Scott Sumner  

Utilitarianism: beyond victims and villains

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In a recent post over at TheMoneyIllusion, I criticized the attitude of liberals and conservatives toward the poor. Conservatives often seem to blame the victim, whereas liberals tend to romanticize victims, absolving them of any role in their plight. I find this sort of "mood affiliation" to be unhelpful, and instead prefer to take an unemotional utilitarian perspective. Regardless of who is to "blame", what is the best way to improve the situation?

In my moneyillusion post, I criticized some conservatives for having a double standard, romanticizing the plight of the white working class in a way that was similar to how liberals would romanticize the plight of minorities:

This new conservatism romanticizes the white working class. These conservatives used to mock bleeding heart liberals who claimed that minorities were "the victims of an unjust society". They pointed out that poor people often made poor life choices. The new conservatives now claim that the white working class is not composed of people who made poor life choices--i.e., not studying hard in school or choosing to use opioids--but rather they are the "victims of neoliberal economic policies". (Somehow they overlook the fact that the working class in countries that did not embrace neoliberal policies is doing even worse--logic is not their strong point.) The new bleeding heart conservatives engage in the same sort of romanticization of victims for which they used to mock the progressives.
One commenter misunderstood me, and thought I was calling for "blaming the victims":
Scott, semi-serious tangent: you mentioned that you never got picked for basketball, have no talent for even catching the ball, and that it's "unfair" you were born that way. (I know it's a joke, I'm not that much of a killjoy).

In an earlier post, you criticized the white underclass for making bad decisions like not studying and abusing drugs. But isn't it possible that they're just like you: born into circumstances where they lack the required capacity (e.g. facility to manipulate verbal & numerical info) to be anything but ZMP-workers?

Actually I did not criticize the white underclass, although I can see how people might have read it that way. After all, the victims and villains approach to social issues is so deeply embedded in our society that it's difficult to even imagine a third approach---such as utilitarianism. So it was natural to assume I accepted the "devil's advocate" statements about the underclass provided in my post. (I was trying to suggest that conservatives would have been expected to scold the victims, based on their view of minorities.)

At a philosophical level, I believe that incentives have a major effect on the decisions that people make, but I also reject the existence of free will. Some people seem to find this confusing, because they cannot get beyond thinking that the plight of the poor is either caused by outside forces, or poor life choices. But why not both?

Let me use myself as an example.

1. I believe that I have made lots of poor life choices. So many poor choices that if I had been born in a deeply impoverished village in Bangladesh, I would have been a failure---perhaps dead by age 30. Fortunately I was born in a rich country, and was able to overcome those poor choices.

2. I also believe that if I had faced a different set of incentives, I might have made many fewer poor life choices.

Each of us is born in a different environment with different innate abilities, including things like intelligence, work ethic, patience, ability to enjoy life, etc. Utilitarianism is about constructing a set of public policies that allow people to make the most of their situation. In my view, that set of public policies is best described as "moderate libertarian."

To return to the commenter's point, a given worker might be a ZMP worker if facing one set of incentives, and a positive marginal product worker if facing a different set of incentives. To take an extreme example, if the alternative were starvation (not my recommendation!) then a lot of American ZMP workers would suddenly become more "cooperative".

PS. Just to be clear, I certainly agree that the world is full of victims and villains (the Holocaust is an obvious example). My point is that this way of thinking is not helpful in addressing the sort of complex social issues we face in modern America, and we are better off thinking in dispassionate utilitarian terms.

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COMMENTS (28 to date)
Effem writes:

I think there is one key distinction: conservatives who "romanticize" the white working class see the solution as more jobs. The left sees the corresponding solution as more spending on social programs.

Possibly a minor distinction but I'd like think that one illusion at least carries a positive incentive with it.

pgbh writes:

I don't see why you assume it's "unhelpful" to shame people who behave in a negative manner.

Obviously, people came up with social shaming because it was somewhat effective at persuading people to modify their behavior. My own impression is that this is still the case.

Scott Sumner writes:

Effem, This was directed at conservatives who see the solution as moving away from neoliberal economic policies. I think both liberals and conservatives would agree than more jobs are desirable---at least they both claim to support that.

pgbh, I'm OK with shaming bank robbers, rapists, or politicians who are pathological liars. I don't favor shaming the poor, uneducated, unemployed, homeless, unwed moms, drug users, smokers, drinkers, fat people, promiscuous people, etc. (And please don't assume I am lumping all those groups together, I'm just saying I don't favor shaming any of them.)

E. Harding writes:

"pgbh, I'm OK with shaming bank robbers, rapists, or politicians who are pathological liars. I don't favor shaming the poor, uneducated, unemployed, homeless, unwed moms, drug users, smokers, drinkers, fat people, promiscuous people, etc. (And please don't assume I am lumping all those groups together, I'm just saying I don't favor shaming any of them.)"

-I'm in favor of shaming every one of these (except maybe the unemployed).

pgbh writes:


What's the rationale behind that intuition?

Let me suggest one - being shamed is fairly unpleasant, so on utilitarian grounds you should only shame when there's a fairly big payoff to doing so (i.e., the behavior in question is quite despicable).

Maybe. But why not just shame less instead? I agree that smoking some cocaine is not that bad relative to, say, killing someone. So there's no need to shame dope fiends to the same degree as murderers. On the other hand, it could be completely sensible, as a utilitarian, to put some pressure on them to behave better.

Andrew_FL writes:

I'm not sure what any of that has to do with a dangerous ideology like utilitarianism.

Tom West writes:

Thanks for this post. It encapsulates a number of my beliefs.

However, I will point out that if you actually want to effect change that involves more than a handful of people, one needs to have an emotionally compelling narrative of some sort.

Simple good logic without a narrative behind it slides off most people's back like a duck :-).

Scott Sumner writes:

Harding, I'm tempted to ask "Should we also shame the alt-right?"

pbgh, I believe that people tend to overestimate how much they are able to usefully tell others how to live. I have enough trouble figuring out how I should live. If people do have this cognitive illusion---thinking they know more about the best interests of others than they actually do---then as a precaution it may be best to avoid telling people what to do unless they are clearly hurting others.

I understand that most won't agree with me on this point, but that's my view.

And keep in mind there are serious costs. There are suicides among high school students who are shamed for supposedly doing things that they did not actually do---just cruel gossip by other students.

Tom, You are probably correct.

Weir writes:

Seems counterproductive for a utilitarian to say out loud that free will isn't real.

A utilitarian would want people to believe that they have dignity and value. More than a piece of paper blowing about in the wind anyhow.

Young men with jobs are a really good example. Think of all the young men mangled and beaten down or hollowed out at work over the last ten thousand years. Or mangled and blown up and shot to pieces in war.

The idea used to be that there was dignity in suffering, that by putting your nose down and getting on with your task, you were doing your bit, proving your worth, contributing to society. As opposed to being manipulated by society for the good of society, at the expense of each individual foot soldier. At the expense of each "good provider" or "dutiful father" as they were once called.

Drugs are an alternative to being used up by this system. Video games are an alternative to this illusion of "growing up" or "manning up" and otherwise getting with the program.

Baby boomers are famously narcissistic, of course, but every decade is the me decade, now. And you see this in the statistics for prime working-age men. They seem unmoved by society's attempts at shaming them into becoming more productive and co-operative.

Another paradox: By smoking meth and playing Skyrim you're choosing to live in an illusory world, but what you're rejecting is itself the illusory world of manhood and adulthood, of forging a career and paying taxes, for which you are not thanked. On the contrary. Which is also highly counterproductive.

A writes:

Shaming can be useful because it reduces cognitive loads on the part of the shamers. You don't have to devote much energy to categorize and condemn a heroin dealer (although we probably should for utilitarian purposes) because they fit into shapes well worn by consensus. But that's also why it be reserved for extreme negative outliers. You don't want a society that casually outsources thoughtfulness.

Pajser writes:

Interestingly, I agree completely with Scott Sumner. Utilitarians are usually leftists; they advocate egalitarian distribution due to diminishing utility of wealth. If one believes such distribution has strong adverse effects, he can be utilitarian libertarian too.

However, utilitarian libertarian cannot ignore typical technical issue: how to maximize egalitarian distribution and minimize adverse effects?

acarraro writes:

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Mike C writes:

Scott, if you believe that people have the ability to tie themselves to the mast, i.e. alter their own future incentives, doesn't that imply at least some level of free will?

Dan writes:

If people are born in different environments, with different innate abilities, then is the Holocaust really an obvious example of villains and victims? Nazis grew up under conditions of widespread and socially acceptable anti-Semetism going back to the Middle Ages or further, and people do have innate propensities for cruelty or compassion. (If there's no free will then it seems this must be so.) Sure there were victims, but in the absence of free will can there be villains?

Also, what do you make of people who were lazy/unmotivated and then one day got off their duffs and made something of their lives? It certainly has happened, even in the absence of changes in incentives (welfare reform, eg). As a fatalist utilitarian, do you/can you give any credence to the notion of "the deserving poor"?

Roger writes:


Let me take one more try at pointing out an inconsistency in your shaming discussion with pgbh and others above.

As you wrote in your initial post, incentives matter. A LOT. Loss of esteem (let's call it social capital) has been an essential feedback mechanism in all societies since the dawn of mankind (read Boehm if you disagree).

Shaming, or social condemnation of behavior is something which serves everyone in society. It serves those doing the shaming, ridiculing, teasing and gossiping as they incentivize the recipient to become more prosocial and cooperative. It serves the recipient by providing valuable feedback and incentives to change behavior before the activity in question leads to more damaging consequences (from personal accidental harm to long term destruction of all social capital to banishment or worse). It serves society in total by allowing people to reinforce protocols and norms.

Shaming and teasing and social reprimands serve a very, very important role in helping societies maintain trust and social capital and institutional integrity. Consider why you don't publish a terrible paper. You would be ashamed to. Your peers may predend to be above "shaming", which is today associated more with teenage girls and reality shows, but the loss of social capital and esteem you would experience is really the same thing under a different label. It's about LOSS OF FACE. Loss of critical social capital so necessary to survive and thrive in a complex cultural environment.

The point of lowering the social capital of undesirable behaviors and outcomes is to incentivize the person you change. We tease and lower social standing of people who are lazy, dishonest, careless, self destructive and so on.

Obviously any tool can be abused, or overused. I am not arguing for indiscriminate lowering of social capital for things entirely out of one's control, or for kicking a dog when it is down. But I think you are dismissing something that -- in moderation -- is essential for any society to thrive.

Let me add that there is also a bit of a class thing -- a bigotry of low expectations -- that is in your response. You really would lose all respect for an economist who violated your professional ethics. You would use professional means to lower his social capital. Shaming is a lower level, less professional way to accomplish much the same thing.

pyroseed13 writes:

This and your Money Illusion post are good, and my own view is that poverty is a result of both poor choices and poor opportunities. But I want to challenge something you say in your other post:

"I support public policies that would help the American working class, it’s not high on my list of priorities. I’m much more focused on how TPP could impact Vietnam’s peasants."

If this your view, then how can you can criticize Pence for wanting to serve the interests of the voters, giving that is the group he is obligated to serve? Where are you differing is not on the views of neoliberal policies per se, but rather on which groups we should care more about. Assuming by "neoliberal" we are referring to policies such as free trade, your statement seems to tacitly assume that even if free trade really does have those effects of hurting the white working class, you would be fine with it as long as helps, for instance, the poor in Vietnam. That's a perfectly respectable position, and certainly consistent with your utilitarian viewpoint, but it's not obvious to me why politicians should care about this.

Chris writes:


If you get a chance I'd love to hear your thoughts on a piece I wrote on free will and libertarianism. It seems like we have very similar thinking on this issue and I definitely agree that utilitarianism seems to be at the very least a good rule of thumb even if not perfect for every possible situation.

Thaomas writes:

What you describe as "moderate Libertarianism" is what I call Liberalism, or perhaps more technically, "Neo-Liberalism."

I do not know what "conservatives" think, but I know a lot of Liberals and not one thinks that we do not suffer from out poor life choices. And when you look at "liberal" policies, they seem to be constructed on the basis of needing to preserve incentives for good life choices: work or job search requirements for most means tested programs, ACA insurance co-pay requirement, SS payments based on past earnings and not reduced because of post "retirement" earnings. Now there is room to discuss how strong these incentives should be with perhaps Libertarians thinking they should be stronger, just as there is room for discussion about how to count the costs and benefits from other kinds of economic interventions like health and safety and environmental regulations. But the principles seem pretty similar.

The real contrast seem to be between this and extreme Libertarians who seem to be unable to see any benefits at all, ever in departures from nightwatchman-state economic policies and with "conservatives" who can see no benefits from any downward distribution of income.

Michael Rulle writes:

You sure know how to draw a crowd. I saw a nice long essay and was looking forward to it. But right off the bat you create a disappointing stereotype about conservatives and liberals and how they view each other's supporters. Then you said you do not believe in free will. I really do not know what that means----I could not complete the article. I will come back to it when I calm down and hopefully can comment more intelligently.

Fred Anderson writes:

Unless I'm mistaken, most of the commentary here about shaming focuses on its effects on the person shamed. And yet, I would think a significant intent might be its effects on third-party observers. Shaming (say) the unwed mother may -- and may be intended to -- persuade our own daughter not go down that path.

Scott Sumner writes:

Mike, No, there are no empirical facts that imply free will, it's not a testable hypothesis.

Dan, Yes, I'd say Hitler was a villain.

Roger, I'm not entirely opposed to shaming, just shaming people for certain reasons. See my first reply to pgbh.

Pyroseed, My complaint was that Pence cared about white people in Indiana, but not black people in Indiana.

Thaomas, Actually, SS benefits are reduced for post-retirement earnings.

Scott Sumner writes:

Chris, Yes, our views are very similar.

Michael Rulle writes:

I find it astonishing that people can declare their lack of belief in free will. It shows remarkably unclear thinking. You seem to confuse absolute control over one's environment with a lack of free will. In fact, we have very little control over our environment except for that which we exercise with free will.

Given each individual's environment and self-awareness there is free will. This is different than perfect knowledge, absolute power, wonderful or horrible physical circumstances, or any ability to have an impact beyond a very small boundary around our individual selves. Nor does our environment excuse us from responsibility for our actions or make us better or worse moral beings.

Does this even need to be said?

I also find utilitarianism (i.e., the Jeremey Bentham kind) a perfect philosophy for a person who does not believe in free will. So by pure randomness or, perhaps, predestination, you have managed to at least find two beliefs that fit so well together.

I must be misunderstanding you. The same mind that wants NGDP Futures also does not believe in free will. How can one not howl with laughter at that thought?

Michael Rulle writes:

Scott----no testable hypothesis? Now I know you are joking. Since when has that been the basis for arguments. The benefit of NGDP futures clearly is not a testable hypothesis because of the inability to create the counterfactual.

If that is all you mean lets just go all-in with Hume and agree we cannot know whether we are in some kind of Matrix movie? Then, like Hume, we can stop thinking about such things and go back to the bar and continue our game of billiards while downing a few pints.

It is meaningless to deny free will----you may as well deny you are alive. That is just some made up alternative universe which relates to nothing in our experience as living beings.

pgbh writes:

Michael Rulle,

It's completely pointless to argue about something that's not testable. This is because if there is no possible set of facts that could cause you to change your mind, then you are not actually arguing about what is true or false in the real world. You are simply proposing a certain definition for some set of words.

However, "The benefit of NGDP futures" certainly is testable. You could set up an NGDP futures market and base decisions on it, then see how well those decisions worked. Such a test might be hard, but it is at least theoretically possible.

By contrast, so far as I know nobody can think of any test that could show that we do or do not "really" have free will.

Michael Rulle writes:

hi pgbh

All you have demonstrated is that science is limited, which I agree. These kinds of discussions remind me of what my friends and I would have when we were about 12 years old. There is no practical difference between perceiving free will and "really"
having free will. Therefore, to assert we have no free will is an act of faith which logically should lead to nihilism. The real truth is we believe we have free will, which, again is the same as having it. Science is useless on this topic. Hume made that point very clearly.

I feel foolish even discussing this.

François Godard writes:

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Floccina writes:
1. I believe that I have made lots of poor life choices. So many poor choices that if I had been born in a deeply impoverished village in Bangladesh, I would have been a failure---perhaps dead by age 30. Fortunately I was born in a rich country, and was able to overcome those poor choices.

On thing that I think of now and then is that I used drugs that could have easily put me in jail or prison, I did other things to. There but for the grace of God goes I.

I really think we need more sensible laws and more sure enforcement and make punishment much less severe.

We should legalize all drugs sale and use.
Make thieves pay restitution and completely clear there records when they do.
We should use home incarceration with ankle bracelets to avoid prison and jail.
Maybe even give those who committed a crime the option of corporal punish rather than incarceration.

On the other hand shaming of out of wedlock births might improve life on net it might be the most utilitarian option.

That although I lean more to Bryan Caplan's philosophy than utilitarianism.

I think the former manufacturing works will learn to do fine with less money over time ( IMO it is all loss aversion and swiftness of the losses. Home prices may need to fall (allow more building and subdividing of land). You can live a good life on $15,000/year, especially if rent of a nice apartment is $500/month, like you can get in free to build Ocala FL. In the long run the median income will afford the median home.

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