Bryan Caplan  

The Unbearable Arbitrariness of Deploring

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As a self-identified non-Neurotic man, I'm not surprised by the social ubiquity of anger, sadness, and fear.  When something bad happens, my instinctive reaction is to say, "Calm down, it's OK" - especially if it doesn't personally affect me.  But I recognize that I'm odd.  When something bad happens, a psychologically normal person's instinctive reaction is to say, "Oh my God, that's terrible!" - whether it personally affects them or not. 

At this point in my life, I'm almost inured to the anger, sadness, and fear that normal people chronically express.  They're clearly just built differently than I am.  While I suspect they could markedly improve their outlook if they wanted to, they don't want to.  Pride, I guess.  But while I've grown to accept their general negativity, I'm still astounded by what people choose to be negative about.  To my eyes, the specific items that people deplore look deeply arbitrary.

Let's start with the latest scandal.  People all over the country - indeed, the world - have recently discovered that many celebrities are habitual sexual harassers.  Each new expose leads to public outrage and professional ostracism.  Why does this confuse me?  Because many celebrities do many comparably bad things other than sexual harassment, and virtually no one cares. 

Suppose, for example, that a major celebrity is extremely emotionally abusive to all his subordinates.  He screams at them all the time.  He calls them the cruelest names he can devise.  He habitually makes impossible demands.  He threatens to fire them out of sheer sadistic pleasure.  But the abuse is never sexual (or ethnic); the celebrity limits himself to attacking subordinates' intelligence, character, pride, and hope for the future.  I daresay the average employee would far prefer to work for a boss who occasionally pressured them for a date.  But if the tabloids ran a negative profile on the Asexual Boss from Hell, the public wouldn't get very mad and Hollywood almost certainly wouldn't ostracize the offender. 

A similar point holds for celebrity gropers.  When exposed, lots of people proclaim it "unforgivable."  But if a celebrity repeatedly got into same-sex bar brawls, there would be no outcry.  Even if the celebrity received probation after paralyzing an innocent stranger for life, he could probably keep working in show business. 

Or to take a far more gruesome case: When the Syrian government last used poison gas, killing roughly a hundred people, the U.S. angrily deployed retaliatory bombers, to bipartisan acclaim.  But when the Syrian government murdered vastly more with conventional weapons, the U.S. government and its citizenry barely peeped.  The unbearable arbitrariness of deploring!

In the past, I've made similar observations about Jim Crow versus immigration laws, and My Lai versus Hiroshima.  In each case, I can understand why people would have strong negative feelings about both evils.  I can understand why people would have strong negative feelings about neither.  I can understand why people would have strong negative feelings about the greater evil, but not the lesser evil.  But I can't understand why people would have strong negative feelings about the lesser evil, but care little about the greater evil.  Or why they would have strong negative feelings about one evil, but yawn in the face of a comparable evil.

Well, I'm not at a total loss.  Perhaps strangely, I can explain what I cannot accept.  When I witness the unbearable arbitrariness of deploring, two unsympathetic types of explanations come to mind. 

First, people's negative emotions depend far more on the vividness of the evil than its badness.  A hundred stories about celebrity harassers would upset the world far more than ironclad statistical proof that 10% of celebrities harass.  Indeed, it's likely that one detail-rich story about a celebrity harasser would upset the world more than the best statistical study ever performed.

Second, people's negative emotions are intensely social.  People don't want to rage alone.  They want to get mad with their friends and countrymen.  So when a new round of ugly stories pop up, almost no one asks, "Is this really the best target of our collective anger?"  Instead, they jump on the bandwagon.  Who cares where we're going, as long as we're united in negativity?

You could insist that my ranking of the seriousness of various offenses is wrong - or at least no more judicious than the broader public's.  But even if I'm wrong on the specifics, am I really wrong about the underlying psychology of anger, sadness, and fear?  Whatever vexes you, it's hard to deny that vividness and herding - not intrinsic badness - provide the standard targeting system for human negativity.  And if you want to be upset about what really matters, you must start by deploring vividness and herding, the eternal deceivers of mankind.

COMMENTS (19 to date)
Richard writes:

This reminds me once when a law professor was talking about how hard it is to teach about the subject of law regarding rape, and I wondered why it made people much more uncomfortable than talking about murder.

There are even stronger examples of disproportionate outrage. If a celebrity made a certain racial slur, it would be a bigger deal than mass killings and almost equal all the sexual assault stuff put together.

The simplest explanation of this is our society is simply insane with regards to any bad act that can be tied to "racism" or "sexism."

Richard writes:

I'd emphasize that the outrage is far from arbitrary, it's pretty predictable what our media elites overreact to.

Thursday writes:

I honestly don't get why people don't get it when things of a sexual nature cause a much more extreme reaction. Sex is extremely important, and, arguably, it was even more important before effective contraception (and we evolved in an environment without effective contraception).

Jacob Egner writes:


Good post; I wish more people had your level headedness and refusal to let your emotions decide your conclusions.

Bryan, you said...

I can explain what I cannot accept...vividness...bandwagon

I was a bit surprised by the lack of a Hansonian explanation (though "bandwagon" is somewhat Hansonian). Recently, you even had a wonderful guest post that was extremely Hansonian in its explanations of human behavior.

Suppose, for example, that a major celebrity is extremely emotionally abusive to all his subordinates...But the abuse is never sexual (or ethnic); the celebrity limits himself to attacking subordinates' intelligence, character, pride, and hope for the future.

Abuse based on sexual/ethnic stuff activates "my/their group is threatened!" emotions far more than abuse for characteristics that are not tied up with a group identity. Is this the unstated principle you're trying to demonstrate with your hypothetical?


David R Henderson writes:

Excellent post.
It reminds me of something I should have posted on that I saw on TV some years ago. A fairly smart person (I can’t remember who and I can’t remember his particular ideology) who had been, in my view and his, falsely called a racist, said words to the effect “That’s the worst thing you can call someone.” “Really?”, I wondered, “Worse than murderer?" I knew racists when I was a kid. There’s no way they were worse than murderers.

E. Harding writes:

Good post, Caplan. Considering a Senator can do great harm to millions out of evil motives with nobody blinking an eye, I cannot consider it some great evil when he or she commits more pedestrian offenses.

Andrew writes:

I think it also has a lot to do with how the intent of the perpetrator is perceived. Murder is typically seen as a mistake or a "crime of passion"; verbal abuse is still seen by some as a legitimate motivational technique. The ignoring of unjust policies is excused as a limitation of human cognition. On the other hand, rape/sexual assault/racism/sexism are seen as conscious and selfish acts.

Niko Davor writes:

Severe non-sexual abuse is morally worse than mild sexual abuse. It is harder to establish objective judgement criteria on non-sexual abuse. There are also political motivations driving the sexual abuse outrage.

The Syrian government killing lots of people with conventional weapons is morally worse than killing a smaller number of people with poison gas. It's more practical and realistic to set international rules and punishments surrounding poison gas than conventional weapons. A hypothetically tiny nuclear bomb killing a handful of people would also generate disproportionate outrage.

Caplan's linked posting and comment threads on the other two scenarios have lots of logical counter arguments.

This seems like simple contrarian retort. Any one of us could identify endless points of disagreement and counter arguments to prevailing morality.

Shane L writes:

I agree with the first half of Bryan's post and I also have many times been the calm, bewildered person watching the crowds flip out.

However the heightened response to the sexual abuse scandal seems more understandable, given the context. People have claimed for decades that their experiences of sexual harassment and violence have been dismissed or denied, and that the powerful perpetrators have been protected. Now it emerges (allegedly) that not only was harassment extremely common, but that serial rapists were thriving at the top of society, protected by their power. Known rapists were probably being protected by an upperclass elite, one that furthermore liked to pontificate about ethics and justice, each Oscars ceremony more weirdly self-righteous than the last. It reminds me of the revelations of the Catholic Church's dismal handling of child sexual abuse in the last two decades; there, too, powerful predators were protected by an institution that liked to scold people for their immorality.

This MeToo moment is interesting because for some reason the momentum of allegations is such that powerful people are for the first time being challenged and undermined on all sides. Thus, while it is indeed a bit strange that people who patted their secretary on the backside in the 1970s are under fire and people who launched wars that killed hundreds of thousands of people are not, it is surely part of this context: decades of abuse and humiliation perpetrated by self-congratulating elites on vulnerable women and men, finally coming to a reckoning.

Nathan Smith writes:

The bandwagoning could make sense. Solitary rage isn't likely to do much good. But if we all get mad at the same evil at the same time, we might accomplish some change. It could be rational to allocate your outrage to what looks like the most vulnerable target at a given moment. Everybody's furious at sexual harassers? Good! It's about time! Sign me up!

I think the other factor at work here is that we have a sexual harasser in the White House. Maybe after using Al Franken and Roy Moore for target practice, people figure we can take down the big one.

Steve Bacharach writes:

I'm reminded of a skit in "The Onion Movie" (never released in theaters AFAIK) that riffed on the parlor game "How to Host a Murder." This version of the game also involved a crime mystery but the offense was rape, not murder. More great satire from The Onion.

Niko Davor writes:

@Nathan Smith, yes, I believe the left that controls these cultural movements is outraged at Trump and needs to clear the deck to target Trump. Bill Clinton was of course credibly accused of not merely harassment, but full blown violent forced intercourse rape. Hillary played an active role in discrediting the accusers. If Trump wasn't president, or his opponents had a better option to oust him, I don't think any of this outrage would have manifested.

Vera writes:

Careful Bryan, you're sounding a bit utilitarian :D

Weir writes:

Sounds like religion to me. That there's what matters, on the one hand, and then there's what people merely think is important. That people are just too attached to all this ephemera. They care so much about this world, but this is only a world of appearances.

People think, stubbornly, that there's some great importance to their physical existence even though the most enlightened teachers tell them that the material world is just an illusion, and what they should remember is their immortal soul, or its reincarnation, or its safe-keeping over the course of this brief sojourn.

The sermons haven't worked so far. Even after thousands of years of saying again and again that there is something more than this world of shadows and samsara and needless suffering, people stubbornly choose to get emotional about mere earthly things. Sound a bit similar?

denis bider writes:

Bryan: I suggest a likely reason for the differences in deploring - besides vividness and the bandwagon - is where the frontline in the social values battle currently resides.

There's no use getting super upset over something everyone agrees on, or a definite one-time event, or something everything is already being done about, nor something that is extremely awful but a total lost cause.

What people get upset about are things that are up for debate, where it seems like it's possible to win ground or there's threat of losing ground in the war of values.

If I were to get upset about the objectively most awful thing going on on the planet right now, the treatment of animals by the meat industry would compete closely with climate change due to the sheer cruelty and the number of lives affected. However, it is my perception that there's nothing to achieve here, since most people can't even be persuaded that animal suffering is worthy of consideration. So if I get upset, it's about things that don't seem such a lost cause. But I equally don't get upset about things that are awful that are already being adequately handled.

Which is why a person would be more upset about rape (not everyone agrees how bad it is, so people need to be convinced) than murder (everyone agrees it's bad, no one to convince).

Hazel Meade writes:

The reason is that the immorality of murder is not controversial, but racism and sexism still have a small minority of defenders.

In order to have a controversy, there have to be two sides arguing against each other. If there's nothing to argue about, there's no controversy and no outrage.

Moreover, when society is close to establishing uniformity of opinion on a topic ,there's an incentive to silence the last defenders via social pressure.

Thus the topics which around the most heated expression of outrage are always going to be issues where there's a strong, but yet quite universal, social consensus about. If there's a universal consensus, there's nobody to argue with, and if there's no consensus, social shaming won't work. But if your side is socially dominant, it's often easier to achieve universal consensus by shaming the last holdouts than by persuasion.

Of course, then there's yet another border region where it's uncertain if the consensus is strong enough for shaming to work, and some people want to pretend it is, and others refuse to go along with it.

Weir writes:

You're reading a post on an economics blog. You should, objectively, read Proust instead.

You should, objectively, feel outraged about bathtubs and their murderous spree.

You should, objectively, hate cancer, and despise the injustice of heart disease, and denounce the heinous crime that is death itself.

And you shouldn't get so arbitrarily attached to the kids that merely happen to be yours, when there are billions more deserving of help.

Petre writes:

Here are some other possible causes (this list is far from complete so beware selection bias):

Sampling Selection bias: Exploring for moral injustice in a specific narrow location, unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) excluding all the injustices and atrocities outside of that location (eg. focus only on US)

Your FB news feed, your favorite news media might not serve you the most representative information for the state of affairs in the world, so while you are expressing moral outrage over Louis CK immoral behavior, a huge number of people are dying of preventable trivial causes.

This is also done on a smaller scale within a culture by most of the people involved in the culture wars: sampling for immoral behavior and inconsistency only in your outgroup ignoring the behavior of your ingroup

How to avoid this trap: Sample your info globally and implement your moral judgment consistently.

About moral consistency see lesson number 4:

Use these heuristics to evaluate the importance of the issue:

1. How many people does it affects?
2. I this problem already addressed by many people or is it unjustifiably neglected.
3. Is there’s something practical you can do that might succeed.

Another possible trap is scope insensitivity:

Also beware empathy:

Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data.

A writes:

This post, and most commenters, seem to assume a non-arbitrary state consistent with non-arbitrary arrangements of preferences. But there is no elaboration! A "neutral" demeanor does not equal, or even imply, a neutral position. There is nothing in this article to demonstrate that Caplan is more or less arbitrary than the deplorers.

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