Not just a mere political issue

Here’s a quote of the new Pope’s that’s being passed around:

Let’s not be naïve, we’re not talking about a simple political battle; [homosexuality] is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.

Yes, yes, I know. The new Pope is Catholic. It is an outrage and everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves.

But this quote mainly interested me because I have long been confused about this idea of “not just mere politics”.

Abortion is a classic political issue. I happen to be pro-choice, but I have many pro-life friends. Technically, by their philosophy, I support murdering millions of babies. I don’t think these babies are people in the morally relevant sense, but these friends certainly do. This seems like it should be a problem. Is it really okay to be a friend with someone who wants to murder millions of people?

Yet my friends show no sign of wanting to not be friends with me anymore, or liking me even a little bit less. And if we were having dinner and one of them were to say “You know, Scott, you support murdering millions of babies and that seems bad”, then every social norm in the world would consider them to have made the social faux pas.

If it turns out that the CEO of McDonalds is pro-choice, only an extremely tiny set of people would think this was a valid reason to boycott McDonalds, and the rest of us – including other pro-lifers! – would mock them. If someone were to refuse to hire an employee merely because she was pro-choice, it would be an outrage. If a pro-choicer were appointed as a principal, then outside a few very special areas there would be no picketing the school and screaming that a murderer is unfit to teach our children.

I’m not just picking on pro-lifers here. Pacifists could blame the people who supported the war on Iraq for about a hundred thousand deaths. If I really wanted to, I could blame the anti-nuclear lobby for the ten thousand or so people who die from coal pollution each year. This seems like ample reason to hate anyone.

So this world “politics” has a weird sort of magic. Merely by saying “political issue!”, we can make it socially unacceptable to hold people’s decisions to kill millions of babies against them. Not just in a legal way of “the government can’t censor these people”, but in a very personal way of “you can’t even dislike them”.

So when Pope Francis says that homosexuality is “not a simple political battle”, one interpretation of his statement is that this sort of “oh well, it’s a reasonable issue where decent people can disagree” ethos doesn’t apply there.

We non-Popes have our “not just political” issues as well. Compare killing millions of babies to killing millions of Jews.

If I came out in support of killing millions of Jews, probably some of my friends would find this sufficient reason to stop being friends with me. No one would consider this a faux pas or mock my friends as extremist. Heck, they might even get angry at my friends if they continued to hang out with me after that.

If the CEO of McDonalds came out in favor of the Holocaust, people would boycott McDonalds immediately, and everyone would support the boycotters. If an employee were discovered to be anti-Semitic, firing them would be considered an extremely proportional response. And if a Neo-Nazi became school principal, you better believe that school would be picketed.

Some non-Popes even agree with Francis on homosexuality. Back when California passed Proposition 8, I had to listen to friends discussing how to “get revenge” on Prop 8 proponents through shaming or harassment campaigns. When I pointed out that this is not really how you’re supposed to do politics, they told me homosexuality wasn’t about politics, it was about stigmatizing entire groups of people and denying their very right to exist.

So both Popes and non-Popes have what seem like lines in the sand, where our mysterious tolerance for political issues breaks down. As far as I can tell, things like the war in Iraq, abortion, global warming, and affirmative action are on the tolerable side; anti-Semitism, eugenics, and sometimes gay marriage are on the intolerable side.

This doesn’t seem to correspond to the importance of the issue – getting global warming right is clearly more important than getting gay marriage right, since, contra the protestations of televangelists, only one of those two is likely to lead to an apocalypse of fire that dooms us all. It doesn’t seem to the controversialness of the issue either – it was still perfectly acceptable to oppose the War in Afghanistan even in the early days when 80+% of the population was in favor, and gay marriage seems to be creeping towards the “no tolerance” side of the line even though the population is split almost perfectly 50-50. The line seems to have something to do with identity politics, but I can think of exceptions (for example, legalizing certain deviant sex acts).

More interesting than trying to justify the line’s current position is wondering where the line ought to be. This is harder than it sounds. Like, if I were trying to draw a line totally a priori, I would tolerate every political opinion except being against euthanasia for people who are terminally ill and suffering, which would be so far beyond the pale that you would immediately be kicked out of society. If you forced me to add other forbidden topics, I would probably start with being opposed to military intervention to end genocides abroad. Since no one else seems to agree with me on either of these, my guess is everyone would put the line in a different place and it would be super-confusing.

Maybe we could not have a line at all and just tolerate all political opinions? This sounds sort of attractive to me. As a teenager, I met a genuine neo-Nazi online. He seemed to be a pretty nice guy, and though he was aware I was Jewish, he kindly clarified that he thought killing all the Jews was a bad idea and it was really only necessary to get rid of the leaders of the Zionist-Israeli conspiracy. Anyway, we talked on and off for a few years, and if I’d known him in real life I probably would have been happy to invite him over for dinner.

This makes me think that my intuition of “hate neo-Nazis” is mostly based upon the assumption that neo-Nazis are the sort of people I would hate anyway: that this political opinion is correlated with non-political traits like being violent, being ignorant, being rude, and so on. If there were no intolerance line, I could continue to dislike the violent ignorant neo-Nazis for their violent ignorance, I could continue to object to Nazism in the same detached bloodless way I currently object to Communism or libertarianism, and if there were otherwise-decent neo-Nazis I could hang out with them and invite them to dinner. It seems like a reasonable plan, although I don’t know how many otherwise-decent neo-Nazis there are.

But here’s the problem with throwing out the tolerance line.

I consider myself pro-choice, not just in the sense of “I’m not willing to use the government to ban abortions”, but in the sense of believing that in some cases abortion is morally permissible and even a good idea. I also consider myself honest, non-hypocritical, and willing to stand up for what I believe in. I can’t think of any situation in which it would actually be a good idea for me to perform an abortion, because I have no training in that area and would probably screw it up. But assuming some weird confluence of conditions in which it was practically necessary for me to perform an abortion, it would be extremely hypocritical of me to refuse for moral reasons: I would perform the abortion. Absent some weird and uninteresting quirk like being hopelessly grossed out by surgeries, I think any non-hypocritical pro-choice person would have to say the same.

But that means that, at least for non-hypocrites, there’s very little distinction between supporting something and doing something, save the situation. If I’m willing to invite someone pro-choice over for dinner, I should also be willing to invite an abortion doctor over for dinner, or else I am simply rewarding the former for sheer moral luck.

(Yes, there are some caveats. For example, you might think a person is too decent to perform an abortion but doesn’t know it yet; that once the actual condition came up and they had the woman in front of them and maybe saw an ultrasound of the baby, they would chicken out. In that case, knowing that someone was an abortion doctor would give extra information beyond them being pro-choice. This is one way I tolerate people who are against euthanasia. Or you might be trying to socially boycott abortion doctors in order to make abortions impossible by discouraging people from taking up abortion docting as a career. Or you might be worried about losing face with your pro-life friends. All of these are boring and tangential to the issue at hand.)

(And it’s possible that until you read the paragraph above, I had plausible deniability for just being someone who hates abortion but thinks it’s wrong for the government to meddle in it, which is a plausible deniability that the abortion doctor does not have. But there are other cases where that doesn’t apply: for example, with the people who oppose euthanasia for the terminally ill and suffering.)

Likewise, anyone willing to invite a neo-Nazi who supports committing genocide to dinner should also be willing to invite an actual concentration camp guard over. This isn’t quite total moral relativism – you can still think being a concentration camp guard is wrong – but it seems pretty close. Once you decide not to hold someone being a concentration camp guard against them, even a tiny little bit, can you get upset with anyone at all?

Actually yes. One thing that aborting babies and running concentration camps have in common is that they’re (at least in their respective societies) legal. Although there is not necessarily a huge moral difference between pushing for state-sanctioned genocide and engaging in genocide yourself once it has been state-sanctioned, there does seem to be some manner of moral difference between pushing for genocide and going off and killing some Jews now even though it is illegal. So one possible stable solution is “Tolerate people’s political opinions, tolerate their legal political actions, but feel no obligation to tolerate illegal political actions if you disagree with them.”

(This should be kept separate from the related but obviously horrible statement “Anything that is legal is morally correct”. This sort of “tolerance” in the sense of “do not cause social chaos by actively personally hating the people involved” is different from the sort of tolerance where you actually tolerate having concentration camps in your society.)

Still, it seems pretty dreadful. Not being antisocial towards anyone for their political opinions, or even their evil politically-motivated actions? But it sort of makes sense in the context of ostracism being viewed as a consequentialist tool for pressuring people into changing their beliefs and actions. After all, violence is also a tool for pressuring people to change their beliefs and actions, and we only deploy that tool when people are breaking laws as well. Any other use of it risks getting into wars of all against all such that using laws as a guide instead is an obviously superior solution.

And it gives the right answers to some hard questions. Like, I think most of us now believe that harassing the soldiers coming home from Vietnam was a mistake, even though they’re in the same category as the abortion doctors – people who actually committed potential atrocities for political reasons. I even think most people are now willing to forgive most of the ordinary Germans who were in the Nazi Party and helped in the Final Solution as no doubt little different from the populations of other countries that existed at the time, or from Germans in the generation before or after.

But this is one area where my intuitions diverge from my thought processes. I’m still not too sure which to trust.

76 thoughts on “Not just a mere political issue

  1. Eric Hamell

    I would lean very heavily against penalizing anyone simply for expressing their opinion. As Mill argued in *On Liberty*, this risks simply driving the opinion underground where it can’t be debated, and such debate contributes greatly to everyone’s understanding of an issue, even if their opinion isn’t changed in the process.

    Even when it comes to penalizing material action, ostracism is apt to be counterproductive. Robert Lifton identified one of the regular features of ideological totalism as milieu control — limiting which information and viewpoints someone is exposed to in order to regulate their thought. Whether or not a cult is involved, ostracizing people for their opinions, or for actions reflecting those opinions, effects exactly such milieu control and makes it less likely the person will change their mind.

    I may feel revulsion at the thought of socializing with some people in view of their actions or opinions, but I’m inclined to view this as a personal weakness than some kind of moral statement. I recall the story I heard on *Humankind* about the rabbi who initiated conversations with a KKK member and over an extended period of time brought him around.

    I think the consequentialist claim for ostracizing certain people is more about rationalizing discomfort with them than it is an evidence-based conviction.

  2. B

    This is semi-peripheral, re: The Holocaust as the canonical example for evil, if you actually read up on its history, especially the oral histories of NS officials who got away, it quickly becomes clear that its authors mostly stumbled into it. Then, they were not proud of it, they were not ashamed of it, they seemed more to wonder what had just happened.

    Between social signalling (being “tough on Jews”), feeding back on your own propaganda, bureaucratic target fixation and inertia, a few genuine fanatics, and the embattled hardening of the heart on the losing side of a total war, genocide just happened.

    To some that may seem exculpatory, but really to me it’s ultimate horror: “Genocide happens”.

    1. B

      And re: genocide “just happening”, what is so wonderful about this blog is that the author, given the chance to do it and get off scot-free, really doesn’t ever seem like he would murder his opponents wholesale. This may seem like damning with faint praise, but I really don’t think it is, given what we know.

      I think many people, and not just in other people’s camps, can’t honestly claim the same. I know my own exasperated tempers, and I have to say there is something beautifully otherworldly about somebody who is just interested in the truth for its own sake.

      So, kudos for a great publication!

  3. AphroditeGoneAwry

    Yeah, I agree with you. This posts satisfies my authenticity itch. Mmmmm, over a little, up….yeah, that feels so good.

    A person who eats meat should be willing to kill or watch said piggy die, or else not eat pork. A person who is pro-choice should be willing to perform one zirself. Anyone who wants to mutilate their son, needs to watch and support him during. Anyone who wants to keep grandma alive after she can’t think, eat, or wipe herself anymore needs to take care of her zirself, not stick her in a home (shirking the work and responsiblity). Anyone who would be called pro-choice should be willing to weild the curette or give those pills.

    It’s easiest just to let each be zir own, then these issues wouldn’t need to be debated at all. When did political start infringing so much on the personal? We started out in this country with much freedom.

    1. MugaSofer

      “A person who eats meat should be willing to kill or watch said piggy die, or else not eat pork. A person who is pro-choice should be willing to perform one zirself. Anyone who wants to mutilate their son, needs to watch and support him during. Anyone who wants to keep grandma alive after she can’t think, eat, or wipe herself anymore needs to take care of her zirself, not stick her in a home (shirking the work and responsiblity). Anyone who would be called pro-choice should be willing to weild the curette or give those pills.”

      Nice idea, but empathy and morality need not correlate. A serial killer has no problem cutting you up personally, but putting a beloved pet down yourself would be bloody hard, even if you intellectually understand it’s for the best.

      Besides, what about the people who want to hold positions on issues without undergoing extensive training 😉

  4. BenSix

    It doesn’t seem to the controversialness of the issue either – it was still perfectly acceptable to oppose the War in Afghanistan even in the early days when 80+% of the population was in favor, and gay marriage seems to be creeping towards the “no tolerance” side of the line even though the population is split almost perfectly 50-50.

    But it has a lot to do with its controversialness among the unrepresentative political and media culture. Expressing one’s opposition to gay marriage in a bar in Dallas would provoke a few grunts while expressing it over cocktails in D.C. might make one the most unpopular person at a party.

    It occurs to me that placid responses to significant disagreements do not merely occur when they are “political”. A great many of my friends and relatives think my beliefs – or lack thereof – will doom me to eternal suffering yet they make little effort to dissuade me from wandering into the abyss.

    “I have reactionary friends” is in danger of becoming “I have gay friends”…

    And then you find out that the friends weren’t reactionary at all; they had just read a few pages of Joseph de Maistre back in college during their “experimental” phase.

  5. Rachel Haywire

    Great article and very well timed. Let’s start a new trend. We will ostracize people for their lack of intellectual merit instead of their political beliefs. I have been ostracized for being “too open minded” and I do understand the moral coding behind this. Yet this all seems incredibly backwards. Why not ostracize people for their lack of courage in regards to going against the flock?

    I would have dinner with anyone who didn’t want to kill me specifically, unless they were boring and had nothing more groundbreaking to provide than the latest toy on Wise Geek.

    “I have reactionary friends” is in danger of becoming “I have gay friends” but I guess that is better than bombing reactionary institutions.

  6. suntzuanime

    The purpose of being intolerant of opposing views is to destroy them. People are hypocrites, by and large, and if wishing death on Jews gets you disinvited to dinner parties, you may well stop wishing death on Jews. Holocaust II is just a hypothetical, anyway, and those dinner parties are terribly real. You glossed over social boycotts of abortion doctors, but it was actually the key insight.

    As for why some issues don’t get social boycotts, my guess is that people don’t generally want to start a culture war unless they think they can win. So mostly the stances that cause a social boycott should be highly unpopular ones, such that they can be easily defeated with little fear of retaliation. I dunno that this explains why Iraq War peaceniks didn’t get their social heads kicked in though.

    One interesting thing is that you can start a culture war if you like by first going to war against the moderate wing of your own faction, the people who agree with you but don’t want to start a fight over it. You become intolerant of tolerance and make not wanting to join the boycott a boycott-worthy offense within your subculture. I think this is how hotly-contested issues like gay rights and fetus rights turn into open war; the radical wings of the left and right societies respectively goaded the rest of them into it.

    As for why the radicals would want to do this, I have no good theory. Perhaps they are willing to pay a higher cost for victory than the moderates.

  7. Sarah

    The situation in which I think it’s practical to ostracize or refuse to associate with people is in matters of loyalty.

    Loyalty is something that works best when it’s signalled. If people know I am a loyal friend (or ally or partner) to those I’ve made a commitment to, and if they know that I refuse association with those who harm or malign my friends and partners, then they’ll know they want me as a friend and don’t want to harm my friends.

    I won’t associate with people who talk shit about my friends behind their backs. In practice, I’ll deal with racists but I won’t be their friend, mainly because racism is a subset of “slandering people I care about.”

    Loyalty is the sort of practice that works better when you do it all the time; each incremental loyal action both makes you better at being loyal, and makes your reputation as a generally loyal person more secure. So I do things to be loyal even when they’re sort of irrational on a naive utilitarian point of view.

    On the other hand, it’s less likely to be feasible to practice loyalty consistently if your circle of affiliation is too wide. The whole point is being able to keep it up all the time. I can’t be “loyal” to every person or every ideal, to the point that I reliably cut off contact with people on the grounds of that loyalty. I’ve got to keep my commitments manageable.

    Also, this framework means that it makes the most sense to retaliate with ostracism against those whose crimes/faults are easy to hide, not immediately dangerous, and obviously wrong to most observers once made public. Good examples: malicious gossip and slander, fraud, reneging on commitments. Bad examples: violence (you don’t ostracize a thug, you defend yourself against him or enlist the help of the police), opinions on controversial issues (if you say “This man is pro-choice and that’s why I’m not inviting him to my party!” a good chunk of the world will say “Meh, I guess I’ll invite him to *my* party then!”)

  8. im

    I note two things here. One is that in modern society everybody is expected to be in one big group- people don’t spend their time in inifinite little subcultures.

    Another is just how low agency is.

  9. Daniel

    I think the more an icky belief feels “personally chosen” rather than “environmentally inherited”, the more icky it makes the person.

    If Bob grew up in war-torn Afghanistan, and thinks a man has to be ready for violence at a moment’s notice, that’s disturbing, but much less disturbing than if Bob grew up in suburban Massachusetts and yet came to that same conclusion.

    So that is like the “Overton Window”, only it’s about “what beliefs can reasonably be attributed to general background?” as opposed to “what policies can reasonably demand serious debate?”.

  10. Tommy

    I think, at least personally, my tolerance line is drawn around whether a belief, however opposed to my own moral philosophy it is, can be justified by a reasonable-sounding first principle. On abortion, for instance, I find both the consequentialist ‘If you can end the pregnancy without causing pain and in so doing prevent pain’ thought process and the the deontological ‘killing people is wrong, and we have no acceptably clear demarcation line for personhood other than conception’ process to both be intuitively acceptable conceptions of morality. Most people accept ‘not killing’ and bodily autonomy to be both good things in isolation. Likewise, people tend to dislike the concepts of both war and genocide (or dictatorship). Or liberty and equality. Where there’s any kind of trade-off, people tend to be tolerant of disagreement of how to weigh things.

    Or to put it another way, I can accept you being willing to cause harm, if I can believe that the benefit you ascribe to doing so could be believed by a reasonable person to exist. I think the reason people consider, say, opposition to gay marriage to be socially unacceptable is that it causes obvious harms to gay people, and there’s no clear harm at all on the other side. Your difficulty with anti-euthanasia people seems to fit this paradigm: you see them as causing suffering AND denying autonomy, and all this for absolutely no gain. Likewise, a distinction could be made between people who, say, support the continued existence of violent pornography on free speech grounds (acceptable if you buy that ‘Free speech is sacrosanct’ is a reasonable principle to hold) and those who actively enjoy it on misogynist grounds (because ‘women deserve to suffer on account of their gender’ is clearly not such a principle).

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      I don’t know. It’s easy to come up with consequentialist arguments for all sorts of terrible things – like “Let’s kill all the poor people, and then we’ll have much less crime and save on welfare spending and so on.” But that still seems beyond the pale for me.

      1. Tommy

        The thing there is, I wouldn’t necessarily say ‘We’ll have less crime,’ (or less money spent on welfare) is a defensible first principle. For consequentialist arguments to meet this paradigm, the thing they’re trying to maximise needs to seem at an instinctive level to be a reasonable conception of the good.

        I think the broader point of your objection is likely valid though – it probably works if you swap out mass murder and replace it with eugenics which probably CAN be justified in terms of maximising happiness, but would still for most people be classed as beyond the pale.

    2. im

      That actually sounds fairly good. I do note that there seem to be some enclaves where this is different. For example, on Free Thought Blogs, just try telling PZ Myers that bodily autonomy does not justify anything whatsoever. (although he already hates counterfactuals!)

  11. Deiseach

    Scott, if you don’t want to answer this, fine. But what constitutes a person in a moral sense for you? When is such a status achieved? Is it separate and separable from being human, an attained rather than an intrinsic state?

    1. g

      I’m curious: Are you asking this because it’s somehow relevant to the issue Scott was attempting to discuss — that of how one should classify moral disagreements into “tolerable” and “intolerable” — or are you hoping to shift the discussion from that issue to that of (say) when, if ever, abortion is morally acceptable?

      (I think the latter might be more important but has been discussed eleventy bazillion times already, and discussions of it tend to be ineffective in producing enlightenment on either side; whereas the former is less already-played out, and Scott has some interesting things to say about it, and I would prefer to see the discussion in comments keep that focus. But it’s Scott’s blog and of course he can let you derail it if he wishes :-). My apologies if in fact your question is relevant to the former topic somehow, which my use of the word “derail” here presumes it isn’t.)

    2. Scott Alexander Post author

      I think “person in a moral sense” is the wrong way to think about this issue. See my post as “Yvain” here for more details – if that doesn’t make sense to you I’ll explain it further.

  12. Creutzer

    “Since no one else seems to agree with me on either of [euthanasia or genocide-preventing foreign intervention], my guess is everyone would put the line in a different place and it would be super-confusing.”

    For what it’s worth, here is someone who does agree with you on these. I’m actually somewhat surprised to hear that they’re minority positions in your experience. I also wonder how much of people’s voiced opinions on euthanasia isn’t just signaling; it looks like one of the topics where this is plausible, because holding it sincerely requires a lot of cruelty which, crucially, would be directed at one’s own parents and generally to one’s own disadvantage.

  13. Joshua Fox

    The utilitarian answer is: What actions help towards your goals.

    Ostracizing pro-life/pro-choice doesn’t help because both have enough societal power.

    Ostracizing Neo-Nazis in the US, or anti-gay-marriage people in some circles is effective because they have little social power, and so the cold shoulder can effectively ban them from society.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      That seems to require some very complicated game theory. Like if a group of pro-life people agreed to boycott pro-choice people, would an equal-sized group of pro-choice people start boycotting pro-life people to retaliate? Or would it just successfully put pressure on the pro-choice people?

  14. Joshua Fox

    If I came out in support of killing millions of Jews, probably some of my friends would find this sufficient reason to stop being friends with me.

    The list of “unacceptable” views of course varies across cultures.

    Support for killing millions of Jews is quite widespread in some parts of the world. Support for organizations who support this policy is quite widespread in Ireland and the US, as well as other parts of the world. Moreover, in the former parts of the world, open-mindedness towards Israel or Jews is often unacceptable by wide-spread consensus. (e.g., this)

    I have met people who hold such views, e.g., an Iranian student at Harvard and an anti-Semitic truck driver in Louisiana. Even if I found myself in close proximity, e.g., working together, I would not give such people the cold shoulder. It just would not do any good. Although would not find myself drawn to befriend the most hard-core, some of my friends have had secondary support for these policies, and in general the approach is to just not talk about it.

    1. Deiseach

      Ah, somebody played the “If you criticise the state of Israel on political grounds for its policies, you are a neo-Nazi anti-Semite who supports murdering the Jews!” card.

      Some of those large number of Irish supporters of organisations that want to kill millions of Jews include secondary school pupils if you believe this woman.

      I don’t. Know why? This line: “Headed “Another tack: that unwitting indecency”, Honig’s column, published last Friday, focuses on the fundraising event in Cahersiveen, with Kerry teenagers telling her Jews had killed Jesus.”

      But what’s so odd about that, you may ask? Surely Ireland is a Catholic country, and every Easter every priest preaches a sermon about how the Jews killed Jesus, and we know the schools in Ireland are run by the Church and they have religious education classes in them so naturally the first thing those 12-17 year olds would think and say when they met a real Jewish Israeli woman is that “Jews killed Jesus”?

      Yeah – back in 1950 in Limerick, maybe. In 2013 in Kerry? When was the last time you were in an Irish school? I ask you, do schools in America go around teaching their pupils “The Negroes are inferior”? How realistic would you find a story where someone claimed a whole school full of average American teenagers told her “Blacks should be slaves”? Unless we are speaking about the Imperial Wizard Private School for KKK Children of the Pure Race, I deem it very unlikely.

      But you tell me, since you all probably know the state of American schools better than I do. I know the state of Irish schools, so I call shenanigans on this little tidbit.

      1. g

        Ah, somebody played the “If you criticise the state of Israel on political grounds for its policies, you are a neo-Nazi anti-Semite who supports murdering the Jews!” card.

        Huh? Who? Where? (In particular, I don’t see any trace of it in what Joshua Fox wrote.)

  15. Federico

    My new rule-of-thumb is to ostracise people for having the “wrong” (non-hedonic) terminal value or meta-ethics, and otherwise tolerate their ideas.

    I would ask the Neo-Nazi what he hopes to achieve. If the answer is racial purity, I would tell him that human pleasure and suffering are more important to me, so I must discount his opinion. I would otherwise ask him to explain the factual beliefs that link humane ends to persecution or genocide.

    I think macroscopic “evil” behaviour is mostly due to (lack of) meta-ethics, including self-deception and mind-death, rather than other factual errors. Cure meta-ethics—make us all Buddhists, I would say—and mankind’s problems would be much smaller. Ostracism for factual beliefs is less wise; to take the outside view, surely no person or ruling class has a monopoly on truth in sensitive matters. (I’m happy to assume I’m right about meta-ethics…)

    1. komponisto

      My new rule-of-thumb is to ostracise people for having the “wrong” (non-hedonic) terminal value or meta-ethics

      Well, since ostracization is at stake, we’d better make sure we’re clear on what this means. I find that people around these parts often misuse the term “meta-ethics” to mean “ethics” (i.e. “ethical theory”). Utilitarianism, for example, is an ethical theory, not a meta-ethical one. Meta-ethical theories are things like moral realism, cognitivism, and “error theory”.

      In particular, consequentialism and deontology should be referred to as classes of ethical theories (the former including things like utilitarianism, the latter things like Kantianism), and not as meta-ethical theories.

      The way to think of it is as a hierarchy of three subjects in which one can have arguments:

      1. At the very bottom is the subject in which we argue over the question: “Given our decision-procedure, what decision shall we make?” (Possible answers include things like “Kill him!” and “Don’t kill him!”) We might call this the level of policy.

      2. At the next level up, we argue over the question: “Which decision-procedure shall we adopt?”. (Possible answers include things like “Do whatever maximizes happiness” and “Do whatever the tribal chieftain says”.) This is the subject of ethics.

      3. Finally, at one level higher, is the question: “How shall we decide which decision-procedure to adopt?” (Possible answers include “Look at what is written in the structure of brains” and “There’s no canonical way to do so, really” and — this is where it might get confusing — “Use any procedure that will result in my preferred Level-2 theory being chosen”.) This is the subject of meta-ethics.

      (Forgive the digression, but I’ve been wanting to make this point for a long time.)

    2. Federico

      I consider deontology vs. consequentialism to be a meta-ethical question. I use “deontology” as a synonym for “moral realism”: the notion of agent-independent shouldness. The Neo-Nazi might, for example, claim I should care about racial purity: it is a categorical imperative.

      The moral realist argues that I have no choice of decision-procedure. The Universe chooses for me and every other decision agent.

      You may use “deontology” to denote a special type of decision-procedure, which maximises a “logical object”—e.g. maximise fairness, goodness or awesomeness. I agree, assuming this choice of terms, that deontology vs. utilitarianism and other decision-procedures is a matter of regular ethics.

      I use “deontology” as a synonym for moral realism because I don’t believe the other definition conflicts with consequentialism, and deontology is supposed to be an alternative to consequentialism. One could build a suitable “goodness” meter; in fact, it must already exist somewhere in the deontologist’s brain. The case-2 deontologist prefers outcomes which physically cause the meter to output “good”, just as a utilitarian prefers outcomes which cause the number of expected hedons in the Universe to increase.

      I do have no time for moral realists, so you may agree it was appropiate to mention meta-ethics. This is the most dangerous type of meta-ethical failure, since one can argue anything; it is a license to rationalise emotion.

      The relevance of mind-death and self-deception is that consequentialists surreptitiously revert to moral realism, and utilitarians kid themselves about the counter-intuitive results of their decision-procedure. “I really care about reducing x-risk, but X, Y, Z are bad, aren’t they. Um…”

      The relevance of Buddhism is non-existence of “self”. I don’t consider “I have more than one terminal goal” ever to be a true statement. I would not, however, condemn anyone for an error this obscure.

      1. endoself

        I don’t think that either of these are what people usually mean by ‘deontology’. Deontology is the ethical position that people should act according to certain rules or duties, which tend to be things like “don’t lie” rather than “act so as to cause X”, which would reduce to consequentialism as you describe. People often base these principles on things like what you call ‘moral realism’, but there are deontologist who don’t, and deontology is usually taken to refer to that ethical position rather than the meta-ethical grounding.

        Maybe you already realize this and think that in practice almost all deontologists are moral realists, and that people are mistaken about both for the same reasons?

        Also, your usage of ‘moral realism’ isn’t entirely standard either, but that’s okay since there isn’t really a standard usage. It’s fine here since you defined it, but you might want to be careful about your wording sometimes, since you use that concept a lot.

      2. Federico

        “I should not lie” is a useful policy, for a number of ethical decision-procedures.

        “I should not lie” as an ethical decision-procedure implies that in a given decision-problem, X prefers any world in which X utters a true claim at this point in space and time.

        I can believe that “maximise awesomeness” is someone’s real desire, because that is to introduce a whole universe to one’s awesome-meter. “Awesomeness” tends to have a large overlap with hedonic utilitarianism. The consequences of “I should not lie”, “I should not murder” &c. are arbitrarily inhumane, in terms of hedons, because they are so parochial.

        The deontologist could use a judicious combination of rules to simulate humane ethics, but then I would argue that he is only a deontologist on the policy level. Indeed, how can more than one “rule” co-exist on the level of ethics?

        Utilitarianism could be construed as a rule: I should take decisions that increase the Universe’s hedonic content.

        The distinction between deontology, understood as consequentialist rule-following, and consequentialism in general seems insubstantial.

        So yes, I think all soi-disant deontologists are either moral realists, or confused about the implications of certain ethical decision-procedures qua consequentialism—or psychopaths. They don’t seem like psychopaths, so…

        I question, in fact, whether the accepted language of ethics and meta-ethics—including these words—is useful and cleaves reality at its joints. The important concepts are, in my opinion, “should” and “I”, more so than “deontology”, “consequentialism” &c. I am perhaps more pedantic about the former than the latter words.

        I know from The Evolution of Morality by Richard Joyce that, for example, almost everyone misuses “naturalistic fallacy” to mean either “what is natural is good” or “ought can be derived from is”, when G.E. Moore’s actual claim was that “good”—or “pleasure” or “yellowness”—cannot be defined. Hm.

      3. MugaSofer

        If you’re using terms in a nonstandard way, you should probably make that clear before, y’know, describing hings with them. Otherwise people are predictably going to misunderstand you.

    3. Scott Alexander Post author

      This is a good point, but I have noticed that nonconsequentialists, when they notice they’re talking to a consequentialist, tend to instantly shift their objection to consequentialist terminology.

      For example, opponents of euthanasia talk about how maybe a person who doesn’t want to die but can’t communicate the fact well could be killed by accident, and pro-lifers talk about how some people become psychologically traumatized by abortions.

      I have no doubt that the Neo-Nazis will claim that getting rid of all the impure races will lead to a better, more peaceful world. I just don’t think that will be where their argument is really coming from.

      1. endoself

        How philosophical are these people? In my experience people defend their beliefs in terms of rights when you bring up rights and it terms of consequences when you bring up consequences, and they don’t realize how different those things are.

  16. Qiaochu Yuan

    Most political beliefs are beliefs-as-attire, and I don’t see the point of ostracizing people based on their attire. When most people talk, the semantic content of what they’re saying is usually the least important part.

    1. komponisto

      When most people talk, the semantic content of what they’re saying is usually the least important part.

      Bingo. This is the Fundamental Theorem of Normal Human Discourse.

      A major clue that this is the case is the frequency with which people state obvious facts without any apparent intention of deducing something non-obvious from them.

      1. Michael V

        Could we make it a principle to harass people for doing that?

        Well, how about just ostracizing them from a certain very high grade of polite society (which could then feel free to prey upon outsiders with a clean conscience, said outsiders being obviously outside of the realm of moral consideration).

      2. Sarah

        Ooh, I hate that.

        Always wondered if it was churlish of me to be bothered when people do that — after all, they haven’t said anything *wrong* — but when you’re just saying the same universally agreed-upon things over and over so you’ll have something to agree about, it annoys the bajesus out of me.

    2. Scott Alexander Post author

      Okay, but a few million people attending pro-life rallies and picketing abortion clinics and voting against abortion still results in abortion being illegal or hard to obtain. Why exactly does it matter if we can describe this as “because of signaling”?

  17. ozymandias42

    One of the problems with harassing and socially stigmatizing people is that it basically eliminates any chance of convincing them to your side by rational argument, since you can’t exactly convince someone if you’re refusing to spend any time with them, and anyway people are much less likely to listen to you if you are intermittently shouting “babykiller!” or “misogynist!” at them.

    Also stigmatizing ideas is Generally Bad because people tend to stigmatize unpopular ideas, whether true or not, and stigmatizing ideas makes people less likely to express them, and you can’t figure out whether an idea is true unless people express it.

    So I think there can be a consistent case for “we will not be antisocial against you for your beliefs but we will be antisocial against you for your actions.”

    1. Vladimir

      One of the problems with harassing and socially stigmatizing people is that it basically eliminates any chance of convincing them to your side by rational argument…

      Why would that be a problem for those who are aiming to do the convincing? The side that has the power to wield serious harassment and stigmatization will indeed make most of its opponents change their mind. (It will also make most of the remaining refractory ones prudently keep quiet.) This, after all, is how all ideological shifts in human history have occurred, save for those decided by even more coercive and ruthless means.

      Battles of public opinion are never won by superior rational arguments. For any argument it’s always possible to construct a plausible counter-argument, and while a painstaking and meticulous analysis could in principle show which one (if either) of these is correct on which points, it’s absurd to to expect that any public forums that really matter could ever be suitable venues for such analysis. (Let alone that the broad public audiences would ever be able to follow it.)

      1. Doug S.

        Why would that be a problem for those who are aiming to do the convincing? The side that has the power to wield serious harassment and stigmatization will indeed make most of its opponents change their mind.

        The problem is that, usually, there’s more than one “side” that can “wield serious harassment and stigmatization” at any given time. You don’t need 51% of the population to be behind you in order to go around throwing bricks through windows, having large groups of intimidating men hang around voting booths, ambushing people in dark alleys, etc. You just need *enough*. So if one side starts, the other side can retaliate in kind, and people generally prefer to avoid having to live in a place where people are engaging in society-wide gang wars.

        1. Vladimir

          Well, yes, that’s why a situation where multiple sides have the power to wield serious harassment and stigmatization (let alone violence) is inherently unstable. It can’t be stabilized except by the eventual decisive victory of one side, or at best a peaceful separation where each side agrees to leave others alone and let good fences make good neighbors.

          Social conflict can never be solved by getting all sides together for a rational discussion of who’s right; it’s an altogether utopian idea. This problem is often discussed in terms of “voice vs. exit” — but in reality, except for certain kinds of small informal groups, the only practical alternatives to exit are submission or war.

    2. MugaSofer

      “One of the problems with harassing and socially stigmatizing people is that it basically eliminates any chance of convincing them to your side by rational argument, since you can’t exactly convince someone if you’re refusing to spend any time with them, and anyway people are much less likely to listen to you if you are intermittently shouting “babykiller!” or “misogynist!” at them.”

      And, of course, people who’s careers are based around something are going to be harder to persuade. Excellent theory!

  18. orthonormal

    J.S. Mill spends a surprising amount of ink in On Liberty making a similar point, opposing not only legal sanctions against unpopular opinions but coordinated social ostracism.

    My own take on this issue is based on my thinking about black markets. When you outlaw an activity that a lot of people would still do if illegal (prostitution, drugs, etc), you do two things: you make the activity more difficult (and therefore, usually, rarer), but you also drive it underground, so that people engaged in it no longer have the protection of the law against fraud and violence. (Thus the opportunities for organized crime within black markets.)

    I think that in some cases, this tradeoff is worth it: contra Ankh-Morpork, it would probably be a bad idea to allow an Assassin’s Guild to open for business. But in many more cases, even if the thing itself is bad for people (not even the case for many of the vices that are made into black markets), driving it underground just leads to more misery and destruction overall.

    Similarly, if you ostracize certain opinions, you do inhibit their propagation by quite a bit, but you also drive them underground and prevent their holders from being able to discuss them openly, and this often makes false opinions hang around in the shadows even longer than they might have done otherwise. I’m open to the idea that this tradeoff can be worthwhile sometimes, but I’m not convinced in any particular case.

  19. Douglas Knight

    Not that I draw any consequence from it, but I disagree with a lot of your examples of which issues are or are not merely political.

  20. Phil

    ” getting global warming right is clearly more important than getting gay marriage right, since, contra the protestations of televangelists, only one of those two is likely to lead to an apocalypse of fire that dooms us all.”

    Well, according to you. According to the televangelists, global warming is a total non-issue, but homosexuality is a serious threat.

    1. gwern

      And given what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah, Scott is merely revealing his true colors when he assumes his conclusion and says only warming will condemn us to hellfire (or at least deadly heatwaves every summer).

      Just as expected of an atheistic Jew & servant of the Enemy!

  21. Gilbert

    I have several disparate points here:

    – I don’t think that is the particular “not talking about a simple political battle” the pope had in mind . That quote is from a letter to nuns asking them to pray on this issue. In that context it’s clearly not about shunning people but about pointing out a spiritual dimension relevant to asking the nuns to pray. More specifically, yes, he was pointing out that the people supporting gay marriage are the devil’s useful idiots. But he wasn’t ,uhm, demonizing them.

    – On to your present understanding of “mere political issues”, I think it’s very similar to the more standard category of the Overton Window.

    – Being less tolerant of moral misjudgments outside of the Overton window actually makes sense, because they are individually more culpable. Your being pro-choice is probably in large part the fault of society in general including that belief on the menu you pick yours from. Likewise for someone who was pro human property rights in 1830. On the other hand, someone endorsing slavery today would have to overcome their entire socialization to arrive at that conclusion and it would be entirely their own fault. I think I probably could be friends with the 1830 version, perhaps even if they actually did own slaves, but not with the present version.

    – On the other hand, I think I could not be friends with a professional slave-trader or abortionist. I think the difference here is that profession is very close to identity. Deciding that selling or killing humans really is the most rewarding job available is a lot more personal and thus carries a much higher personal responsibility. This rationale doesn’t apply to conscripts though, so most Vietnam veterans are still on the good side.

    – This also gives an insight into how slippery slopes work. Basically it’s a moving Overton window with a blatantly illogical border. For example, late-term abortion is clearly in the Overton window while infanticide is still mostly out, even though it makes absolutely no sense to endorse one but not the other. Same with same-sex-“marriage” vs. poly-“amor”y, or in more progessive circles poly-“amor”y vs. incest and bestiality. Basically the claim of the slippery slope warner is always that “the end of the Overton Window” is not a stable Schelling point and unless you have a very good intrinsic difference you can’t expect to move inside the window without moving the window itself.

    -It also explains the difference people make between concentration camp guards and the average German. The average German could have know what was going on, which makes the “how could we have known” self-pity that ruled after the war a little rich. But on the other hand, the average German didn’t actually know, because there conveniently were some lies and an ugh-field. That kind of delusion is really easy, it’s like most Germans trying to sell me on the Dutch euthanasia policy honestly don’t believe the Dutch are also systematically murdering cognitively disabled people and the occasional euthanasia-objector, despite the them (who are further down the slippery slope) openly acknowledging it. So basically people involved with the actual murders operated outside of the official Overton window and that’s why average Germans who had been pegs of the same engine could feel totally different from them afterwards.

    – Finally, this is also the starting point of a theory of bigotry. A bigot is just a person with an unusually narrow personal Overton window. That leads to dissociation from people who disagree, which in turn leads to a narrowing of the perceived social Overton Window and then of its individual version. Your Prop. 8 revenging friends are simply left-wing bigots. You don’t see the right-wing version so much, because right wing bigots don’t associate with left wing people. Basically it’s like what LW folk call evaporative cooling, but for individuals rather than groups.

    1. g

      Surely for Schelling-point reasons it’s obviously untrue that “it makes absolutely no sense to endorse” late-term abortion but not infanticide. Especially as most endorsement of late-term abortions (just like most late-term abortions themselves) is concerned with cases where the mother’s life or health are seriously threatened, which essentially never applies in cases of infanticide.

      Where, please, do the Dutch “openly acknowledge” that they are “systematically murdering cognitively disabled people and the occasional euthanasia-objector”?

      (Perhaps I’m wasting my time asking these questions; your “pointing out … useful idiots” comment suggests that you’re deliberately trolling — which isn’t to say that you don’t genuinely believe what you write, but it seems like someone genuinely interested in either constructive dialogue or effective persuasion wouldn’t have written that for this audience.)

        1. g

          Doesn’t look to me like the Dutch openly acknowledging that they are “systematically murdering cognitively disabled people and the occasional euthanasia-objector, or anything like it”.

          Also, at least one of the figures there (curiously enough, one of the more shocking ones) seems to be incorrect. The document claims that in 72% of cases where a patient’s life was ended without a clear, explicit request from the patient, they had given no indication of wanting it done; but other sources — I am not in a position to check the Remmelink report itself — indicate that that’s not right.

        2. g

          Oops, the quotes in my earlier comment were misplaced. Should of course have been:

          Doesn’t look to me like the Dutch openly acknowledging that they are “systematically murdering cognitively disabled people and the occasional euthanasia-objector”, or anything like it.

      1. Gilbert

        As I said, “the end of the Overton Window” is not a stable Schelling point and unless you have a very good intrinsic difference you can’t expect to move inside the window without moving the window itself. I think in that context it is fairly obvious that the “makes absolutely no sense” part is meant to apply to the non-existent intrinsic difference.

        On the Dutch killing cognitively disabled people, see here. Of course they don’t call their admitted actions murder, but the point is that many of the people who want to copy their model would, because they do think of “unbearable suffering” as an actual restriction. The text Joe linked you to actually does contain a pretty much unarguable example of murdering the occasional euthanasia-objector:

        Some euthanasia advocates defend the need for doctors to make decisions to end the lives of competent patients without discussion with them. One euthanasia advocate gave me as an example a case where a doctor had terminated the life of a nun a few days before she would have died because she was in excruciating pain, but her religious convictions did not permit her to ask for death.

        Notice that was an example by a supporter.

        On the useful idiot thing, that basically is the point of what he said. I suppose I could have phrased it more euphemistically, but then someone could have accused me of weaseling instead.

        1. g

          Overton window: Sorry, I don’t understand. I agree that “the end of the Overton window” is not as such a stable Schelling point. But sometimes the end of the Overton window happens (often not coincidentally) to lie at a stable Schelling point, and it seems to me that the boundary between late abortion and infanticide is a fine example of a stable Schelling point. What am I missing?

          Dutch euthanasia: Given that every year there are thousands of instances of euthanasia in the Netherlands, and that there are thousands of “cognitively disabled” people there, I really don’t see how the fact (I’m assuming the figures are correct) that there were ~50 people in both groups in 2010 indicates that the Dutch are “systematically murdering cognitively disabled people”. (If I were in the early stages of dementia, I’d be seriously considering death too.)

          I think it’s entirely possible that the Dutch euthanasia regulations have led to some very bad things. But your pointing me at that article makes me think it less likely that the harm outweighs the good, because it’s so unconvincing and I’m sure you’d have preferred to link to something more convincing if you had it.

          The case of the nun does indeed sound very wrong. I can’t help noting, though, that the actual evidence here is really weak: Hendin relates (giving no evidence) the story of an unnamed “euthanasia advocate” who in turn relates (giving no evidence, so far as we’re told) the story of an unnamed doctor who killed a nun a few days before she’d have died naturally. None of that means it isn’t true in every particular, but I wouldn’t bet on it with much confidence.

          I notice that I’m falling into the trap I warned against elsewhere in the discussion: allowing it to be derailed from the (more interesting) question of how to divide “tolerable” from “intolerable”, onto one or another particular object-level issue. So I’m going to leave it here.

    2. Scott Alexander Post author

      I had always understood the Overton Window to be a somewhat broader term. For example, Basic Income Guarantees are outside the Overton Window in that no politician is seriously discussing them and they’re not even mentioned in most discussions of how to handle social welfare, but they’re not intolerable in the sense this post is talking about. The same is true of the idea of annexing Canada – it’s certainly outside the Overton Window, but I don’t think I’d lose any friends or customers by proposing it.

      I’m not sure I agree with your point on the abortion doctor. Taking a job like “abortion doctor” requires both a practical choice and a moral choice. The practical choice is wanting it in the first place, whether because you’re interested in medicine or it pays a lot of money or you’re really devoted to feminism or whatever. Then the moral choice is checking to see whether it violates your ethical system. I’m saying that anyone who’s pro-choice and at least a little philosophical has already made the second choice, and that the only thing preventing them from being an abortion doctor is that the career doesn’t interest them. It’s not a question of “deciding that killing humans is the most rewarding career available”, it’s a question of “do you believe this is killing humans? If not, do you think it would make a rewarding career?” I suppose you could say an abortion doctor has had to think about it a lot more than a non-abortion doctor and therefore their failure to realize that it’s evil is more culpable, but if that’s true you should be just as upset at unusually-philosophically-thinking people who remain pro-choice as you are at abortion doctors.

      I used to get upset whenever anyone said that same-sex marriage would inevitably lead to bestiality, but reading The Life Cycle of Software Objects made me less sure bestiality is almost wrong, so I suppose I’ll just have to say that my schelling fence is now at “consent” and leave it at that.

      By your definition, would 1830s abolitionists “be bigots”? I understand this is a silly question about definitions, but it does seem like that would be important when trying to define the word.

      1. im

        I remember reading something in Emmerson’s Self Reliance about how he didn’t like ‘angry bigots’ who were abolitionists because they were potentially hypocritical and cared more about having something to be angry about than about morality (Which he seems to be somewhat virtue-ethics-y)

      2. Gilbert

        Hmm, I always understood the Overton window the way I did above, but I don’t have any data on what might be the most popular or correct usage.

        On the abortionist, I don’t think those two decisions are really totally separate in real people and I don’t think the decision of philosophical people really is the same. The thing is that job decisions are identity decisions in a way that abstract thoughts aren’t. Some aspects of the difference: First, I can think of some jobs (mainly in finance) that I think are very probably morally OK, but I’m not so sure I would bet my identity on it. I’m weird that way, but I think many people have similar feelings about, say, soldering. So making something your job takes much higher certainty than just believing in it. Second, I didn’t actually start from a list of all conceivable jobs and then cross off the problematic ones, it’s more that some jobs simply didn’t come to my attention. So basically making something one’s job also requires a sub-conscious certainty beyond the conscious one. Third, a job is a permanent focus of its holders attention, so holding it for long is a constant reassertion of it, while cached thoughts and ugh fields can play a much larger role in people occasionally considering them as philosophical problems. Fourth, real people suck at changing their minds if their livelihood depends on not changing it, so the job decisions make some moral decisions near irreformable. Even if the income situation changes, people aren’t that good on self-criticism on past major live decisions. Fifth, a person’s conscience is partly non-cognitive and can be eroded by consistently acting against it. So someone doing something bad as a job should be expected to have suffered more character damage than someone just approving or even doing it rarely.

        On bestiality, I think vegans can make a good point on consent grounds. But if we actually can kill and eat animals without consent the reason not to use them sexually can’t be in their autonomy. And even now farm animals are mostly bread by artificial inseminations, which involves acts that would totally gross us off if we suspected the veterinary did them for pleasure.

        On 1830 abolitionists, some of them probably were bigots, while others surely weren’t. I think being bigoted is a very different question from being right, so both sides of major conflicts typically have bigots. I can easily imagine Emmerson being right on the quote im mentioned.

        1. g

          I think vegans can make a good point on consent grounds. […] And even now farm animals are mostly bread

          That’s convenient for the vegans :-).

  22. Jack

    “not just mere politics”

    I feel I sort of understand what this means, but I can’t easily put it into words. I think maybe it’s that facts can be divided into something like:

    – tautologies and logical assumptions (eg. A is bad and B = A, therefore B is bad)
    – moral statements (eg. killing babies is bad)
    – facts about the world (eg. shooting people kills them)
    – complicated non-obvious generalisations about the world (eg. taxation being more/less distributive causes fewer babies to die on average)

    And people’s disagreement is often some combination of these: eg. A and B disagree both about the relative importance of babies and puppies, and also about which policies are most likely to benefit them.

    So it’s possible that “just politics” is best parsed as meaning “I think the thing we disagree about is sufficiently complicated that it’s possibly still an open question who’s right”, even though “politics” is also used to mean any disagreement between large segments of the population.

  23. Thomas Eliot

    For my entire life I have been confused as to why it is that we as a society are much more tolerant of actually being an asshole than of calling someone an asshole. It seems to contradict consequentialism: being an asshole harms people more than being called an asshole. It contradicts virtue ethics: we value free speech and oppose assholery. It contradicts deontology: don’t be an asshole, also, speak up for what you believe in.

    I really can’t come up with an explanation, other than “people don’t actually care about the moral issues they profess to, and instead just claim they hold those opinions for signaling purposes, and social comfort is more important to them than the issues, by orders of magnitude” but that’s deeply frustrating for obvious reasons.

    1. ShardPhoenix

      It’s basically your second paragraph, except that I would say that people are generally *right* to avoid excessive conflict over political issues that they have next-to-no influence over anyway.

      1. Chris Hallquist


        I may soon be doing a public debate with a guy who I quickly discovered was a total douchenozzle. But I’m going to resist the urge to call him a douchenozzle to his face, because he’d have plausible deniability for his douchenozzle behavior and then the focus would be on the fact that I called him a douchenozzle.

        1. g

          You may possibly not want that in public and attached to your name where your debate partner and his supporters can see it.

          (If Chris decides he doesn’t and Scott decides to remove it, I have no problem with my comment being removed at the same time.)

    2. Athrelon

      The signalling explanation especially makes sense if the crucial variable is the strength or status of the person being an asshole or making a critique. It’s tougher for assholes to continue being assholes in the face of potential sanction, unless they actually are cool enough to get away with it. Complainers are much less selected for status. So the average asshole is cooler than the average complainer. In the rare cases where it doesn’t hold, the asshole is eviscerated with ridicule, even if he didn’t actually do more assholish things or harm more people than the cool asshole.

      1. Athrelon

        And then in edge cases you get the fun little dance around “hey guys, so are we gonna coordinate to do a beatdown or are we doing the sycophant thing this time?”

      1. Thomas Eliot

        Sure. The canonical one that has upset me in the past is being against gay marriage (and actively campaigning, donating money to a politician, doing something beyond just holding the opinion). This is being an asshole:making a deliberate effort to make other people’s lives worse. But if one is at a dinner party and learns that another guest does this, and then says in as many words “you’re an asshole”, then it is typically the speaker rather than the actor who will be shunned, as though calling someone an asshole were more important than endeavoring to deny someone’s rights.

        1. Rachel Haywire

          Donating money to something you believe in is worse than insulting someone? Where is the deliberate attempt to make someone’s life worse?

          I’m no pro-lifer, but surely you see the problem with this? The pro-lifer thinks they are doing the moral thing. The person calling them an asshole at the dinner table is attempting to win friends through political tribalism.

        2. Ben L

          That has a lot of social context. Asshole is an unsophisticated insult – there are good reasons to strongly discourage language like that because it allows us to have a legal progression on gay marriage from not allowed to allowed without having say, a civil war on it, and similarly for any other issue. I know that my circle of friends would certainly not ostracize me at all if I said “you are making a deliberate effort to make other people’s lives worse,” whereas some of them would disapprove if I just said “you are an asshole.”

    3. Mary

      As if calling someone that were distinct from being that. Indeed, I knew a woman whose favorite ad hominem attack was to accuse the other person of ad hominem attacks and to troll by posting in response to someone, “Troll, troll, troll.”

      We can also more easily discern whether someone has indulged in name calling than whether the target deserves it.

  24. amoeba

    Very interesting, thank you. I tried to estimate where my personal tolerance line is, and it seems that its location has to do with how certain I am about various issues. I find most of the so called political issues too difficult to have a definite opinion. For example, I do not know if I am pro-life or pro-choice (I definitely think that abortions are bad, but that is obviously not the whole story here). I have even less of a definite opinion about any modern war. Therefore I would be fine with my friends holding any kind of opinion there, even if I tend to hold a different one. But there are things I am quite certain about: e.g., the Holocaust issue. And if somebody is supporting exterminating all the Jews, then I do not want to be friends with this person, thank you.

    I do not see how one can be very certain about some moral issue and at the same time tolerate opposite judgements as “mere political”.

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