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Blame Theory

It’s always dangerous to speculate about the hidden psychological motives of people you disagree with – this is the sin of Bulverism. But like most sins, it’s also fun. So please forgive me while I talk about blame.

Many people have remarked on the paradox of an academia made mostly of upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners trying so very hard to find reasons why lots of things are the fault of upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners. The simplest example I can think of is attributing the woes of Third World countries to colonialism; without meaning to trivialize the evils of colonization, a lot of academics seem to go beyond what even the undeniably awful facts can support. Dependency theory, for example, is now mostly discredited, as are a lot of the Marxist perspectives. I would provide other examples if I weren’t satisfied you can generate them independently.

This is on the face of it surprising; naively we would expect people to cast themselves and those like them in as positive a light as possible. Forget about whether these attributions of blame are right or wrong. Even if they were right I would not expect people to believe them as enthusiastically as they do.

The theories I’ve heard to explain this paradox are rarely very flattering; usually something about class signaling, or holier-than-thou-ness, or trying to justify the existence of an academic elite.

I want to propose another possibility: what if people are really, fundamentally, good?

Moral philosophy distinguishes between a couple of ethical systems, like deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics. Most people without philosophical training settle into a sort of mishmash of all of them, but one which, I think, is closer to deontology than either of the others. Call it Moral Therapeutic Deontology. Like all deontological systems, it focuses on following certain rules: don’t murder, don’t steal, respect your parents, pay back your debts. Like all deontological systems, other things like charity are “supererogatory”, meaning they’re nice but not really necessary. If you’ve got extra time and energy after doing the important stuff, then sure, do the superogatory stuff, whatever, but it’s hardly where your moral focus should be.

On the other hand, when confronted with the full extent of human suffering – whether by living in a poor area, or serving in a war zone, or traveling to a Third World country, or treating depression patients – it’s hard to think about anything else. The sheer burning horribleness of it becomes this unscratchable itch, this flaw in the world that blots out the sun.

And here’s Moral Therapeutic Deontology, saying, “Yeah, helping quench the burning fire of human suffering is nice, but it’s not like a real thing that real morality should care about. It’s not your duty.”

This is some heavy cognitive dissonance. It doesn’t match basic intuitions about the importance of the matter. Even worse, it doesn’t allow you to communicate the importance of the matter to other people. If you say “Look at all these people living squalid and miserable in the slums without any hope,” and they say “Yeah, well, it would be supererogatory to help them and I’m not feeling supererogatory today,” you don’t really have a leg to stand on.

There’s an easy way to resolve the dissonance without abandoning either Moral Therapeutic Deontology or your concern for the less well-off. That resolution is to prove that human suffering is you and your friends’ fault. Deontology very clearly says that if you cause a problem, it’s your job to help fix it. If you can prove that the reason the Third World is suffering is because of First World white people, you have a strong claim that you as a First World white person should be deeply emotionally invested in solving it; that your friends and neighbors, as First World white people, ought to help you; and that your government, as that of a First World majority-white country, is justified in using taxpayer money to get involved.

I think this might be a part of what’s happening. People feel a need to help the less-advantaged so strongly that they come up with a justification to do so that makes sense in their own moral system, whether it’s factually accurate or not.

I am not as fanatical a partisan of utilitarianism as I used to be, but this still seems like one of the situations where it has an obvious advantage. Utilitarianism tells us that we are perfectly justified in seeing the relief of suffering as a pressing need. We don’t need to justify it by positing facts that may later be proven untrue; it is self-justifying. People sometimes complain that a flaw of utilitarianism is that it implies a heavy moral obligations to help all kinds of people whether or not any of their problems are our fault; the world is divided between those who consider that a bug and those who find it a very helpful feature.

I want more people to become familiar with utilitarianism because I think a lot of the colonialism theory stuff is net hurtful. It combines a justification for helping the poor with an insult to people’s identity, and probably makes the former less palatable to many people than it would be naturally. It also makes our need to help the poor hinge on an empirical point; if that empirical point gets disproved, things become pretty awkward.

This theory implies that utilitarian liberals will have all the features of liberalism except the interest in blaming their own group for major problems. My anecdotal experience confirms that. The utilitarians I know are very interested in helping the poor and in various other liberal ideas, but are more likely than other liberals to roll their eyes at talk about colonialism and stereotype threat. I think it’s because they feel confident in their right to care about the disadvantaged regardless.

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340 Responses to Blame Theory

  1. Susebron says:

    Any consequentialist moral theory would work, not just utilitarianism. If you took Moral Therapeutic Deontology and removed the distinction between doing x and letting x happen, it would reconcile the two points without requiring people to come up with reasons why they’re actually doing x.

    On a slightly less related note, I think that people don’t settle into a single system, even an ambiguous one. From what I’ve seen, most people are virtue ethicists when describing things, deontologists when telling people what to do, consequentialists when arguing with other people, and egoists when actually doing things. There are plenty of exceptions to each of these, of course, but that’s been my general experience.

    • ilzolende says:

      I’m mostly a deontologist when I’m explaining why I shouldn’t be in trouble? And the vast majority of my actually doing things is being a personal-hedons-with-a-time-preference consequentialist with a dash of utilitarianism.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “describing things” here. Appearance of virtue is really all most people have to go on when describing other people, and I think people describe organizations based on what they’ve accomplished, so I’m not sure what you’re getting at with that.

    • haishan says:

      Virtue ethics doesn’t suffer from this particular bug, either. Nor does hedonism, I guess.

    • ” and removed the distinction between doing x and letting x happen”

      If you remove that distinction, does that leave you any defensible positions between saint and psychopath?

      • hawkice says:

        I’ve generally described this category as ‘tribal’. Some humanity is important (presumably a coherent group known to them), and the rest is essentially irrelevant. Not psychopathy, but strains our moral intuitions about how good and bad are defined on a scale larger than people-I-know (not sure how to phrase this, but valuing only your friends [in a moral sense] is not symmetric, because the people you don’t care about also have friends you don’t care about — so you can have two people 100% agree on how to make decisions and disagree about what decisions to make).

        For example: two honorable people can maintain their honor by killing the other — and both simultaneously liking the other person but believing it to be a moral right the other is dead, all while knowing the other believes the same. They don’t resent them for it, because they fundamentally agree. But this is a tremendously silly thing to have happen, and cannot possibly further both of their goals, and in almost all cases I can imagine, doesn’t even serve _one_ of their goals.

        • Irrelevant says:

          valuing only your friends [in a moral sense] is not symmetric, because the people you don’t care about also have friends you don’t care about

          Slightly incorrect, since people still give a significant if lesser level of weight to second-degree and even third-degree connections. Around that point, though, knowing the same people starts blurring with belonging to the same labeled groups as a source of care.

          Which brings up an interesting notion, which is that we’re only a little bit of work and some years of privacy erosion from being able to just have the social media machine tell you how closely tied you are to any given person. What impact would access to direct data have on caring about people due to group membership labels?

  2. Faceh says:

    Perhaps I’m not completely on point here, but I thought that a lot of the benefit of utilitarian theory came from it helping us decide which actions to take to do the ‘most’ amount of good, **without** allowing in purely emotional biases such as the desire to help those worse off than ourselves simply because its good.

    For instance, if given the choice between spending $10 billion to establish a permanent human colony on Mars, vs. eradicating completely and utterly poverty in some small third world country, I would ultimately have to choose to spend it on the mars colony as that presents the greatest long-term good and beneficial returns.

    But a purely ‘naive’ view would suggest that helping a few million impoverished people might surpass the good of letting a few dozen people colonize another planet.

    So while utilitarianism may in fact suggest that alleviating suffering is a pressing need that we should, even if not directly responsible for it, be concerned with, that doesn’t mean that it suddenly becomes the *most* pressing need.

    So an ethical system that holds you accountable for the plight of those worse off than yourself, even when you have done nothing to put them in that position, might lead a person to throw money at *relatively* unconsequential programs that will not have the sort of *massive* long-term impact as others would, simply because they want to assuage their ‘guilt’ over the matter.

    What I mean to say is, sometimes being the cold, hard calculator who is willing to discount the suffering of their fellow man to achieve an even greater objective is more important than the person who devotes all their wealth to helping their fellow man without any real returns.

    • agree. a mars colony would be a back-up plan, possibly saving humanity in the event of a extinction event. The ROI would be infinite . That’s probably why so many utilitarian-minded billionaires support space colonization and are funding such projects.

      • I’d definitely like to see a major increase in investment in space exploration and colonisation. It really is one of humanity’s most noble endeavours. But I do think its a false hope for extinction fears. The majority of existential threats expand proportionally to human technology and capability. For example, AI risk and nuclear warfare would find a Mars colony to be no barrier. After all, you can easily send a weapon wherever you can send a bunch of humans and colonization equipment. Also, Mars would actually be a major target in a strategic nuclear war because it’s one of the few places you can launch a major attack without climatic consequences applying to your location. Or, to put it another way, wherever humanity’s hand may reach, so may its fist.

        We shouldn’t allow space colonization to replace working to solve our problems, because in the long term not solving our problems is the greatest threat to our ability to colonize space.

        • Emile says:

          After all, you can easily send a weapon wherever you can send a bunch of humans and colonization equipment. Also, Mars would actually be a major target in a strategic nuclear war because it’s one of the few places you can launch a major attack without climatic consequences applying to your location. Or, to put it another way, wherever humanity’s hand may reach, so may its fist.

          I wouldn’t say *easily*. It stil takes a few months to get there (not to mention that it’s way more expensive than nuking New York), so, if an attack is launched on Mars, Mars has plenty of time to see it coming and prepare to knock it down or disperse to make less easy targets (and build big heat-and-radio-signals wave generators in the middle of nowhere for whatever targeting system there is), and launch a retaliative strike (which again Earth has plenty of time to prepare for etc. – but still).

          So I would expect that of all possible thermonuclear wars that destroy earth civilization, only a fraction (20%?) would also directly destroy Mars (a bigger problem is that Mars is likely to rely on Earth’s support for survival).

          • Wes says:

            That’s assuming that a nuclear strike would be launched from Earth. If colonizing Mars is successful, there would likely be rival factions on Mars eventually with their own WMD’s. There are also plenty of ways that a nuclear weapon could be smuggled to Mars orbit (or the surface) and launched from there.

          • I see what you’re saying, but I think its very unlikely that a defensive measure against a nuclear attack is effective unless the defender is way more technologically advanced and well equipped than the attacker, which wouldn’t be this case in that scenario.

      • Harald K says:

        The ROI would be infinite.

        It would not. In the long run we are all dead anyway, and all of our descendants too. Whether it’s worth it or not depends on your discounting rate.

        • Wes says:

          Exactly. Receiving $1 every year forever doesn’t have infinite value. Assuming a 5% discount rate, it has a present value of $20. You can do the calculations here:

          So even if a Mars colony has infinite returns, that doesn’t mean it has infinite value in the present. Future returns should always be discounted, and the discounts compounded the farther in the future you go.

          • John Schilling says:

            And if I can cut a deal with Moloch where I get a decent back rub right now, at the cost of a million people inevitably suffering a lifetime of torment in the Pain Amplifiers, that’s fine so long as the million people live far enough in the future.

            Exercise for the student: describe and/or bound the circumstances under which a constant discount rate, or an ROI calculation general,y can be properly applied to ethical calculations.

          • youzicha says:

            It’s not super clear that we ought to apply discount rates to this kind of calculation.

          • Harald K says:

            John Schilling, there are two main reasons to discount: The one is uncertainty. The real world has no Faustian devils to guarantee outcomes in the future with certainty. The value of an outcome in the future should be reduced because you might not reach that future, and because circumstances may have rendered the outcome less valuable. From experience, it’s very rare that time renders an outcome more valuable than you thought; usually it’s easier to judge the value of something the closer you are to it in time.

            The other reason is compound interest. If that backrub can do enough good for you that it makes you able to go out and give a backrub yourself, maybe the people you do good to can do further good, etc. Maybe farfetched for backrubs, but many economic goods can work like that.

            I’d also like to point out that regardless of discounting, deontologists will not be OK with you striking any deals with Moloch. For us, quantifying the goodness/badness of an outcome only comes into play for imperfect duties, and not making a deal like that is a perfect duty.

          • Alsadius says:

            John Schilling: Uncertainty effects are mathematically identical to interest rates, given a fairly simple assumption(that our ability to predict gets exponentially worse the further away you get from the present). With a 1% chance per century that Moloch gets overthrown and his Pain Amplifiers get shut off(or that all people die off, so there’s none to torture), then that trade would make eminent sense.

          • John Schilling says:

            You are also making the assumption that uncertainty will manifest itself as reduced risk/cost, e.g. maybe Moloch won’t be around to collect on his end of the deal. The reverse seems equally likely, and the simple plausible assumption is that there will simply be a fuzzy expanding confidence interval around the fixed cost. In which case any sort of most-probable-value calculation will be unchanged, and most-probable-value is optimistic compared to how real people evaluate risk.

            On top of which, there seems to be an assumption at work here that not only does uncertainty inherently favor play-now/pay-later schemes, it does so at a rate that coincidentally matches that of highly predictable financial investments in a stable economy. Not buying it.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        I might be missing some sarcasm, but the billionaires not named Elon Musk are worrying much more about problems on Earth. Which is fine, BTW. Each of them are specialized.

        Bezos is playing with rocket companies, and Brin is involved in a Google X prize, but those seem like small game.

    • moridinamael says:

      I think there’s a decent argument to be made along these lines that simply participating in the economy as a producer/consumer is a pretty morally excellent/sufficient thing to be doing.

      I mean, we lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and created a technological liberal civilization not because of the noble sacrifice of altruists but because everybody just kept on participating in the economy. The top keeps rising and rising and now we have a dude who is committed to actually establishing a Mars colony because he made a lot of money selling a business that allowed people to buy shit on the Internet.

      I predict that there is a 20% chance that I clearly communicated my intent in this post.

      • lmm says:

        Not just the top. I remember reading (in the Economist?) that Africa’s development is now comfortably ahead of UN targets, but no-one wants to talk about it because the improvement was driven not by noble charity but by selfish Chinese entrepreneurs.

        • Doug Muir says:

          Or, you know, Africans themselves might have had something to do with it.

          Doug M.

          • Peter says:

            You might be trying to explain a variable with a constant there.

          • randy m says:

            Frankly I bet the GDP of Africa would be amazing if one removed the Africans, although of course that defeats the purpose.

          • social justice warlock says:

            You might be trying to explain a variable with a constant there.

            What Africans are doing at any given time is hardly a constant.

      • Harald K says:

        It’s not quite that simple. There are a lot of legal ways of making money that are surely making us worse off, from selling quack medicines to running pyramid schemes cunningly constructed by lawyers to be legally untouchable. Just because the economy as a whole may be a good thing for humanity, doesn’t mean that what you do in it is OK.

        Arguably the only reason it’s a net positive at all is that many people, against their personal self-interested, avoid pursuing a lot of legal market options. A market economy isn’t automatically stable. You say it isn’t altruists who have saved us, but I suspect that without a good deal of altruism, the market economy would have moved into a much worse equilibrium and maybe even collapsed outright.

        • suntzuanime says:

          Possibly there’s a distinction to be drawn between “negative altruism” of refraining from harmful actions vs. “positive altruism” of taking helpful actions? This might also map to the erogatory/supererogatory distinction made in the post.

        • randy m says:

          This is kind of starting to resemble the deontological view that Scott is arguing against–that is, do your own, productive thing, but avoid gaming others, etc.

      • haishan says:

        “There is no unethical consumption in late capitalism,” in other words.

        This is clearly wrong as I’ve stated it — buying blood diamonds is definitely unethical, as is selling snake oil. Working for a hedge fund may or may not be unethical.

        But most of the quote-unquote unethical consumption people get worked up about does seem to do a lot of good. Factory farming is pretty awful, but if I buy factory-farmed meat at a supermarket, my money goes to workers at the supermarket, who use it to buy cheap shit from China, and then the money goes from China to investments in sub-Saharan Africa. The rising tide of the world economy might not lift all boats, and it definitely doesn’t lift them at the same rate, but it does do something a lot like lifting.

    • Kiwanda says:

      “academia made mostly of upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners”

      This might be true if “academia” meant “humanities departments”; not so sure otherwise.

      “I want more people to become familiar with utilitarianism because I think a lot of the colonialism theory stuff is net hurtful. It combines a justification for helping the poor with an insult to people’s identity, and probably makes the former less palatable to many people than it would be naturally.”

      I think the “colonialism stuff” is emphasized more than it might be because it’s a counter to one of the more common arguments to do nothing (besides the greater importance of funding Mars colonies), namely, “Those People can’t be helped, because it’s all their fault anyway”. There is a natural desire to explain the bad lot of most of the planet, and blaming Those People both provides that explanation and comforts the comfortable.

      • Limi says:

        I think the point is that the people most likely to be in this situation are primarily from that demographic, not that academia is primarily composed of that demographic.

      • Wes says:

        I think there might be something to this. While some people may be shouting “Colonialism!” is response to the argument “it’s not our moral duty to help,” there are probably just as many shouting “Colonialism!” in response to the argument “there’s nothing we can do to help; Western altruism isn’t the solution.”

      • Null Hypothesis says:

        What does it say that the departments that are overtly concerned with diversity are all white, while the STEM departments that more or less couldn’t give a damn are at the point where whites are a minority?

        • Dain says:

          It says that most people talking about diversity don’t mean diversity in general, but primarily blacks and Hispanics, with an honorable mention going out to women.

    • Illuminati Initiate says:

      According to “naive”/pure utilitarianism, assuming most people are considered to have net positive existence, helping poor countries is actively harmful in most situations because reducing poverty reduces the birthrate, which reduces the amount of people to have “happiness”. (Negative utilitarianism does not do this, but this example depends on creating more people being good to make sense).

      (I am not a utilitarian, though I am a consequentialist of sorts. I very strongly disagree with these kinds of utilitarian conclusions)

      • Zakharov says:

        Average utilitarianism also does not do this. Total utilitarianism doesn’t if you assume that the average poor person has negative or near-zero total utility, such that reducing the birthrate isn’t too much of a problem.

    • szopeno says:

      Frankly, I never understood why anyone is taking utilitarianism seriously. I mean, in a real life, sometimes you can predict outcomes of your actions, but more usually, you can’t. The consequences of every action go into the infinity, and quite often there would be disagreement about whether a given consequence is a good or bad thing.

      • Peter says:

        Possibly because people keep bringing up objections which had already been successfully dealt with since 1863; if it the criticisms are usually very bad, that’s a sign there’s something in it, right?

      • Peng says:

        Just because we’re not very good at predicting consequences, doesn’t mean that there’s anything other than consequences that matters.

        quite often there would be disagreement about whether a given consequence is a good or bad thing.

        That has nothing to do with utilitarianism. If “people might disagree with your moral theory” is a counter-argument, then it’s a counter-argument against every moral theory equally.

  3. Steve Reilly says:

    “Many people have remarked on the paradox of an academia made mostly of upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners trying so very hard to find reasons why lots of things are the fault of upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners.”

    Your solution to this paradox relies on people saying, “This is my fault. I screwed up the world. Or at least people like me did.” But I don’t see that happening. It’s more a case of humanities professors blaming Monsanto for the world’s problems then people blaming themselves.

    Your post on tolerating everyone but the out-group was a better way of resolving the paradox, I think.

    • Anonymous says:

      I agree with this. In fact, Scott himself (maybe in that post you mentioned?) has written something to effect that when these folks say “white people”, they really mean Red Tribe. I don’t think that’s exactly right – certainly the “colonialism!!!” crowd often finds liberals to blame as well, in the game of holier-than-thou status-climbing – but it’s close.

      I think Scott is wrong to think the sort of concern expressed in humanities and social sciences departments, and by the social justice types educated therein, is akin to real utilitarian concern. In fact, people like this often urge a hands-off approach to suffering because it’s “disempowering” – and often sexist or racist (or ableist!) – to others when you try to help them.

    • Deiseach says:

      It’s more a case of humanities professors blaming Monsanto for the world’s problems then people blaming themselves.

      I broadly agree; a lot of the theorists/activists I see are more interested in constructing broad categories of “overthrow the system!” which somehow does not also preclude them from being a comfortable part of that system (and yes, I have one example from my own country in mind, if not more, whom I will not name due to trying to preserve some shred of the Principle of Charity); if they’re living in poverty in bedsits it’s not through choice but because they don’t have tenure and the university is constantly refining its ability to screw more work out of lower grade faculty without bumping up remuneration.

      I’m all over the place on this one. I do agree that colonialism has been made into a pat theory that is expanded to cover too much (we’re still very prone to the ‘Noble Savage’ view of our fellowhumans). On the other hand, the way cultures get distorted in very subtle ways that aren’t immediately visible on the surface is a real thing that needs to be taken into account: cultural cringe is a real thing, as I often see in Irish politics and ‘culture wars’. People in my country arguing for liberal or progressive causes often fall back onto an appeal that boils down to “don’t make a show of us in front of the neighbours”.

      There’s a simplistic way of looking back to an assumed pre-colonial Golden Age that underpins developing nationalism in post-colonial societies and is probably necessary; you need to rally the troops around a Foundation Myth when you’re taking on the established order. Then you get the revisionist history as a necessary corrective but it also has its own agenda. The truth lies, as always, somewhere in the middle and somewhere over there outside the line-up of two, three or fifty sides 🙂

      Academia blaming their own class is probably a strain of revisionism. It is also, in a way, an attempt to hold onto power; if you no longer are the Saviour Figure lifting savages up out of chaos and superstition, you can be the Saviour Figure championing the superior purity of native cultures.

      • ryan says:

        This all reminds me of debates over why people believe in religions. Need to find meaning in life, fear of death, genetic predisposition, cultural indoctrination, whatever.

        This led to some troubles in my family as my parents and I came to terms with my sister’s simultaneous intelligence and deeply held belief in Christianity. The way I finally resolved everything in my mind was “she just thinks it’s all true.”

        And I would use the same explanation for the professors’ views on colonialism and monsanto. There’s no emotional or psychological jabberwocky to slay here. They just think it all checks out.

        This is of course a general comment and I only really replied to your post because I don’t pass up an opportunity to make a tactless pun.

      • Anthony says:

        Cultural cringe is a defining trait of most American liberals, and it’s why the Right is successful at tarring the Left as “unpatriotic”.

    • Asterix says:

      What Steve said. Blue-staters blaming red-staters isn’t _self_-blame.

      There’s another way to establish generosity, and whatever it is, we find it in churches that are big on sending help abroad. I think we’ll find a strong belief in such groups that actions themselves are right or wrong, but that _failing to help is one of the wrong things_. We’re not to blame for Indonesia’s suffering after the tsunami (unless we used a secret giant tsunami-making device –!), but we are to blame for inaction if we don’t help. The parable of the sheep and the goats, you know.

      • Dain says:

        But then how to explain all the kvetching about white gentrifying hipsters AMONG the same set? Surely they understand these people moving in aren’t red staters (I mean they may hail from a red state but they’re defecting). It’s self-blame, alright.

        • Nornagest says:

          Me and my friends moved in to participate in a thriving neighborhood culture and to escape the stale, overpriced traditionally white districts. Those other guys are gentrifying hipsters. Especially the ones with tech jobs.

    • Jiro says:

      If we could mod people up here I’d mod you up. It’s a mistake to think of it as them blaming themselves. They’re blaming their nearby political enemies.

      (I wish Scott would respond to more of these discussions. Often I see a pattern here where Scott says something, one or more of the comments completely tear it apart, and… that’s the end.)

  4. Elias says:

    Attributing the faults in society to some conflict theory is typically leftist, and since your average Poli-Sci department has a left-leaning bias you would assume the support for conflict theories to consistently garner a little more support than they should. So you may say the reason why Poli-Sci departments are left-leaning is because of ‘blame theory’ but then you would also expect your Econ department, which is equally white and middle class, to also be left-leaning, which it usually isn’t. And of course, the reason our take on colonialism and reparation is more likely to be left-leaning is because Poli-Sci departments deal with these issues more than Econ departments. I just think the reason why Poli-Sci is more left-leaning is because it literally is the study of central planning while Econ is the opposite, and what follows from that is that conflict theories will prevail.

    • 27chaos says:

      I don’t share your impression that poli sci is more like the study of central planning than economics. I see them both as looking at strengths and weaknesses of government(s).

    • Does political science have to be the study of central planning, or is your point only that it often is? A real polity involves a whole lot of interacting decisions among a very large number of people, and there is no reason to expect that it can be represented by an imaginary person controlling the whole system.

      • Elias says:

        If I were to phrase it like this: Poli-Sci attracts people who tend to sympathize with heavier government interference than do people who are attracted to Econ. Thus I find that Political Science often turns into the study of central planning.

    • cassander says:

      >but then you would also expect your Econ department, which is equally white and middle class, to also be left-leaning, which it usually isn’t.

      depends what you mean by left leaning. In the US, the average economist is a centrist democrat on the larry summers model. Sure, that’s right wing by the standards of academia, but definitely left of the country as a whole. And on some questions, e.g. immigration, gay rights, they’re massively left.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        “but definitely left of the country as a whole”

        What is your basis for this claim? If you mean the total population irrespective of any legal status, I think I citation is needed.

      • ” And on some questions, e.g. immigration, gay rights, they’re massively left.”

        That gets us into the definition of “left.” The political left isn’t all that strongly in favor of immigration. On the other hand, economists are more likely to be libertarians than are people in general, and libertarians are the group most in favor of immigration. So if you include libertarians in the right, as many people do, you can take the attitude of economists towards immigration as evidence they are on the right.

        Or as evidence that they understand the economic issues associated with immigration better than most other people do.

        • Tommy says:

          This runs hugely counter to my experience – most people I know who identify with the left think the very concept of borders is racist, and their existence a manifestation of white supremacism.

          • blacktrance says:

            Different kinds of left. The far left is as you describe, the “hard-hat” pro-industrial-union left tends to be nationalist and opposed to immigration.

          • Anthony says:

            “hard-hat” pro-industrial-union left tends to be nationalist and opposed to immigration.

            Not in the U.S.; or at least the political expression of industrial workers and other union members or organizing-drive targets is very much pro-immigration. The SEIU is as strongly supportive of illegal immigration as any lobby group in politics, and most other unions have followed along.

    • anon says:

      Political science is not literally (or even figuratively) the study of central planning. Any argument based on this assumption is wrong by default

  5. Princess Stargirl says:

    I think the views on “colonialism” are mostly driven by “anti-racism.” Its obvious some parts of the world are doing poorly and there is no obvious reason why improvements ave been so slow. Most people think Africa should be doing much better by now. The obvious thing to blame is the lingering effects of colonialism. Which does have some truth to it.

    However I am not sure there is actually anything to explain. For centuries Europe was doing terribly relative to china or the Islamic World. This wasn’t China’s fault. If institutions are bad it can take a very, very long time for a part of the world to get back on a better track. It is very, very difficult to make things better with so much uncertainty and so many entrenched interests. For centuries the Europeans had bad luck. Now other parts of the world do. Of course this is not to excuse the terrible things the USA has done (mostly in Latin America and the middle East).

    However most people think they need to find an easily identified cause for Africa’s woes. And that the only alternative is somehow racism.

    • Steven says:

      The “somehow” is simple enough — racism was the only thinkable alternative, back when the colonial legacy theory was adopted.

      The post-colonial governments in these countries, after all, were run by graduates of Western institutions of higher education, with legal institutions constructed in accordance with the socioeconomic ideas of Western academia – ideas ranging the whole right-to-left gamut from democratic socialism to Maoism. Accordingly, they “should have” succeeded; thus the expectation that the “Third World”, built on these ideas, would grow rapidly and outshine the previous two.

      Instead, as time passed, it was clear they were failing miserably. Since academics could not even think their own ideas were wrong, the problem had to be either in the people themselves, or externally caused. Since Marxism assumes near-infinite malleability of humans by material conditions, the first conclusion was only available if you denied the peoples of these countries were really human. But while some might be tempted to the sin of the Nazis (which was racism, not mass murder — Hitler was Satan, Mao was at worst misguided), it was, of course, a completely unacceptable answer.

      Which left, of course, oppression by rich people/countries and the legacy thereof . . . which was already the explanation used for every single failure of the USSR (except by the Trotskyists, who blamed Stalin hijacking the revolution). Why, the legacy of Tsarist rule was requiring generations of expiation in order to build true Communism; of course colonialism would leave a similar legacy! (In the meantime, pay no attention to how the legacy of Japanese colonialism seemed to somehow specifically crush North Korea, while South Korea and Taiwan became rich. They must be being propped up unfairly by the United States with the same money the US is stealing from Africa.)

      Theories based on non-Marxist assumptions only really became thinkable in academia after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the mix of inertia and political objections guaranteed that the new ones would not simply sweep the old theories away.

      • cassander says:

        > They must be being propped up unfairly by the United States with the same money the US is stealing from Africa.)

        To be fair, when colonialist theories were being developed, the only non-western country in the world to achieve a western level of development was Japan. “the west keeps everyone else down” was a lot more plausible before the 90s. Still not good, mind you, there were still lots of holes in it, but it was at least plausible.

      • Sylocat says:

        The post-colonial governments in these countries, after all, were run by graduates of Western institutions of higher education, with legal institutions constructed in accordance with the socioeconomic ideas of Western academia

        Uh… which countries are these?

    • JK says:

      For centuries Europe was doing terribly relative to china or the Islamic World. This wasn’t China’s fault.

      But the Islamic world surely must share some of the blame. The conquest and subjugation of lots of formerly Christian and “European” lands (including North Africa and the Levant) by Muslims, and the barring of Europeans from Asian markets surely had a negative effect on Europe.

      • Princess Stargirl says:

        Some of the blame sure! But the problem was mostly not caused by the Islamic World. The Areas of Europe that were very far from Islamic Influence were not doing dramatically better during the dark ages. Just as the areas of Africa with the lease connection to Europe/China are not doing the best.

        Groups with power should not abuse those who are less fortunate. And Islam/Europe/etc during their heydays did alot of abusing other groups when they could. The abuse is/was often a source of tremendous human misery in the societies that are affected. But exploitative abuse or conquering does not normally set societies institutions back for hundreds of years.

        • JK says:

          My argument of course applies only to the civilized parts of Europe, meaning areas that were or had been under Roman rule. The barbarians of northern and eastern Europe probably were not much affected by the rise of Islam.

          Just to be sure, I’m not arguing for a strong version of the Pirenne thesis. It’s clear that material living standards in Europe collapsed long before the Arab conquests. Islam just exacerbated the problem and made recovery more difficult.

          • vV_Vv says:

            Islam just exacerbated the problem and made recovery more difficult.

            Is there any evidence for this?

          • Douglas Knight says:

            (Wikipedia says that) Pirenne says that the advent of Islam cut off papyrus from France. Calling that the “Fall of Rome” is ridiculous, but it certainly counts as “worse.” Did Byzantium lose access, too? That would be JK’s claim. Venice is famous for its monopoly on trade with Islam, but that means that there was trade.

      • cassander says:

        The Pirenne Thesis, which I believe is still somewhat respectable, essentially argues that the “fall of the roman empire” didn’t really happen until the arab conquests of the 700s disrupted the mediterranean trade routes of antiquity.

        • John Schilling says:

          The Byzantine Empire was not so named until a century after its fall; to its own people it was “Basileía tôn Rhōmaíōn”, western Europe called it the Empire of the Greeks, and the Islamic world called it “Rûm”.

          So there’s a very respectable case that the Roman Empire didn’t fall until, well, that bit where Constantinople became Istanbul in 1453. And so long as the Empire held as a buffer and a center of trade, I’m with Princess Stargirl: there’s a fair bit of Europe where it’s hard to blame the local problems on the rise of Islam.

          • JK says:

            By 1453 the Byzantine Empire was a tiny rump state. It had lost most of its territories to the Arabs by the 8th century, and the Turks took the rest in the following centuries.

          • John Schilling says:

            The Eastern empire had lost most of its territories to the Arabs by the 8th century because most of those territories were in Arabia (well, Asia Minor, the Levant, and North Africa). Its European territories ca. 1200 were largely the same as in 476 AD, and it is Europe that we are discussing.

            I am exceedingly skeptical of claims that, at a time when Western, Christian Constantinople was the Greatest City Ever, the meager status of Paris, London, Hamburg, etc, can be blamed on Islam. Judging by the map, and the relative status of such cities, I’d argue that in the ninth through thirteenth centuries at least, European Christians prospered in nearly direct proportion to their proximity and contact with the Islamic world.

          • JK says:

            It’s anachronistic in the extreme to say that the Byzantine Levant and North Africa “were in Arabia”, to say nothing of Asia Minor. These areas had been part of the Greco-Roman world since the times of Alexander the Great, and had large Greek-speaking minorities. They had nothing to do with Arabia before the Arab conquests.

            I am not arguing that the backwardness of early medieval Europe should be blamed on Islam. However, it’s clear that the rise of Islam tore the ancient Mediterranean civilization apart, harming Southern Europe in particular.

          • cassander says:

            Bulk trade, both today and in the ancient world, goes by ship, not land. the essence of the pirenne thesis is that the sea trade routes survived the collapse of the western empire, but the arab conquest caused a large scale rejiggering, basically redirecting east a lot of what used to go north. As for byzantium, it unquestionable suffered enormously from the arab invasions, as it lost access to egyptian grain and all its territory outside greece, anatolia, and a few holdouts in italy by the 800s. it would make some comebacks (the ability of the empire to rise from the ashes was truly remarkable) but it was unquestionably fundamentally transformed by the process.

          • Anthony says:

            Minor nit: Constantinople didn’t become Istanbul, at least officially, until 1923.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Anthony! You should provide a spoiler warning for the open thread! Surely John made an intentional error as an in-joke to those who read link.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          A lot of nonsense is respectable.

    • ryan says:

      It’s all worse than that. This is a great interview with a Kenyan economist on African development:

      Excerpt, but the whole thing is great.

      SPIEGEL: Even in a country like Kenya, people are starving to death each year. Someone has got to help them.

      Shikwati: But it has to be the Kenyans themselves who help these people. When there’s a drought in a region of Kenya, our corrupt politicians reflexively cry out for more help. This call then reaches the United Nations World Food Program — which is a massive agency of apparatchiks who are in the absurd situation of, on the one hand, being dedicated to the fight against hunger while, on the other hand, being faced with unemployment were hunger actually eliminated. It’s only natural that they willingly accept the plea for more help. And it’s not uncommon that they demand a little more money than the respective African government originally requested. They then forward that request to their headquarters, and before long, several thousands tons of corn are shipped to Africa …

      SPIEGEL: … corn that predominantly comes from highly-subsidized European and American farmers …

      Shikwati: … and at some point, this corn ends up in the harbor of Mombasa. A portion of the corn often goes directly into the hands of unsrupulous politicians who then pass it on to their own tribe to boost their next election campaign. Another portion of the shipment ends up on the black market where the corn is dumped at extremely low prices. Local farmers may as well put down their hoes right away; no one can compete with the UN’s World Food Program. And because the farmers go under in the face of this pressure, Kenya would have no reserves to draw on if there actually were a famine next year. It’s a simple but fatal cycle.

      • Tom Womack says:

        That sounds like an argument for aid in the form of money rather than in the form of corn – so that the money can go to buy the corn from farmers in a region of the country that isn’t famine-struck. It’s probably not horribly less efficient to transport from local farmers to famine-struck areas than from Mombasa harbour to famine-struck areas, though famine-struck areas tend to be noted for hideous inaccessibility (and in practice mostly for hideous inaccessibility because there’s a war in the way rather than because the roads are dreadful) because otherwise locals would be doing the transport and sale themselves.

        After all, the crops fail in central London every year, to the point that nobody bothers planting crops in central London other than for entertainment, and nonetheless Londoners eat.

        On the other hand, money is very much easier to steal even than corn.

        It’s also suggesting that a way to resolve the problem would be to insist that the World Food Programme be fairly low-status and that the people working for it be independently wealthy, so that there’s much less scope for self-perpetuation.

  6. Most people without philosophical training settle into a sort of mishmash of all of them

    But what if a mismatch is the best way/ what if a person thinks that blending multiple ethical systems can create a superior code of ethics?

    Deontology very clearly says that if you cause a problem, it’s your job to help fix it.

    Not sure if this is true. On a risk/reward basis, maybe some baseline harm is justified for a greater good? If you break something, maybe it can be fixed later when conditions permit. But I guess the problem is when ‘later’ becomes too long.

    • Carinthium says:

      The problem with almost all mishmashes (to be fair, there are exceptions) is that they are incoherent because there is no philosophical logic making the system ‘fit together’. Most, at least, are rubbish, and I don’t trust ordinary people to make one which isn’t given how much trouble philosophers have.

      Also, deontology has very clearly been defined so what you suggest is impossible.

      • blacktrance says:

        Kantian deontology, yes. But from what I know of Rossian pluralism, which is also a deontoligical theory, it says that it’s possible for some harm to be justified for the greater good. I also remember Bryan Caplan either getting directly from Huemer or deriving it from his theory that while chopping up one guy to save five is morally unacceptable, killing one person to save a million or a billion is acceptable. Deontology doesn’t inherently exclude consequences, it’s just not all about them, unlike consequentialism.

      • John Schilling says:

        The output of the nearest light bulb is incoherent; I do not think my experience here would be enhanced by reading to laser light. So “incoherent” as a pejorative that short-circuits rational thought, no, you’re going to have to explain why coherence is essential.

        The objectively successful ethical, moral, and legal systems that have demonstrably enabled humans to cooperate on a large scale and brought out the better angels of our nature, are incoherent mishmashes all. What are the empirical successes of pure consequentialism (or pure deontology or pure virtue ethics, for that matter), that you can point to as evidence of the value of ethical “coherence”? What is the compelling argument that you would raise against applying a patch derived from an alternative ethical framework, when your preferred one isn’t working and the alternative likely would?

        • If your ethical system is incoherent, that means at some point it’s going to output both “do A” and “don’t do A”. What do you do then? You can’t just throw up your hands and shrug; in the real world you have to actually decide whether or not to do A. If an incoherent mishmash works right now that’s just because we’re not logically omniscient and can’t see the incoherence. As time passes though we’re going to be getting smarter, and exploring the ramifications of our ethical theories more and more, and these contradictions are going to become more and more evident. At some point you’re going to be forced towards greater coherency just because the incoherent parts are eventually going to come into conflict, and in the real world something has to win.

          • John Schilling says:

            Ah, so ethical “coherence” is necessary for gods. For non-omniscient beings, patchwork systems might be the best choice. Got it.

          • I mean, I agree that humans are not ever going to be logically omniscient, so we won’t face that particular difficulty. But we are trending more towards logical omniscience than away from it, and I think that will lead to more and more problems over time with an incoherent ethical system.

            (Mind you, I’m making a pragmatic argument here because that seems to be the direction you’re coming at things from. For myself, one of my most basic moral intuitions is that an ethical system should be coherent – if it’s not coherent, then you’re talking about something other than morality)

    • Its difficult to say an ethical code is “superior” without using… well… an ethical code. What we can do is look for logical errors or flaws in our moral thinking to try to improve it – which I think is part of the project of formal moral philosophy.

      • 27chaos says:

        We can use old ethical codes to evaluate potential new ethical codes, in addition to using the new ethical codes to evaluate themselves.

        If A says A+B is best, and B says A+B is best, then combining the two ethical systems is a good idea. Perhaps inconsistent, but still for the best.

      • Peter says:

        “Which ethical code?” – to a certain extent this is what various forms of rule utilitarianism/consequentialism are doing. These are pretty much all about asking questions like, “so, do things go for the best if we have an act/omission distinction in our moral code?” (or maybe that’s just me interpreting them oddly). Consider also various forms of contract(arian|ual)ism, which basically ask, “which code would/do people go for when (possibly hypothetically) given the choice (possibly under impartiality-enforcing conditions)”.

        (You would think by now I’d be confident in how to spell “consequentialism” but no…)

      • There are lots of norms other than ethical norms. An ethical system can be judged epistemologically, by its ability to justify its claims, ontolologically, by any posits it requires, actually, by its ability to motivate its followers, and so on.

    • Wes says:

      Two-level utilitarianism is one internally consistent way of doing this. It recognizes that System 2 is labor-intensive, and reserves its use (which is necessary for utilitarian calculations) for choosing which heuristics to follow and for exceptional circumstances where one has the resources to properly engage in moral calculus. Most situations are faced using rule utilitarianism (which, to me, sounds an awful lot like a mishmash of deontology and virtue ethics), which only requires System 1 thinking. The ultimate goal is act utilitarian, but in practice it’s mostly deontological.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      @ grey enlightenment
      >>Most people without philosophical training settle into a sort of mishmash of all of them

      >>>But what if a mismatch is the best way/ what if a person thinks that blending multiple ethical systems can create a superior code of ethics?

      What about a combination that is not a mishmash or a blend, but a structure of rationally arranged precepts of different kinds forming something better than any single kind? For example, a set of attractive Do’s (eg “Give most kindness to your closest family and friends” surrounded by a fence of Don’t’s (eg “But don’t be unfair to anyone, particularly in business or law”). I see something like an octagonal billiards table, where going too far in any direction bumps into a wall that sends you back to some opposite directive to pursue, till it hits its limit too. Eg “Don’t be unfair to strangers” becomes “Be chivalrous to strangers, protect them from unfairness” — an exciting project till it bumps into “Don’t use dishonest methods (such as lying or theft).”

      Zooming out for a larger view: “Feed and clothe the people” — limited by “Do not cause weeping.”

      And zooming further out, the whole thing is bounded by mysterious Don’t’s such as “Nothing vile is to be done” and “Death before dishonor”.

    • Cauê says:

      If we’re judging a code of ethics as superior when it better agrees with our intuitions, then the trophy of best code of ethics will go to the mishmash that best fits the particular set of problems we happen to have tested them with (and the particular way the problems were presented, for that matter).

      As our intuitions are not consistent, other sets of problems would favor different mishmashs. For the same reason, a coherent system (or even a fixed mishmash) will give unintuitive answers to many problems.

  7. TomA says:

    The problem you describe is one of self-interest. Academic elites that practice self-flagellation are merely attempting to ensure their own survival via creation of a strong government-based caretaker system. They know that should a time of real hardship re-emerge, they will be among the first to be cast aside because they offer no value to others under extreme survival conditions. Their only hope is to foster a strong welfare system that will protect them should the productive element of society dismiss them as dead weight.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      If this was really the case, academics would be quick to self-flagellate in regards to domestic problems, but not do so at all for global ones. To do otherwise would risk the government defunding the welfare system in order to free up funds for foreign aid programs. The fact that academics spend as much time complaining about foreign problems as they do about domestic ones suggests that their concern is motivated by something else.

      Furthermore, academics are not uniquely useless in extreme survival situations. The majority of people in first world countries have extremely specialized occupations that are impossible to perform without heavy infrastructure. Even the most productive people around would be useless if that infrastructure disappeared. The average software engineer, CEO, or geneticist sucks just as much at hunting, farming, and gathering as an academic. Therefore we should suspect 99% of the population to agree with academics.

      I suspect that your theory is optimized for saying as many insulting things about academics as possible, rather than for containing truth-value.

      • TomA says:

        Possessing self-interested motivation is not a negative, and consequently should not be construed as an insult. And you are naive if you think that academic elites exhibit discretion in their practice of self-flagellation. It is an adopted mental habit that persists in their behavior. Last, the differentiating criteria for extreme survival robustness is not occupational so much as it is a self-reliance mindset and skillset. Entitlement mentality in academic elites is the fatal flaw.

        • 27chaos says:

          You didn’t intend for “self-flagellation” to sound insulting? Please familiarize yourself with words.

          • TomA says:

            Perhaps you should obtain some proficiency in reading comprehension. I make no such claim in my comment. More to the point, it is both necessary and appropriate to draw attention to a psychopathology such as self-flagellation. Diagnosis is not an insult. It is a useful precursor to remedy.

        • Harald K says:

          I have strong doubts about how much a “self-reliance mindset” would help your average geneticist, programmer or CEO in the case of social collapse.

          Possessing self-interested motivation is not a negative

          Is that so? Either way when you call it a maladaptive practice of self-flagellation, that sounds plenty negative anyway.

          • TomA says:

            Perhaps the source of your doubt is that you lack a self reliance mindset and hence are unable to relate to the benefits thereof.

            In the interest of simplicity and clarity, self-interested motivation is a positive evolutionary trait. Self-flagellation is not.

    • Eli says:

      Bunk. Very, very, very few people actually expect “extreme survival conditions” to happen to most people within present-day Western societies any time soon, and only a tiny survivalist fringe have any kinds of serious plans made on that basis.

      • TomA says:

        It’s not about the actual (or perceived) probability of a return to extreme hardship that motives people to adopt protective entitlement policies. See modern day Greece for example. Even a minor loss of entitlement benefits will spur people to horrific acts of irrational behavior.

        • Eli says:

          In the absence of an actual, factual survivalist dystopian collapse, you’ve completely failed to justify why we ought to behave as if there is one.

          • TomA says:

            You need to re-read the thread and my comments. I do not advocate the behavior you describe. In fact, I describe it as a psychopathology in academic elites that underlies their pretense of altruism when self-flagellating.

    • Alex says:

      It has nothing to do with appealing to the outside world for resources for academia. Honestly, the liberal self-flagellation in academia is probably the thing that makes us least sympathetic in the eyes of the non-academic world. It’s entirely an internal game of signaling virtue. Signaling virtue via guilt and penitence is a popular exercise in many religions, and Western academia springs from clerical roots and still styles itself as performing something of a priestly role in acting as stewards of pure knowledge.

      • 27chaos says:

        Maybe it’s not historical causal connections to religion that are encouraging criticism though, maybe there’s something about knowledge itself that encourages criticism, regardless of whether that knowledge is in the minds of academics or priests.

  8. Irrelevant says:

    Naively we would expect people to cast themselves and those like them in as positive a light as possible. Forget about whether these attributions of blame are right or wrong. Even if they were right I would not expect people to believe them as enthusiastically as they do.

    In this case, I’m pretty sure the naive view was correct: People do not cast blame on themselves or people like them, ergo the purpose of the activity is to prove you’re not part of “those like them.”

    • ryan says:

      I’d love to hear their arguments.

      You call THAT checking your privilege? Bitch please, I’ve seen privilege checked better by clerks for oppression airlines.

  9. E. Harding says:

    Outside Asia and, possibly, Nigeria, shouldn’t utilitarians blame decolonization, not colonialism?

  10. Alex says:

    Most people without philosophical training settle into a sort of mishmash of all of them, but one which, I think, is closer to deontology than either of the others.

    I would have guessed closer to virtue ethics.

    • Irrelevant says:

      I’m guessing that’s not a relevant distinction here, since under the religious and quasi-religious understandings of morality that the untrained tend to have, virtue ethics and deontology are very hard to tell apart.

    • RCF says:

      Perhaps liberals are tend to be more deontological while conservatives virtue ethics. It seems to be that the purity axis leans more towards virtue ethics than the care axis.

      • So then the Grey Tribe completes the trifecta with consequentialism? I’d love to see some data on this, assuming we could somehow come up with a definition of “Grey Tribe” that your average American would understand.

      • 27chaos says:

        Nice, I think this has some potential.

      • Cauê says:

        Nah, this is just like the thing with liberals having different purity and authority triggers. They don’t care less about virtue, they just see different things as virtuous.

        Surely we don’t think liberals are less focused on declaring who the virtuous people or the bad people are? For instance, many a twitterstorm focuses less on the bad consequences of this or that out-of-context sentence, than on what it’s supposed to reveal about the speaker’s character. On a different tack, see environmentalists (not all, etc.) showing resistance to plans to avert environmental collapse that do not include expiatory penitence in the form of costly change of habits. I don’t think it would be hard to go on.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          On a different tack, see environmentalists (not all, etc.) showing resistance to plans to avert environmental collapse that do not include expiatory penitence in the form of costly change of habits. I don’t think it would be hard to go on.

          My Bulverism meter is humming. First we’d need to establish that plans X,Y, and Z are in fact superior, before (if ever) we should focus on why some environmentalists are so silly as to oppose them.

          Before that, ‘superior for what results’? By which criteria? [Insert obvious examples in answer to obvious rhetorical questions.]

          And, ‘costly’ to whom? [same]

          There’s also a tu quoque here. If some environmentalists oppose some plans on silly emotional grounds, some geo-engineering etc proponents oppose other plans on different but equally silly emotional grounds (and/or grounds of profit and status).

          Leaving aside all that, plans involving change of habits may be preferred by many for the non-silly reason that habits are easier to change and more likely to work as intended (and, if incremental, are easier to change again, if the changes aren’t helping).

          • Cauê says:

            Even good positions can be supported “on silly emotional grounds”, I’m sure.

            I didn’t mean to make a point about the merits of any one position on environmentalism, just that liberals care about virtue as much as anyone.

            (the example I actually had in mind were several discussions about carbon credits, many years ago, in which I would see people opposing them based on some variation of “you’ll let evil polluting people use their evil pollution money to buy the right to continue polluting???”)

  11. Irrelevant says:

    Well, everyone agrees with me. Time to change sides!

    Setting aside the race/class/tribe angles, I believe Scott actually has a point about deontological impulses towards blame being tied in here. I think he’s just got the order the parts of the argument arrive in wrong: people aren’t seeing evil in the world and going shopping for a plausible villain, they’re seeing villains, usually with some colorable reason that they’re bad, and concluding that all the evil must be the fault of these bad guys.

    In other words, colonialists were bad, so all badness proximate to colonialists should be the fault of colonialists.

  12. Douglas Knight says:

    At the end the word “liberal” suddenly appears, though it seems to have nothing to do with your theory. Your theory is too general. It seems to apply to an awful lot of people, but it is only trying to explain the behavior of a very small group of people, circumscribed in place, time, and politics.

  13. blacktrance says:

    On the other hand, when confronted with the full extent of human suffering – whether by living in a poor area, or serving in a war zone, or traveling to a Third World country, or treating depression patients – it’s hard to think about anything else. The sheer burning horribleness of it becomes this unscratchable itch, this flaw in the world that blots out the sun.

    I think you’re Typical Minding here. A lot of people are aware that living in Third World countries (and even poor areas in the US) is horrible. Nevertheless, they don’t feel a burning feeling to fix it, only to signal virtue by saying “Someone ought to fix it! It’s horrible!”. You could say that they’re only abstractly aware and that’s not enough, but even wealthy people in small towns (who can’t isolate themselves from the local poor as much) feel that way, in my experience.

    • Cauê says:

      Speaking from São Paulo, I think I’m well positioned to endorse this. The overwhelming feeling of “anything I can do would only be a drop in the fucking ocean” doesn’t help, either.

    • Emile says:

      I lived in China and my general feeling was closer to “sure, a lot of things suck, but they’ll probably figure it out eventually and they don’t seem to want us Westerners to help” (but China doesn’t suck too much).

  14. darxan says:

    You don’t have to be a Marxist to believe that third worlders being poor is partially West’s fault. Gregory Clark in A Farewell to Alms:

    Prosperity, however, has not come to all societies. Material consumption in some countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, is now well below the preindustrial norm. Countries such as Malawi or Tanzania would be better off in material terms had they never had contact with the industrialized world and instead continued in their preindustrial state. Modern medicine, airplanes, gasoline, computers—the whole technological cornucopia of the past two hundred years—have succeeded there in producing among the lowest material living standards ever experienced. These African societies have remained trapped in the Malthusian era, where technological advances merely produce more people and living standards are driven down to subsistence. But modern medicine has reduced the material minimum required for subsistence to a level far below that of the Stone Age. Just as the Industrial Revolution reduced income inequalities within societies, it has increased them between societies, in a process recently labeled the Great Divergence.The gap in incomes between countries is of the order of 50:1. There walk the earth now both the richest people who ever lived and the poorest

    • Doug Muir says:

      Gregory Clark is full of crap. He mentions Tanzania by name? Current day Tanzania has a per capita GDP around $2,500, which is five or six times the level of medieval Europe… and pre-European Tanzania was a lot poorer than medieval Europe.

      Tanzania’s literacy rate is around 70% and its life expectancy at birth is about 62 years. Most Tanzanians have at least occasional access to medical care, and almost half of them have at least occasional access to electricity. It’s a poor country, yes, but saying that Tanzanians would be better off if they were still premodern is nonsense on stilts.

      Honestly, people will say all kinds of stuff about Africa.

      Doug M.

      • Cauê says:

        It’s a poor country, yes, but saying that Tanzanians would be better off if they were still premodern is nonsense on stilts.

        Of note: unless I misunderstood it horribly, the argument in the quoted excerpt is that they’d be better off because more of them would have died.

    • cassander says:

      >. But modern medicine has reduced the material minimum required for subsistence to a level far below that of the Stone Age

      this, alone, is such complete nonsense as to invalidate almost anything else he could say. Modern medicine does not make people require any less food or water than they did in the past.

      • Samuel Skinner says:

        That isn’t what he is saying. He is saying that it prevents plague epidemics that would normally cull the population who have weaker immune systems because of the lower amount of calories and nutrition they are receiving.

  15. RCF says:

    While the concept of Bulverism is one worth noting and naming, Lewis is a poor candidate for originator. He presented a “trilemma” that argued that argued that Jesus must be “Lord, liar, or lunatic”, and then, after a procession of logical fallacies, concludes this line of reasoning by noting that the Gospels just seem like the sort of thing that only God incarnate could write. Thus, he himself introduced his mental state as a piece of evidence; he argument comes to noting that he has a favorable view of the Gospels, and attributes that favorable view to the Gospels being divinely inspired. Since his argument rests on his subjective experience of seeing the Gospels as being divine, it is entirely valid to counter with explanations for him viewing the Gospels being divine other than them actually being divine.

    • g says:

      Be that as it may, it happens that C S Lewis did write the article called “Bulverism” that introduced the term and accurately described the phenomenon it refers to.

      I may be misunderstanding you somehow; it seems like your argument is alarmingly close to “Even though Lewis seems to have been first to diagnose and name Bulverism, we shouldn’t give him credit for it because on one occasion he made a bad argument that implicitly depended on his psychological state.” Which doesn’t seem to make a bit of sense.

      (It might be a reasonable response if someone criticized the “trilemma” argument along the lines you’re doing, and had their criticism rejected on the grounds that it was Bulverism. But what does that have to do with anything happening here?)

      • Jiro says:

        I would be very surprised if nobody made this argument during Lewis’s entire lifetime. I would also be very surprised if Lewis did not consider this argument to be a form of Bulverism (even if it fails to be Bulverism because it is not fallacious).

        It’s like having a homeopath talk about how closed-minded scientists are. He’s probably referring to instances in which scientists are not actually closed-minded (because they are legitimate objections to homeopathy). Likewise, Lewis is probably referring to instances that are not actually Bulverism (because they are legitimate objections to arguments that depend on his mental state).

        • Evan Þ says:

          Likewise, Lewis is probably referring to instances that are not actually Bulverism

          Except that Lewis’s article “Bulverism” doesn’t relate to his Trilemma at all; it’s talking about society in general and political arguments – almost exactly the same use that Scott’s putting it to here.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            If you’re interested, the original “bulverism” article can be found here:


            Having skimmed it quickly, it seems that the examples Lewis uses of bulverism are:

            (1) “I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that ‘the comfortable parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.'”

            (2) Atheism is false because “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.”

            (3) “The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism.”

            Nothing at all about the trilemma argument.

            Incidentally, it seems like some of the posts above are pretty bulverist themselves. “Oh, C. S. Lewis is only trying to popularise the concept because he wants to defend this bad argument he made.”

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        I may be misunderstanding you somehow; it seems like your argument is alarmingly close to “Even though Lewis seems to have been first to diagnose and name Bulverism, we shouldn’t give him credit for it because on one occasion he made a bad argument that implicitly depended on his psychological state.”

        Aha! This gets into the Lewis/Anscombe debate — ‘depended on’ in what sense? “The defense case depended on the accused’s alibi, and on his observed emotional reaction of grief when told about the crime.” Here both alibi and reaction are pieces of evidence, on which the case depends. Lewis often cites his own emotional reaction to something, as evidence about that something; his reaction of laughter is evidence that the comedy, as we would say, ‘works for’ a 1940s Anglican.

        The other sense of ‘depended on’ (as in your example) means that his argument is caused/initiated by whatever emotion he was feeling at the time he made the argument. The argument was not made on grounds of logic and evidence, but was an expression of that feeling, disguised in the form of an argument.

  16. Jason says:

    I have trouble reconciling self-loathing and a distaste for the truth with any notion of goodness worth holding.

    • Zykrom says:

      Marxists aren’t self loathing.

      By “distaste for the truth” do you just mean “being wrong?”

  17. Caleb says:

    I don’t know. Colonialism theory is subject to uncomfortable empirical questions on the “output” side as well. These academic theorists bill their policy prescriptions as both necessary and sufficient to solving Third World poverty. There is significant evidence that shows this is probably not the case. According to your theory, we’d expect to see some form of philosophical compensation to this empirical disparity parallel to the one outlined above.

  18. Sniffnoy says:

    Your explanation in I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup seems more likely.

  19. Esquire says:

    Seems fairly clear to me that this sort of “blame” is basically just bullying. If people are mostly good they will mostly use bullying to support good ends. It’s certainly not surprising that most academics who are bullies at least think they are supporting some great cause.

  20. Tom says:

    I know I’ll probably come across as an idiot/infidel, but honestly after reading The Most Good You Can Do I have even more questions around effective altruism. I think the number one thing that bugs me is that the question of giving to charity it unquestioned. It is undeniably Good and therefore the only thing to concern yourself with is how effective you are at it.

    What of unintended consequences? I mean, Genghis Khan did an unquestionably Bad thing with Bad intentions, but there were arguably good results. What if the inverse occurs if everyone saves more lives than would otherwise have been in existence?

    Forgive me if I have sinned.

    • Anonymous says:

      What were the good results of Genghis?

      • Peter says:

        Well, a lot of people living right now wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for him. I mean, 0.5% of people are male-line descendants of his, so I’d be surprised if most people in Asia didn’t have him as one of their ancestors. Basically if Jebe had been a better shot, then the beneficiaries of his accuracy wouldn’t have been the same beneficiaries as Ghengis’s. Also he wouldn’t have been called “Jebe”.

        More boringly – unified China, unified Mongolia, trade, law and order, the mail ran on time, the trains ran on time, etc. Personally I don’t see it as a net positive, not given the oceans of blood involved. A little while back someone recommended Dan Carlin’s audiobook series “The Wrath of The Khans” and he goes into that a little.

        • randy m says:

          Pretty sure your first argument is in jest, but in case it isn’t it obviously proves too much.

    • RCF says:

      Effective altruism means maximizing the expected utility. “What if” speculation isn’t relevant. And every choice is between at least two options. If you don’t engage in effective altruism, then you must be doing something else with your resources. And that something else is just as susceptible to those speculations.

      • Julie K says:

        I think the most compelling second option would be represented by the principle “charity begins at home.” I.e. help the needy who are closest to you. They may not be as desperately poor as in Africa, but on the other hand you have a better understanding of the overall picture and thus hopefully a greater chance of doing long-term good.

    • Rauwyn says:

      Well, there’s the standard consequentialist/utilitarian answer of “We want to do the thing that maximizes the amount of good, so if giving to charity is worse than not giving then you shouldn’t give to charity.” But that’s a rather abstract argument, almost an argument by definition. “Effective altruism is doing the thing that’s most effective.” But maybe that’s not what people who identify as effective altruists are doing.

      More practically, as I understand it Givewell is all about making sure that donations actually do good things in the long term. For example, they argue that you shouldn’t donate to a charity such as Heifer International that donates animals, because of problems such as: 1) The family needs something else much more than they need an animal 2) Other families nearby don’t get animals, leading to jealousy and resentment 3) The family may not be taught how to properly care for the animal, so the presumed long-term compound effects of, e.g., breeding never even get started. Is this the sort of argument you’re thinking of? (I’m sure Heifer would disagree with Givewell’s arguments but my point is that effective altruists are looking at these issues.)

      You could also make the more general argument that all charities are bad, but I’m really skeptical of that one…

      • Deiseach says:

        My problem with GiveWell is that it has a pet charitable cause, and it’s entirely possible that it’s down to my own stupidity but I don’t see why their pet cause is bestest of the bestest or what criteria they are using. So I’m not that surprised that they’re pushing “Don’t give to [named charity], give to our picks instead!” Anyone know of an ethical altruist organisation ranking ethical altruist organisations that rank charities? 🙂

        Great, you help people to live without malaria. Now what? They need food to eat, a way to make a living, how to support themselves now that extra mouths will not be dying of malaria. A charity such as Bóthar does provide what I consider is a good basic way to help people, and I’m fairly sure they will have considered problems such as “If Family A gets a cow and Family B doesn’t, how do we keep resentment and jealousy from sabotaging harmonious relationships in the community?*” and “Do we assume that people know how to take care of, raise, breed and use cattle?” and “What about the local conditions – Irish cattle raising advice will/won’t work in this environment?” and so forth.

        *We Irish have experience of this; excerpt from English translation of Irish poem:

        Your neighbour’s poor, and you, it seems, are big with vain ideas,
        Because, inagh! you’ve got three cows—one more, I see, than she has.
        That tongue of yours wags more at times than Charity allows,
        But if you’re strong, be merciful, great Woman of Three Cows!

        • g says:

          My problem with GiveWell is that it has a pet charitable cause

          Do you mean “improving the lives of the world’s poorest people” or “malaria nets”?

          The former seems to me a sufficiently widely shared goal that calling it GiveWell’s “pet cause” is really unfair. Other quite different organizations that share it include, e.g., the Roman Catholic Church.

          The latter simply isn’t, as a matter of fact, in any sense GiveWell’s pet cause. It’s what one charity they highly recommend does, but when their evaluation has suggested that that charity is likely to be less effective than others in improving the lives of poor people they stopped recommending it; and their current top recommendations include charities that focus on deworming and on just handing money to poor people.

          Great, you help people to live without malaria? Now what?

          If malaria is addressed effectively enough that attacking it no longer provides (in GiveWell’s estimation) the most benefit per unit money given, then GiveWell will stop recommending anti-malaria charities and instead recommend other charities that do things whose priority is raised in this Brave New Lower-Malaria World. It might turn out that giving people livestock is one of those things; or it might not.

          I have to confess I’m puzzled by your objections. The last time this topic came up here, your objection to GiveWell was (in effect) that they don’t have a pet cause, they just do whatever they think maximizes utility, so they might end up recommending that you send your charitable donations to the Gold Taps For Millionaires Foundation. (Except that of course there’s no remotely conceivable world where they would, and if they did everyone would immediately stop taking any notice of them.) Whereas now your objection is that they do have a pet cause and you don’t see why you should support it. (Except that, depending on what it is you think their pet cause is, either it’s about as obvious why you should support it as could be the case for any charitable cause, or it isn’t in fact in any useful sense their pet cause.) I can’t help suspecting that what’s motivating these complaints is something else, though of course I don’t know what.

          • Deiseach says:

            Yes, I do have some slight objections to GiveWell because it does seem to be the site touted as “They know the best way to give the most efficiently”.

            And yes, their pet cause was malaria nets, and I didn’t see much reasoning to that other than “by our criteria this does the maximum good”. And I didn’t particularly find their criteria that convincing.

            And now they’re switching from malaria nets to deworming, which on the one hand shows flexibility but on the other hand does prop up my “gold bath taps” grumbling; if deworming is now a better cause, why wasn’t it previously? Is it simply a matter of “okay, given as much money as possible to malaria nets, we now move to No. 2 on the list”?

            I hope they are broadening their range, but what grigged me was mainly, I think, that they were being unreservedly touted as “If you want to know how best to donate to charity, look up this site” and when I did look it up, I wasn’t too impressed. They seemed to me to have their own notion of what “best use of money” meant, and that’s fine, but there also seemed to be a bit of stocking-stuffing going on: oh look, by the criteria we use, it just so happens that these are the top four recommendations!

            And we’re not saying you should give to one of these exclusively, except if you try looking up other charities we rank them as waaaaay down any “best usage of your money” metrics (I had a particular charity in mind which I tried looking up and they pretty much brushed it aside on the grounds of ‘they wouldn’t do reams of box ticking on the things we were judging’).

            I think GiveWell has its own criteria – fine. I think it does want to rank charities efficiently – fine. I don’t think it is the best source out there for ‘find the best way to contribute charitable donations’. You’re pretty much taking it on trust that yes indeed, malaria nets or deworming or handing £100 to someone is the best thing to do, because it’s GiveWell’s number one charity of the moment.

            I think they’re a little too dismissive of other charities that have been around longer. There probably is a lot of flab and inefficiency and reduplication of effort.
            That’s not to say that giving someone a malaria net is better, in their particular circumstances, always and forever, than giving them a box of chicks and a prefab henhouse.

          • Alexander Stanislaw says:

            Deiseach, you might want to read


            If you think that GiveWell’s criteria for effectiveness is poor, then provide an argument as to why, rather than criticizing them for having a criteria.

            (I say this as a a non-utilitarian, and a non-fan of effective altruism)

            And now they’re switching from malaria nets to deworming, which on the one hand shows flexibility but on the other hand does prop up my “gold bath taps” grumbling; if deworming is now a better cause, why wasn’t it previously?

            Because prices change (due to changes in supply and demand, as more people gave to malaria causes, the marginal effect of each new donation decreased).

          • g says:

            (Reply to Deiseach; mumble nesting limit grumble.)

            yes, their pet cause was malaria nets, and I didn’t see much reasoning to that other than “by our criteria this does the maximum good”

            I find it hard to imagine what better reasoning there could be for supporting a cause. Unless you’re saying that they gave no justification for saying that AMF was the most effective charity they know of by their criteria, in which case I have to ask: did you actually make even the most cursory effort to find out whether GiveWell gave any justification? Because they’ve written in rather a lot of detail about their favoured charities, and made quantitative estimates of their effectiveness (with appropriate caveats), and generally gone way further in the direction of justifying their recommendations than I’ve seen anywhere else.

            And now they’re switching from malaria nets to deworming

            Er, no; AMF is currently their top recommendation. But for a while they didn’t recommend it, because it had trouble finding enough opportunities to distribute bed nets. Then AMF fixed that problem, and GiveWell started recommending them again.

            if deworming is now a better cause, why wasn’t it previously?

            Deworming was a better cause than mosquito nets for a while because the leading mosquito net charity was having trouble arranging to distribute its mosquito nets. Some day, perhaps deworming will be a better cause than mosquito nets because malaria has been wiped out; one can hope.

            (Deworming is still an excellent cause, and two of GiveWell’s top four recommendations are for deworming charities.)

            I hope they are broadening their range

            And yet you say that immediately after a paragraph in which you say that if they’re willing to support anti-malaria nets one year and deworming the next, then how can we possibly be confident it won’t be gold taps for millionaires’ bathtubs next year?

            If I may abuse Mr Chesterton: “This begins to be alarming. It looks not so much as if GiveWell is bad enough to include many vices, but rather as if any stick is good enough to beat GiveWell with.”

            there also seemed to be a bit of stocking-stuffing going on: oh look, by the criteria we use, it just so happens that these are the top four recommendations!

            I don’t think I understand your objection. I mean, if you have some criteria and use them to make recommendations, then of course you’re going to get an answer of the form “by the criteria we use, it happens that these are the top N recommendations”. It sounds as if you’re saying that the GiveWell people were known to have a predilection for anti-malaria nets before they ever started their research, and that the research was never what drove their recommendations.

            That seems like it would be difficult to prove. But, as it happens, it’s easy to refute. The first year that GiveWell published recommendations, neither AMF nor any other anti-malaria charity made the list. (AMF was there the next year, at #5. #3 the year after that, then #1, then #1 again, then out, and then #1 again.)

            You’ve had a lot to say about GiveWell in this discussion and in earlier ones. And so far as I can see, more than half of what you say about them is demonstrably untrue. Almost always in a direction that makes GiveWell look worse than the truth would have.

        • Peter says:

          it’s entirely possible that it’s down to my own stupidity but I don’t see why their pet cause is bestest of the bestest

          Only one out of GiveWell’s top four charities is a malaria charity, although another two are to do with other tropical diseases, so there’s a theme there. I note that they’re currently up to four top charities, which is broader than I’d seen previously; if I understand the marginalism right I expect to see the set of charities that are on a par expand over time, so this is an encouraging sign.

          If you want to see why they recommend AMF, well, partly you can read their evaluation (I particularly recommend the “room for more funds” bit as a way of understanding what GiveWell are up to better), but also, you’d have to read other evaluations too to get a comparison. From the comfort of my armchair, I can tell you that malaria nets in Africa seems a plausible candidate for a good intervention (malaria is an important disease, poor people are poor, nets and insecticide aren’t massively expensive) whereas Gold Bath Taps fails the armchair plausibility test spectacularly (for reasons more-or-less the inverse of those given for malaria). To know whether malaria nets actually are among the best, you need to do an analysis involving a lot of different factors, and thus a fair amount of specialised knowledge or at the very least data-gathering. However, when the possibility of such an analysis is raised, the spectre of Gold Bath Taps gets raised. Perhaps analysis is some mysterious black box and it’s possible to imagine anything coming out of it.

          To a certain extent some element of trust is necessary – however it is possible to do rather more plausibility-checking than the three-point thing I outlined in brackets above – for example reading their reports and seeing if they make sense, seeing if the criteria they use are sensible, etc. Obviously I can’t speak for absolutely everyone but for me (and I strongly suspect many others) it puts the spectre of “strange recommendations coming out of a completely black box” to bed quite nicely.

        • Jaskologist says:

          I have two basic problems with Effective Altruism:

          1. I think that it is, in most cases, premature optimization. This is not a fatal objection, but it does annoy me.

          2. I think that, like most utilitarian schemes, it falls prey to the temptation to pretend away everything that is not easily quantified.

          The following acts of altruism have all been performed by people within 1 degree of me in the past month or so:
          – Babysitting a friends’ kids so the parents could have a date together on the anniversary of their son’s death.
          – Having a couple going through marital difficulties over for dinner.
          – Driving a friend without a car to the hospital and sitting there with her for hours.
          – Bringing takeout to a different friend in the hospital.

          How “effective” are each of these? I have no idea. But I think that if you’re not regularly helping out in similar such situations, you’re both overly isolated from your community and not contributing like you should be.

          • Held In Escrow says:

            I think the point of Effective Altruism is to get to people who are already giving money to charity and say “hey, if your goal is to do good with your money, you can do even more good by giving it here instead of there.” You’re swapping the marginal acts of altruism around; those donations that aren’t to a cause dear to your heart but are done because you want the world to be a better place.

          • Evan Þ says:

            As Held In Escrow says, effective altruism is trying to change the destination of some altruistic acts, not discourage them. For example, if your friend from example #4, while bringing the takeout, saw a starving child on the street, she might have given the meal to him, and no one would have condemned her for that. But absent that, effective altruism doesn’t condemn her for engaging in local charity that isn’t fungible with global charity.

          • Anon says:

            Your position risks alienating those who won’t help in the way you advocate ( because ick, I just want to *help* other people, not interact with them) from doing any good at all.

        • Iskra says:

          Deiseach, I’m not really clear on what your objection to GiveWell is, but I’ve noticed that you circle back to their criteria a lot in these posts. Would you be willing to explain why you object to the way they evaluate charities? I think it would help me understand where you’re coming from. Thanks.

          • What gets on my nerves about effective altruism is a concern that what is easy to measure might not be what is most important. For example, what if some fraction of efforts to prevent war work?

    • Tom says:

      I think the point was made earlier in the comments.

      Basically, I get the idea of Givewell et al, but essentially therefore it makes more sense to give money to planet-saving or Mars-colonising projects because that is the long-term endgame. People contribute to climate change. Therefore more people is bad. I did like how Peter Singer mentioned human beings deciding to sterilise themselves, but he passed over it as if it weren’t worth more consideration. However, there must be better ways of preserving the race.

      To me the one thing that can be given to others, no strings attached, is your blood. Even more than money. This at least EA/Peter Singer has convinced me of doing.

      Probably one of my gripes is that this feels like neoliberal creep, so instead of governments redistributing wealth the onus is put on the individual. Also, the movement seems to encourage those typically nouveau capitalist careers, like working in the financial sector. That’s the market for you, I guess. But then, there is still a massively strong market in typicaly heart-string pulling charities.

      • James Picone says:

        I’m not sure that longer life-expectancy in poor countries is a significant influence in climate projections. They don’t exactly have high per-capita CO2 emissions, after all.

        If all you cared about was CO2 emissions, you’d be more concerned with them gaining more Western lifestyles, like has been happening in China and India. I’m not sure eradicating malaria is sufficient for that to happen, and I’m not sure not eradicating malaria is enough to stop it from happening.

        Also, current CO2 emissions are enough that there are nasty effects by the end of the century (at current emission rates, we double preindustrial CO2 by 2080). Not-getting-more-people isn’t sufficient, and the industrial revolution can’t be stuffed back in the bottle (nor should it be stuffed back in the bottle). Climate solutions are going to have to be in the form of less-CO2-intensive forms of energy, because civilisation isn’t going to start using less (and we can’t use significantly less without ceasing to be a technological civilisation).

        If all you care about is CO2 emissions, invest in whatever forms of energy production you conclude are most likely to be able to provide baseload power, invest in whatever transport mechanisms/energy storage mechanisms you conclude is most likely to be able to replace mass fossil-fuel-powered-cars, try to get some kind of carbon pricing measure passed (making fossil fuels less price-efficient), try to get fossil-fuel subsidies removed. Maybe invest in trying to provide current low-or-no CO2 technologies to poor countries so they build less fossil-fuel-based plants as their energy use increases (many renewables have the advantage of not requiring a national grid to be effective, as well). That kind of thing. Much more effective than worrying about whether getting rid of malaria will cause more emissions over the next century.

        • Jaskologist says:

          If all you cared about was CO2 emissions, you’d be more concerned with them gaining more Western lifestyles, like has been happening in China and India.

          No. No no no no no. If all you cared about was CO2 emissions, you’d be concerned about your own Western lifestyle. Remove plank from eye, then attack dust motes.

          It’s more effective that way anyhow.

          • Tom says:

            OK so then someone who drives a plane full of Westerners into the Alps is doing the planet a favour?

            But seriously, good responses, I can see the meanings behind the movement better. It’s getting there.

          • James Picone says:

            If all you cared about was CO2 emissions, you’d be more concerned with them gaining more Western lifestyles [than them living longer], like has been happening in China and India.

            Does that make it clearer? Obviously if CO2 concentration were a terminal value, ending Western civilisation would be a bigger gain.

    • Sewing-Machine says:

      I have a related objection to Singerism. If I wish to pursue the greatest good for the greatest number, why is it obvious that I should be encouraging more charitable acts? Shouldn’t I be just as interested or more interested in encouraging selfish acts?

      A selfish act does good for the person acting, at a very competitive price. A dollar donated to charity is a dollar that can’t be spent on a Beatles record. If both the beneficiary of the charity dollar and the record dollar are strangers to me, why should I prefer one to the other?

      • Anonymous says:

        Because a lot of people don’t have enough resources to be effectively selfish, and a lot of people have far more resources than they need to do so.

      • Illuminati Initiate says:

        Wealth decreases in utility the more you have. The person selling you Beatle’s records is presumably not on the verge of starvation, or unable to afford basic medicine.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          Wealth decreases in utility the more you have.

          Above a certain level of wealth, yes. But in increasing positive utilons, below a certain level of poverty, the recipient’s day will not be noticeably happier for the removal of one needle from his bed of needles. Or the absence of one unnoticeable dust speck.

          • Nornagest says:

            I’m really not convinced of this. Going from zero dollars a day to two dollars a day is literally the difference between starving to death and not starving to death, and (under several reasonable-looking consequential schemes) that’s about as dramatic a gain in utility as I could hope for.

            There are objections to this sort of aid that I find interesting, but the shape of the utility curve over money is not one of them.

  21. JayMan says:

    HBD Chick’s theory is your explanation. Even if you ignore her theory on the evolutionary causation, there is no question that today (non Celtic Fringe) Northwest Europeans stand out unique from the rest of the world. For one, they are unique in possessing a guilt culture as opposed to shades of a shame culture like the rest of the world. That is why they and they alone feel guilty about their past transgressions against the world. Somehow I doubt the Russians, Japanese, Chinese are so encumbered.


    big summary post on the hajnal line | hbd chick

    Evo and Proud: The origins of Northwest European guilt culture

    time enough | hbd chick

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Northwestern Europeans’ guilt culture (using that as shorthand for the whole interacting complex of traits) made them good at cooperating with their countrymen, thus making themselves the world’s most effective pirates and colonialists, thus giving themselves more to feel guilty about, which in turn makes them easy marks today for people who lack a guilt culture.

    • 27chaos says:

      “That is why they and they alone feel guilty about their past transgressions against the world. Somehow I doubt the Russians, Japanese, Chinese are so encumbered.”

      Or maybe you’re racist and so don’t realize guilt is a universal human experience?

      • Alexander Stanislaw says:

        The argument isn’t that only Northwest Europeans feel guilt, it is that Northwest Europeans feel _more_ guilt about transgressions of their ancestors. This is totally compatible with the fact that all humans feel guilt.

        As to whether it is true … Japan’s many apologies and reparations for World War 2 seem to be a counter example. Comparing the Japanese and German response to World War 2 would be a good test case for the Northwest European guilt hypothesis. Perhaps someone who is knowledgeable about this topic can chime in?

  22. Olivia says:

    I may have succumbed to Bulverism myself here, but I would say that you’re overfitting consistent moralities to people who don’t have them. It seems to me that you’ve assumed that “normal people” have a consistent morality underneath the cognitive dissonance, maybe because of how deep you are into ethics that do stay more or less consistent. People who think about ethics have fairly consistent ethics themselves. People who don’t, who you’re addressing here, don’t. For them, the model of observing an inconsistency and then creating a hypothesis that attempts to consistently link them simply fails.

    People care about what they can see. A faraway disease gets dismissed as supererogatory, but if it’s up close and personal, people act. Regular people make no attempt to treat people they’ve never heard of the same as people close to them. They don’t have a consistent ethical basis that grants some exception, allowing them to care less about people far away.

    • TomA says:

      There is a basis in evolutionary development for your observation. For hundreds of thousands of years, we evolved in small groups and practiced local affiliation and cooperation. It is only within the past few millennia that we have adapted to much larger population-based stimuli, and only within the past few hundred years that our perspective has become global. Our innate bias is still toward local charity and support, and will likely remain as such for a long time.

  23. Richard Metzler says:

    Nice theory, but I’m not buying it. Having lurked on forums populated by lots of “it’s all the west’s fault” people, they don’t seem to match your description at all. Neither are they any good at identifying the really relevant problems (in fact, they seem to rank “cultural appropriation” as worse than starvation, AIDS and mass murder, judging by the time spent discussing these issues), nor do they seem very interested in actually fixing any of these problems, or even discussing effective ways of doing so, nor do they seem to be bothered by the massive amounts of cognitive dissonance that their world view requires. Maybe we’re talking about different crowds here, though?

    I agree with your suggestion that a more utilitarian approach would be helpful. Well-meaning, badly-implemented attempts to help have wrought enough damage already.

    • Anonymous says:

      “Time spent discussing these issues” is neither a reliable nor a charitable guide to what people think, upon reflection, is important. If you’re wondering why limit cases that make people angry get more air time in all sorts of fora than clear cases where people agree, well, Scott has made plenty of posts on that topic, like “The Toxoplasmosa of Rage”.

      • Richard Metzler says:

        You have a point, and I have read the “Toxoplasma” and found it enlightening. But the phrase “to what people think, upon reflection, is important” is interesting. When you ask Social Justice proponents, for example, whether fighting racism is important, they’ll probably say “Hell yes”, and they’ve thought about that, and are thinking about that, a lot. But I’m not sure you’d get a coherent answer if you ask “Is hounding the Washington Redskins really the most effective thing you can do to improve the life of Native Americans?”. Questions like this need reflection, and discussion, and I don’t see that taking place. In fact, there seem to be lots of discussion-terminating cliches firmly installed to prevent it.
        The topics that actually get discussion time are the ones where you can *blame* someone, conclude that someone is a horrible person… not the anonymous, structural, Moloch-type issues that are actually the root cause of most serious problems. Whether that’s because it’s intellectually easier and emotionally more satisfying to find someone to blame, or whether finding excuses to attack someone is actually the whole point of the moral system, I can’t tell, but either way, it’s not helping.
        (Am I making sense? This is a difficult topic, and I’m probably injecting too much emotion into my judgment…)

        • Anonymous says:

          I agree with everything you said. All I meant to indicate was that you can’t simply read a forum and decide that what people like to talk about is what people care about. If you could, you’d conclude a lot of us here prefer third-world dictators to Cultural Studies professors, for instance. Which I’m assuming we don’t.

          I haven’t thought hard about Scott’s proposition in this piece versus in “Toxoplasmosa”. I suppose they are at odds at least thematically, but given that I think this one is wrong and “Toxoplasmosa” is right, that’s not such a huge deal to me!

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          The topics that actually get discussion time are the ones where you can *blame* someone, conclude that someone is a horrible person…

          Yes. Once the focus shifts from logical or practical discussion about an issue, to “Is X a horrible person?” — it becomes much more convenient.

      • Richard Metzler says:

        Also – if I remember “Toxoplasma” correctly, the main idea was that the borderline cases are so polarizing and under heated debate precisely because they are so useful for signaling what side you’re on – “look, I’m 110% behind this, even though there’s no evidence, and the other side actually has good arguments, how can you doubt my devotion to the cause?” Scott’s proposition today is that signaling is not the root cause of the “blame people like us” behavior; so couldn’t the amount of effort that the blamers spend on obvious signaling versus goal-oriented discussion serve as a test of the proposition?

    • TrivialGravitas says:

      How many of the people you’re talking about are actual academics?

      I don’t think it’s unreasonable that Scott’s thesis is true of professional academics while virtue signaling is the case for the blue tribe masses and demagogues. Certainly my own experience (which was with actual academics) was quite different than other blue tribers.

  24. Harald K says:

    I am one of those deontologists, and I think there’s something to this. Or maybe it’s not, but you deserve praise anyway for getting a key point of deontology. To quote Thoreau:

    It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.

    It really is incommensurably more important that you not keep slaves yourself than that you work to abolish the evil of slavery.

    And maybe deontologists can risk making the rationalization you argue: Thoreau’s assertion that he needed to not pay his tax in order to disassociate himself from a slavery government, for instance, was maybe dubious. Jesus was fine with paying tax to the emperor, who was head of a slave government, too. It is possible to not resist an evil without endorsing that evil.

    But there’s an opposite rationalization, the one that utilitarians make. Here’s how that plays out: it’s not such a big deal that I keep slaves, since I’m working for the abolition of slavery. I get a pass. I’m entitled to wield a gun and shoot people, because I’m a soldier serving the right kind of country. I’m entitled to use my gender’s privileges maximally – either mansplain to the max and be so hyperconfidently authoritative that no one dares challenge me (as a man), or be total damsel in distress and direct scorn and sympathy to shore up my own position (as a woman). Because I’m working towards gender equality.

    I’ll give up my special privileges when they’re no longer needed, once every wrong is righted… Right now, I’m maybe not solving many world problems. But I’m building up the necessary power to do so! Different rules applies to someone like me, who is so obviously objectively qualified for righting wrongs.

    • Thank you for this comment. I’m not at the point where I’ve fully digested what Scott said yet, but I’m also (chiefly) deontological in my ethical beliefs, and I was hoping to read some thoughts from someone else from that niche.

      I am extremely prone to rationalising myself to be a terrible person. Deontology actually helps curb that behaviour and lets me function; some things are Not My Problem, and that’s okay. (That being said, I do have Thoreau’s problem with paying my taxes and on some days that gets torturous, especially because there’s no ethically clean way to get out of the rut. I digress.)

      Either way, I don’t actually know enough deontologists to feel confident that most of them would fit into Scott’s theory (currently I don’t even feel confident I do; my situation seems more like the opposite scenario).

      Perhaps it’s just the result of zero-sum thinking: If other people have it so badly and we have it so good, then something must have happened to transfer the things they were entitled to to what we’re entitled to. Which I guess is independent of the ethical framework.

  25. At a tangent … .

    How would you describe a moral theory in which the deontological part involved an obligation not to harm people and the supererogatory part was utilitarianism? That comes close to my moral intuitions. Knowing that I had killed someone would make me feel guilty in a way in which knowing that there are things I could have done that would have saved lives does not, but I still view increasing the total of human happiness as a good thing.

    One advantage of that approach is that it is possible to live with it. If I gave the same weight to saving lives as to not destroying them, I would either have to live a very ascetic life while devoting almost all of my efforts to some combination of earning money and figuring out the best way of giving it away, or feel very guilty. And if I decided I was willing to live with that guilt, it might occur to me, given suitable temptation, that a murder or two represented only a minimal increase in how guilty I ought to feel.

    • Murphy says:

      eloquently put.

      What you describe comes pretty close to my moral intuitions as well.

    • Brock says:

      I see Utilitarianism (and other consequentialisms) as a minimalist ethical theory: the only thing it provides is a “more right than” ordering over possible actions. Classification of actions into obligatory and superogatory is a theory intended to evaluate people, not actions: those who fail to meet their obligations are bad people, and those who meet them are good.

      Utilitarianism itself is independent of the classification actions into obligatory and superogatory. It’s consistent with their being no such distinction, but does not imply it.

      So I would call the theory you describe as Utilitarianism, with an additional theory for evaluating people bolted on.

    • I’d love to have a word for this as well, because that’s the class of ethical system I openly live by.

      Currently I tell people “I’m leaning toward the deontological side on the sliding scale of deontology versus consequentialism,” or “My ethical framework is a system of gates. If deontology provides no action for me to take, I fall back to consequentialism,” or something along those lines, depending on what is more informative in the context the discussion is taking place in. Either way, it’s long-winded and sounds embarrassingly unprofessional in a context where everyone else is describing similarly complex thoughts with just an adjective or noun.

      The closest I’ve found from reading comments on Slate Star Codex might be rule consequentialism, but that’s not quite the same thing. It has some of the same trappings as the double-gated system I mentioned, but it’s still distinct.

  26. Shenpen says:

    >I want to propose another possibility: what if people are really, fundamentally, good?

    In general not, but you first-worlders may be. I am Hungarian and I am always confused by the sheer amount do-goodery radiating from the US. It is weird. Effective altruism… seems so incredibly selfless. It seems you feel secure in having a surplus, while we don’t so we still focus on zero-sum competition and status signalling (showing off the bling-bling, everybody having one category better car than what they could actually afford).

    I also think this do-goodery is more of an American than first-worlder thing, New England Puritan thing, you don’t really see so much of it in the UK for example.

    I think it has a religious origin. It is a doing gods work thing.

    “This theory implies that utilitarian liberals will have all the features of liberalism except the interest in blaming their own group for major problems.”

    And how are they going to signal they are better than their group? As it is what it is sometimes about, look at me I am cooler than my neighbor.

    • Murphy says:

      keep in mind: lesswrong is not the norm.

      there’s no shortage of zero-sum competition and status signalling bling-bling.

      • Alex says:

        I’m an immigrant to the U.S., originally from Mexico, and I agree with Shenpen’s comment. Even outside of the LW-ish community, Americans (as in USians) place a high value on charity AND put their money where their mouth is. Giving 10% or more of your income while not common is not unheard of, and lower amounts are quite frequent. In contrast, in my home community (which is fairly wealthy) it is pretty uncommon to find individuals contributing to charity.

    • Anonymous says:

      Puritans are very similar to the English, or at least a significant strain of the English. EA is quite popular in UK. It is more popular per capita in UK than USA. But it is more popular per capita in New England than Old.

  27. suntzuanime says:

    Do these people really act like they are desperate for an excuse to do something about the problems of the Third World? The people who seem most eager to blame their own group also seem most eager to propose solutions that don’t actually help unless it’s true that the group they blame is actually to blame. This seems to fit better with a hypocritical within-group power-struggle explanation than with yours.

  28. David Moss says:

    “This theory implies that utilitarian liberals will have all the features of liberalism except the interest in blaming their own group for major problems. My anecdotal experience confirms that. The utilitarians I know are very interested in helping the poor and in various other liberal ideas, but are more likely than other liberals to roll their eyes at talk about colonialism and stereotype threat. I think it’s because they feel confident in their right to care about the disadvantaged regardless.”

    This is a very interesting observation. But it seem to me that the simplest explanation is that utilitarians are (necessarily) less concerned with blame and more with impartially discerning how to do the most good, and the intuitive-deontologist are more concerned with blaming agents, attributing responsibility to agents and identifying injustices simply because that’s what utilitarianism and deontology are about. It also makes sense if the intuitive-deontologists are preferentially using quick and dirty moral heuristics, which tend to quickly identify moral villains (sometimes, as Pizarro showed, attributing blame even people who aren’t causally related to a harm at all, just because they stand to benefit from the harm).

  29. Many people have remarked on the paradox of an academia made mostly of upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners trying so very hard to find reasons why lots of things are the fault of upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners.

    Is is so surprising that upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners try so very hard to find reasons why lots of things are under their power?

  30. A couple of sidetracks:

    An argument that the major damage to Africa may have been the result of slave-taking rather than colonialism:

    and, are Communist countries ever considered to be colonialist?

    • Tom Womack says:

      There wasn’t much time for Communist countries to be colonialists; the Struggle for Africa was complete and the world all spoken for by the time of the October Revolution. Whilst, if your country had a Communist revolution, the Soviet Union would very happily provide advisors, and moderately happily provide cheap fertiliser and subsidised oil and a market for your pineapples, and semi-happily provide planes and Soviet pilots for them, they were insistent that that made you a client state rather than a colony.

      Russia, and later the Soviet Union’s, actions in the Caucasus and in Central Asia are pretty clearly closer to colonialism than to the settlement of the American West; Bukhara was a big city for 2500 years, and the capital of an independent khanate (having seceded from the Persian Empire in 1785) when the Russian empire defeated the khanate in 1868 and subsequently the Soviet army conquered the city in 1920. That’s maybe more parallel with the USA’s action in the territories which are now the state of Texas, which are conquest rather than colonialism – of course France’s colonies were officially as much parts of France as Texas is part of the USA.

      • Doug Muir says:

        I’m currently posting from Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Yes, the USSR was totally colonialist — it inherited tsarist Russia’s colonialist system.

        Today, places like the central Asian Republics, and to a lesser extent the Caucasus and Moldova, are very post-colonial. The parallels to former colonies in Africa and Asia are well known and much discussed.

        Doug M.

        • Tom Womack says:

          I suppose I’m confused because the one Central Asian place I’ve been is Kyrgyzstan, and the city was mostly Bishkek, and Bishkek is much more of a blank slate (IIRC founded by Russians, and certainly built from the ground up in sort-of-European-ish big-boulevards integrate-the-railway-in-the-city-plan style) than the cities like Osh in the Fergana valley which have been around for millennia.

          Thinking back on it Osh felt very different from Bishkek in a way which might well have been post-colonial.

      • Communist Russia was the heir to the empire that Czarist Russia had built. There is this amazing factoid that Over the more than four centuries from the time of Ivan the Terrible, Russia expanded an average of fifty square miles per day.

        By the time, the Bolsheviks took power, Russia was a huge multinational empire, not a nation-state.

    • Anonymous says:

      Dependency Theory is a pretty good description of the Warsaw Pact.

  31. Julie K says:

    Your theory seems to assume that academics are “confronted with the full extent of human suffering” in a way that most people are not.
    Is this necessarily true. Is it true for all (or most) academic departments?
    How do you explain people who have been confronted with human suffering but don’t end up sharing the political positions popular in academia?
    And why do some people who don’t think colonialism is to blame for the Third World’s woes nevertheless try to help ease those woes?

  32. Edward Scizorhands says:

    Scott had a post where blue-tribe people criticizing America were really criticizing red-tribe America. Couldn’t that explain things just as well? I’ve been involved in discussions about helping Africa just to have someone interrupt and claim it was all the fault of [insert boogeyman]. Already been said at least twice.

    One of the big problems with blaming colonialism is that it leaves us less informed about the problems and being less informed about the problem makes it harder to solve it. If colonialism caused the problem, then we need to worry about undoing colonialism. If it’s something else, though, we don’t need that. It leaves us chasing our tail.

    • Tom Womack says:

      “If colonialism caused the problem, then we need to worry about undoing colonialism”

      I’m not sure that follows; whether someone got HIV through injudicious fornication, or through incautious use of injected drugs, or through a blood transfusion at a time when hospitals were more careless about that, makes very little difference to how you treat her disease.

      • Doug Muir says:

        This. It’s like saying that if I beat you and break a bunch of your bones, then we need to worry about me ceasing to beat you. True, but very incomplete.

        Doug M.

      • Deiseach says:

        But it makes a great deal of difference to how you prevent re-occurrence of the disease, or what strategies you put in place to prevent other people getting it: contaminated blood supplies are probably easier to control for than people getting drunk/high and forgetting their ‘safer sex’ drills when going home with that cute stranger because they’re too horny and lacking in ability to be rational about the risk of ‘it’s only one time without condoms, how bad can the odds be?’

        “If in doubt, chuck it out!” is easier to do with possibly contaminated blood supplies; campaigns about “don’t get drunk and/or fuck strangers no matter how cute without protection” can trigger a backslash of “slut-shaming! attempts to control my sexuality! homophobia! victim-blaming!”

        • Anonymous says:

          I don’t know if this sort of comment is generally appreciated here, but I’ve been reading your posts here for months. I genuinely like the fact that someone as social justice-y as you can stick around here, but I often have very little notion of what you’re talking about. In this thread, for instance, people are discussing how intimately the cause of a problem is bound up in its solution, with an eye to the specific case of colonialism. Nobody is discussing a situation where there’s a class of problems and finding the cause of one can prevent another, and I don’t see how people’s accusations of slut-shaming etc. relate to either the general point or colonialism in particular. Reading you charitably I have to assume that these things are in fact quite related, as you see them, and so I just want to urge you to make those connections explicit for those of us unable to do so on our own.

    • Deiseach says:

      Colonialism also used and exacerbated existing divisions and problems in order to obtain and maintain control; “divide and conquer” is an old tactic.

      Encouraging tribe X and tribe Y to keep at one another’s throats, thus permitting the ‘impartial’ colonial administration to step in and resolve difficulties and disputes; giving plum posts in the colonial administration to the natives who most assimilated; keeping a lid on the pot, in other words, by being the Strong Man in Charge who was able to put down native uprisings – and then, once independence is achieved, the old regime is repatriated home, and then the pot boils over and you can claim, with some justification, that they are savages incapable of self-governance and it wasn’t colonialism that was the problem.

      From surrender and regrant to Richard Dawkins pissing me off massively by ignoring or refusing to recognise the part English policy has played in keeping Northern Ireland a sectarian society, it’s long been a tool of our overlords.

      Yes, I realise Dawkins was trying to make a joke. But you can’t get much more goddamn Establishment than white male cis het upper-middle class Oxbridge don, unless he was white male cis het upper-middle class Oxbridge member of the Conservative government, and the steadfast peculiarly English attitude of why oh why are those ignorant wild Irish knocking one another about over religion? was like grit between my teeth; oh I don’t know, Dickie – maybe it’s because religion and politics were intertwined in the tangled joint history of my and your nations, where people of your background – whether they were Whigs or Tories – were in power and made the laws and ruled my nation, and linked all the goodies to being eager to assimilate to the English, Protestant side, and they deliberately did things like ‘playing the Orange Card’ – that is, whipped up sectarian religious hysteria in order to gain political advantage for his side in the game of British parliamentarians?

      “I decided some time ago that if the G. O. M. went for Home Rule, the Orange card would be the one to play. Please God it may turn out the ace of trumps and not the two.” – Lord Randolph Churchill

  33. Vaniver says:

    It combines a justification for helping the poor with an insult to people’s identity, and probably makes the former less palatable to many people than it would be naturally.

    Well, it also rules out a very promising way to help the poor, which is exporting good governance (which is its own good, but also leads to investor confidence, which leads to development).

  34. social justice warlock says:

    The premise that’s needed to make this work is that western &c. academics are blaming the west &c. more than reality warrants, and your source for this is other academics. It seems a priori (though not incorrigibly so) more likely to me that western &c. academics are operating on the same biases as everyone else: reality is still to the left of them; it’s just that we see attributes by contrast, and since they are more self-blaming than most (possibly because of greater exposure to reality) they seem self-blaming relative to reality, which they aren’t. Note that this is consistent with many theories that are both bad and self-blaming coming out of academe if academe comes up with a lot of ideas and most ideas of any sort are bad.

    • Held In Escrow says:

      I think this is getting at a solid point. In order to bemoan the academics, we have to first show that they are wrong. I don’t think Scott has conclusively done so, and thus there’s no real starting point for the rest of the post.

      • suntzuanime says:

        The starting point for the post was Scott explicitly pointing out that he was going to engage in this sin, and begging God’s forgiveness.

    • Anonymous says:

      I think you mean “prima facie”, not “a priori”. (I know, correcting people on the Internet is not the greatest.)

      • social justice warlock says:

        I think you mean “prima facie”, not “a priori”.

        Correct, thank you.

        (I know, correcting people on the Internet is not the greatest.)


    • Cauê says:

      “Reality to the left of them” is uninteresting bait, but why would you suspect they have “greater exposure to reality”?

      • Whatever happened to Anonymous says:

        I assume that they’re talking about perception.

      • social justice warlock says:

        Because that’s what studying something is. Academics can most certainly be wrong, and indeed I am proposing that they are, systematically, but if you want to say that generally “people who academically study a thing aren’t as a general rule better informed about that thing than they otherwise would be,” then you should be prepared to accept what seems to be the fairly radical epistemic consequences of this.

        • Anonymous says:

          This depends a lot on what they’re studying. I would expect people who study “paranormal phenomena” or “the Illuminati” to have generally less correct beliefs about such things than intelligent non-experts. So too with “deconstruction” or “the patriarchy”, for instance.

          • social justice warlock says:

            I also agree with people who agree with me, but that’s ex post, not ex ante.

          • Anonymous says:

            I don’t understand this post.

            Let’s say a FOX News commentator was “an expert on liberal delusions” and had written a PhD thesis at Liberty University called “I’m Such a Good Person and Kale and Arugula are Really Tasty!: The Delusional World of Modern Liberalism”. Would you say this person’s beliefs about liberals are more trustworthy for having “studied” them?

          • Nornagest says:

            I wonder how much of this is just availability bias? There’ve got to be a lot of people who put some effort into studying paranormal phenomena or the Illuminati or crop circles or something, and concluded, thanks to their studies, that there’s really nothing there. Aside from the very occasional student going on to make a career as a debunker, though, we’d never hear about them.

          • Anonymous says:

            Even if it so happens that there are these people, I don’t see any reason to think that you’re right to say that there’ve got to be. But this is essentially what warlock’s reasoning requires.

            Here’s another example: do we think experts in Freudian psychoanalysis know more about human psychology than other people? That’s what they study, isn’t it? The point is that if what you study is a certain kind of theoretical construct, you might understand the properties of that construct without gaining any extra insight into the real-world phenomena those properties are being taken to model. How about: An expert in string theory only knows a ton about twenty-seven dimensions if string theory is actually correct.

          • Nornagest says:

            Seems to me that we can infer different motivations from someone studying (or calling themselves an expert on, which is not the same thing) the paranormal vs. Freudian psychology vs. the patriarchy. The first is a low-status but kinda fun fringe belief and in modern times always has been; the second used to be a serious theory but these days is studied mostly in the context of history or literature; the third is respectable in academia whatever we think about it. That implies different levels of social support, different personalities, different levels of ideological entanglement, you name it.

            We ignore that at our peril.

          • Anonymous says:

            I don’t see what there is to ignore. I’m arguing against someone who said that there would be “radical epistemic consequences” to thinking that academic study doesn’t make someone better-informed about something. I’ve offered several counterexamples. Now you’re saying the counterexamples aren’t all the same in some ways you think are relevant. I don’t see what I’m supposed to get out of that given the way the conversation has proceeded. Are you suggesting that there are, in fact, “radical epistemic consequences” to thinking that someone who studies x, y, and z won’t necessarily be better informed about X, Y, and Z (lowercase versus uppercase intentional), but not to thinking that someone who studies a, b, and c won’t necessarily be better informed about A, B, and C, based on the sorts of differences between a/A etc. and x/X etc. you mentioned in your post?

          • Nornagest says:

            I’m suggesting that your examples may not form a natural category.

            (I don’t necessarily agree with Warlock’s take either, though.)

          • Anonymous says:

            They’re all examples where someone could be said to be studying some topic and yet we would not trust their judgment on that topic, because we don’t trust the actual academic discipline associated with it. That’s about as much “naturalness” as I was going for and it is exactly how I feel about quite a few academics who study colonialism, which are the ones warlock was talking about, I think.

          • social justice warlock says:

            I’m very deliberately trying to discriminate between big-picture correctness and overall knowledge, and between ex ante and ex post probability of either. I apologize if this isn’t clear.

            For instance, I’m a brainwashed politically correct Cathedral drone who has the audacity to believe that Steve Sailer is wrong about race. But he’s clearly more “exposed to the reality” on it than I am. I expect these to be correlated in the long run (although with possible exceptions in specific fields, maybe even that one, it’s just a potted example) but they are conceptually distinct.

        • Cauê says:

          I understood you to mean that “self-blaming” academics are more exposed to reality than non-self-blaming academics (say, economists), which looked unfounded.
          (now, I don’t see why one wouldn’t differentiate among academics to make this point)

          Also, what the anon above said.

    • Alexander Stanislaw says:

      they seem self-blaming relative to reality, which they aren’t

      Why do you believe this? Scott has argued to the contrary though not specifically about inter-country wealth disparities. It seems very very difficult to determine why countries differ in wealth. You can barely control for anything and there are too many confounders.

  35. onyomi says:

    Oh, I’m so glad CS Lewis already made up a word for this “Bulverism” phenomenon. I’ve noticed it run rampant recently (a favorite tactic of Paul Krugman), and it drives me crazy. I actually received an e-mail ad for an *entire conference* at Harvard devoted to figuring out why right wing people keep voting against their own economic interests.

    Similar, have seen extremely smart people on Facebook leaving comments to the effect of “opposition to Obama *must* be racially based since he’s been an objectively good president.”

    • alexp says:

      While there are certainly liberals who think like that, I think there is a very strong case for racism subtly influencing people’s views on Obama. I certainly don’t like a lot of what Obama’s done, but I think a strong case for widespread racism in the Right. It’s not just that they dislike him, or that political parties are polarized now (or maybe they just line up better with political beliefs), but the sheer hatred (that started before he was even inaugurated), pig-headed opposition (for things that other presidents get a pass on), or just the language they use to describe him (not even explicitly racist terms, just outsider language like “Unamerican”)

      • Jaskologist says:

        When you have some time, dig up some lefty articles from the Bush era. There is nothing new under the sun.

        • Cauê says:

          I don’t think people could get away with saying about Obama the things people used to say about GW Bush.

      • John Schilling says:

        Were you around during the (Bill) Clinton administration? Because I’m not seeing anything being said about or done in opposition to Barack Obama, that I don’t recall also being said and done re Clinton, in kind or degree. Only the particular details of the conspiracy theories, e.g. Birther vs. Death List, have changed.

        And then there’s Bush Derangement Syndrome. Blind, unthinking hatred of sitting presidents, as manifest in all the ways you describe and more, is something that happens to white and black alike, and in 2017 we may add Hispanics or women to that list. The only characteristic necessary to incite such rage is, “became POTUS sometime after 1990”.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            in defense of Adams, Jefferson had actually been a strong proponent of the French Revolution, so asking if he intended something similar for America seems like fair play.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            Much further back. JFK, FDR.

            I don’t remember such personal hatred against earlier Republican presidents. Nixon had real crimes to be investigated, and everybody liked Ike.

          • Jaskologist says:

            That should have said “from the 1800s.”

          • John Schilling says:

            It’s probably cyclic. Even with vastly improved social tolerance for the handicapped, there’s no way FDR even makes it to the primaries in the 21st century without a whole lot of imagery calculated to show him as a weakling cripple, and JFK seems to have been as big a philanderer as Clinton the First but never suffered half the bad press for it. “Daisy” was effective, but recognized immediately as having been over the line.

            OTOH, as has been noted, Jefferson v. Adams.

      • Anonymous says:

        I would be interested to see you make this very strong case.

      • FacelessCraven says:

        does it seem they hate him more than they hated, say, Clinton? Does it seem like they hate Obama more than leftists hated Bush?

        My personal observation would say no and no. Likely due to egregious personal flaws, I’ve gotten the majority of my political commentary from the political foes of the incumbents for the last three presidencies. Clinton was a philandering sleazeball suspected of murdering his associates and innocent american citizens when he found it politically convenient. Bush was an imbecile war criminal that stole an election, murdered over a million humans, presided over the destruction of a major american city, and was suspected of perpetrating the worst terror attack to ever hit America.

        By comparison, Obama is suspected of not being an actual citizen, thus being ineligible for the presidency that everyone agrees he won, and of general “attempts to destroy the country”, which the other two were likewise accused of at every opportunity. It doesn’t seem to me that this level of hatred is unprecedented, or requires racism to explain it.

        • onyomi says:

          I tend to agree that hatred of Obama is no more severe than was hatred of Bush Jr. or Clinton, though the rhetoric switches to match the president (Clinton was a “sleazeball,” Bush was an “imbecile,” Obama is a “blame-America-first secret-Muslim intellectual with a weird name,” etc.).

          I wouldn’t deny that certain attacks against Obama have an unsettling racial overtone, but really all presidents will be attacked explicitly or implicitly for any salient feature they may have whatsoever, be it womanizing, a southern accent, femaleness, blackness, oldness, youth…

          But more importantly, what makes me mad is *the leap* from “I think Obama has been a good president” to “therefore there is something wrong with people who think otherwise.” It cannot be that they have evaluated the evidence differently or been exposed to different evidence or different arguments. It *must* be that they are crazy, racist, antisocial, uneducated, etc. because all sensible people agree with me.

          It is a sneaky excuse not only to basically move to the level of ad hominem, but to effectively shut down issue-level debate: “all reasonable people already agree with me; all that’s left is to figure out what’s wrong with people who don’t.”

          • onyomi says:

            I should note that I have been guilty of this myself with respect to communism and intense socialism. To me, Marxist economics and central planning have been so thoroughly discredited by both history and logic that it’s something of a mystery to me why a not-insignificant number of people are still drawn to them and similar ideologies (see “Occupy Wall Street”). To that end, I have indulged in psychologizing them by saying, “well, they just have weird tribal yearnings inappropriate outside a Dunbar-sized unit” or “they must have abandonment issues or something.”

            In my defense, I think Marxist economics has been more thoroughly discredited than supply side, though I’m not sure it’s ever a very helpful tact, regardless of how discredited the theory. It’s a bit mind-boggling to me that many people still don’t buy into evolution, for example, but I don’t expect psychologizing them will help them change their minds any faster (and maybe the opposite).

      • Some of the attacks on Obama seemed more fantastical– the attacks on Clinton and GWB were at least somewhat to do with their policy decisions (or, GWB’s case, being too stupid to be a good president), while “not really a natural born American” struck me as not having anything to do with him being a good or bad president.

        Also, this is just one person, but I asked a birther what he expected to have happen if it were proven that Obama had been born in Kenya, and the birther had never thought about it. This does strike me as being more about hating Obama than having any interest in what happens to America.

        • Cauê says:

          This does strike me as being more about hating Obama than having any interest in what happens to America.

          Do you think this is unique in blue X green politics? It doesn’t look even noteworthy to me.

  36. Peter says:

    You headline says “Blame Theory”. I’m happy to comply. Theory, I’m calling you out! You a lot to answer for, like recommending things that don’t work in practise.

  37. Doug Muir says:

    Anecdotal data point: I spent a lot of time in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is on anyone’s short list of most FUBAR places on Earth. And [simplification but largely true] it’s that way because of the Belgians, who were arguably the worst colonial masters anywhere ever.

    The Belgians had three colonies, and they all were disasters. (Rwanda? Belgian.) The Belgians *started* their colonization of the Congo with a ten-year long genocide that killed five million people — half the population. Every other Congolese, bam, dead. And they didn’t really get that much nicer afterwards. Like, the use of hippopotamus-hide leather whips on Congolese workers? Banned in 1959, the year before the Belgians left. I can go into depressing details about exactly how the Belgians screwed the Congo over, and in how many different ways — how relentlessly selfish, cruel, stupid, greedy, and mean-spirited they were, and what a bunch of appalling racist jackholes even by the low standards of European colonialists in Africa — but let that bide.

    Here’s a thing: I didn’t arrive in the Congo, look around, and think “gosh, as a good western liberal this fills me with guilt”. I looked around and thought, Jesus Christ, I wish time travel were a thing so that I could jump in a time machine and go back in time *kill some fucking Belgians*.

    Doug M.

    • John Schilling says:

      Isn’t it one of the cardinal rules of time travel that you can only go back in time to kill A: Hitler, B: A butterfly, or C: your own grandfather?

      I suppose if you are yourself Belgian, that would give you license to kill two Belgians. Preferably not fucking ones; if you wait that long you get some messy quantum indeterminacy in your otherwise-simple causality paradox.

    • E. Harding says:

      As Moldbug has pointed out, Belgium helped the Congo much more than the Congolese themselves:!ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=eg_use_elec_kh_pc&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=region&idim=country:ZAR&ifdim=region&hl=en_US&dl=en&ind=false!ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=ny_gdp_pcap_kd&scale_y=log&ind_y=false&rdim=region&idim=country:ZAR&ifdim=region&hl=en_US&dl=en&ind=false

      But, perhaps, the worst thing that was done to the country was the U.N. intervention in the 1960s. Only an empire could keep Belgian Congo together. Without either an empire or dissolution, there can only be chaos in the Belgian Congo.

      I don’t know how anyone can estimate the number of excess Congolese dead under Leopold II.
      And who says Rwanda is a disaster? It was, but it got better under Kagame. Burundi remains stagnant, though.

      If the Belgians were such terrible colonial masters (such as the French in Vietnam, the Japanese in Korea, or the Dutch in Indonesia), we should have seen Belgian Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda start to accelerate after they left. They didn’t.

      • Geirr says:

        This is ridiculous. I think Belgian exit from the Congo was a completely foreseeable catastrophe, and largely the U.S.’s fault, like the massive excess casualties in Libya or Syria over just leaving the evil bastards in power.

        Belgium were the worst colonial masters, worse than the Germans, far worse than the French or Japanese, incalculably worse than the British who were no saints.

        >But, perhaps, the worst thing that was done to the country was the U.N. intervention in the 1960s. Only an empire could keep Belgian Congo together. Without either an empire or dissolution, there can only be chaos in the Belgian Congo.

        The U.N./U.S. intervention was a catastrophe but it was a catastrophe the Belgians made. The Congo Free State was King Leopold’s project but the Belgian Congo lasted more than 50 years and on independence there were three native university graduates in the entire country. Belgium was better than Leopold but not killing a higher proportion of the population than the Black Death did in Europe is a low bar to clear.

        >I don’t know how anyone can estimate the number of excess Congolese dead under Leopold II.

        There is a famous book, Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, set mostly in the Congo Free State, which is basically accurate.Roger Casement published some letters on the subject and eventually the press got so bad the Belgian government stepped in. I’m not super interested in litigating the numbers but the Congo Free State was awful. Their KPIs resulted in piles of severed hands.

        >And who says Rwanda is a disaster? It was, but it got better under Kagame. Burundi remains stagnant, though.

        Modern Rwanda so thoroughly rejects the Belgian past that since 2009 primary and secondary education are available exclusively in English. They also had a genocidal civil war in 1994. I think any successes post that began more than 50 years after the Belgians were forced out aren’t theirs to claim.

        >If the Belgians were such terrible colonial masters (such as the French in Vietnam, the Japanese in Korea, or the Dutch in Indonesia), we should have seen Belgian Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda start to accelerate after they left. They didn’t.

        All of those were literate societies that last wars, not societies in the process of state formation, (Rwanda and Burundi) or pre state (Congo). They had a lot more to build on than Belgium’s African colonies. Let me repeat, three university graduates, three. Also, Congolese and in general Sub Saharan African geography is terrible for trade, which doesn’t help. And the disease environment is the worst in Earth.

        • E. Harding says:

          “I think Belgian exit from the Congo was a completely foreseeable catastrophe, and largely the U.S.’s fault, like the massive excess casualties in Libya or Syria over just leaving the evil bastards in power.”
          -No disagreement here.

          I doubt the alternative to Belgian rule was a million university graduates. I suspect it was zero university graduates. And who says Congolese geography is terrible for trade? It’s as great for trade as the Mississippi basin. Why would the Congolese have anything to build on without Belgian rule?

          Yes, the disease environment is bad. And, as I pointed out, it was much, much better during the most developed period of Belgian rule. Pointing to the least developed period of Belgian imperial rule (Congo Free State) is like pointing to the least developed period in the history of post-colonial Asia -it will give you a very misleading picture.

          I only disputed Rwanda was a disaster, not claimed that its successes are the products of former Belgian rule (which they definitely are not; Belgium contributed little to Ruanda-Urundi).

          • Doug Muir says:

            God *damn* it’s annoying when people who know nothing about Africa start pontificating about Africa. Especially when they’re doing it in the service of apologizing for the fucking Belgians. It is literally like apologizing for Stalin or the Nazis — the fucking Belgians killed five! million! people! — but, you know, it was Africa, so they get a bye, let’s focus on the good stuff they did.

            Here’s a protip about the geography of the Congo Basin: it is not, in fact, very good for trade. That river system that looks so great on a map? Half of it is swamp. Deep tropical swamp. You can’t build stuff in it, you can’t put roads through it, and you can’t even navigate through it, because half the year it half dries out and turns into very muddy forest. The reason lowland gorillas aren’t extinct in the wild? Is because even with 21st century technology and resources, it’s almost impossible to log large parts of the Congo Basin.

            Hey, how about that port on the Atlantic where the Congo meets the sea? Oh, wait… there isn’t one. Why isn’t there one? Because 40 miles upstream from the ocean, the Congo falls through THE LARGEST SET OF RAPIDS IN THE FUCKING WORLD. Between Kinshasa and the coast, the river falls *over a thousand feet*. Imagine if you were sailing down the Mississippi and then suddenly, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, you found yourself sailing over Niagara Falls. Now imagine that happening five times before you reached the Gulf.

            All of this is information that’s easily available online. There are wikipedia articles, ffs. But, hey, Congo must be great for trade, because then we can blame the Congolese for not being Singapore.

            — Additional data point: there’s a rail line that goes up from the coast to Kinshasa, switchbacking up the heights and avoiding the rapids. The Belgians built it, back in the 1920s! Yay! Go Belgians! Oh, wait, they built it using slave labor and worked 20,000 Congolese to death in the process. One murdered dude every 40 feet, give or take. Um, less yay?

            Doug M.

          • JK says:

            the fucking Belgians killed five! million! people!

            How do we actually know that? AFAIK, there were no censuses, so the numbers are guesswork. Also, weren’t there at most a few thousands Belgians in Congo? How could they have killed millions of people sparsely inhabiting a huge and difficult to traverse land? Wasn’t the killing actually overwhelmingly done by the locals, probably often to settle local grievances? And how many people were actually deliberately killed versus succumbed to disease, cf. more people died of the Spanish flu in 1918 than died in WWI? Wikipedia says that there were smallpox and sleeping sickness epidemics in Congo at the time.

            I’m not trying to apologize for the Belgians. It’s just that the sheer logistics of their crimes seem improbable.

          • Doug Muir says:

            The numbers are guesswork: of course they are. Congo didn’t get its first census until 1924. The numbers are estimates. And 5 million is not a particularly high estimate. Various scholars have come up with numbers as low as 3 million and as high as 10.

            How did they estimate? Things like colonial records, records of actual deaths — those ran into six figures, easy — morbidity estimates based on comparable regions, and so forth. I mean, think about it. They could do easy, obvious stuff like comparing regions in the Congo with comparable regions in neighboring countries. So, if in 1924 Equateur Province of Belgian Congo had 50,000 people, while the pretty much identical Haut-Equateur province of French Congo just across the river had 200,000 people, it’s reasonable to conclude that something bad happened in Equateur Province. The fact that Equateur Province is full of people who will tell you exactly what happened and how is just gravy.

            The go-to book in English is Adam Hochschild’s _King Leopold’s Ghost_. It’s not perfect — Hochschild gets a little worked up after a while — but it’s pretty solid, and includes a good survey of the available literature as of 1999. There’s been more work done in the last 15 years, but nothing that’s dramatically transformed our understanding.

            “settling local scores” “disease” — I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt here and assume you’re not going the “oh gosh you know Africa, bad stuff happens” route. Local scores and diseases were things all over Africa. There were local scores and diseases in Kenya and in Senegal. But the British in Kenya and the French in Senegal didn’t kill several million people.

            “The sheer logistics of their crimes seem improbable” — dude. The Rwandans killed half a million people in a few weeks, using machetes. The Belgians had over a decade. What’s hard about this?

            A favorite trick was to use local Congolese, give them machetes, and say “you bring us back EITHER value X of rubber and ivory, OR an equivalent number of human heads to show that you made a serious effort. OR we kill everyone in your village. One, two, three, your choice.” After a while they realized that large numbers of heads were a PITA to carry around, so they allowed human hands instead.

            This is all tolerably well documented stuff — it happened in the 20th century, and the Belgians were slow to realize that the world might mind or care. (Which it mostly didn’t. As noted, it took over a decade of abominations before the world finally stepped in.) Hell, Mark Twain wrote a short book about the Congo genocide, back in 1905, when it was happening. It’s called “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” and you can easily find it online. Not quite as cheerful and upbeat as Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, but then Twain got less impressed with human nature over time.

            TLDR: The figure of “five million”, while an estimate, is an estimate with some basis and is as likely to be low as high.

            Doug M.

          • JK says:

            Are you aware of the problems associated with counting how may Iraqis died because of the Bush invasion? There’s more than an order of magnitude difference between the lowest and highest estimates. Perhaps the best study, using a survey of 2000 randomly selected households, reported a 95% confidence interval of 48,000–751,000 excess deaths in Iraq from March 1, 2003 to June 30, 2011. On the other hand, an earlier study, using a similar methodology, reported a 95% confidence interval of 426,369–793,663 by the end of July, 2006 alone. Some estimates put the figure much higher, more than one million. (There’s also the absurd estimate that 500,000 Iraqi children died due to sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s — suggesting that the sanctions may have been worse than the war.)

            Note that the Iraq war is something that happened recently, in a country vastly more developed than Leopold’s Congo, and the amount of information available on the Iraq war deaths is orders of magnitude greater than on Congo. The statistical estimation of deaths is extremely difficult in the case of Iraq, so it is not reasonable to suggest that the estimates on Congo, which are based on vastly inferior data and methods, can be trusted.

            In Iraq, the vast majority of deaths were not caused by American and allied military forces but by internecine violence and the collapse of infrastructure. Whatever the number of victims, it’s not correct to say that the US forces killed all of them or most of them. Analogously, it is not correct to say that the Belgians killed five million or whatever.

            A favorite trick was to use local Congolese, give them machetes, and say “you bring us back EITHER value X of rubber and ivory, OR an equivalent number of human heads to show that you made a serious effort. OR we kill everyone in your village. One, two, three, your choice.” After a while they realized that large numbers of heads were a PITA to carry around, so they allowed human hands instead.

            I’ve heard that story, but is it something that actually happened regularly and all over, or is it just an isolated case that has been wildly extrapolated?

            The Rwandans killed half a million people in a few weeks, using machetes. The Belgians had over a decade. What’s hard about this?

            Leopold’s Congo was about 100 times larger than Rwanda, with a greatly inferior transport and communications infrastructure (it is said that radio was essential for the Rwanda genocide). Rwanda has been blamed on the Belgians, too, and I think they were equally responsible for a large share of Leopold-era deaths as they are for Rwanda, i.e., not really responsible at all. The suggestion that the people in Congo were mindless puppets whom a handful of poorly armed Belgians could easily persuade to do atrocities on an unprecedent scale is, frankly, quite racist.

      • James Picone says:

        Maybe they didn’t accelerate because you don’t just shake off several decades of slavery, the total destruction of their prior state of life and an unpleasant introduction to a new one, general despotic rule, etc.?

        The thesis of colonialism is, after all, that the aftermath of colonisation is what is holding back a number of these countries. It doesn’t predict things getting better immediately and uniformly after the end of colonial rule.

        What do you think would happen if advanced aliens conquered Earth, forced us to produce objects of economic value to them but little economic value to us (perhaps particular arrangements of metal) with quotas, slavery, whips, and mutilation for people who don’t meet the quota, forced us all to move somewhere more convenient for the production of the metal objects, with total disregard for previous delineations and differences, and then after several decades were forced out by an Earth Independence Movement? Do you think we’d instantly recover? King Leopold was hardly Fnargl.

        • E. Harding says:

          So what do you think would have happened to the territory of the DRC had there been no European rule or domination of its territory of any kind, at all, whatsoever? Would the DRC in the 1950s (the last years of colonial rule) have been better or worse off?

          • James Picone says:

            It wouldn’t be a country, I suspect, at least not in the same way. Absent any major european contact, it would probably continue to be a place where a bunch of tribes hung out. There probably would have been more people living in the area, and they would have been happier (but they probably also wouldn’t live as long, and wouldn’t have significant technological benefits. Several decades of slavery and hard-headed dictatorial rule is pretty unpleasant).

            If the Congo was a British or French or whatever colony, not Leopold’s, it almost certainly would have turned out better – less slavery, less mutilation, less murder, probably more varied economic outputs.

        • Doug Muir says:

          Noted in passing: the Belgian administration of the Congo was probably responsible for AIDS. To be precise, the current scientific consensus is that AIDS got a massive boost both in numbers of infected people and in virulence by the Belgian practice of re-inoculating people with unsterilized needles.

          Yes, that’s right: the AIDS plague probably originated because Belgian colonial bureaucrats, back in the 1920s and 30s, wanted to save a few francs on needles.

          Doug M.

      • K. says:

        You’re lumping together all possible kinds of “terrible colonial masters,” which is silly. It’s entirely possible, and indeed likely, that the Japanese were terrible to Korea in ways that did not fuck up its economy and political stability in the long term, while the Belgians were terrible to the Congo in different ways that did.

        When people blame Belgium for later unrest in and around the Congo, they’re not just saying “Belgian colonialism was terrible and therefore it’s their fault;” they’re saying “The Belgians did X, which later led to negative consequence Y, in Z way.” Once you know much about Belgian policy regarding their Hutu and Tutsi subjects, and about the Rwandan genocide, it’s pretty obvious that the former led to the latter, without requiring any kind of blanket belief that European colonialism always hurts colonized countries in some sort of generalized way.

        • E. Harding says:

          You’re not contradicting the thesis that the problem was decolonization. What do you think would have come of the DRC had there been no Europe at all?

        • Irrelevant says:

          When people blame Belgium for later unrest in and around the Congo, they’re not just saying “Belgian colonialism was terrible and therefore it’s their fault;”

          That may be the case for specific named individuals, but for “people?” I’m quite certain that when “people” blame Belgium for later unrest in and around the Congo, they are in fact saying “Belgian colonialism was terrible and therefore it’s their fault.” (They happen to be reasonably correct in this case, but they use the exact same argument RE:, say, Egypt.)

  38. TomA says:

    Scott, I think that you may be viewing this issue as being predominantly a character abnormality (or flaw) as opposed to being a psychopathology. In our affluent society (in which we can carry an enormous load of deadweight), self-flagellation by academia is accommodated as marginal dysfunction. However, in a truly competitive environment in which one’s survival was closely tied to competent productivity, these types of people would not fare very well.

  39. Alex Z says:

    As a utilitarian how do you get past the problem of the meaningfulness of interpersonal utility comparison and aggregation?

  40. randy m says:

    I don’t really buy it, because I don’t think there’s a deontological framework that says you can’t off shouldn’t go above and beyond to help if you feel called or able to do so. Plus, just how much are academic s crafting anti western rhetoric in their comfortable first world vantage really doing to help, versus just making themselves appear to have more caring view points?

  41. Just Another Anon says:

    Something I’ve been wondering for a while, and this seems as good a time as any to pose it to the commentariat:

    Why do people feel such a strong drive to right these social wrongs? Like, at all. I get that the third world is not a fun place to live, but I don’t live there. I recognize that it’s a shitty thing and we should fix it, but I also don’t feel like I need to fix it right now. Especially considering that there’s very little I personally can do right now that will make a difference; problems long in the making are long in the solving.

    I’ll even take this a step further. Say you’re an American, a member of the “upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners”. You live in a major urban center, maybe NYC, maybe LA, Austin, whatever. As a member of the current aristocracy, you believe that homosexuality is a-ok and people who are opposed to gay marriage are horrible people.

    So why do you care so strongly when some random hick ass pizza shop owner halfway across the country is bigoted? I get why we would understand that this is bad, but why do we care so strongly about something so far away.

    Am I just a sociopath?

    • Jiro says:

      No, you’re just stepping into a bubble where people see so many other people caring about others equally that they think of it as the natural state of things, when most people outside the bubble would think it’s extremely weird.

      Pretty much anyone who isn’t in the LW or EA spheres cares more about people closer to themselves than they do about random people in the world.

      (The pizza shop case is different, however. That’s done mostly to signal virtue at little personal cost.)

      • Just Another Anon says:

        Are you suggesting that most of the people involved aren’t actually feeling these feelings, but simply pretending they do for signalling value?

        • Whatever happened to Anonymous says:

          Some do, some don’t. For some, it’s not about what they feel, but what is right according to as-consistent-as-posible moral rules.

        • Jaskologist says:

          The two can exist together. Signalling virtue feels great, as does burning heretics.

          • Irrelevant says:

            Signalling virtue feels great, as does burning heretics.


          • Julie K says:

            What puzzles me is the lack of proportion. I mean, if you believe that you’ve identified the one heretic in your town, you can make your town a better place by burning him.
            But a significant fraction of the country holds similar views to the owners of that pizza-shop. Why go ballistic at them in particular? Are the attackers living in such a bubble that they think that guy is uniquely evil? Or are they aware of the numbers involved, and think the best way to influence all the other heretic is to direct their wrath at a particular target, chosen almost at random?

          • Jiro says:

            Choosing the best target for signalling and choosing the best target to have the maximum effect aren’t the same thing.

          • Cauê says:

            “Uniquely evil”, “choosing”, “best target”…

            What? No. People react to the cases that are brought to their attention, as they are brought to their attention.

        • social justice warlock says:

          I’m not sure that signalling belief in a thing and believing it in good faith are neatly separable.

      • Zykrom says:

        Literally (or close enough) everyone in the world cares more about people closer to themselves than they do about random people in the world; this doesn’t mean they don’t care about others at all though.

    • Nornagest says:

      There’s nothing special about that particular hick-ass pizza shop owner halfway across the country. But the point of this kind of conspicuous outrage is to signal virtue and conformance with local norms, and it’s easier to direct that outrage at something that has a face, a fact well known to the people whose business it is to drum it up. The pizza shop owner just had the bad luck to be the the grain of sand that these particular layers of Twitter hate accreted around.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      Hammers are attracted to nails, and “People all over the country are pitching in” is impressive, and hitting the “Send” button costs no more.

    • Darryl says:

      re sociopath; basically, in the same way monkeys are sociopaths. I see myself as basically the same as any other human, I could easily be someone suffering somewhere else in the world. I empathize because of that. However, if you want to maximize your evolutionary fitness, you only care about your community and local tribe. So, there you go.

  42. Emile says:

    There’s an easy way to resolve the dissonance without abandoning either Moral Therapeutic Deontology or your concern for the less well-off. That resolution is to prove that human suffering is you and your friends’ fault. Deontology very clearly says that if you cause a problem, it’s your job to help fix it. If you can prove that the reason the Third World is suffering is because of First World white people, you have a strong claim that you as a First World white person should be deeply emotionally invested in solving it; that your friends and neighbors, as First World white people, ought to help you; and that your government, as that of a First World majority-white country, is justified in using taxpayer money to get involved.

    Counterpoint: an equally convincing argument could be made that the history of colonialism and imperialism shows that trying to improve the lot of poor third-worlders is bad bad bad and that we Westerners shouldn’t be so presumptuous as to think we can *tell* them how to live. For example, see criticism of Charter Cities.

  43. Sam Rosen says:

    “I am not as fanatical a partisan of utilitarianism as I used to be”

    Why not?

  44. antiquarian says:

    It’s no new thing to remark that people rationalize that which they wish to be true. What isn’t usually said very often is that very intelligent, erudite and theoretically rational people do this as much as people who are not. I think that the group you mention, ethnic-majority Western elites, does this by pushing definitions, ideas and theories which, if accepted, make the desired ends results the rational conclusion. The fact that there isn’t any arguing them out of this circular thinking is, as I see it, one of the things that has caused the deterioration of political discourse in America.

  45. Max says:

    While reading comments I been pondering how we want to explain every complex phenomenon by a single sentence. In this post’s case ” people are fundamentally good and they are rabid liberals because they want change world for the better”

    I do prefer this one though: “people are ultimately selfish bastards and will signal whatever bullshit is most appropriate for their narrowly perceived self-interests”. Because this is more in line with evolutionary psychology and well… I am a sucker for all things evolutionary

  46. stillnotking says:

    So I spent a good chunk of the weekend playing the PC release of Grand Theft Auto V — this is sorta related, I promise — and I caught myself wondering how the GTA series manages to be so popular despite its protagonists gleefully flaunting every possible ethical norm. (Contra the claims of industry haters, that’s unusual even within the genre of games-about-shooting-people. The main characters almost always have good utilitarian, if not deontological, excuses for violence.) One of GTAV’s three “heroes” is basically the Joker; your introduction to the character is him banging one of his henchmen’s girlfriends, then brutally curb-stomping the guy when he has the temerity to object.

    But here’s the thing: that character may be unusually evil, but pretty much everyone in the game is almost as bad, or bad in a slightly different way. Corrupt, rapey, pathologically narcissistic, you name it. It’s the ultra-cynical, Ambrose Bierce version of 21st-century America. Even the overheard conversations of pedestrians on the sidewalk are split between casual references to child abuse and caricatures of SoCal vapidity. The aforementioned Joker character horrifically murders some of his “friends” during a cutscene later in the game, and the line he roars out beforehand is “YOU PEOPLE ARE NOT VERY NICE.” He’s right! And that, I think, is why the game’s narrative works, counter-intuitively, in a genre accustomed to heroic world-saviors and noble, patriotic soldiers. It shifts the moral frame of reference so much that you hardly notice, after a while, that you’re rooting for the bank robbers. No one in their right mind would want to save Los Santos.

    Anyway, I’ve long noticed a strain of comparable cynicism in social-justice circles, an unwillingness to grant any tiny benefit of the doubt. I wonder if a similar reference shift is going on — if SJ types, self-servingly or not, seek to redefine the moral landscape. In a world where everyone is some variety of horrible racist/sexist/etc., the genuinely bad stuff that happens may not seem quite as bad.

    • JK says:

      how the GTA series manages to be so popular despite its protagonists gleefully flaunting every possible ethical norm

      Except the norm about rape, demonstrating again Scott’s point about
      rape culture.

      • stillnotking says:

        Actually, and yes, shockingly, even that norm is violated. One of the transitions between protagonists shows Trevor getting out of bed with a sobbing, huddled figure whom it’s heavily implied he has raped. (It doesn’t happen on-screen, though. Maybe that’s the bright line. Also, the victim is a man and it’s played for laughs.) Later he kidnaps a woman who ends up falling in love with him, about which another main character quips “I hear the weather in Stockholm is nice this time of year.”

        I agree that rape is, in general, treated as a more serious crime than murder in pop culture.

        • JK says:

          There is no cultural taboo against making light of men getting raped. It only applies to women. Every comedy movie with a male prison scene will contain a joke about rape. Here’s a very funny one from My Cousin Vinny.

          • I don’t think jokes about men getting raped in prison are as common as they used to be. If so, then there’s been some effective social pressure about the jokes, though that isn’t the same as protecting male (or female, for that matter) prisoners.

        • JK says:

          Later he kidnaps a woman who ends up falling in love with him, about which another main character quips “I hear the weather in Stockholm is nice this time of year.”

          Rascally villain kidnapping a woman who falls in love with him is a very old trope in romance stories. The perception of the trope as romantic depends on her willingly giving in to him.

  47. Nom says:


    Christianity is the religious of self-hatred, and western academia is an outgrowth of the Catholic Church.

    We have been taught for 1500 years that we are born sinful and that only God can save us. Now that God is dead, we are doomed to carry our sins without any possible redemption. I think that in the long run Western civilisation will commit suicide to put an end to its crippling self-hatred.

  48. Alex says:

    By the way, this is a cool paper on the reasons for underdevelopment in Africa. The researchers use satellites and light density to measure development.

  49. fwhagdsd says:

    Is it just me or is everyone on this blog a worthless nerd who doesn’t know anything about the real world besides what they’ve read?

    • Whatever happened to Anonymous says:

      It’s probably just you, but don’t let that discourage you.

    • Anonymous says:

      That depends on how you define certain key terms like “worthless”, “nerd”, and “real”, although I expect it’ll be hard to get definitions which make that contention true for “everyone on this blog”, if we’re to take that literally.

  50. Neplip says:

    In a causal world (which is to say, the world), the state of disadvantaged people or Third World countries has some causal chain of events which explains it. I understand (or at least have taken to understand) that it is your position that the chain doesn’t have too many particularly heavy links in it which can be labeled “Colonialism” or “White people of the past.” However, if not in this world, we could at least imagine a world where colonialism also happened and did contribute heavily toward the long term crippling of other nations. In such a world, would a rationalist not advocate for one to recognize this causal chain regardless of whether or not the recognizer in question happened to be white themselves? This is to say, why are we assuming that academics can’t just honestly and truly believe that colonialism etc. is the primary cause (or even a substantial cause) of crippled countries, independent of the fact that they themselves are (often) white? Why do we assume that they can’t divorce their own racial identity from the racial identity of the people they blame? Is it just because these academics are themselves predominantly white and so we assume there must be a relationship? Could we not attribute that statistic to the fact that academics in general are predominantly white, and independently academics in general predominantly think that colonialism is to blame? Ostensibly we are seeking to ask “Why are white people blaming themselves?” Could the simplest answer not just be that they don’t consider the “whiteness” of those they blame to have any bearing on themselves? Perhaps they don’t blame “themselves”. Perhaps they blame the people they think are most to blame, who happen to share a racial identity. Perhaps the predominantly white academics are simply capable of not internalizing that as a part of their own identity as a white person, and thus are not accepting an inherited blame onto their own demographic. Perhaps they aren’t capable of this non-internalization and do feel guilty about it, but do it anyway because they honestly believe it is true, and are ostensibly professionals. Maybe academics, who are disproportionately white people, are attributing blame onto the people of the past whom they think are most to blame, who also happen to have been white. This seems to me to be a simpler explanation, and in line with the personal impartiality toward history that an academic is often trained to have. While they may share the characteristic of “whiteness,” the people they are blaming lived literally hundreds of years ago. I don’t think its safe to assume that the academics in question necessarily feel like they are stuck in the same boat. In fact, it is precisely this assumption which is creating confusion, and if your assumptions are creating confusion when they cause you to anticipate something other than reality, rather than retrofit a complicated answer to reconcile them, maybe you should just question your assumption (Occam’s Razor etc. etc.).

    I am not a sociologist (I am a mathematician), but social science classes have been my go to subject to round out semesters, and at least in my experience every sociology instructor I have ever had has explicitly gone out of their way to say that the point of such historical analyses is not to seek a target of moral blame but simply to understand the socio-historical process, to the point where I feel as though this is a strong part of historical sociology culture. They have always advocated the detached view of history regarding moral judgement that historians also advocate, even going as far as to call moral-blame-based thinking outright fallacious (I recognize I personally use the word “blame” a lot in this comment, but I mean it as an easy shorthand for causal attribution, and not necessarily moral “blame”). Most of the more prolific and highly regarded social scientists I have been exposed to in my education spoke and behaved similarly in their works. Of course I can only speak for myself, but my formal education’s intersection with sociological history has advocated personal disentanglement to the extent that I would expect academics of these fields to be able to largely factor out their own race when analyzing the racial power dynamics of the past, and how those factors have affected history since then. In fact, I think the simplest explanation to the question, “why are white people willing to blame other white people?” is that they simply don’t care that they themselves happen to also be white. It is relevant to the academic that the people they are blaming were white (or European, or from a more developed society, etc.) since that was the justification those people of the past used for enacting colonialism in the first place. It is not necessarily relevant to the academic that, today, they themselves happen to hold this characteristic as well. Some people, especially the many disembodied voices on the internet, may very well not be disentangling their own racial identity with the racial identities of their historical predecessors, but I find it neither a fair nor workable assumption that academics (or even non-academics) are for-sure-definitely failing to do so on a massive scale. [You may retroactively replace “white,” “whiteness,” etc. with other attributes like “lives in a developed or ‘first world’ nation”]

    • Anonymous says:

      By and large, apart from the work of some rather unduly prominent academic voices (and more often those in “theory” than those in actual historical and sociological analysis), I agree with this. The situation in these departments isn’t terrific by any means, and there is a great deal of sophistry and meaninglessness and groupthink and so on, but the stuff you see on Gawker and Vox is the worst of sociology and critical race and gender theory, etc., not the best.

  51. Albatross says:

    I think the bullying to psychiatric disorder correlation might be just that people vulnerable to psychiatric disorders are also vulnerable to bullying. Bullies focus on the people who are most vulnerable to their efforts and have the worst responses. Everyone is bullied. But the kids with successful coping strategies aren’t targeted for future bullying. The ability to execute successful coping strategies probably also is a big factor in psychiatric disorders maybe?

    • Irrelevant says:

      Obviously the solution is to recruit bullies as psychiatrists, since they have such good intuition for people’s character.

  52. Ellen says:

    “It’s always dangerous to speculate about the hidden psychological motives of people you disagree with.”

    I’m guilty too, having just written about how “personal happiness” and “goodness” belong in the same category. Any other goal can probably be traced back one or both of these; I don’t believe other “ends-in-themselves” exist. I’m a virtue ethicist and a consequentialist. I see no conflict here; to me, this simply means that I make decisions both intuitively and analytically.

    I’m not much of a writer, and this is my first LW article, but I like the idea of converging terminal values/virtues a lot and would really love feedback:

  53. Liz says:

    You’re giving them too much credit, I feel. In my experience the reason why the well-to-do do this is so they can divide the less well-to-do against each other among race or sex lines to avoid having to do anything themselves.

    I’ve had so many times where upper class white people have tried really, really hard to get me on their side as some sort of bizarre “guilt buddy” by insisting that I get all the same privileges they do solely on account of being white. My trying to tell them that no, I really really actually don’t, and I instead really really experience a lot of the same problems as those non-white folk who are fellow members of my lower class strata, and so I really really sympathize and relate to them far more than I do to my fellow whites who are upper class, gets invariably shouted down in some manner, whether accusing me of lying or claiming my issues harm me less than a non-white with the same issues.

    The reason being that if they can convince me to join them as their “white privilege guilt buddy”, not only will I not instead be joining with my fellow impoverished folk against the rich folk like I actually want to do, but I will also be successfully convinced I personally don’t need any help for my own issues. The well-to-do person thus successfully reduces both the opposition against them AND the amount of altruistic effort they have to put in to maintain the minimum level of “niceness” for the maximum avoidance of criticism.

    And if that doesn’t work? They still win, because they get to paint the white person disagreeing with them as just being another bigot, who also thus deserves no help from them. While they of course are just and virtuous for defending the non-whites from a nasty bigot.

    Yes I know this sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it’s literally the only explanation I can think of that explains why a bunch of upper-class social justice advocates seem to actually think regularly telling impoverished and struggling white people that they’re “privileged” is going to actually convince said white folk to sympathize with social justice issues. When I’d think they’d understand that “privilege” is code in lower-class communities for, “those rich folk who get everything handed to them on a silver platter yet look down their noses at hard working folk like me who had to earn everything I got”, so it’s pretty much one of the most insulting terms you could try to apply to a poor person. Any impoverished white person still willing to help with social justice is doing so in spite of these messages, not because of them.

    Not to mention the backwardness of listening to a white person like me saying, “Yes I sympathize with non-white people and want to help them because we experience a lot of the same issues” and going “actually no you don’t understand their plight at all”. It’s like, what purpose does it serve to tell someone already convinced to help that they don’t really want to help after all? No really, I don’t understand this.

    They’re either working from ulterior motives, or complete and total idiots when it comes to PR.

    • Irrelevant says:

      Pity this comment came in so late, the degree to which pro-equality shibboleths function to enable coded classism deserves some discussion.

      I’d reject the idea that it’s deliberate in favor of it just being selected for as a component in any ideological system, though: Per “seasons change, people don’t,” you should expect the same ratio of people to be spiteful and terrible and self-righteous and un-self-examining now as were ten or a hundred years in the past and will be ten or a hundred years in the future. The machine is the same, just rotated a few degrees.

      • Harald K says:

        We may be the same basic kind of people, but ideas come and go. The use of divide and conquer as a conscious strategy isn’t just a matter of evil intent, it’s also a question of – well – strategy.

        In colonialism, it’s well documented that natives have been selectively befriended, used as pawns, played off against each other, used as pretext to claim rightful ownership to lands
        or contest lands etc. I looked into the history of Taiwan recently, holy cow.

        It really looks like similar divide and conquer games were going on in the history of US race relations. There is actually something to the idea that the racism in the US south was different from colonialism-type racism. It’s very hard to find people saying stuff like John C. Calhoun:

        With us the two great divisions of society are not rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.

        … elsewhere. Far more normal is it to find upper class people who viewed exotic upper classes as their equals. Take Lady Gordon, wife of the British governor of Fiji, about the Fijian upper classes:

        Their manners are so perfectly easy and well bred … Nurse can’t understand it at all, she looks down on them as an inferior race. I don’t like to tell her that these ladies are my equals, which she is not!

        • Liz says:

          @Irrelevant: I’ve lamented in other venues that social justice seems to currently be a club for middle-and-upper-class, academia-taught, traditionally-attractive people who perfectly fit social and gender norms.

          Certainly the problems discussed tend to revolve around either problems suffered by those people specifically (feminism pretty much runs on that in particular), or when they discuss the issues of groups outside that specific classification of people it’s with a condescending “white man’s burden” sort of tone.

          The terms used in social justice (shibboleth is actually a pretty good way to put it now that you put the thought in my head) certainly revolve around how said terms are used by that specific classification of people, rather than on how the corresponding terms are used by the general population.

          And, yes, I know the saying “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”, but I honestly hate assuming people are idiots.

          Especially since this makes the problem harder to solve. There’s nothing more impossible to argue with than a person behaving in an ignorant way who thinks they’re being virtuous in doing so. Because they can then dismiss all attempts to educate them as merely being that of bigots trying to protest what’s right and true. The thought that they might indeed have the right cause but simply an unproductive or even harmful way of pursuing it, never enters their heads (because they specifically ensure it can’t).

          @Harald K:

          Bingo. Especially with your two quotes there at the bottom which illustrate the difference.

          Because Calhoun is simply factually wrong… yet it’s an uphill battle convincing people on either side of the equation of that.

          I feel the most productive way to get social justice rolling would be to encourage solidarity by showing men how they share similar issues with women, and whites (particularly impoverished ones) how they share similar issues with non-whites. Morality is all well and good, but I find nothing works more reliably as a motivator than enlightened self-interest.

          And yet instead we have these divisive tactics which divide men and women with the same issues and so make progress on either side difficult, and also turn impoverished whites away from social justice–and conversely from liberal economic policies that would aid them–into the arms of Republicans who certainly do not actually have their best interests in mind but merely exploit them as useful pawns.

          Why so many liberals–especially upper class ones–willingly engage in these sorts of completely self-defeating PR tactics is beyond me, unless we start getting into things like my “conspiracy theory”.

        • Liz says:

          Addendum: I should note that I don’t intend to come off as anti-intellectual with my “academia-taught” criticism up there. It’s not intellectual thought I am troubled by, but the sort of Ivory Tower Bubble academia which constructs pretty little ideological castles in the air versus applying intellectual thought to actual observed reality (which I very much approve of and try to engage in myself).

  54. Lila says:

    Similarly, it’s hard to watch hundreds of thousands of civilians being killed in Syria and feel comfortable with that, even if your moral theory tells you it’s ok. So you can say, “we need to intervene for American self-interest”. Maybe this is why American politicians spend huge amounts of money to intervene in foreign conflicts, even though they’re constantly criticized for not doing much good to help Americans. Of course, it’s unclear if they help people overseas either, but it seems more plausible, given the potential magnitude of the benefits, compared to the tiny benefits of preventing a couple small-scale terrorist attacks in America.

  55. emm says:

    I like the deontology theory, but I’m not sure how predictively successful it is. If the deontology theory of white academic guilt is correct, then it seems like we would be seeing academics rationalizing something they were already doing a lot of anyway – in this case 3rd world charity – or at least see a lot of charity start up as soon as the rationalization was internalized.

    Maybe I’ve just been hanging out with the wrong academics, but I don’t see a ton of this. There’s some, sure, and there are exceptions, but in my experience way more effort goes into writing e.g. articles condemning colonialism and teaching it in their courses than into actual relief effort. Of course professors have time limitations, but it doesn’t seem like they’re clearing, for example, their whole summer (which they might not have completely off, but do have more off than most professionals do) to do aid work, even the ones that have tenure. For all I know they are donating crap-tons of money relative to what they make, but I have no evidence of this happening, and I’ve rarely heard academics preach to their students to give to charity, whereas I have heard many times that evil white men did colonialism and it was bad (my source is the small liberal arts school I attended and my experience may not be representative of professors at other kinds of schools).

    So it seems to me that the condemnation is of primary importance, any actual help to the 3rd World is of secondary importance. I’m sure everyone has a pet theory for this. One is that, as academics, they have a comparative advantage in convincing people with actual money to help, so they should focus on that and develop their own professional reputations instead of personally going to Africa to help or giving money. This could be true; however, I have a very low prior for it. I don’t personally know anyone whose motives are quiiiite that pure, though. Maybe all academics are secretly saints, but I know a few academics in training, and their thought processes appear to be as self-serving as the rest of ours. To me, this looks like the kind of explaination that comes at the end of a rationalizing game (from the other side, this is like a Republican saying they don’t need to give money to charity because they shop, thereby lifting all boats; whether these are actually effective at making life in the 3rd World better is beside the point, the point is that it’s not coming from a place of real devotion to improving lives).

    Of course we can’t rule out signaling, and I’m sure that’s part of it. But I’m not sure signaling explains the discrepancy between rhetoric about how this is all our fault and action to mitigate this harm. A cheap signal is nice, obviously, but my expectation would be that, at this point, academics trying to signal in a world where everyone else was signaling in the same way would have realized that a more costly and therefore more effective signal would have been to actually go help out in Africa and actually give money (although they might in fact be giving money, if they are they aren’t broadcasting it, so they can’t be using it as a signal to others).

    One possibility: Academics, for whatever reason (depending on your opinion of academics… it could be greater examination of the evidence, greater free time to devote to dwelling on guilt, etc), feel guilty about problems caused in the 3rd World by their civilization. Guilt is the primary reaction. They feel on a basic level that they should do something to help. But actual helping takes a lot of effort, and they have tenure to seek, conferences to go to, classes to teach.

    However, they’ve stumbled upon a genius solution… they write articles about how they themselves are to blame, and teach it to the students! Now they can incorporate it into their work, which helps their purpose of being academics. And, by blaming themselves, they – in their own minds – become blameless. As in, nobody can blame them. Sure their ancestors may have done some actual oppressing and they may be privileged white people, but they are publically taking on the blame for their ancestors’ actions, so that no one can actually blame them, personally, for theirs. So they get a clear conscience and all the benefits of feeling good for having done some good, without having to sacrifice in any way.

    Note that I’m obviously conflating private guilt and public shame, not because I’m (that) stupid but because they’re interwoven into how we process things. Some people only feel the guilt when others find out and apply shame and others feel the guilt until they tell others, at which point it evaporates into shame. Either way, after you’ve gone public with your crimes, you can ease the guilt by minimizing the shame. Raskolnikov, eaten alive by guilt, wants to reduce it by telling everyone what he’s done, but if everyone said “nbd” he probably could have lived with himself, at least if he was born in the 80s (IMO – I’m not a psychologist, nor an expert in Russian lit).

    There’s another factor in this too – by denouncing Evil White Men, the blame gets turned not on the descendants of the actual evil men in Africa, but on the Evil White Men of today, even though by the logic of colonialism guilt ought to fall equally onto the descendants of the white people who benefitted from colonialism, whether a nun or an investment banker. Since academics (largely) don’t work on Wall Street, they benefit in this third way – not only are they helping their career and apologizing colonialism away, but they also aren’t actually to blame for colonialism, the actual villain was Wal-Mart all along. Phew.

    Of course this doesn’t actually work in a long-standing way, because the guilt is always there, and it grows the more they remind themselves of it. But it keeps the guilt at bay, which is the only thing that can be done about guilt on this scale.

  56. Joseph Porter says:

    Is there a Hansonian point to be made here as well? Is talking about colonialism a cheap signal of our concern for the poor without actually helping them? (Perhaps one advantage of utilitarianism is that utilitarians are more likely to signal their loyalty to utilitarianism by actually doing things)

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