Bryan Caplan  

Murder: A Socratic Dialogue

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Glaucon: Have you heard the news, Socrates?  A scimitar-wielding Persian maniac just cut down three Corinthians in cold blood.

Socrates: A ghastly crime.  But why are you telling me?

Glaucon: Because it just happened!

Socrates: So I gathered.

Glaucon: In Corinth!  That's only fifty miles away.

Socrates: Should we get inside and bar the door?

Glaucon: [squinting] No.  The Persian was killed moments after the attack.

Socrates: Then I repeat: Why are you telling me?

Glaucon: [upset] Because I assumed you would care about the victims!

Socrates: Well, I care a little bit.  But I didn't personally know them. 

Glaucon: [outraged] You're barely human, Socrates.  Everyone else is outraged by this Persian crime.  You should be too!

Socrates: Perhaps you're right.  But one thing puzzles me.

Glaucon: [calming down] Namely?

Socrates: My friend Pythagoras has calculated the number of innocent people murdered on an average day.  Do you know how many that is?

Glaucon: No.

Socrates: Fifty. And the minimum number of recorded daily victims is five.

Glaucon: What a hellish world we live in!

Socrates: Perhaps.  Now that you know this, I have to ask: Do you plan to be outraged every day for the rest of your life?

Glaucon: [taken aback] Well, those numbers are pretty bad, but...

Socrates: But what?

Glaucon: Well, life is for the living.  I'm not going to be angry and miserable every day just because vile crimes are happening somewhere on Earth.  It's a big place, you know.

Socrates: Very wise.  But then why did you say I was "barely human" for having the same reaction when you told me about the tragedy in Corinth?

Glaucon: [renewed outrage] That's completely different.  

Socrates: Really?  Please help me understand how.

Glaucon: Well, we're talking about innocent... [fumbling]  What I mean is, it just hap... [dumb-founded]

Socrates: You were going to remind me that the crime is fresh, and the victims were innocent.  But you stopped short, because you realized that this is true every day.

Glaucon: [irritated] Yes.

Socrates: Did you think I should be upset simply because our community is temporarily fixated on this specific crime?

Glaucon: No, that would be pretty stupid.

Socrates: And shallow and disingenuous.  So I ask you again: Why am I supposed to be distraught about the tragedy in Corinth?

Glaucon: [long pause]  Because they victims were fellow Greeks!

Socrates: According to Pythagoras, three Greeks are murdered on an average day.  The tragedy of Corinth therefore brings us to our daily average.  Do you plan to be angry and miserable every day the number of Greeks murdered equals or exceeds the long-run average?

Glaucon: You're missing the point.  The Corinthians were murdered by a treacherous Persian!

Socrates: Ah, I overlooked that critical distinction.  So what should outrage us is not murder in general, or murder of Greeks by fellow Greeks, but only murder of Greeks by Persians?

Glaucon: [touchy] Do you think it's funny when a Persian maniac butchers a child with his scimitar?

Socrates: Not in the slightest.  But how is that worse than when a Greek maniac murders a child?

Glaucon: Well, maybe it's not worse.  But we can do something about the Persian maniacs.

Socrates: We can "do something" about murderers of any nationality, can we not?

Glaucon: [exasperated] Sure.  But we can do a lot more about the Persians.

Socrates: Are would-be Persian murderers more easily deterred by punishment? 

Glaucon: Probably less, actually.

Socrates: Then what do you mean when you say we can "do a lot more about them"?

Glaucon: Well, if there weren't any Persians here, they wouldn't be able to murder any of us.

Socrates: True enough.  So to end Persian murder, we should murder every Persian in Greece?

Glaucon: That's barbarous!  No, we should just keep Persians out of Greece.

Socrates: We should exile a vast group for the crimes of a few?

Glaucon: I don't know why you call it "exile."  The Persians can stay in Persia.

Socrates: What about Spartans?  They're only 10% of the population of Greece, but they commit half the murders.

Glaucon: So?

Socrates: If the Persians should stay in Persia, should the Spartans stay in Sparta?

Glaucon: What a horrible thing to say!  Spartans are fellow Greeks!

Socrates: So we shouldn't exile all Spartans for the crimes of a few Spartans?

Glaucon: Absolutely not.

Socrates: But are not the Persians fellow human beings?

Glaucon: I suppose.

Socrates: Why then isn't it just as horrible to advocate collective punishment against Persians as against Spartans?

Glaucon: What part of "Spartans are fellow Greeks" don't you understand?

Socrates: These Spartans seem rather troublesome.  Could we just declare they're not Greek anymore, then exile them?

Glaucon: That would be a monstrous injustice.

Socrates: Indeed it would be.  But the reason is not that they're fellow Greeks.  Who counts as "Greek" is a matter of convention, not justice.

Glaucon: Then why would it be a monstrous injustice?

Socrates: Because Spartans, like Persians, are fellow human beings deserving of just treatment.  And that, my dear Glaucon, is no convention.

COMMENTS (23 to date)
Jon Murphy writes:


TA writes:

Thanks. That was subtle.

Lawrence D'Anna writes:

You've carefully constructed your hypothetical so it avoids contact with the unsolvable problems of justice and conflict. And that's convenient, because you can't solve them. At best you can choose a less lesser evil in a particular case.

Unsolvable problem number one: Justice doesn't aggregate.

Any one one Palestinian refugee has the right to live and work in Israel. Justice demands it. Do 4 million have that right? Would that be just to a child born in Israel today?

Any one lunch counter owner has the right to deny service to a customer arbitrarily. It's his business and his labour, and he has the right to dispose of them. Do they all have the right to deny service to a class of customers based on race? Is that not an injustice?

Unsolvable problem number two: collective punishment is evil but human beings fight in groups.

How sure are you that scimitar wielding maniac is a lone wolf? Maybe it's part of an organized effort of Persians against Greeks. Maybe it was an effort of ethnic cleansing, to scare greeks out of the Persian neighborhood. Maybe it was terrorism, to provoke Athens into an overreaction.

Maybe he took his orders from Xerxes. Or maybe he simply acted on his own initiative to fight the Greeks, as if he had taken his orders from Xerxes.

How high a ransom are you willing to pay Xerxes for peace?

How high knowing that paying extortion money only encourages further extortion?

Maybe that's all just paranoid hype from the warmongering Greek media.

Or maybe it's not. Maybe appeasement just means you'll be fighting a bigger, worse war when you finally realize you have no choice but to fight.

Good luck trying to figure it out, Socrates. It's not going to be easy, and if you get it wrong a lot of people are going to die needlessly.

Chris Cooper writes:

Glaucon shouldn't have let Socrates duck out of admitting that returning the Persians to Persia, their homeland, would not be exile. Nor would it be collective punishment. Doubtless it would be a misfortune for many of them; but they were not in Greece because it was their right to be there.

roystgnr writes:

Glaucon wasn't born until 445BC, so this conversation would definitely have taken place after the Persians had twice invaded and failed to conquer Greece. It would probably be during the Peloponnesian War, when Persia was supporting Sparta against Athens in an attempt to weaken them both.

I'm not sure this is a vein of pro-open-borders allegory you really want to mine; the canaries keep dying...

Chad writes:

Athens, Sparta, and Persia did have some disagreements about who should stay where.

See for starters.

Ben Kennedy writes:


To cut to the heart of the matter, people view terrorism as an attack on institutions and society as a whole. For beings that evolved tribalism as a survival mechanism, threats to the tribe are disproportionately scary. This is why sensational acts of terrorism are such a big deal. Asking why people are "supposed to be distraught" is an unanswerable moral question. They are distraught because they are hard-wired to be distraught at such things. I really don't see the point at scolding them for it.

Ilya Novak writes:

I second Ben Kennedy...

Bryan is missing the point.

Bryan is modeling Glaucon's behavior as if he's using the wrong heuristic. But he should be modeling it as tribalism in the utility function.

He's treating Glaucon as if he merely made a miscalculation in his analysis of the proper probability of such murders happening and of the most effective economic deterrent. By correcting Glaucon's math he can change Glaucon's behavior.

But that's not what's happening. Glaucon isn't making calculations. Instead, he has a tribal affinity for his own people, the Greeks. Hearing of such crimes he feels that his people, the Greeks, are being threatened by outsiders, the Persians. He becomes furious at the Persinas. Therefore, the Persians must be punished as group. It's about one group threatening another group.

Collective punishment is the order of the day in hunter-gatherer groups. It's in our genes. And Glaucon's sentiment is merely an expression of that feeling.

Ben Kennedy writes:

Another irony is Bryan rejecting the intuitions of Glaucon as invalid, while embracing ethical intuitionism as the best moral philosophy...

Michael Stack writes:


I agree 100% on the source of these tribal intuitions. I suspect Bryan does too. I'm confused though, why would acknowledging the source of these intuitions prohibit us from criticizing them as pointless (today, anyway) and irrational?

The point of moral philosophy is to examine these intuitions and see whether or not they stand up to scrutiny.

Ben Kennedy writes:


I'm confused though, why would acknowledging the source of these intuitions prohibit us from criticizing them as pointless (today, anyway) and irrational?

The point of moral philosophy is to examine these intuitions and see whether or not they stand up to scrutiny.

Well, aside from the irony I mentioned earlier about ethical intuitionism...

Once you acknowledge that moral intuitions that feel binding are evolved traits, it strongly defeats the justification of the truth value of any moral judgment (especially intuitionism). It is easy to imagine certain ways morality could have evolved differently, yet still "feel" true. Arguing about whose perceived truth is actually true becomes a rather pointless exercise

Michael Stack writes:
Once you acknowledge that moral intuitions that feel binding are evolved traits, it strongly defeats the justification of the truth value of any moral judgment (especially intuitionism).

Two responses:

1. Maybe, but this seems to me like an entirely different line of argument. Looking at your first comment, I don't see this argument there. Maybe I'm not reading it properly.

2. OK, yes, we evolved moral intuitions to solve a number of problems. Moral rules aren't 'real' in the sense that there aren't moral absolutes existing somewhere outside of human consciousness. Agreed.

But where does that leave us? We still need a set of rules in order for us to live with one another. Ultimately intuition is the only tool we have. But, as you point out, how can you defeat intuition with...intuition? I see that problem, and it is an argument I've made myself. Ultimately I'm in agreement with Robin Hanson on treating it as a 'best-fit' problem - mapping a moral philosophy curve to all the data points we have in the morality problem space. It's not a perfect fit, but we can do quite a bit better than our naive intuition, which treats each moral problem separately. Doing that, we can see that our raw intuition regarding immigration doesn't really fit well with the majority of our other intuitions.

Now, maybe all the other intuitions are wrong, and our intuitions on immigration are correct! Possible, but unlikely given our understanding of how our anti-immigrant sentiments likely evolved.

Ben Kennedy writes:
Looking at your first comment, I don't see this argument there. Maybe I'm not reading it properly.

I don't think I was trying to make this kind of argument then. I was just noting that Glaucon's emotional reactions are sensible from an evolutionary standpoint, and yelling at him for it seems pretty tacky to me

But where does that leave us?

We either fight to impose our will on others, or negotiate. In general, political discourse would be improved tremendously if dropped right-language and just concentrated on what we want to happen

Zc writes:

When the frequent perpretators of terrorism are accolytes of a religion and culture that is fundamentally at odds with our society, it's not a simple matter of 'but they're just people'.

Caplan, betting man that you are, I bet you the validity of your argument that you won't house any Muslim refugees from the Middle East at your house long term.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Mass murders are more heinous. Crimes of passion are sad but more pedestrian and that's what a lot of murders end up being. The two frequently (though I guess not always, if the mass murderer was mentally ill maybe) probably deserve different moral treatment. The loss is the same in each if that's all you're trying to say but it seems like there's plenty of good reasons to react differently.

Floccina writes:

How about statistical discrimination? What if statistics had shown that Persians kill Greeks at an alarming rate?

Wouter Stekelenburg writes:

Ben Kennedy

That Glaucon is hardwired to behave that way is unlikely. He learned a lot of his current behaviors. He wasn't born to despise Persians. Barring severe mental disability, Glaucon can learn to respond to Persian assaults in Socrates' more rational way. Scolding is not the best way to teach him, but that is clearly not what Socrates does. Instead, Glaucon is yelling at Socrates while Socrates calmly explains why not to be distraught. Why sigh about that?

Ben Kennedy writes:
Why sigh about that?

The dialog is designed to make Glaucon look foolish because he can't explain why he might have a different posture toward Spartans than Persians, or a different reaction to murders committed by Persians. Why not engage Glaucan's best arguments?

gda writes:

Socrates: Isn't it likely that the Corinthians failed to accept the poor Persian's religion or dissed it in some way and therefore he was entirely within his rights to kill them? And so what if you say the Persian had a thermo-nuclear device? Is that, like, TWO scimitars? Big deal.

Pardon me if I consider this little exercise to be just more egalitarianism open borders claptrap.

drobviousso writes:

Socrates is operating under the unspoken assumption that every murder (or maybe every death) is of equal moral weight.

Glaucon is operating under the unspoken assumption that different murders (or maybe different deaths) each implicate different levels of injustice.

To Socrates, a murder of a Greek by a Greek has the same injustice as a murder of a Greek by a Persian. To Glaucon, they are different.

The Socrates character is in line with a dispassionate reductionism that is in line with a lot of this author's writing. Glaucon's character is in line with the way that most humans have operated in most situations in most of human history.

When an immigrant or son of immigrant kills an American, many people on the right feel like a grave injustice is committed. And their cultural betters call them irrational because immigrants are less likely to commit murder than native born Americans.

When a legal gun owner shoots up a movie theater or night club, many people on the left feel like a grave injustice is committed. And their cultural inferiors call them irrational because swimming pools kill more children than legal gun owners.

TLDR Socrates is right about the stats. Glaucon is right about human nature.

Ali Bertarian writes:

Yet again Caplan ignores the long-term effects of the immigration of those who don't have a history of favoring strong individual rights within a society having a government that consists of unlimited majoritarianism.

Socrates is wrong. Your local hoodlum murderer is not the same as your local scimitar-wielding terrorist, because if the terrorist had had a dirty bomb or an EMP device, then he would have used it. Your local murderer isn't thinking about dirty bombs or EMP devices.

Hello Halo writes:

For those supporting Glaucon's argument, what is your position on hate crime laws?

Jeff Harding writes:

Greek lives matter!

Brilliant analysis, Bryan.

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