Is It Possible To Have Coherent Principles Around Free Speech Norms?

I.

One factor that must underlie people’s distrust of non-governmental free speech norms is that they’re so underspecified. The First Amendment is a comparatively simple, bright-line concept – the police can’t arrest you for saying the President sucks. Sure, we need a zillion Supreme Court cases to iron out the details, but it makes sense in principle. By contrast, social norms about free speech risk collapsing into the incoherent Doctrine Of The Preferred First Speaker, where it’s okay for me to say that the President sucks, but not okay for you to say that I suck for saying that. This is dumb, and I don’t know if free speech supporters have articulated a meaningful alternative. I want to sketch out some possibilities for what that sort of alternative would look like.

The philosophical question here is separating out the acts of having an opinion, signaling a propensity, and committing a speech act.

Having an opinion is the sort of thing free speech norms ought to exist to protect. The opinion ought to enter the marketplace of ideas, compete with other opinions on its merit, and either win or lose based on people’s considered rational judgment.

But this can’t be separated from signaling a propensity for action. Suppose Alice has the opinion “hand hygiene doesn’t matter”. The truly virtuous action is to show her (and concerned third parties) studies that prove that dangerous infections are transmissible by unwashed hands. But while you’re doing that, it’s fair to not want to eat at her restaurant. And it’s pro-social to tell other people not to eat at her restaurant either, and not to hire her as a nurse – and if she’s already a nurse, maybe to get her fired. Even though reasonable free speech norms demand that we fight bad ideas through counterargument rather than social punishment, in this case they should permit a campaign to get Alice fired.

One solution here might be to give people the burden of demonstrating that their controversial opinions won’t lead to dangerous actions. For example, if Alice is a nurse, she might say “I don’t believe hand hygiene matters, and I’m going to try to convince the hospital administration to remove their rule mandating handwashing – but until I succeed, I’ll follow the rules and wash my hands just like everyone else.” If I trusted Alice, this would allay my concerns, and I would go back to wanting to debate with her instead of wanting her fired. See also Be Nice, At Least Until You Can Coordinate Meanness.

Some signaling of propensities can’t be so easily fixed. If Carol thinks that “Hitler should have finished the job”, I feel like this tells me a lot about Carol besides just her moral ranking of various World-War-II-related alternate histories. If she was a schoolteacher, then even if she promised not to kill any Jews in class, or even to spread any anti-Semitic propaganda in class, it would be hard for me not to wonder what else was wrong with her, and whether she could really disguise every single repugnant aspect of her personality. On the other hand, if we try to get the school board to fire her, we’re implicitly endorsing the principle “Get someone fired if you know of a belief of theirs that suggests they’re an otherwise repugnant person” – and isn’t this the same principle that led people to campaign against atheist schoolteachers, pro-gay schoolteachers, communist schoolteachers, etc? See also Not Just A Mere Political Issue. I think I bite the bullet on this one and say that if the schoolteacher credibly promises not to be repugnant in any way in front of the kids, you let her keep teaching until she slips up.

And both having opinions and signaling propensities are hard to separate from commiting speech acts. The archetypal example is telling an assassin “I’ll give you $10,000 if you kill Bob” – a form of speech, but tantamount to murder. Repeated harassment – the kind where you scream insults at someone every time they leave the house – falls in the same category: the active ingredient isn’t the information being conveyed by what insults you choose, it’s that they face being screamed at and made to live in fear. And yeah, the archetypical example of this is starting a campaign to email someone’s embarassing secrets to their boss to get them fired.

We can’t just ban speech acts. Everything is a speech act. Me saying “Donald Trump is wrong on immigration” lowers Donald Trump’s status – that’s a speech act. Me saying “You’re wrong about free speech” might trigger you and make you feel awful until you write a 10,000 word essay responding to me – that’s a speech act too. Telling an offensive joke is definitely a speech act, but do we want to ban all jokes that anyone anywhere might be offended by? Let’s face it; a lot of speech is criticism, sometimes really harsh criticism, and the line between “criticism”, “insult”, and “harassment” is vague and debatable (see eg all of Twitter). Everyone has a different set of speech acts they consider beyond the pale, with no real way of sorting it out. So what speech acts do we permit as unavoidable parts of the process of social interaction, which ones do we punish, and how do we punish them?

II.

A sample problem: a while ago, I read an article which took a sensitive social problem, approached it with inexcusably terrible statistics that mis-estimated its incidence by seven orders of magnitude, and then used it to mock the people who suffered from it and tell them they were stupid. I complained about this, and the author was really confrontational to me and said things like that I “needed to see a psychiatrist”. I ended up writing a couple of really angry blog posts, which not only corrected the statistics but also prominently named the author, accused him of being a bad person, and recommended that nobody ever trust him or take him seriously again.

One view: although the author was wrong, we’re all wrong sometimes. I’ve been wrong before, probably in ways that other people considered inexcusable, and I would rather be politely corrected than excoriated in public, dragged through the mud, and accused of being a defective human being. By my article, I contributed to a world where we don’t just debate each other’s points, but launch personal attacks against people in the hopes that they are so ashamed and miserable that they never participate in the discussion again. I have committed crimes against Reason, and I should humbly apologize and try to do better next time.

A second view: the author was either deliberately deceitful or criminally stupid; either way he really was inexcusably bad. If I just quietly correct his statistical error, only a fraction of his readership will see my correction, and meanwhile he’ll go on to do it a second time, a third time, and so on forever. Although there are many good people who should be approached as equals in the marketplace of ideas, there are also defectors against that marketplace who deserve to be ruthlessly crushed, and I was doing a public service by crushing one of them.

And a third view: by being needlessly cruel in his article, the author had already forfeited the protection of “the marketplace of ideas”. Just as if someone tries to shoot you, you can shoot back without worrying so much about the moral principle of nonviolence, so it’s always proper to fight fire with fire. Although I wouldn’t be justified in smacking down someone who had merely failed egregiously, someone who fails egregiously while breaking good discussion norms is another matter.

The second and third views get kind of scary when universalized. The second amounts to “if you decide someone’s a really bad person, feel free to crush them.” No doubt some evangelicals honestly think that gay rights crusaders are bad people; does this justify personal attacks against them?

The third seems to demand a more specific trigger (violation of a norm), but since nobody agrees where the norms are, it’s more likely to just lead to cascades where everyone ends up at different levels of the punishing/meta-punishing/meta-meta-punishing ladder and everyone thinks everyone else started it.

(an example: Alice writes a blog post excoriating Bob’s opinion on tax reforming, calling him a “total idiot” who “should be laughed out of the room”. Bob feels so offended that he tries to turn everyone against Alice, pointing out every bad thing she’s ever done to anyone who will listen. Carol considers this a “sexist harassment campaign” and sends a dossier of all of Bob’s messages to his boss, trying to get him fired. Dan decides this proves Carol is anti-free speech, and tells the listeners of his radio show to “give Carol a piece of their mind”, leading to her getting hundreds of harassing and threatening email messages. Eric snitches on Dan to the police. How many of these people are in the wrong?)

But I can’t fully bite the bullet and accept the first view either; some people are so odious that an alarm needs to be spread. I’m not proud of my behavior in the specific situation mentioned, but I won’t completely give up the right to do something similar if the information arises. I’m going to try as hard as I can to err on the side of not doing that (I stick by my decision not to name the Reason columnist involved in the sandwich incident, although I guess everyone already knows) but sometimes the line will need to be crossed.

III.

I think the most important consideration is that it be crossed in a way that doesn’t create a giant negative-sum war-of-all-against-all. That is, Democrats try to get Republicans fired for the crime of supporting Republicanism, Republicans try to get Democrats fired for the crime of supporting Democratism, and the end result is a lot of people getting fired but the overall Republican/Democrat balance staying unchanged.

That suggests a heuristic very much like Be Nice, At Least Until You Can Coordinate Meanness again: don’t try to destroy people in order to enforce social norms that only exist in your head. If people violate a real social norm, that the majority of the community agrees upon, and that they should have known – that’s one thing. If you idiosyncratically believe something is wrong, or you’re part of a subculure that believes something is wrong even though there are opposite subcultures that don’t agree – then trying to enforce your idiosyncratic rules by punishing anyone who breaks them is a bad idea.

And one corollary of this is that it shouldn’t be arbitrary. Ten million people tell sexist jokes every day. If you pick one of them, apply maximum punishment to him, and let the other 9.99 million off scot-free, he’s going to think it’s unfair – and he’ll be right. This is directly linked to the fact that there isn’t actually that much of a social norm against telling sexist jokes. My guess is that almost everyone who posts child pornography on Twitter gets in trouble for it, and that’s because there really is a strong anti-child pornography norm.

(this is also how I feel about the war on drugs. One in a thousand marijuana users gets arrested, partly because there isn’t enough political will to punish all marijuana users, partly because nobody really thinks marijuana use is that wrong. But this ends out unfair to the arrested marijuana user, not just because he’s in jail for the same thing a thousand other people did without consequence, but because he probably wouldn’t have done it he’d really expected to be punished, and society was giving him every reason to think he wouldn’t be.)

This set of norms is self-correcting: if someone does something you don’t like, but there’s not a social norm against it, then your next step should be to create a social norm against it. If you can convince 51% of the community that it’s wrong, then the community can unite against it and you can punish it next time. If you can’t convince 51% of the community that it’s wrong, then you should try harder, not play vigilante and try to enforce your unpopular rules yourself.

If you absolutely can’t tolerate something, but you also can’t manage to convince your community that it’s wrong and should be punished, you should work on finding methods that isolate you from the problem, including building a better community somewhere else. I think some of this collapses into a kind of Archipelago solution. Whatever the global norms may be, there ought to be communities catering to people who want more restrictions than normal, and other communities catering to people who want fewer. These communities should have really explicit rules, so that everybody knows what they’re getting into. People should be free to self-select into and out of those communities, and those self-selections should be honored. Safe spaces, 4chan, and this blog are three very different kinds of intentional communities with unusual but locally-well-defined free speech norms, they’re all good for the people who use them, and as long as they keep to themselves I don’t think outsiders have any right to criticize their existence.

IV.

I don’t know if this position is coherent. My guess is there’s a lot of places it doesn’t match my intuition, and a lot of other places where it’s so fuzzy it could justify or condemn anything at all.

But I think trying to hammer out something like this is important. Free speech norms aren’t about free speech. They quickly bleed over into these really fundamental questions, like – what is a culture? What is it we’re trying to do when we get together and have a society? Are we allowed to want different things from a culture? If so, how do we balance everyone else’s demands? Do we just live in some kind of postmodern globalized atomized culture, or are cultures these things inexorably linked to specific value systems that we’ve got to keep moored to those systems at all costs? How much are we allowed to use shaming to punish people who don’t conform to our culture? How angry are we allowed to be when other people use shaming to punish people we like who don’t conform to theirs?

Trying to get a model of these things that doesn’t immediately contradict itself on everything is potentially a good first step to trying to get a model of these things that’s right and/or liveable.

463 thoughts on “Is It Possible To Have Coherent Principles Around Free Speech Norms?

  1. dwietzsche

    I think this is one of the best examples of the distinction between liberal and libertarian notions of liberty. Like, the libertarian idea is that people should be able to say whatever they want, and in principle there should be no norms whatsoever, since norms are inherently regulations and regulations are bad. But this creates a world where people willing to say anything have outsized power to intimidate people not willing to say anything out of engaging in speech. So, you might decide, “hey, I want speech norms that maximize the amount of freedom people feel to engage in speech.” These norms might entail such things as banning death threats and other kinds of intimidation tactics.

    The problem is that no matter what, there is no non-exclusive set of speech norms, including the norm (which is regulatory) that there should be no norms. So there ends up being a question about how to properly maximize free speech in practice, which ends up just being a fight between different groups of people over who has the right to speak in the first place.

  2. sevens2

    For a case study: https://www.thefire.org/university-of-central-florida-wisely-drops-punishment-of-student-for-viral-tweet-about-ex-girlfriend/

    “In a reversal highlighting the need for colleges to refrain from haphazardly disciplining students for private speech, the University of Central Florida walked back its suspension of a student who tweeted a picture of his ex-girlfriend’s apology letter. UCF student Nick Lutz had copy edited the letter in red pen and graded it a “D-.”” – By Lyndsey Wajert August 3, 2017

  3. David Manheim

    I would suggest a simple heuristic; talk to a diverse group of people and ask whether something really violates a norm. Don’t act unless you get, say, 2/3rd agreement. (Yes, you should know and talk to people outside your filter bubble. And no, this isn’t too much of a burdern to justify attacking someone publically.)

  4. Alex M

    Scott does an excellent job of analyzing the pros and cons of different “Free Speech norms,” but he fails to spot one extremely obvious alternative – that maybe “Free Speech norms” shouldn’t exist in the first place.

    The problem as I see it is that the United States constitution is set up to protect and enshrine the idea of free speech. However, these protections no longer work as intended because the Founding Fathers imagined the primary danger to free speech being the government – whereas in the modern day, corporations have far more power to limit free speech. If you say something on your FB page that somebody thinks is inappropriate, it’s not the government that will police you – it’s other people who will report you to the corporation where you work and kick up a fuss until you get fired.

    The rational solution to this is to take away a corporation’s power to police free speech by making everything you say and do outside of work a legally “protected class.” Just as your employer would get prosecuted for firing you for your race or gender, they should be prosecuted if they fire you for something that you said outside of the workplace. For example, if an alt-right supporter makes a bigoted comment on your FB page, they would be protected by this law. If they make a bigoted comment at the office, they could be fired freely. Similarly (to show that this law benefits left-wing SJWs as well as their opponents in the alt-right), Alison Rapp’s dismissal from Nintendo for prostitution would be illegal, since it took place outside of the workplace.

    Some might say that companies would be hindered by having employees who said controversial and damaging things because they would be subject to boycotts. But boycotts only take place because the company has the power (and thus the liability) to fire people whom internet lynch mobs dislike. Take away that power and you take away the liability as well – there is no purpose in boycotting a company over a controversial employee, since it would be illegal for the company to give in to the boycott. They could simply shrug and say “We deplore this employees comments also, but what do you want us to do about it? Our hands are tied due to this law.” Very quickly, having employees be able to say whatever they like (as long as they behave professionally at the office) would simply become the new normal, and social norms would no longer exist outside of the workplace. I think that this would be a wonderful world to live in – a world where every philosophy, no matter how unconventional, would have a fair chance to compete in the marketplace of ideas. This is what Free Speech should look like.

    1. Sam Reuben

      There’s a pretty big weakness to this solution, which takes a few factors to come to glorious, awful fruition. Number one is that people can boycott just because they don’t like the company. It’s a pretty easy jump to make from “this company has one employee who has horrendous beliefs” to “this company is staffed by horrendous people,” and once people do, they’ll just avoid the company regardless. However, the company can no longer fire people for their beliefs, and so they can’t try to regain public image by that avenue. This is the second part of the problem, and leads neatly into the third: once reputation is well and truly tarnished, it’s incredibly hard to recover. What this means for the company is that they can’t afford having a single person who gets outed as having unpopular opinions, or else risk losing a ton of customers. So here, they invoke part four, which is that it’s pretty easy for companies in America to fire people for whatever damn reason they please so long as they aren’t mouthy about it, and start in on part five: actively and aggressively policing their employees’ out-of-work presence so that they can know about these problems before they catch the public eye and nip them right in the bud. If nobody’s even started to make an outcry about the employees, then it’s going to be hell to prove that they were fired for their opinions. Thus, the solution proposed will highly incentivize companies being massively more draconian than before, because otherwise they could risk getting stuck with an extremely well-known and unpopular employee who they can’t get rid of in any way.

      This is the problem with blunt-force attempts to solve tricky social problems: there are a lot of incentives involved in creating the problems, and if you try to ban the problem without handling the incentives, you just set yourself up for people doing those same bad things in more creative (and sometimes more dangerous) ways. That’s what went wrong with Prohibition, for example. Banning things can certainly work with some problems, but they tend to be a whole lot more cut-and-dry than the nightmare tangle of speech rights.

  5. carvenvisage

    How do you respond to an unexpected or even unprecedented trangression? -Something everyone would agree was wrong if they had time to think about it, but are put on the back foot by the aggression of the transgression and possibly some ‘moral drama’ (thanks drBeat) the wrongdoer is pushing at the same time?

    On the most basic level we have the classroom bullying example. Someone loudly declares that someone ‘is annoying’ (or whatever), and attacks them. People get swept up in the momentary delusion they can exert their full forcefullness at any oppurtunity, and most go along with it, damning themselves by their human nature to believe their behaviour was good, thereby distorting the norms of the local community.

    In this kind of situation I don’t want someone around who thinks in terms of majority norms rather than inherent morals of the situation. Before we even start to hash out moral norms in cases of both-good but conflicting alternative norms, we have to have a system to deal with random excesses of human nature and the tendency to justify them after the fact.

    If the norm for dealing with these situations is ‘deal with it’, people will, however it is necessarry, including by moving away from thinking before acting (‘analysis paralysis’ is the last thing you want in avoiding being a target), and in becoming more violently/aggressively inclined in general. If we don’t have norms that are effective against this kind of thing, everyone is a potential victim to anyone else, and their (molochian) perogative is to make themselves a poor target, the easiest way by more concern with jostling for position and ‘respect’ (of one’s actively developed violent tendencies), which in aggregate not only doesn’t prevent the problem but makes it worse.

    So without the bedrock norms of ‘don’t go along with what’s wrong, whatever the majority thinks,’, it’s very difficult to get a social environment in which people can rationally hash our norms, because without that norm no one except those who have no trouble defending themselves, and those who cannot defend themselves anyway have an incentive to move themselves towards rationality. (on topics like objectivity in fraught situations which do not profit the holder in any obvious way)

    I don’t find it plausible we get the current state of public discourse without some (lack of) norms that make people escalatebots. No one wants to be a that guy always aggressively asserting his rights at the expense of others(‘), but if you have to be you might as well own it, right?

    TL:DR view 3 is dangerous but it is the bedrock on which more rational discussion can be built. Without a strong response to human nature’s excesses they will spiral into a bad equilibrium where everyone is incentivised to prioritise being a bad target long before and probably at the expense of being rational.

    1. carvenvisage

      Which isn’t to say that hashing things out can’t be of great value, when it can be done. The strong response can simply be establishing a clear standard that it isn’t good/Cool etc to do those things, and part of that is certainly picking apart ‘moral dramas’ used to justify them or wrongfoot the response long enough to get away with it. In fact sometimes that’s the only thing that can work.

      There are a lot of ways to counteract a balance where it’s safeish to harass people so long as they’re weak or peaceful or your mob is large. One is certainly to undermine the false stories people use to shield themselves from condemnation. Another is to bring hell down upon them when they piss off the wrong person seeing as the ‘right people’ won’t by definition be able to retaliate.

      _
      _

      Seperate point: was it just a stupid joke, or was it an aggressively banal joke thereby sending a message? -a speech act. The response may be disproportionate in either case but I don’t see how you can avoid the basic question of who actually started it and how much people escalated at each step. (-Ever). Certainly it’s dangerous to go there, but isn’t it far more dangerous to steer clear, to make our norms around the limitation that we can never know who attacked who, when in fact we sometimes can?

      In this case maybe the conclusion is that we don’t know, and we have to work with that, but if we could know she literally spat in the guy’s face earlier that would certainly strengthen the argument she has no right to hyperescalate, or if we knew the joke was a goofy excess of good spirits not even meant badly it would remind us to make allowances sometimes. And vica versa if we knew this guy was really saying “sit down, bitch”, or that she’d done little or nothing to provoke it, or if this guy was constantly making such ‘jokes’, or actually making people feel unwelcome.

      Like I said maybe the response is disproportionate in either case but such simple differences of fact could make a huge difference in how we see the case if they could be ascertained.

      1. carvenvisage

        “actually making people feel unwelcome”

        to be clear, -because that isn’t, I mean acting so as to predictably (given your knowledge) and culpably make people feel unwelcome. More like saying this ‘joke’ deadpan to every woman while giving them a fixed hostile stare until they laugh or otherwise react, less like going around wearing a smelly shirt.

        Also “safeish to harass” should= “safeish to attack”

      2. Jiro

        It’s predictable that a man kissing his boyfriend in front of a homophobe will make the homophobe feel unwelcome.

        1. carvenvisage

          And if some ‘homophobe’ (another orwellian conclusion-presupposing word) later reacts to an insult somewhat more strongly than the insult alone would justify, that would be relevant context. -More contentious than spitting in someone’s eye, but “homosexuality=normal and good” is not an accepted settled norm like you seem to be implying. It is a norm which is backed by propoganda and government force, and even on the law books in some authoritarian places, but it is nowhere near a consensus or universal norm, and if you ‘kiss your boyfriend’ in public you are doing so with the threat of violence and ruination standing above anyone who would object, so actually it would seem to be a fairly serious form of provocation.

          -even if in practice we wouldn’t count it as such, as the perpetrator might be oblivious of this aspect and simply think it was a settled norm everywhere like it appears to be in liberal strongholds.

          (And of course loudly taking umbridge at the same thing in a gay bar rather than wider society would be relevant too, to a later inflated response to provocation. –This is about right or wrong, but it’s hard to come to a direct judgement on such questions so we go by things like settled norms and who’s house you are in. (Liberals think broader society is their house, so they view disapproval of homosexuals as obvious provocation, but this is objectively wrong: wider society is not the sole property of your religion, liberal or conservative.) )

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          _

          In any case, disregarding my heretical position, there being some cases of debatable/contentious provocation on the borders of our norms doesn’t mean that there aren’t uncontentious or culturally universal ones.

          There’s being somewhat aggressively overassertive and overconfident of your norms, there’s being very much so, and then there’s intentional or clearly culpable provocation. -It doesn’t matter where you stand politically, if someone shouts ‘suck my dick, bitch’ at someone else, that puts later actions taken by that second someone in a different light.

        2. carvenvisage

          also wasn’t my goddamn disclaimer enough? Never mind my deranged ramblings, in either case Scott is taking an implicit position in the initial article on the initial wrongdoing, while at the same time saying he doesn’t care to get into it.

          -He background assumed “now obviously this was just a harmless dumb joke”, then when it was disputed said ‘whatever, I’m not that interested in the details’, without really making a concession (or that’s my perception, if that’s going to be offputting to anyone who’s norm isn’t already ‘don’t escalate unless it’s super clear, and maybe not even then’.

          By Scott’s values the escalation was a bad norm no matter what, but by more ‘human’ vengeful norms it might be down to the details of the situation whether or not the escalation was supporting a bad norm.

          I’d also like to point out that this is the first case I can think of where there was something most people would see as active provocation. The argument ‘don’t crucify people for different political beliefs’ is quite a different one from ‘don’t crucify people for testing/insulting/crossing you’, and I think the average person is not so inclined to accept the second as the first.

          (participating in the political process isn’t crossing you (you lunatic), nor is wearing a shirt, nor is having backwards views on your blog, nor is recommending a different bakery, but telling someone to shut up and make you a sandwich is a provocation.)

  6. faoiseam

    I am disappointed that Scott did not make the distinction between “speech acts” in the philosophical sense, meaning illocutionary acts like promising, ordering, greeting, warning, inviting and congratulating, and normal statements. Banning (some of) the former seems reasonable, and covers a lot of the ground. Claiming that everything is a speech act just destroys the previously useful term “speech act”, which distinguished statements from actions that have another effect as well.

    1. Sam Reuben

      I think I see his reasoning: a lot of statements with distinct semantic meaning (as opposed to a lot of the heavily speech-acty ones) will still have some character as a speech act. For example, let’s say Frank is wearing green shoes, and his avowed nemesis George exclaims loudly within earshot that “I think green shoes are incredibly tacky!” There’s some semantic meaning there, to be sure, but we can all clearly see that what George is actually doing is making the speech act of declaring opposition against Frank and, depending on the setting, throwing down the gauntlet to him. Another person saying this in another setting could be just a statement about shoes, but in George’s mouth it becomes a passive-aggressive challenge – a very typical speech act.

      Of course, as the intellectual left has investigated and pointed out, a ton of nominally semantic speech potentially and actually has this sort of speech-act character to it. This is where the idea of “microaggressions” comes from, for instance. The problem is that it’s exceedingly hard to find out, at times, whether some nominally semantic speech is or is not a speech act. If Frank confronts George about the green shoes statement, then George will deny it (and in another telling of the story, where George didn’t know anything about the shoes and was simply commenting on his footwear tastes, an antagonistic Frank could wrongly interpret that as a personal attack). The extraordinarily codified speech acts, such as “please” and “thank you,” are nearly impossible to imagine as anything else, but with enough working, almost anything can become a speech act.

      Of course, this doesn’t mean that everything is a speech act. That’s a confusion of the potential and the actual, and one which a lot of folks have made on the personal and intellectual level. I certainly agree that Scott should have pointed the distinction out for the sake of clarity, but I think the logic works (albeit implicitly) along the framework which I’ve laid out. The nasty, squishy maybe-if territory of possible speech acts makes everything a “speech act,” and makes free speech more difficult to constrain. Although he shouldn’t have just said that saying anything is a speech act, not least because it isn’t, it does follow that anything being a potential speech act makes norm-setting against certain speech acts much more difficult to accomplish.

  7. cvxxcvcxbxvcbx

    “do something similar if the information arises”

    I think “information” should be “situation”.

  8. the verbiage ecstatic

    So, I’m generally very much about the meta-level principles, not the object-level argument, but the more I think about this the more I think free speech norms only make sense as a set of object-level rules about what can or cannot be said.

    Let’s go back to “why free speech?” At a community level, I think the main case for free speech norms is creating a mutual intellectual and social commons where people can be in discovery / creative mode, not defensive / political mode. Basically, a community has free speech when members can speak spontaneously from the heart without being afraid of social reprisal. That’s good for the psychological health of individuals and the creative and intellectual output of the community.

    It seems like the place to draw the line in such a community is: any speech is okay unless it threatens the very premise of the community commons. One of the important premises in such a commons is the right for community members to participate, so things like “hey, group [X] is a bunch of horrible people” is going to be not-okay if there are any members of group X in the community.

    Which means that: insofar as a space is populated by members of groups with competing identity formulations, a free speech commons is not possible. Free speech works best when everyone is on the same page.

    In the current public internet sphere, I do not think people feel safe just speaking their hearts, because the internet is a big place and there will always be someone who doesn’t like what you are saying. Contemporary public discourse isn’t a commons, it’s a war zone: commercial, political, and ideological interests are battling it out using speech as a tactical weapon, not as a means of honest self-expression. We only see successful free speech commons in isolated intentional communities such as this blogs’ comments.

    So I think coming up with a set of meta free speech rules that work on internet scale is impossible. Like it or hate it, there no longer exists a public sphere that serves as a demilitarized commons.

    I guess this is an argument in favor of Scott’s archipelago utopia, and an argument against keeping on the pro-Hitler school teacher who promises not to say anything bad in class. Sorry, pal (ie, the teacher): you’re in the wrong community. There are no norms that can successfully encompass the diversity of cultures that the internet throws together.

    1. Sam Reuben

      I’m not sure that this analysis quite properly works. Your core claim is that free speech norms only work as object-level rules and not meta-principles, which indicates that final tenets of free speech will take the form of “saying a, b, c is unacceptable” and not “things which follow the logical framework of X, Y, Z are unacceptable.” However, you quickly establish that free speech has a generalized, logical goal: the “mutual intellectual and social commons.” (I would state it differently, but that’s neither here nor there – I think this is an excellent representation of what free speech is meant to get at.) The generalized, logical goal will of course have some generalized, logical norms of conduct, of which you name the norm that you can’t say that members of the community are just plain awful. The leap in logic is where you assume that in a community with general membership, you can’t have a norm like “don’t call people within the community terrible.” With general membership, this simply expands to “don’t call people terrible,” which seems an extremely good rule for reasoned, free debate on subjects.

      I can see where some threads connect the premises to the conclusion. Perhaps a more thorough norm for free speech curtailment would be “don’t say anything which will make members of the group feel like they can’t participate freely in the group,” which definitely does create a hard tension between battling groups of fanatics. To the Star-Bellied Sneetches, to use Seuss as our guide, a simple claim of enjoying plain bellies will alienate, and the same is true the other way around. However, this seems to be more of a comment upon people who are unwilling to participate on the terms required for a general forum than it is on the general forum! Excluding the exclusive, etc etc. The interests of the Star-Bellied Sneetches and Plain-Bellied Sneetches can both be represented in the forum, but by their moderate members who can stand talking to one another, not by ones who can’t even imagine that other people can exist. This is the quite reasonable standard for a true, free-speech community.

      The internet is, needless to say, not a general free-speech community, and neither is a country or anything else in the public sphere. The public sphere hasn’t ever been a general free-speech community, even America with its vaunted First Amendment. At worst, individual public spheres have been oppressive zones with harsh, object-level rules on what can and can’t be said, and at best they serve as archipelagos with their political fields carefully sanitized to prevent serious eruptions of malignity and hatred. (In fact, I’d argue this is what the First Amendment establishes: the government isn’t allowed to crack down on any islands of the archipelago. Every island can go about saying their own thing, and nobody is allowed to go rowing out on canoes and conquer all the other islands.) The particularly successful free-speech-promoting societies curate healthy and effective archipelagoes, and only a very small number of those islands are the real, generalized debate zones. Usually, these are the universities, where a good deal of the membership has explicitly signed their life away to the cause of truth for the sake of truth, but not all of these zones are universities, and not all universities are these zones. Not all are perfect at achieving the status of general intellectual community, but at the very least that is what they tend to strive for.

      The internet has taken the archipelago model and shaken it up rather violently. First, it has allowed people to exist in two types of community at once: the material, and the electronic. Materially, you are where you live, while electronically, you are where you browse or chat or what have you. Already, this means that people are going to have some nasty conflicts of beliefs brewing, where one of the communities they belong to has harsh differences with one of the others. Take that recent (and admittedly a little funny) instance of the quilt community getting polarized. The reason is, of course, that people who like quilts can fall easily in both progressive urban Blue Tribespeople and traditional rural Red Tribespeople, so as soon as a quilt community tries to show up online, the members realize they’re not of the same tribe and there’s a nasty schism. Pre-internet, you’d just have the Redstown Quilting Club and the Lower Blueopolis Quilt Society and everyone would be happy on account of never having heard of one another. Spread this problem along all axes, and you’ve got a lot of weird conflicts that haven’t shown up before. Add in the increasing polarity of (American) society, and things get way worse. Heck, the fabled internet echo chambers can make that even worse!

      The second, slightly more troublesome problem is that it’s gotten way easier to get in your canoes and head for the next island. If you’re from Blueopolis and want to protest Redstown, or from Redstown and want to protest Blueopolis, you’re a serious car-drive away (assuming you’ve even heard of what’s happening in the other place). The internet has made it way easier to get to blueplace.com or redtalk.com and argue, if you so desire. Even worse, platforms that have some real use for “both sides of the aisle,” like Twitter and Facebook, make it ludicrously easy to find someone whose beliefs you dislike and to advise them of that fact. In fact, in Twitter we have something far closer to the “commons” than has ever existed in the past, outside of the political podium – and we know how polemical that can get!

      So, in short, I disagree with your analysis. The object-level rules do make sense for a lot of islands in the archipelago, and yet some few among them along with the general rules governing traffic between islands can be handled by meta-level norms. Further, this arrangement is not new, but rather the tradition. However, the internet does bring new problems into the mix, and we haven’t seen an effective solution yet. Given the prior success of meta-level norms in handling wild disagreement, it seems reasonable to look to them as our way out of this mess. Otherwise, the common spaces of the internet (like Twitter) will be awful, and the smaller islands (like here) will keep on having people paddling in on their canoes to make people miserable.

    2. Scott Alexander Post author

      I agree with your point “this is hard”, but I’m not sure the problem can just be dismissed. Even after you say “I think the problem is impossible”, there will still be an Internet. Unless you’re saying nobody should say anything at all on the Internet, or anyone should be able to get anyone fired for anything, I’m not sure how you avoid having norms, even if by accident.

  9. aciddc

    You are the greatest. I love reading this blog.

    In regards to the idea of “No doubt evangelicals honestly think that gay rights crusaders are bad people; does this justify personal attacks against them?” one thing I’d consider is that maybe it does make sense within their value system, and that value system rather than the tactics used to spread it is the problem. This isn’t the exact evangelical argument, but let’s say someone believed that acceptance of homosexuality was leading to more people becoming homosexuals (coming out of the closet from our point of view), and that was leading more people to go to hell. Then if there’s a reason to think that vigilante social norm enforcement will have effect, which in this case it potentially could be encouraging more gays to stay in the closet, evangelicals could be totally justified on a utilitarian basis within the confines of their value system. The issue is that they’re wrong about the metaphysical effects of homosexuality, not that their actions are necessarily extreme in the context of those incorrect beliefs.

    This seems sort of generalizable to a lot of things. Violence is sometimes justified. The only way to know exactly when is to look to your own values and belief system. Those can very widely between people and cultures, and while I think some views are more reasonable than others, you basically have to act on what you’ve got. Sometimes people’s beliefs and goals make them your enemy on a fairly fundamental level.

    Of course none of this is to say I really disagree with your position on language policing and mod policies. I’m fairly pacifistic when it comes to violence and when it comes to social violence. But the fact that a framework for looking at such violence implies that it’s sometimes justified doesn’t rule out that framework to me.

  10. baconbacon

    This set of norms is self-correcting: if someone does something you don’t like, but there’s not a social norm against it, then your next step should be to create a social norm against it. If you can convince 51% of the community that it’s wrong, then the community can unite against it and you can punish it next time. If you can’t convince 51% of the community that it’s wrong, then you should try harder, not play vigilante and try to enforce your unpopular rules yourself.

    The major flaw that underlies this series of posts is that it isn’t about how many people support or don’t support something for social norms, it is how deeply they support it. Many of the issues with democracy come down to the fact that voting is easy, your opinion doesn’t actually carry much weight and it is difficult to get your opinion to carry weight. In a real market I can forgo consumption of goods I kind of like to save up for something I really like. Always wanted a nice car? Ramen and a cheap place to rent for a few years can put it in reach. Always wanted to legalize marijuana? Can’t skip voting on taxes, dog catcher or school board representative and shove them all toward your preferred issue. This is why minorities, even foul and disgusting ones like people who drive purple PT Cruisers, are far better served in a market than a democracy.

    When it comes to social norms (but not laws) it isn’t about 51% of people liking/not liking a thing, it is about how intensely they don’t like it and how much influence they wield. The trouble with social media is that the effort/influence ratio can get far crazier than in normal interactions. Retweeting a post to 100,000 followers can seriously effect the author’s life (in either a negative or positive way) at virtually no immediate cost to the retweeter. This is essentially bullying, picking on someone with little to no cost to yourself, when it is petty, and is the crux of the issue.

  11. captjparker

    One factor that must underlie people’s distrust of non-governmental free speech norms is that they’re so underspecified.

    The thing is: civil society doesn’t have “free speech norms.” Civil society has “speech norms” that are indeed underspecified. One may think that civil society ought to have free speech norms because of the frequently invoked “right to free speech.” But, where did such a right come from if it indeed does exist? The First Amnedment is surly not the source of a right to free speech within civil society. Quite the contrary. The First Amendment says only that the regulation of what one may and may not say is not within the scope of government authority. I am a free speech advocate and what I mean by that is that I support a robust and expansive First Amendment. One consequence of a robust First Amendment is that since government is to have no role in defining speech norms the free marketplace of ideas about how to have public debate about divisive issues is left to do it’s job and I am content with that.

    1. J Mann

      Well, there’s a difference between a norm and a law.

      It’s against the law for the government to restrict speech.

      It’s not against the law for you to post the names and pictures of the woman who yelled at the Christakises at Yale, or the woman who put the Donglegate guys on blast, or that Texas doofus that Popehat was mocking last week.

      That doesn’t mean that it’s not wrong, or ill-advisable, or that we shouldn’t try to develop a norm against it.

      As to where it came from, I’d say that the proposed norm has something in common with the long tradition of anonymous speech in this country, and opposition to the blacklist, and the idea that you shouldn’t fire someone just because they support Bernie or Trump or whomever.

      I’m not sure I’m convinced – my first thought was why shouldn’t we signal boost the name of the Christakis-yeller, but I never did, because a lot of smart thoughtful people thought it was wrong. I’m still not sure where the line is, but I agree it’s worth discussing.

  12. Elizabeth

    “And however different postmodernists, evangelicals, Islamists, Muslims, crystal-healers, and Trump supporters might be, there actually is one thing they have in common: all these groups have great gender balance. You’ll never find a Wiccan circle or a gender studies class that accidentally ended up as 100% male.”

    No, but you can easily find ones that accidentally ended up 100% female. That’s not “great gender balance”, that’s the opposite skew.

  13. Plucky

    The central problem in your framework is the problem of how genuine social norms get formed.

    This set of norms is self-correcting: if someone does something you don’t like, but there’s not a social norm against it, then your next step should be to create a social norm against it. If you can convince 51% of the community that it’s wrong, then the community can unite against it and you can punish it next time. If you can’t convince 51% of the community that it’s wrong, then you should try harder, not play vigilante and try to enforce your unpopular rules yourself.

    Leaving aside the issue of whether 51% actually constitutes a societal norm, this is not really how all social norms get created. Some do get formed organically, but others are instead formed because someone has the power to impose them long enough that everyone else just gets used to it and passively accepts it. Activists know this, and that’s what drives the get-people-fired mentality. Activists are trying to alter, create, and/or impose social norms by the latter method.

    The get-people-fired method is unfortunately very effective- like most dominance relationships, it only takes a handful of demonstrative incidents for everyone to get the message of what the new rules are and who is in charge. A couple years of HR policy later and it’s institutionalized. We may or may not have a genuine norm that sexist jokes are a grievous offense for example, but anyone in a corporate environment knows that dropping one in the office or on the company’s email server is playing Russian roulette with their job. Regardless of what society at large thinks norms ought to be, they know what the rules are and have mostly gotten accustomed to it.

    So activists launch hate-storms at anyone they feel is a weak target, and it only takes a few of them to stick. Being on the receiving end is no easy task- An employer that gets dogpiled by 50,000 angry activist calls/tweets/emails out of nowhere can easily feel as though a societal norm has been broken, even though 50,000 people represent miniscule percentage of society.

    The problem of maintaining a free-speech culture requires leaders of institutions to have the courage to stare down activists and weather a hate-storm, often on behalf of people who aren’t terribly sympathetic.

    1. SUT

      > requires leaders of institutions to have the courage to stare down activists and weather a hate-storm

      Exactly this. I wonder if a becoming known as The free speech company could even become an effective marketing tool for recruiting? Funny enough, it was Academia that was the original “free speech company” and it still is for everything on the spectrum from centrism to infinity-times-infinity-leftism. Now, from what I hear, for the IT industry, the place you’re least likely to be fired for your political views is online Porn. Strange days indeed.

      1. albatross11

        A social norm that says that firing people for being the target of a twitter storm is a shitty thing to do, or firing people for weird aspects of their personal life is a shitty thing to do, would help resist the activists’ calls for someone’s firing. IMO we should encourage this norm.

        Every aspect of our lives is becoming more visible and searchable over time, and it’s increasingly hard to keep different sides of our lives separate. That could easily lead us to a place where anyone with weird political, religious, or social beliefs, weird hobbies, weird sexual practices, etc., would find themselves having a hard time getting a job. The result of *that* would pretty inevitably be the world becoming a whole lot more boring.

        A lot of progressives and liberals think this is a win for their side. And maybe they’re right. But you could easily imagine it going the other way, and many of the biggest employers effectively requiring respectful discussions about Christianity, patriotism, the military, etc., as a de facto condition of continued employment.

        1. The Nybbler

          or firing people for weird aspects of their personal life is a shitty thing to do

          We already had that social norm. Pushed by the people that the current pushers of the opposite social norm claim to be the successors of. Not firing people because they’re homosexual or go to the wrong church (or don’t go to church) or have a tattoo (especially where you can’t see it) or generally because they were in some way “immoral” in their personal life… these were _liberal_ norms.

          The cynical view is that it turns out these norms were all a lie; all those people really meant was that they supported the object-level behavior, but they knew those in power did not so they used high-sounding meta-level principles to justify them. Now that they’re in power, those high-sounding principles can simply be discarded and the _correct_ object level behavior can be supported while the _wrong_ ones can be tabooed everywhere. Pretty sure I’ve seen that view pushed here.

          The less cynical view is they’re different people and the SJWs don’t have a valid claim to being the successors of the liberals.

          1. Nancy Lebovitz

            I think that kind of hypocrisy is more likely to be people not thinking things through rather than a deliberate lie.

        2. Matt M

          A lot of progressives and liberals think this is a win for their side. And maybe they’re right. But you could easily imagine it going the other way

          Maybe you can, but they cannot. They believe they are on the “right side of history” and that their power will only grow and expand. They simply cannot imagine a future wherein rightists hold power over them.

          Hence the bizarre Russia conspiracies vis-a-vis Trump. They do not allow a worldview wherein actual conservatives exist in any number sufficient enough to represent any sort of legitimate threat to them or their power.

          1. albatross11

            The set of people who are punching Nazis or demanding someone get fired for refusing to spout the party line w.r.t. women in coding are a really tiny fraction of the society. They’re loud and organized and very visible, but their power comes entirely from the willingness of the much larger set of ordinary people to follow what they say, out of a combination of fear of being denounced, taking the path of least resistance, and having been philosophically disarmed by being convinced that the activists are on the side of the angels.

            The activists in this case have overplayed their hand to the extent that they’re getting increasing backlash. And when that backlash really hits, they’ll find that like 95% of the support they seemed to have has evaporated almost overnight.

  14. Gobbobobble

    But this can’t be separated from signaling a propensity for action. Suppose Alice has the opinion “hand hygiene doesn’t matter”. The truly virtuous action is to show her (and concerned third parties) studies that prove that dangerous infections are transmissible by unwashed hands. But while you’re doing that, it’s fair to not want to eat at her restaurant. And it’s pro-social to tell other people not to eat at her restaurant either, and not to hire her as a nurse – and if she’s already a nurse, maybe to get her fired. Even though reasonable free speech norms demand that we fight bad ideas through counterargument rather than social punishment, in this case they should permit a campaign to get Alice fired. [emphasis added]

    Disagree. The first couple pro-social actions are laudable. This whole firing campaign business, though, rests on one of two flawed notions:
    1) From this speech act I know your job performance better than your bosses and co-workers

    This is ridiculous, one interacts with their coworkers and bosses daily and, in the case of bosses, are at least ostensibly having one’s job performance reviewed. If Alice was truly dead-set against handwashing, her place of employment would already know. The “fine I’ll do it because thems the rules” agreement can be reasonably inferred to already exist by her continued employment.

    If there is evidence that she is not handwashing while employed, the moral strategy is to use the other pro-social means to go after the business that tolerates such practices – why would anyone want to get treated at a hospital that lets their employees not wash their hands? But it is hubris to assume that you’ve caught Alice out in some nefarious scheme: unless she’s actually discussing how she gets away with breaking her employer’s policies, there is nothing to report. Either their unorthodox views don’t impact their job performance or their employer has different definitions of proper execution. The latter should be taken up as a cause against the employer, not the employee. Once you convince the employer, Alice will have to suffer the rules or be fired for breaking them.

    2) This speech act demonstrates beliefs that have nothing to with your job performance that nonetheless your employer should not tolerate.

    Which flies wildly in the face of the the principle laid out last time:

    Likewise, the goal of being pro-free-speech isn’t to make a really liberal-sounding law code. It’s to create a society where it’s actually possible to hold dissenting opinions, where ideas really do get judged by merit rather than by who’s powerful enough to shut down whom. Having free speech laws on the books is a necessary precondition, but it’s useless in the absence of social norms that support it. If you win a million First Amendment victories in the Supreme Court, but actively work to undermine the social norms that let people say what they think in real life, you’re anti-free-speech.

    1. Sam Reuben

      1) is an excellent point, and is why the get-someone-fired (or equivalent) campaigns really shouldn’t fly. That sort of attack, the signal-boosting or demand for punitive action, are made from positions of extreme if not ludicrous ignorance. From the example given, we honestly have little to no idea what Alice is doing or why her beliefs may or may not have relevance to her keeping her job. There are countless possible scenarios where she has that unpopular opinion but still ought to keep her job. A campaign to get her fired rejects all of them as potential outcomes.

      This also works for all of the more nebulous stuff, like offensive jokes. It may just be some quirk of my personal circle, but I know a ton of people with dark and nebulous humor. If I related every joke or comment which they, or even I, shared in private and with the knowledge that the recipient would understand it, then I might get told that they’re bad influences and worth avoiding, or that they’re bad people in some other respect. The thing is, I know all these people, and know they’re all good people with dark humor, occasional social incompetence, or both. I know their humor doesn’t reflect their actual opinions so much as it exhibits how they can investigate uncomfortable problems. So I stay friends with them, because I know what they’re really like. Other people might not have that depth of perspective.

      Of course, there’s a better solution to these kinds of problems: if relevant information isn’t available to the interested parties (let’s say Alice is rebelling against the sanitation hegemony with secretly unwashed hands), then that information can be passed on in tactful secrecy so that decisions can be made by the relevant authorities. If they refuse to solve it, and they’re demonstrably in the wrong about it, then the solution wasn’t ever to force a firing, but rather to try and get rid of the incompetent administrator! There’s no situation where it’s reasonable to try to achieve targeted retribution through mob action. It serves as a dangerous and unstable weapon which starts to wreck society.

      So why is it so popular? Obviously, the thrill of self-vindicating through retribution is an incredible drug, and there’s no question that plays a role. But I think that the temptation there remains at least somewhat stable across all humans, and yet a lot of people just don’t participate in it without having some specific education in the effective and moral structure of the crime. What I’d personally pin it on is a lack of humility, where individuals just lack the trust and deference towards people with better knowledge that would let them pass the decision on. Accordingly, they take the matter into their own hands, make their own judgments, and feel like there could be nothing grander than what they’ve set out to do – because they decided on it. Excess of humility obviously has its own problems, but it doesn’t seem to be what’s at fault here.

    2. Scott Alexander Post author

      Mostly agree. I guess by “start a campaign to get her fired” I mean tell her boss that she’s against hand-washing (if the boss doesn’t know) and let them draw their own conclusions.

  15. Deiseach

    Re: hand hygiene, if you must fall sick, be sure to do it in an Oregon hospital 🙂

    The top five states were:

    1. Oregon (with 100% of hospitals complying with handwashing regulations)
    2. New Jersey (94%)
    3. Florida (93%)
    3. Nevada (93%)
    5. Tennessee (90%)

    The bottom five states were:

    46. Missouri (59%)
    48. Arizona (50%)
    48. New Mexico (50%)
    50. Wisconsin (45%)
    50. Wyoming (44%)

    (Greene, Crain’s Detroit Business, 6/11; Leapfrog release, 6/11; Leapfrog report, May 2015).

    1. Randy M

      Is there any discernable trend there? What separates Nevada from Arizona that is relevant to doctor hygiene? And who decided we really need both an i and an e in the middle of hygiene??

      1. David Manheim

        Caveat? Much of that ordering within wide bands is random; it’s a survey of 1,500 hospitals, so an average of 30 per state – not a huge sample size. The difference between 94% and 93% is 15/16 versus 14/15.

  16. johnswentworth

    The hand hygiene example seems to be missing the most important step: if Alice thinks hand hygiene is completely useless, then the very first step is to ask why she believes that. If you jump straight to assuming she’s wrong, then you’ve missed a potential opportunity to learn something. Even assuming she’s wrong (which is probably the case), you’ve missed the opportunity to learn why she would believe that. If you understand the real underlying reasons why people believe X, then you should know how to convince them of not-X. Isn’t that supposed to be one of the basic principles of the rationality community?

    Of course this doesn’t always work perfectly. Understanding why people believe things is a lot of work. Leveraging that understanding to change their mind (or yours) is also a lot of work. We don’t have infinite time on our hands. But it’s at least worthwhile to point out the ideal, and use it as a measuring stick for more realistic solutions.

    1. VolumeWarrior

      No one ever asks why someone is racist. We assume it’s because they have a brain virus and hate dark colours. In reality, they might say something like some POCs are upstanding citizens but that general community values promote single parenthood, drug use, and violence.

      It’s more expedient to just assume racism = brain virus.

  17. VolumeWarrior

    you should work on finding methods that isolate you from the problem, including building a better community somewhere else.

    Yes, most of the free speech “problems” are in fact problems with public spaces and government formation in general. You pool a bunch of people together based on geographic place of birth, and then they have a conflict over legal/moral grey area and no one is ever happy. You could come up with the metaphysically correct position on free speech and no one would ever listen to you because people get paid in social credit, not logical consistency.

    But the doxxers don’t care about borders and safe-spaces anyway. Twitter is a private community, but what you say on Twitter can be sent to your employer to get you fired. I don’t see why this would change if I go over to Rightistan, and someone in Leftistan gets offended at something I say and then blows it out of proportion and tries to get me fired.

    People should be free to self-select into and out of those communities, and those self-selections should be honored. Safe spaces, 4chan, and this blog are three very different kinds of intentional communities with unusual but locally-well-defined free speech norms, they’re all good for the people who use them, and as long as they keep to themselves I don’t think outsiders have any right to criticize their existence.

    I thought a major criticism of 4chan was that it was a breeding ground for racism/sexism/homophobiablablabala. Such that even though it is self-selected and relatively cloistered off from the internet, it still creates real harm in society by giving a platform to moral degenerates.

    This is not my opinion, but it’s easy to come up with examples of people going off into their echo chamber and promoting immorality. And then if people use those opinions to build coalitions that translate into immoral actions…

    However, I overall don’t see any moral justification for a free speech doctrine. It is supposedly useful in a democracy to serve as checks and balances bla bla bla, but most moral philosophies do not identify a positive duty to maximize everyone else’s free speech. And if I curtail you free speech because I’m your boss and to fire you because you listen to Alex Jones, would society really be more “free” if I were forced to keep paying you?

    1. tscharf

      And if I curtail you free speech because I’m your boss and to fire you because you listen to Alex Jones, would society really be more “free” if I were forced to keep paying you?

      Yes. It’s not a condition of employment to listen to Alex Conditions, it just shouldn’t be a basis for being fired because you disagree with Alex Jones in most cases. One can imagine an endpoint of a very long list of thought crimes that are terminating offenses such as the sin of listening to VolumeWarrior and I would suggest that in this world VolumeWarrior would consider it less “free”.

      1. VolumeWarrior

        it just shouldn’t be a basis for being fired because you disagree with Alex Jones in most cases

        It would sure be nice. But if some over-zealous employer decided to fire everyone except liberal democrats, I don’t see how that’s a problem. His right to associate with whom he pleases seems to exist. Whereas you don’t see to have a right to be employed at any specific company.

        Case in point, if the businessperson has right to shut down his business “just because they feel like it”, they’re allowed to. That’s arbitrary. But for some reason if they shut it down just for Alex Jones supporters, that’s not within their rights.

        One can imagine an endpoint of a very long list of thought crimes that are terminating offenses such as the sin of listening to VolumeWarrior and I would suggest that in this world VolumeWarrior would consider it less “free”.

        The world would actually be substantially less free if people were forced to continuing associating with others, regardless of distasteful opinions. Yes, maybe I’d prefer it if I was miraculously exempt and my opinions were protected, but I’d also prefer it if I were supreme Czar. So that’s a lousy way to decide how society should be structured. There’s a very strong presumption in favor of free association.

        It’s like you guys have some kind of job fetish where everyone has an unconditional right to a plug-and-play 9-5 job. And every single employer that bids for your labor has to meet the exact same conditions or else it’s oppression. But if you stop to think through the implications of a norm that says: “You can’t do anything to me that affects me economically”, it is a horrible slippery slope (see comment to birdboy2000 below) because many many things have large economic effects. Society would be morally and spiritually repugnant if I were legally forced to consider economic utilitarianism in my other social interactions.

        1. tscharf

          The short answer is terminating people for thought crimes (as opposed to real crimes) unrelated to the ability to competently perform your job is frowned upon.

          Independent contractors can be terminated for any reason. I’ve lived in that world for decades. The world exists where people can be canned for unrelated activities, it just rarely happens. Part of the reason it doesn’t happen is because independent contractors are usually pretty careful about controversial subjects. The other reason is business owners care about their business first and foremost and whether Johnny is a secret conservative just isn’t important to making widgets.

          A workplace such as the DNC might find it quite objectionable to have Alex Jones fans working for them, SpaceX not so much. This detail matters.

          I think we are having different arguments, whether it should be illegal or whether it is proper.

          1. albatross11

            Right, we’re talking about social norms, not employment law. If you fire people for their religion, you’ll run afoul of US employment law, but as I understand it, that’s not true of politics. That is, I don’t think there’s a law that says you would get in trouble for firing anyone you thought was a Republican. (But someone please tell me if I’m wrong!)

            However, I think it’s a better world when we have the social norm that firing people for their politics is a bad thing. I think we are better off overall when companies know that firing all their Republican employees will get pushback even from their non-Republican customers and employees, because it would be easy for us to end up in a situation where only the independently wealthy dared to express a non-standard political opinion in public.

    2. birdboy2000

      Yes, because the overwhelming majority of people are not employers, but proletarians, and a social norm allowing employers to target proletarians if they dislike their views makes it impossible to coordinate any social change that benefits said overwhelming majority at the expense of employers.

      If you support a norm where businessmen can fire people for whatever reason they feel like, you support a society where power is concentrated in the hands of those who own businesses; oligarchy, not (meaningful) democracy.

      1. VolumeWarrior

        a social norm allowing employers to target proletarians if they dislike their views makes it impossible to coordinate any social change that benefits said overwhelming majority at the expense of employers.

        Employers would prefer it if workers didn’t screw off on facebook (or SSC) once in a while, but there’s a social norm that says you’re allowed to do it anyway.

        The very fact that any worker anywhere is paid above sustenance wage is evidence of proletariat bargaining power.

        If you support a norm where businessmen can fire people for whatever reason they feel like, you support a society where power is concentrated in the hands of those who own businesses; oligarchy, not (meaningful) democracy.

        If you are suggesting a norm where people have to take care of each other economically before personal preferences can enter the mix, this is a very dangerous and slippery slope. Marriage has an extremely large economic effect and yet everyone agrees you can marry or not marry anyone you want for all kinds of arbitrary reasons. Despite the fact that this might lead to more economic inequality as rich college educated folks pair off and leave the socioeconomically disadvantaged to each other.

        Hell. Even refusing to be friends with someone because of their politics might have serious economic consequences. After all, one of the ways you get a job is through your network!

        There’s just no coherent line you can draw in the sand. It might sound practical if you’re imagining some exaggerated capitalist hell, but there’s no way the philosophy could be coherent.

      2. John Schilling

        If you support a norm where businessmen can fire people for whatever reason they feel like, you support a society where power is concentrated in the hands of those who own businesses

        And if you support a norm where workers can strike or quit their jobs for whatever reason they feel like, you support a society where power is concentrated in the hands of the proletariat or the charismatic leaders thereof; communism, not (meaningful) democracy, right?

        Or perhaps the market for labor is not so wholly one-sided as either of these simplistic formulations would have it be.

      3. baconbacon

        Yes, because the overwhelming majority of people are not employers, but proletarians

        Nope. In a world where people own their labor they are employers and the businesses that purchase their labor are their customers. The right to fire is the same as the right to quit.

  18. blacktrance

    Saying that someone shouldn’t be listened to is part of the marketplace of ideas, not an exception to it (though ideally you show your work and don’t just shout insults.) The problem is when you move from persuasion to silencing them or trying to punish them for their views, such as when you try to get them fired. Universalizing a norm like “if you decide that someone’s a bad person, feel free to say so, but don’t go beyond speech yourself or encourage others to do so” doesn’t seem scary. It’s only okay to fire someone if their views interfere with their job and they refuse to act otherwise, regardless of their perceived harm – uncompromising flat-earthers shouldn’t teach geography, even though no thinkpiece writer would be motivated enough to run a campaign to get them fired. Similarly, if Brendan Eich had walked around the Mozilla offices saying “Gay people are evil”, firing him would’ve been fine.

    But I don’t think this requires Be Nice Until You Can Coordinate Meanness (which I disagree with anyway because it enshrines convention instead of truth). Firing people for sexist jokes on Twitter isn’t bad because it rarely happens – if it were the norm, it’d be worse – but because it’s neither connected to truth nor show that they can’t be professional at work. If Democrats were 99% of the population and Republican views were generally considered abhorrent, firing Republicans would still be wrong even though the Democrats wouldn’t need to worry about retaliation.

    (Would it be better if all marijuana users were arrested, instead of just a few?)

    1. blacktrance

      It would also help if there were norms or clear indicators of the privacy a speaker is expecting or should expect – whether it’s “don’t say anything that can identify me” or “don’t post anything here you wouldn’t feel comfortable putting in your NYT column if you had one”.

    2. A Definite Beta Guy

      I am in broad agreement with the above, especially this point:

      It’s only okay to fire someone if their views interfere with their job and they refuse to act otherwise

      I bolded a portion for effect. A fundamentalist Christian should be allowed to teach a high school science class as long as he or she teaches it in the manner that’s considered appropriate by supervisors. There’s no call, at all, to bring up any disciplinary proceedings unless there’s actually a workplace issue.

      These domains should be separate.

      1. blacktrance

        I once had a science teacher who prefaced a unit about evolution with “I don’t believe any of this, but I have to teach it”, then never mentioned his beliefs again.

      2. albatross11

        The times I’ve seen this class of argument used in practice, it was always pretty obvious that the reasoning went:

        a. This person has expressed ideas I find offensive.

        b. Therefore they should be punished.

        c. Therefore I will invent some kind of justification for why their ideas could indicate some tendency that would make them bad at their jobs.

        For example, when that one cancer researcher was being net-shamed for making some kind of sexist joke in a speech (I think trying to be ironic), many people supported him losing his job because this joke proved he would be a bad boss to female researchers, but this didn’t seem to lead to looking for any evidence he was a bad boss or coworker w.r.t. women, and in fact several testimonials from his female students and coworkers seemed to have no weight in that calculation.

  19. ADifferentAnonymous

    One complication is that publicizing a specific example of an allegedly problematic behavior is really useful for advancing the broader issue, but in the current climate it also ends up being a speech act. I’ve seen SJ people give examples of microaggressions and deliberately not name names, because they want dialog on the issue and don’t want mobs against one microaggressor–but this means only one side of the story is available, and skeptics are understandably wary.

  20. dndnrsn

    I think that the most sensible place to draw the line is when speech directly influences illicit actions. Nobody would defend a group of mobsters sitting around a table planning a hit on the basis of free speech (well, I suppose somebody would, but you get the idea). This would generally mean that the free speech line would get drawn right before direct incitement. “Group x are terrible” would be OK, “Group x are terrible and should be killed” would not be. That the first might lead to the second being said would not be enough.

    The problem then becomes “who gets to determine where the line between incitement and stuff that could possibly be read as incitement is”, “who enforces this”, etc. But this is already the problem with speech law, and plenty of law in general, and all sorts of informal enforcement of norms.

  21. Jiro

    There are some things that depend on individual circumstances and can’t easily be reduced to nontrivial general principles. Maybe it is okay to retaliate against people who are horrible on the kill all Jews level–as long as you’re competent at figuring out who is actually that horrible. If you go by that, it’s still wrong to ruin the life of someone for making a sexist joke, for the same reason that it’s wrong to kill someone in self-defense if they’re spilling juice on you.

    Or to put it another way, maybe the actual bad thing is having bad judgment. It’s okay to hurt someone for reason X, but poorly judging X is not okay. It’s harder to universalize this, since everyone thinks they have good judgment, but the fact that it’s harder to universalize doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the wrong way to think about the problem.

    Also, on a separate note, I still think that Scott is being too charitable here. Most of the cases where someone says “it’s okay to ruin someone’s life for being sexist” are not actually attempts to run on consistent principles at all. The “it’s okay to…” is just an excuse and would not be followed by the person saying it if it ever becomes inconvenient.

  22. Standing in the Shadows

    My guess is that almost everyone who posts child pornography on Twitter gets in trouble for it, and that’s because there really is a strong anti-child pornography norm.

    I may regret this.

    The “distributed twitter protocol” OStatus, implemented on things like mastodon.social has been exponentially growing in Japan because the ostatus network lets users post about legal-in-Japan ロリコン artwork, that gets them hard banned on Twitter.com.

    An interesting article on this is at http://ansuz.sooke.bc.ca/entry/335

    I know the writer of that blog reads this blog, because that very article has a link to this blog.

      1. liskantope

        There, on the other side… in the middle of the other side… away from everything else on the other side… in parentheses… in capital letters… quotated… read the following words:

        (“KID, HAVE YOU DECONTAMINATED YOURSELF?”)

  23. Roakh

    I think this discussion and proposal suffers from being excessively formalistic, in the sense that it considers proposals along the line of ‘If Y/Z, then you can *crush* someone’ and settles on the principle (roughly) that ‘if you can get >50% agreement to be able to non-arbitrarily and uniformly enforce norms then you can enforce norms and if you can’t you pretty much have to detach and hope you can find some nice locality on the metaphorical archipelago.’

    But it seems like a more fruitful approach might be giving a more subtle account of what you can do in what circumstances, specifically: what degree and kind of bad actions warrants what degree and what kind of response (short of ‘crushing’).

    The second view described seems basically right except in that it allowed completely away to “crush” an opponent for bad statistics. It seems decisively less objectionable if you replace “crush” with some level of pretty staunch public criticism commensurate to the level of wrong committed by the opponent, rather than “quietly correct[ing]” them in a way which almost everyone will ignore or crushing them by making a persona non grata in public debate. I think all the action is in trying to appropriately calibrate what level of response is judicious rather than describing conditions in which you can either enforce whatever norm you like/are not allowed to apply significant social pressure to people.

    1. albatross11

      I keep thinking that this comes down to the Overton window–what’s the range of positions that are seen in your society as acceptable. This defines the area where most people “agree to disagree.”

      In general, if you try to socially punish/fire/harass someone for expressing positions within the window, lots of people think you are thuggishly trying to suppress legitimate speech. But if you try to socially punish/fire/harass someone for expressing positions outside the window, only pretty committed free-speech advocates much care[1].

      The added complication is that different cultures have different windows. In some subcultures, a principled objection to affirmative action programs is outside the window, and people will feel like that’s beyond the pale and you should be shut up, or at least be expected to keep your mouth shut about your offensive beliefs at work. In other subcultures, expressing serious doubt about the existence of God is outside the window.

      The window is the result of social forces that have little to do with logic or morality. You can see this because the ideas within the window change over time. In mainstream US politics of 1970, gay marriage and drug legalization were both outside the window. (Or maybe on the outer edge of the window–people recognized that a few radicals advocated for both.)

      [1] I think there are different “outside the window” zones with different responses. If you express your belief that UFO aliens are routinely visiting Earth and interfering in human affairs, you’re well outside the window, but hardly anyone feels you need to be crushed for your offensiveness–they’ll just ignore you. On the other hand, if you express your belief that sex with small children is morally acceptable, you’ll probably be seen as both crazy and evil, and you’re much more likely to get fired, shunned, beaten up, arrested, etc.

  24. Brad

    I like this post. Specifically I like that it acknowledges that there’s an incoherence to the “free speech norm” position. I’ve been arguing that in these comment sections for a while now. I appreciate the struggle to find some sort of coherent principles, though I’m not sure it is there yet. Specifically, this part:

    This set of norms is self-correcting: if someone does something you don’t like, but there’s not a social norm against it, then your next step should be to create a social norm against it. If you can convince 51% of the community that it’s wrong, then the community can unite against it and you can punish it next time. If you can’t convince 51% of the community that it’s wrong, then you should try harder, not play vigilante and try to enforce your unpopular rules yourself.

    I think embodies an unrealistic notion of how norms are created, spread, and enforced. Attempting to punish a norm violation is an assertion that it exists and a de facto referendum on the question. There’s rarely some process that can be used to create or test or lobby for the existence of a norm outside of a concrete case.

    On a more narrow issue:

    And one corollary of this is that it shouldn’t be arbitrary. Ten million people tell sexist jokes every day. If you pick one of them, apply maximum punishment to him, and let the other 9.99 million off scot-free, he’s going to think it’s unfair – and he’ll be right. This is directly linked to the fact that there isn’t actually that much of a social norm against telling sexist jokes. My guess is that almost everyone who posts child pornography on Twitter gets in trouble for it, and that’s because there really is a strong anti-child pornography norm.

    I think this is bending over backwards for your prior post. The relevant category isn’t sexist jokes. Sexist jokes exist come in all sorts of contexts. In some they violate norms and in some they don’t. Consider a student telling a sexist joke to his college roommate, a faculty member telling a sexist joke at a lunch table with a few fellow faculty members, a student raising his hand in class and telling a sexist joke, and a professor telling a sexist joke during class to a lecture hall full of students. Each of these situations is quite reasonably subject to a different set of norms. If the professor that tells a sexist joke to a classroom full of captive audience students is punished that isn’t unfair merely because tens of thousands of students are telling sexist jokes in their dorm rooms. Similar things should be treated similarly, but different things should be treated differently.

    The case of the sandwich tweeter is not the same as the case of the dongle joke. He was not telling a joke to his own hand picked audience of friends and overheard by a hostile audience. He deliberately sought the attention of both the target of his nasty joke (by including @ladiesofliberty) and all the members of the conference and those following what was happening at the conference (by including #MakeLibertyWin) in general. The spotlight didn’t just randomly find him, he chased after it.

    1. Randy M

      I agree with pretty much all of what Brad says here. I still have objections to attempts to coerce via appeals to employers, but even allowing for acceptable venues for offensive humor–or counter-cultural views like h-you-know-d–doesn’t mean there is no genuine violation present in the current example.

      Is much of the problem just social media throwing everybody together with no established norms?

  25. manwhoisthursday

    Where most of the West seems to be headed is a 70/30 split for social liberalism/social conservatism. 70/30 is a pretty large majority and means that legal and social norms are going to be heavily tilted towards social liberalism. On the other hand, the 30 percent seems pretty solid. That’s about the percentage of people who want to ban abortion with no, or almost no, exceptions, and that has been stable for decades. It is likely that opposition to gay marriage and disapproval of gay sex will bottom out at about the same percentage.

    The 70 percent seems like it is enough to do whatever you want legally and, to some degree, to set a strong social norm. The problem is that 30 percent of the population is still a hefty portion of the population, and if you simply shit on them continuously, they’ll likely just defect to their own institutions, and you’ll have a bunch of hostile institutions representing 30 percent of the population. That seems like it has the potential to cause a lot of trouble.

    There are divisions too among the 70 percent. Not all of them want to continuously shit on the 30 percent. Not all of them are on board with every last bit of social liberalism.

    So, here we are, on the verge of what I see as an even nastier culture war than we’ve had over the past few decades. And that with an overwhelming majority broadly in favour of social liberalism, well over 51%.

    —–

    The broader point is that norms aren’t established by a strict 51% criteria.

    1. Deiseach

      There are divisions too among the 70 percent.

      Oh, that’s going to be the next fun phase of the culture wars, and I think we’re seeing it flaring up already. Supposing the progressives do beat down the conservatives to a stable 30% who can’t be vanished out of the way but have no social or political clout, then the next targets are going to be those on the edge of the left who are nearest to the centre – the centrists, the liberals, those who can be portrayed as “very nearly on the right themselves” because they will be to the right of the progressive wing.

      And so those who patted themselves on the back for their victory about same-sex marriage are going to find to their shock and dismay that they are the new regressive bigot enemy who must be either converted or crushed. Andrew Sullivan is getting a taste of that, and you know what? I rather like seeing the boot be on the other foot here. I wonder how it feels to wake up one morning and find yourself in the enemy’s shoes, that enemy you so blithely characterised as extremist and hating diversity? The same person who wrote the excerpt below, when nobody was making the argument that “letting gays get married will mean straight people have to get gay-married”, is now insisting that gender is innate, biological, fixed and binary – but Andy, surely the only way recognition of the case for trans rights could delegitimize gender is if cis people were persuaded by law to change their gender, and that’s clearly not true!

      Gay marriage could only delegitimize straight marriage if it were a real alternative to it, and this is clearly not true. To put it bluntly, there’s precious little evidence that straights could be persuaded by any law to have sex with – let alone marry —someone of their own sex.

      But it’s certainly going to be an extremely nasty war.

      1. manwhoisthursday

        I rather like seeing the boot be on the other foot here.

        Yeah, if any individual deserves credit/blame for the legalization of gay marriage, it’s Andrew Sullivan. So, it’s amusing to see him exiled from the goodthinkers.

      2. manwhoisthursday

        It’s also truly amusing to see the New Atheists lumped in with the Christian right on the anti-SJ side.

      3. hoghoghoghoghog

        Sullivan has always considered himself a conservative, so this is a bit less ironic than you suggest.

  26. aynrandysavage

    And one corollary of this is that it shouldn’t be arbitrary. Ten million people tell sexist jokes every day. If you pick one of them, apply maximum punishment to him, and let the other 9.99 million off scot-free, he’s going to think it’s unfair – and he’ll be right. This is directly linked to the fact that there isn’t actually that much of a social norm against telling sexist jokes.

    (this is also how I feel about the war on drugs. One in a thousand marijuana users gets arrested, partly because there isn’t enough political will to punish all marijuana users, partly because nobody really thinks marijuana use is that wrong. But this ends out unfair to the arrested marijuana user, not just because he’s in jail for the same thing a thousand other people did without consequence, but because he probably wouldn’t have done it he’d really expected to be punished, and society was giving him every reason to think he wouldn’t be.)

    This set of norms is self-correcting: if someone does something you don’t like, but there’s not a social norm against it, then your next step should be to create a social norm against it. If you can convince 51% of the community that it’s wrong, then the community can unite against it and you can punish it next time. If you can’t convince 51% of the community that it’s wrong, then you should try harder, not play vigilante and try to enforce your unpopular rules yourself.

    These all seem to be indirectly referencing the “Sandwich” conversation the other day in which a guy who tweeted a sexist joke at a number of prominent libertarian women had his post retweeted by those same women with the goal of alerting potential future employers to his behavior. A few points.

    The comparison here isn’t really apt. The “sandwich” tweeter didn’t just make a sexist joke in private among a close circle of friends. He intentionally broadcast it to female leaders in the liberty movement with the express intent of antagonizing and demeaning them. A better analogy would be of somebody walking right into a police station with a bong and lighting up there while flipping them police off. Maybe one in a thousand marijuana users get arrested, but I imagine every single person who tries to smoke weed in a police station gets arrested. When you’ve got a 100 percent rate of arrest, the “unfairness” argument goes out the window.

    This is directly linked to the fact that there isn’t actually that much of a social norm against telling sexist jokes.

    I’d dispute this assumption as well. Just because something’s prevalent in private circles doesn’t mean that there isn’t a social norm against it. Even granting that there isn’t a categorical proscription of sexist jokes, I can’t imagine how anybody could deny that telling sexist jokes to women you don’t know, or to women in a professional capacity, is not incredibly frowned-upon.

    If you can’t convince 51% of the community that it’s wrong, then you should try harder, not play vigilante and try to enforce your unpopular rules yourself.

    I can only see a pragmatic argument against this (it would be ineffective and a waste of time.) I also don’t know what it means, exactly to “play vigilante.” Again, if we’re talking about the sandwich case, I’d certainly wager that the number of Hiring Managers and/or career-oriented women in the DC non-profit sector who find sexist jokes unacceptable is closer to 100 percent than 51 percent.

    on the other hand, if we try to get the school board to fire her, we’re implicitly endorsing the principle “Get someone fired if you know of a belief of theirs that suggests they’re an otherwise repugnant person” – and isn’t this the same principle that led people to campaign against atheist schoolteachers, pro-gay schoolteachers, communist schoolteachers, etc?

    The problem here isn’t that we’re not justified in removing people from positions of employment where they could be harmful, it’s that we misjudged the harm they were capable of.

    1. nweining

      The situation is a bit more complicated, it seems to me, than “there is a norm” or “there is not a norm”. Sexist jokes are very strongly disapproved of in some social milieux, not in others. The rate of disapproval has increased with time but is still far from 100%. Feminists reasonably wish the rate of disapproval would increase faster. How are they to do that– how is anyone who wants to spread a beneficial and hitherto unevenly observed social norm to do so– if not to apply at least somewhat disproportionate punishment to norm-violators where they get the opportunity? The key phrase here is of course “at least somewhat”; you can believe (as I do) that trying to get people fired goes too far, and still think there has to be some disproportion to make the norm-spreading stick, even if that is in some aggregate sense unfair to those who get punished.

      1. aynrandysavage

        I agree that being somewhat disproportionate has a useful purpose here, but I’m not exactly sure that this is disproportionate.

        From my other post:

        As somebody who works in the liberty movement and makes hiring decisions/supervises employees, I don’t feel any apprehension in saying that I’d be much more reluctant to hire an employee who made public tweets like the “sandwich” tweeter. If I found that one of my direct reports was making sexist comments towards women in affiliated organizations, then I’d have him sit down for a stern disciplinary talk with myself and HR at the very least.

        I’m glad that I know about this guy’s behavior at YALcon. If I ever ended up interviewing him for a position, his behavior here is something I’d want to know about.

        The whole reason we see “trying to get him fired” as unduly harsh is because his comments actually do put his career in jeopardy. They put his career in jeopardy because they were deeply disrespectful and unprofessional. I don’t want to work with disrespectful and unprofessional people. If I’m deciding whether to hire a person, their professional and respect will be at the top of the list of my considerations.

        1. Civilis

          The problem is that the reverse still holds. A lot of people don’t want to work with someone that tries to get people fired over a potentially-offensive joke, because that sort of behavior also signals unprofessional and difficult to work with. Yet I certainly would feel a lot more apprehensive saying I would be more reluctant to hire someone that played the ‘naming and shaming’ game on social media.

          1. aynrandysavage

            If you’re more willing to hire people who make sexist jokes to colleagues than people who shame them on twitter, I can predict with absolute certainty that you don’t work in HR.

          2. Civilis

            No, I don’t work in HR, but I am on good terms with the HR Manager enough to know that ‘being a team player’ counts a lot for a perspective employee. Someone that comes in looking for a problem is not going to get hired.

            We had an issue like that in the small company I work for. Longtime head of IT had ‘monkey’ on his list of generic insults; relatively new junior IT technician was black; predictable results ensued… almost. Turns out the head of HR, also black, had heard enough of the head of IT throwing invective around at others, including corporations and inanimate objects, that he knew the head of IT was like that and the technician’s description of the events didn’t sound like it was racist, merely a poor choice of words, but apparently the technician insisted it was the head or him. I was literally getting off the plane from a month out of the country when the technician’s departure for other work was announced, so I don’t know whether he quit or was fired. From later experience, had the head of IT been let go, the company wouldn’t have lasted a year. As it was, it took a lot of work (and money) to replace the technician.

            There’s a gap between what we say (“I won’t hire anyone stupid enough to joke like that”) and what we do (“I won’t hire anyone stupid enough to joke like that where it will come up in an interview AND I won’t hire anyone that seems oversensitive enough to go to HR over a joke.”) It’s that we can’t say what we really do that causes all the problems.

          3. aynrandysavage

            Your head of HR made an innocuous joke that could be misinterpreted as racist. In this scenario the guy in question made an intentionally sexist tweet and intentionally antagonized women with it. If your head of IT made a sexist joke at the expense of one of his coworkers, I doubt your HR team would be so forgiving.

          4. tscharf

            The question is not whether you hire people for making sexist jokes, it’s whether you fire them. It’s quite unclear how you know someone makes sexist jokes to colleagues when you are hiring them.

            Do you not see how this is screening employees based on class? Not everyone knows HR’s speech codes and people from different classes and regions have different acceptable codes. The reality of the liberal utopia here is knowing the rules, not having moral character, because these are falsely equated.

            My guess is these “rules” aren’t even written down anywhere except in vague platitudes and HR evaluates them on a case by case basis. What makes it really bad is there is no way to even know the rules of artificial niceness in most cases and these rules change constantly.

          5. Civilis

            Your head of HR made an innocuous joke that could be misinterpreted as racist. In this scenario the guy in question made an intentionally sexist tweet and intentionally antagonized women with it. If your head of IT made a sexist joke at the expense of one of his coworkers, I doubt your HR team would be so forgiving.

            Yes, and the company would have gone out of business, a much better outcome for all involved. Again, the only reason this didn’t end in disaster was the head of HR happened to be both reasonable and immune to the specific allegation of racism.

            It’s very prevalent on the right for people to hate corporate HR departments, and while I understand the anger, I think it’s often misplaced, especially for small, well-run companies. A good HR person wants the company to succeed. Somebody that can’t keep his mouth shut is frequently much less of a problem to work with and less of a direct threat to the company than someone looking for excuses to sue the company.

            The idea that making it easy for certain groups to allege discrimination ultimately makes those groups less likely to be hired isn’t new. The problem is that it’s something that nobody can officially admit to doing, and so of course it’s hard to prove.

          6. Brad

            The question is not whether you hire people for making sexist jokes,

            Isn’t that *exactly* the question at hand?

          7. Brad

            What I meant was sandwich guy isn’t currently working for anyone and the conversation is explicitly about sandwich guy. So it seems the question is hiring not firing.

          8. aynrandysavage

            The question is not whether you hire people for making sexist jokes, it’s whether you fire them. It’s quite unclear how you know someone makes sexist jokes to colleagues when you are hiring them.

            In the case of sandwich guy, we already have strong evidence that he’d make sexist jokes to colleagues because he’s already on the record as having done so.

            Do you not see how this is screening employees based on class? Not everyone knows HR’s speech codes and people from different classes and regions have different acceptable codes. The reality of the liberal utopia here is knowing the rules, not having moral character, because these are falsely equated.

            You’re creating a false dichotomy. Just because “don’t disrespect women” is not a universally held-norm does not mean disrespecting women is not inherently immoral.

            My guess is these “rules” aren’t even written down anywhere except in vague platitudes and HR evaluates them on a case by case basis. What makes it really bad is there is no way to even know the rules of artificial niceness in most cases and these rules change constantly

            I just re-read my own organization’s employee “code of conduct” handbook. The rules about sexual harassment and derogatory language were fairly clear and unambiguous. I don’t know what organization you work for where the rules about whether it’s acceptable to make derogatory comments towards women “constantly change” but it certainly does’t sound like a healthy one.

          9. aynrandysavage

            Yes, and the company would have gone out of business, a much better outcome for all involved.

            So where do you draw the line? What if he actually were a racist? What if he actually physically assaulted an employee of color? Does being “indispensable” to the company mean that he can get away with any illicit activities he wants?

      2. manwhoisthursday

        There’s also the problem that sexist jokes are more tolerated in all male spaces than in mixed company. In fact, PC has a very tenuous purchase in general among males in the West. It’s trivially easy to find even liberal males who hate PC. So, even if feminists succeed in banishing sexist jokes from mixed spaces, they don’t really have much hold on all-male spaces, especially given that self-identified male feminists, with a few ultra high status exceptions, tend to be one of the most sorry groupings of humanity you will ever meet.

        1. The Nybbler

          The revealed feminist position on all-male spaces is they shouldn’t exist (except maybe men’s toilets).

          1. eyeballfrog

            I was under the impression the men’s bathrooms needed to be converted to “gender-neutral” bathrooms.

        2. andrewflicker

          I think you’ve got a (possibly college or bay area?) skewed view of male feminists. I am one, as are most of my male colleagues (judging purely from self-declaration, here). We’ve got body-builders and athletes, most of us are married fathers, strong incomes, etc.,- not obviously a group I’d call “one of the most sorry groupings of humanity you will ever meet”. If anything, I’d say on average we’re fairly high-status sorts in the traditional metrics.

          1. manwhoisthursday

            I don’t deny your experience, but I have to ask who has the skewed view of self-declared male feminists.

          2. eyeballfrog

            Do you call yourselves male feminists because you assume that “feminism = equality” or because you think Amanda Marcotte has a reasonable model of reality.

          3. JonathanD

            @eyeballfrog, you didn’t ask me, but as my experience is very similar to andrewflicker’s, I’ll answer. My favorite definition for feminism is one I ran across a while back. “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

            Which is a long-winded way of saying that yes, I think that feminism = equality.

          4. The Nybbler

            My favorite definition for feminism is one I ran across a while back. “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

            This strawmans non-feminists (nearly all of whom believe women are people), and is often used as the motte in a motte-and-bailey. You can’t get from the notion that women are people to the idea that it’s a serious offense to dismissively suggest women are best employed making sandwiches; only people make sandwiches.

          5. John Schilling

            My favorite definition for feminism is one I ran across a while back. “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

            I absolutely hate that definition.

            Almost all of politics is based on legitimate disagreements about how people should be treated. Only at the extreme fringes do you get Nazis calling for subjugation or extermination of literal untermenschen. Mostly, it’s about e.g. who should pay for a person’s routine medical expenses. If one side takes the legitimate position, that, unless indigent, a person should pay for their own pills, this gets applied to contraception, and Team Feminism offers an indignant “I see we need to introduce you to the radical notion that women are people!”, then we have left the path of reason, nobody is going to be persuaded or informed, and you have poisoned the debate.

            I propose the “radical” notion that women are people, and that no person should be alternately coddled and privileged in the way feminists would have us do for women. And then I usually try to express it in a less toxic manner.

          6. lvlln

            This conversation reminds me of a comment by Milo, which I took to be depressingly spot on. He noted that some recent-at-the-time polls (in UK, I think? Or maybe UK & US?) showed that the % of both men and women who supported the notion of equality between the sexes was higher than the % of both men and women who identified as “feminist,” and that this was an indication that people are so wary of the bad acts by self-described feminists that even though they actually do support feminism, they’d refuse it if labeled as such.

            FWIW, I identify as feminist based on the idea of equality between the sexes, and I don’t shy away from the label, but I can’t fault others for the wariness, because the damage caused by the loudest and most influential people under that banner has been shameful. My experience with other male feminists mostly matches that of andrewflicker, but I also think that the ones that you’re most likely to encounter online tend not to match our experience, though I think manwhoisthursday’s description as “with a few ultra high status exceptions, tend to be one of the most sorry groupings of humanity you will ever meet” is rather hyperbolic and needlessly inflammatory. IMHO.

          7. roystgnr

            Polls which ask “are you a feminist or not” suggest that about a quarter of people are feminists, and half are not.

            Polls which ask “are you a strong feminist, a feminist, not a feminist, or an anti-feminist” suggest that about a third of people are plain feminists, a seventh are ‘strong’ feminists, and not quite half are non- (including a small fraction of anti-) feminists.

            I linked to one of each poll, but IIRC there are multiple polls of each type with fairly consistent results.

            The simplest explanation seems to be that about 14% of Americans are ‘strong’ feminists, and about 11% are ‘not strong but not ashamed’ feminists, and a full 23% are ‘feminists, but only if there’s no chance you’ll mistake me for one of those feminists’. By extrapolation we can surmise that there might also be a pretty big ‘would have said feminist if you’d stuck to the women-are-people definition’ subset in the ‘non-feminist’ block. If the motte-and-bailey conflation in this case was deliberate, it appears to have seriously backfired.

          8. albatross11

            eyeballfrog:

            By that definition, you almost can’t find any non-feminists in the US. Even people who think women ought to be subordinate to men in most situations, that a woman’s place is in the home, etc., agree that they’re people–crimes against them should be treated as actual crimes, they should have the protection of the courts and laws, etc.

            When I hear someone describe themselves as a feminist, I assume a number of positions which usually (but not always) go with that–a belief that current social arrangements are oppressive toward women, that womens’ lower average income and lower rate of participation in some fields is a serious social problem needing a government solution, that gendered toys and upbringing for children are a bad thing, etc.

          9. andrewflicker

            Apologies for the late reply- I call myself a feminist because I genuinely believe that women deserve equal social respect/worth, and that various sub-societies including common ones present in the US frequently disadvantage women in ways that are harmful to the individual women and net harmful to society. I don’t think women are *uniformly* disadvantaged, or anything crazy like that, and I disagree with plenty of radical feminists like the late Dworkin. I place myself within the fairly common strain of modern feminism that largely seeks equality between the sexes and an increase in opportunity for everyone- that men aren’t shamed for home-making because home-making isn’t tarred as a nasty feminine thing, and that women aren’t shamed for being career superstars that cruelly neglect their infants (to give a taste of the hyperbole I’ve heard from more traditionalist acquaintances/relatives).

            Most of my male colleagues are nowhere near as well-read in feminist literature or general philosophy as I am- but they’ve absorbed enough of this rather boring mainstream feminism that they’d describe their reasoning as similar.

            Notably, they are *not* the extreme self-parodying version of feminism that you might often see online- outside of a few bastions, that sort of feminist is rather thin on the ground (and I say that having attended a few philosophy courses in California and at ASU that significantly included feminist work, where you’d think the density would be much higher).

            Generally speaking most of our wives are even *less* feminist than we are, by the usual metrics, since most of them are stay-at-home moms (my wife and I are the only childfree exception in my close work circle).

          10. Randy M

            to give a taste of the hyperbole I’ve heard from more traditionalist acquaintances/relatives

            You’ve actually heard these people say either femininity or homemaking was nasty? ime, these sentiments are more likely to come from “feminists” than “traditionalists”

          11. andrewflicker

            Quoting albatross: “When I hear someone describe themselves as a feminist, I assume a number of positions which usually (but not always) go with that–a belief that current social arrangements are oppressive toward women, that womens’ lower average income and lower rate of participation in some fields is a serious social problem needing a government solution, that gendered toys and upbringing for children are a bad thing, etc.”

            These are flawed assumptions. I think most feminists would probably agree with some version of the first (current social arrangements oppressive to women) but wouldn’t phrase it so universally, and would often include a caveat about how it harms men too. A common phrase might be something like “modern patriarchal society prevents a lot of women from achieving their potential, and pushes both men and women into traditional roles that might make them unhappy or unproductive, or worse”.

            Your second point is several mixed assumptions- some feminists might believe that womens’ income/participation is a serious problem requiring gov intervention, but many also believe that only the participation is a problem, and that it can/should be remedied by private practice/shame. Some others believe that income is a problem, but participation isn’t (these are the people that think that companies just decide to pay more to male-valence jobs, etc., but not that women should have to do them). I’d say most feminists, myself included, are strongly in favor of laws preventing deliberate discrimination based on sex or gender (which does not prevent companies from requirements that might bias against women, such as the ability to lift 60lbs regularly, etc.), but not in favor of quotas. (A sizable minority approve of quotas in politics, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish.)

            Your third point, about gendered toys, is similarly flawed. Many feminists believe *forcing* children to use gendered toys is inappropriate, and that boys and girls do better when offered and encouraged to play in a wide variety of ways. Many are offended when companies appear to “assume” that children will only want highly-gendered toys (whether or not that is true). But that’s a far cry from the belief that gendered toys are *inherently* bad, regardless of how they are used/sold/marketed.

          12. andrewflicker

            Randy M: What I meant was that I’ve heard people excoriate men for home-making, calling it weak, harmful, degrading, etc.

            EDIT – Man, I wish these things threaded better when down this many sublevels.

          13. Randy M

            Very well, that’s more clear.

            Do you think there is anything to the theory that women, moreso than men, are innately inclined to desire men more when they have higher status and income, and that this plays a role in men devaluing homemaking as a masculine option?

            For myself, if you can pay the bills on one income and the tikes aren’t breastfeeding, then it is really no different who is primarily providing care and who is earning the income–except that you are doing the opposite of what is the more typical instinct in both cases. But all secondary sexual characteristics, especially mental, are on a spectrum and it is certainly possible that for any particular couple their instincts are not the norm. Hyperbolic Patriarchs might give you crap for it, but you surely know there are hyperbolic Feminists who will give stay-at-home mothers crap just as easily.

            But I would push back against the assertion that a default assumption is some kind of oppression.

          14. AnonYEmous

            andrewflicker:

            do you believe that gender is a social construct, and if so, how much of a blank slatist are you?

          15. albatross11

            andrewflicker:

            One problem here is that a political label tends to be defined by its most visible adherents and their most visible actions. If “feminist” means thinking people should be free to live their lives as they like w.r.t. sex roles (women can work if they want, men can stay home with the kids if they want) and that employers and schools ought not to discriminate on the basis of sex, then I’m a feminist, and so are probably 95% of the rest of the people in these comment threads. It’s actually really hard to find people who don’t agree with that. You will find very few such people even in a conservative Catholic parish or at a Tea Party rally. But that’s sure not the way I understand the term in practice in US politics or society.

        3. A Definite Beta Guy

          In the campaign, this was referred to as “locker room talk.” Several athletes came out and said this doesn’t happen in locker rooms.

          I’m, personally, with you. Most guy groups I meet make sexist jokes all the time. There are actually very few guys around whom I DON’T think sexist jokes are made….they aren’t the sorry sort, but they are definitely socially ostracized and seen as extremely uptight.

          I think I’ve met one self-identified male feminist, and he is a pretty fun guy, but he also thinks all cops are pigs, and was briefly banned from FB (I believe for making jokes to that effect).

          Even female feminists are pretty rare. I think I know 3. Most women don’t seem to care enough to loudly identify as “feminist.”

          1. Gobbobobble

            In the campaign, this was referred to as “locker room talk.” Several athletes came out and said this doesn’t happen in locker rooms.

            Professionals, maybe. The issue with the “locker room talk” line isn’t that it was false, it’s that it reflects a (Jr) High School level of maturity.

          2. manwhoisthursday

            “Several athletes came out and said this doesn’t happen in locker rooms”

            “[T]hey aren’t the sorry sort, but they are definitely socially ostracized and seen as extremely uptight”

            I remember a few progressive anti-Trump Evangelical types who said they had never heard this sort of thing. Growing up in a religious community of that type myself, I mostly believe them, but question how representative their experience is.

            As for the athletes, I think that was a “first rule of fight club is not to talk about fight club” thing, because I was also involved with sports quite a bit in the larger community, and I know how just how crude the locker room can get.

            Locker room talk is pretty common in lots of hyper-masculine adult domains.

          3. Doctor Mist

            The issue with the “locker room talk” line isn’t that it was false, it’s that it reflects a (Jr) High School level of maturity.

            Hah! I was just about to observe that I have actually heard that kind of talk in the locker room, but the last time I was in a locker room was high school.

            On another topic, back during the election, on another blog, I mooted the idea that Trump never meant his line to be taken literally, that “grab them by the pussy” was a crude and dismissive metaphor, much like talking about a man who lets himself get pulled around by his dick, rather than an actual claim to have committed sexual assault. The idea didn’t get much traction, but I still think it’s the best reading of the remarks.

          4. Matt M

            I think I’ve met one self-identified male feminist, and he is a pretty fun guy, but he also thinks all cops are pigs, and was briefly banned from FB (I believe for making jokes to that effect).

            This.

            I suspect that there are some people who do not make, or hang around people who make, sexist jokes. And some people for whom that is true for racist jokes. And some for who that is true for religious jokes. And some for who that is true of sexuality jokes. And some for who that is true of profession jokes.

            But I suspect there is literally nobody who is completely intolerant of all forms of humor based in stereotype or exaggeration. The tactics are the same, the target merely changes. The same people who were so offended at Trump’s comments which objectify women have little problem associating with those who blithely discussing “bathing in male tears” and “white libertarian shitlords” etc.

          5. The Nybbler

            If by “locker room talk” we’re talking about discussions of which women the speaker has and/or intends to have sex with, descriptions of their physical characteristics, and explicit descriptions of the acts the speaker has done or intends to do to/with the women in question, this absolutely happens in locker rooms (and other all-male situations).

            Maybe not professional/high level collegiate locker rooms, because they’ve learned there are often reporters around.

          6. Matt M

            I mooted the idea that Trump never meant his line to be taken literally

            Wait – people thought that was meant literally??

            I’m hardly an expert on the female anatomy (insert joke here), but that seems like…. uh…. not the body part most suitable for grabbing if you wish to obtain control of someone? Like, anatomically speaking, it’s hard to get a grip…. ok, I’ll just stop now.

          7. Matt M

            Maybe not professional/high level collegiate locker rooms, because they’ve learned there are often reporters around.

            This was my observation back when this was the fresh story and NFL players came out and said “We don’t talk like that in our locker room.”

            Like DUH, of course you don’t. Because the first person who tried would be suspended by the league and raked over the coals by ESPN for several weeks after a nearby female reporter became incredibly offended.

          8. manwhoisthursday

            I took the Trump statement as being hypothetical: if you’re famous and powerful enough, many (though definitely not all!) women are happy to let you touch them in the crotch without much in the way of preliminaries.

            Sadly, I think that is actually true, though I also think it a really bad idea for famous and powerful men to test this out in reality, given the obvious fact that a significant number of women are not going to be at all happy with that sort of thing.

          9. manwhoisthursday

            I have no doubt that professional athletes have to be on their p’s and q’s when reporters are around, like after a game, but reporters aren’t always around. I doubt the talk is quite so restrained then.

          10. tscharf

            I think locker room talk is how the bulk of everyone in Trump’s generation learned how to reproduce. Sex education wasn’t even allowed. It’s my understanding there is a biological basis for attraction to the opposite sex but I guess knowing the right speech codes might work for some people. If people think what Trump did was exceptional they might want to learn the statistics on Internet searches and bandwidth usage. The Internet is one massive demented locker room and that reflects human nature as it is, not as some wish it to be.

          11. Doctor Mist

            Wait – people thought that was meant literally??

            Oh yeah. Or at least they pretended to.

            the body part most suitable for grabbing

            Well, that’s what I thought, too, but I’ve led a pretty sedate life and I didn’t want to seem naive.

            For the post a couple of days ago, I started by doing a lot of googling to convince myself that the sandwich in question was literally a sandwich and not a threesome.

          12. HeelBearCub

            What the heck are you guys on?

            First off, if you can’t imagine how one can “grab a woman by the pussy”, you aren’t very imaginative. Be face to face. Face the palm of your hand towards their body. Place the heel of your hand on their mons pubis. Cup your fingers so they rest on the labia or clitoris. Apply pressure through the clothing, If they are wearing a dress or something of sufficiently pliant material, you may even be able to insert one or more digits into their vagina slightly. If she actually desires this activity, it can be mildly to extremely pleasurable, depending on how much sexual desire and how little sexual experience is present.

            Trump clearly was bragging that he could literally do this to women he had just been introduced to without repercussions. Whether this was merely bragging or a description of something he had actually done is not proved by the recording, but I know my money would be on his having done it when he felt like he could.

            This is the kind of thing sufficiently drunk and/or horny guys do in topless bars or brothels which then gets them firmly escorted out, at the very least.

          13. The Nybbler

            Yes, I was thinking Trump was bragging about doing just what HBC described. I can’t see even Trump managing to do it without objection as a first move, but maybe I’m still underestimating celebrity.

          14. liskantope

            It may seem infeasible to do while standing but it sounds quite easy to do when both people are sitting and facing each other. (Can’t believe I’m actually seeing a discussion on SSC going this route, probably shouldn’t be participating in it at all :P).

            Either way, things are very ambiguous — it’s quite plausible that this is something Trump has literally done, while it could also be a metaphor or exaggeration. I have to say that Trump didn’t help his case for mere metaphorical/exaggerated “locker-room talk” during the second debate when Anderson Cooper started grilling him about it and Trump avoided for as long as he could answering whether he’d actually done it.

          15. tscharf

            I suggest people watch a few “30 for 30” documentaries on ESPN if they think athletes aren’t targeted by groupies with the specific intention of wanting to be groped and having even further relations (gasp) with a celebrity. There is apparently a subscription website that reports when and where athletes go out and the groupies show up. The same was true (and probably still is) for rock stars.

            Some women will allow this and intentionally attract it. Turn your head ahead away if you want, but it happens. What is missing here is that all women are also not created of equal moral character. Maybe they are looking for a good time or a good husband. It doesn’t mean it is proper or that celebrities should engage in this behavior even if it is invited.

            It’s unclear to me whether this debate is about the existence of women who allow this type of groping, that someone falsely stated that these women exist, that someone falsely believes all women allow this, or that someone is of low moral character if they do this even when it is invited. I think we can agree it is improper to do this when it isn’t invited, but I don’t think that is what this debate really is.

          16. AnonYEmous

            The crux of this debate is essentially as follows: women who behave in an unladylike fashion are good, or at least fine, and criticizing them is wrong, but men who behave in an ungentlemanlike fashion are the worst.

            Oh, sure, you can find those who think the event as described was sexual assault (I think HBC is one of those people), but the fact that he said “they let you” in the quote pretty much sinks that argument right out of the gate. So it’s just a toxic mix of conservative chivalry and liberal empowerment doctrine, which produces a cute double standard – women can accept terrible behavior and even desire it, or allow it to happen, but men who do it are the worst, even if the women wanted it.

            Oh, and in case this all sounds too pat – I challenge anyone to prove me wrong. What’s your problem with the incident?

          17. A Definite Beta Guy

            maybe I’m still underestimating celebrity.

            You are probably underestimating celebrity, and taking “first move” too literally. For two reasons:
            1. Women who are assaulted by a celebrity will fear reporting it.
            2. There exist women who are extremely open sexually within minutes of meeting them.

            Either case is sufficient for the “grab em by the pussy” comment to be an event that actually happens, relatively soon in a first meeting, if not a first move.

      3. Mary

        “The rate of disapproval has increased with time but is still far from 100%. Feminists reasonably wish the rate of disapproval would increase faster.”

        Eh, at least some of them wish for half of them to remain. Only jokes that are sexist against women should be disapproved of

  27. John Schilling

    One solution here might be to give people the burden of demonstrating that their controversial opinions won’t lead to dangerous actions. For example, if Alice is a nurse, she might say “I don’t believe hand hygiene matters, and I’m going to try to convince the hospital administration to remove their rule mandating handwashing – but until I succeed, I’ll follow the rules and wash my hands just like everyone else.” If I trusted Alice, this would allay my concerns,

    But why would you trust Alice, when you’ve just given her a huge motive to lie?

    If the goal is to “allay your concerns” and make you feel good in three-monkeys sense about the sanitary conditions in hospitals, this may work. If the goal is to A: make sure everybody actually is washing their hands, B: make sure the handwashing isn’t just a giant hoax by that idiot Semmelweis, and C: promote a useful free speech norm, I think the burden of proof has to go in the other direction – like it does in e.g. courts of law, and for about the same reason.

    If we assume that there are people who genuinely aren’t going to wash their hands before surgery even though that presently is the rule, but put the burden of proof on the prosecution and assume that Alice’s talk is just talk until shown to be otherwise, then we’ve got to actually check and see whether she is washing her hands before surgery. Which should be doing in any event, and this way we’ll know we have to do it if we want our concerns allayed. Meanwhile, we can have an open discussion about the actual merits of handwashing and decide whether it is really what we should be doing.

    Putting the burden of proof on Alice means giving all the actual non-handwashers a free pass(*) so long as they either A: perform the Ritual of Compliance Assurance to acceptable standards or B: keep their mouth shut outside the anonymous handwashing-skeptic message boards. Meanwhile, it has a chilling effect on people hoping to conduct an honest inquiry into whether handwashing is really a good thing, even while washing their hands so long as the issue is in doubt, because if they don’t perform the RoCA to acceptable standards (which will be vague and informal) they will be fired. So you won’t actually know whether handwashing is a good idea, and you won’t know what the level of anti-handwashing sentiment among nurses is, and you won’t get a useful cue as to whether you need to be stepping up your handwashing enforcement in the OR. But your concerns will be allayed, because you won’t hear any dissent and because you somehow trust the person you just told to shut up or lie if she wants to keep her job.

    If there is a rule, the burden of proof should be on whoever would accuse someone else of breaking the rule. If someone speaks out against a rule, the presumption should be that this is mere advocacy and they are nonetheless obeying the rule until proven otherwise. These aren’t just the law, they are good ideas.

    * Pedantically, there will always be some level of enforcement, some possibility that a fellow nurse will notice them failing to wash their hands, so take “actual non-handwashers” to mean people who wouldn’t be deterred by this default or baseline enforcement level.

    1. Douglas Knight

      If there is a rule, the burden of proof should be on whoever would accuse someone else of breaking the rule. If someone speaks out against a rule, the presumption should be that this is mere advocacy and they are nonetheless obeying the rule until proven otherwise. These aren’t just the law, they are good ideas.

      I’m pretty sure that’s what Scott meant. As you say, Bob can keep his mouth shut. The ritual of compliance isn’t to grant Alice any more protection than Bob, but to put them in the same position, dispelling a cloud that might linger over her. Whether we actually need a ritual of compliance depends on whether people, both advocates and authorities, actually make the presumption of mere advocacy.

    2. Janet

      I would describe this in terms of authority: the hospital has the authority to insist that its employees follow its policies, while at work; but it has no authority over its employees outside of work. So the hospital has the authority to insist on handwashing at work, and the responsibility to conduct some level of checking to ensure it happens, but it shouldn’t be able to punish its employees for what they do at home.

      (Perhaps a better example is anti-vaxxers: the hospital can require that its employees administer vaccines to patients, but shouldn’t have any authority to try and make their employees vaccinate their children, not post on anti-vaxxer sites, not lobby to change the mandatory vaccination laws, etc. That’s the nearest equivalent to what happened to Brendan Eich, or Larry Garfield.)

      For this to actually “work”, though, it has to be really possible for people who don’t agree with the hospital’s policies to find work elsewhere. That is, society must, both de jure and de facto be decentralized enough that people can sort themselves more-or-less how they want, and that authority figures don’t have the power or right to rampage through every corner of their lives seeking WrongThink.

      1. Matt M

        For this to actually “work”, though, it has to be really possible for people who don’t agree with the hospital’s policies to find work elsewhere.

        It also has to be possible to somehow enforce whether the hospital is exceeding its authority or not.

        In an era where employers are now all but openly admitting that they hire based on “cultural fit” rather than technical qualifications, this probably becomes difficult. So when they fire the anti-vaxxer because they “don’t fit our culture,” they aren’t even necessarily lying, are they?

          1. Matt M

            No, but what’s new is them publicly admitting it and society acting like this is a really cool and acceptable thing while simultaneously demanding equal racial, ethnic, religious, sexuality, and gender representation among workforces.

  28. Denis Rancourt

    I bet some of you would find this my article helpful on this question:

    http://dissidentvoice.org/2016/11/towards-a-rational-legal-philosophy-of-individual-rights/

    Towards a Rational Legal Philosophy of Individual Rights

    by Denis Rancourt / November 15th, 2016

    Summary: I briefly describe the anthropological origin and recent statutory embodiments of human rights of individuals. I show that the modern “democratic” state moderates the rights of individuals by both: (1) violating the said rights in order to maintain and enforce the societal dominance hierarchy, and (2) preventing disproportionate violations, to avoid inciting rebellion. The courts are charged with these tasks but must not appear to represent an oppressive state. The courts’ practical solution has been to develop the legal artifice of “balancing conflicting rights”, where the court presents itself as a neutral arbitrator providing “access to justice”, rather than the enforcer that it is. I develop several examples involving the human rights of freedom of thought, expression, and movement, and the right to a fair trial. I show that the said legal artifice is best dismantled by a method of compartmentalization where a given act producing harm that is a crime (or offence or civil liability) is compartmentalized into its distinct elements that either constitute the crime or are human-rights freedoms that are not in play at trial or in sentencing.

  29. tjohnson314

    Scott’s suggestion about not enforcing idiosyncratic rules reminded me of an incident with a conservative writer on Quora, who recently was banned for a couple of weeks. Among his offences was misgendering Chelsea Manning.

    He complained (post since deleted, so I’m going from memory) that “deadnaming” and “misgendering” are crimes that only a very small, very liberal, very influential segment of the population cares about. In other words, there’s not a social norm against them yet.

    And yet Quora chooses to ban people for this, and if I’m not mistaken, Scott does the same in this comment section.

    To be clear, given the harm that misgendering causes to trans people, I agree that it should be banned. But this means that perhaps we do have some idiosyncratic rules that we enforce, even on a larger majority that disagrees.

    Or maybe one could argue that within the rationalist community, misgendering is against social norms. Then we might be justified in applying that social norm to anyone who wants to come visit our “safe space”, even if we don’t enforce it on conversations in the rest of the world.

    1. Matt M

      I think the issue here is that Quora (I assume, I’m not actually sure on this) presumably claims neutrality.

      Scott says that 4chan, safe spaces, and SSC can all exist with their own specific norms, and that’s a good thing. I agree with him on this.

      I think it gets contentious when some venue pops up that claims to be a neutral source, that claims to want to host opinions from all across the spectrum, that says “safe space people AND free speech people AND rationalists can all come here and debate each other on neutral terms” – but actually enforces the rules the exact same way the safe spaces do, that people start to get really mad.

      If Quora openly identified itself as a social-justice advocacy site, I think this conservative writer would probably shut up and go somewhere else (or, more likely, would have never gone there in the first place). I think if Twitter and Facebook and other similar such sites just admitted they are very left-leaning and that they support significantly more restrictions on free speech (not just on their own sites, but for society in general), well, criticism of them would’t vanish overnight but I do think it would eventually die down a bit.

      1. eyeballfrog

        The criticism would be different. Currently, for a lot of sites like facebook, reddit, and twitter, they claim to support the open exchange of ideas, then ban or sanction the ones they don’t like. Now as private entities it is perfectly within their rights to censor anything for any reason. However, it is fraudulent (in the ethical, not legal, sense) for them to then claim to be supporters of free speech. This is the basis for the current criticism: that these sites are liars.

        If they were open in their suppression of conservative ideas, then the criticism would switch to saying that they shouldn’t do that. That as forms of mass communication that a large fraction of the public uses, they should support the ideal of free speech, rather than speech they like.

        Again, ultimately as private entities these sites have no obligation to provide an open platform for speech. Nevertheless, we should still praise those sites that do, and especially criticize those who claim to but don’t.

    2. Nornagest

      Deadnaming? I haven’t heard that one before. I’m guessing it refers to using an openly trans individual’s old name rather than their current one, e.g. Bradley for Chelsea Manning?

      1. gbdub

        That is my understanding. What I’m not sure has an official ruling is how one ought to refer to notable things the person did under their now-dead name.

        Like, clearly it would be rude to go up to Caitlyn Jenner and insist on calling her Bruce. But is it wrong to say, “Bruce Jenner was the winner of the 1976 men’s decathlon?”

        Would it make sense to do what we do for maiden names, e.g. “Caitlyn (née Bruce) Jenner”? At least for people who lived enough of their lives under a previous name to be notable?

        1. Randy M

          What I’m not sure has an official ruling

          Can you point me towards the office in question so I might inquire?

        2. Conrad Honcho

          To my understanding, the polite thing to do is to match the name and pronouns to the identification at the time. So,

          Bradley Manning leaked military secrets and he went to jail.

          Chelsea Manning had her sentence commuted a few months ago.

          1. random832

            This doesn’t seem to be true at all from what I have been able to find. e.g.

            One could argue that the media routinely ‘getting it wrong’ is in itself reasonably sufficient evidence that there’s not as uniform agreement on best practice as this appears to suggest there is, but I can’t fathom how you could come to conclusion that a practice people routinely object to is “the polite thing”

          2. Conrad Honcho

            Well there you go. This is what I was told by a trans person. I have no idea what to do then.

          3. random832

            Probably the safe thing to do is ask and not generalize the answer to any other individuals, but that unfortunately doesn’t resolve what to do for someone you’re not in a position to ask.

            Probably applying them retroactively is the option least likely to piss people off if it turns out to be wrong.

          4. Aapje

            I think that the people who favor deadnaming want people to pretend that Bradley Manning never existed. To me this strict norm seems like censorship and very impractical for many reasons.

            I don’t accept the right by people to dictate what I cannot talk about. Of course when there is no reason to talk about a person’s past there is no reason to drag that up, but that is no different from the generic norm to not be an asshole about sensitive things in people’s pasts.

            So I think that Conrad’s policy makes most sense, also from a language point of view (I get language dysphoria if I have to use nonsensical constructs, like referring to Bradley’s as she or single people as ‘they’ or other such things).

            @random832

            This norm is for talking about people, not to people, so the person will usually/often not be present to ask. That is why we need a generic norm and can’t have a person-specific norm.

    3. carvenvisage

      misgendering

      Given the Orwellian term advocates choose to use our prior should be that they are less interested in harms and more interested in asserting their (group’s) authority.

      Like, imagine if “holocaust denial” was called holohoaxing.

      -Baking your conclusion into the very terms you use is like the absolute clearest signal that you are up to no good.

      (Note that I said “prior” and “signal”, not conclusion and proof, so I’m not quote, “Misgendering”, unquote, anyone, even indirectly.)

      1. Hyzenthlay

        Baking your conclusion into the very terms you use is like the absolute clearest signal that you are up to no good.

        What would be a good alternative term though? “Calling people by pronouns they don’t want to be called” is kind of a mouthful.

      2. hlynkacg

        Baking your conclusion into the very terms you use is like the absolute clearest signal that you are up to no good.

        I was just about to make a similar point.

        I agree with Gbdub that it would be rude to go up to Caitlyn Jenner and insist on calling them “Bruce”, so I’m not going to do that. However, the more trans-activists complain about the use of “them” instead of “her” the more I feel the need to dig in my heels. Bruce Jenner won the 1976 men’s decathlon and there are four lights not five.

        1. Randy M

          Especially since this is a very relevant factor. By calling the winner of the Olympics in 1976 a her instead of a him you are giving a false fact about the world. Once Winston Smith gets done updating the history books, people will look at the record and say “Wow, a women was the fastest runner in 1976! I guess testosterone isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We really are equivalent.”

          1. Matt M

            You say this like it’s absurd, but I’m pretty sure that is, in fact, how we are supposed to view this.

            Isn’t the PC story that Bruce was always a woman, he was just pretending to be Bruce? Therefore, the winner of the mens decathlon in 1976 was, in fact, a woman.

          2. Randy M

            I do think it is absurd, but I also agree that it is intentional. Cue Dalrymple’s quote about communist propaganda:

            In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, not to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity.

            Isn’t the PC story that Bruce was always a woman, he was just pretending to be Bruce?

            Yes; in fact, it’s suspicious for you to even want words that create distinctions between trans and cis women.

          3. Matt M

            Right. If LeBron James “came out” as trans tomorrow, then the best basketball player in the world would be a woman. Period. And anyone who says otherwise is a horrible bigot.

  30. dodrian

    No doubt evangelicals honestly think that gay rights crusaders are bad people; does this justify personal attacks against them?

    Could you change this sentence to read ‘some evangelicals’? I’ve known some evangelicals who do think that, I’ve also known some who don’t think gay rights crusaders are bad people but wish they’d stop, and I’ve even known a few who volunteer with LGBT+ rights organizations.

    1. liskantope

      Or it could be replaced with something like “extreme socially conservative evangelicals” or even “the Westboro Baptist Church”. (I also know an evangelical who is very active in LGBT+ rights.)

  31. Bugmaster

    Safe spaces, 4chan, and this blog are three very different kinds of intentional communities with unusual but locally-well-defined free speech norms, they’re all good for the people who use them, and as long as they keep to themselves I don’t think outsiders have any right to criticize their existence.

    Ok, I’ll bite.

    The standard argument against 4chan (as well as this blog and safe spaces) is that it is a place where horrible people can go to amplify, disseminate, and refine their horrible ideas. If they are allowed to exist, then the fraction of people in our society who hold these horrible ideas will continue to increase. Granted, there might be some upper limit to this fraction; it may never reach 100% or even 50%. However, people who hold horrible ideas eventually end up committing horrible actions, up to and including violence; thus, by allowing 4chan (or whatever) to exist, we are implicitly endorsing violence, and are complicit in the injuries and deaths that follow. Thus, it is best to crush such evil, horrible subcultures early, before they can get any traction. Doing so is not merely a “right”, but a moral imperative.

    This is the standard argument against free speech, as far as I understand it.

    1. eyeballfrog

      > However, people who hold horrible ideas eventually end up committing horrible actions, up to and including violence

      I don’t think the conclusion follows from the premise here.

      1. Bugmaster

        We can expand this statement into two sub-clauses; the people who advance this argument would AFAICT endorse both:

        1). Horrible beliefs are often horrible because they dehumanize some demographic group. Dehumanizing a group leads to increased violence toward the people in the group. Note that this violence doesn’t need to be enacted by the person who does the dehumanizing — it could be enacted by someone else, who buys into his horrible ideology and therefore doesn’t think that it’s a big deal to go beat up some of “those freaks”.

        2). Alternatively, horrible beliefs could promote some deviant behavior (such as e.g. not washing your hands) which, while not targeted at anyone in particular, will nonetheless cause widespread death or injury down the line.

    2. Gobbobobble

      That argument sounds an awful lot like the fearmongering spread around about violence in video games

      1. eyeballfrog

        I mean, part of the trigger for the whole ants incident was the fact that a lot of feminist video game “criticism” had just taken Jack Thompson and replaced violence with sexism.

  32. honhonhonhon

    If you idiosyncratically believe something is wrong, or you’re part of a subculure that believes something is wrong even though there are opposite subcultures that don’t agree – then trying to enforce your idiosyncratic rules by punishing anyone who breaks them is a bad idea.

    You have a typo at “subculure”.

    First mover problem – how do you know if your opinion is dominant or not without trying out? It seems to me that the worst censorship currently is exactly groups which believe they represent the majority and are trying to censor everything in sight to fulfill your criterion about punishing all transgressors and not just isolated martyrs. Unfortunately they’re not the majority so they mostly end up purging their own enclaves and isolated martyrs in the public space.

    The whole principle is a bit too close to “might makes right” for my taste, but that’s a separate topic.

    1. Bugmaster

      Agreed. The whole point of free speech is to create a strong norm against any kind of censorship, because every would-be censor thinks himself the hero of his own story. It’s human nature to do so.

      Beware of he who would deny you access to information; for in his heart, he dreams himself your master.
      — Commissioner Pravin Lal, Datalinks.

    2. Aapje

      @honhonhonhon

      Unfortunately they’re not the majority so they mostly end up purging their own enclaves and isolated martyrs in the public space.

      Shouldn’t that be ‘fortunately’?

  33. nate_rausch

    what is a culture? What is it we’re trying to do when we get together and have a society?

    It seems to me that culture is the system architecture for how decentralized nodes communicate to produce some kind of optimal outcome. This includes the structure, behavior and protocols (communication) of the system.

    If anything like that is the case, it is easy to see that systems are not mere preference. Certain system rules have certain predictable outcomes.

    For example:
    – Mandating that everything think and say the same improve likely improve alignment, but reduce the innovation and resilience of a system
    – Making a system where each node is an independent actor tho thinks for himself provides the possibility for crowd-validation, and reduces chance of catastrophic failure of a system, but reduces the maximum computing capability
    – Etc

    Viewing it like system architecture, I see free speech as a legal imperative for a decentralized system of independent nodes to work. For the system as a whole to gather the results of information processes in a single human brain, it has to be said. It seems to me that free speech is actually way too weak, it’s more something like “always saying what you think” that makes this sort of system work ideally.

    Coupling that with other problems of system architecture like coordination problems, and I quickly realize how complex the problem is. But tolerating individuals or groups that differ – while of course criticising them as much as you want, seem to be the western solution.
    Then of course there comes the point of firing dissenters. Should a company fire people who disagree. Well, only if they want to give up the benefits of a system architecture that consists of independently thinking decentralized nodes: innovation, error-correction and resilience.

    In the long run this is evolutionary. My guess is that we find ourself having the system/culture that we have because it is the system that best adapts over time. So to put it bluntly we should expect countries and systems that deviate from these core patterns to stagnate or die because of catastrophic systematic errors not being corrected (see Easter Island or the Sovjet Union).

  34. Forlorn Hopes

    This is dumb, and I don’t know if free speech supporters have articulated a meaningful alternative.

    My alternative is simple: Don’t escalate. If someone insults the president you can insult them. But if someone politely criticises the president’s policy you should respond with a polite defence of the policy.

    Obviously that’s fuzzy as hell, and we’ve all seen exploit attempts like saying a police criticism of the president’s affirmative action policy is inflicting violence on minorities and so physical violence in response would not be an escalation.

    But it resolves the issue you bring up in “The third seems to demand a more specific trigger (violation of a norm), but since nobody agrees where the norms are”. I think we should just agree that the norm is don’t escalate and I think that humans acting in good faith can agree about what is and what is not escalation; and that trying to get someone fired for insulting the president is escalation.

    For your examples. I would say that Alice not washing her hands is a question of actions not speech. You don’t need to use complex heuristics of trust and personality to judge whether Alice’s statement implies her resterunt will have poor hygiene. You can just read the hygiene inspector’s report. Here in the UK loads of interests have a little 1-5 sticker on the door.

    As for teaching. I actually consider this one a special case, since a teacher’s job is to transmit ideas, having bad ideas in your head is a direct decrease on your ability to do the job. However I would expect official government procedures or the headmaster to filter out Nazis before they ever reach a classroom; all teachers do need to undergo an background check. Yes this could go horribly wrong, it already has, it used to be illegal to “promote homosexuality” in the classroom. That was awful. But I think in this case we should have the battle of ideas in parliament rather than the classroom.

    But if Alice was a software developer or a bricklayer, it goes back to don’t escalate. And it is ok to fire someone for speech that violates company policies, so long as those policies are clearly defined and applied impartially.

          1. The Nybbler

            That’s right. So non-escalation requires both players as well. Two non-escalators don’t escalate. Two de-escalators de-escalate. One escalator and one non-escalator escalates. Two escalators escalate even faster. One escalator and one de-esclator escalates until the de-esclator de-escalates himself to the point of silence.

          2. hlynkacg

            non-escalation requires both players as well.

            No it does not. A non-escalator who responds in kind is still not escalating.

          3. The Nybbler

            The overall situation still escalates, though

            Non-escalator: A, for reasons
            Escalator: !A, for reasons
            Non-escalator: A, for reasons
            Escalator: !A and you suck for promoting A
            Non-escalator: A, for reasons
            Escalator: !A, and I can’t believe you’re so horrible as to continue promoting A when I said you suck.
            Non-escalator: A, for reasons
            Escalator: !A, and STOP ATTACKING ME BY CONTINUING TO SUPPORT A, OR I’M CALLING THE COPS
            Non-escalator: A, for reasons
            Esclator: !A. POLICE, POLICE!

          4. hlynkacg

            Contrary to popular belief “Non-Escalation” does not mean “Door mat”.

            How this actually works in real life, is that escalator escalates, and non-escalator responds in kind until an equilibrium is reached or one or the other ends up dead. Non-escalators tend to win in the long run because they have an easier time coordinating, and don’t pick fights with the cops when they show up. This tendency leads to a general de-escalation over time.

            The interaction you just described is how de-escalators end up de-escalating themselves into silence.

        1. Aapje

          @hlynkacg

          Non-escalation requires only a single player, De-escalation takes two.

          I anticipated this, which is why I said ‘try to.’

          You can attempt to de-escalate and if the other person doesn’t respond in kind, go for non-escalation or sometimes escalation.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      I’m not sure “don’t escalate” is as clearly good a principle as you think.

      I once read a really interesting explanation for why there’s a $300 fine for littering. The claim isn’t that littering one piece of paper does $300 worth of damage, but that maybe littering does 10 cents worth of damage, but only 1/3,000 litterers gets caught by the police, so in order to make littering net negative, you need to fine the cases that get caught at $300.

      If you’re mean to a hundred people, and one of those people is able to stand up for themselves and be mean back to you, that’s not going discourage meanness that well. I’m not sure you should always escalate, but it seems possible to me that it’s sometimes worthwhile.

      1. chosenonemore

        I agree. People who are rude and bullying need to be made aware of their behavior and shown that there are consequences. This doesn’t have to mean that they get fired! Or that you bring in your friends to gang up on them!

        But if I never escalate, that means people are free to escalate at me without any consequences, and that’s not a life I want to live.

        Sometimes it should mean, for example, ‘I am not willing to continue this discussion with your current tone. If you don’t make your point more politely, this relationship is over.’

        There are levels of escalation in between zero and mob harassment.

  35. Lirio

    *rolls for self-control, fails*

    Alice writes a blog post excoriating Bob’s opinion on tax reforming, calling him a “total idiot” who “should be laughed out of the room”. Bob feels so offended that he tries to turn everyone against Alice, pointing out every bad thing she’s ever done to anyone who will listen. Carol considers this a “sexist harassment campaign” and sends a dossier of all of Bob’s messages to his boss, trying to get him fired. Dan decides this proves Carol is anti-free speech, and tells the listeners of his radio show to “give Carol a piece of their mind”, leading to her getting hundreds of harassing and threatening email messages. Eric snitches on Dan to the police. How many of these people are in the wrong?

    Obviously Eric is in the wrong, and he will be punished with beatings. Everyone knows snitches get stiches.

  36. Philosophisticat

    There are a lot of interesting points here, but I want to focus on one species of reasoning which is being used and which I see a lot here and in debates bout free speech in general, and which I think is problematic. It’s the kind of argument implicit or explicit here:

    “On the other hand, if we try to get the school board to fire her, we’re implicitly endorsing the principle Get someone fired if you know of a belief of theirs that suggests they’re an otherwise repugnant person” – and isn’t this the same principle that led people to campaign against atheist schoolteachers, pro-gay schoolteachers, communist schoolteachers, etc?”

    The way it works is someone proposes a norm, like say “Fire people who are racist”. Then Scott, in this case, says “aha! but if you say ‘fire people who are racist’, surely that’s an instance of the more general principle ‘fire people who are repugnant’ And isn’t that what [insert people with incorrect and reprehensible views about what is repugnant] thought they were doing?” This is then taken to be a refutation of the proposed norm.

    I call this kind of argument “factoring out the first order question” because it works by taking a proposal which invokes a first order moral stance on some issue, and then replaces the first order moral view with something general, like “whatever moral view you happen to have”. Then it imagines the principle with its specific moral content factored out in the hands of someone with bad moral views. It’s a kind of “going meta” and I think it’s a fallacy.

    It’s not actually obvious how the thought at the end (“that’s what [awful people] thought they were doing too”) is supposed to be an objection to the original proposal, and people who invoke it aren’t clear. (Final two premises: ???, Profit) One thought is that it shows that it’s impossible to consistently endorse the original proposal without endorsing the behavior of [awful people]. But that’s just false. Thinking that people should be fired for racism, or more generally for things that are actually repugnant, is not inconsistent with thinking that people should not be fired for being homosexual, or more generally things that are not actually repugnant.

    Another possible way to complete the argument is pragmatically: to say that what’s shown is that you can’t promote the social acceptance of the original norm without also promoting the behavior of [awful people]. But for the life of me I can’t see why. At least I haven’t seen anyone who gives this kind of argument explain it.

    Perhaps there is some other way of completing the argument. But I don’t see it in this post, or elsewhere. And however you complete it, I expect the argument will be bad, because it can be easily parodied.

    Suppose I propose that we encourage people to be accepting/supportive of loving homosexual relationships. Then imagine Pseudo-Scott objecting as follows: “But surely, encouraging people to be supporting of loving homosexual relationships is just a special case of encouraging people to be supportive of relationships that are permissible and healthy. And didn’t [group with horribly regressive views on relationships] think that they were doing just that!? Checkmate!”

    Obviously, this is a bad argument. But as far as I can tell, it has much the same structure as the other examples of factoring out the first order question.

    1. honhonhonhon

      Factoring out the first-order question is an attempt to remove personal leeway from the principle being created. If you give people leeway, they’ll use it in the most convenient way. Loving relationships are great, so everyone will claim their relationships are loving, including cult leaders and their disciples. Without this you might as well just say “fire people who are repugnant” and let the most popular group trample over everyone else using their own definition of “repugnant”. Today the most popular group define “repugnant” = “racist”, last century they defined it “repugnant” = “gay”, next century they’ll define “repugnant” = “wasn’t a designer baby”. That’s no good for a principle.

      1. Philosophisticat

        I was taking it as obvious that the parody argument was bad, so I wasn’t expecting anyone to endorse it, but there’s nothing special about the particular version I chose. You can construct a similar argument against pretty much any proposed norm. So the factoring strategy would prove too much.

        1. Murphy

          Scots approach is more future-proofed.

          Imagine someone who takes the same approach you do but born in a different place with a different “obvious” moral code and different definitions of repugnant.

          Perhaps someone born in a society that considers it essential that a child be sacrificed to appease the gods each solstice or someone born into a society that views the keeping of pets as morally repugnant.

          Next imagine 2 versions of Scott, same deal but they share their meta-principle.

          The 2 people following your system are pretty much certain to end up declaring each other monsters and turning on each other.

          The 2 versions of Scott have the possibility of meaningful dialog.

          You call it a “parody” argument but it’s a mainstream and extremely consistent and coherent position.

          https://www.popehat.com/2017/01/21/on-punching-nazis/

          We have social and legal norms, including “don’t punch people because their speech is evil, and don’t punish them legally.” Applying those norms is not a judgment that the speech in question is valuable, or decent, or morally acceptable. We apply the norms out of a recognition of human frailty — because the humanity that will be deciding whom to punch and whom to prosecute is the same humanity that produced the Nazis in the first place, and has a well-established record of making really terrible decisions. You — the bien-pensant reader, confident that sensible punchers and prosecutors can sort out Nazis from the not-Nazis — will likely not be doing the punching or prosecuting. The punching and prosecuting will be done by a rogue’s gallery of vicious idiots, including people who think that Black Lives Matter should be indicted under RICO and that it’s funny to send women death threats if they write a column you don’t like.

    2. HeelBearCub

      I have noticed the tendency as well and have played around wth bringing up this point.

      Basically, I think the source of the tendency boils down to age old “Where do values come from?” question. Given that we know that values are always, at least in some ways, arbitrary, we should have a certain amount of epistemic humility about the values we currently favor. That seems to be the point of factoring out this first order moral question.

      Scott wants to solve this problem by following the impulse to let people just leave and go elsewhere. In a world with infinite resources, infinite space, no cost to leaving, and universal knowledge (you don’t want X people ending up in the “sacrifice X to the gods” land by accident) that would probably work. Obviously we don’t live in that world. And note that, because “people” is the fundamental resource that forms “community” we would also need infinite numbers of people. For one thing, we will need a bunch of cows that really want to be eaten X people that want to be sacrificed.

      Of course, you also frequently see the argument trotted as M&B to attempt to protect one’s own sacred values after losing an argument about whether those sacred values should be imposed on others.

      1. Philosophisticat

        I’m sympathetic to appeals to epistemic humility, but that’s not what Scott is doing. “We really shouldn’t be so certain that genocide of the Jews isn’t morally right after all, and that’s why we shouldn’t fire people who believe that” is pretty clearly not the argument he’s trying to give. Scott is sufficiently intellectually honest that if he were relying on a claim as likely to be rejected by his audience as that, he would say it out loud.

        1. HeelBearCub

          @Philosophisticat:
          No, he is making the argument that “Yes, I am certain that exterminating the Jews is bad, but I shouldn’t feel so comfortable about that certainty that I think I can violate other sacred values.”

          He is trying to square the circle, by making both of these things compatible (certainty that X is wrong vs. certainty that free speech is right).

          My preferred solution is to regard these values in a system as being in tension with each other. There is no lodestar. The closer you get to some values, the farther you get from others.

      2. Conrad Honcho

        Given that we know that values are always, at least in some ways, arbitrary, we should have a certain amount of epistemic humility about the values we currently favor.

        Do we know that? Values seem to me to be very tightly constrained, and vary only in the small signal. Valuing a diet of beef versus fish may be arbitrary, but both are superior to a diet of broken glass.

    3. lvlln

      Suppose I propose that we encourage people to be accepting/supportive of loving homosexual relationships. Then imagine Pseudo-Scott objecting as follows: “But surely, encouraging people to be supporting of loving homosexual relationships is just a special case of encouraging people to be supportive of relationships that are permissible and healthy. And didn’t [group with horribly regressive views on relationships] think that they were doing just that!? Checkmate!”

      Obviously, this is a bad argument. But as far as I can tell, it has much the same structure as the other examples of factoring out the first order question.

      Though the structure is the same, I think the key difference in this case is that Scott’s argument is about punishing, while your theoretical one is about encouraging. This conversation is necessarily pretty hazy and lacking obvious boundaries, and it makes sense that when the consequences are as extreme as firing, we be very careful about our epistemic humility and acknowledge that we may be just as mistaken on what we consider repugnant, such as Nazi-ism, as we consider others to be mistaken on what they consider repugnant, such as homosexuality. In the case of encouraging being supportive of things, it’s neither a particularly strong consequence or a negative one, so it seems more OK to be a bit more confident that our own arbitrary values might be more correct than the arbitrary values of others.

      Obviously, our values are our values, and we should be free to argue that what we consider repugnant is indeed repugnant and vice versa. So if the arguments were always in the form of “We should make [people of characteristic X] unemployable because [characteristic X] is repugnant, and here are several very strong arguments that conclude that [characteristic X] really is repugnant rather than me just claiming it so – and if you give me convincing counterarguments that [characteristic X] isn’t repugnant, then I’ll change my mind” I think this would be OK. What I – and Scott, I think – would object to are the far more common versions that say “We should make [people of characteristic X] unemployable because [characteristic X] is repugnant, and take my word for it that it’s repugnant.”

      All that’s assuming repugnant behavior is something we want to discourage, obviously.

      1. Philosophisticat

        I don’t think the issue is about encouraging/punishing. You can create the same sort of parody to argue that any norm of punishing is bad. (“But that’s just saying we should punish things that are bad/repulsive/whatever. And isn’t that what [people with awful views about what is bad/repulsive/whatever] thought they were doing?”)

        I also don’t think he’s going for the “we might be wrong about Nazis being wrong” epistemic humility thing.

        1. lvlln

          I don’t think the issue is about encouraging/punishing. You can create the same sort of parody to argue that any norm of punishing is bad. (“But that’s just saying we should punish things that are bad/repulsive/whatever. And isn’t that what [people with awful views about what is bad/repulsive/whatever] thought they were doing?”)

          I think I might have been unclear on the point. It’s not just the punishment/encouragement dichotomy – it’s the extremeness of the punishment, and how our epistemic humility should be scaled with it. In that sense, while encouragement is less harmful than punishment, encouragement falls in that bucket as well; the more strongly we want to encourage something, the more epistemic humility we should have with respect to whether that something is a good thing.

          For instance, in the realm of punishment, we have capital punishment, which is possibly the extreme form of punishment. It’s severely damaging and permanent. There are those, like me, who are against it on the basis of epistemic humility; we have to be literally 100% sure that someone committed a crime to be OK with punishing them by killing, and it is literally impossible to be literally 100% sure that someone committed a crime, therefore there does not exist any possible situation in which capital punishment is justified. But if the punishment were a light slap on the wrist, I’d be willing to be somewhat less than 100% sure that the person being punished was actually the criminal.

          Obviously there’s a lot of space in between, and the interesting discussion is where the hazy lines should be drawn. I would argue that firing someone is such an extreme punishment that we better be very sure that they really are repugnant before we feel comfortable enacting such punishment. I would say I’m very sure that holding the opinion “I should murder these people” is repugnant, but I’m not so sure that merely holding the opinion “Hitler did nothing wrong (but I’ll take no physical action to complete his work)” is repugnant.

          This can work for encouragement, too. If we’re talking about encouraging on the level of smiling at them and letting them know you support them, then I’m quite sure that loving relationships are good and worth encouraging. If we’re talking about encouraging on the level of holding people at gunpoint and requiring that they engage in it under penalty of death, then I’m not quite as sure that loving relationships are good and worth encouraging.

          I also don’t think he’s going for the “we might be wrong about Nazis being wrong” epistemic humility thing.

          I think that’s what he’s going for, with the stuff about the extremeness of action justified by the epistemic humility I wrote about above. There’s also a universe of difference between “we might be wrong about Nazis being wrong” and “holding the opinion that Nazis weren’t wrong might not be so repugnant.”

          1. Doctor Mist

            I’m not so sure that merely holding the opinion “Hitler did nothing wrong (but I’ll take no physical action to complete his work)” is repugnant.

            I am. Repugnant enough to jail you for saying it? No. To ostracize you? Perhaps not. To shun you? Absolutely.

            (I’m not trying to virtue-signal here, as I imagine in context you meant “… is repugnant enough to warrant firing”, and I can certainly sympathize with your uncertainty about that.)

          2. Aapje

            @Doctor Mist

            If you shun people with ideas like that, a likely outcome is that they find a bubble of like-minded people and unconstrained by having their ideas challenged (or at least, in the right direction), they radicalize.

            And because you are no longer in contact with people who oppose their ideas, the chance is substantially increased that if they choose to use violence, no one will be able to stop them in time.

          3. Doctor Mist

            If you shun people with ideas like that, a likely outcome is…

            I don’t argue with your statement about strategy, but my point was whether a particular reaction was morally justifiable.

            Still, I’m sure you’re not suggesting that any rudeness, insensitivity, or repugnancy is best addressed by confrontation.

      2. The Nybbler

        Obviously, our values are our values, and we should be free to argue that what we consider repugnant is indeed repugnant and vice versa.

        Except that this isn’t obvious. Some philosophies hold that to argue that a position deemed repugnant is not repugnant is itself repugnant. And that this applies all the way up the meta-belief hierarchy. To defend a witch is to become one.

    4. Douglas Knight

      Scott distinguished between repugnant people and repugnant beliefs. If you think belief X is repugnant, then you are probably going to ban it from the classroom. Scott is not arguing against that, at least not here. He is claiming that people are banned from teaching on the ground that locally-repugnant beliefs predict actions globally seen as repugnant. If this is a consistent error people make, then it is reasonable to worry that we will make it, too, even if our basic morals are correct. Maybe it’s worth pointing out that he failed to actually argue this, but it is not a completely missing step. In particular, if correct morals have better correlations with each other than incorrect morals, that would argue against it, but you need more than just correct morals.

      I’m more worried about the factual claim of why people want to ban teachers with repugnant beliefs.

    5. Philosophisticat

      I should note that similar arguments are sometimes made by libertarians, and they might be helpful to consider. They go something like this: “okay, so the outcome of government intervention X is positive. But think about all the times government wants to do something and it is bad. Saying that the government should intervene whenever it’s for the best is just what [horrible policy’s proponents] thought.”

      This is sometimes frustrating for non-libertarians, where the natural response is “I’m not endorsing the government intervening whenever whoever is in charge thinks a policy has good outcomes. I’m endorsing the government intervening when the policy really has good outcomes. Endorsing well-designed government intervention doesn’t commit me to endorsing any shitty thing the government does.”

      I think there are some ways to save the libertarian argument. One is to argue that endorsing a policy even with good outcomes somehow encourages future government activity which is likely to be bad. This is an empirical claim. I think its plausibility varies on a case by case basis. If you wanted to make a similar move with the free speech stuff, it would be claiming that refraining from firing people for bad views makes it less likely for people to fire others for good views. This is also an empirical claim. Maybe it’s plausible. I’d like to see a case made for it.

      A second way to save the libertarian argument is to say that because of the greater risk of governments making a mistake, it would be better if the government’s hands were tied in some domain, rather than the having the capacity to enact both the good and the bad policies (since as a matter of fact, the balance struck will be in favor of the bad). I think the empirical part of this claim is actually generally pretty plausible. The main issue with this is that all this argument justifies is that if we have the ability to tie the government’s hands, we should. It doesn’t justify that we shouldn’t enact a policy with good outcomes when doing so would not restrict the government’s power to enact bad policies. The parallel argument in the free speech case would be to say “If we could somehow stop people from firing each other for their views, we should, because on balance, the harms from people misusing this power (to fire homosexuals or whatever) are greater than the benefits of people using it well (to fire racists or whatever).” And again, I think that’s kind of a plausible claim. But all it shows us is that if we have the power to stop anyone from firing anyone for their views, we should. It doesn’t show us that we shouldn’t fire people for bad views, when refraining from doing so would not tie the hands of others.

      1. lvlln

        I should note that similar arguments are sometimes made by libertarians, and they might be helpful to consider. They go something like this: “okay, so the outcome of government intervention X is positive. But think about all the times government wants to do something and it is bad. Saying that the government should intervene whenever it’s for the best is just what [horrible policy’s proponents] thought.”

        This is sometimes frustrating for non-libertarians, where the natural response is “I’m not endorsing the government intervening whenever whoever is in charge thinks a policy has good outcomes. I’m endorsing the government intervening when the policy really has good outcomes. Endorsing well-designed government intervention doesn’t commit me to endorsing any shitty thing the government does.”

        I think the issue is “I’m endorsing the government intervening when the policy really has good outcomes. Endorsing well-designed government intervention doesn’t commit me to endorsing any shitty thing the government does.” I’m not a libertarian, but from my experience, the same libertarians who make the type of argument you highlighted are perfectly fine with some government intervention that really has good outcomes, such as protection of private property or proven externalities. The issue is proving if something really has good outcomes, and actually providing evidence, argument, or anything at all that supports the assertion that there really will be good outcomes. That’s where having some epistemic humility comes into play.

        Getting back to what the libertarian argument is a metaphor for, one might say that [characteristic X] really is repugnant and therefore [person with characteristic X] should be [severely punished], and this doesn’t put us in danger of [severely punishing] [person with characteristic Y] because we know that [characteristic Y] is not repugnant. And this would be convincing if every time one made that argument, one was also openly making strong arguments that [characteristic X] really is repugnant while [characteristic Y] isn’t, and credibly expressing that one is very open to listening to arguments that they are wrong about [characteristic X] being repugnant and open to changing their minds about that.

        But when it seems that one just decided that [characteristic X] was repugnant based on their own arbitrary values, there’s no reason to believe that the person who declared [characteristic X] to really be repugnant was any more correct than the person who declared [characteristic Y] to really be repugnant before.

        Getting back further to the actual example, I think Scott has enough epistemic humility to acknowledge that just because he’s sure Nazi-ism is obviously evil, that doesn’t follow that he gets to be sure that a teacher who believes in Nazi-ism will be harmful to their students.

    6. blacktrance

      Thinking that people should be fired for racism, or more generally for things that are actually repugnant, is not inconsistent with thinking that people should not be fired for being homosexual, or more generally things that are not actually repugnant.

      Yes, but when other people input their own moral beliefs into the same decision procedure, some of them get that they should fire homosexuals. Thinking that racists should be fired doesn’t imply thinking that homosexuals should be fired per se, but thinking that racists should be fired because you think they’re egregiously bad does imply that people who think homosexuals are egregiously bad should think that they should be fired.

      1. Philosophisticat

        You’re making the mistake of thinking that endorsing a norm in favor of firing people for racism commits you to endorsing, for everyone, as a decision procedure, “fire people for anything that you think is egregiously bad”. That’s false, and can be parodied along the lines above.

        1. lvlln

          What separates “racism” from “anything that you think is egregiously bad?” We weren’t handed down some tablet from the heavens declaring “Racism is egregiously bad and people who believe it deserve to be fired.” We didn’t take a bunch of measurements of observed phenomena and empirically determine it. It’s something a bunch of people convinced each other of based on their own idiosyncratic beliefs and values. Just as in the past, a bunch of people convinced each other that homosexuality or being a Jew were egregiously bad and people who are it deserve to be fired/murdered.

          That’s not to say that one can’t argue that one’s values are the correct values; but one must still make those arguments. And be credibly open to being convinced that they’re wrong. Otherwise, it’s no different than just claiming that it’s bad because one declared it so, which means that one is leaving open the possibility of declaring anything to be bad just by declaring it so.

          So yes, as long as the process for determining “racism deserves being fired” remains “I think it’s egregiously bad,” endorsing a norm in favor of firing people for racism absolutely commits you to endorsing, for everyone, as a decision procedure, “fire people for anything that you think is egregiously bad.” Unless you’re making a non-principled argument or just a non-universalist who privileges your own judgment as being better than everyone else’s.

        2. blacktrance

          You have to have some reason for wanting to fire racists, and whatever it is, it’s susceptible to meta-level arguments. If it’s because you think racists are egregiously bad, why shouldn’t I fire whomever I think is egregiously bad? True, you need not initially explicitly endorse that everyone follow your decision procedure, but given that you’re using it, upon being confronted about it you can either endorse it as correct (and then I can use it too) or reject it.

          I don’t feel the force of your parody objection. If you think that you should support homosexual relationships because I think they’re loving, the regressive group would do the same if they followed the decision procedure you believe to be correct.

          1. Philosophisticat

            You should not fire whomever you think is egregiously bad, if you have false beliefs about who is egregiously bad (on the view I’m defending). The “meta-level argument” you’re making is fallacious. Whenever I do something that I believe is right, because I believe it is right, it does not follow that I thereby endorse, even implicitly, that everyone who believes something is right do that thing, for that reason. That would involve endorsing people who believe it is right to kill jews killing jews. The reason that someone who believes killing jews is right should not kill jews is that they are mistaken about killing jews being right. The reason that you should not fire whoever you think is egregiously bad, when you are wrong about that, is the same.

            (Of course, the reasoning against killing jews doesn’t begin and end with “I believe it is right” – it includes all the first order reasons why you believe it is right. But the same holds for the racism case.)

            I think you’re missing the parody because you’re individuating “decision procedures” differently in the first case and the second – making the decision procedure include the specific first-order reasons bearing on homosexuality in the homosexuality case, but not letting the decision procedure include the specific first-order reasons bearing on racism in the racism case. That’s just being inconsistent in the application of the “factoring out” move.

            By stipulation, say we think homosexuality should be supported because it’s a healthy and permissible relationship, and that the foil holds that abusive pedophilic relationships are healthy and permissible. It doesn’t really matter what you plug in as the reason, as long as you plug it in the same way for the foil.

          2. Gobbobobble

            You should not fire whomever you think is egregiously bad, if you have false beliefs about who is egregiously bad

            Who decides what beliefs are false?

          3. Randy M

            Whenever I do something that I believe is right, because I believe it is right, it does not follow that I thereby endorse, even implicitly, that everyone who believes something is right do that thing, for that reason.

            No, of course it doesn’t, but it will none the less be used by others who see you to justify their own use of the tactic. Which is why you must spell out the distinction.
            If I advocate capital punishment for murderers, that doesn’t mean I want capital punishment for theft; maybe I think that idea is crazy. But someone who does think theft is as bad as murder (or crosses the same threshold) will use the existence of support for capital punishment in murder cases and reason that it is therefore applicable to theft.
            The job of reasoned debate is to spell out the relevant distinctions between the two situations.

            If you want to fire racists, fine. You may also not want others to fire pescatarians. But if you want to dissuade the persecution of pescatarians, or persuade the persecution of racists, be prepared to lay out the principle to distinguish what’s worthy of censure and why that particular remedy is applicable.

          4. lvlln

            Whenever I do something that I believe is right, because I believe it is right, it does not follow that I thereby endorse, even implicitly, that everyone who believes something is right do that thing, for that reason. That would involve endorsing people who believe it is right to kill jews killing jews.

            So are you just claiming that by doing something you believe is right, you’re merely endorsing everyone doing what you believe is right? That’s akin to just proclaiming yourself an ubermensch who gets to declare by fiat what’s right and wrong. It’s not a useful way of determining what’s actually right and wrong, and it’s not very convincing to anyone else who’s not you.

            The point of the meta argument is to develop a mechanism by which everyone can determine the right thing to do. If your proposition is “do what I think is right,” well, that’s not very helpful because not everyone has access to your thoughts or the ability to call you up before making decisions, and it’s not particularly evident that what you believe is right is actually right.

          5. Philosophisticat

            So are you just claiming that by doing something you believe is right, you’re merely endorsing everyone doing what you believe is right?

            I’m not claiming that. I’m not the one making grand inferences about other commitments from people doing things on the basis of what they believe is right.

          6. lvlln

            I’m not claiming that. I’m not the one making grand inferences about other commitments from people doing things on the basis of what they believe is right.

            Unless you’re claiming that you’re a super man who uniquely gets to determine what’s right and wrong, whatever behavior you engage in is an implicit endorsement of others engaging in that behavior. You don’t get to merely claim, “It is right that I get to do what I think is right,” and then claim that you’re not making claims about how you believe others should behave.

          7. Brad

            Not it isn’t. People are allowed to have object level positions. Holding such positions is not a claim to be a moral superman that uniquely knows right from wrong. On the contrary it marks me as a member of the group known as humanity.

            Me saying we should put baby rapists in prison doesn’t explicitly, implicitly, or in any other way endorse Russia putting gays in prison.

          8. Gobbobobble

            Me saying we should put baby rapists in prison doesn’t explicitly, implicitly, or in any other way endorse Russia putting gays in prison.

            At least until the Russians cobble together some horseshit propaganda to convince their citizens all gays are basically baby rapists.

            ETA: It’s not about what you endorse, it’s about what sort of precedent you’re setting. Meta-level processes to derive your object-level views serve to constrain the possible “but they did it for X and this is [essentially the same|just as bad]” space

          9. Brad

            Nope. Still nothing to do with me. It’s perfectly okay to have the belief that A is good and B is bad. If other people think B is good and A is bad, it’s okay for me to think they are just wrong — and that if they enact their views that’s evil, whereas someone enacting A/B is good.

            It can certainly be interesting and illuminating to go to the meta-level. But this idea that anything and everything has to be debated at ever higher levels of meta, and that the object level is illegitimate, is pathological.

          10. Gobbobobble

            Nope. Still nothing to do with me. It’s perfectly okay to have the belief that A is good and B is bad. If other people think B is good and A is bad, it’s okay for me to think they are just wrong — and that if they enact their views that’s evil, whereas someone enacting A/B is good.

            It can certainly be interesting and illuminating to go to the meta-level. But this idea that anything and everything has to be debated at ever higher levels of meta, and that the object level is illegitimate, is pathological.

            I’ll agree to “this idea that […] the object level is illegitimate is pathological”. But the meta-level is valuable and it’s not illegitimate to point out meta-level flaws in an object-level argument.

            I’d compare it to that Toronto staircase thing that’s come up here a few times: sure, you can build a staircase position out of scrap wood on the object level in an afternoon, and it’ll do a reasonably good job. The law/government/commons/whatever should be held to more rigorous standards, though, because resiliency matters and if you do it wrong people will get hurt.

          11. honhonhonhon

            It’s fine for you to believe that A is good and B is bad. But when you endorse a policy that amounts to “we do what I think is good”, that’s bad because the next powerful guy who comes after you can use that to do whatever HE thinks is good, and you may not like it.

            Objective-level example – high-ranking American politicians don’t get imprisoned. Maybe you’re right to think that Nixon or Hillary should’ve gone to jail. But once you break that truce once, you can bet your ass you’ll be in prison once your term ends, and then the guy from the other party who came after you will follow, and so on.

            For the same reason, “we should ban racists because I don’t like them” is harmful if you don’t really clearly delineate what makes racists special in a way that the next powerful guy can’t turn around and say “we’re banning piscetarians now”. You’re free to hate racists personally though.

          12. Brad

            @Gobbobobble
            Let’s step back and look at the implications of what is being insisted on in this subthread.

            The implication seems to be that that everyone that isn’t an anarchist is endorsing — or at least setting a precedent for — Nazis and Stalinists. Because any support for any government power means that other people’s values enacted through government power are equally valid.

            Is that right? Am I misreading or unfairly extrapolating from what you and lvlln and blacktrance are saying?

          13. blacktrance

            Philosophisticat:
            The problem with that view is that your decisions are based on your beliefs, not the truth. A rule like “only fire people who actually egregiously bad, and not if you have false beliefs about that” isn’t workable because no one thinks that their current belief is false. (Which is not to say that there’s no fact of the matter about who’s actually egregiously bad.)

            Doing what’s right is somewhat different because there’s no alternative to doing what you think is right (“No, I shouldn’t do what I think is right!” is incoherent), so there’s no other decision procedure anyone could follow. But in both the firing and homosexuality cases, there are meta-level alternatives (e.g. “don’t fire those you consider to be egregiously evil” and “don’t support relationships you think are loving”).

          14. Aapje

            @Brad

            I think that the argument is that when you have a rule that all government is illegitimate, dictators violate the rule if they want to take power. So if society is conditioned to defend the rule, the dictator will be opposed. Of course, those who want a democratic government will be opposed too.

            If you do want a democratic government, you have to change the rule so that ‘government is legit.’ However, if you stop there you have eliminated the safeguards against a dictator getting to power.

            So what you actually need to do is build up a new norm so people still keep resisting the dictator, but they don’t resist the democratic politician. The problem then is that the dictator has a strong incentive to pretend to be a democratic politician, so the safeguards don’t just have to work for a dumb dictator who is open about his ideas, but also a scheming dictator who tries to game the rules.

            So once you eliminate the general rule you become responsible for creating a new rule or set of rules that cannot easily be gamed.

            This basic argument keeps being restated with different examples.

          15. lvlln

            Me saying we should put baby rapists in prison doesn’t explicitly, implicitly, or in any other way endorse Russia putting gays in prison.

            Yes, it absolutely does, unless you actually make a coherent argument that baby rapists deserve to be in prison whereas gays don’t deserve to be in prison. Now, this seems like a really easy argument to make, but you still have to make that argument. You don’t get to just declare “I deem baby rapists to be bad, but gays to be not bad.” If that’s all you do, you’re declaring yourself a super man who gets to invent moral rules as he sees fit. If you don’t make the argument or at least explain the process by which you arrived at your object-level preferences, there is absolutely no reason to believe that your preferences are any less evil than those of people who want to put homosexuals in prison.

            I mean, I guess if you’re a pure anarchist, maybe you’d argue that everyone gets to do what they believe is right, fuck the reasoning behind their preferences, and fuck the consequences. Which is at least consistent, I guess, in terms of not privileging your own idiosyncratic arbitrary preferences over the idiosyncratic arbitrary preferences of anyone else.

          16. Brad

            @lvlln
            I absolutely think a coherent argument has been made that baby raping is bad. Are you insisting that it be made by every person that ever wants to reference it every single last time he brings it up? Isn’t that a variant of the isolated demand for rigor problem? Or more generally the DFS problem?

          17. Gobbobobble

            I absolutely think a coherent argument has been made that baby raping is bad. Are you insisting that it be made by every person that ever wants to reference it every single last time he brings it up?

            No, but that makes it no longer an object-level belief, doesn’t it? You can refer to existing meta-level arguments and in some cases they’re common knowledge, or even subconscious.

            But common sense is a poor argument on its own since it can be used to justify all sorts of things. You need to put in meta-level legwork to distinguish between the norms you want to keep and norms you want to change.

          18. lvlln

            @Brad
            Not every single last time, no, but when the discussion is explicitly about the value of going to meta level versus object level, then absolutely it should be brought up when arguing something along the lines that the object level ought to be good enough and that going one level meta is unneeded.

            I think dealing with the object level is extremely valuable, and indeed that’s where most of the interesting arguments in reality happen. But when one is arguing something along the lines of “No! Just because I want to punish people for [something I deem bad] that doesn’t mean it’s OK for others to punish people for [something they deem bad],” one absolutely needs to reiterate that [something I deem bad] actually has support as something that’s actually bad in a way different from [something they deem bad].

            In general, I think it’s good never to presume that values and preferences that one believes has already been sufficiently supported is something that others have also been convinced of. This isn’t an absolute rule, but just a good thing to do, I think.

          19. carvenvisage

            I think her name is becky

            Sorry, but woosh.

            I asked becky and she said philosophisticat was joking.

            But that answer undermines her authority, so now i don’t know what to think.

        3. hlynkacg

          It’s not a mistake.

          He’s arguing that endorsing a norm in favor of firing people for something you think is egregiously bad means endorsing a decision procedure people fire people for things they think are egregiously bad. It’s practically a tautology.

          Point being that lot of different people have lots of different ideas about what constitutes “egregiously bad” so stay in line and keep your guns pointed down range unless you want to participate in a circular firing squad.

          Edit: ninja’d Twice over

          1. Philosophisticat

            I’ve explained multiple times why, (at least if endorsing a decision procedure amounts to endorsing the actions of people who use it) it’s not only not a tautology, but false, and why accepting it commits you to accepting all kinds of obviously bad arguments, like that doing something because you think it is right commits you to endorsing the actions of Nazis. (If you want to say that it makes you endorse the decision procedure used by Nazis but not the actions, then that just shows that there’s nothing wrong with endorsing the decision procedure used by Nazis, and still undermines the argument).

        4. A Definite Beta Guy

          You’re making the mistake of thinking that endorsing a norm in favor of firing people for racism commits you to endorsing, for everyone, as a decision procedure, “fire people for anything that you think is egregiously bad”. That’s false, and can be parodied along the lines above.

          That’s…literally how societies work?

          You are correct, it is not an endorsement that you, personally, think “X” group should be fired, but you are not empowered to make ALL decisions in society. You have to share decision-making with other people, who do not share your beliefs.

          Therefore, you should be careful about what norms you promote.

          Your alternative is to argue legislatively to forbid employment decisions on certain parameters, but once you violate the norm, employers who disagree with you will find ways to work around your bans.

      2. A Definite Beta Guy

        And in a culture where this is a common belief, homosexuals will not be employed.

    7. youzicha

      So I think there is a specific reason that this “meta”-move comes up in discussions about free speech, which is that the concept of free-speech itself is motivated by meta-level concerns.

      That is, we don’t value free speech (in the sense of a right to say offensive or unpopular things) as an end in itself. Instead, the value of free speech is that it enables a discussion to figure out what the true or right thing is. The paradigmatic case of free speech in the U.S. tradition is political speech—I.e., trying to figure out what should be done. Historically, one of the most important cases was anti-religious speech—trying to figure out what is true or right. So whatever norms proposed need to work in cases when we don’t know on the outset what the true answer is.

      Of course, in cases where we do feel confident that we have the right answer, it’s possible to “hard-code” it into the free speech norms. For example, we know that killing is bad, and so the first amendment is interpreted to have exceptions against incitement to murder. And in the case of loving homosexual relationships in particular, we know homophobia is bad, so European-style anti-hate-speech laws may rule out certain kinds of anti-gay speech.

      But these special cases do not help us solve the main problem: how do you design speech norms which let you discover that racism or homophobia is bad, when you didn’t already know it.

      1. A Definite Beta Guy

        The US and Europe have a huge divergence in their speech rights. If you and your Nationalist Socialist friends want to march through a Jewish neighborhood, that is A-Okay in the US.

        In the US, free speech (defined as freedom from government restricting your speech) is an absolute terminal value. And it’s explicitly stated that it means absolutely nothing if you cannot use your free speech to say the most reprehensible things imaginable.

        “Fighting Words” are not covered by Free Speech, but you’re talking about a narrow exception. You can argue in the abstract that overthrowing the US govt and replacing it with a Communist Dictatorship is an awesome thing that we should all do.

        Arguments like this tend to involve private actors, so the specific government law does not apply. But that doesn’t mean freedom of speech is not without value. Free Speech is an important cultural norm that we should support beyond just “the government will not imprison you for this.”

        At least some people seem to think that political beliefs should enjoy a cultural status similar to protected class, so firing someone for their political beliefs is as morally reprehensible as firing someone for their skin color.

        1. blaisorblade

          > The US and Europe have a huge divergence in their speech rights. […] In the US, free speech (defined as freedom from government restricting your speech) is an absolute terminal value.

          Any chance to compare the two choices in this forum? It seems US people love to paint Europe’s as a dictature on this point, I hope in this venue we’ll do better.

          Speaking in a consequentialist perspective, maybe free speech shouldn’t be a terminal value in the US “deontological” way: Scott admits some cases are bad. “SJWs” claim Social Justice is instead the terminal value and act accordingly. Maybe those are both values to be balanced very carefully? And such careful balancing is better suited to judges than to mobs?

          And indeed, that’s what European law tries to do (http://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/FS_Hate_speech_ENG.pdf). It seems we see fewer Leftist mobs here (data welcome)—maybe the Left doesn’t feel the need, because actual fascism is forbidden? We do have some problems (Trump might like Italian libel laws better), but I wonder if the EU system has an advantage here.

          1. The Nybbler

            It seems we see fewer Leftist mobs here

            Antifa was a big thing in Europe before it came to the US.

          2. blaisorblade

            OK but how big was Antifa in the two places? And I’m not sure it’s an exception. Antifa protests actual neo-Nazi rallies in Germany of all places, where Nazism is theoretically forbidden in the Constitution (a rule which is enforced very carefully as long as you don’t use actual Nazi symbols—see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Democratic_Party_of_Germany). Would you have Antifa without Nazis? But the answer seems sort of obvious—if the state censors unpopular opinions, mobs won’t need to, and if we’re sure Nazism is bad it doesn’t need a place in the marketplace of ideas.

            Alternative take: maybe censoring Nazis is good as a principle but too hard to do through law? I’d still take any advantage from that censorship.

            (EDIT: To be sure, I’m not defending Antifa—I hope calling it a mob is clear enough).

    8. Spookykou

      So I could be totally off base here, and I really don’t understand moral philosophy all that well, but I read Scott as trying to mitigate obvious failure modes not all failure modes.

      Any action that anyone takes for any reason, is an implicit acceptance that people can take actions for reasons, reductio ad absurdum, fining people who jay walk -> governments can levy punishments -> Nazi gas chambers. This is obviously a ridiculous standard that nobody can actually maintain, except maybe with a perfect and true moral philosophy, which I don’t think Scott has hashed out just yet(but I am waiting).

      I assume the concern here is how easy it is to get from any given norm to a horrible failure mode.

      For instance, society A where they establish a norm that the worst outcome of a criminal trial is prison time and society B where they establish a norm that the worst outcome of a criminal trial is death. If you are really worried about the government putting innocent people to death, the norm of society A is probably safer, if not actually safe.

      In this case I think Scott is worried about how quickly/easily ‘fire someone for being racist’ can become ‘fire someone for being a homosexual’ given the historical context, I think this is a reasonable concern.

      The norm that such a serious punishment can be attached to little more than rumors of moral failing seems like it can fail easier than say, a norm that people can be fired after a serious inquiry/violation of explicit policy, coupled with a norm of clearly established protections for wrongful termination, etc. (Obviously they could/do make it an explicit policy that, say, being a christian is grounds for termination, but that is an extra step, and I think each extra step makes it harder to reach the bad end state.)

      I think it is worthwhile to try and figure out which norms are more susceptible to horrible failure, and try and weigh the benefits of the norm against the chance/harm of the associated failures.

      It seems similar conceptually to ‘idiot proofing’.

    9. Scott Alexander Post author

      I’m trying to avoid negative-sum games / wars-of-all-against-all. If we fire the people we don’t like, and they fire the people they don’t like, the end result is everybody getting fired, and no net change in ideology.

      The only way to avoid this is if you assume that good people are always more powerful than bad people – which is questionable to say the least.

      1. Philosophisticat

        I’m certainly not assuming anything like that. I agree that if we aggressively censure people on the basis of our (good) moral understanding, and bad guys aggressively censure people on the basis of their (bad) moral understanding, the result might be worse than if nobody aggressively censured anyone on either basis.

        But there are some steps missing here, if this is supposed to be an argument against us aggressively censuring people on the basis of our (good) moral understanding. Consider the possible parody arguments with the same structure: “If you do [thing you believe has a morally favorable property] and [horrible people] do [things they believe has that morally favorable property], then the result is [horrible outcome]. Therefore you ought not do [thing you believe has a morally favorable property.]” This is not a good type of argument.

        Maybe the missing step is this: “if we don’t aggressively censure the people who are genuinely reprehensible, then [the bad guys] will respond by not aggressively censuring decent people.” But that is not obviously true.

        Maybe the missing step is this: “it is much easier to get society to accept and maintain norms where nobody aggressively censures anyone than it is to get society to accept norms where the right people are aggressively censured and the wrong people are not. So working towards the former system is more likely to succeed than working towards the latter system.” This is kind of plausible, I guess, though again, not obviously true. And if both of those projects are basically doomed anyway (which seems the most plausible to me), then again, this argument will lose its force.

        In any case, something is missing, and I wish people who gave this sort of argument were explicit in what they are going for, and then defended the bridge.

        Note: I’m not actually for these forms of aggressive censure. Like you, I’m just an enemy of bad arguments for good conclusions.

        1. lvlln

          How do you differentiate [good people] versus [horrible people] with any sort of confidence and accuracy? Every [horrible person] in history has honestly, genuinely believed that they were [good person], so obviously one’s own judgment that they’re [good person] not [horrible person] is completely worthless (well, my experience indicates to me it’s actually not completely worthless – in general, the more confident someone is that they’re [good person], the more likely they’re [horrible person], and the more horrible they are. But that’s just subjective anecdote).

          That’s not to say there’s no difference between [good person] and [horrible person], but it’s to call for some humility with regards to one’s own judgments on what’s [good] and what’s [horrible]. That means doing things like outsourcing to independent 3rd parties as much as possible (e.g. if there’s a large portion of the population who disagree with you, listen to them with a genuine openness to be convinced before you just conclude that they’re just [horrible people]), and scaling both punishment and reward to be somewhat proportional to the confidence – ideally, they should be scaled to be less intense than one would believe is warranted, because we should recognize that everyone tends to be overconfident about these things.

          Which is why I keep going back to the need to actually do the hard work to “prove” (for some casual meaning of that word) that [good thing] really is good and [horrible thing] really is horrible before committing strong acts of punishment (or reward).

          So if you’re pushing the norm of “punish people for doing [horrible things],” you better also explicitly and emphatically accompany it with extremely stringent requirements for determining what [horrible thing] actually is – otherwise, you’re pushing the norm of “punish people for doing [thing they subjectively deem horrible].”

          1. random832

            To play a bit of a devil’s advocate…

            What’s wrong with the norm of “punish people for doing [thing anyone subjectively deems horrible]”, objectively? There’s an old saying “an armed society is a polite society”, that I think could be argued to apply here.

            Is it possible that everyone being constantly afraid of everyone else could lead to better outcomes?

          2. lvlln

            @random832

            I don’t see any reason to dismiss that out of hand. Do we have any examples in real life we could draw from to figure out what kind of outcomes to expect?

            Sans specific evidence, I do think that if everyone is afraid of everyone else all the time, that could increase baseline level of stress in individuals. Some stress is a good thing, but I think this may push it up to such an extent that overall health effects would be negative.

            I also believe that societies have evolved, and I think in general the societies that have survived a long time tended not to be of the form where anyone punishing anyone else for anything they subjectively deemed horrible was the norm. This isn’t slam dunk evidence, but I think this may be indication that such societies tend not to be stable or prosperous.

            It’s possible that we’re at a sort of a local maximum, though, so maybe it’s possible that such a “everyone being constantly afraid of everyone else” is overall better, but we have to artificially force society to reach there while going through less optimal states in between? Possible, but I think a very strong case would need to be made – the idea of forcing society into a new, better state while temporarily going through a worse state pattern matches a little too closely to Communism for my tastes, and I’m a little wary of there being a similar failure mode, i.e. death of 10s of millions.

      2. Douglas Knight

        That is a good meta reason and one that you used elsewhere in the article, but the first example, the one PC jumped on is Nazis. We can coordinate meanness against Nazis. If you want to say that we should not, you have to make another meta argument, such as a slippery slope.

        1. Matt M

          We can coordinate meanness against Nazis.

          Not if we can’t agree on what a Nazi actually is.

        2. hlynkacg

          In the context of Nazis “coordinate meanness” means “shoot on sight and burn thier cities to the fucking ground” If you have an alternative targets or levels of meanness in mind you need to make that clear.

          1. Jiro

            In the context of Nazis, “coordinate meanness” means “we can punch someone or disinvite him from conferences or fire him for being a Nazi”. It would be much better if we limited it to shooting and burning cities, since it’s much harder to get away with those actions as a vigilante.

          2. albatross11

            That’s fun as rhetoric, but in this society, if you shoot someone for being a Nazi, you’re headed to prison for a good long time. And if I’m on the jury and am convinced that you committed the murder, I’m going to be voting to convict.

          3. hlynkacg

            As you should. If Nazism is a genuine threat, prison is a small price to pay for fighting it.

            My point is that if you’re simultaneously labeling someone a Nazi and not shooting them on sight you’re either a coward or you’re wielding the label dishonestly.

  37. Sniffnoy

    I think it’s worth keeping in mind here what the point of free speech is. (Well, or what I’ll claim it is, anyway. 😛 ) The world is full of lost purposes that people keep arguing over to no end as if these were the actual goal. Unsurprisingly these arguments don’t get anywhere. I don’t think free speech per se is the real point of free speech, and if instead of focusing on free speech per se you focus on what (once again, I claim) free speech is aiming at, you can make things much more sensible.

    So what is the point of free speech? The easiest way to understand this is to look at the most common alternative. In your standard environment without free speech norms, you’re rewarded or punished based on how much what you say reflects what other people want to hear. Maybe there’s one central authority everyone has to agree with, maybe it’s the consensus of the mob; maybe there’s a particular view everybody holds that you have to agree with, maybe it’s just that you have to deliver good news; but regardless of the specifics, the result is the same: Truth loses. The group or organization ceases to be grounded in reality, sometimes even going into a positive feedback loop. But nature can’t be fooled, and one way or another this takes its toll, eventually resulting in total failure. Unfortunately, sometimes the consequences can take a long time!

    (People talking about free speech often tend to focus on governments or societies, but remember that this all applies at a much smaller scale just as well and is probably easier to see there. Look at businesses; companies fail because of this sort of issue all the time! Nokia is a recent example.)

    The point of free speech is to prevent this, to create a good epistemic environment. One ruled not by a positive feedback loop but by a negative feedback loop — one where mistakes get noticed and corrected. People have to be free to disagree because otherwise mistakes don’t get noticed. People have to be to free to continue to disagree — to hold a contrary position even despite an absence of supporting evidence — because maybe they’re right and you just can’t tell yet. Etc.

    So I think, when you’re thinking about free speech norms, the thing to ask is, what sort of epistemic environment does this promote? One of groupthink and shooting the messenger? Or one of error correction and being able to deal with reality?

    (Could there be an alternative to the first that isn’t “free speech”? Let’s just say, such a thing has yet to be demonstrated…)

    If you keep this goal in mind, I think the answers to a number of questions become a lot clearer. For instance, a really destructive thing you can do with “free speech” is to go around saying, “So and so is a bad person and as such you shouldn’t listen to anything they say.” That’s free speech, of a sort. But does it promote the free exchange of ideas? No, it does the opposite. Does it lead to a good epistemic environment? No, it does the opposite.

    I could go on in this vein, talking about how to have an argument well, but I don’t think I’d be saying anything unfamiliar to most people here. The point is, if you keep in mind the idea that the point of free speech is creating a good epistemic environment, things make a lot more sense.

    Let’s look at another question: What about Alice above, who says something along the lines of, “No, Bob, you total idiot, you forgot to account for such-and-such. For such an elementary mistake you should be laughed out of the room.”? Well, it’s a bit rude, certainly; and it’s a good thing to be polite, because it’s almost always possible (it’s pretty rare that having to be polite actually cuts down on what sorts of argument you can make), and being rude can discourage replies (by indicating that you’re going to be an unpleasant person to argue with — or, perhaps, that you might be someone who actually tries to hurt those who disagree with you). On the other hand, not everyone wants to take the time to be polite, and so in the interest of allowing everyone to speak you don’t generally actually constantly require that people be polite.

    Personally, I’d say that it’s generally understood that people are often going to be a bit rude when arguing, and if Alice argues with Bob and calls him a “total idiot” and etc., she’s not actually trying to discourage Bob and others from arguing, she’s just, y’know, expressing her disagreement pretty vehemently (along with her low tolerance for really stupid arguments 😛 ). (The old guide to the ad hominem fallacy is relevant here.)

    On the other hand, there are, as mentioned above, people who will take some minor mistake of yours, correct it, and then heap abuse upon you, who clearly are trying to circumvent argument rather than engage in it. And that’s the sort of thing that doesn’t lead to the free exchange of ideas and a good epistemic environment! Unfortunately there’s no bright line that can be drawn between one and the other; still, I feel like in practice it’s generally pretty clear… and when it’s not, well, I think that if you assume good faith the “bad guys” will generally eventually make their nature apparent.

    So to take the example above — Alice’s rudeness is probably OK; Bob’s response is definitely not; and beyond that my answer is roughly “Oh my God I don’t really care”. I mean, OK, that latter part’s not quite true, some of those responses there are pretty despicable and disproportionate; but the point is that at that point we’re already into the realm of social fights rather than truth-seeking, and the most important question is how do we get out of there, not adjudicating the disputes that occur within there. Like, yes, OK, that’s something that’s probably going to need to happen, but it’s not nearly as critical.

    All this leaves the question of what to do about people who knowingly make the epistemic environment worse. That’s a harder question and I don’t really have an answer to it. That said, one thing is pretty clear: If you want to attempt punishment or retaliation — or anything that could be construed as such! — you need to be absolutely clear what rules you’re playing by. Otherwise you just get escalation, and that way lies disaster. Like, obviously you want to warn people away from them; but if you say “This person is making the epistemic environment worse, you should ignore them”… this could be construed as saying “This person is bad and you should never listen to them”, and as such your warning could be taken as legitimating such things! And I’m not sure of any way of being absolutely clear about that other than, like, tediously repeating the whole rationale for why you shouldn’t do that. So, uh, yeah, it’s a hard problem.

    Basically I don’t think there’s a way to make rules here that are totally abuse-proof. But I think you can at least make guidelines that are easier to evaluate and harder to abuse (in that abuse of them is more obvious).

    (Now I need to go back sometime and actually comment on that meritocracy post… 😛 )

    1. honhonhonhon

      People like talking about how democracy was adopted because it’s the most efficient, you don’t get to suffer under cruel incompetent uncaring hereditary monarchs, etc. The death eaters disagree and say democracy is a practical solution to civil wars, e.g. easier to see who can do more violence with a vote than with guns.

      You focus on the epistemic virtues of free speech, and that’s important when talking about what norms serve it best. But I subscribe to death eater-style argument here – the point of free speech isn’t truthseeking alone, it’s also about leaving space for dissent. If you shut down any naysayer, that leaves people with less space to be civil while overthrowing you.

    2. Randy M

      Part of free speech is also justice. It is not just for a person to lose their employment prospects for a mean joke; the retribution is wildly disproportionate to the harm caused (excepting perhaps some really dodgy utilitarian accounting focusing on hurt feelings of every potential audience member). All the more so throwing someone in prison for criticism of the government or the like.

      1. andagain

        Utilitarianism is not the only theory of justice: If someone starts from the proposition that e.g. jokes offensive to blondes are more evil than murder, they could conclude that it is just to imprison someone for decades for telling an anti-blonde joke.

        1. Randy M

          Sure, but do you actually see the virtue-ethics or deontological equivalent of the torture vs dust specks argument made?

    3. Drew

      The point is, if you keep in mind the idea that the point of free speech is creating a good epistemic environment, things make a lot more sense.

      I very much agree with this.

      Debate — like anything else — takes practice. People do a terrible job expressing their ideas the first few times the try.

      I want a world where people are able to articulate their own beliefs, and explain their reasoning. In order for that to happen, we need forums where people can refine their thinking. This means forums where people can make mistakes.

      If we over-react to bad (or inarticulately-phrased) ideas, we’ll just drive people away from debate and towards some other past time. In the long run, that’s going to drive down the “sanity waterline” and make politics even less sophisticated than it already is.

    1. Aapje

      Yes. Scott sometimes does this when he is afraid that the comments will be offensive to the people in the outgroup who he wants to convince with a post. At least, that is my interpretation.

    2. BlindKungFuMaster

      Yeah, and it’s a pity. Just yesterday I was wondering whether the male-female incidence ratio in autism could be explained by a different mean on the people-thing axis (Turns out the mean difference should probably predict a much higher ratio, like among libertarian or physicists or c-scientists). Super interesting topic.

      1. Douglas Knight

        The systematizing-empathizing scale Scott writes about (which is close to MBTI’s T/F) was designed by S Baron-Cohen specifically for studying autism.

        Most biological distributions are not bell curves, so you can’t predict tail ratios from mean differences; or far tail from near tail. A common reason for something not to be a bell curve is that it has two causes, often a continuum of variation, plus a rare big effect. For example, height has a sex difference of d=2. People who are 1/50,000 tall are virtually all male, but people who are 1/50,000 short are close to even (2:1?) because they’re mostly dwarfs (mostly due to achondroplasia, a single mutation). It could be the same with autism.

        1. BlindKungFuMaster

          Sure, but it would have been neat, because you could argue that autism might be culture independent. Than you could differentiate between the biological and the cultural component of this particular sex difference.

          But actually the systematizing-empathizing difference of d=0.5 fits the male-female ratio and incidence rate of autism very well (For 4.3:1 and 62/10000 = the wikipedia numbers). Of course that’s less interesting, because it probably doesn’t inform job choice quite as much. Still, it’s an indication that it makes sense to talk about a spectrum and that this one might be gaussian.

          1. Douglas Knight

            I’m arguing against your argument that the cause of libertarians is not the cause of autism. If you accept that S/E (T/F) is the cause of autism, well, it’s pretty clearly not the sole cause of libertarians. But I think my argument still needs to be made because it is important to consider what you can conclude from subsets of the evidence, because you might end up having to discard S/E or adjust its d. (I also doubt that S/E is the whole cause of libertarians.)

            Some people claim that a substantial portion of autism is due to de novo mutations of large effect. If this is true, then we’re pretty much in the achondroplasia situation and fit between the d of S/E and the sex ratio of autism is a coincidence. But it should be easy to take de novo autists and measure their sex ratio.

    3. Bugmaster

      I really wish Scott would put a “comments disabled” warning at the top of such posts, because then I’d save a bunch of time by not reading them in the first place.

      1. liskantope

        Why? You don’t find it worthwhile to read an SSC post unless you can comment under it? For the record, I found that post a good and interesting read.

        1. Bugmaster

          I don’t particularly care if I personally can comment; but rather, I believe that most of the value of SSC blog posts comes from the discussion in the comments, as people attempt to disprove (or prove) Scott’s ideas, or merely present their own perspectives.

      2. Matt M

        If the past is any indication, we’ll just start commenting on it on the next OT.

        I’m preparing a blog post to address it (and other discussion that has been had in the doxxing thread) as we speak!

    4. sconn

      I was really disappointed by that. I was a female libertarian and now I am not, and many of my friends are in the same boat, or are married to libertarians and aren’t themselves. I think I might have something to offer on the topic (I think Scott comes close but doesn’t quite hit the reason) but, alas, nowhere to put that comment.

      1. Gobbobobble

        As Matt M pointed out, stick around for the next open thread. I’m sure folks would be interested.

    5. Brad

      When Scott makes a post on gender it attracts a large number of aggressively terrible anti-women commentators. These guys are obsessed with their pet theories about gender and will post ten or twenty of these terrible comments which means hundreds total. (Same dynamic happens with race.)

      Then when the main post gets linked from somewhere high profile, which it probably will because it is thoughtful and well written, some of the people learning about SSC for the first time will click down to the comments section and think this place is a hive of scum and villainy. They’ll wonder WTF is wrong with Scott for fostering that type of community. Worse yet many of the terrible commentators think that Scott secretly agrees with them and their comments will so imply.

      The very people that Scott hoped to convince in the first place now not only aren’t convinced, because whatever argument was made in the post has been overwhelmed by the sewage in the comments, but have a negative opinion of SSC and of Scott to boot.

      Whereas if someone comes along and reads the post and there aren’t any comments, either that will be that and he’ll be convinced or not by the post. Or if he decides he wants to stick around and clicks on one of those other posts that don’t directly have to do with race or gender (like the free speech thread) at least there will be a more fair cross section of comments. Yes, it will still have the terrible ones, but in the usual proportion instead of in the catnip post proportion.

      1. Gobbobobble

        I wish this wasn’t true, but I’ve gotta agree. I remember one case in particular where there was a well-spoken poster who got fed up and was all “that’s it I’m done with this shithole” and I’m thinking “wait no the guy you’ve been arguing with isn’t even a regular come baaack”

        1. dndnrsn

          I remember this. Didn’t that guy actually come back? Or am I mixing people up?

          We all know the real deal here is the battleship posts, though.

          1. herbert herberson

            Didn’t that guy actually come back?

            Maaaaybe.

            In my defense with regards to non-committal ness, I am going to try and stay away from biotroofs discussions, much as I already tried to with feminism–some people are too set in their ways, and I think it is often based on deep personal experiences one could never successfully argue with.

            In my defense with regards to the initial outrage, it wasn’t just that post (which was fairly mild mannered, if ridiculous), it was an entire thread of people discussing the spectrum of “the current present-day status quo” and “a lifeless Venusian hellscape” and where on that spectrum a world in the mold of somewhat dysfunctional post-colonial African states would be.

            But, ultimately, the fact that I think a few posters are both absurd and reprehensible isn’t enough to overcome the fact that Someone On The Internet Might Be Wrong (to say nothing of the fact that some of the comments and commenters are actually very good)

          2. hlynkacg

            …and some of us are reprehensible without being absurd.

            *looks around shiftily and shuffles over to a corner where he can sit with his back to a wall*

  38. Aapje

    The archipelago solution also requires that people are willing to be honest about the rules of their archipelago and are willing to keep the size relatively small, so space is left over for others.

    This is where Safe Spaces often fail, as they tend to be advertised as safe spaces for all, even though they are frequently spaces where hostility against the outgroup is allowed and criticism of the ingroup isn’t, where it is demanded that certain dogma is accepted, etc. Secondly, and this is related to the deceptive advertising, there is a push to make everything a Safe Space. When that happens, something that is billed as creating a separate space for a certain group becomes an attempt to write the rules for all spaces.

    So I think that the archipelago solution can only work if there are strong norms against this kind of motte and bailey: ‘we only want an archipelago and…it has to encompass everything’.

    1. Drew

      I agree and am surprised that there’s not more debate about the feasibility of “safe spaces for all!” in progressive circles.

      As I understand the concept, “Safe Spaces” were therapeutic and tailored for some small, specific group. The point was to make a space where people in that group could express their unfiltered thoughts.

      Railway Engineers might want a safe space to talk about the trauma that comes from driving a train that kills someone. It seems totally legitimate to give them a private space to rage about the idiocy of people who ignore crossing guards. Or the selfishness of people who commit suicide-by-train.

      But that safe space should be totally disconnected from the safe space for people who’ve lost family members to suicide. Combining those groups into a single forum would be monstrously cruel.

      Calling everything a “safe space” dilutes the concept, and seems like it deceives people about the level-of-protection they should be able to expect.

      1. The Nybbler

        “Safe space” is one of those very common motte-and-baileys. When describing the rules inside the safe space, a safe space what you describe. The bailey is to switch to the common meaning of the term “safe” and assert that everywhere (or almost everywhere) should be safe for women-and-underrepresented-minorities,.

      2. SamChevre

        Safe spaces are awesome, but they only work if they are small and well-defined. As noted by The Nybbler, they’re frequently a motte-and-bailey.

        When I was in college, my “safe space” was the kitchen of one of the late-night hangouts. The cook was my friend, and from the same working-class background I was (and about my parents age). I would hang out and make sandwiches when I was exhausted and needed to not feel like a poor, uncouth outsider for a few hours.

      3. Matt M

        Even putting safe spaces aside, I think “safety” in general has become one of the most egregiously abused concepts, by a wide variety of people, over the last 5 years or so. “I felt unsafe” is now treated as a magical phrase which can be used to justify all sorts of activity that would otherwise appear to be obviously horrendous and unacceptable, and the problem is it works and there are no signs that its power will be decreasing anytime soon.

        College students standing outside an invited guest lecture and screeching that the entire thing must be shut down seems ludicrous on its face. But if they say “this speaker makes me feel unsafe” then suddenly they are taken seriously – and why shouldn’t they? Safety is the administrations #1 priority (and its a reasonable priority to have if the word is not abused) and who are you to question someone’s feelings? What are you going to do, insist that they are lying about their feelings? Or tell them that their feelings don’t matter and aren’t important?

        But don’t think it’s just a lefty thing. You know who else is likely to justify something horrible by saying “I felt unsafe.” A cop, on the jury stand, for having shot an unarmed black man 20 times. And much like the college administrator, the jury is quite uncomfortable questioning the police officer’s feelings. Officer safety is important. And who are we to tell him his feelings were wrong?

        My general advice to anybody who has ever been caught doing something wrong is to offer “I did it because I felt unsafe” as a first excuse. Think about justifying it logically later. But putting someone in the position of having to either say “your safety is unimportant” or “your feelings were incorrect” puts you in a position of strength, because nobody wants to do that.

  39. Winter Shaker

    Leaving a nit-picky comment for Scott here, since comments are closed at the ‘Gender Imbalance’ post: shouldn’t it be ‘circular firing squad’, rather than ‘chamber’?

    1. JulieK

      Also, is “…all these groups have great gender balance. You’ll never find a Wiccan circle or a gender studies class that accidentally ended up as 100% male” supposed to mean the higher the percentage of women, the better the “gender balance?” (I’ve never been to a Wiccan circle or a gender studies class, but I suspect they are usually more than 50% female.)

      1. Matt M

        Yes. Common usage of “good gender balance” is “as many women and as few men as possible.”

      2. Nornagest

        I’ve been to both. The gender studies class I took had a significant fraction of men in it — perhaps 30% — but that’s probably because taking it or one of several similarly themed classes was a requirement for graduation.

        The Wiccan circle was indeed almost entirely women.

      3. Mary

        Have you ever seen a group savaged for being mostly or all women?

        so obviously, it’s only men that are the problem.

  40. AnonYEmous

    Like I’ve said in the previous thread basically on this subject: the free speech norm should be, or at least the norm I hold to is, “Free speech means freedom from disproportionate consequences”.

    Of course, in practice this leads to a lot of wrangling about disproportionality and what it actually means, but I think it’s fairly easy to define depending on the situation and limits the scope of the argument for the betterment of all.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      We agree on principles, but I think either it’s not easy to define in real life, or else it’s easy for me to define but everyone else disagrees with my definition, which is a form of “not easy to define”.

      For example, I’ve been getting a lot of anger and insults on Twitter from people who think my post about signal-boosting/doxxing was bad and wrong. Some of these are people I respect; some are blue-checkmarked Official Important People.

      1. AnonYEmous

        I think it’s hard to define in real life, but it lets you actually get down to brass tacks and dissect the core of the argument. And ultimately, if people think that what they did isn’t disproportionate, you will probably not ever convince them with any other metric or method.

  41. Wander

    There’s a couple of questions I wish I had more answers to whenever free speech discourse comes up. They’re in sets, based on which rough side someone is on.
    What’s something you can say that you shouldn’t be able to say? What’s something you can’t say but you think people want to say?
    What’s something you can’t say that you think you should be able to say? What’s something you can say that you think people don’t want you to say?

    1. Randy M

      “Can’t say” and “be able to say” aren’t quite the right questions. We need to ask something more like “What are some examples of proper and improper punishment for speech?”
      So, for example and to answer your questions
      Making an accusation of a crime or other serious moral breach absent very compelling evidence should result in loss of trust and, absent expression of remorse, ostracism of the accuser if the target is not found guilty
      Attempts to change moral norms should not be done by shaming people who hold recently outdated values, and attempts to do so should be met with polite criticism
      Normative statements should not be taken as personal judgement nor result in harassment or public shaming in response, but attempts at rebuttal by appeal to shared values
      Offenses against feelings should not result in attacks against livelihood unless targeted and repeated

  42. dansimonicouldbewrong

    Government restrictions on political expression are a very specific problem, and “free speech”–that is, strict limits on such restrictions–is a very specific solution to it. Without free speech, democracy is extremely vulnerable to collapse and replacement by a tyrant. The Constitutional protection of free speech is thus intended to protect democracy from usurpation by tyranny.

    Private enforcement of social norms, on the other hand, is not only not a threat to democracy–it’s positively necessary for smooth and orderly social interaction. We attempt to interfere with it at our peril. And realistically, nobody expects people who violate consensus social norms not to pay a certain price for doing so.

    The scary examples of private suppression of speech that have people like Scott clamoring for some broader definition of “free speech” are in my view actually part of a very different phenomenon–one that I’ve blogged about in the past (but can’t link to): institutions with monopoly or cartel power being taken over by groups seeking to impose their own brand of uniformity of opinion on them. Universities are an obvious example: if they weren’t collectively the mutually-certifying sole source of white-collar job credentials, ninety percent of the students who attend them today would never bother, and radical faculty could continue to purge heterodoxies from their nearly-empty campuses to their hearts’ delight with nobody else caring. Similarly, if the press weren’t dominated by a de facto cartel led by a tiny number of large news outlets with large, massively inbred staffs, then they could enforce their political party line all day–just as niche press outlets do, in their own way–and few would even notice. Go through the list of recent scary cases of suppression of free expression, and you’ll find case after case of institutions in monopoly positions being hijacked by people seeking to use the institution’s monopoly power to enforce their own orthodoxy.

    The solution, then, is not a futile attempt to establish “free speech” norms for social interaction, but rather to undermine the monopolies that serve as a vehicle for the power-hungry speech-suppressors. Dismantle the higher-education cartel, the journalistic hive, the showbiz clique, the Silicon Valley oligopoly, and so on. Make organizations compete seriously for employees and customers, and watch the stifling conformity that rules these places melt into openness and freedom–or at least into pluralism and diversity of opinion.

    1. Janet

      I couldn’t agree more. The problem is the power disparity. It’s pointless to seek some sort of objective standard for the speech, when the real problem is when members of one clique can deny those outside of it the things necessary for their livelihood or well-being. The actual speech is just the “MacGuffin”… opinion trends will move this way and that; what was banned is now mandatory, and vice versa. The enduring thing is power: how far can Group A’s power extend over the internal business of Group B. Right now, these cartels have disproportionate power over people’s livelihoods. And, I might add, nobody ever agreed to give them the power, let them be the ones to decide what is WrongThink or Beyond-the-Pale or whatever– they just took it, and manipulate the system to keep it. That’s the problem.

    2. Nornagest

      Clickbait journalism is viciously competitive, but we do not see openness and freedom coming out of it.

      1. SamChevre

        Your Facebook feed must be different from mine. I see clickbait from every point on the political spectrum I can imagine, and some I can’t.

  43. Sebastian_H

    I also wonder if part of the problem isn’t totalizing rhetoric. Someone who thinks taxes are too high probably isn’t really a Nazi. Someone who wants a bit more government involvement probably isn’t a Communist. Someone who is ok with gay marriage being legal but uncomfortable enough with it not to want to work for the wedding probably doesn’t need to be ostracized. If an atheist architect doesn’t want to be involved in building a church maybe that’s ok.

    Tolerance means really thinking about what serious disagreements don’t need to be turned into rubbing people’s noses in the disagreement.

  44. onyomi

    I disagree here for the same reasons I strongly disagreed with “Be Nice until you can Coordinate Meanness,” and, though I hadn’t read it before, now disagree with “Not just a Mere Political Issue.”

    I think drawing the line at legality or illegality as a proxy for social consensus is a proxy which will work most of the time but not because social consensus is where the line should be drawn. The reason it works is because willingness to do illegal things strongly, but not perfectly correlates with “person who is dangerous and unpredictable.”

    I would happily invite someone to dinner who had ostentatiously refused to pay his taxes and gone to jail as a result. This is because, while he has offended the law and social norms, he has done so in a way which increases, rather than decreases my priors on him being a good person. Related, I would not invite someone who worked for the NSA or the IRS to dinner, even though I would happily invite to dinner someone who thinks these agencies are necessary. This is because willingness to actually work at these agencies implies a level of dedication to principles I think are terrible much greater than mere abstract support.

    Maybe I’m misreading you, but are you actually saying we should be against the Holocaust in the abstract but be willing to invite over a concentration camp prison guard for dinner because he was just following orders? Analogous to the above example, I would be happy to invite over for dinner a person who had simply been a German citizen during WWII or even fought for the Germans in WWII because I don’t think being a citizen of a country the government of which did terrible things or even fighting in the army for a government which did terrible things are alone good proxies for “bad person.” Being willing to work in a concentration camp where you have no plausible deniability about what was going on, however, is a different matter. Spitting on Vietnam vets, similarly, is bad; spitting on the individual Vietnam vets who committed the My Lai massacre, however, is reasonable, and not just because we can construe it as having been illegal or against army policy. Rather because those actions are sufficient prior for them being bad people.

    Moreover, I think the legal/illegal line, and even, to a lesser extent the “vague impression of social consensus/my idiosyncratic judgment” line have a very bad consequence: namely, the reinforcement of the norm which excuses people for “just following orders.” Probably more evil has been committed in recent history, if not all of history, by people “just following orders” than people who conceded, in their own minds, that what they were doing was bad. In other words, I very much want to live in a society where following the dictates of one’s own conscience is the rule, not following the law or even vague social consensus.

    The rule I propose instead of “be nice until you can coordinate meanness” is “be nice until you have a very good reason to believe they’re being mean; once you do, it is acceptable, if not always advisable, to respond with proportional meanness, beginning with social ostracism.” Note that I think “having a different political opinion” is a very poor proxy for determining meanness, but actions speak louder than words. I can be friends with someone who supports taxation. I can’t be friends with someone who collects taxes.

    1. Aevylmar

      Interesting post, and I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, but I don’t think I agree with this:

      “Probably more evil has been committed in recent history, if not all of history, by people “just following orders” than people who conceded, in their own minds, that what they were doing was bad.”

      Because I think that’s apples to oranges, Onyomi.

      The question is, how much evil was created in recent history, if not all of history, by people “just following orders,” versus people who said, “I know the truth, and society is wrong, and the truth I know is worth killing for?”

      Because I think that those are the two points you’re trading off. You can say, “People should follow society’s dictates,” or you should say “people should try to devise their own morality,” but the failure mode of the former is “my society is right when it says to kill the Jews,” and the failure mode of the latter is “my society is wrong when it says I shouldn’t kill my neighbor.” Or lead a communist revolution to kill your neighbor, as the case may be.

      1. onyomi

        I stand by the statement as you helpfully elaborated it.

        Because I think most people, when they’re being honest with themselves, have a fairly good and surprisingly similar moral sense, I think far more evil is done by people doing things they would know are wrong if they relied on their own conscience but that they tell themselves are okay because “just doing my job” than is done by people following their own, idiosyncratic morality to extremes.

        Also, of the few people who have a really idiosyncratic ethical intuition that firmly informs them that actions almost everyone else would think are evil are good and the bravery to act upon it, how many would be dissuaded from acting by social consensus and the law, anyway?

        1. Aevylmar

          “Because I think most people, when they’re being honest with themselves, have a fairly good and surprisingly similar moral sense, I think far more evil is done by people doing things they would know are wrong if they relied on their own conscience but that they tell themselves are okay because society than is done by people following their own, idiosyncratic morality to extremes.”

          I disagree.

          That is, I agree that most people have a fairly good and surprisingly similar moral sense. Absolutely.

          But people are really good at convincing themselves that they are a special case, they they have some kind of an excuse that means they don’t have to follow the rules, that this is really justified by the circumstances and that everyone else would agree if they knew what they knew.

          … I’m sorry, that came out kind of crooked. I hope ot makes sense anyway.

          The point being, “killing people is wrong,” is quickly followed by the exception, “except in self-defense,” which mutates into “except when defending our children,” which further mutates into “except in case of danger to our children,” which mutates into lynch mobs.

          I think that if people are taught to follow their idiosyncratic morality to extremes, the result will be a million people screaming at each other that everyone else is violating the “timeless platonic contract that doesn’t exist” without an excuse, whereas they have a perfectly good reason for their violation of it.

          “Also, of the few people who have a really idiosyncratic ethical intuition that firmly informs them that actions almost everyone else would think are evil are good and the bravery to act upon it, how many would be dissuaded from acting by social consensus and the law, anyway?”

          Hmm. We may be defining our categories differently. I see the average person who gets sucked into working for a rebellion as fitting in the “people should devise their own morality” category, not the “people should follow society’s dictates” category.

          That is to say, the dictates of the general society they were raised in generally include, “don’t take action to disrupt this society.” Breaking with that – even if it’s to join another society – takes a lack of respect for the society you left.

          Or, in other words, the average concentration-camp guard may have been just following orders. The average brownshirt was taking unfortunately necessary actions that appear to violate the common morality for the greater good of the state and the German people.

          Does this make sense? I’m a bit sleepy right now.

          1. onyomi

            The Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments show people have a strong tendency to suspend their good moral sense in the face of authority and social pressure. I don’t think nearly so many people having a correspondingly strong tendency to go vigilante about their idiosyncratic ideas no one shares.

            I agree that people are good at coming up with exceptions and justifications for doing what they feel like doing, rather than what is right, but I think “I’m just doing my job/what everyone else is doing,” is on the top of that list.

            I think being in favor of everyone following his own conscience is precisely the safest position for anyone who is highly skeptical of mass movements, revolutions, etc. The amount of damage (or good, some revolutionaries might argue) the crazy dreamer with the idiosyncratic ideas can do is highly limited without a lot of followers. It’s hard to attract a lot of followers, especially to an evil cause, if everyone is following the dictates of his own conscience.

            I guess I’m saying humans acting like lemmings scare me a lot more than lone wolves, scary as the latter might occasionally be.

          2. hlynkacg

            Lone wolves, being lone, are much less of a threat even if they are individually scarier.

          3. rahien.din

            It’s hard to attract a lot of followers … if everyone is following the dictates of his own conscience.

            From what state do you think institutions arise, and in response to what?

            It seems to me that if the dictates of conscience are manifestly superior to institutions, then conscience would dictate that we not create institutions, and conscience-following humans would thus not create them….

            …and yet, we did?

            Did conscience fail us (why wouldn’t it fail us again)? Or is conscience a 21st-century invention? Or is there simply more to it.

            It must be pointed out that you can’t be part of La Cosa Nostra if you don’t hold to moral values.

            lone wolves

            Lone wolves are rare because wolves naturally form packs. Nefarious humans don’t usually act alone. They gather cohorts and underlings via intimidation, inducement, grooming, appeals to conscience, etc. If the Milgram experiment was conducted with a Mafiosi in place of the researcher, how many people would have stopped giving shocks?

            The danger of eliminating well-intentioned institutions is the non-elimination of evilly-intentioned institutions. Rule-by-conscience reduces immediately to rule-by-those-without-conscience.

            lemmings

            Presumably you know that lemmings don’t actually leap from cliffs en masse. People believed the lie because it came from an authoritative source. This is sort of a Milgram phenomenon, in the submission to authority in absence of complete information.

            The appropriate response to discovering the lie in White Wilderness is not to suggest we should abolish the institution of documentary-creation, but to upgrade our standards for the institution of nature/scientific reporting. IE to bolster the institution.

          4. Nancy Lebovitz

            “But people are really good at convincing themselves that they are a special case, they they have some kind of an excuse that means they don’t have to follow the rules, that this is really justified by the circumstances and that everyone else would agree if they knew what they knew.”

            People are even better at convincing themselves that their group is a special case.

          5. Civilis

            People are even better at convincing themselves that their group is a special case.

            People are even better at agreeing with the guy that tells them that their group is a special case.

            The way to escape the failure mode that one external source of morality can be wrong is not to have no external sources of morality, but to have multiple non-overlapping sources. When they disagree, take a serious look at what’s going on and then use your conscience as a tie-breaker.

        2. Trofim_Lysenko

          Because I think most people, when they’re being honest with themselves, have a fairly good and surprisingly similar moral sense

          Strongly disagree. This is largely a function of early socialization and pedagogy, and can produce WILDLY different results. To use just one example, tribal morality has been dominant for most of history, and I think there’s a good argument to be made that it’s still dominant today. That is, the idea that morality or immorality of an action depends less on the nature of the act than on how much a part of your tribal in-group the person affected is. So, for example:

          -Cheating member of my tribe? Morally blameworthy. Cheating outsider for personal gain? Less blameworthy or even morally neutral. Cheating outsider for gain of my tribe? morally praiseworthy/obligatory.

          -Providing aid and comfort to a member of my tribe? Morally praiseworthy. Providing aid and comfort to an outsider? less praiseworthy or morally neutral. Providing aid and comfort to an outsider at the expense of my tribe or its members? very morally blameworthy, and the very soul of perfidy.

          To be clear, I do not mean ‘tribe’ in the red/blue sense that has become popular here, though there are plenty of people for whom the above model DOES map pretty well to the red/blue tribes. However, the most common tribes are:

          -Family/Clan/Tribe
          -Race/Ethnicity
          -Religion

          1. onyomi

            I don’t think most people in the world have strongly divergent opinions about the most important issues (murder, rape, theft, etc.). In support of this consider that it’s usually possible, assuming no language barrier, to have a coherent discussion about morality with someone from another culture. If people truly had extremely divergent base-level moral intuitions such a conversation would rapidly become incoherent, because there would be no shared points of reference. For example, one could have a discussion about the “trolley problem” with people in many different parts of the world, and while you might notice that people from certain cultures are more likely to give a particular answer than people from another, I think you’d rarely, if ever, encounter people who just couldn’t understand the problem, or what was at stake.

            But, even if moral intuitions do diverge greatly from culture to culture and neighborhood to neighborhood (and the latter is actually going to be the more relevant question since it’s more important for most people to get along with their neighbors than with people on the other side of the world, though that gets a bit tougher in the digital age), that still leaves this:

            The choice is not between “everyone follows his own, potentially idiosyncratic moral intuition” and “everyone follows the correct moral view.” It’s between “everyone follows his own, potentially idiosyncratic moral intuition” and “everyone abides by the standard morality as determined by [a vote, whatever the king said, whatever it says in the Bible…].” Between those latter two choices, I see a lot more potential for evil in the latter.

          2. Trofim_Lysenko

            You don’t see a difference between “stealing is wrong” and “stealing from family/tribe is wrong, stealing from outsiders is ok and sometimes even moral”?

            EDIT: Add to that “Stealing may be wrong or right depending on consequences” and the various moral codes arguing that individuals should damn well take what they want when they want from whomever can’t stop them, vae victis.

            And if you think I’m strawmanning here, to be clear I am not pointing fingers at specific cultures like, say, certain flavors of Arab culture (though they provide some good examples), or the identity politics of certain strains of left-wing thought, because you can find the belief alive and well in middle and upper class Europe and America just as easily.

            Do you know how many criminals who regularly commit serious crimes like robbery (that is, theft with threat of violence) and assault have friends and/or family members who absolutely know and have proof of their deeds, and are not themselves criminals or gang members and thus don’t share a specific criminal moral code legitimizing the conduct, yet do not inform the police of their relative/friend’s behavior, and in many cases actively help to conceal it?

            I am working on digging up hard numbers to answer that question, but I’d lay money that the answer is “Most of them”. And if you press them on it, once the rationalizations and bullshit fall away, what’s the answer? “They’re Family/Friends/Co-religionists, and you stay LOYAL to Family/Friends/Co-religionists”.

          3. Doctor Mist

            I don’t think most people in the world have strongly divergent opinions about the most important issues

            If this is true (which I am far from convinced of), I would submit that it’s because most people in the world are part of a worldwide consensus that has formed over the past thousand years of relatively and accelerating high-bandwidth worldwide communication. That may not be relevant to your point, but it seems worth pointing out how contingent even these consensus lines are.

            We know (don’t we?) that we evolved for “My brother before my cousin, my cousin before a stranger”. A high modernist might acknowledge the impulse while denying that it is truly moral; a tribesman might assert the obvious morality of the impulse and find it queer or even incomprehensible to deny it. That they can understand the words describing each other’s position seems sort of secondary.

          4. Mediocrates

            “They’re Family/Friends/Co-religionists, and you stay LOYAL to Family/Friends/Co-religionists”.

            The Governor of She said to Confucius, “In our village there is a man nicknamed ‘Straight Body.’ When his father stole a sheep, he gave evidence against him.” Confucius answered, “In our village those who are straight are quite different. Fathers cover up for their sons, and sons cover up for their fathers. Straightness is to be found in such behavior.”

          5. onyomi

            @Trofim, re. Mediocrates’ quote:

            Confucius has to argue against the interpretation of morality which says you should turn your father in if he committed a crime. Which means it was a moral question at the time: “is your first loyalty to society or to your family?” and “Is it better for society for everyone to rat on everyone else, or might it be better for everyone to be loyal to those close to them, thereby creating a social environment of mutual trust and cohesion and effective, voluntary hierarchy?”

            These are questions not only intelligible and relevant today, but on which I’m sure there’s disagreement among 21st c. Americans. Yet they were talking about them 2500 years ago. Pretty good evidence to me of a shared core of moral intuitions before globalization, etc.

          6. moscanarius

            I don’t think most people in the world have strongly divergent opinions about the most important issues (murder, rape, theft, etc.)

            I’m not so sure. Many people around where I live support murdering criminals without trial, and others are outraged by it; a few have wildly divergent definitions of rape; and some others scream that “private property is theft”. None of them are actually satisfied with the laws we have on any of these subjects.

          7. Trofim_Lysenko

            “moral intuitions” are what guide us to specific ANSWERS to given moral questions, not how those questions are framed.

            If person A gets the answer “X is a Noble Act” and B gets the answer, “X is an Ignoble Act”, then they have differing moral intuitions, no matter how well they are able to have discussions about the issue with each other.

            To use another example that may be closer to your everyday experience, one of the reasons very few people are sympathetic to your desires for an AnCap society or even a Libertarian society is that their moral intuitions lead them in a totally different direction as to the importance and moral value of things like individual rights and freedom of action/association.

          8. onyomi

            @Trofim

            If person A gets the answer “X is a Noble Act” and B gets the answer, “X is an Ignoble Act”, then they have differing moral intuitions, no matter how well they are able to have discussions about the issue with each other.

            If you define moral intuition as simply “base level ability to reason about moral issues+the actual chain of logic which brought your ability to do so to a given conclusion” then this is true, but trivially so. If you define moral intuition as just the basic faculty for reasoning about morals prior to logic, then this seems obviously false. Unless you think no one ever changes his mind on a moral issue in response to reading or hearing a new argument.

            …one of the reasons very few people are sympathetic to your desires for an AnCap society or even a Libertarian society is that their moral intuitions lead them in a totally different direction as to the importance and moral value of things like individual rights and freedom of action/association.

            As much as I love Jonathan Haidt, I feel like this is an area where he’s had a bad influence around here, and perhaps elsewhere. That is, I think it forecloses rational debate about ethical issues to say “well, you know, I just have a higher care score and lower purity score than you, so we’re not going to agree.” That is, it becomes an easy justification for moral relativism (I realize you weren’t using this as an argument, but just an explanation for why people disagree with me; still think the Haidt-ian framework can lend itself to this sort of problem, though).

            Which is not to say I don’t believe in some degree, maybe a high degree, of heritability of political stances and, probably, moral intuitive faculties. If you took two identical twins separated at birth and asked them a political or moral question, I’d bet you’d find a surprisingly high degree of consonance. But that doesn’t mean moral intuitions are all just subjective feelings about which one can’t have a rational debate and arrive at a better answer.

            As you said in your first response, life experience makes a big difference, too: raise one of those twins a Catholic and one a Hindu and though they have basically the same faculties, they are going to have been exposed to two different lifetimes of ethical arguments and probably reached different conclusions about important questions.

            But that again, to my mind, doesn’t mean they need to each ignore their own conscience and follow some state or church-approved standard morality. Instead, they should discuss and work out mutually agreeable solutions insofar as possible.

            By the way, ancap will not necessarily result in high degrees of individual autonomy for everyone. It might actually result in more conservative values, focus on family, etc. As David Friedman has put it, I think, ancap may often produce more libertarian results, but nothing says it must always do so in every case.

            If I were to try to categorize my libertarian impulses in Haidt-ian terms, I’d say it’s more about a low innate respect for authority more than a love of individual liberty (though maybe those two go hand-in-hand? I am definitely not against family, hierarchy, or organization; I just feel strong revulsion toward what I see as unjustified authority and especially the use of force in cases outside self-defense).

            I definitely recognize that not everyone shares my libertarian impulses, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t right answers to questions and that progress can’t be made. In the antebellum South, for example, probably only a small percentage of people had a natural instinct to fight for abolition. Yet now everyone, essentially is an “abolitionist.” The abolitionists won that argument, essentially, and everyone else’s moral intuitive faculty came to recognize the justice of it.

            But this also doesn’t mean the abolitionists shouldn’t have freed any slaves before they won the argument. They were right, even when they were in the minority.