions. You and Ichikawa seem to be conflating the 3 in varying ways.

The direct victims of the hack (meaning those who had their information shared) are clearly the unfaithful individuals who are blameless and not in the wrong since they didn't control the site's security.

The direct victims of possible infidelity exposure are both the family and the unfaithful as both are harmed. The family is blameless and not in the wrong as to them its an exogenous event. The unfaithful is not to blame for the exposure but he is in the wrong because doing something like signing up for an adultery site has an expected net negative payoff for all parties involved.

P.S. I realize people use in the wrong as a phrase synonymous with guilt but here I mean in the wrong with respect to action choice, not the event itself.

Pedro Albuquerque writes:

Marriage as a state sponsored contract and institution is too archaic and inflexible and doesn't offer enough space for choice and alternative agreements so it's surprising to me to see libertarians assuming that state marriage vows represent serious commitment. Some people marry not because of some conservative puritanical notion of commitment they don't care about but because of immigration laws, social security laws, undesired externally imposed consequences for descendents, discrimination at workplace, effects on public image (e.g. many well-known POTUS), etc. As an institution it has become so obsolete that you can only wonder why adultery is not even more common.
State marriage is to love and relationships the equivalent of what national borders are to the right to relocate as you wish. As in the case of immigration restrictions and national loyalty, state marriage is the problem, not the solution.

Hazel Meade writes:

I'm with Pedro on this.
The notion of eternal fidelity is somewhat archaic, and someone who seriously expects it is setting themselves up for disappointment. You might some point some blame at the cheated on spouse for that reason. Having a spouse go behind one's back is also a sign of poor communication and a lack of honesty in the relationship in the first place. One could make the same comments (from both sides) about victim blaming here.

Personally, I think a healthy relationship should involve a willingness to be open about ones needs and desires and if they can't be satisfied in the relationship a willingness to at least turn a blind eye to some casual affairs.

Daniel Kendrick writes:

Bravo, Bryan!

I may disagree with some of your ethical positions, but I am always glad to see you standing up against false moral equivalence and the idea that explanations are always excuses.

Commenter writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

jeppen writes:

Consider a mixed religion couple, where the husband thinks it is of vital importance that the wife adheres to a few muslim practices, especially not eating pork. The loving christian wife promises she won't, simply because the husband is being unreasonable about it.

Now, an old girlfriend and the wife indulges in her pre-marriage favourite bacon dishes a few times, with the common understanding that it has to be a secret. The friend tells the husband, who terminates the marriage due to the betrayal and the "realisation" that the wife is is morally deficient and deceitful.

Had the best friend not gossiped, there would be no damage, only upsides (good food in good company). Had the husband not been, well, irrational about pork and religion, there would also be no problem. To me, the wife is the victim of both the husband and the friend.

I did two things here. I switched gender roles and I took another example of deceit, where the demand of adherence might be seen as less reasonable by you, Bryan. I did this because I suspect that your judgment, for once, might be clouded by specific conservative reflexes.

E writes:

"Had the best friend not gossiped, there would be no damage, only upsides (good food in good company)"

You are assuming that a) we should evaluate actions solely by their consequences b) that no damage is necessarily committed when you are deceitful to your spouse in areas of great importance to them unless they find out. Those are huge assumptions and they're the source of most of the disagreement. It's not the specifics of the adultery. I believe it's wrong to lie to your spouse about stuff that's really important to them, and/or that there are ways it can damage them and your marriage even if they don't find out.

jeppen writes:

"You are assuming that a) we should evaluate actions solely by their consequences"

I don't assume very much. I'm discussing the merits of an argument made by Bryan.

"I believe it's wrong to lie to your spouse about stuff that's really important to them"

Or perhaps it is right to lie exactly when it is really important to him, since that is when truth would do real damage.

"and/or that there are ways it can damage them and your marriage even if they don't find out"

That is certainly possible and perhaps even common. But it could also be the opposite. Perhaps her secret bacon makes it possible for her to go on with a good relationship with a caring but overly pious husband.

Graham Peterson writes:

Social events are always the product of interaction, so any victim by definition contributed in some way (however small) to their victimization.

I think the charge of "victim blaming" is a matter of proportionality -- some victims do more to create a situation than other parties did, some do not. And there isn't really a well defined threshold after which one is accusing a victim of being more culpable than the other party.

In this case, Ashley Madison, like most internet doxxing and public shaming, I think the reaction often *is* disproportional because millions of people go after one or a few individuals who have been exposed for some uncountably infinitely harmful sin.

Alternatively, in the case of culture of poverty research (say), if we established firmly that 20% of the variation in the black white wealth gap was attributable to black culture, blaming black culture for black poverty would be numerically senseless. It's out of proportion with the harm a victim has caused to himself.

Nathan W writes:

I think you are victim blaming, but on a lesser scale than blaming women who get raped or unarmed black men who get shot by police.

Tom West writes:

Those are huge assumptions and they're the source of most of the disagreement.

Wow, this reminds me of late night undergraduate discussions where the topic under debate was "Would the world end in chaos and destruction if we all knew the truth?"

Ah, good times!

E writes:

"Would the world end in chaos and destruction if we all knew the truth?"

Well, what did you all decide? Don't keep us in suspense.

Tom West writes:

We were undergraduates. It changed each time we discussed it (and it was the true final answer each time as well...)

However, I'd say it was 3/4 doom. General consensus was usually that humans as currently constituted aren't built to handle "the truth" and would keep coming back to the outrages, ignoring all the good stuff, no matter how much more dominant.

austrartsua writes:

I earnestly disagree with Brian, who has suddenly lost his libertarian cap and found a staunch conservative one.

It is irrelevent whether we think it is immoral for these people to join the site. All that matters is that their privacy was invaded. This is the real insult. Their privacy was invaded. Period.

On the subject of privacy, when two people get married is that the end of all secrets? All privacy? Is it immoral for each individual to have any personal life kept separate from the other? I don't think so.

Is it wrong for a man to fantasize about other women? If so, nearly every marriage on the planet is immoral.

So yes, cheating is wrong. But invasion of individual privacy is, in this libertarian's opinion, wronger.

Keith K. writes:

"Are these analogies apt?"

Not only is the answer "no", but even his 2 preliminary scenarios are not apt because they are not in any way equivalent. A woman getting stupid drunk and them victimized is not even remotely the same thing to somebody verbally harassing a policeman and then getting shot. Leaving aside the question of cognitive impairment, loud belligerent speech is a pretty common threat display in all cultures. While not all speech like this eventually turns into physical violence, in scenarios like this physical violence is almost always preceded by it. Which is one reason why cops get trigger happy when you act spastic and belligerent to them.

This kind of behavior is wildly different compared to getting victimized while either just going 'bout your business or while being cognitively imapired by booze.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top