Bryan Caplan  

Scott on Victimology

Beyond victims and villains... Bio of Eugene Fama...
Scott against me on victimhood:
Or let's take another case; you decide to violate the law by jaywalking, crossing the street in the middle of the block. You are struck and killed by a car. (This happened to a Bentley student a couple years ago.) Are you going to claim this person was a "victim" when she was clearly violating the law? Um, actually yes, I sort of do view her as a victim. Now you might say that my example is quite different from infidelity. Well, pardon my French attitude, but aren't chainsaws also kind of different?
I brought up chainsaws as an existence theorem.  If you admit that a guy who cuts off his own hand while trying to chainsaw your neck is no "victim," it's possible that other sufferers aren't victims either.  The point of the hypothetical isn't that victims don't exist, but the non-victims DO exist.

None of this means that people who suffer horribly as a result of committing minor offenses aren't victims.  I don't think that.  I jaywalk, and I don't deserve to die.  When people seriously suffer as a result of committing major offenses, however, I call that just deserts.

I know that utilitarianism says I'm wrong here.  Utilitarianism's denial of desert is another reason I'm not a utilitarian.

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
_NL writes:

I think you're right, sometimes there's a non-victim. But I offer the clarification that a person may be both the victim and the perpetrator. We aren't blaming them as victim, we are blaming them as perpetrator. And overall, the perpetrator status precludes them from considered a victim, even though in the direct sense they are also wearing the victim hat.

Maybe this seems normal to me because in tax law, people and entities are often wearing multiple hats at once. For example, a partner may be both an owner and an employee and payments made to the same individual may be made to the employee or the owner, with distinct implications. Or if you sue your employer and win a settlement, the payment might be to you as an employee, you as a tort victim, you as a sufferer of emotional damage, etc. - all with different tax consequences.

So when you wildly swing the chainsaw and hit yourself, you are are both the perpetrator and the victim. We are not blaming you as the victim, we are blaming you as the perpetrator. So I agree with Bryan that we sometimes blame "the victim," and I propose the added clarification that we typically blame the victim only when the victim is also the perpetrator. But this is just a hypothesis that occurred to me this morning, so I freely accept edits or criticism.

Scott Sumner writes:

Agree with the logic of your existence proof, although I probably wouldn't have as much confidence judging lots of people I've never met on sexual issues as you might.

Regarding utilitarianism, aren't you just quibbling over semantics? After all utilitarianism does allow for that fact that it might be desirable that people who do act X suffer punishment Y. Desirable in the the sense of maximizing utility. Yes, we wouldn't use the term 'deserve' but that doesn't affect whether we'd condemn certain behavior. We might say the punishment was "appropriate." After all, condemning someone has incentive effects.

Daniel Kendrick writes:

Bryan, I agree with you on the premise that there is such a thing as just desert.

But just desert applies to areas that are matters of moral choice. If you are born naturally intelligent, you don't get to take moral credit for that and demand that you inherently deserve to be treated better. If two people work equally hard in the same profession, but one does better because he is smarter, I can't say that the smarter one deserves more wealth.

At the same time however, I reject the Rawlsian premise that this means the smarter one deserves not to have his wealth, that he has a moral obligation to give it to the other guy.

Nobody deserves or morally earned that extra wealth. And I agree with the Nozickian premise that, since nobody deserves it, the one who has it (the smarter one) ought to be able to keep it. Especially since this is better for everyone in the long run.

Matt H writes:

Sorry but the whole don't blame the victim thing is non-sensical.

Imagine 2 girls go to a party. Girl one sits next to a guy who acts creepy, she who exercised good judgement and wasn't drinking, politely excused herself and walked away. Girl 2 gets so drunk she needs to sit down, and sits down next to the creepy guy, who proceeds to lead her someplace secluded and rapes her. Can we laud the prescient good behavior of girl one? How is celebrating her good sense different from blaming girl 2 for her carelessness?

If you leave your car unlocked and you come back and your radio is gone, you should feel about that. That doesn't mean the perpetrator is any less culpable. But we live in an imperfect world, bad things happen. By taking reasonable precautions we can both reduce the number of bad things happening, and greatly reduce the chances of them happening to you. I teach my children it's their responsibility to avoid situations in which they are likely to be victims. I guess that makes me hopelessly out of date.

ThomasH writes:

Whether or not we call the attempted murderer a "victim" or not, the way in which the chain saw severed his hand is still a potentially valid data point in regulating the design of chain saws offered for sale.

Hazel Meade writes:

Is adultery really a "major offense"?

Nobody really gets hurt, except for their feelings, and then only because they've chosen to have somewhat irrational feelings about marital fidelity. One is not required to respond to a spouse's affair by flying into a jealous rage and filing for divorce.

Daniel Kendrick writes:


Is rape really a "major offense"?

Nobody really gets hurt, except for their feelings, and then only because they've chosen to have somewhat irrational feelings about sexual autonomy. One is not required to respond to a rape by breaking down emotionally and calling the police.

(In case it is not absolutely clear, this is a parody of Hazel's argument.)

roystgnr writes:

Although I'll admit that it does seem to be one of the two classic sophomore-utilitarian mistakes, the imperative of "My behavior should be chosen to maximize expected utility" neither presupposes nor implies the conclusion of "I should never do anything that locally reduces utility".

If someone would lose at Newcomb's problem, whether in its hypothetical "an omniscient being considering which boxes to fill knows with certainty whether you'll open both" form or its practical "people who are considering misbehavior know with uncertainty whether you'll let them suffer for it" form, they're either not a utilitarian or they're just not very good at it.

Ironically, the fact that many utilitarians don't seem to be very good at it may be a decent utilitarian reason to consider avoiding utilitarianism. "Most people would fail at X so I would be better off not trying" is by definition a correct heuristic most of the time. But if you're trying to choose or argue for deontological rules (or virtues), you'd better be one of the exceptions, or the best you can hope for is to pick up and/or transmit a not-too-imperfect copy of someone else's ethics instead.

Hazel Meade writes:


The analogy doesn't work because adultery is a consentual act that occurs between two OTHER adults. Nobody physically does anything to you (which is sort of the point, ahem).

JLV writes:

I don't buy the existence proof as being relevant for the Ashley Madison case, since it is missing the third party (the hackers). The information release was not accidental and self-inflicted (as the hand injury was in the existence proof). You need to show that chainsaw guy would not be a victim if a third party cut off his hand. That doesn't seem obvious.

E writes:

If you have totally different values and expectations than practically everyone else regarding fidelity and deception, and you hold the normal set of values in contempt, it is your responsibility to make that known to your spouse. Ideally before they are your spouse. By cheating and justifying it this way, you declare both your feelings and your values to be more important than your spouse's, and you take away their ability to make informed decisions regarding their life.

Rob Rawlings writes:

"I jaywalk, and I don't deserve to die. When people seriously suffer as a result of committing major offenses, however, I call that just deserts."

So somewhere on the spectrum of offenses and possible consequences of those offenses there is a line on one side of which there are victims and the other side are those getting their just deserts.

How do you identify where that line is ?

Jesse writes:


1. What about finding a peephole in a hotel bathroom?

2. Are people so quaint that being left by a (unreasonable and old-fashioned) spouse makes you a victim? I say the guys who are sad about being left had unreasonable expectations of their marriage to begin with. Get with the times!

Colombo writes:

I need further explanations on this.

Can we call Alice, who has destroyed his health by using too much heroin, a victim?
If Bob takes too much acetaminophen (a legal drug) and destroys his kidneys, is he a victim?

If a person commits suicide willingly, is he a victim? If Socrates is ordered to drink the hemlock, is he a victim? Was Socrates as guilty of "corrupting the youth" as Bryan by jaywalking?

What about Jeffrey Tucker, who broke the "law" the other day, and wound up in jail for a while? Is he a victim? If Tucker wasn't a Libertarian, would be more or less of a victim?

Anonymous writes:

It seems to me that a victim is more blameworthy for something the more obviously their actions would have led to the harm that they came to, and the more easy it would have been to avoid this action.

So somebody who goes out of his way to skip along the train tracks instead of taking the road is fairly blameworthy when he gets hit by a train. That action was clearly going to lead to that outcome, and was entirely avoidable. Someone who opens his door to find that World War III has broken out, and is promptly mown down by a machine gun, is not at all blameworthy, because there was no way to predict that outcome, and avoiding it would have been very difficult.

I think the reason that this situation - young women and alcohol and parties - incurs so much angry discussion by two sides who can both clearly tell that they are right and the morons on the other side are being deliberately dense, is because of disagreement over these aspects of the situation. That getting drunk in a party full of strangers might lead to bad consequences is obvious. But one group of people consider "don't go to parties full of strangers and get drunk" to be a completely unreasonable constraint, while the other group considers it to be entirely prudent and easy to follow advice.

"Don't put yourself into this dangerous situation if you want to avoid possible bad outcomes" reads entirely differently if you like that dangerous situation versus if you don't.

What the discussion had been missing is the role of expectations and uncertainty.

ThomasH writes:

I'm still trying to make out the importance of why it is important to know who is or is not a victim in interactions in which one should or should not "blame" the victim. Maybe there is more than one dimension involved.

One is, given the victim's having put himself at risk, what is the consequence of that risk? If Bryan jay-walks and is killed by an automobile, we may feel he is a victim and hesitate to blame him because the consequence seems disproportionate to the risky behavior. And we feel this way even if an accident investigation shows that the driver of the automobile was in no way "to blame" for the accident. All the "blame" falls on Bryan.

Another dimension is whether the risky behavior ought to have been risky. Suppose that in a statistical sense it is riskier for a young black man to dress in baggy pants and a hoodie than in a business suit -- he is more likely to have a violent encounter with the police or self appointed neighborhood vigilante. Nevertheless, we do not blame him for his choice of apparel because that choice ought not be more risky.

mbka writes:

Bryan, do you also agree with the argument a 20th Century pope, can't recall which (Pius?), used in his condemnation of condoms? He condemned them because they prevent the just punishment of the immoral by STDs, right at the source of their immorality. I think this is clearly analogous to the Ashley Maddison case.

Brian writes:

All this talk of whether one should "blame the victim," or whether we should consider some people to be "non-victims" is based on the false but all-too-human notion that victims are above criticism. We tend to think, perhaps, that criticism adds insult to injury.

The reality is that the chainsaw guy is a victim--of his own stupidity and violence. That shouldn't stop us from telling him it's his own fault. And no, Bryan, you don't deserve to die for jaywalking. But you're a victim of your own carelessness if you get hit by a car when you jaywalk. If I care anything about your well-being, then, I will tell you to avoid being stupid and you should stop jaywalking in the future. Is this blaming the victim? Call it what you like, but the reality is that the advice is apparently needed and will be better for you in the long run.

It's possible to acknowledge that a "victim" caused his own suffering without implying that the resultant suffering is deserved.

Thomas Sewell writes:

When someone makes a choice, they choose not only what it is ostensibly about, but they also choose the consequences. In terms of Ashley Madison, the participants chose the potential, foreseeable consequences when they signed up.

In much the same way as the seen and unseen concept, choices involve choosing sometimes unconsidered consequences. As we don't have perfect foreknowledge, we've developed heuristics to guide our choices in order to avoid negative unforeseen consequences. If you are religious you call those commandments. If you aren't, you may refer to them as wisdom, or some other name.

Very few people plan to get caught when they do something wrong, just like casino gamblers don't plan to lose, but that doesn't mean they haven't chosen that as a possible outcome. To avoid those consequences, they'd need to make a different choice.

mbka writes:

Quite frankly, while I don't necessarily sympathize with the people who were exposed here, in a very legal sense they had an expectation of privacy. This expectation of privacy, in a very legal sense, has been violated by the hackers. "Potential foreseeable consequences" are completely irrelevant here. By the same token, medical malpractice is a potential foreseeable consequence of modern medicine - you are gambling with your life by trusting an imperfect doctor. Yet, when it occurs, doctors get sued, even when the malpractice was an accident. Here, the hackers' actions were not accidents but intentional malice.

Therefore, the first "moralizing" thought that comes to my mind is not about the morality of the A.M. users, but about the gleeful moralizing of the self righteous vigilantes that are the hackers. The hackers in a word, are easily wronger here than the A.M. users.

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