THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

Contra Caplan On Arbitrary Deploring

Last year, Bryan Caplan wrote about what he called The Unbearable Arbitrariness Of Deploring:

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

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

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

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

He concludes people are just biased by dramatic stories and like jumping on bandwagons. Everyone else is getting upset about the chemical weapon attack, and people are sheep, so they join in.

I have a different theory: people get upset over the violation of already-settled bright-line norms, because this is the correct action if you want to use limited enforcement resources efficiently.

Imagine a town with ten police officers, who can each solve one crime per day. Left to their own devices, the town’s criminals would commit thirty muggings and thirty burglaries per day (for the purposes of this hypothetical, both crimes are equally bad). They also require different skills; burglars can’t become muggers or vice versa without a lot of retraining. Criminals will commit their crime only if the odds are against them getting caught – but since there are 60 crimes a day and the police can only solve ten, the odds are in their favor.

Now imagine that the police get extra resources for a month, and they use them to crack down on mugging. For a month, every mugging in town gets solved instantly. Muggers realize this is going to happen and give up.

At the end of the month, the police lose their extra resources. But the police chief publicly commits that from now on, he’s going to prioritize solving muggings over solving burglaries, even if the burglaries are equally bad or worse. He’ll put an absurd amount of effort into solving even the smallest mugging; this is the hill he’s going to die on.

Suppose you’re a mugger, deciding whether or not to commit the first new mugging in town. If you’re the first guy to violate the no-mugging taboo, every police officer in town is going to be on your case; you’re nearly certain to get caught. You give up and do honest work. Every other mugger in town faces the same choice and makes the same decision. In theory a well-coordinated group of muggers could all start mugging on the same day and break the system, but muggers aren’t really that well-coordinated.

The police chief’s public commitment solves mugging without devoting a single officer’s time to the problem, allowing all officers to concentrate on burglaries. A worst-crime-first enforcement regime has 60 crimes per day and solves 10; a mugging-first regime has 30 crimes per day and solves 10.

But this only works if the police chief keeps his commitment. If someone tests the limits and commits a mugging, the police need to crack down with what looks like a disproportionate amount of effort – the more disproportionate, the better. Fail, and muggers realize the commitment was fake, and then you’re back to having 60 crimes a day.

This looks to me like what’s happening with chemical weapons. The relevant difference between chemical weapons and conventional weapons is that the international community made a credible commitment to punish chemical weapons use, and so far it’s mostly worked. People with chemical weapons expect to be punished for using them, so they rarely get used. If there are some forms of atrocity that are easier with chemical weapons than with conventional ones – ie a dictator with a limited arms budget can kill more people with a choice between chemical and conventional weapons than they can when restricted to conventional weapons alone – then the taboo against chemical weapons saves lives. And so when a dictator tests the limits by trying a chemical weapon, it’s worth responding to that more forcefully than if they used conventional weapons to commit the same massacre. You’re not just preventing the one attack, you’re also acting to enforce the taboo.

The sexual harassment situation seems like the same dynamic. We can’t credibly demand our elites are never jerks to their subordinates – jerkishness is too vague a concept, there’s too much of it around, and it’s just not really an enforceable norm. But we have sort of credibly demanded our elites don’t sexually harass their subordinates, and it seems like we might be getting enough of a coalition together to enforce this in a lot of cases. If we can solidify this into an actual social norm, such that the average elite expects to be punished for sexual harassment, then elites will stop sexually harassing their subordinates and we won’t have to keep calling the whole coalition together all the time to enforce the punishment. A fixed amount of public outrage per news cycle is the same kind of “limited enforcement resource” as only having ten police officers; commit to using it to disproportionately enforce existing taboos, and you’ll have more of it left over later on.

This is my long-winded answer to a question several people asked on the last links post – why should we prioritize responding to China’s mass incarceration of the Uighurs? Aren’t there other equally bad things going on elsewhere in the world, like malaria?

Yes. But I had optimistically thought we had mostly established a strong norm around “don’t put minorities in concentration camps”. Resources devoted to enforcing that norm won’t just solve the immediate problem in China, they’ll also help maintain a credible taboo against this kind of thing so it’s less likely to happen the next time.

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412 Responses to Contra Caplan On Arbitrary Deploring

  1. theory says:

    Yes. But I had optimistically thought we had mostly established a strong norm around “don’t put minorities in concentration camps”. Resources devoted to enforcing that norm won’t just solve the immediate problem in China, they’ll also help maintain a credible taboo against this kind of thing so it’s less likely to happen the next time.

    I’m not worried because it could never happen in the U.S. I’m told repeatedly that one justification for high rates of American gun ownership is to ensure that our government could never organize such camps.

    EDIT: /s

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Didn’t help the Japanese.

      • theory says:

        I think you missed the sad current-events-sarcasm of my post, to which I thought the end of your post was alluding.

      • edanm says:

        Wasn’t there far less gun ownership in the 1940s than now?

        (I assume you’re probably semi-joking, but I am wondering about this).

        • ilikekittycat says:

          No. Gun ownership steadily (though not sharply) declined in the second half of the 20th Century through today.

          • Aapje says:

            The number of gun owners went down, but people who do own a gun, own more guns now (evidence).

            Perhaps edanm and ilikekittycat are simply using a different definition of ‘gun ownership?’

          • Smith EE says:

            Does anyone have an answer here? What was Japanese-American gun ownership like preceding internment, and were there any armed resistance efforts?

            Seems like one of the most relevant examples on the “guns prevent tyranny” debate. I couldn’t find a solid answer online, but I don’t know much about the topic.

          • The Red Foliot says:

            The Russian population was well armed preceding communism. They were even organized into independent worker councils not under the control of the Bolsheviks, which is more than can be said for the American peasantry. I’d guess that their armaments made it more difficult for the central state to assert control, but evidently it didn’t stop the process entirely.

        • Antistotle says:

          While knowing you’re being a wiseass, the question isn’t *general* gun ownership rates, but rather gun ownership in the targeted demographic.

          I suspect that the firearm ownership rates in the Japanese living on the west coast was somewhat lower than the rate of gun ownership of all people living on the west coast in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

          Also note that historically (and I don’t know specifically about California in the 1930 or early 40s) gun laws were written to target minorities and the poor, so it’s well within the realm of possibility that the Japanese wouldn’t have been allowed to purchase firearms if they wanted to.

          If cared enough I’d go ask Clayton Cramer (https://www.amazon.com/racist-roots-gun-control/dp/B0006PE2JY) who has done a lot of research in this area.

      • Education Hero says:

        Japanese-Americans were disarmed first.

      • bean says:

        There was a lot more going on there than shows up in the usual account. The first and most important point is the Niihau Incident, where a crashed Japanese pilot managed to talk 2 of the 3 Japanese-descended residents of the island into helping him. In retrospect it was a fluke, but at the time, I can’t see how it could be anything other than evidence that the Japanese were potentially dangerous.

        Add in the bit where the original plan (resettlement away from the coast and military areas) was thwarted when every state west of the Mississippi refused to participate, and you get the camps. But it’s a lot more complicated than the standard “bad racism” narrative.

        • 10240 says:

          That’s irrelevant to the question of whether guns prevent internment camps, though.

          • bean says:

            I’m aware of that. I’m commenting on the object-level issue, which I believe to be widely misunderstood.

        • baconbits9 says:

          In retrospect it was a fluke, but at the time, I can’t see how it could be anything other than evidence that the Japanese were potentially dangerous.

          It is ‘evidence’ but it is a mile away from conclusive evidence. The Duquesne Spy Ring was evidence that the Germans were potentially dangerous and yet it wasn’t extrapolated to blindly inter 120,000 people.

          • John Schilling says:

            None of the Duqesne spies ever shot an American citizen, which (Hollywood notwithstanding) is one of the bright red lines pretty much the entire world draws and defends between tolerable-ish espionage and act-of-war stuff.

            Also, none of them were native-born American citizens spontaneously supporting the German war effort, which is seen as rather more broadly threatening than a foreign government recruiting its own native-born citizens to serve as spies abroad.

            Also also, we had the experience of WWI to draw on, showing that the German-American population would remain mostly loyal and only selective internment was “necessary” for internal security.

            The subsequent internment of 11,000 German-American citizens probably wasn’t actually necessary and therefore probably was a wrongful act, but it is easy to understand why the policy on that end wasn’t identical to the one for Japanese-Americans

          • bean says:

            1. My grandfather’s family was kicked out of Texas for being German-American (his father was native-born, but just after his family arrived). So the Germans weren’t totally excluded from persecution on that front.
            2. As John points out, espionage on the part of people recruited by a foreign power is one thing. A native-born citizen suddenly deciding to throw in with the enemy is very different. His other points are also excellent.
            3. It wasn’t conclusive, but it’s a rather important piece of evidence that is completely lacking from the narrative as normally presented.

          • quaelegit says:

            @bean — do you know the circumstances of his being kicked out? (i.g. due to implementation of Executive Order 9066, or due to extra-legal pressure from the community?)

            @John — I’m only pointing this out because of you’re “bright red line” remark, but according Wikipedia it was the Japanese Airman who shot an American. Considering the whole incident, the Haradas certainly committed treason, if that term applies to non-citizen residents.

            @ both —

            I agree the Nihau incident is an important and under-mentioned piece of the story, but I don’t think it changes the overall narrative that the Japanese internmentment was primarily motivated by economic concerns — look at the difference in the way Hawaii and California leaders responded to Federal investigations and executive orders. In Hawaii, white businessmen felt they needed Japanese workers and their internement would disrupt the economy. In California, farmers and businessmen saw an opportunity to grab property on the cheap.

          • bean says:

            do you know the circumstances of his being kicked out? (i.g. due to implementation of Executive Order 9066, or due to extra-legal pressure from the community?)

            I’ve never seen documentation, but I believe it was the latter.

            In Hawaii, white businessmen felt they needed Japanese workers and their internement would disrupt the economy. In California, farmers and businessmen saw an opportunity to grab property on the cheap.

            I actually read the official Army history of the project, from the 60s. It looked like they were sort of embarrassed, but it was before the current self-loathing. I won’t deny that economics were important, but there were other factors. The problem was what to do with the Hawaii population. The Army didn’t want to lock them all up in the islands (probably because of logistics, as they suddenly become extra mouths to feed), and there certainly wasn’t shipping available to return them to CONUS in the first 6-7 months of the war. And guess what happened at the end of month 7? That’s right. Midway. At which point, the threat of an invasion of Hawaii basically went away. On the mainland, it was too late to stop internment, but in Hawaii, there’s no real threat, we still haven’t seen sabotage, and there’s all the economic interests now coming to the fore. That, and the general commanding in Hawaii seems to have been rather enlightened compared to others. But I strongly suspect that if there had been more shipping available/the US had lost Midway, the Japanese in Hawaii would have been shipped to CONUS and interned there.

          • baconbits9 says:

            None of the Duqesne spies ever shot an American citizen, which (Hollywood notwithstanding) is one of the bright red lines pretty much the entire world draws and defends between tolerable-ish espionage and act-of-war stuff.

            Yes, two people living on an island 2,500 miles away from California shooting a US citizen is solid an “act-of-war” by the 120,000 people of Japanese decent living on the main land, but 33 people in an active conspiracy for multiple years is pretty benign. Later Germany would land former US residents with directions to sabotage industry, but again, no reason to doubt compared to a couple of people acting impulsively on a distant island.

            Also, none of them were native-born American citizens spontaneously supporting the German war effort, which is seen as rather more broadly threatening than a foreign government recruiting its own native-born citizens to serve as spies abroad.

            Except for the fact that there were around 1.2 million native born Germans in the US at the outbreak of WW2, 5 million natural born citizens with 2 parents of German birth (wikipedia, even if those numbers were off Germans were one of the largest ethnic groups in the US at the time, far outstripping the Japanese). The potential issues from Germans hindering the war effort was 10x as large in terms of population and yet 10x as many Japanese ended up in camps.

            Also also, we had the experience of WWI to draw on, showing that the German-American population would remain mostly loyal and only selective internment was “necessary” for internal security.

            You mean like German agents being blamed for destroying a munitions port, killing 5 in the process? Or

            In 1914 U.S. federal agents had uncovered a German plot to dynamite Ontario’s Welland Canal, with the twin goals of disrupting commerce and convincing the Canadian government to stop its support of Great Britain. In February 1915 a German agent set off a dynamite-packed suitcase on a railroad bridge between Canada and the United States at Vanceboro, Maine, but caused only minor damage. Authorities foiled other plans for sabotage in Seattle, San Francisco and Hoboken, as well as a plot to buy American passports from dockworkers and use them to bring German agents into the country;

            Yet the US government’s response during WW1 was moderately restrained compared to the response to Japanese citizens during WW2. Relatively few German nationals (in both absolute and % of the population terms) were rounded up in WW1 and WW2 and with a much greater respect for due process.

            This last point is crucial, it wasn’t simply that the US government targeted more people of Japanese decent (which would have been bad enough) they treated the ‘suspects’ of Japanese decent qualitatively worse than those of German decent. Pretending that a single person being shot is an actual justification for the actions and not anything more than a knee jerk reaction is to grant legitimacy to paranoid fantasies.

          • bean says:

            Yes, two people living on an island 2,500 miles away from California shooting a US citizen is solid an “act-of-war” by the 120,000 people of Japanese decent living on the main land, but 33 people in an active conspiracy for multiple years is pretty benign. Later Germany would land former US residents with directions to sabotage industry, but again, no reason to doubt compared to a couple of people acting impulsively on a distant island.

            Sample sizes. Of the three Japanese on Niihau, two threw in with the Japanese, and there was no reason to suspect they were selected for susceptibility/loyalty to Japan. 30 out of 1 million+ is pretty minor. If we extent the Niihau numbers to the mainland Japanese, you’re looking at 80,000.

            The potential issues from Germans hindering the war effort was 10x as large in terms of population and yet 10x as many Japanese ended up in camps.

            1. German citizens were, in fact, banned from many areas of importance to the war effort. So were Italians. The difference was that they were not barred from an entire coast.
            2. Have you considered the relative strength of the two navies? The Kriegsmarine had been foiled by the English Channel, and was not going to land anything more than saboteurs on the US mainland. The Kaiserliche Marine of WWI hadn’t even gotten that far. There was serious concern that the IJN was going to show up off California in the first months of the war. Yes, it was serious. Yes, I know it looks silly today. Read contemporary sources occasionally.

          • christhenottopher says:

            Hey bean,

            I’ve got to say that learning more about the circumstances is interesting and valuable, but I would still take a different lesson from it. Specifically, that the implementers of the internment policy had reasons that a person born today could understand, but that the policy was still deeply wrong anyways.

            2 out of 3 people on an island is still too small a sample size to extrapolate from for 100,000+ even if there isn’t an obvious filter in place. Concerns about aid to the enemy or sabotage are not enough to justify the imprisonment without trial of 100,000+ people including women and children. Keep them out of war critical industries sure. Maybe focus anti-spying resources on that group. And yeah it’s unfortunate a somewhat less terrible plan of just “kick people out of their homes into new homes further east” got blocked. But all of this should remind us that people have good sounding reasons for terrible decisions and that doesn’t mean the decision isn’t terrible.

            And I still think we can’t ignore racism. There’s a well documented history of anti-non-white racism on the West Coast for decades before this. So how does this play in? Well, the leaders deciding on this policy could count on less opposition from the neighbors of the Japanese-descended citizens so that lowers political costs. And maybe they don’t work quite as hard to consider alternative options for people you don’t have as much sympathy for to begin with. That doesn’t mean their reasoning in their own minds isn’t primarily the military pragmatics of the situation, just that if the situation was with people you didn’t view as less American they might have been more hesitant to bring up “let’s kick tens of thousands of people out of their homes and if no one out east takes them we’ll imprison them in camps without trial” solution.

            Oh and the “it was too late to stop the internment” by Midway? Too late to end the imprisonment of tens of thousands on non-convicted people? Why exactly could they not go “OK great the West Coast is safe now, you all can go home”? They let people go home after the war so it’s not like there was a black hole in the camps you literally couldn’t pull people out of.

            The nuances and lessons of history are important, but not to merely excuse bad actions. Instead what’s important to know with the nuances of internment is “the people at that time thought they had good reasons and thought they were being minimally cruel and they were wrong. So when we consider actions that seem really cruel for ‘good reasons’ and with ‘minimal cruelty’ we should probably much more seriously consider the idea that we are wrong.”

          • Aapje says:

            @christhenottopher

            Racism probably also played a role in a different way than you argue.

            The propaganda of the time showed racist stereotypes of Japanese people and it’s plausible that the decision to intern the Japanese improved the efficacy of the propaganda and also was done to protect the Japanese-Americans from lynchings.

          • bean says:

            @christhenottopher

            I’m not saying that internment was a good idea, or even morally justified. Neither is true, although I do sometimes suffer from contrarian fever. I am saying that the situation was a lot more complex than is usually understood, and the conventional narrative of “they were all harmless little bunnies, but the big bad racists locked them away” is not exactly true. Was racism a major part? Yes. But so was security, at least in the early days.

            I’ve got to say that learning more about the circumstances is interesting and valuable, but I would still take a different lesson from it. Specifically, that the implementers of the internment policy had reasons that a person born today could understand, but that the policy was still deeply wrong anyways.

            2 out of 3 people on an island is still too small a sample size to extrapolate from for 100,000+ even if there isn’t an obvious filter in place. Concerns about aid to the enemy or sabotage are not enough to justify the imprisonment without trial of 100,000+ people including women and children. Keep them out of war critical industries sure.

            Yes and no. Niihau is the sort of thing which should be deeply worrying to any planner. In retrospect, it looks to be a fluke, but that was very much not obvious at a time when the Japanese were running wild. The original plan was indeed to bar them from defense areas, but that soon turned into all of the major cities on the West Coast for practical reasons (they were full of defense areas, and it was easier to police the perimeter than each area individually). The camps themselves were the result of grassroots/congressional pressure to get them off the West Coast entirely. That part, I’ll put down to racism, but it’s primarily on the hands of California, not the US government.

            Oh and the “it was too late to stop the internment” by Midway? Too late to end the imprisonment of tens of thousands on non-convicted people? Why exactly could they not go “OK great the West Coast is safe now, you all can go home”? They let people go home after the war so it’s not like there was a black hole in the camps you literally couldn’t pull people out of.

            This is the bit that confuses me the most. I don’t have a good explanation for why the camps weren’t closed down in 1943 or 1944, when the tide of war was really obvious. My best guess is that there were still some lingering doubts over loyalty, probably combined with a feeling that being locked up may have made that situation worse. (Which isn’t an unreasonable fear.)

            The nuances and lessons of history are important, but not to merely excuse bad actions. Instead what’s important to know with the nuances of internment is “the people at that time thought they had good reasons and thought they were being minimally cruel and they were wrong. So when we consider actions that seem really cruel for ‘good reasons’ and with ‘minimal cruelty’ we should probably much more seriously consider the idea that we are wrong.”

            That’s not a bad lesson to take away from it. What I don’t like is treating it as morally equivalent to the holocaust or even the gulags, because it simply wasn’t.

          • whateverthisistupd says:

            Devil’s advocate- the japanese direct threat to the american west coast was far more significant then the (non-existent) german direct threat to america.

          • whateverthisistupd says:

            I don’t think people here are generally arguing that it was ethical or a justifiable action, rather discussing the circumstances, which are interesting to learn about.

            I have no doubt racism and “yellow peril” played a role, but you also have to look at the perception of threat.

            Americans had no fear of a nazi invasion. They did have a fear, justified or not, of Japanese invasion on the west coast.

        • vV_Vv says:

          Add in the bit where the original plan (resettlement away from the coast and military areas) was thwarted when every state west of the Mississippi refused to participate, and you get the camps.

          The original plan that the Nazi had for the Jews was also resettlement. Mass resettlement on ethnic basis tends not to pan out well.

          • bean says:

            The Nazis were planning to resettle the Jews outside of their territory permanently. The US was planning to temporarily resettle the Japanese-Americans inside its territory, away from the ocean where the Japanese Navy was running amok. I think the difference is obvious.

        • tcheasdfjkl says:

          I’m glad to have read the Niihau incident Wikipedia page, that is a fascinating read and should be made into a movie.

          But I am still horrified by the notion that three people of a certain ethnic group doing something is a valid justification for imprisoning everyone in that group!

      • eqdw says:

        I’m rather ignorant of US history, so now I’m curious: Did the Japanese have a particularly high rate of firearms ownership prior to internment?

      • Squirrel of Doom says:

        Armed resistance against the US army would have conclusively proved that Japanese-Americans were traitors, and provoked a much harder response.

        This might not be obvious to web commenters today, but I’m sure it was very clear to those being interned.

    • realist50 says:

      I think that theory’s comment is demonstrating Scott’s point more than intended.

      There’s a broad consensus that a country’s treatment of its own citizens can be (and pretty much has to be) different than its treatment of non-citizens who desire residence in said country. That doesn’t mean that treatment of the latter is immune to criticism of the specifics of whether people are treated with humanity and basic respect. It does suggest, though, that some sort of “camps” or holding facilities are a likely circumstance while points such as asylum claims are evaluated.

      Outside of a few fairly extreme libertarians, however, you’re not going to find a view that everybody showing up at the border of the U.S. (or any country) should simply be allowed in without question. And even those making that case tend to state that it would require a radical rethink of social welfare programs in the U.S. (or any other OECD country).

  2. Brett says:

    Oof, that Caplan bit.

    Why does this confuse me? Because many celebrities do many comparably bad things other than sexual harassment, and virtually no one cares.

    This doesn’t confuse me at all. Misconduct and crimes are not a binary condition – we tend to rank them. Robbery is worse than theft, rape (usually) worse than robbery, murder worst of all. People care less because they rank “being an asshole” less worse than “being an asshole who also sexually harasses the subordinates”.

    • Michael Handy says:

      But he is explicitly comparing being a bit of an arsehole who sexually Harrasses (ie. pressuring for a date, or casting via excessive use of the casting couch.)

      Vs say, A Mega-arsehole screaming daily at employees, limiting their professional options,forcing them to work 20 hour days on threat of “never working in this town again”, punching the actors in the face for ignoring a direction, or breaking their (male) assistants arm in a flying rage. (all things I know via anecdote or experience people in power in the Arts have done, at positions far below Weinstein level.)

      The latter might get bad press, a few lawsuits, and some disapproving looks, but I’d bet if he has enough power he WONT be ostracized.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        Right. I mean, we rank crimes by severity, but if we were really committed to shutting up and multiplying, we might actually say that the least-bad plausible kidnapper is less bad than the worst plausible thief.

        The worst plausible thief might be some massive financial fraudster who deprives millions of people of money they need to live.

        Whereas the least-bad plausible kidnapper is, I dunno, a parent without visitation rights who really honestly does just want to take the kids to Disneyland for once.

        It’s pretty clear that the worst plausible thief is doing something worse than the least-bad kidnapper.

        • Randy M says:

          I doubt judges consciously perform utilitarian calculations, but the factors you mention will sometimes have an effect on the sentencing. (More than which judge? I dunno)

        • John Schilling says:

          Right. I mean, we rank crimes by severity, but if we were really committed to shutting up and multiplying,

          We’re not, because that’s an unreasonable amount of work for the 95% of humanity that isn’t nerds, don’t actually like doing math, and aren’t going to just let the nerds run everything.

          We, or at least they, rank crimes by the severity of the central examples, then assign individual crimes to the appropriate category and use the ranking derived from that category’s central examples. This isn’t going to change, except that judges will probably be allowed some discretion in sentencing so long as they mostly exercise it out of sight.

        • realist50 says:

          “The worst plausible thief might be some massive financial fraudster who deprives millions of people of money they need to live.”

          My understanding, at least in the case of federal laws targeting many financial crimes (e.g., securities fraud and wire fraud), is that the amount of money lost by the defrauded is a key part of sentencing guidelines. To take one prominent example, Madoff received a 150 year prison sentence. That wasn’t purely sentencing guidelines, as Madoff apparently went well off the right hand side of the chart because federal sentencing guidelines for fraud stop at $400 million (source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/29/AR2009062902015_2.html?noredirect=on ), but it was the maximum sentence for his crimes.

          So I’d argue we’ve actually seen at least one example where someone on the order of “the worst plausible thief” has gotten a harsher sentence than “the least bad plausible kidnapper”. I’m admittedly not taking the time to look up a bunch of kidnapping cases, but I doubt that “a parent without visitation rights who really honestly does just want to take the kids to Disneyland for once” ends up with a 100+ year prison sentence. I honestly doubt in most cases that they’d end up with even the 25 year sentence that Bernie Ebbers received for WorldCom.

      • Lillian says:

        We live in a culture that keeps a public registry of sexual offenders. Being on that registry doesn’t just result in severe social ostracization, but carries significant legal restrictions including limitations where one resides, whom one associates with, and how might one be employed. No such registries are kept for abusers, assaulter, or even murderers. It can therefore be concluded that the culture considers sexual offenses to be a special kind of evil, demanding special kinds of measures. Given that, it is hardly a mystery why sexual misconduct generate significantly more outrage than physical or emotional abuse.

  3. Fluffy Buffalo says:

    Is that what civilization is? Lots of bad things that used to be common that were moved to the ever-expanding set of “things you just don’t do if you’re a decent person” through focused, but often long-forgotten campaigns to taboo them?

    ETA: and if that’s the case, what are the next items on the list?

    • doubleunplussed says:

      And are there things being taken off the list? Being gay for instance?

    • lunawarrior says:

      Isn’t this basically the concept of the Overton window being applied to actions?

      • Simon_Jester says:

        I think the difference is that you have to conspicuously and aggressively punish people to move a behavior outside the Overton window. Whereas you can move ideas outside the window with a lot less overt aggression and a lot more subtle pressure.

        So to push a behavior outside the Overton window you’re forced into a period of furious ‘overreaction.’

    • Bugmaster says:

      and if that’s the case, what are the next items on the list?

      At the risk of starting a culture war, I’d say that transgender issues, as well as depictions of sexually appealing women in media, are next on the list.

      • pansnarrans says:

        More likely trans than the latter. Trans feels like this generation’s gay rights. We’ve been arguing over scantily clad women since the people trying to enforce the taboo were the right rather than the left. Although I think you might see the end of entirely gratuitous uses of the concept (i.e. “look at this woman in a bikini standing next to our product!”).

      • mdet says:

        Agree with pansnarrans that debates over where to draw the line on modesty seems like something that happens every generation, with the line steadily moving back and forth.

        But also “depictions of sexually appealing women in media” sounds too broad. I think it will always be the case that people in the media will be selected to be more attractive than average. Our opinions on what qualities are attractive might change, and our line on how overtly sexual media is allowed to be will move back and forth, but I’m highly confident that “depictions of sexually appealing women [and men] in media” will always exist.

  4. RKN says:

    Caplan’s point, so far as I understand it, isn’t about the arbitrary enforcement of wrongdoing, it’s about people’s arbitrary deplorement of it, as one of many wrongdoings.

    Presumably, if we (society) could solidify our disgust of asexual bad treatment of employees into a political norm, such that elites would expect to be punished for it, then that bad behavior should be greatly diminished over time as well.

    • toastengineer says:

      I suspect it might also have to do with how easy it is to categorize behavior. Like, sometimes it’s appropriate to yell at people. Yes, the theoretical Worst Boss Mathematically Possible is 100% obviously crossing the line as soon as you look at the specifics – but you still have to look at the specifics. Demanding your employees bone you is always bad.

      • Big Jay says:

        The process of turning judgements into norms, and then into laws, is an operationalization. It involves applying simple (arbitrary, imperfect) rules to the complexity of human experience. It turns loves into marriages. But having simple rules of wide applicability is necessary to allow large-scale cooperation and administration. There’s a reason that tax forms have boxes for “single” and “married” but not “it seemed to be going really well for a while there, but lately she’s been kind of annoying”.

      • IvanFyodorovich says:

        Agree with toastengineer. I can think of one thousand legal behaviours worse than shoplifting a pack of gum, but shoplifting is an easily categorized wrong so we rightfully make it illegal. Same logic applies to imposing societal taboos.

      • Charles Randles says:

        like, sometimes it’s appropriate to yell at someone

        No it isn’t. I’ve spent several minutes thinking about this and I can’t imagine a single reason why it would be appropriate to shout at another person in a professional context.

        • Aapje says:

          Even when someone is/was about to kill a patient/client by doing something stupid?

        • ragnarrahl says:

          Imagine a police or military trainee learning marksmanship.
          They point the weapon in an unsafe direction.
          “DROP THE WEAPON.”

        • anonymousskimmer says:

          What ragnarrahl said.

          Unexpected shouting would tend to either make a person jump or make a person pause. Either way the person is highly likely to immediately stop doing what they were doing. So when stopping what they are doing immediately is an urgency, then, and only then, is shouting appropriate.

  5. tentor says:

    This is basically my main objection to utilitarianism: sure, you can compare direct outcomes of possible actions, but how do you quantify that some choices lead to a world where some social norms are no longer certain. How many lives is it worth that people want to cross bridges without having to fear they get pushed before a trolley?

    • melolontha says:

      Isn’t this just a feature of the world that makes utilitarianism, along with every other serious moral system, kind of complicated and difficult and uncertain? (It does seem like a good objection to naive or arrogant forms of utilitarianism, but not to the whole approach or the values underlying it.)

      • Fluffy Buffalo says:

        Wasn’t part of the appeal of utilitarianism that it has an almost mathematical elegance, and looks like it can be operationalized? You just calculate the utils of options 1…n, then pick the one with the largest number. That sounds nifty if calculating the utils only includes the preferences and well-being of a small number of involved persons. But if it suddenly involves integrating in time and space over some vaguely-defined thing like “social norms prohibiting behavior x”, the outcome is so poorly defined that you can pretty much argue for anything.

        • melolontha says:

          I think ‘utilitarianism’ is a really vague term (in the sense that it’s frequently used to mean many different things), and you’re probably right about some versions. But to me the appeal comes entirely from the underlying principles — the operationalisation is difficult and messy and unsatisfying, but that’s ‘okay’ because it’s true of every other theory except the ones that are simplistic or abhorrent.

        • MasteringTheClassics says:

          My undergraduate philosophy prof responded to a similar argument by saying that under utilitarianism it was extremely difficult to ever decide which action is the most morally correct, and that that’s actually a feature, not a bug. If the world is complicated, we might not expect to know what the most moral action is in most cases, so a morality system that recognizes this should be preferred.

          • John Schilling says:

            Preferred for what purpose? Because eventually, you have to actually do something, and a moral system that is agnostic as to the wrongness of possible actions seems to be doing no good at all. Unless you’re looking for an excuse to either do evil on the grounds that nobody can prove it is evil, or to do nothing because you can’t decide what is right.

          • Murphy says:

            @John

            “Unless you’re looking for an excuse to either do evil on the grounds that nobody can prove it is evil”

            That’s about as fair as declaring that deontology is just an excuse to justify an existing desire to do nothing since you often can’t be utterly certain that you won’t harm anyone.

            Under practical utilitarianism you resolve the dilemma by making a best effort to decide which action is the most morally correct then doing that.

        • Yaleocon says:

          Under just about any plausible metaethical framework, you’re going to be able to argue for the morality of most actions, and it’s going to be very difficult to arbitrate between those options. So whether this is bad or good, every other theory is just as bad/good in that way; and so the “takes too much calculation” objection will be unhelpful in arguing for or against utilitarianism.

          With that said, there are some damning anti-utilitarian arguments which pose a dilemma to the consequentialist. Is it average utility that matters? If so, sterilizing everyone in the third world might be the moral law. Or is it total utility that matters? If so, Parfit’s Repugnant Conclusion strikes with full force. Since neither of those seem plausible, maybe the problem is with consequentialism itself, and we need a better system.

          So in general: if looking to critique a system, don’t criticize how hard the calculations would be; rather, attack it on the basis that the moral calculus can’t work that way, or else we would be morally required to commit one atrocity, or another.

          • Murphy says:

            Every coherent moral system has Repugnant examples under the right, carefully selected scenario.

            It’s little different to how for every form of decision theory you can construct a scenario where you get worse results by following them than by going with an alternative system.

            For every moral system that has any kind of rules or algorithm we can construct a scenario either where we would be morally required to commit an atrocity or morally required to sit back and allow an atrocity to happen despite being able to prevent it trivially.

            it’s honestly not all that great of a gotcha at this point.

          • Lillian says:

            Attempting to sterilize everyone in the third world seems like it would very obviously cause a decrease in average utilty. Just try to imagine for a second the United States deciding to sterlize everyone in Haiti. You know, for humanitarian reasons. First off we would have to invade the country, since the Haitians are unlikely to want to cooperate. Right off the bat we’re looking at a huge utility hit from all the blood and treasure spent on this military adventure, and we haven’t even started sterilizing people yet.

            Then there’s the actual sterilization, which will itself have to be done forcibly and at gunpoint, creating much additional disutility for the Haitians on top of the disutility from being sterilized. Then you have all the economic effects from the subsequent massive population crash, which will cause even more disutility to the remaining population. Then there’s all the disutility to our troops from doing all this, the disutility back home from all the people horrified that their country is engaged in such a loathsome enterprise, the disutility arising from the international outrage and condemnation, and the disutility from all the material costs involved.

            At what point exactly do you calculate that this project will actually increase average utility? Because to me it looks like a significant time horizon before we see any gains, if ever. Time which could have been more profitably spent increasing average utility through other means. So no, sterilizing the third world would very much not be the moral law, and it frankly boggles the mind that anyone would be so blind to the realities of such a policy as to think otherwise.

            As for the repugnant conclusion, it’s only real world relevance would be a situation in which the most cost-effective way to increase net utility would be to add more people. Do you think it’s plausible that we would find ourselves in such a situation? That for all the myriad ways that suffering manifests in the world, the would be literally no better way to increase net utility than to add more people until the whole of humanity has lives just barely worth living? Because to me, that sounds like a situation that would arise only after we had successfully solved pretty much all other problems. Perhaps in such a circumstance we could discuss adopting a different moral system, but until then i hardly think the Repugnant Conclusion actually presents a practical criticism.

          • VolumeWarrior says:

            Is it average utility that matters? If so, sterilizing everyone in the third world might be the moral law. Or is it total utility that matters? If so, Parfit’s Repugnant Conclusion strikes with full force.

            This is circular reasoning. What moral theory are you using to determine that sterilization and the repugnant conclusion are wrong? If we believe utilitarianism is correct and utilitarianism says something radical and icky, so what?

          • Jiro says:

            Normally when figuring out moral systems there’s influence in both directions. The moral system has some influence over what things you consider moral, but what things you already consider moral also has some influence about how good you consider the moral system. There’s a give-and-take with these and going too far with either one of them is a problem. Blindly accepting repugnant conclusions breaks this process of give-and-take.

          • VolumeWarrior says:

            I don’t see why you should privilege your priors. Particularly since you’ll wind up saying things like: “Utilitarianism makes total objective sense, but I don’t want to donate all my money to charity even though I can’t give a good reason why”

    • tmk17 says:

      If an agent maximizes expected utility in the Von Neumann-Morgenstern sense (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Von_Neumann%E2%80%93Morgenstern_utility_theorem), the agent is definitely allowed to act strategically. Meaning that the agent can prioritize something that has less utility but is easier to achieve. This is because expected utility takes into account what actions you have at your disposal and how the world will react.

      I don’t know how the philosophical concept of utilitarianism compares to this, though.

      • Freddie deBoer says:

        This is one of the (many) problems with utilitarianism – it is praised for its simplicity but it ends up developing all manner of idiosyncratic rules and systems in order to avoid the obviously unjust consequences of pure, simplistic utilitarianism.

        • Lillian says:

          As far as i can tell, this is a fully general complaint applicable to all moral systems. In practice all of them have all manner of idiosyncratic rules and systems intended to avoid obviously unjust consequences of applying them in a pure and simplistic fashion. Then they are further compromised by society’s complex and self-contradictory moral aims, and humanity’s tendency to conflate personal preferences with moral imperatives.

          What i like about utilitarianism is not that it’s simple, no moral system is remotely simple, but rather that it actually provides a clear basis of comparison for different moral outcomes. This makes it strictly better than the alternatives, even accounting for the hideous difficulty of actually generating comparable outputs. Moral systems which don’t give me a clear measure of success to shoot for are basically useless to me. It’s like trying to run a company that does not attempt to measure profits, production, or market share. How else am i supposed to know whether i’m succeeding?

          • engleberg says:

            CS Lewis said things too sacred to be lightly mentioned soon become things no one can think about clearly. I don’t know if I’m a utilitarian, but anyone who says ‘do this because it’s useful for blah’ might have that label slapped on them.

    • Aapje says:

      @tentor

      How many lives is it worth that people want to cross bridges without having to fear they get pushed before a trolley?

      The obvious rebuttal by a utilitarian would be that you could value the utils of not having to fear getting pushed before a trolley.

      • rahien.din says:

        Followed by : you could value the dis-utils of riding a trolley on a line which is not crossed by a bridge, for how will you be saved if the trolley is out of control but there is no bridge from which a person could be pushed?

        Followed by : you could value the dis-utils induced when any bridge is constructed over a trolley line, as such a bridge would be a means by which one person could be pushed to their death in order to save the lives of trolley riders.

        Followed by : you could value the dis-utils induced in those who must ride trolleys by a reduction in pedestrian traffic over bridges, for now your fellow citizens are withholding the means of your rescue.

        Followed by : you could value the dis-utils induced in all persons by increased congestion on non-bridge pedestrian walkways, since people are less willing to ride trolleys, and also less willing to cross bridges, and therefore must all share the same sidewalks.

        Followed by : you could value the decrease in economic productivity induced by the global increase in transit time, as people must share congested sidewalks and dare not utilize the conveniences of bridges and trolleys.

        Followed by : you could value the utils induced by the overall improvements in everyone’s health, now that they all have to walk a bit more every day.

        So the real question of the trolley problem (IE, the fungibility of suffering) is not “Do we kill one person to save a trolley full of persons?” but “Should we risk lives and give up some of our health in order to achieve greater economic productivity?”

      • tentor says:

        It changes the answer to the trolley problem from “do whatever saves most lives” to “perform an impossibly difficult calculation”. While an answer might technically exist, it’s practically unusable for decision making.

        • Aapje says:

          That is my objection as well. The impossibility of the calculation almost automatically leads to people arguing to a conclusion, by cherry picking the things that are considered.

          This requires no intent.

        • Lambert says:

          Isn’t that what the concept of abstraction is for?
          Sure, you can analyse a circuit by computing the entire quantum wavefunction of every single electron and quark in it.
          Or you can make certain assumptions about how wires, batteries and resistors work, and reduce the situation to fairly simple algebra.

          But you’re aware that the simple, abstract model only holds under certain conditions, and that sometimes, you have to go back to the complex model, or create a new simplified model that operates under new assumptions.

  6. Hackworth says:

    jerkishness is too vague a concept, there’s too much of it around, and it’s just not really an enforceable norm.

    As a European who is feeling the trends sloshing over from the US, isn’t the same becoming true of sexual harrassment? Of “microaggressions”? Of “making people uncomfortable”? If the authoritarian left have their way, there could hardly be a social interaction between male and female that couldn’t be construed as sexual harrassment. Combine that with the erosion of the concept of “presumption of innocence”, at least as far as males are concerned, and sexual harrassment will be about as common as breathing. If the Ctrl-Left really want to eliminate sexual harrassment through whatever means they deem necessary and appropriate, perhaps they should stop ever-expanding the definition thereof, where “definition” is being generous.

    • Aapje says:

      Indeed, pretty much all issues consist of a spectrum, from the severe to the extremely minor, so even when stomping on small violations to set a norm, a threshold is needed. For example, one could call second hand smoke a chemical weapon and put smokers in prison for decades. Or to go even further, go after all drivers of non-electric cars. You’d destroy society if you’d go after some of the minor violations.

      To go back to sexual harassment, one could set a norm where superiors are not allowed to be sexual with inferiors and/or where sexual behavior is banned from the workplace or where men can only do things if they have asked permission (although: how do you then ask permission to ask for permission?).

      Stomping out sexual harassment by going after relatively minor violations will mean that many people get punished for small mistakes. This may also cause a huge stifling effect, where the positive behaviors end too, causing society to miss many opportunities for happy relationships.

      • brmic says:

        Maybe it’s because I just read https://nypost.com/2018/06/19/journalist-groped-kissed-during-live-broadcast-at-world-cup/ but I think you’re both catastrophizing. Your opponents aren’t all powerful, they will have to get majorities behind them to effect change in democratic systems. Overreach generally leads to backlash. Massive disadvantages or lost opportunies usually create opportunities for democratic change in the other direction. It is possible to come up with a narrative why these corrective measures would not apply in this case, but you’re not offering it.
        Instead, you’re fantasizing about a SJ-dystopia while in the real world ‘grab them by the pussy’ wasn’t disqualifying from the most powerful job in the world. Weinstein, Spacey, etc. preyed on people for decades. It’s possible to disagree on whether we need stricter sexual harrassment laws, but it’s impossible to say the people who argue we are not doing enough about sexual harrassment don’t have a point, even if ultimately one comes to a different conclusion.

        • SamChevre says:

          our opponents aren’t all powerful, they will have to get majorities behind them to effect change in democratic systems.

          I’m assuming these would be the same democratic majorities that made sexual harassment legally actionable in the first place?

        • Aapje says:

          @brmic

          My comment was mostly a rebuttal to Scott’s claim that you neatly can stomp out bad behavior, while allowing good behavior, with harsh policing. This is often not possible. It is a bit of an authoritarian fantasy.

          It is sometimes possible to police a Schelling fence, but a Schelling fence can only be defended if it is policed in both directions, both for transgressions, but also against people who try to move the Schelling fence towards greater criminalization.

          I never claimed that it is inevitable that the Schelling fence will keep moving in one direction, without a backlash.

          However, even with a backlash there can be huge damage. The Nazis overreached and we got a backlash against anti-semitism. Yet, 6 million Jews died. So the potential harm of overreach is immense. Note that my example is not a claim that other overreaches will be as bad as the Holocaust, but I merely point to the most extreme case of overreach to demonstrate that it can be immensely horrible and be very hard to stop.

          This belief that there is no reason to have serious fears because a backlash will come is ironically exactly the kind of reasoning that makes it harder to organize a backlash.

          Weinstein, Spacey, etc. preyed on people for decades.

          Of course a witch hunt will also harm real witches. However, it also harms those who look like witches.

          Paul Nungesser didn’t prey on people for decades. Geoffrey Rush didn’t. This John Doe didn’t.

          Instead, you’re fantasizing about a SJ-dystopia while in the real world ‘grab them by the pussy’ wasn’t disqualifying from the most powerful job in the world.

          I never claimed that the dystopia is inevitable. I am warning against making light of the witch hunt.

          Secondly, society is not a monolith. You concurrently can have innocent people being punished, innocent people not being punished, guilty people not being punished and guilty people being punished.

          Pointing to bad things that still happen is a mechanism that makes it harder to organize a backlash against a witch hunt, especially if the witch hunt is very poorly executed, hitting many innocents, while not being that effective in hitting witches.

          it’s impossible to say the people who argue we are not doing enough about sexual harrassment don’t have a point, even if ultimately one comes to a different conclusion.

          Marx also had a point that some workers were being exploited. That didn’t make the gulags just.

          Extremists usually point to a legitimate concern. Their analysis of the causes and their solutions are typically what makes them extremist and dangerous.

          • brmic says:

            Paul Nungesser didn’t prey on people for decades. Geoffrey Rush didn’t. This John Doe didn’t.

            I’m only familiar with the accusations against Nungesser, so I’ll stick to that. I believe he’s innocent, he was wronged and should receive compensation. I also don’t understand why Emma Sulkowicz wasn’t expelled. At the same time his case, and cases like his are in my opinion presently rare enough that there is room to cautiously move the social and legal norm away from him.
            Not much, and we obviously need to keep checking carefully and continuously whether we strike the right balance.

          • Aapje says:

            Title IX courts routinely violate important legal safeguards, both those that protect the accused as well as the accuser (although probably more often the former). They also seem to be very sexist and quite possibly racist.

            That you see this as a valid path to pursue is exactly my criticism. You see an issue. Some people have a horrible solution that is awful at fixing the issue. Yet you back these people because ‘something must be done.’

            You don’t get a social democracy by backing communists, you get gulags!

          • Simon_Jester says:

            There can be a specific problem with specific enforcement mechanisms like Title IX courts, without there being a problem with other specific enforcement mechanisms like entertainment companies blacklisting male celebrities who have multiple overlapping sexual harassment accusations placed against them.

            So which mechanism are we talking about here? Issues like this lend themselves to whataboutism, and one common kind of whataboutism is to equivocate between different aspects of the same problem. Instead of admitting that X is probably okay and moving on to discuss Y, we discuss Y instead of evaluating whether X is okay.

          • Aapje says:

            @Simon_Jester

            Yes, that is a fair point, but don’t you think that the advocates of interventions often equivocate to push through Y with X, even if Y is far more objectionable than X?

            Furthermore, the accusation of whataboutism is often used to invalidate important criticism. For example, when critics complain that solutions should address sexual abuse of men as well, they often get accused of whataboutism. The claim is then that sexual abuse of men is fundamentally different from sexual abuse of women, which is highly debatable and fundamentally anti-equality in principle. Then debating whether this claim is correct can itself be shut down with accusations of whataboutism…

            Whataboutism is also often used to attack an analysis of the downsides of interventions, by accusing those who focus on the problems of whataboutism. However, those same people generally don’t accuse those who only focus on the upsides of the intervention of whataboutism, thereby creating an imbalance where the upsides are much easier to discuss than the downsides.

          • rlms says:

            @Aapje
            Yes, the other side do whataboutism too…

          • 10240 says:

            @Simon_Jester If there is a problem with specific enforcement mechanisms, that already shows that attempts to stomp out sexual harassment in order to make it taboo (as Scott’s article suggested), without a clear and reasonable threshold and due process protections, can easily lead to overreach – and it’s likely to lead to overreach by other enforcement mechanisms, too. IMO some of the metoo public accusation scandals involved similar overreach, too, as do workplace sexual harassment laws.

            To stay further at the object level question, I disagree that non-criminal sexual harassment (which is mostly verbal harassment, or minor touch incidents at most) is odious enough to require universal enforcement. Companies should be left do decide what balance between free speech and protection from harassment maximizes their ability to retain employees, and thus maximizes profit. If there are large differences between people’s preferences, there could even be market differentiation, with some companies allowing more free speech at the cost of less protection from harassment, and others having stricter protections from harassment (both sexual and other).

          • albatross11 says:

            There’s a fundamental problem here in that many of the bad behaviors we’re talking about are hard to collect evidence on–they either happen in private, or they happen in an environment in which the abusive person has a lot of power over all the potential witnesses. That doesn’t seem to me to be a strong enough reason to lower standards of evidence for criminal prosecutions, but that’s not the same standard we use everywhere. For example, if your boss suspects you of stealing money from the till, he may very well fire you without enough evidence to get a successful prosecution.

            What I’ve heard of Title IX investigations sounds pretty crappy (probably because a bunch of utterly unqualified people are doing the investigations, perhaps because of dumb guidance from the feds), but that doesn’t mean that the only proper way to investigate a charge of sexual misconduct in a school or company or private organization is with the same standards of evidence as is used in criminal trials.

          • ARabbiAndAFrog says:

            Overreach and erosion of any standard of proof would eventually result in erosion of trust.

            If every man would feel damoclean threat of a lying woman calling them harassment, trusting women is what would become taboo.

          • Aapje says:

            @albatross11

            It’s one thing to consciously deviate from established judicial norms, showing awareness of why the norms exist and making a good argument why this situation requires something different.

            It’s something else altogether to have people with no judicial knowledge reinvent the wheel, where each Title IX court invents something different, because they don’t have a clue.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            Yes, that is a fair point, but don’t you think that the advocates of interventions often equivocate to push through Y with X, even if Y is far more objectionable than X?

            It depends. Your phrasing implies that the more objectionable Y is being pushed through deliberately as a form of conspiracy, which is usually not the case. The far more common offender is simply “we must do something, this is something, therefore we must do it.”

            Title IX courts exist because there was a problem in need of a solution, and a solution was applied in a slapdash manner, with the authorities probably thinking “meh, what’s the worst that happens, someone gets kicked out of a college” in an era when getting kicked out of a college wasn’t a death sentence to your prospects of a middle-class life. I have absolutely no problem with saying that they’re badly designed and in need of reform (e.g. federally mandated procedures since they’re created to enforce a provision of federal law).

            But for most people who want to make “casual sexual harassment of women” into something firmly not-the-norm on par with, say, public defecation… Well, the Title IX courts as now construed aren’t the goal, they’re just the presently existing mechanism for achieving the goal, which colors attitudes towards it.

            Like, suppose public defecation were a common problem, and was punished by specialized Poop Police. Someone might argue “you know, there’s no reason for the Poop Police to be beating people with batons after arresting them, that’s wrong.”

            And I’d agree with you- but I wouldn’t conclude “therefore we should abolish the Poop Police,” because obviously someone needs to prevent the specific problematic behavior they’re dealing with. I’d be calling for reform, and continuing to push in broad the concept of creating laws and institutions to eliminate public defecation, even if I agreed that a specific institution had gone off the rails and needed to be fixed.

            To stay further at the object level question, I disagree that non-criminal sexual harassment (which is mostly verbal harassment, or minor touch incidents at most) is odious enough to require universal enforcement. Companies should be left do decide what balance…

            The big issue is cases where a power relationship is involved. College professors making unwelcome advances towards graduate students present a much bigger issue than graduate students making such advances towards graduate students, which is in turn probably a bigger issue than undergraduates doing it to graduate students.

            And that has been, incidentally, the main focus of #MeToo, because it’s precisely the cases where a person with power and influence abuses their status to procure lots of sex that really offend the public as a whole.

            If there are large differences between people’s preferences, there could even be market differentiation, with some companies allowing more free speech at the cost of less protection from harassment, and others having stricter protections from harassment (both sexual and other).

            The big problem with this, to paraphrase Scott, is that if you create a new parallel version of an institution whose mission statement is “be like X, only without the witchhunts,” in short order your entire membership will consist of about three high-minded libertarians and about seven jillion witches. No one else will want to hang around, because the underlying reason for the witchhunts is that most people don’t actually like living around the witches.

            At which point someone else comes in and correctly points out that your corporation is a hellhole where it seems like (usually) practically the entire male staff joined the company in no small part because they view “sexualize and potentially hit on the female staff” as a perk.

            (Is it just me or is this Hooters’ business model? I kid, I kid)

          • Aapje says:

            @Simon_Jester

            Your phrasing implies that the more objectionable Y is being pushed through deliberately as a form of conspiracy, which is usually not the case.

            I never said that it was a conspiracy. I think that there is often an immense lack of empathy, to such an extent that it can legitimately be called misandry (or racism when it involves Asian, whites, etc). Because of this, the advocates of these interventions seem to generally not even recognize that there are substantial downsides to their interventions; nor understand why people object and/or want alternatives.

            For example, let’s say that from my perspective, intervention X is 90% OK and 10% objectionable and intervention Y is 20% OK and 80% objectionable. Their perspective may then be, due to their bias, that both X & Y are 90% OK and 10% objectionable. Then it is no surprise that they would feel equally strongly about implementing both. In practice, X is then going to generate less push-back than Y, where the advocates of both interventions are then not going to understand why this response is different. However, they will then logically take advantage of this in their PR, as pretty much anyone would do, by selling their platform in a way that works best, by making X the face of the platform (while more silently pushing for Y as well).

            Again, this requires no conspiracy, just people responding to incentives.

            Title IX courts exist because there was a problem in need of a solution

            Nonsense. There is/was no specific problem with sexual assault on campuses that is greater than the problem outside of colleges. There is no way to argue that Title IX courts are a useful solution to the general problem that isn’t based on falsehoods or class warfare.

            but I wouldn’t conclude “therefore we should abolish the Poop Police,” because obviously someone needs to prevent the specific problematic behavior they’re dealing with.

            That someone already exists! They are called the regular police! If those are (supposedly) not doing enough to combat public defecation, then the logical response is to figure out how one can improve the police, whether there are legitimate reasons why going after public defecation is more difficult, etc. It’s very unreasonable to establish parallel institutions in a haphazard way.

            And that has been, incidentally, the main focus of #MeToo, because it’s precisely the cases where a person with power and influence abuses their status to procure lots of sex that really offend the public as a whole.

            Again, X and Y. The cases where power are abused are used to legitimize #MeToo, but then that legitimacy is often used to push though the far weaker Y. For example, to claim that all men participate in and are solely guilty of ‘rape culture.’

            The big problem with this, to paraphrase Scott, is that if you create a new parallel version of an institution whose mission statement is “be like X, only without the witchhunts,” in short order your entire membership will consist of about three high-minded libertarians and about seven jillion witches

            Note that this same logic is going to be true for Title IX courts. “Be like the courts, except without misogyny” is going to attracts misandrists…

          • 10240 says:

            @Simon_Jester

            The big problem with this, to paraphrase Scott, is that if you create a new parallel version of an institution whose mission statement is “be like X, only without the witchhunts,” in short order your entire membership will consist of about three high-minded libertarians and about seven jillion witches. […] your corporation is a hellhole where it seems like (usually) practically the entire male staff joined the company in no small part because they view “sexualize and potentially hit on the female staff” as a perk.

            That depends on where the line is drawn. (In Scott’s example, the Reddit alternative Voat remains extremely racist because Reddit still only censors the most extreme speech.)

            If I am to believe those who say that sexual harassment policies only ban objectively terrible conduct, then companies with less strict policies will indeed have mostly have witches (and people wrongly exiled for witchcraft). They would still have a value: at present, if you get accused of sexual harassment, you may not only get fired, but I guess you may also have trouble finding another job (if it’s known why you were fired), since every company has a duty to minimize harassment. If there wasn’t such a law, these “Harassers’ Companies” could serve as employers for people who have got fired for harassment. Since these companies wouldn’t have any women, they couldn’t hurt anyone (at least in a sexual way), even if most of them really are harassers.

            If I am to believe those who say that current policies are overbroad, men have to watch their mouth whenever a woman is present, a lot of fairly innocous actions can be found harassment, people can easily get fired on bogus or overblown accusations where someone wants to get them fired for a different reason, and any flirting is extermely risky, then a lot of normal people, probably including some women*, would choose companies with less strict policies.

            It’s likely, though, that the differences between people’s preferences are not big enough to make the advantages of market differentiation exceed its cost. That is, there would be a utility-maximizing compromise policy which is not overbroad, but prevents serious harassment. And it’s quite possible that this ideal policy would be less restrictive than what is currently required by US law.

            Why does law, and perhaps public pressure, force companies to have possibly overbroad policies? Because if (as a politician, journalist, or perhaps even in everyday conversation) you propose less strict policies, your opponents will accuse you of sexism; if you propose stricter policies, your opponents will say your proposal would have a negative effect (but you’ll generally be assumed well-meaning**). Since sexism is considered a much worse accusation than being wrong about some specific issue, people err on the side of too strict policies. It works like this with all the identity politics issues.
            Furthermore, a compromise would be a compromise from both sides: that is, some men having to watch their mouth more than they would like, and some women tolerating more “harassment” than they would like. Many people would say that harassment is objectively entirely wrong, and it’s unacceptable to expect “harassees” to make any compromise. If we were talking about forcible physical acts, I’d agree (but those are already criminal). Since much of the “harassment” we are talking about are things that should IMO fall under freedom of speech, I disagree.

            * I doubt that all women have a problem with overhearing a dongle joke, or a man talking about condoms in his backpack (seriously, you’ve gone too far when the latter is mentioned on the same list as forcibly kissing a subordinate, or passing women over for promotion).
            ** Sure, some people like Aapje will accuse you of misandry, but that’s taken much less seriously in most places than misogyny.

        • Hackworth says:

          but it’s impossible to say the people who argue we are not doing enough about sexual harrassment don’t have a point, even if ultimately one comes to a different conclusion.

          Is it really impossible to say that? As far as my home Germany is concerned, the legal side is well covered. There are no more exceptions for e.g. rape in marriage. Sexual abuse is punished more harshly when the perp abuses a differential in authority, e.g. a teacher abusing a student. The inherent problem in sexual abuse cases of all kinds is that most sexual acts, whether legal or illegal, happen without witnesses. Unless there is objective evidence such as injuries, separating rape from consensual sex is all but impossible. At some point, you cannot improve the process, yet there will still be sexual abuse that goes unpunished.

          So yes, at some point, you can do too much to prosecute crime, especially now that we have the internet and companies that never forget. For socially sensitive crimes such as child abuse or rape, as little as the suspicion of a crime can hurt a person socially and economically, not to mention a conviction.

          One of the pillars of modern systems of justice is the presumption of innocence, one which I hold very dear. I strongly believe that there is some number X > 1 of guilty people that should get to evade conviction and punishment if it means that just 1 person does not get wrongly convicetd. SJWs (in broad strokes) believe the opposite, that it’s better to wrongly convict X rather than let 1 guilty get away. I am deeply revulsed by that notion.

          I have no sympathy whatsoever for “grab ’em by the pussy” types, or serial harrassers, if their guilt is proven by court. You talk about backlash (from whom?) against overreach, yet history has proven again and again that this is not a sufficient safeguard against even worse forms of overreach.

          • Aapje says:

            So yes, at some point, you can do too much to prosecute crime

            Indeed. A problem can be serious, yet all the interventions we could do may make things worse.

      • Yaleocon says:

        Honestly, how bad would it be if “sexual behavior [were] banned from the workplace”? A stronger cultural barrier between the personal and the professional seems like it would help with this issue, but also others. When a lot of business happens over drinks, you have to choose between the moral hazard of going drinking with the opposite sex and your career prospects. A plurality of cheating happens with coworkers, so option 1 has its downsides. But if you choose option 2, you hurt your career—and if adopted generally, it can freeze women out of being able to do necessary networking. A clearer barrier between private and professional life might help there, too.

        With that said: your point that “going after relatively minor violations will mean that many people get punished for small mistakes”, and the down-thread analogy to Nungesser, might be the most important thing in this thread. If we’re going to make cultural shifts away from relationships with superiors, or away from romance in the workplace full stop (as I suggested), it matters how we do that. Trying to enforce a new cultural standard with HR departments and Star Chambers is going to cause a great deal of suffering. (And contra brmic, an HR department adopting shitty policy doesn’t require a “democratic majority” of any kind.)

        • 10240 says:

          When we spend a sizeable fraction of our awake time at the workplace, it may lead (or, to some extent, it may already have led) to significantly increased amount of loneliness. After all, there’s a reason that (I think) most high schoolers and college students date schoolmates at some point, and that’s not generally considered controversial at all (though the specifics may be, e.g. the strict consent requirements of American colleges).

          As I suggest above, the simple solution is to let workplaces decide their policy, and let people take this policy into account when deciding which company they apply to.

          • mdet says:

            I’m not sure that most people have enough job options for this choice to be meaningful.

          • 10240 says:

            In most professions, there are dozens if not hundreds of employers in a big city, with the exception of very specialized professions. And in very specialized professions, it’s common to move to a different city for a good job anyway. (Plus differentiation can happen even between different offices of the same company.)

            Even if there aren’t enough employers for market differentiation, as long as some employees at some point do make a choice, companies have an incentive to make a utility-maximizing compromise between restrictions in behavior and harassment: people will choose the company whose policy is closer to their preferences, even if the salary is slightly lower than at another company. (And if a company pays more than the minimum wage, that indicates that many of its employees do have some amount of choice: if they didn’t, the company would have no reason to pay more than the minimum wage.)

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      Okay, this is my first time seeing “ctrl-left” and I have to admit that’s pretty clever.

      (It’s a play on alt-right in case anyone missed the joke)

      • lvlln says:

        Maajid Nawaz, one of the founders of anti-Islamist extremism organization Quilliam, has been trying to get it to catch on. I admit, I rather like the obvious connection to the CTRL-ALT-DEL Windows keyboard shortcut, as well as the fact that it just makes sense in terms of meaning, in that ctrl-left is describing a segment of the left wing which has a great focus on controlling very minute details of people’s behaviors and thoughts.

        • albatross11 says:

          This is the term Steve Sailer uses; I’m not sure if it’s original to him or not.

        • spinystellate says:

          Ctrl-left? Alt-right? If the Del-Center ever gets too much power we might have to reboot civilization!

        • Douglas Knight says:

          One of the earliest uses I can find, from 9/2016, attributes it to Nawaz. Here is an even earlier use, from 1/2016, that seems to take credit for it. Probably independent invention.

      • pansnarrans says:

        Okay, this is my first time seeing “ctrl-left” and I have to admit that’s pretty clever.

        I’m not normally a fan of terms for sides invented by the other side, like “anti-choice” and “anti-life”. But I’m quite enjoying “ctrl-left” partly because it’s legitimately witty and partly because I’m getting really fed up with how “alt-right” has been very quickly expanded to mean anyone remotely right-wing.

  7. Nate the Albatross says:

    First, Caplan is comparing apples and oranges. Outside of the United States, many people deplore the killing of Syrians through ordinary means. The US media deliberately downplays atrocities in Syria, Ukraine and China because they want to avoid a war. Nobody is worried France might attack Russia or China, so the coverage is more in line with deploring here. By comparison bosses and coaches who yell and scream are controversial. Generally frowned upon at little league, but “passion” is still preferred by some people. Think Gordon Ramsey. In Hollywood directors may need to yell just so everyone on set can hear them. A certain amount of emotion and shouting is practically a job requirement. However, it is not necessary to sexually harass people. Especially in a job where a certain amount of eccentricity is expected, the Harvey Weinstein scandal is a bridge too far. The choice isn’t the occasional pass at work OR yelling. It is yelling OR yelling and sexual harassment.

    Chemical weapons are in a whole nother galaxy from a boss who yells a lot. Watching the Great War series on YouTube, chemical weapons are a very bad way to die and using them on fields in France cannot possibly be good for crops. If Assad shoots people in Syria that is deplorable, but using poison that floats into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Israel is a problem for decades. Dead is dead, but most capital punishment advocates aren’t pushing for torturing people to death, which is what chemical weapons do.

    After millions of people people died in the first World War, and millions more were horribly wounded, they didn’t universally agree to ban bullets or artillery. They went after chemical weapons because it is an awful way to die.

    Nobody is happy about the situation in Syria, except maybe Russia, however wise people tell us that we cannot intervene without making it worse (see Iraq, Afghanistan, etc). So when the red line of chemical weapons are violated, we respond with a bit of extra spite. Just like Hollywood deplores jerk bosses who are also sexual predators. Assad and Harvey Weinstein aren’t violating a single norm in creative ways, they are violating multiple norms at once and we should deplore them more than twice as much.

    • Michael Handy says:

      I’m not so sure. Conventional weapons are a lot more horrific than people give them credit for, for both the dead and the wounded.

      If I had to choose between chlorine and a shrapnel gut wound…I’m gonna go for the chlorine, and I’d definitely choose a nerve agent over it.

      • Nate the Albatross says:

        I trust the veterans of the Great War. And, when I consider that someone will need to grow crops or go to school in the place where you die, some bits of rusted metal aren’t an issue. But chlorine and nerve agents aren’t good for long term habitation of the war site.

        With modern medicine, people increasingly live through limb loss and even head injuries and have an unexpectedly high quality of life. But chemical wounds are awful and living through a chemical attack is almost a fate worse than death. Have you read up on what normally happens to survivors of the nerve agent used in the UK? Not good.

        Being gut shot looks bad if you get no medical care and die. But shrapnel that kills you in thirty minutes is preferable to a chemical weapon that kills you in thirty minutes. And shrapnel that kills you in thirty hours is preferable to chemical weapons that kill you in thirty hours.

        Bullets and artillery are very fast, and if they don’t kill you quickly you have good odds of a decent quality of life if you get medical attention. Also combat is much less miserable if you aren’t wearing NBC gear.

        I get it, dead is dead. But everyone who is left alive perfers conventional weapons. If you get gut shot just ask for morphine. You won’t feel a thing.

        • bean says:

          And, when I consider that someone will need to grow crops or go to school in the place where you die, some bits of rusted metal aren’t an issue. But chlorine and nerve agents aren’t good for long term habitation of the war site.

          This isn’t true. Chlorine and a lot of nerve agents basically boil away over the course of minutes to (at most) weeks. Eventually, even VX will evaporate. Meanwhile, the Zone Rouge remains uninhabitable a century later, mainly due to unexploded conventional ordnance.

          • Nate the Albatross says:

            An unexploded chemical shell isn’t less dangerous, there were simply better laws against chemical shells. That chemical weapons disperse is a product of their deplorableness. If there were unexploded chemical shells at the same scale as conventional shells, the situation would be much worse.

          • bean says:

            I’m not so sure of that. The reason for the Zone Rouge is that it has a bunch of UXO, period. Not that there are gas shells there. The American University in DC has a campus full of gas shells, and it’s a serious problem, but it’s one they can fix. Yes, I know the shells are not really UXO, but I’d rather walk that campus than somewhere that’s recently been cluster-bombed.

            I’m not arguing that the prohibition on chemical weapon use is a bad thing. Far from it. Biological and chemical weapons are horrible, and it’s a good thing that we have hard lines against using them. But don’t pretend that a conventional war just leaves behind “some bits of rusted metal”.

          • soreff says:

            Chlorine and a lot of nerve agents basically boil away over the course of minutes to (at most) weeks.

            In the specific case of chlorine:
            It is reactive and will typically be reduced to harmless chloride ions by many
            common reducing agents.

      • Civilis says:

        I’m not so sure. Conventional weapons are a lot more horrific than people give them credit for, for both the dead and the wounded.

        From what I remember from the International Relations classes I took in college, the issue with chemical weapons is that their utility is almost entirely as a terror weapon against civilian populations, either in your enemies cities or your own insurgent areas. The logic was that for chemical weapons to be useful on the battlefield, you require a lot of protective gear and training for your own troops to operate in such an environment, and any conventional military opponents will rapidly acquire the gear and training to protect their troops such that the weapons don’t give you any advantage. If the fighting is such that their troops are hampered by their MOPP suits, your troops are going to have to be in MOPP suits in case the wind suddenly shifts.

        Syria doesn’t have chemical weapons to give it a military edge against the IDF. You can charitably assume they serve as countervalue deterrence against Israel’s WMDs.

        • baconbits9 says:

          This line of reasoning doesn’t hold up as many military applications of weapons occur away from your own troops. Bombing raids, drone strikes, long range shelling all could conceivably use chemical weapons without requiring your own troops to be hardened against them in any significant way. Forcing the other side to invest in gear and training to deal is a strategic win in many situations.

          • Civilis says:

            What are you hitting with your bombs / missile / artillery that it’s more effective to gas them than to hit them with conventional explosives?

            Chemical weapons are horribly imprecise by modern standards, which is their utility against insurgents (and during WW1). You don’t need to directly hit the precise spot in the trench, jungle, or cave complex the dug in enemy is in to kill them. Right now, we’re using drones for their precision targeting to assassina… I mean, reduce enemy command and control by eliminating enemy commanders. Enough chemical weapons to guarantee the commander you want to kill gets a lungful and you’ve probably killed every wedding party within half a mile… and will require more than one drone for the weapons. Hellfires are a lot cheaper and less messy.

            Likewise, with bombs and artillery against rear area targets, chemical weapons don’t accomplish what you want to accomplish. Even if you get lucky with a surprise attack against a airfield / supply dump / factory and kill all the people there (and every civilian downwind for a mile or two), the airfield / supply dump / factory is still there, just waiting to be hosed off and reused. A strike with conventional munitions, which has a chance to destroy the facilities / supplies / machine tools, would be more useful and doesn’t provoke angry denunciation at the UN or retaliatory escalation. (If you’re thinking of using the really nasty long duration chemicals, you may as well go straight to nuclear, because the reaction is going to be the same).

            On top of that, most of the weapons (and even components to binary weapons) are still nasty even when improperly used, such as when an airstrike / artillery barrage / drone / special forces team / act of Murphy hits your chemical warfare unit, so you’re still going to have to invest in purchasing all the protective gear.

          • bean says:

            Forcing the other side to invest in gear and training to deal is a strategic win in many situations.

            That’s pretty much a given in any modern military. So long as anybody has chemical weapons, everyone has to have a MOPP suit and know how to use it. But actually using CW on them means you have to actually use the MOPP suits and jet engines and so on when they hit back. So you don’t.
            Other than that, what Civilis said. Chemical weapons are great at terror, but just not that effective.

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ Civilis

            Chemical weapons would be preferred in situations where you wish to preserve some physical structure or intelligence, or where significant physical obstacles exist. Napalm was heavily used against entrenched Japanese forces during WW2 in part because it could suffocate many troops in the further recesses. The larger and deeper the entrenchments the more likely that poor ventilation existed and the more likely that attacking the breathing supply would work. This is generally the opposite of what happens with conventional weapons, the larger the entrenchment the more raw force you need to have any effect.

            Likewise, with bombs and artillery against rear area targets, chemical weapons don’t accomplish what you want to accomplish. Even if you get lucky with a surprise attack against a airfield / supply dump / factory and kill all the people there (and every civilian downwind for a mile or two), the airfield / supply dump / factory is still there, just waiting to be hosed off and reused. A strike with conventional munitions, which has a chance to destroy the facilities / supplies / machine tools,

            The either or here is a false dichotomy, there is plenty of room for combinations to work better than either individually. Conventional weapons to destroy the infrastructure, and chemical weapons to hit the troops. The preferred responses to each are almost opposites, with conventional weapons you typically want to seek shelter, and chemical weapons you want to stay out of enclosed and poorly ventilated places. Even just forcing the responding troops to don on protective gear would cause greater damage from the conventional weapons that did hit.

            would be more useful and doesn’t provoke angry denunciation at the UN or retaliatory escalation.

            No one is arguing that they aren’t illegal or that they are a good idea, only that the arguments put forth for their illegality weren’t a good justification.

          • Jaskologist says:

            All of this is making it sounds like chemical weapons were banned mostly because they aren’t that effective, while still providing a major headache for all involved if they got deployed. Since they were easy enough for your opponent to counter, there wasn’t a strong incentive for either side to break the agreement. Putting aside those weapons and the bulky gear they require let belligerents get back to killing each other like civilized people.

          • SEE says:

            @Jaskologist

            All of this is making it sounds like chemical weapons were banned mostly because they aren’t that effective, while still providing a major headache for all involved if they got deployed.

            Maybe. Chemical weapons as they existed in World War II were not particularly useful for or against a blitzkreig, nor were they useful to destroy the opposition’s manufacturing facilities or air defenses during the bomber war across the Channel. Therefore, banned or not, there was no point in using them in the first part of the war in the European theater.

            On the other hand, Japan, which was fighting a basically infantry war against infantry in China 1933-1941, absolutely did use them (and biological weapons) against an enemy that couldn’t respond in kind and didn’t have particularly much materiel to destroy, just bodies to kill.

            The German restraint in using persistent nerve gasses against Soviet forces after the Germans were thrown on the defensive is at first blush harder to explain, but apparently Hitler accepted the analysis of Otto Ambros (IG Farben’s nerve agent expert) that based on science known in 1939, the US/UK certainly developed nerve agents. Thus it was expected by Hitler that what got used on the Eastern Front against slow-moving the Soviets would wind up being used on the Western Front against Germans making a defensive stand, possibly to a net faster defeat. This was an error similar in nature to the US and UK experts in nuclear physics expecting the Germans would, given the known science when the war started, figure out how to make fission weapons; “we can so they will”.

            While the US/UK restraint in using chemical weapons on the Western Front can be explained in part by unsuitability of a war of maneuver, it doesn’t really explain failure to them use on the Japanese. Maybe it wasn’t clear that the US/UK would have an advantage over Japan if chemical weapons were used in the island-clearing campaigns, maybe we saw actual moral restraint (if not by the people making decisions, by the calculation of leaders of elected government on the reaction of the general public). The Japanese I presume assumed that a first use would result in retaliation by an enemy with a better logistic ability to deliver chemical and biological agents, or make it harder to reach a negotiated settlement (which is what they were fighting for from just after Midway to Nagasaki), or both.

            And with the only uses of chemical weapons on the battlefield in the first big war after they were invented being easily ignored (by the victorious triad that never faced them, and the defeated states that never suffered them), a moral norm of “Not even Hitler was depraved enough to use poison gas first in war” was formed out of what was mostly an accident of practical considerations.

            Then, with only Third World nations using them in Third World conflicts since, and those mostly against insurgencies rather than in nation-state conflicts (Egypt in the North Yemen civil war, Rhodesia on insurgents in its civil war, Vietnam against Cambodian insurgents based in Thailand, Iraq on Iran and insurgent-allied Kurds, Cuba on the insurgents in the Angolan civil war, Syria on insurgents in its civil war), it’s seemingly a nearly-accidental norm that survived as something that “‘civilized’ nations don’t do, especially in ‘real’ wars”, and that to use them is to forfeit your claim to be a leader of a civilized nation.

          • Civilis says:

            There’s also some speculation that Hitler, having been gassed in World War I, had a moral dislike for chemical weapons.

            All of this is making it sounds like chemical weapons were banned mostly because they aren’t that effective, while still providing a major headache for all involved if they got deployed. Since they were easy enough for your opponent to counter, there wasn’t a strong incentive for either side to break the agreement. Putting aside those weapons and the bulky gear they require let belligerents get back to killing each other like civilized people.

            Chemical weapons still are effective at killing large numbers of civilians quickly and terribly.

            One thing that gets overlooked in the discussions in this post is that the real taboo isn’t “no using nuclear weapons”, it’s “no using nuclear weapons first“. Further, for various historical reasons, it’s considered safer to have a nuclear posture based around leveling your enemies cities rather than on targeting his nuclear arsenal. So there’s a very important caveat on taboos on inflicting mass civilian casualties, and that’s you can do it in retaliation if someone else does it to you first; that’s the whole basis of Mutual Assured Destruction, and the enforcement mechanism for the taboo in the first place.

            Chemical weapons provide a Mutual Assured Destruction Lite capability for smaller countries that can’t get a nuclear arsenal or under the protection of someone else that has a nuclear arsenal. And if you’re a country with a nuclear arsenal, it pays to research the technology so at least you can prepare effective countermeasures.

          • bean says:

            @Jaskologist

            That’s fairly close to the truth. CW is just a way to make war harder for armies, at a great cost in civilian lives.

            @SEE

            While the US/UK restraint in using chemical weapons on the Western Front can be explained in part by unsuitability of a war of maneuver, it doesn’t really explain failure to them use on the Japanese. Maybe it wasn’t clear that the US/UK would have an advantage over Japan if chemical weapons were used in the island-clearing campaigns, maybe we saw actual moral restraint (if not by the people making decisions, by the calculation of leaders of elected government on the reaction of the general public). The Japanese I presume assumed that a first use would result in retaliation by an enemy with a better logistic ability to deliver chemical and biological agents, or make it harder to reach a negotiated settlement (which is what they were fighting for from just after Midway to Nagasaki), or both.

            I suspect it was practical as much as anything. Chemical weapons are nasty things to deal with. They’re tolerable when you can stick them in a special bomb dump a long ways away from anything else, and put a bunch of earth and concrete over them. But that’s sort of hard at sea. This was also before binary agents, which make the weapons a lot safer to store. Look at what happened at Bari. And I’m not sure that chemical weapons would have been that effective, either. The Japanese on the defensive would have been better able to resist the effects than the attacking Americans. And there’s the bit where we needed every square inch of those islands, which might be difficult when there’s pools of HN and Lewisite sitting around. (Those are persistent agents, with a boiling point well above even a sunny day on a Pacific atoll. The only non-persistent option I know of given US tech at the time was Phosgene.)

          • youzicha says:

            @SEE

            I think you are downplaying the moral considerations in WWII a bit. Chemical weapons had a very bad reputation among the general public after WWI. Roosevelt was strongly morally opposed to use of gas, he shot down all proposals of first use from within the U.S. military, and made a strong public commitment against first use.

            Britain was a party to the Geneva protocols, which banned first use on humanitarian grounds. And although Churchill was generally in favour of chemical weapons, his military staff was opposed for moral as well as tactical reasons, and generally seem to have talked him out of it (see this chapter from Harris and Paxman A Higher Form of Killing). Morality does seem to have factored into the decision.

  8. tmk says:

    Even without Scott’s point, I’m annoyed by arguments that are basically “My opponents have ordinary human flaws, therefore they are wrong and I am right”. So what if people are arbitrary and jump on bandwagons, rater than spreading their attention in exact proportion of importance. Everyone does that so it’s a fully general counterargument.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Caplan doesn’t seem to be using this as an argument that other people are bad or that he’s right about some other point, he’s just pointing out that it’s true. That seems like a fair thing to do.

      • Jiro says:

        This contradicts how implicature works when normal people make arguments.

        • The Pachyderminator says:

          Caplan isn’t a normal person.

        • wintermute92 says:

          Sure, but it has to at least be possible to say “this is a thing people do, I don’t mean any specific thing is or is not evil on this basis”. I suppose implicature would normally mean you have to add “these are just examples, not moral claims”, but this fits Caplan’s style well enough that I do take that as his meaning regardless.

  9. ana53294 says:

    Well, the US pulled out of the UN Human Rights Council because of the selective enforcing of international rules.
    This could be because
    a) The international community does selectively enforce rules against atrocieties commited by Israel more than Venezuela/Iran/Congo.
    b)There is some kind of taboo that Venezuela is not breaking but Israel is.
    c)The international community thinks they have more ways to enforce the rules against Israel than Venezuela, because Israel is a part of that community whereas Venezuela is an outcast (it was kicked out of Mercosur, etc.).

    • slightlylesshairyape says:

      d) The UNHRC routinely admits countries like GileadSaudi Arabia to pass judgment on the human rights of others.

    • Freddie deBoer says:

      Venezuela’s intent is to build a functioning socialist system that secures the interests of the poorest members of its society. Israel’s intent is to preserve an ethnonationalist system through systematically denying a religious and ethnic minority full citizenship rights.

      • albatross11 says:

        Venezuela’s intent may be noble, but their methods look to me like pretty generic strongman / one-party-rule tactics, happily used by people right, left, and center who intend to keep power regardless of what voters want. And the outcomes they’re generating for their people look genuinely horrible.

        • mupetblast says:

          This comment is a pretty stark example of the “but the left means well” difference. They don’t mean to starve people. It’s just kind of incidental to the project.

          • Freddie deBoer says:

            Extreme poverty was slashed to a third of its previous size in Venezuela after the Chavista movement took power, but thanks for playing. Also: capitalists don’t mean to leave 60,000 people in New York City alone in homeless shelters, it’s just….

          • J.R. says:

            @Freddie

            And then the oil money ran out.

          • SEE says:

            @Freddie deBoer

            So, are you somehow crediting Chavez’s policies with the fact that oil went from is lowest inflation-adjusted average monthly price since the end of WWII in 1998 to its highest such price in 2008, or just claiming that an order-of-magnitude increase in the market price of a country’s primary export is not the glaringly obvious explanation for changes in extreme poverty levels in said country?

            Anyway, inflation-adjusted oil prices are currently a solid multiple of their 1998 levels, and the Chavistas aren’t even managing to keep starvation down to 1998 levels.

          • LadyJane says:

            @Freddie deBoer: Let’s say that the reduction in poverty was entirely a result of Chavez and Maduro’s policies, and couldn’t have been accomplished in that time frame in any other way. (I find this extraordinarily doubtful, but let’s go with it for the sake of argument.) I still wouldn’t consider that to be enough of a net good to make up for the abuses of power and human rights violations that occurred under Chavez and Maduro. Of course, my moral calculus may be different than yours.

            For the record, I’m not particularly fond of Israel either, and I think the Trump administration’s rationale for leaving the Human Rights Council is foolish, short-sighted, and hypocritical. I just feel the need to respond whenever otherwise anti-authoritarian leftists start defending Venezuela under Chavez (or worse, Cuba under Castro).

          • sharper13 says:

            @Freddie deBoer,

            Thanks for giving me the opportunity to link back to my previous comment on Venezuela, which explains why the issues aren’t changes in oil prices and why you can’t attribute your mentioned poverty reduction to socialist policies (Peru, Brazil and Panama all did even better at reducing poverty during the same time and none of them nationalized industries in the same way and spent the previous profits).

            Have you considered the impact on your homeless statistic the fact that the less capitalist NYC becomes, the more homeless they support? It’s a difficult argument to prove that the causation runs the opposite way of the correlation.

      • wintermute92 says:

        This seems about as compelling as “Syria’s intent is to build a stable secular government in a region historically rife with religious violence and ethnic cleansing.” Or perhaps “Israel’s intent is to preserve the safety of its residents by avoiding the possibility of a violently anti-Semitic government.” It’s not necessarily false, but it ignores the entire discussion about whether that’s being achieved and how.

        As a summary of Chavez, maybe it holds – he did a great deal of good and arguments about unsustainable spending don’t imply ill intent. But Maduro is in the most generous accounting more interested in holding power than advancing the current well-being of Venezuelans, and less generously is just parroting a line that brought him power while he cements a dictatorship.

  10. Robert Jones says:

    I find this explanation convincing on chemical weapons, because (a) we have a formal agreement not to use chemical weapons (the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Syria is a party) and (b) by and large this is effective.

    On sexual harassment, I agree with another commenter that Caplan’s original comparison was inadpt. As I occasionally explain to clients, there’s no law against being a dick. There are laws against sexual harassment. One issue with #metoo is that it has tended to lump in some behaviour which really belongs in the “dick” category with clearly appalling behaviour, but by and large it’s dismissive to characterise sexual harassment as occasionally being pressured for a date.

    Alexander is right that we’ve “sort of credibly demanded” that elites don’t sexually harass subordinates and “it seems like we might be getting enough of a coalition together to enforce this”, so the situation is different from chemical weapons, where the lines are much brighter. The whole idea is that we’re moving (maybe) away from a norm where some level of sexual harassment was tolerated. I remember 10 years ago a senior female colleague remarking “she’ll have to get used to it”. But once we recognise this is a case of norm creation rather than norm enforcement, we fall back to the question of why target that particular problem (why muggings rather than burglaries)? Cynical answer: because sexual harassment is a problem which affects rich and famous women.

    Any way, the situation of the Uighurs seems pretty bad, but so does the situation of many minorities. Your proposed norm seems to rely too much on the label “concentration camps”. I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that the Chinese are running anything comparable to Dachau. It seems at least similar to saying “X is in a category whose archetypal member gives us a certain emotional reaction. Therefore, we should apply that emotional reaction to X, even though it is not a central category member.”

    • brmic says:

      Nitpick: Dachau started out as a camp for political prisoners (communists, social democrats), after two years added regular criminals and was not an extermination camp. From reports, it sounds very much like the Chinese are running something like Dachau in the early years.
      Were you thinking of someplace like Auschwitz or Treblinka?

    • Eugene Dawn says:

      It seems at least similar to saying “X is in a category whose archetypal member gives us a certain emotional reaction. Therefore, we should apply that emotional reaction to X, even though it is not a central category member.”

      I don’t entirely disagree with this, but perhaps this is the only way to actually establish strong enough norms in the first place: to make use of irrational emotional reactions and bandwaggoning. In answer to the question “why muggings rather than burglaries”, a reasonable answer is “people respond more emotionally to burglaries so it’s easier to mobilize a coalition against them”. Obviously this shouldn’t be the only consideration when trying to establish a new bright-line norm, but I don’t think it’s illegitimate to work with peoples’ irrational biases do to good as long as you’re sure you’re genuinely doing good.

  11. Jon Gunnarsson says:

    I agree with Scott on chemical and nuclear weapons. That point was, I think, originally made by Thomas Schelling in The Strategy of Conflict. “No chemical and nuclear weapons” is a clear and easily enforcible red line, while “no excessive killing of civilians” isn’t.

    But I don’t think this works with sexual harassment since that is a rather vague offence. Unless you want to outlaw all flirting à la The Mikado, there isn’t any bright red line between acceptable behaviour and harassment. It’s all very murky and subjective, just like excessive killing of civilians in wartime.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      The thing you can draw a bright line around is “no initiating flirtation if you’re in a position of direct, substantial power over the person you’re flirting with.” That’s not murky at all, and it’s very different from trying to ban all cases of ‘creepiness’ or whatever.

      The HR manager should not be describing her potential new hires as ‘fuckable,’ nor evaluating nor even joking about hiring them on those grounds. The guy who controls casting for a movie should not be trying to sleep with the actresses. The boss should not hire a new secretary with the expectation that the secretary will carry on an affair with them. Educators should never, ever do or say anything remotely sexual towards students, even in a post-secondary education environment where the students are theoretically adults theoretically capbale of consent.

      That we can draw a bright line around, and that is what the consensus of #MeToo is about.

      • Randy M says:

        Are you joking? We can’t draw a bright line around flirting, that’s a very vague category with a fuzzy boundary between it and “polite interaction”. Is “good morning Ms. X, nice to see you today” flirting? What if the man saying it smiles? Winks? Mumbles? Places the emphasis on you?

        You can draw a bright line between “any behavior not solely about conveying professional behavior in a monotone” and everything else, but you’d have to show your work to establish you aren’t making the world worse.

        • arlie says:

          *rolls eyes* MeToo, like other social movements, has human beings in it. This means it’s not monolithic, and some of the people involved are idiots.

          Simon_Jester’s bright lines make sense to me. Of course there’s spillover, and it makes sense to oppose the resulting problems. At the same time, someone who opposes the whole thing – or is ultra focussed on MeToo’s excesses – may well have problematic motives. (I.e. they like being able to sexually abuse other people.)

          And other things could reasonably be added to those bright lines. I.e. I’m not saying that I pre-concede everything not on that list. If I thought long enough, or examined live examples, I’d probably find other things that should be on that list.

          Bottom line, from where I sit, it’s nice to see some visible social movement on this particular issue. Simon_Jester’s rules have been applicable for a long time [centuries], at least among decent people, and conscientious organizations. That hasn’t stopped people taking their routine violation for granted, as “the way of the world” or some such.

          • Randy M says:

            Only the last item on Simon_Jester’s could charitably be called flirting. By saying flirting, he is talking about moving the line a lot further away from abuse of authority into highly subjective area. Perhaps it is useful to do so and rely on judgement calls in the marginal cases; but this is not a bright red line, it is a minefield.

          • arlie says:

            @Randy It occurs to me that there may be a systematic difference in what gets referred to as flirting, or the connotations applied.

            I remember 40 years ago in college, doing experiments with giving people pictures and asking them to tell stories, and rating the results. Of 6 pictures used, 5 had fairly consistent results. The 6th showed a man in a suit and a dressed up woman at a restaurant table. Male subjects told stories rated as being about romance (coded as positive interpersonal relations). Female subjects told stories about attempts to fend off unwanted advances (coded as being about power).

            Obviously this wasn’t a 100% divide, and I doubt the sample size was large enough to be very convincing – we were using classmates as subjects in an attempt to internalize theories by a psychologist named McLelland, IIRC. But it was very striking that this was the only picture that provoked a systematic geneder based difference in response. I don’t recall precisely what year this was, but somewhere between 1974 and 1978, in the United States.

          • Randy M says:

            But it was very striking that this was the only picture that provoked a systematic geneder based difference in response

            we were using classmates as subjects

            It’s not unlikely that your psychology class of college students forty years ago was much more homogeneous in outlook than a truly random sampling of people in the nation today.
            And that was presumably an honest, good-faith effort to find the boundaries. This would not be.

            The entire point of flirting is that it is gradual escalation with plausible deniability in order to suss out interest. The behavior exists to make drawing bright lines difficult in order to make withdrawing or declining gracefully possible. To that effect, the least flirtatious end of the pretty gradual spectra is indistinguishable from the everyday behavior of a friendly extrovert–someone in sales or a receptionist, say. And it exists on multiple axes, verbal and non-verbal, making consensus very difficult.

            By all means, vigorously enforce this no-flirting standard. You’ll see the difference between a fence and a minefield. The latter keeps people on one side, the former keeps people from coming anywhere near the area, leaving a vast swath of territory empty.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            The entire point of flirting is that it is gradual escalation with plausible deniability in order to suss out interest. The behavior exists to make drawing bright lines difficult in order to make withdrawing or declining gracefully possible. To that effect, the least flirtatious end of the pretty gradual spectra is indistinguishable from the everyday behavior of a friendly extrovert–someone in sales or a receptionist, say. And it exists on multiple axes, verbal and non-verbal, making consensus very difficult.

            The flip side of this is that the ‘plausible deniability’ aspect can be used as a pretext for people to perform their side of the flirtation dance, long, LONG after their chosen partner would prefer to stop.

            This may be ‘natural,’ but it’s also bad, in the same way that it’s natural but bad for coworkers to initiate fistfights as a way of settling angry disputes.

            The only bright lines required are:
            1) If you know you are in a position of power over someone, do not err on the side of flirty over-familiarity. You may be a sexual being, but your sexuality is not out on display for your subordinates, unless your subordinates are also your harem, which they’re not. There is no more reason for the boss to put their sexuality on display by directly flirting with subordinates than there is for the boss to put their underwear on display by prancing around the office in their skivvies.

            2) If someone says “you’re being too familiar, please back up,” stop, and re-evaluate your interactions with others to see if you’ve “deniably” moved outside their comfort zone. To do anything else is pure and simple bad faith- a refusal to acknowledge that other people may not see the world as you do, and a refusal to modify your actions that directly affect them, on account of having decided to ignore how they perceive your behavior.

            This ties into the point about the psychology experiment. A LOT of women, not all but a lot, genuinely feel like men are constantly flirting with them as some kind of weird dominance game to put them on the cultural and social and strategic defensive all the time.

            And regardless of any justifications or excuses about how flirting by nature blurs the lines between normal and abnormal social interaction… If a large number of women are feeling actively harmed by the surplus flirtation they receive, especially at work, why not just stop doing that? Seriously, why not stop?

            By all means, vigorously enforce this no-flirting standard. You’ll see the difference between a fence and a minefield. The latter keeps people on one side, the former keeps people from coming anywhere near the area, leaving a vast swath of territory empty.

            The standard I actually proposed only applies when there’s a power relationship. If you meet your sweetie at work because you both do the same job, or work in different divisions of the company, it’s not a problem. But your boss shouldn’t be trying to initiate a relationship with you, and you shouldn’t be trying to initiate a relationship with your boss unless you’re blatantly trying to sleep your way to the top, which is also a problem.

          • Aapje says:

            @Simon_Jester

            A LOT of women, not all but a lot, genuinely feel like men are constantly flirting with them as some kind of weird dominance game to put them on the cultural and social and strategic defensive all the time.

            Then those women fail to understand gender roles & men, which suggests that a very distorted model of gender roles & men has been taught to these women.

          • Randy M says:

            The standard I actually proposed only applies when there’s a power relationship.

            I suppose I glossed over that. That makes it more reasonable than I was arguing against.

            If someone says “you’re being too familiar, please back up,” stop, and re-evaluate your interactions with others to see if you’ve “deniably” moved outside their comfort zone.

            “Do not do something you have been asked not to do” is an explicit, objective, clearly delineated rule, of course it puts a lot of power into the hands of the complainer, meaning the rule in reality is “Do not do something that your supervisor will agree you shouldn’t do if someone asks you to stop” which is still subjective but probably workable in most cases.

            If a large number of women are feeling actively harmed by the surplus flirtation they receive, especially at work, why not just stop doing that? Seriously, why not stop?

            Some people don’t care about the harm; that’s why you need rules. Some people are oblivious to the harm; that’s why you need clear rules. And some people are oversensitive or vindictive, which is why offenses should not be determined by feelings.

            My point is not that we really need to preserve space for sexuality at work; it is that in trying to police sexuality by setting a vague standard you are going to punish a lot of behavior that has no harmful intent, and both positive and negative effects. Trade offs are acceptable (so long as they are accounted for) but you need to be explicit & objective about what specific behaviors you want to avoid, and “don’t flirt” is not explicit or objective.
            “Don’t do anything that leaves >50% of recipients uncomfortable” is a bad rule.
            “Don’t mention, ask for, or offer sex with an employee” is a much better rule. (Not necessarily sufficient, but clear about what behavior is allowed)

            A LOT of women, not all but a lot, genuinely feel like men are constantly flirting with them as some kind of weird dominance game to put them on the cultural and social and strategic defensive all the time.

            It could be that they spend all their lives among hostile men. Or it could be another “refusal to acknowledge that other people may not see the world as you do.”

          • 10240 says:

            If a large number of women are feeling actively harmed by the surplus flirtation they receive, especially at work, why not just stop doing that? Seriously, why not stop?

            Because you want to get laid. Flirting, if unwanted, makes the woman (and perhaps the man) feel awkward. If wanted, it may lead to a romantic or sexual relationship, a large positive utility for both.

            Women are generally in larger demand than men of similar attractiveness, and society generally expects men to initiate. Thus women have the advantage of having it easier to find a partner, and the disadvantage of getting more attention than they want. Men have the disadvantages of having it harder to find a partner, and getting less attention than they want; and the advantage of not getting more attention than they want. The only way for men to limit their disadvantage is to pursue women, which will inevitably sometimes lead to unwanted attention for women.

            A company definitely has an interest in banning quid quo pro sexual harassment, as it essentially amounts to the boss buying sexual services for himself from the company’s money. But I don’t think the only way for a company to prevent it is to ban any sexual relations between bosses and employees, even if no threat of retaliation has been made. Another way would be e.g. an appeals process where, if you feel like your boss has fired you, or treating you unfairly, because you refused sex, you can appeal to his higher-ups (or if the harasser is the CEO, the shareholders).

          • liskantope says:

            Women are generally in larger demand than men of similar attractiveness, and society generally expects men to initiate. Thus women have the advantage of having it easier to find a partner, and the disadvantage of getting more attention than they want. Men have the disadvantages of having it harder to find a partner, and getting less attention than they want; and the advantage of not getting more attention than they want. The only way for men to limit their disadvantage is to pursue women, which will inevitably sometimes lead to unwanted attention for women.

            And this is exactly why we ought to be united in our efforts to denormalize traditional gender roles in courtship.

          • oppressedminority says:

            And this is exactly why we ought to be united in our efforts to denormalize traditional gender roles in courtship.

            I find this attitude fascinating. Traditional gender roles in courtship didn’t come from panel recommendations of the Great Patriarchal Council. They evolved naturally from millions of years of natural selection. A man can procreate in 5 minutes, a woman in 9 months. A man can procreate until he’s 80+, most women can procreate up until 35-40. These and many other biological facts have shaped gender roles and to a large extent encoded these gender roles in our DNA.

            But wait! Feminist theory concocted 20 minutes ago by a bitter women’s studies professor says these gender roles are bad. Ok then, let’s use social pressure to counteract millions of years of evolution. This can only go well and if anybody object they are an anti-soviet saboteurs who will be sent to the gulags.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            They evolved naturally from millions of years of natural selection. A man can procreate in 5 minutes, a woman in 9 months. A man can procreate until he’s 80+, most women can procreate up until 35-40. These and many other biological facts have shaped gender roles and to a large extent encoded these gender roles in our DNA.

            There are a huge number of human behaviours that are the result of millions of years of natural selection, depend on biological facts about human beings, and are to some extent encoded in our DNA that we still rightly try and discourage using various social pressures.

            The comment you’re responding suggests denormalizing traditional roles for gender in courtship, which to my ears sounds like “encouraging women to ask guys on dates more”–I am not sure this is such a huge lift that it requires overcoming all of human evolutionary history to make it happen.

          • oppressedminority says:

            I am not sure this is such a huge lift that it requires overcoming all of human evolutionary history to make it happen.

            Fair point. But social norms which are in conflict with our biology will not work and be a constant uphill battle to maintain. Social norms can be devised which channel our biology AND fix some pathological behavior. These are typically not described as “denormalizing traditional gender roles” but maybe I’m misreading that phrase.

            For example, the biological need for hunting and war in men is largely channeled through sports and that has been hugely beneficial. The biology was not suppressed, but expressed differently. This is what we should aim for.

            Also, the phrase “denormalizing traditional gender roles” is a massive blue tribe signal which suggests antipathy towards normal male behavior and the suppressing thereof, not channeling it in a healthy way.

          • theredsheep says:

            Re: flirting as dominance game, I think that’s an understandable but incorrect generalization from experience. A while back a female friend of mine told me about having a random stranger ask her a weird personal question (he seemed to be trying to recruit for a religious singles group). She froze up, mumbled something and walked briskly away. I mentioned a wise-ass response she could have made, but it was pointed out to me that that would have risked having the conversation continue, and her chief desire was to end it and extract herself as totally and unequivocally as possible.

            I would have risked little by investigating; gay sexual assault is quite rare, and if push came to shove, literally, we would have been basically evenly matched. It’s much more threatening if you’re physically smaller and weaker than the other person, and are the penetrated/receptive partner in coitus. What if the guy gets angry? What if he follows you? What do you do then?

            If you have to make that sort of calculation somewhat regularly, it’s natural for you to assume, correctly or not, that the resulting discomfort and paranoia is intentional. Some men, for all I know, may actually do that, though I suspect that for most of us it’s a fairly unsophisticated interest-in-copulation survey.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @oppressedminority

            So, let’s say, for the sake of argument, you’re right. The way of life we already live is so astonishingly different from even 100 years ago, let alone the environment we spent a whole chunk of our history as a species in. Is changing one more thing gonna be what brings it all tumbling down? It just seems like a weird hill to die on.

        • albatross11 says:

          One problem with this is that I can think of several couples that met at work and are happily married/dating now. I’m not convinced that a “no flirting at work” rule could ever be enforced; I’m also not convinced that a “no dating coworkers” rule would remotely make the world a better place.

          Clear bright lines are good, but I suspect that the workable bright lines are going to be deeply imperfect. Some people will end up in romantic relationships with their coworkers or bosses; some people will try to end up in romantic relationships with their coworkers and bosses and things will not work well because they’re pushy or hamfisted or the other party doesn’t quite know how to say no; some people will have happy relationships that end badly and then try to use the rules to punish the no good bastard/bitch that broke up with them.

          • Lillian says:

            Rules against dating coworkers have been tried before, and largely ditched because they proved both unpopular and ineffective. How ineffective? Let me put it this way, my parents, my god parents, and my sister’s godparents all met and started dating while working for a large multinational company that had such a policy. In fact i’m pretty sure at least one of these three couples got married before the policy was rescinded. It was utterly unenforceable to the point that management couldn’t be bothered to even try so long as couples kept it professional in the workplace. Ultimately everyone knew who was dating who, and everyone studiously pretended not to notice.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            The goal isn’t and shouldn’t be “no dating coworkers.” It’s “no pressuring your subordinates into dating you.” Combined with “lower the frequency with which you ask your coworkers out to the level where your attractive coworkers can get through a workday without being asked out like eighteen times, because seriously it’s getting in the way of their performance.”

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            @Simon. It seems you’ve retreated from the bright line of no flirting at work to use a reasonable standard of what constitutes sexual harassment. Make no mistake, I agree with this retreat, because the bright line you used before was not enforceable and made work life worse, not better.

            But to get back to Scott’s posting, and Caplan’s comments before that: We can do the exact same thing with bosses being jerks. We should use a reasonable standard as to what constitutes a boss being a jerk. In my experience, bosses being a jerk in a non-sexual way is ten times more common than sexual harassment, and so should be ten times more actionable. Of course I am a male, so I am likely biased in this regard. I am kind of curious the proportions of sexual vs nonsexual jerkiness by bosses or peers. Not that women’s views should be the sole determining factor of what is actionable, but it should be accounted for at about 50%.

          • carvenvisage says:

            @Mark V Anderson. They never said no flirting at work

            “no initiating flirtation if you’re in a position of direct, substantial power over the person you’re flirting with.”

            Oh ho ho, retreating now are we…

            _

            It’s not precisely a definition of sexual harassment, but common sense and good taste should tell anyone that when you have someone in the palm of your hand that’s not the time to be sending subtle signals that you want something from them, especially considering the average boss is not a robotic automaton, and underlings may be used to picking up and catering on what the boss wants whether it’s articulate it 100.0% propositionally or more stumbling or gesturingly.

            _

        • benwave says:

          Aren’t juries routinely asked to make judgments of things which aren’t completely black and white right now? Was this premeditated? Were they in control of their faculties? Was this plausibly accidental? Does this constitute negligence or was it a reasonable mistake?

          I don’t really see any practical difficulties in adding Did this constitute an abuse of power? To that list.

          • John Schilling says:

            Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But if your plan is to drive some particular sort of crime or misbehavior into near-extinction by rigorous enforcement and effective deterrence, you can’t have that be one of the cases where you let juries decide the edge cases, because then there will be a huge pool of people who are visibly getting away with doing the forbidden thing and an even larger pool of potential offenders doing the math on “maybe I can get away with the forbidden thing too?”

            And other potential offenders doing the math, recognizing “they can do the forbidden thing because juries like them, but we can’t because they don’t” and wanting to tear the whole thing down.

            We never made a damn bit of progress against drunk driving so long as juries could decide that Bob wasn’t that drunk and he didn’t mean any harm and it was just two miles home down empty back streets. When the rules changed so that blowing >0.08 meant going to jail, period, drunk driving mostly went away.

            I await with morbid horror the equivalent of “>0.08” standard for illicit flirtation.

          • Randy M says:

            I think there is a difference there. the examples you list are of trying to deduce a mental state such that the defendant was aware or not aware of committing an illegal act. That’s different from trying to determine on which side of an ill-defined line behavior lies.

            It may be necessary to have laws like that (reminiscent of “I know pornography when I see it”) but it can’t be called a clear line.

          • John Schilling says:

            That’s different from trying to determine on which side of an ill-defined line behavior lies.

            How is drunk driving not an ill-defined behavior? “Drunk” is, in every context other than specifically and recently legal ones, inherently fuzzy. And the bit where we set an arbitrary metric as a proxy for the traditional concept of inebriation, we can do that for something as fuzzy as flirting as well.

          • Randy M says:

            I’m not sure if you realize I was responding to benwave or not. (I hadn’t refreshed when I posted, so your response wasn’t there)

            And the bit where we set an arbitrary metric as a proxy for the traditional concept of inebriation, we can do that for something as fuzzy as flirting as well.

            That 5-second staring rule might be difficult to enforce for other reasons, but I think we agree that norms are easier to enforce if you specify in advance what will be punished.

          • benwave says:

            @Randy M, Being aware of committing an illegal act does sound like it describes sexual harassment quite well to me actually. I highly doubt that people who commit sexual harassment are unaware of what they are doing. And with norms turning against acceptance of sexual harassment as they are, it will only become clearer. Victims will feel more able to clearly state that advances are unwelcome when norms support these statements actually working to end the situation.

          • Randy M says:

            Sexual harassment is not the same as flirting. Call it quibbling about word choice, but I was objecting to “flirting” being a clear and “not murky at all” category. I do think one person’s friendly may be another person’s flirting, and I think what is usually defined as harassment has passed out of the flirting category.

          • Aapje says:

            @Randy M

            what is usually defined as harassment has passed out of the flirting category.

            I think that there is substantial overlap in what some people see as harassment and what others see as flirting.

            This is especially true since some people believe in a “you should tell me if you don’t want this” model, while others believe that this is an unreasonable burden and believe that there are or should be fairly strict limits on how one may flirt. An issue with the latter stance is that different people prefer different limits & there is no societal authority to set a norm (like the church used to do).

          • brmic says:

            some people believe in a “you should tell me if you don’t want this”

            Do they? Or are they just careless at best and jerks at worst? I’m thinking of stuff like bagspreading or picking one’s nose in public and my personal desire to have the social norm be ‘make reasonable checks to figure out if what you’re doing is ok’ instead of ‘do what you want until someone complains’ because the latter puts an undue burden on everyone else.

          • Aapje says:

            @brmic

            The problem is that what is ‘reasonable’ is in fact highly subjective and culturally determined. Society is globalizing and atomizing & moral authorities like religion are being abandoned, which means that it’s becoming harder and harder to establish shared norms for all of society*.

            Establishing shared norms is a hard problem. I disagree with what you are doing: blaming individuals who don’t share your norms for being careless/jerks. It’s a rather narcissist viewpoint, which ignores that people with more strict norms than you, see you as careless/jerks.

            Having a society where people call everyone with looser norms jerks and everyone with stricter norms moralistic busybodies just creates bubbles of like-minded people, who get angry at everyone outside their bubble.

            * So you get situations like the couple who were prosecuted for having sex on the beach in Dubai. In that case, they ‘solved’ the cultural mismatch by giving the couple a much lesser sentence than a native and deporting them.

          • brmic says:

            @Aapje

            Yes, shared norms are hard, agreed.
            As for the carelessness/jerks and the narcissim, you’re assuming something I never said and extrapolating for no reason I can identify. To elaborate slightly, the actual model is closer to there being an expected behaviour and some slack for exposure to the expectations (class based, smarts based), some for (mental) resources, some for chance and other stuff. At the same time, there is a point where my (and AFAICT most people’s) social judgment works in a way that alternative explanations become unlikely and jerkness becomes the most likely explanation.
            So, bagspreading, totally fine is there’s enough room for everyone else, and also totally fine if one is so fascinated by one’s phone/book that one fails to notice the room is filling up. But if people visibly notice children/elderly people standing uncomfortably, then glance at their bag taking up space and then go back to reading, I don’t consider it a failure of charity on my part to assume they’re jerks.

            Back to “you should tell me if you don’t want this” in a flirting context. It’s now clear that a substantial subset of the population find’s this norm is not working for them. They’ve said so. And I hear a lot of people responding with, ok, how can we modify things so it works for both of us, and a vocal minority responding with ‘No, we believe in this other model and we shouldn’t have to change’. From my POV this can be anything from status-quo bias to a failure of empathy to jerkness. But, crucially, I believe “you should tell me if you don’t want this” is neither a standard we have as part of other social norms nor one we should want to have.

          • Aapje says:

            @brmic

            But if people visibly notice children/elderly people standing uncomfortably, then glance at their bag taking up space and then go back to reading, I don’t consider it a failure of charity on my part to assume they’re jerks.

            The problem with this assessment is that you are trying to read the minds of other people. Perhaps the person who is standing uncomfortably is doing so because of claustrophobia, not because they want to sit. Perhaps the person who looked up didn’t think that the person wanted to sit, but thought that the person looked thirsty and thought about getting something to drink from their bag, but decided against it.

            The lack of charity on your part is to see one single explanation of observed reality as being correct, rather than to recognize that you may be wrong.

            Such a lack of charity can be fairly accurate if society pounds social norms in people’s heads and forces conformity, but it is not very compatible with diversity of beliefs, behaviors, etc (and also not very compatible with people whose brains works a little differently).

            Of course, you may consider the benefits to be worth the costs, but the cost is not just to jerks. There are disproportionate costs to black people, foreigners, autistics, etc.

            And I hear a lot of people responding with, ok, how can we modify things so it works for both of us, and a vocal minority responding with ‘No, we believe in this other model and we shouldn’t have to change’. From my POV this can be anything from status-quo bias to a failure of empathy to jerkness.

            It can also be that the demand is one-sided and puts a outsized burden on the criticized person. This is especially common in complaints by women, who frequently seem to have very little understanding of the dating situation for men.

            Furthermore, it is also quite common for there to be a spectrum of demands, with some people demanding that superiors don’t flirt with those over which they have power, others demanding that no one flirts on the job, a third group demanding that flirting is limited to dating locations, a fourth group demanding that people only approach people they’ve known for a longer time and others who see all approaches by men as abusive due to the patriarchal power that men have. So if one tries to yield to all those demands, you get the story of Scott Aaronson, who saw no way to live his life as a (functioning) man and became intent on getting himself castrated.

          • 10240 says:

            @brmic Your suggestions for norms are reasonable if what we mean is that you get a bad reputation if you seem to repeatedly disregard other people’s feelings and make them uncomfortable. They are not reasonable if what we mean is that one can sue the company for hundreds of thousands of dollars if your norms are not respected (forcing companies to fire people for even lesser offences to ensure that an actionable violation doesn’t happen). People’s verbal social interactions are just not something the government should be involved in; or even something we should have bright-line norms around such that one offense is a categorical disqualification from certain positions.
            It also seems to me that there is a push to align norms to the most sensitive individuals.

          • brmic says:

            The problem with this assessment is that you are trying to read the minds of other people.
            Yes, obviously. Are you trying to sell me the notion that you don’t? You don’t consider mens rea, your mental model of the world has zero internal states of other people, everyone’s just black boxes with inputs and outputs?

            lack of charity on your part is to see one single explanation of observed reality as being correct, rather than to recognize that you may be wrong.
            I’ve explicitly stated I consider alternative explanations which in particular, concrete situations seem highly unlikely. That implies residual uncertainty. Please stop and consider carefully why you seem to have trouble taking note of this, when I make every effort to explain it to you. For where I’m standing you seem to be very determined to win something by repeatedly misrepresenting what I say and what’s moreover tangential to my original point.

            It can also be that the demand is one-sided and puts a outsized burden on the criticized person. This is especially common in complaints by women, who frequently seem to have very little understanding of the dating situation for men.

            Yes, but there’s a simple solution: We can evaluate the claim without having to resort to hypotheticals and statements about women in general. In this case: Is having to wait for a positive response (instead of assuming such until told otherwise) or asking explicit questions an undue burden. It’s not.

            Re: Your four groups: That’s what the public conversation is about: Which of these positions is the norm, which should it be, what are the pros and cons.

            I have a lot of empathy for Scott Aaronson, but I view his misery as mostly self-inflicted and a failure of local support networks, hence not a good example of anything beyond the personal.

          • Randy M says:

            I think that there is substantial overlap in what some people see as harassment and what others see as flirting.

            There is, but unless my understanding of the word flirt is atypical, the central cases are at least as far apart as flirting is from perfectly innocuous behavior.

          • Aapje says:

            @brmic

            In this case: Is having to wait for a positive response (instead of assuming such until told otherwise) or asking explicit questions an undue burden. It’s not.

            Quite a few of the objections about male behavior are about explicit questions that are considered inappropriate or undesired. In some cases, the woman seems to want the man to first try to flirt to see if she is interested, in a way that allows for subtle rebuffs or acceptance.

            So your proposal doesn’t actually solve the issue, it just make the people who prefer guess culture upset.

            Furthermore, whether it is an undue burden depends on whether women are far less likely to respond to directness. As far as I can tell, quite a few women dislike directness. So if a man becomes more direct, he may, depending on the culture of the women he likes and/or is around, greatly reduce his chances, so the detriment of himself and the women who would otherwise like him.

            My point is that you seem to believe in a silver bullet, where we have a chaotic situation with a great variety of preferences and no mechanism to make people align their behavior and preferences with a single solution.

          • Aapje says:

            @Randy M

            As I argued elsewhere, the central cases are used as a lever to push through far more objectionable rules.

            I’m absolutely supportive of going after people who secretly give drugs to people, who rape, who extort sex from people, etc.

          • Aapje says:

            Note that you can see this happening with Yudkowsky right now. Apparently he is abusing his power, even though he has no formal power relationship with the people he is supposedly taking advantage of.

  12. brmic says:

    The bright-line counter is certainly part of the answer, but IMHO it accords Caplan’s cherry picked examples and his baseless extrapolation too much respect. His post uses 4 examples, picks two root causes from his posterior and a paragraph later assures readers he has identified the standard targetting system for human negativity. This is nonsense, an intellectual failure that should be embarrassing to anyone over 25*.
    The bright-line argument IMHO only marginally improves on that in that it also offers a one-true-cause narrative. A better one, but still very far from the complexity you get when you consider (a) there are different moral systems (b) people are inconsistent and biased in general and rely on heuristics (c) limited information and attentional ressources and (d) social dynamics and (e) strategic concerns. At minumum.
    Moreover, Caplan hasn’t even made the case that deploring is arbitrary. For that he’d have to show essentially a zero correlation between amount of deploring (measured how? negative sentiments on twitter?) and … well, it’s not exactly clear. ‘Seriousness of various offenses’, ‘comparable badness’ are offered, so suppose we agreed that that’s the same and we could measure it by … expert consensus? Caplan’s ratings? Whatever. I submit nobody believes we’d find people in general can’t tell the difference between Assad and Weinstein.

    This would be flogging a dead horse, were it not for the consequence that your argument for a focus on the Uighurs, while persuasive has no normative force. You offer a good reason to care about this, but if we believe that bright-line-violation is not the only or most important reason to condemn something (and as I’ve argued, we should believe that) we shouldn’t accord the fact that the Uighur situation is a bright line violation any more importance than we would accord this aspect in other cases.

    * Without even getting to stuff like his substitution of ‘upset’ for ‘deploring’ when he needs to make a point he otherwise couldn’t make.

  13. Ketil says:

    Some reasons for choosing to support this cause over that:

    Narratives, not statistics. I think there is clear evidence that people respond to narratives, and that a a picture of a single dead refugee is more powerful than a picture of several. Millions of dead and millions of refugees in Syria is just a statistic, evocative stories about children being choked by gas is more livid.

    Kicking the dog and good vs evil. We have collectively decided that some behaviors are inherently evil. Sensibly, any weapon can be used for good (arguably Hiroshima ended the war). But when somebody kicks a dog, we know he is the villain, and likewise with using chemical weapons, sexual harassment, etc. Accusing someone of such actions is a way of painting them as the evil part, and among other things, alienating them from potential allies. Being a jerk is not sufficient, people still admire Steve Jobs for his merits, but it is impossible to say anything positive about Weinstein.

    Empowerment and victimology. By pointing to evil actions by others against yourself, you gather sympathy for yourself, and possibly a feeling of righteousness, and opens up avenues for revenge, e.g. the recent post here about progressives being attacked for not being welcoming enough for disabled persons – which appeared to really be thinly veiled retaliation for some previous slight.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “Narratives, not statistics. I think there is clear evidence that people respond to narratives, and that a a picture of a single dead refugee is more powerful than a picture of several. Millions of dead and millions of refugees in Syria is just a statistic, evocative stories about children being choked by gas is more livid.”

      This seems wrong – a story about a kid getting shot by a gun in Syria is also pretty lurid, and the only way I’ve heard about chemical weapons is dry “30 people were killed by a gas attack at such and such a place” factoids.

  14. Jack V says:

    Good point.

    I think both are true, that humans DO often get outraged about something just because they happened to notice this particular thing, but that they also do what you said (and your explanation seems true for these particular cases).

    I’m also not completely convinced by the “why is everyone making a fuss about sexual assault” thing. I think people DO think that’s bad, even if lots of people previously overlooked it. When someone’s sent to jail, people make ‘jokes’ about ‘don’t drop the soap’ not ‘don’t become hair-trigger violent even if it’s the only way to survive’ or ‘don’t lose your sense of self because you get treated like a farm animal by the guards’ even if those a really serious problems.

  15. P. George Stewart says:

    “people get upset over the violation of already-settled bright-line norms, because this is the correct action if you want to use limited enforcement resources efficiently.”

    Yes exactly. The baffled autism Caplan shows here is quite typical for certain rationalist types. The wider picture always has to take into account societal norms, their costs and benefits vs. other factors, etc. What’s important is not just individual rational decisions, but Kantian generalisability, evolutionary psychology factors – the social glue and social bonding, the (costly) maintenance of the social fabric that sets the stage for individual decisions. And when the rationalist Left is wrong vs. the traditionalist Right, it’s often wrong for want of understanding this (in all sorts of areas of normativity) – although of course it can sometimes go the other way, and a tradition simply be useless even after deep investigation.

    This is also why race realism is at the bottom of the bottle. The overall tendencies set by biology set the stage for the overall tendencies set by culture, which set the stage for individual rationality.

    • Yaleocon says:

      The tactlessness of criticizing “rationalist types” for “baffled autism” is staggering. You might think “autism” is a fitting and humorous term for a certain oversimplifying tendency. You might think accusations of “ableism” are categorically nonsense. You might even be right—but if people reading your comment disagree on either count, they will not listen to what you have to say. Know your audience.

      As for the substance of your comment: how does “Kantian generalisability” fit with race-realist evo-psych? That’s a jarring fusionist take that I have not heard before. And I don’t think you should be as sold on biological determinism at the cultural level as you seem to be.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        Eh, as I was reading Scott’s summary, I thought “well, Caplan is autistic, just doesn’t understand the rules, and wants them explained.”

        And then Scott does a very nice job explaining the rules.

        Which is great, because normally when autistic people ask “why is this thing taboo?” they get a giant pile of shit dumped on them. Because “why is this thing taboo?” is also a tactic used by concern trolls or by people trying to break the taboo. But genuinely autistic people honestly want the reasoning discussed.

        I’m not diagnosed but am probably slightly autistic, so I appreciate that there are kind of safe-space for autistic people to be asking these questions.

  16. Big Jay says:

    China has its own strong norms against letting Westerners push them around.

    • marshwiggle says:

      This. Very much this. Given the history of Westerners interacting with China, that is understandable.

      To be clear, I do not want to downplay the horrible human rights abuses in China. But when Scott links to actions against China that would supposedly do good, but would in reality most probably do great harm? Perhaps we should delve into the history of Western interaction with China.

  17. elliot teperman says:

    I think a competing (or complementary) theory is that, evolutionarily, morality arrived in human sized parcels, not act sized parcels. We do not judge an act based on how bad it is, but by what it tells us about the actor.

    Here are two papers that I think argue this really well:
    http://socialjudgments.com/docs/Tannebaum_Uhlmann_Diermeier.2011.pdf
    http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.884.3111&rep=rep1&type=pdf

    From the first paper:
    “Strong moral reactions can occur when relatively harmless acts provide highly diagnostic information about moral character. Studies 1a and 1b first demonstrate dissociation between moral evaluations of persons and their actions—although violence toward a human was viewed as a more blameworthy act than violence toward an animal, the latter was viewed as more revealing of bad moral character.”

  18. Tarpitz says:

    Let us allow that the Uighur situation is indeed a bright line violation and we should care a lot about keeping this line bright.

    Now consider the possibility that we have no capacity whatsoever to influence the Chinese government in this matter.

    Might it not perhaps be better to talk about the case as little as possible, and to downplay it in an attempt to make it appear plausibly on the other side of the line when we are forced to talk about it, in order to preserve the appearance of the line’s inviolability for cases we can influence?

    NB. I’m not actually entirely convinced by this – it may be that the right strategy is vocal but powerless protest to stave off charges of hypocrisy – but it seems important to talk about the case where the mugger is the Senator’s nephew, or some such, as potentially distinct.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      The problem is that people who actually DO have a special privilege that lets them ignore the ‘inviolable’ line (like “I’m a senator’s nephew” or “I’m a government too rich and powerful to be pressured by Western human rights groups”) tend to realize this.

      What you’re proposing is to trick people who actually have a privilege into thinking they don’t, and that they will be unable to get away with behaviors they actually can get away with.

      This does not, on the whole, work very well.

      • Tarpitz says:

        I feel like one of us is misunderstanding the other.

        What I am suggesting is that there are cases in which some offenders cannot be deterred from or meaningfully punished for offending, and will therefore continue to offend regardless of what we do.

        The question is what approach to these offenders will have the best impact on the offenders we can influence. Is it a more effective deterrent to ordinary muggers if we publicly deplore the Senator’s nephew while acknowledging that we can’t do anything about him, or if we endeavour to prevent them from ever learning of his unpunishable muggery?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      This is why I linked to a specific proposal for how to influence the Chinese government, using tactics that get used all the time and wouldn’t be very surprising to them.

      I doubt they would work that well, but at least they would be a mild inconvenience and keep everyone aware that doing this incurs some cost and gets people’s attention.

      • Tarpitz says:

        That’s rather the point though, surely? Neither of us thinks the tactics realistically available to the West would be likely to succeed in changing China’s behaviour, so the question becomes whether it’s better line-maintenance practice to publicly deplore the behaviour while acknowledging our powerlessness or to attempt to prevent knowledge of the behaviour from spreading.

        • carvenvisage says:

          There’s some truth in that, but china is also china (and recognisably so).

          If O’Shea the blacksmiths son is a right brooding bastard who’ll brook no harsh words from his fellow villagers, letting the king bark a “you there boy” without violence might diminish his standing, -and maybe that’ll prove fatal in the long run to this enterprise of his, but the villagers won’t mistake themselves for the king, and if he makes some nominal reply, perhaps there’ll be no diminishing at all.

          It’s certainly not a direct analogy- in this picturesque case it’s a question of being under someone’s power rather than lacking the power to compel them, and so a nominal reply would be a far more costly signal, but hopefully it still illustrates how if an agent won’t take a path with no hope of success, that doesn’t diminish their status/commitment for others the same as a failure to act in more actionable circumstances would. (and how this can be partial rather than complete action can be better for this purpose than none at all.)

  19. sty_silver says:

    I think what’s missing here is a sharp destinction of what’s being argued. Is the point of dispute really the reason for why we do things as we do? If yes I don’t think this post does a great job arguing for it. But if the point of dispute is whether our current way of doing things is stupid and harmful, then I think this is fairly convincing. The second one is also the more important question.

    If it is the first, then there is only an implicit argument here: what we do is good -> well, if it’s good that’s probably the reason why we do it. But that conclusion doesn’t seem trivial.

  20. zima says:

    I agree that bright-line rules are good, but this argument doesn’t explain why bright-line rules are so frequently targeted against the lesser evil. It can’t be that it’s easier to have a bright-line rule against the lesser evil, because for some of Caplan’s analogies, it seems far easier to make a bright-line rule against the greater evil (never use nuclear weapons is an easier bright-line rule than never intentionally kill civilians, since there is wiggle room about what counts as intentional, and never have immigration restrictions is an easier bright-line rule than never have racially discriminatory laws, as people argue about whether laws are racially discriminatory all the time). And I also disagree that don’t sexually harass is any less vague than don’t be a jerk. There are examples of obvious sexual harassment just like examples of obviously being a jerk, but there is a ton of gray area too, especially since the same behavior can count as sexual harassment or not depending entirely on unstated views of the recipient. And there also doesn’t seem to be a bright line one could draw between China’s acts towards the Uighurs and the way we kidnapped people on flimsy pretexts during the war on terror and kept them at secret prisons or Guantanamo. It seems to be a matter of degree, and China could even argue that what we did was worse because we did it to foreigners and not just our own citizens.

    • slightlylesshairyape says:

      Part of the reason that bright line rules end up targeted against the lesser evil is that for taboo to work, you have to be able to actually accomplish it. In the mugging example, it was possible to make mugging rare enough to establish the taboo in the first place.

      Riffing on a different example, chemical weapons are banned but landmines and cluster bombs aren’t. Part of this is that it’s just not possible to get everyone to give up cluster bombs and so the space of “achievable taboo” does not include cluster bombs.

      So it’s not that they are intentionally targeting the lesser evil, it’s that the intersection of achievable taboos and evil things is not exactly aligned with evilness.

    • Big Jay says:

      Also note that we rarely pay attention to taboos that accurately target the greater evil.

  21. rahien.din says:

    Caplan’s claim in all these examples is “A greater aggregate number of people have been harmed by X than by Y, therefore, any instance of X is worse than any instance of Y.” That’s not a valid move. You can’t make inferences about a single instance by comparing simple aggregate sums.

    For instance :

    X : a cow
    Y : a grizzly bear
    About 20 people are killed by cows per year, whereas about 1 person is killed by a bear. Therefore it is 20 times as dangerous to be near a cow than it is to be near a grizzly bear.

    X : a hammer
    Y : an electrified wire
    If this estimate is correct, about 2 people are killed by accidental electrocution every year, whereas 400-500 are killed by blunt objects such as hammers. Therefore a hammer is probably much more dangerous than an electrified wire.

    X : the flu
    Y : Ebola
    About 4,800 people were killed by Ebola in the 2016 Liberian outbreak. About 375,000 people are killed by the flu every year. Therefore it is more dangerous to get the flu than it is to contract Ebola.

    X : getting in Ted Bundy’s car
    Y: getting in your own car
    A vastly greater number of people have been killed after getting in their own cars than the number of those killed after getting in Ted Bundy’s car. Therefore, getting in Ted Bundy’s car is far less dangerous than getting in your own.

    • thevoiceofthevoid says:

      I don’t think you’re entirely correct with these analogies; Caplan’s main examples don’t really fit the pattern you describe of a less dangerous thing being more common than a more dangerous thing. His first hypothetical is a single boss who abuses his employees non-sexually, supposedly personally causing more harm than someone committing mild sexual harassment. His second example is the Syrian government killing more people with conventional weapons than with biological weapons. Even in the former example where the whole problem would probably consist of multiple such bosses, he still seems to be comparing individual cases.

      You’ve pointed out an important fallacy, but I don’t think that’s quite what’s going on here.

      • rahien.din says:

        I am entirely confused by your reply. Syria killing more people with conventional weapons than with chemical weapons is exactly and precisely a very-bad-thing being less common than a not-as-bad-thing. A boss being a jerk to a whole bunch of employees but only sexually harassing a handful of employees is exactly and precisely a very-bad-thing being less common than a not-as-bad-thing.

        My point, as stated above, is : you can’t make inferences about a single instance by comparing simple aggregate sums.

        When Caplan says “How arbitrary that we deplore chemical weapons! So many more people are killed by conventional weapons!” he is comparing bears to cows. “How arbitrary that we are more frightened of bears than cows! So many more people are killed by cows!” Utterly stupid.

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          I’m with thevoice on this one. Your analogies are all about things may be considered more dangerous because you are more likely to be killed if around them, even though you are around them less often, and so total deaths are lower. It is more dangerous to be around a bear than a cow because a higher percentage of people around bears get killed than around cows.

          I don’t see how this relates to poison gas vs. conventional arms. Gas is no more dangerous than bullets. And even if it was, that is irrelevant to Caplan’s point. He wants to minimize deaths. If you want to minimize deaths around large animals, it might make more sense to focus on cows than bears.

  22. ksdale says:

    I just keep thinking that 20 or 30 years ago, a lot of the sexual harassment would have been dismissed in the same way Scott is dismissing other bad behavior by powerful people.

    jerkishness is too vague a concept, there’s too much of it around, and it’s just not really an enforceable norm.

    I feel like I could totally imagine someone making the same argument about much behavior that is now definitely considered sexual harassment.

    And I think there’s a thread through all of Bryan’s writing that point out exactly this about a million issues. That people are terrible at comparing the effects of different actions. Some of the comments have dismissed Bryan and somewhat naive and that this is just how people think, but I’m not sure most people believe they think that way, I find it just as plausible that most people think they know how bad things are and that they care about the most important stuff.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      Yes. But since we don’t have Q-like power to snap our fingers and make everyone suddenly start following exactly the set of beautiful high-trust low-conflict high-conscientiousness norms we’d like…

      Well, we have to start somewhere. “Don’t fuck your employees” is an easy norm to establish, and we have to start somewhere, so why not start there?

      • ksdale says:

        I’m not sure “Don’t emotionally abuse your employees” would be that much more difficult of a norm to establish. It’s not exactly a magical beautiful high-trust low-conflict high-conscientiousness norm, we already expect that behavior out of parents towards children, teachers toward students, strangers toward each other…

        • Simon_Jester says:

          Parent-child relationships are supposed to be high-trust, low-conflict and high-conscientiousness, at least from the parent’s side. Deviations from this supposition are generally interpreted as “parenting, you’re doing it wrong.” Teacher-student relationships, likewise.

          And bluntly, “don’t emotionally abuse the other person in your interaction” is NOT a universally accepted norm for stranger-stranger interactions, as demonstrated by all the strangers you’ve taken emotional abuse from.

          Furthermore, we have to consider ease of excluding the behavior. It’s easy to exclude sexuality from supervisor-employee relationships, because sexuality isn’t inherent to the nature of the relationship. But consider some of the things that are thus inherent:

          -Coercion (“do this or I will cause suffering for you”)
          -Having detail’s of one’s dress, demeanor, and personal organization manipulated and managed.
          -Being treated as replaceable if one fails to ‘measure up.’
          -Having a one-way relationship in which one and only one party has the right to issue orders.

          All these things can easily be emotional abuse between friends or relatives, but are usually present in an employer-employee relationship. Even if boss and worker are on good terms, the fact remains that the entire working relationship is based on an unspoken premise of ‘do as I say consistently, or else.’

          So it’s hard to come up with a defintion of emotional abuse that clearly excludes everything it’s meant to.

          • Aapje says:

            It’s easy to exclude sexuality from supervisor-employee relationships, because sexuality isn’t inherent to the nature of the relationship.

            That is a peculiar definition of ‘easy,’ which fails to appreciate human nature.

    • Yaleocon says:

      Sexual harassment is still a vague concept. We’ve just decided that there are forms of it that are so egregious, and some horrible people whose transgressions are enabled by its tolerance, that we ought to do… something.

      At what point does asking someone on a date constitute harassment? How much staring is inappropriate? (Five seconds, was it?) How do you quantify “creepy”? And what happens if you cast too wide a net, and end up punishing socially awkward innocents? For that matter, people are often willing to tolerate the same thing better from an attractive person than an unattractive one; punishing “creepiness” will hurt people who are unattractive through no fault of their own.

      It’s still unclear where to draw the lines. Sexual harassment is still incredibly vague. But we’ve decided that in its worse forms, it’s so bad that we have to do something. And if you want to know where Caplan fucks up, it’s that people aren’t saying a creepy boss is worse than Ace Boss from Hell. They’re saying Weinstein is worse.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “I just keep thinking that 20 or 30 years ago, a lot of the sexual harassment would have been dismissed in the same way Scott is dismissing other bad behavior by powerful people.”

      Yes, and before the police inexplicably managed to get extra resources to keep muggings down, it wouldn’t have made sense to target mugging as a taboo. Once a consensus exists for some reason, it’s worth building upon it.

      • Randy M says:

        Yes, and before the police inexplicably managed to get extra resources to keep muggings down, it wouldn’t have made sense to target mugging as a taboo.

        Do you mean to use taboo there? Police aren’t used to enforce taboos, they are used to enforce laws. Taboos are enforced by confronting, shaming, shunning, etc. They require coordination to enforce effectively, but not necessarily resources (although it could cause economic friction, granted.)

      • gbdub says:

        Once a consensus exists for some reason

        Rarely does a consensus just spring into being for “some reason”. Usually it involves a lot of people pushing to make their view into the consensus. Someone saying, hey, this thing that we don’t think is bright-line bad? It’s actually just as bad as this thing that IS bright-line bad, and we should focus on it too. Which is what Caplan is saying!

        Sometimes it might make sense to arbitrarily focus on one problem while mostly ignoring an equally bad problem, because you don’t have unlimited resources. But that’s a special case.

        It’s not clear that our ability to do something about Syria barrel bombing civilians is substantially less than our ability to do something about Syrian use of chemical weapons. We’ve got a lot of Tomahawks.

        And it’s not clear that we really are limited from doing more about non-sexual workplace bullies. Twitter mobs are cheap (prosecutions aren’t, but most of the scalps claimed by #MeToo aren’t going to get prosecuted).

        Even if we really do have only the resources to tackle one issue, if the only deciding factor is which one has a stronger “consensus” against it, then I think it’s entirely valid to make an argument that our consensus is clouded by irrationally deploring certain harm types over others and that the consensus ought to shift to tackling the other harm.

        In your mugging/burglary example, “we should devote equal resources to eliminating burglaries and mugging” is a bad position (but only because of the unique circumstances). But “hey, I get that everyone is more afraid of being mugged,, but it turns out the average mugging victim loses only $100 while the average burglary victim loses at least $1000, so let’s focus on burglaries instead” is a perfectly legitimate position.

        • ksdale says:

          You described my beliefs far more eloquently than I could have.

          The consensus against sexual harassment seemed to snap into existence almost overnight.

          I feel like a similar consensus could form about anything, at anytime, and the cost of maintaining the consensus is the cost of something spreading virally around FB.

          Under these circumstances it seems perfectly valid to suggest other consensuses that would produce good.

          • 10240 says:

            “The consensus against sexual harassment seemed to snap into existence almost overnight.”

            If you are referring to the metoo movement, I’m not buying it. In the US, hostile workplace environment (i.e. sexual harassment) law has been in place, and has been applied (over)broadly, at least since the 90s. As far as I recall, individual sexual harassment allegations caused scandals, and significant career damage to the perpetrators, way before the last year. The metoo scandals blew up exactly because the norms had already been in place, and I’m not sure if it significantly changed the norms at all.

          • SEE says:

            The consensus against sexual harassment didn’t snap into existence overnight. It was carefully built up over a number of years (theoretical foundations in the 1970s, legal foundations and test cases in the 1980s, public efforts made against Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood in the early 1990s). It was put into cryostasis regarding famous persons just as soon as it would be inconvenient for Hillary Clinton (see Gloria Steinem’s 22 March 1998 NYT op/ed declaring that an uninvited fondling of a breast isn’t harassment if the man desists when the woman says “no”). And it was revived just as soon as it wouldn’t be inconvenient for Hillary Clinton (immediately after she lost the 2016 election and any likelihood of ever contending again).

          • gbdub says:

            Thank you for the praise, but I think you’re misinterpreting me. I think consensus takes a long time, and deliberate effort, to build. It doesn’t spring up overnight. What can happen pretty quickly is the shift from “lots of people believe it relatively quietly” to “the open consensus”. Which seems to be what happened wrt Hollywood sex abuse and on a larger / longer scale with gay rights.

            Either way though, the conclusion is the same – Caplan is reasonable to suggest we shift our priorities because he’s trying to start a new consensus.

          • gbdub says:

            @SEE and @10240 – I agree. The growth of the consensus against sexual harassment at work goes back much longer. Long enough at least that jokes about overbearing HR departments forcing absurd levels of PC on their employees were popular in the 90s.

            What was new about #metoo was that a bunch of old dirt on really big Hollywood (and general media) names came out all at once when it became safe and politically expedient for it to do so. But mostly this wasn’t typical “workplace sexual harassment”, this was straight up criminal sexual behavior that was (is) apparently pervasive in Hollywood.

            Then #metoo morphed into a bunch of regular women talking about the much more common sort of low intensity harassment / unwanted sexual attention they face daily. Cynically, I tend to think this was pushed by the media as a distraction from how uniquely awful Hollywood culture is. For a group of people who has a whole season dedicated to self-preening about how smart beautiful brave and progressive they all are, it was necessary to deflect the conversation into how the whole world was horrible and Harvey Weinstein is just the inevitable result of toxic masculinity rather than a uniquely Hollywood monster.

          • J Mann says:

            @gbdub – IMHO, the big shift with #metoo was a shift in evidentiary requirements. It’s not just that pressuring people into having sex with you was wrong, it’s also that based on credible accusations, you should be removed from your job rather than given the benefit of the doubt. That’s something that advocates had been pressing for for a while, but was set back by the Rolling Stone UVa story, then really broke through with Cosby and Weinstein.

          • gbdub says:

            Were evidentiary standards in workplace harassment cases ever that high? I always got the impression that a serious accusation was going to be enough to derail your career. Not that it didn’t shift at all – there definitely seemed to be a race to prove how swiftly and utterly you could destroy the accused’s career after an accusation – but some of that I think is also unique to the media where all the people involved were public figures and the court of public opinion / Twitter mobs got involved.

          • brmic says:

            @JMann
            it’s also that based on credible accusations, you should be removed from your job rather than given the benefit of the doubt.

            I wouldn’t put it like that. Speaking for me personally, it made me realize that sufficiently credible accusations are sufficient reason to come to a personal judgement and non-legal consequences in much the same way that a suspect caught red handed is technically still presumed to be innocent until after the trial, but for all non-legal purposes we can treat him/her as guilty. I also don’t object to people losing their job after being credibly accused of workplace theft, even if ultimately the matter doesn’t go to court or there’s not enough evidence to convict.
            I personally came to the conclusion, that I was applying much stricter standards to sexual harrassment and that that was an unjust burden on actual victims. So I updated away from that.

          • J Mann says:

            @brmic – thanks, and sorry if I was leaving that connotation out. I’m not sure I agree completely, (I’ve been involved in some non-sexual workplace investigations, and in my experience, there’s a lot of concern about not firing someone unjustly), but I’ll give it some thought.

  23. cubex says:

    Could it be a simple matter of what percentage of people falls into the deplorable category? In the My Lai vs Hiroshima comparison, one difference Caplan fails to mention is that the commanders of the Enola Gay had authorization all the way up to the president to massacre a city, whereas Captain Medina probably did not have such permission to massacre a village. If we were to proportionately deplore Hiroshima, we’d need to effectively deplore an entire nation, which is harder for most to swallow than deploring a company of soldiers.

    In the Hollywood shakeup, I expect there’s been a growing confidence that, while they had been widely tolerated in the industry, sexual harassers are a small enough minority to safely eliminate. Truly awful asshole bosses might also be in the minority, but I suspect that if they’re backed up by kinda-asshole bosses (worried they might be next) they would form a much stronger coalition. And besides, the public can tolerate a few shows being cancelled, but what if it was, say a third of them? I suspect we’d make some excuse like: you have to be difficult, driven, and uncompromising to create great art, so we’ll allow it.

    This is hardly specific to the passions of the mob, because you can see a similar effect when government makes the rules. By all strictly legal criteria, alcohol and tobacco should be on Schedule I in the US, but their users form too large of a coalition to ban them outright. On the other end of the spectrum, a drug like 2C-B (to pick something with minimal political baggage) is arguably safer and less addictive than either, but has few enough users to outlaw it with no backlash.

    I think you could predict these “arbitrary” decisions simply by estimating the number of people in the category, plus the number of people who think the behavior is acceptable in the abstract, plus the number of people who know they know someone in the category, and who think highly of that person. If that number is lower than some tipping point threshold (say 25%), the group is in danger of being deplored, and otherwise they’re likely to be considered socially acceptable. Groups can cross that threshold going down, like sexual harassers and racists, or cross it going up, like gay people and marijuana users.

  24. xXxanonxXx says:

    I skimmed most of the comments on that previous thread and most people seemed to be protesting that the real taboo is “don’t put members of my in group or far group in concentration camps”, not that concentration camps in general shouldn’t be taboo.

  25. slightlylesshairyape says:

    If there are some forms of atrocity that are easier with chemical weapons than with conventional ones […] then the taboo against chemical weapons saves lives.

    This is not the justification for the taboo against chemical weapons though. It’s not about saving lives by increasing the cost of atrocities. That is, even if chemical weapons were in all cases more expensive than the equivalent conventional method, the taboo would remain.

    The stated rationale for the ban is that gassing is ‘uncivilized’ (the kind of thing that Churchill would do to the Kurds) and causes significant suffering and maimed/blind soldiers rather than just dead ones. If we’re permitted to be a bit more cynical, the ban is possible because chemical weapons just aren’t that effective against an actual army (the plot of Wonder Woman notwithstanding), and the worlds leading powers really don’t mind banning weapons that aren’t very good at war. Meanwhile land mines and cluster bombs are useful and so remain unstigmatized (or partially stigmatized).

    What gas is sorta-good for is terrorizing unarmed civilians or a vastly inferior force. The Italians used it against the Ethiopians during their colonial war. (Amusingly enough, they also used hollow point bullets, also banned, but contra-contra-Caplan, it’s really hard to get people worked up about using the wrong kind of bullet in a war rather than using poisonous gas). And with the taboo against it firmly established, it gains a new use in the meta-taboo game where Assad can demonstrate that he is beyond taboo and cannot be controlled by international opinion.

    That all said, you aren’t really wrong about the mechanism of taboo enforcement and disproportionate response. To me, that’s somewhat orthogonal to the etiology of a particular taboo. For instance, the cynical might believe that mugging in particular is targeted because it terrifies the affluent more so than having their house robbed while they are off to Paris, but could still sign on to your explanation of the dynamic of stigmatizing it.

  26. Nabil ad Dajjal says:

    Isn’t this exactly the reasoning that you explicitly reject whenever you say that chairs kill more people every year than Islamists?

    This reminds me of your post on how monogamy is really just boilerplate and cheating on your spouse is the norm. You seem to have an incredibly self-serving idea of what is or isn’t a norm. You are blasé about normalizing horrific violence directed towards host populations and about undermining the norms which their families and communities are built on. But even the mildest measures to hold minority populations accountable for their behavior is beyond the pale.

    If you can’t find it within yourself to give a crap when westerners are victims of Muslim mass murder and mass rape within our own home countries, then don’t expect us to be outraged by the comparatively much better behavior of the Chinese towards their rebellious Muslim population.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      Isn’t this exactly the reasoning that you explicitly reject whenever you say that chairs kill more people every year than Islamists?

      Who’s “you” in this post?

      Because Scott spent the entire rest of that blog post past the first paragraph deconstructing arguments of the form “shark attacks have killed more people than terrorists in the past five years, so we shouldn’t be more worried about terrorists than about sharks.”

      Mainly because, he pointed out, shark attacks have a fairly predictable death toll every year, which is unlikely to suddenly surge by two or three orders of magnitude because of a Very Bad Year. We ‘have the measure of’ the risk due to shark attacks, and we don’t need to keep constantly stressing about shark attacks out of proportion to the number of people who die to them year by year. Likewise for car accidents, smoking, child malnutrition in the Third World, and other things that kill many people.

      On the other hand, disastrous events like asteroid impacts, flu pandemics, terrorist attacks, and earthquakes tend to kill very few people in most years, then suddenly kill thousands or millions. So averaging over short timescales, or ignoring the possibility of major disastrous events that haven’t happened yet but could happen later, is dishonest when talking about the death toll associated with such things.

      We HAVE to worry ‘disproportionately’ about such events, because otherwise we won’t be able to take preventative steps or prepare for when the Big One hits. Giant asteroid impacts don’t kill anybody, until abruptly they kill everybody, and the only way to prevent them from killing everyone is to prepare in advance during years when they’re not doing any harm to anyone.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Right now governments spend on the order of $1 billion per life to prevent deaths due to Islamic terrorism, and generously a few thousand dollars per life to prevent deaths due to chairs.

      Without endorsing the exact numbers, I agree that there should be a disproportion. What do you think we disagree on?

      (I would add that I’m not sure this model in particular applies to Islamic terrorism, since most terrorists are suicide bombers and so punishment isn’t really an option)

      I’m sure I’ve written much more about terrorism than I have about the Uighurs, but I’m not sure this was principled of me. ~100 Western lives per year taken by terrorists (with ~1 billion or so spent to prevent each, and with the long-tail risk mentioned in the above post taken into account) compared to a few hundred thousand Uighurs incarcerated. If getting incarcerated for a few months is 1% as bad as dying, these are possibly equal problems, with the terrorism one getting infinitely more attention and resources. Even if we agree to some finite multiplier based on the terrorism one happening closer to us and being our countrymen, this still seems disproportionate.

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        Our disagreement is that you oppose terrorism in theory but in practice oppose any method to employed to fight terrorism even more strongly.

        The Uyghers are a good example. You don’t care about Chinese knifed to death by Xianjing-based terrorist groups, despite the fact that you probably have a disproportionate number of Chinese friends whose families could just as well have been the victims. Which, hey, that’s not totally unreasonable. I barely care and I’m going to marry a Chinese woman in the next few years.

        But suddenly, as soon as the Chinese make an (admittedly heavy handed) attempt to prevent further terrorism it’s a crime on par with the Holocaust. I’d bet dollars to donuts that you don’t know a single Uygher, and that you would struggle to recall a single notable Uygher in history without looking them up. But now they have your full attention.

        That’s what Steve Sailer calls “frontlash.” You’re so focused on the threat that a backlash against Muslim terrorism might spill over onto you that you reflexively fight any attempt to prevent terrorism. We should just lie back and take it because the risk of us going too far if we defend ourselves is too great.

        (I would add that I’m not sure this model in particular applies to Islamic terrorism, since most terrorists are suicide bombers and so punishment isn’t really an option)

        How did we punish kamikaze pilots in the Pacific theater of WWII? Some survived their attempts and were captured, just like Islamic suicide bombers, but many were successful and died.

        We did it by recognizing that kamikaze pilots don’t climb into Ohkas at random. To stop kamikaze attacks we needed to beat the IJN, and to beat the IJN we needed to beat the Empire of Japan. We needed to destroy Japan’s ability to wage war.

        Despite ISIS’s pretentions, there isn’t a unified Caliphate we can firebomb or nuke. But it has been demonstrated that it is possible to destroy the willingness of Muslim communities to engage in and support terrorism using e.g. the Westerling Method.

        (Westerling is an instructive example for two reasons: his methods won the war for the Dutch, and the Dutch government punished him for it because they had wanted to lose as an excuse to dump their colonies. Western governments do not want to win the War on Terror, they want to make a show of fighting and then lose. The inevitability of Muslim terrorism, that it’s “part and parcel of living in a big city,” is their excuse for quietly implementing population replacement.)

        • J Mann says:

          @Nabil ad Dajjal, Scott – what do you think is a reasonable way to resolve the dispute?

          I suspect all three of us would agree:

          1) Some portion of the Uighur complaints are probably exaggerations, some portion is true. It’s also possible that there are other human rights violations that have gone unreported. (Cf. smoke, fire).

          2) Particularly given the uncertainty around #1, it’s possible (although I think Scott and I would guess highly unlikely) that given the threat of terrorism, the Chinese response is sufficiently proportionate to be a reasonable response. It’s also possible (Nabil seems to be implying a judgment of unlikely) that given the threat and alternatives, the Chinese response is sufficiently overbroad as to be a horrifying human rights violation.

          Right now, we’re judging based on our priors – is there a process to clarify the question? Demand that China permit human rights investigators? Outsource to some trusted investigator?

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            A trustworthy investigator would be nice, but faces two big problems.

            The first is that the media in China is hilariously untrustworthy. The second is that our own mainstream media and NGOs are little better.

            Right now the most trustworthy source for me would be reports by Christian missionaries on the ground in Xianjing. They have an anti-China bias of their own but less incentive to run cover for Islamic terrorists.

          • SEE says:

            Why would you consider it likely that there are exaggerations? Everything claimed in the article are things that are reliably known (from academic papers that have been published in China) to have been done by the Chinese Communist Party in re-education camps in the past, or milder than such actions. Further, they are consistent with with things that China did to US POWs in the Korean War, and that China is currently regularly accused of doing to Chinese political dissidents.

            So why in particular do you expect that today’s Chinese Communist Party would refrain from taking such actions against a minority racial group, which is also a minority religious group, which holds what the CCP considers reactionary beliefs, and which poses an identifiable security threat?

            If they were saying that Uighur were being rounded up and shot and bulldozed into mass graves, I’d doubt that. Even more if the accusation was of gas chambers and incinerators. But subjecting people to physical distress, indoctrination, and demands for acts of apostasy from disfavored beliefs?

            If it’s a lie, it’s one deliberately calculated to be as plausible as, say, “FBI standoff in [rural area of western state] with armed religious cultists results in deaths” or “US police in [poor urban area] shoot unarmed black teenager”.

          • marshwiggle says:

            First, what SEE said. The Chinese government totally does that sort of thing to a variety of types of dissidents.

            Second, I do have a fair amount of contact with Christian missionaries in China. None operating in the province in question, but one or two over. For obvious reasons I’m not giving more identifying information than that, given the crackdown on Christian missionaries at the moment. But word does spread in that community, and abuses against Uighurs really do seem to be happening. For that matter, some of the muslim terrorism reported by the government seems to be real, and some of it fake, but that is a much harder matter to judge.

          • J Mann says:

            @SEE

            My baseline assumption on word of mouth stories is that they contain some exaggerations – that as the story gets told, some context gets omitted, some stories grow in the retelling, etc. I almost always find that when you get a neutral investigator into a situation, it turns out that some of the details you got initially were exaggerated. (I don’t mean to imply intent – sometimes it’s intentional, sometimes it’s not, but IMHO it’s very frequent).

            As I said, my current prediction is that there are some exaggerations in the story and some unreported details that would make it worse. But I would be interested in a way to resolve the difference between my intuition and Nabil’s.

          • Tatterdemalion says:

            I think it’s pretty much inevitable that any policy that improves life for Muslims is going to encounter hostility from the Red Tribe – everyone hates their outgroup – but I’m disappointed to see it happening so nakedly and indefensibly on SSC.

            “Maybe it’s not happening” is an isolated demand for rigor.

            “Some of them engage in terrorism” as justification for persecuting an entire ethnic group is unforgivable. You do *not* defend punishing people for membership of a group, only for their own actions, especially not if you ever want to be able to claim that as a sacred principle in defence of your own tribe ever again.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          I think Nabil is articulating the point of controversy from the Links post well.

          Is whataboutism ever justified? I agree the Chinese putting Muslims in camps is not good. But to hear suggestions about sanctioning the Chinese over this obscure group of dissidents is odd. What about the persecution of non-Muslims and apostates in Islamic nations? The imprisonment of holocaust deniers in Germany? Tommy Robinson in the UK? Any calls for sanctions on these nations?

          I’m not sure the bright line against “imprisonment or persecution of minority dissidents for the purpose of ‘re-education’ or intimidation” is as universal as Scott claims. It seems like an ingroup-outgroup-fargroup thing to me. Muslims are a fargroup to Scott but an outgroup to me, whereas the Chinese are fargroups to us both. So it’s much harder for me to get worked up about “my fargroup is persecuting my outgroup.”

          I guess my question for Scott is, under what circumstances is the persecution of a dissident minority group acceptable?

          • albatross11 says:

            Conrad:

            I’m not Scott, but I’d say that it’s never acceptable, but there are times when I doubt there’s much I or we can do about it. I’m pretty sure China tortures a lot more people than the US has done in the war on terror, but I’m more upset about US use of torture partly because it’s my country doing it, and partly because I feel like it’s a lot more likely that my opposition to it will have some kind of impact on actions of the US government than on actions of the Chinese government.

            It’s a bit like the way that I’m more upset about Catholic bishops covering up sex scandals between priests and adolescent boys than I am about, say, Jewish communities covering up sex scandals between rabbis and adolescent boys. I’m Catholic, so it matters more to me how the Church behaves, and I’m a lot more likely to affect how the Church handles these things than I am to affect how some Orthodox Jewish community somewhere handles these things.

            The problem with whataboutism is that it’s a universal dismissal of any issue. Why are you concerned with the cops beating some guy senseless here in the US, when in Mexico there are scandals involving the police torturing people? As long as you’re not literally the worst person in the world, you’ve always got an out!

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            But to hear suggestions about sanctioning the Chinese over this obscure group of dissidents is odd. What about the persecution of non-Muslims and apostates in Islamic nations? The imprisonment of holocaust deniers in Germany? Tommy Robinson in the UK? Any calls for sanctions on these nations?

            The United States does in fact sanction Iran, Syria, and (until a few months ago) Sudan for their poor human rights records and being sponsors of terror. Iran has been sanctioned I believe continuously since the revolution in 1979.

            I doubt the imprisonment of Holocaust-deniers in Germany or Tommy Robinson in the UK are systematic and widespread enough to justify sanctions, and obviously the United States will have a higher standard for sanctioning allies.

            I guess my question for Scott is, under what circumstances is the persecution of a dissident minority group acceptable?

            I think most people will answer “never”, although this will depend on what is meant by “acceptable” since practically speaking everyone on Earth “accepts” or at least “tolerates” such persecution to some extent. But of course by such a standard we all here “accept” persecution of Christians in Muslim countries, etc. as well.

          • Nick says:

            The United States does in fact sanction Iran, Syria, and (until a few months ago) Sudan for their poor human rights records and being sponsors of terror. Iran has been sanctioned I believe continuously since the revolution in 1979.

            Can we please taboo the word “sanction”? Not for the usual reason, it’s just confusing as hell that sanction means either “a threatened penalty for disobeying a law or rule” or “official permission or approval for an action.”

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            Sorry, I took Conrad Honcho to mean targeted sanctions maintained by the Treasury Dept, etc. I think his comment doesn’t make sense otherwise. But I’ll try be more precise if necessary.

        • DavidS says:

          “Western governments do not want to win the War on Terror, they want to make a show of fighting and then lose. The inevitability of Muslim terrorism, that it’s “part and parcel of living in a big city,” is their excuse for quietly implementing population replacement.”

          I think this hits the same problem as other conspiracy theories. Who do you think is in the know about this plan? Just the President/PM? The Cabinet? Senior officials? Entire govt departments? Ditto for law enforcement agencies etc. etc.

          I frankly don’t think that governments are anything like coordinated or united enough to throw resources at doing one thing while secretly ensuring it doesn’t work. The number of people involved is simply too large. On the other hand, they can act very ineffectively and without real commitment/follow-through because they haven’t really grasped the nettle and so are trying to do it in an ineffective way (or just because it’s a hard problem).

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            Saying that Bush staged the World Trade Center attack is far-fetched because a lot of people would have to keep quiet about it.

            Saying that Hitler staged the Reichstag fire is plausible because people didn’t keep quiet about it. Göring, for one, reportedly bragged about setting it up, although he later denied it.

            The eagerness of western governments to replace their native populations is more plausible to me than the Reichstag fire because the desire on the part of elites is a matter of public record. Type the words “minority majority” into your favorite search engine: you will find powerful people, on both sides of the aisle and at all levels of government, publicly celebrating the replacement of the native born. It’s as secret now as Kevin Spacey’s sexual orientation was prior to #metoo.

          • Mabuse7 says:

            Really? You don’t think you might be taking unrelated statements about the value of diversity and optimism for multiculturalism and interpreting them in horrifically bad faith?

          • mdet says:

            There are many people who say they look forward to a multicultural “majority minority” country. Many (most?) of those people are also hostile to native Red Tribe Americans. You seem to suggest that the Cosmopolitans are pro-multiculturalism because it displaces the Red Tribe, but it’s entirely plausible to me that the causation is in the opposite direction — they’re hostile to the Red Tribe because the Red Tribe is against multiculturalism, and for the Blue Tribe, a multicultural society is synonymous with a creative, dynamic, innovative, egalitarian society. (Who could possibly oppose those things?!?)

            Either way, I think it’s a hugely different claim, and one that I’ve never seen any evidence for, to say that the Cosmopolitans are not only totally ok with terrorist attacks but they’re ok with them precisely because they kill off natives. I’m pretty confident that the Cosmopolitan / Blue Tribe position on Islam is a sincere “Every single Muslim I’ve ever met has been a kind and decent person, therefore the terrorists are clearly a tiny group of disturbed outliers, and there’s no way to 100% prevent a dedicated group of highly disturbed people from doing harm*”. What evidence do you have that this is not their true reasoning / motivation?

            *Two points:
            1) The latter part of this statement is pretty much the Red Tribe’s position on mass shootings (“Thoughts and prayers, but at a policy level we can’t prevent crazy”), so it’s very plausible as a position that people sincerely hold. You can accuse Blue Tribe of hypocrisy / lack of consistency over this, but I think the correct position is “It’s hard for policy to prevent crazy” in both cases, not neither.
            2) I think it is a fair rebuttal to say that Americanized Muslims in cosmopolitan Blue-Tribe-land are not representative of all 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, and so we should be careful of bringing over non-Americanized Muslims. But again, I see no reason to disbelieve that any Muslim that your standard Blue Triber is interacting with is most likely going to be a decent person and a non-threat.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            @mdet,

            You’re confusing yourself by bringing Scott’s red / blue tribes into this.

            By Scott’s terminology I’m unambiguously Blue. I’m an atheist academic scientist living in NYC, I’ve never fired a gun or even seen a football game all the way through in my life, and when I go out to rural areas my fashions ense is apparently gay-coded. I’m on the far-right politically, but I’m no more “Red tribe” than I am a New Zealander. So this isn’t a Blue-vesus-Red issue, it’s a question of whether or not my future children and grandchildren are going to grow up in a foreign and hostile country.

            I don’t know what it is exactly that drives the intense hatred, even self-hatred in gentiles, that people on the left have for white people. These are my co-workers and my neighbors, but when they say the word white it comes out as a slur. They are thrilled at the prospect of my people becoming a minority, better yet being mixed out of existence or otherwise vanishing.

            Maybe my acquaintances are uniquely evil, but what they say sounds exactly like what comes out of the mouths of progressive talking heads and politicians. The mainstream center-left consensus is that the word would be better without white people in it and the policy choices of most of the west reflect that belief.

          • mdet says:

            I’ll replace “Blue” and “Red” with “Cosmopolitan” and [“Nativist” sounds too strong, do you have a better term?], since that’s how I was really using them.

            In the Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup post, Scott proposed that progressive bashing of / conservative fetishization of “America” and “patriotism” are best understood by assuming “America” == “the Red Tribe”. He also said that nearly all instances of progressives bashing “white people” are best understood by assuming “white people” == “the Red Tribe”, which is why so much of this animosity is specifically said and published by white people themselves, and why “when an angry white person talks at great length about how much he hates ‘white dudes’, he is not being humble and self-critical”. (Exceptions: Stuff White People Like, where “white people” clearly means “the Blue Tribe”, and some antagonistic non-white people like Ta-Nehisi Coates who do not make a distinction between Red and Blue white people)

            If you interpret Blue Tribe / Cosmopolitans bashing “white people” as actually being about the Red Tribe / “deplorables” / the-people-otherwise-known-as-“nativists”, then I think my explanation still holds up.

          • mdet says:

            The mainstream center-left consensus is that the world would be better without white people in it and the policy choices of most of the west reflect that belief.

            I wanna say that a this is largely because most history is taught from a Western perspective? Disclaimer: I’m black, and this is sort of an armchair psycho-analysis of the kind of white people who complain about white people. Someone please criticize this, because I feel like I’m very wrong.

            Your average history class is taught from a Western perspective, because we’re in America so Western history is our history, plus Europe was pretty good about writing things down. “The West” generally means “white people”, so it’s pretty easy to think that history since 1492 is just “White people spreading across the globe and taking control of everything and everyone else, until Gandhi, Dr. King, and Mandela made them stop”. While every society has committed atrocities, if you’re only learning history from a Western perspective, then it can seem like white Westerners committed every atrocity in history.

            But today, daily life in Cosmopolitan-Blue-Tribe-Land demonstrates that the most multiracial, multicultural cities are the ones with the best food, best music, best art, strongest and most innovative economies, etc. So I guess it’s easy to come to the conclusion “White people were in charge of everything, and we did a bunch of terrible stuff. But now non-White people are contributing, and they have all this great stuff that I’d never heard about!” If I was uncharitable, I might even compare this to an exoticizing Noble Savage kind of trope.

            And so when that person meets up with a Right-wing member whose primary outgroup is those uncivilized people out there in the world (sorry for the caricature, Right-peoples), they respond with an “Are you kidding? Ignoring / Dehumanizing everyone who isn’t Western is how every bad thing I learned about in history class happened! And hanging out with non-white people introduced me to so much great stuff! We should want more of what they have to offer, not less! I can’t believe that white people [read: Right-wing / Red-Tribe Americans] still haven’t learned this”. Which can definitely sound like “The world would be better without white people” when phrased cynically enough, but I don’t think such people actually want to kill themselves off.

            Now I do believe myself that one of America’s greatest strengths is our ability to be dynamic and innovative by bringing together people from many different backgrounds, that it’s important to learn about peoples and perspectives other than your own, and that the US is at most two generations in when it comes to giving non-white people a decent shot in life, so I don’t really disagree with that last paragraph. But — not to ignore that white racism has played a large role in American history — it’s sort of white-centric to imply that the only problems non-white people have are those that were caused by whites. Non-white people / societies have plenty flaws and biases of their own, and the US is a pretty great place to be, all things considered.

            Of course, if there’s a spectrum from “non-white people never contributed good things in history” to “non-white people always contribute good things in history”, then it might be hard to push to the middle without looking like you’re pushing towards the other extreme, so going around saying “Actually, non-white people do all kinds of terrible things!” pretty quickly pattern-matches to “racist bigot”.

            I’m not sure if I’m actually saying anything that you haven’t already thought about. And again, someone please criticize me because I feel like I did a terrible job here.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            Type the words “minority majority” into your favorite search engine: you will find powerful people, on both sides of the aisle and at all levels of government, publicly celebrating the replacement of the native born. It’s as secret now as Kevin Spacey’s sexual orientation was prior to #metoo.

            Doing this in Google I get nothing that sounds like what you’ve said above. In particular, the links are demographic reporting, some journal articles, and a few articles discussing whether the framing is accurate since much of the rise in “minority” groups depends on what counts as white and how you count people whose ancestry is mixed. None of the links I clicked on had quotes from anyone at any level of government; they pretty much all quoted demographers. The closest I can find is a sympathetic account of a podcast called “Majority Minority” that quotes a Democratic representative as saying ‘I didn’t expect that to be that personal,’ about her appearance on the podcast.

            Perhaps you should give some concrete examples of “powerful people at all levels of government celebrating the replacement of the native born.”

          • Aapje says:

            Note that Google tailors search results to the individual, so you can both be right and be seeing different Google results.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            That’s why it’d be useful to see the sorts of links he’s thinking of.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @mdet

            Your average history class is taught from a Western perspective, because we’re in America so Western history is our history, plus Europe was pretty good about writing things down. “The West” generally means “white people”, so it’s pretty easy to think that history since 1492 is just “White people spreading across the globe and taking control of everything and everyone else, until Gandhi, Dr. King, and Mandela made them stop”. While every society has committed atrocities, if you’re only learning history from a Western perspective, then it can seem like white Westerners committed every atrocity in history.

            This is something I have noticed too. I went to a university in a town that is left-leaning by national standards, and this is Canada, so definitely left-leaning by US standards. “Eurocentrism” was definitely a bad word. However, you could get a history minor, maybe even a major, without taking any courses on anything but European history or “New World” history starting with when the guys who called it the “New World” showed up.

            The result of this is a view of history that eschews the triumphalism of old-timey Eurocentrism, but still holds the same facts. It does present a Noble Savage view of the world: everyone was sitting around being peaceful and doing their ancestral wisdoms when the dirty Europeans showed up and ruined everyone’s shit. It still views the Europeans as the protagonists of history, only this time it’s one of those trope-subverting retellings of traditional stories where actually the good guy is the bad guy.

            It really flattens out the actual contours of history, where people in (what would later get named) the Americas fought wars with each other, where for several thousand years civilization (and thus war past a certain scale) was concentrated in today’s Middle East and North Africa, etc.

            However, I think this is a different thing from the white person who says “ugh, white people” – in my experience, that’s just pure projection. There’re white people who feel the need to express that, no, they’re the good ones, and they tend to do this by badmouthing other white people. There’s usually a great deal of hypocrisy here; back when I was at school “likelihood this white person badmouths white people as a group” was inversely correlated with “chance that if this person throws a party, anyone who isn’t white shows up” and so on. It doesn’t really express their opinions of white people, because their revealed preference is that they love white people and being surrounded exclusively or almost exclusively by white people whenever they have that choice. It’s a sibboleth.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            It’s a sibboleth.

            I suppose, but it’s still disconcerting. One of my white friends recently said to me that “white people have had it good for long enough, maybe it’s time for them to die out.” I’m not sure who he was signalling to. I think maybe he believes that. But he’s got children, and I’ve got children, and I think saying to someone “you and your progeny should not exist in the future” would be a racist insult/threat of the highest order said to anyone else.

          • Randy M says:

            “white people have had it good for long enough, maybe it’s time for them to die out.”

            You know that guy who was posting in the previous thread about comments being enemy action and harm to his interest and so on? I feel like his attitude would have been appropriate response in your situation.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            The result of this is a view of history that eschews the triumphalism of old-timey Eurocentrism, but still holds the same facts. It does present a Noble Savage view of the world: everyone was sitting around being peaceful and doing their ancestral wisdoms when the dirty Europeans showed up and ruined everyone’s shit.

            100% this. I think this is a point I’ve seen Razib Khan make: that in a lot of ways the view of white people as a uniquely destructive historic force is just the same old Eurocentrism with the polarity reversed. The white man’s burden becomes the white man as burden.

            And, as someone who’s offered a defense of SJ-talk in previous threads, I feel obliged to say that I think stuff like “white people have had it good for long enough, maybe it’s time for them to die out” is stupid and obnoxious. Very very charitably I might consider that the person means something like “die out” in the sense that the proto-Indo European peoples have “died out”–they did not maintain endogamy sufficiently to differentiate themselves from all surrounding populations down to the present day in a continuous historic community, but still have huge numbers of present-day descendants and their genes, culture, and language are represented in many modern peoples.
            But even given that charitable interpretation it’s a dumb and loaded way to say it, and I don’t really see the point of saying things lie that other than to shock and provoke, or as some weird shibboleth.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Conrad Honcho

            He can’t believe that, or, if he does believe that, he’s a monstrous hypocrite, or he’s simply not got the brainpower to notice that being white and having children doesn’t line up well with saying that. Maybe he’s signalling to you, maybe he’s signalling to himself, who knows.

            When somebody pledges allegiance to something that would see them and theirs exiled/bred out of existence/stoned to death at the town gates, the reason they’re doing it is not that they want those things to happen. Nor, if they’re smarter than a certain line, is it that they’ve just not thought of it.

            For less dramatic stuff, sure, unintended consequences, that certainly happens. But that’s “racial quotas involve discriminating against East Asians, which seems kinda racist” or “shit, these university tribunals sure seem to disproportionately hit minority guys” not “these people should cease to exist.”

          • mdet says:

            “Reversed polarity Eurocentrism” is exactly what I was getting at with pointing to history classes.

            For the purposes of Nabil’s comment about the policy choices of the West signaling that the world would be better without white people — I think just placing a really high value on multiculturalism and believing that bringing in different kinds of people, while maybe tense at first, ultimately produces a much more creative, dynamic, and innovative society is sufficient to explain many of these policies.

            But to the extent that there are white people who go around seriously acting like white people are the source of all the world’s problems — Chill, yall are not that special. I’m a flawed human being who is perfectly capable of causing my own problems.

          • albatross11 says:

            Conrad:

            It seems like this is a nice demonstration of the fact that even really horrible ideas and sentiments and policies sound pretty okay, and are mouthed/supported by otherwise decent people, once they become the normal mainstream things everyone supports and is used to saying.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Come on, it’s hardly a mainstream thing, for starters. Even saying it as a sibboleth isn’t.

            I get that we’ve got decent evidence to believe that “ha ha I was just joking” edgy stuff in public is dangerous: people who aren’t in on the joke might think it’s for real and adopt the viewpoints expressed, and people who actually believe those things can use it as a smokescreen. It’s happened on the far right recently, eh?

            But I don’t think a white guy who’s got kids saying “oh maybe white people should die out” is in the same territory as someone totally ironically pretending to be a Nazi it’s a joke you guys making jokes about gas chambers. It’s more in the territory of kid who stands to inherit a bunch becoming a socialist in university because he wanted to hit on one of the women. It’s not a serious thing, it’s just a sibboleth. For whatever reason, that sort of thing has become a sibboleth of a group that doesn’t actually believe that sort of thing in any real numbers. Likely because it upsets their political enemies; plenty of that has happened in the other direction.

          • Aapje says:

            @dndnrsn

            It’s happened on the far right recently, eh?

            The far left too.

          • John Schilling says:

            But I don’t think a white guy who’s got kids saying “oh maybe white people should die out” is in the same territory as someone totally ironically pretending to be a Nazi it’s a joke you guys making jokes about gas chambers.

            It’s not the same territory, but it’s adjacent and I’m not clear that it’s safer.

            Our society has very strong legal, political, and cultural defenses against repetitions of the Holocaust, or right-wing genocide generally. And against Slavery, Jim Crow, the KKK, against Literal Fascism, against Tales of Handmaids or anything else worthy of the name “Patriarchy”. And these defenses aren’t things that the Left imposes on the Right; most of them are internalized by the Right.

            Our defenses against e.g. Literal Communism, are substantially weaker, to the point that the Holodomor is obscure historical trivia and an attempt to instigate a leftist civil war in the United States in living memory has been effectively memory-holed.

            The literal genocides being called for in these ha-ha-only-serious threats, aren’t a threat. From either the left or the right, and shame on you if your argument is “we need to shame these people into silence on the right Because Holocaust”.

            Someone coming to the belief that it’s appropriate for them to start planting bombs, or graduating from bicycle locks to shotgun blasts, is a real on both sides. But effective defenses against large-scale violence, where they exist, are going to spill over to at least somewhat disincentivize lesser violence. Whereas the perception that the other side is just itching for the chance to go full genocide, because that’s what they always do, is going to legitimize lesser violence.

            So, go ahead and tell me how “#KillAllMen” is a harmless morale boost for oppressed girls where “#KillAllWomen” is an intolerably menacing threat. But show your work, please, because I’m not buying the unsupported assertion.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @John Schilling

            So, go ahead and tell me how “#KillAllMen” is a harmless morale boost for oppressed girls where “#KillAllWomen” is an intolerably menacing threat.

            My perspective is not that. My perspective is that the former is obnoxious and marks its users as juvenile (there’s a great deal of “it’s horrible to insult me but fine for me to insult you” going on there and that’s incredibly juvenile). The latter likely indicates a greater chance of, shall we say, bespoke violence against women – the majority of which consists of men killing their female partners. (The latter might increase the chance of female violence against men on this level, but the statistics indicate that while men and women hit each other at similar rates, men put women in the hospital or the morgue at bigger rates).

            Neither is a threat of genocide – the male/female split is a different sort of split than an ethnic split would be. The Bordurians can get rid of all the Sylvanians; it’s impossible for a group to get rid of all its men or all its women without dying out.

            In both cases, the use of the hashtag indicates “this is someone you might want to stay away from” (dating a woman who thinks the former hashtag is OK in earnest sounds like a bad plan and also pretty unlikely; dating a woman who thinks it’s fun jokes is probably going to be unpleasant because what are the chances she thinks your feelings really matter?) but the latter hashtag indicates a greater risk of serious violence (albeit on a small scale, rather than the Incel Schutzbund planning on sending all the women east of the Urals).

          • John Schilling says:

            The latter likely indicates a greater chance of, shall we say, bespoke violence against women

            That’s the part where I want you to show your work.

            And not just noting that the base rate of male violence is greater than the female rate, it’s the delta associated with “#KillAllWhatever” that is at issue.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I’m not sure how I would prove it statistically, or whatever. However, here’s some reasoning at least:

            1. It is socially acceptable, at least in some circles, for the first hashtag to be uttered. It’s acceptable, it’s punching up, whatever. Sometimes, people will be rewarded for saying it.

            2. Conversely, the latter hashtag is a lot more stigmatized in most circles. Blue-checkmark Twitter feminist can post the first one, and if anyone gets outraged, they’re just proving her point by getting upset, or something – how fragile masculinity is; they get offended when you jokingly say they should be killed, something something. I doubt many people post the latter under their own names.

            3. Versus a less stigmatized, or even promoted, opinion, in general, a more stigmatized opinion is more likely to be truly held, or to reflect truly held opinions.

            4. Someone’s opinions presumably affect and/or reflect their personal behaviour. A man who promotes violence against women is likely to think it is OK for him to do violence against women.

            So, a man who says the latter, is more likely to mean it; meaning it probably either has an impact on behaviour, or correlates with behaviour.

            In conclusion: a man who sees a prospective female partner post the former hashtag should stay away, but for different and likely less pressing reasons than a woman who sees a male partner post the latter.

          • carvenvisage says:

            I wanna say that a this is largely because most history is taught from a Western perspective? Disclaimer: I’m black, and this is sort of an armchair psycho-analysis of the kind of white people who complain about white people. Someone please criticize this, because I feel like I’m very wrong.

            I think there’s some truth to that, but that ‘western’ doesn’t quite sillhouette what goes on.

            Some examples to gesture at what I mean:

            1. the crusades were presented to me as an inexplicable horror driven by nothing but religious fervour, bigotry, gullibility, and venal greed -and that’s probably true enough if it comes right down to it, but in retrospect it seems really damned odd that no parallel was drawn to the initial jihadic invasion of those lands not so long before, and no mention that muslim raiders had been as deep inland as southern france.

            2. little or no discussion of the technological advances and order which allowed cathedrals and castle and the like to be raised. I think I left school at the age of eighteen with the vague idea that they grew out of the ground, or perhaps plopped themselves down there just for the sake of being picturesque, like a dragon perching on a hill.

            3. In terms of the last century, A: Huge amount of emphasis on the horrors of naziism, hardly any on communism or its role in the former’s rise. B: I just literally yesterday learned that the casualty rate for enlisted english soldiers in world war one was only 12% or so, (-and 17% for the officers!), and most soldiers weren’t in the front line trenches for months at a time. C: no interest in any of the “heroes” in those wars. I never heard of audie murphy or simo hayha in school. It’s weird to belatedly realise that such creatures are a blatant and incontrovertible historical phenomenon and not some invention of homer or Tolkien’s, as one might imagine from years spent studying war without pausing to consider such phenomena.

            4. small thing, but maybe a bit telling: victorians usually spoken of in sneering terms.

            There was definitely a focus on western history, and I imagine an unbiased overview of western or any history might leave one with a horror of colonialism subjugation and all such other pleasant things.

            But it seems like it was the most horrific or stupid-bumpkin parts were picked out for focusing on, -which is perfectly defensible in itself, someone could certainly think in good conscience that history is most important for warning against the greatest errors and mistakes “those who do not learn from history…”, -but then even in that out window it seems the parts were left out that might dilute or downplay the intended “message”.–So I think it’s more intentional than a euro/white/western centric focus.

            _

            I’m not actually unsympathetic to the idea of such an agenda, for a few reasons:

            1. the west has/had been on ‘top dog’ for some time. When you have absolute power, then almost by definition you’ve only yourself to fear. And just because others have shown they’d do it too if they had the chance, doesn’t mean the guy to do it last oughtn’t hang his head.

            2. Written and spiritual commitments to enlightenment ideals: the standing stain of blatant hypocrisy enduring down the centuries even understandably drives some people to repentance and shame. It’s one thing to hold a sword at someone’s throat and say “kneel”, so that you might exploit them, from vanity, or to feel safer having ‘removed a threat’, a bad thing to be sure, one we might burn people for or send them to the rack, but it’s still another to do it while proclaiming “all men are equal” out of the other side of your mouth (enlightenment doctrines), and the importance of peace and humility and forgiveness from still a third (christian doctrines.) Hypocrisy brings shame in a way simple animal brutality doesn’t.

            3. Horror of and trauma of recent world wars, who’s effects are imo still quite strongly felt. -Directly leads to lot of anti imperialist sentiment (seemingly a direct cause of both world wars) which we might then seize on as a sort of root of all evil. I’m pretty young and and I’ve heard some horrible things down about those wars, and I’ve heard some horrible stories passed down my family. For the generation right after it I speculate the influence must have been huge, -i.e. might prompt a reaction to flip the other way.

            So the agenda that I think I see I don’t think is even bad in itself, just that it goes a bit too far, as most any trend seems to if left unchecked.

            TL:DR focus on western history might be sufficient to cause some backlash of ‘fuck the west’ (most history is pretty grisly) but I think there’s a bit more intentional curation than that.

        • baconbits9 says:

          We did it by recognizing that kamikaze pilots don’t climb into Ohkas at random. To stop kamikaze attacks we needed to beat the IJN, and to beat the IJN we needed to beat the Empire of Japan. We needed to destroy Japan’s ability to wage war.

          Kamikaze attacks started in October of 1944, more than 2 years after the battle of Midway and well into the US destroying Japan’s ability to wage war.

        • benwave says:

          Is the Uyghur example really such a good example? You talk about home countries, but in living memory that region was home country to the Uyghur Muslims, and that has changed due to a deliberate programme of migration by the Chinese central government. I’m not sure it’s easy to peg either side as being the aggressor, nor either side as being the rightful ‘home defenders’.

  27. gorbash says:

    I think this is a misleading analogy. Scott offers a model in which muggings are easy to solve: each police officer can solve one crime per day. (Or: any crime can be solved using one-tenth of the city’s crime-solving budget.) In this situation, I agree that aggressively responding to every mugging is a good strategy.

    But the situation with China is very difficult to solve. My concern with that situation is, simply, that I can’t think of any intervention that would solve it. The US could instruct its diplomats to say mean things to China’s diplomats, and China’s diplomats could then say mean things back to the US’s diplomats, but that wouldn’t actually get any Uighurs out of concentration camps.

    If Scott thinks the US should intervene in China, I think he should describe a specific course of action that he thinks would be successful and would not provoke a nuclear war.

    In the last thread, I think he was arguing for something much lighter: the US should have its diplomats say mean things to China’s diplomats, who would then say mean things back to the US’s diplomats. That wouldn’t free any Uighurs from concentration camps, but at least the US would feel like it had tried.

    And I guess the argument is that saying mean things to China’s diplomats in this way might have a deterrent effect on crappy third-world dictators. They might say to themselves: “wow, if I put my own people in concentration camps, the US’s diplomats might say mean things to my diplomats as well!”

    Or, more plausibly, the crappy third-world dictators might say to themselves: “wow, the US didn’t actually declare war on China, because China is too large for that to be practical. But my country isn’t that large, so if I put my own people in concentration camps, the US might declare war on me!” But then it’s not clear whether saying mean things to China’s diplomats is necessary. Crappy third-world dictators are presumably smart enough to manage the analogy whether the US spends resources on expensive signalling or not.

    — Actually, are they that smart? I don’t know. If there’s an argument for spending resources on expensive signalling, I guess this is it.

    • albatross11 says:

      Saying “X is bad” doesn’t mean “We should take action Y about bad thing X.” We can and should separate those questions. Some bad things are beyond our ability to fix; others could only be fixed at unacceptably high cost. That doesn’t mean they’re not bad things worthy of condemnation.

      For example, North Korea’s treatment of its people is atrocious. We can and should say this without starting a nuclear war with North Korea. China’s treatment of various dissidents is much less horrible but still worth talking about. (Similarly, the UK’s treatment of Tommy Robinson looks pretty lousy to me, even though that’s not any of the 100,000 worst things going on in the world, and even though the UK generally has a pretty good human rights record.)

  28. RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

    Here’s one factor that arguably cuts in favor of a Caplan-like mob psychology hypothesis and against a rational strategic hypothesis like Scott’s. It’s the absurdly wild temporal aspects that often go on in these situations. So for instance serious sexual misconduct in Hollywood is common knowledge for a century and it’s treated largely as a joke. Then suddenly it is not merely upgraded to the serious moral and legal problem that it is, but rather it consumes the nation, drowns out nearly everything else, starts to extend beyond core cases to embroil some people who may not have done something terrible at all. This extreme temporal change seems to be par for the course with these sorts of contemporary moral panics. Nobody had ever complained about the transgender bathroom issue in the history of humanity and then suddenly it was the greatest moral issue consuming the nation. Why all of a sudden? President Obama was first elected in opposition to gay marriage, but a few years later anyone who holds the strong 2008 majority view is not just wrong but irredeemably immoral.

    Also, if it’s strategic then it will be maintained indefinitely; if irrational would die out as the next moral crisis is induced by arbitrary social media consensus. Does anyone want to predict that the current attention to coercive sexual impropriety in the entertainment industry will remain equally strongly enforced a year from now? Two years? Five? If your prediction is that this will fade away and be replaced by some other short-term outrage, which will in turn quickly be replaced by the next in line, then that seems to cut against this serving as a rational approach to dealing with limited resources.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      Here’s one factor that arguably cuts in favor of a Caplan-like mob psychology hypothesis and against a rational strategic hypothesis like Scott’s. It’s the absurdly wild temporal aspects that often go on in these situations. So for instance serious sexual misconduct in Hollywood is common knowledge for a century and it’s treated largely as a joke. Then suddenly it is not merely upgraded to the serious moral and legal problem that it is, but rather it consumes the nation, drowns out nearly everything else, starts to extend beyond core cases to embroil some people who may not have done something terrible at all. This extreme temporal change seems to be par for the course with these sorts of contemporary moral panics.

      Yes, and with just about every other kind of thing that makes the news in any capacity. Because that’s what social media does. It enables sudden,

      I mean, science fiction writers were predicting this, or something like it, decades ago. When people can easily and impulsively act on any piece of news that grabs their attention, you get very large, very abrupt mass movements. It doesn’t mean there’s no underlying logic to the reactions; it just means that we’ve only just now gotten around to figuring out a way to mass-produce the hue and cry instead of relying on retail providers to do it bespoke.

      Nobody had ever complained about the transgender bathroom issue in the history of humanity and then suddenly it was the greatest moral issue consuming the nation. Why all of a sudden?

      Funny, that’s not how I remember it. I mean, I was at least broadly politically aware throughout that time, and I don’t remember transgender bathroom access being presented that way in a consistent manner by any prominent authorities or organizations. It was just, y’know, another thing.

      Are you sure you’re not mistaking a tempest-in-teapot reaction by a handful of Internet activists for what “the public” or “the Man” or some other nebulous entity is doing?

      Furthermore, it’s outright untrue that ‘nobody’ was worrying about transgender bathroom access in, say, 2010 or 2005 or earlier. Quite a few people were, among them the transgender people who had to go to the bathroom. It just wasn’t an issue they could get a hearing on, until they could, at which point it became one of numerous simultaneous ongoing issues in the culture wars.

      Don’t mistake the first time you hear about something for the first time anyone mentioned it, or the point in time at which it becomes an all-consuming national obsession.

      President Obama was first elected in opposition to gay marriage, but a few years later anyone who holds the strong 2008 majority view is not just wrong but irredeemably immoral.

      Yes, it’s funny how social views evolve over a period of ten to twenty years.

      https://xkcd.com/1431/

      Approval rates for gay marriage do seem to have started rising fairly quickly, from 20% or so in 1990 to 50% or so in 2010, and the rate may even be accelerating to something more like +10% per decade… But this simply isn’t consistent with the idea that gay marriage support materialized out of nowhere.

      Also, if it’s strategic then it will be maintained indefinitely; if irrational would die out as the next moral crisis is induced by arbitrary social media consensus. Does anyone want to predict that the current attention to coercive sexual impropriety in the entertainment industry will remain equally strongly enforced a year from now? Two years? Five? If your prediction is that this will fade away and be replaced by some other short-term outrage, which will in turn quickly be replaced by the next in line, then that seems to cut against this serving as a rational approach to dealing with limited resources.

      If that’s what happens, then yes. On the other hand, if we see a pseudo-permanent shift in the level of punishment against coercive practitioners of sexual impropriety, then the short-term outrage explosion did exactly what it was supposed to do, by pushing the envelope of acceptable behavior forcefully enough that the elastic strength of the ‘material’ was exceeded, and the norms were permanently altered.

      And such things have happened before. Drunk driving used to be socially accepted. Now it’s not. Casual racism in the workplace, of the “I don’t hire no [slurs]” variety used to be socially accepted. Now it’s not.

      • RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

        You make some fair points and I should have been more nuanced in some of my language. That said, I do think the concession in your first few paragraphs is sufficient to establish the overarching point that the wild changes over time better supports a mob psychology hypothesis over a rational resource-allocation hypothesis.

        Briefly on the specifics. I do think that the bathroom issue came out of nowhere. It’s not like gay rights, which had been percolating for decades and just leapt forward quantitatively. I don’t know what you mean by “that time” but it may have been a comparatively short transition period between zero and one hundred.

        As to the severity of it, was it just another thing or a giant moral panic? I guess I would cite the NCAA sports boycott of one of the United States on the basis of bathrooms in support of my view that it was the latter. NCAA athletics is a hugely mainstream thing and is not a political entity. To take the extraordinary step of imposing a boycott against North Carolina for (I believe) nothing more than a rule about sexed bathrooms shows that this was a major, major issue (one that seems already to be fading in favor of the next crusade). I’m not sure that would happen for just an issue where the intelligentsia thinks there is room for reasonable disagreement.

        That said, you’re right that I need to be more careful about generalizing from my own experience. I will say that as a reasonably politically aware citizen for several decades, I had never heard a peep about this until moments before it became the defining moral issue of the moment, which raises some red flags for me about whether this was true moral development over time or the next bat that happened to be ready at hand to beat the conservatives.

        Finally, you convince me that there are probably two classes of different cases. I think the stigma against weapons of mass destruction is a laudable bright-line rule, partly because even if Caplan is right that they have killed fewer people in instances so far they carry the inherent risk of more terrible outcomes in the future if normalized. I think the social media-driven moral questions tend to be more fleeting and more emotionally intense. You’re right that we’ll have to wait and see how these pan out.

        • Randy M says:

          Steve Sailer saw transexual rights as a coming major social push before it became a civil rights campaign, in 2013.

        • Eugene Dawn says:

          It’s not irrational for bright-line rules to be responsive to events though: the chemical weapons taboo, though it has existed for some time, was strengthened by the horrors of WWI for example.

          I think all of your examples in the parent comment are cases where the public outcry was a response to some mobilizing event; but that doesn’t mean that the issue wasn’t important to people previously. For example, the Weinstein allegations were known by reporters as early as 2000, but accusers were too scared to go on record. I have heard it said, though I don’t know Hollywood enough to judge, that what changed is that Weinstein’s power in Hollywood declined over the intervening 18 years to the point that enough accusers felt safe enough to go on the record; and the rest of the #MeToo movement is a response to the Weinstein revelations.
          So the temporal change isn’t because people didn’t care before late last year (Roman Polanski and Woody Allen are cases that I recall hearing about in the early 2000s), but because circumstances weren’t right to coordinate a large response.

          Another example, is the transgender bathroom issue: as you note above, this became an issue because North Carolina signed a law, and the issue gained public attention because of this. In fact, my understanding is that North Carolina passed the bill to respond to the City of Charlotte’s attempt to pass a non-discrimination Ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity; the state then scheduled a special session which it used to rush (before the Ordinance came into effect) to pass a law that overrode the Charlotte ordinance. This is the context behind the reaction to the bathroom bill: it was seen as an egregious attempt to override municipalities from passing anti-discrimination laws against gay and trans people.

          I think the two perspectives can be reconciled by noting that bright-line rules require a huge amount of public support to be enforceable; otherwise you’re just some annoying person screaming “This. Is. Not. Normal!” while your friends roll their eyes. So there will be some opportunism in deciding which taboos to enforce as bright lines, owing to what issues can command majority support fairly easily; and which issues fit the bill will always depend in part on context. But that doesn’t mean it’s irrational to lean into such examples when they arise, or that it’s solely a mob response.

        • SEE says:

          The bathroom issue seems to have come out of nowhere, if you hadn’t been following debates between feminists and queer rights people for the previous twenty years. (The first fight over transgender women’s attendance at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival dates to 1994; I noticed it back then because it showed up both in “conservative mocks leftists for being out-of-touch” columns and “I think I’m transsexual” USENET groups, both of which I was following at the time.)

          That a position forged after whole generation of debate between groups of activists on the left and particularly their collegiate divisions (women’s studies departments versus gender and queer studies departments) finally motivates a body heavy on left-leaning policy makers familiar with gender issues (the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruling in 2013, 19 years after the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival expulsion) to take action, it really isn’t all that surprising.

          Then, with it made a public policy issue, the major speakers for both major political tribes largely took up the line that had been hammered out by the members of the tribe in obscure discussions over the previous 20 years, because it’s the job of the speakers for the tribes to speak the official tribal line. And because it was an issue that didn’t really affect anyone very much, people for whom tribal identity was strong mostly took up that line, because it was “their” line.

          And then after the culture war lines were settled out clearly enough that political capital could be made of fighting over it, politicians started policy fights over it (several 2015 “bathroom bills” that didn’t pass state legislatures, March 2016 passage by the NC state legislature, May 2016 Obama Department of Education “Dear Colleague” letter).

  29. Randy M says:

    I disagree in the analogy that muggers can’t become burglars, especially in a world of lax enforcement. Likewise, people who would be sexual harassers but don’t because of our vigorous enforcement of that norm probably do become more abusive in other areas. I don’t think this point is applicable in the other examples, either. I think the real distinction is varying opinions on the equivalency of the behaviors.

  30. bean says:

    My Lai versus Hiroshima.

    OK, this is false equivalence taken to the point of stupidity. Hiroshima was not a deliberate killing of unarmed civilians. It was intended to destroy Hiroshima as a contributing component of the Japanese war machine, and induce the Japanese to surrender. It did both quite effectively. At the time, we did not have the capability to destroy a city’s war-making potential from afar without killing a lot of civilians. Today we do, and nuclear weapons are a lot less useful as a result. But people should not confuse what is possible today with what was possible then. (Caplan disputes this point, but simply by saying “the US had options”. I’d like to know what those options were. If you’re reading this, what was the alternative? Running our men into the meatgrinder of fighting the Japanese.)

    Re the surrender, I encourage anyone who doubts the bomb was necessary to read Richard B Frank’s Downfall. He lays out very clearly the ongoing and potential humanitarian tragedies of a continued war, and that the Japanese were not going to surrender absent extraordinary measures. Only the personal intervention of the Emperor allowed them to agree to the terms after the bombs were dropped. A large faction within the cabinet was arguing for “self-disarmament” and Japanese control of the war crimes trials. The Allies rightly saw this as a prelude to rearmament for another war, and would have refused. There were tens of thousands of Chinese dying every week from the Japanese campaign there, so a longer war had a serious civilian cost, too.

    • J.R. says:

      +1. Reading Caplan’s original post comparing My Lai and Hiroshima, he is willfully obtuse about the argument that Hiroshima helped end the war.

      You could say that Hiroshima successfully ended the war and saved lives, and My Lai plainly failed to do so. But My Lai was much smaller than Hiroshima. If My Lai tactics were applied on a vast scale – say 300 villages to make the body count comparable to Hiroshima’s – maybe they too could have ended the war and saved lives.* In any case, by this logic, Hiroshima would have been a massive war crime if it failed to make the Japanese surrender.

      My Lai tactics were condemned as wrong because they didn’t have institutional support. They were a violation of the norms established higher up in the chain of command. Vietnam was a war of ideology – witness the insistence of the Johnson Administration to win the war by winning the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people. Killing civilians is the exact opposite of that “hearts and minds” policy. It was a bad look for the U.S., and rightly so.

      In the context of a massive bombing campaign on Japanese cities, the atomic bombs were not seen as singular events that deviated from the code of war. The order to drop Little Man on Hiroshima came from the White House. It was a strategic decision. In addition to the ones you mentioned, the involvement of the USSR in Manchuria (and potentially joining in a ground invasion of the Japanese Home Islands) was a major consideration in dropping the bombs.

      N.B. A better argument, and maybe the one that Caplan should have made, is whether Nagasaki was a moral evil. The Japanese were considering surrender before Fat Man was dropped. It is unknown whether it was necessary to force their hand.

      • bean says:

        N.B. A better argument, and maybe the one that Caplan should have made, is whether Nagasaki was a moral evil. The Japanese were considering surrender before Fat Man was dropped. It is unknown whether it was necessary to force their hand.

        Truman deliberately dropped them close together to make sure they couldn’t dismiss Hiroshima as a one-off trick. Given the psychology of the Japanese senior leadership, this was a wise decision. They did try to dismiss Hiroshima, and it was necessary to convince them of our ability to repeat it. (Reference Frank.)

      • Civilis says:

        In the context of a massive bombing campaign on Japanese cities, the atomic bombs were not seen as singular events that deviated from the code of war.

        Part of the problem is that these lines are very rarely documented or official, meaning that different people have different interpretations of what exactly the line is. “No using nuclear weapons” wasn’t a taboo in 1945, as at the time as far as the public knew they were theoretical, and a lot of the current discussion seems to be applying the modern taboo to actions taken before the taboo existed. If there’s an obvious Allied taboo violation concerning bombing cities, I’d say it was Dresden, in that it wasn’t really justifiable as a military target.

        We’ve said that “no using chemical weapons” is a bright line. Is pepper spray a chemical weapon? How about the heavier riot control agents? Incendiary white phosphorous? And the line may be more complicated than just specific agents; we might permit riot control agents against a civilian riot but prohibit them from military use because they may be mistaken for ‘real’ chemical weapons.

        The internment of Japanese-Americans, while wrong, is not the gulags, and the gulags aren’t the extermination camps, and using the term concentration camp for all three risks weakening the definition, and hence the taboo.

        • Randy M says:

          Thanks for pointing out that what seem like easily delineated cases are not necessarily so. That may moderate my opinion upthread, not sure.

        • bean says:

          And the line may be more complicated than just specific agents; we might permit riot control agents against a civilian riot but prohibit them from military use because they may be mistaken for ‘real’ chemical weapons.

          This has actually happened. I believe the first uses of CW during WWI were theoretically non-lethal agents, stuff like xylyl bromide, which turned out to be occasionally lethal when conditions were wrong. The other side then used this to justify more lethal agents. I suspect that the lack of use of such weapons in later wars was 50% avoiding a similar ratchet (although I believe modern riot control agents are better) and 50% the fact that tear gas is easily thwarted with a gas mask, which the soldiers have and know how to use.
          WP is generally considered to not be a chemical weapon, and the US only uses it to mark targets anyway. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

        • Controls Freak says:

          We’ve said that “no using chemical weapons” is a bright line. Is pepper spray a chemical weapon? How about the heavier riot control agents? Incendiary white phosphorous?

          The categories can be probed deeper. I’m reminded of a hilarious exchange from Bond v. United States.

          JUSTICE ALITO:  This statute has an enormous — an enormous breadth, anything that can cause death or injury to a person or an animal. Would it shock you if I told you that a few days ago, my wife and I distributed toxic chemicals to a great number of children? 

          (Laughter.) 

          GENERAL VERRILLI:  Your Honor, I understand the point. 

          JUSTICE ALITO:  On Halloween, we gave them chocolate bars.  Chocolate is poison to dogs, so it’s a toxic chemical under the chemical weapons ­[convention implementation act]

        • Lillian says:

          If there’s an obvious Allied taboo violation concerning bombing cities, I’d say it was Dresden, in that it wasn’t really justifiable as a military target.

          Dresden was a major transportation hub and supply depot, crippling it was absolutely vital to disrupting the operations of the German Army in the East and bringing a swifter end to the war.

          • bean says:

            This, I have to disagree with. Dresden was targeted under the dehousing policy of Cherwell and Harris, which was frankly stupid and immoral. The theory was that the most effective way to end the war was to destroy worker morale by burning down their houses. They deliberately went after the parts of Dresden occupied by the civilian population, instead of the parts that contained things of military interest. Not only was this policy mostly ineffective, it drew off forces that could have been more effectively used. Things like mining the Danube and the campaign against the U-boats, both of which suffered because Harris wasn’t willing to accept 900 planes over Berlin instead of 1000.

            Contrast this with LeMay’s campaign against Japan. The Japanese had dispersed their factories, and fire was the most effective means of destroying them. So he used fire. But he also tried to actually hit military targets, as far as was possible with the technology of the time.

          • Lillian says:

            It might perhaps be useful to drawn a distinction between the United States bombing campaign and the British bombing campaign, which were not quite following the same strategic objectives. While the British attack on Dresden did indeed focus on the mostly non-industrial core of the city, as opposed to the heavily industrialized suburbs, the American attack focused on the marshalling yards. So my statement is true with respect to the actions of the Eighth Air Force, which was in fact attacking a military target, and your statement is true with respect to actions of Bomber Command, which deliberately targeted the civilian population.

          • bean says:

            It might perhaps be useful to drawn a distinction between the United States bombing campaign and the British bombing campaign, which were not quite following the same strategic objectives.

            Absolutely. The 8th Air Force mostly did the best it could. Bomber Command was used badly, and arguably did more damage to the allied war effort than to the Germans.

            So my statement is true with respect to the actions of the Eighth Air Force, which was in fact attacking a military target, and your statement is true with respect to actions of Bomber Command, which deliberately targeted the civilian population.

            Wait. The 8th Air Force attacked Dresden?

            When you hear about the bombing of Dresden, it’s always the British attack, never the American one. I’m not a historian of the European bombing campaign, but I know a lot more than the average person, and I was really confused. I’d suggest not holding up Dresden as a justified bombing, at least not without leading by talking about the 8th AF.

          • Lillian says:

            When i hear about the bombing of Dresden, it’s usually “the Allies” conflated as a single unit, with the pretence that there was nothing of military value worth bombing there. There were in fact valid military targets in the city, primarily the rail marshalling yards, and secondarily the industrial ring in the suburbs. It’s true Bomber Command made no attempt to hit either of those things, but the Mighty Eighth was in fact aiming for the rail yards.

            Specifically they hit the yards on the October 7th, 1944 and January 16th, 1945. They were also slated to do a daylight raid on February 13th ahead of the large RAF strike that would destroy the city centre that night, but bad weather prevented it. The Eighth did however do follow-up strikes on the 14th and 15th, which were only partially successful due to lingering smoke and clouds obscuring the target area.

    • carvenvisage says:

      Re the surrender, I encourage anyone who doubts the bomb was necessary

      The question is not whether the bomb was neccessarry but whether the second bomb was neccessarry, and whether either or both had to be dropped where they were.

      If they were willing to bluff a vast stockpile of ‘more where that came from’, two blasts in quick sucession anywhere is the same as on a town, and the will to use a weapon doesn’t need to be demonstrated twice. The second time at least, they could have bombed an open hillside.

  31. oppressedminority says:

    I have a different theory: people get upset over the violation of already-settled bright-line norms, because this is the correct action if you want to use limited enforcement resources efficiently.

    If this is true, and it might be, I dont believe that this is the reason people have in their mind when they deplore things. If anything this is some benefit that arose from less rational behavior and that behavior was selected for over time in part due to that benefit. I would rephrase the theory as “people will enthusiastically join a mob over the violation of bright-line norms once the mob is formed”.

    As an example, people knew for years that Harvey Weinstein was a serial sexual harasser. (I’m rewatching 30 Rock on amazon prime, check out Season 6 episode 14, 5:22-545, to see just how much they knew). Yet he was the toast of the town, good friend of Merryl Streep, and Hillary Clinton, not because these people support sexual harassment, but they were willing to overlook it for their personal interests, and Harvey Weinstein being a serial sexual harasser wasn’t as undeniable as it is now.

    Being the first to attack Weinstein publicly was a very risky move: if you strike at the king, dont miss. Yet so many people depended on him for their status that despite his behavior being an open secret in Hollywood for years he was welcome at the women’s march after Trump’s inauguration, wearing a pussy hat and everything, while pro-life women were barred from attending.

    Thankfully, someone took a shot at him and did not miss (I think it was Ronan Farrow?), and now everybody can safely pile on him and deplore him. But his behavior was a clear bright line violation of social norms for a very long time, and very powerful and supposedly feminist people not only tolerated but embraced him during that time.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t know; this seems to fit the story. Nobody made much of an effort to fight sexual harassment when they thought it wouldn’t work.

      After it started looking like it was working very well, there was a snowball effect where everybody joined in, and I would expect somebody who did Weinstein-like things today to be in a much worse position.

      • oppressedminority says:

        I would expect somebody who did Weinstein-like things today to be in a much worse position.

        I sure hope that you are correct, but I am less optimistic than you are. Human nature has not changed. An existing social norm against sexual harassment was applied zealously against powerful men, and that is definitely a good thing, but the same forces which allowed these powerful men to get away with it have not disappeared forever.

        Imagine a politician that rises to prominence just in time for the 2020 election and appears poised to defeat Trump, he’s “diverse”, well-spoken, very popular among independents, basically everything the progressives hope for. Now imagine an allegation of sexual harassment is made against him that would jeopardize his electoral prospects. I would expect the media, feminists, and academia to give him a pass, the way Bill Clinton has had a pass for his indiscretions. Granted, this is an extreme example, but the point is the next Weinstein will have adaptations to allow him to avoid the fate of the actual Weinstein.

        • brmic says:

          That politican has a name, Al Franken.
          And they good bright-line thing about him being made to resign is that it made it impossible to accept anyone with worse/more credible accusations against them because then all the people who wanted Franken to stay or only grudgingly accepted that he was pushed out will not play along.

          • oppressedminority says:

            LOL I wasn’t thinking of a real politician and Al Franken is definitely not who I thought I was conjuring, but hey, who knows.

          • John Schilling says:

            Al Franken’s role as a Senator(*) was basically to contribute a rubber-stamp vote to the Democratic caucus, from a solidly Blue state. In that role he could be seamlessly replace by Tina Smith. There was almost no cost to the Democratic elite or the Democratic voter in throwing him under the bus.

            Bill Clinton had a very different job, one that depended largely on his broadly effective charisma, political skill, popular mandate, and ability to win closely-contested elections. An unelected Al Gore inheriting a scandal-ridden White House would not have been his equal, and the Democrats would have lost a great deal if they had lost Clinton.

            Because of these differences, I’m not convinced that Franken has set a new precedent to displace the Clinton version. OTOH, if the Democrats make a strong and visible practice of forcing out grope-happy politicians when it makes no real difference, they may find it infeasible to make an exception when it does. So it’s one step in the right direction at least.

            * His role as a political entertainer was substantially different, but to his credit he mostly left that behind when he took the Senate seat.

  32. On the object-level, I still haven’t seen convincing evidence that:
    1. The Syrian government is using chemical weapons.
    2. China is imprisoning Uighurs just because they happen to be Uighurs.

    But let’s put that aside for a moment and focus on the meta-level principle of deploring acts that, if confirmed to have actually happened, undoubtedly go against solidly-established norms. Ideally, yes, that’s the way the world would work. But as other commenters have noted, when you can’t really influence the perpetrator without incurring enormous costs yourself, you start to look for other things that you can deplore.

    1. Syria has Russia’s backing, so a no-fly-zone as Hillary Clinton was proposing during the 2016 campaign is a no-go unless you want nuclear war. And sure, you can still criticize Syria heavily, but it would make the U.S. look weak if all you do is criticize without following up with action.
    2. China is a big, dynamic, nuclear power on which we are heavily dependent economically. Whaddayagonnado?
    3. Israel is an apartheid state, but also for some reason considered to be the U.S.’s key ally in the region, so whaddayagonnado?
    4. Saudi Arabia is a horrible theocratic monarchy, but also for some reason considered to be the U.S.’s key ally in the region, so whaddayagonnado?
    5. Harvey Weinstein is a horrible sex abuser, but he is also a powerful, untouchable man in Hollywood, so whaddayagonnado?

    In Harvey Weinstein’s case, society collectively decided to suddenly make him much less untouchable. If the world as a whole suddenly did that with Syria, or China, or Israel, or Saudi Arabia, kind of like how the world did that with South Africa, then we would be getting somewhere. But the world would have to brace itself for the pain of temporarily losing all of the material advantages that it gets from giving those countries a pass and staying on their good sides (cheap manufacturing, oil, etc.)

    • Thegnskald says:

      I am continually baffled by the attitude towards Israel, maybe you can explain it?

      From my perspective, Israel is held to an impossible standard of behavior which wouldn’t be tolerated by anyone; a demand that the nation accept that no matter what is done against it’s citizens, it is not allowed to stop the aggressor. Palestine is permitted to launch rockets against civilians, but if Israel shoots rockets back, it is criticized for the civilian casualties resulting from the fact that the rockets are launched from civilian centers. The attitude towards Palestinian government actions looks to me like “Well, what are you going to do”, bordering on treating them as innocent barbarians who don’t know any better. Israel, meanwhile, is held to the standard of civilization while fighting barbarians at it’s gates.

      Why, exactly, should Israel be held to a higher standard than it’s enemies?

      • oppressedminority says:

        Every first world country is expected to take in immigrants from the third world, except Israel. That is in fact the double standard at play here, and some progressives pick up on that and object to Israel’s policies on that basis. Also, there is the little fact that Israel was founded only 70 years ago by displacing a large number of Palestinians.

        I think Israel is within its rights to defend itself against Hamas and to secure the existence of its people, specially considering that their enemies are genocidal religious fanatics, but it’s not exactly a mystery why some progressives criticize it.

        • Thegnskald says:

          “Every first world country” is doing way too much of the work there; the surrounding countries aren’t criticized.

          (The latter argument is wrong for many reasons which I don’t particularly care to get into.)

        • Civilis says:

          There are a couple of first world countries that have been less than welcoming to immigrants (Japan, and depending on how the first world is defined these days, a number of the Eastern European states).

          Charitably, Israel has a democratic government, so political pressure from outside has a much better chance of influencing government policy to make a positive change.

          Less charitably, the Israel / Arab World power differential is much different than (for example) the China / Tibet power differential; criticizing Israel makes you Arab allies, criticizing China just makes the Chinese angry.

          Ultimately, it’s important to consider whether the methods you use are going to have an effect. Saudi Arabia is still an oppressive theorcratic state, though through diplomacy (most of it probably behind the scenes) they’ve started to open up somewhat. Isn’t that what we want?

        • 10240 says:

          “Every first world country is expected to take in immigrants from the third world, except Israel.”
          Huh? There is no major international action against any country for not taking in immigrants. (Except maybe within the EU, where countries have agreed to all kind of agreements on how they behave; and even there, enforcement is likely to be blocked.) Other countries do get criticized by some leftists for restricting immigration, but so does Israel.

        • SEE says:

          Except for the 900,000 they’ve taken from Arab countries, and the 100,000 from Ethiopia, and more than 100,000 from South America, and now we already have total Israeli immigration from the Third World over the last 70 years being more than an eighth of its current total population.

          Granted, those are almost all Third World immigrants that were Jewish by the definition of the Nazis, but there’s a lot of Christians in the Third World that historic Christendom could admit.

          • oppressedminority says:

            Granted, those are almost all Third World immigrants that were Jewish

            That’s the rub right there. Let’s have the USA propose a religion-based or ethnicity-based immigration policy and see how controversial that is.

            I tried doing a quick google search to find out if Israel’s immigration policy requires jewish ethnicity or simply practicing Judaism. I have no definite answer but it seems to be that you need to be ethnically jewish and you can still be barred if you are ethnically jewish but practice another religion than Judaism. So Israel is behaving very much like a nationalistic, non-inclusive country. If someone has more accurate info that would be great.

          • Aapje says:

            So Israel is behaving very much like a nationalistic, non-inclusive country.

            You misspelled ethno-nationalist.

          • SEE says:

            Well, for sufficiently unusual definitions, sure. Blacks from Ethiopia who natively speak Ethiopian languages and practice Judaism are not particularly akin to white Russian-speaking atheist Muscovites with one dead Ashkenazi grandmother by most definitions of “ethnicity” or “nationality”, but tens of thousands of each are “Jewish” enough to have immigrated to Israel.

          • Aapje says:

            @SEE

            What is strange about using ‘ethno-nationalist’ for a policy that grants citizenship based on ethnic background? That is literally what the term means. You may consider ‘ethno-nationalist’ to be strongly linked to racism, but even then Israel is not even strong disproof of that, as there is substantial discrimination against Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel).

            Israel’s policies are based on scripture, where it is explained that there are 12 tribes of Israel. However, only 2 of those are accounted for, while the others supposedly are in diaspora, so scholars have worked to identify the others.

            Beta Israel are considered to be descendants of the ten lost tribes, by scholars whose claims are accepted by Israel.

            Other black Africans, who are not considered to have a genetic connection to the tribes of Israel, are not allowed to migrate to Israel. This is an ethno-nationalist migration policy.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        The best, or least-bad if you prefer, answer I know of is:

        “Because Israel’s prior behavior has played a large role in creating the present situation.”

        Note that I am presenting this as an argument, not a self-evident and axiomatic truth. I will expand on the argument below.

        While Israel had clear reasons of direct military self-defense for its actions up through the 1970s, since that time it has done some very questionable, arguably counterproductive things that have justifiably antagonized the Palestinians.

        For example, taking more land from the regions the Palestinans lived in, and ‘settling’ it with Israelis, was an extreme provocation, since the Palestinians were already in large part a refugee population driven off their land by Israelis once before.

        Similarly, actions taken to disrupt or prevent the growth of a Palestinian-operated economy in the Palestinian-held territories led to widespread poverty and frustration in those territories, providing a steady stream of recruits to radical organizations.

        Refusal to be open to Palestinian administrative autonomy increased the appeal of radical revolutionary movements that sought to overthrow Israeli control.

        And so on.

        And I’m not even saying the Israelis did all this stuff for no reason, but they DID do it, and if they’d done less of it they might not be in a situation where as soon as they pulled out of the Gaza Strip Hamas immediately took over and turned the place into a firebase. The situation as it is now clearly gives Israel very good reasons to defend themselves forcefully, but that is in no small part because they painted themselves into the corner they now occupy.

        Forcing them to pretend they’re not in a corner would be unfair, but so would forcing the Palestinians to pretend that the Israelis weren’t the ones with the most control over the paint roller back in the day.

        • Thegnskald says:

          And Jordan’s (and other countries) behavior instigated the behavior of Israel; by this logic, they should be culpable. Again, why the double standard?

          • theredsheep says:

            I think it’s because we don’t bend over backwards for any other country the way we do for Israel. Israel is our best buddy, and we hold our ostensible friends (and generous-support-recipients) to higher standards.

          • Thegnskald says:

            Not, say, South Korea?

            Or Japan, which historical reasons aside, we continue to provide for the defense of?

            (Additionally, the US is not the only country in which people attack Israel for things they ignore in other countries.)

          • theredsheep says:

            I wasn’t aware that SK or Japan were mistreating/displacing unwanted minority ethnic groups.

          • Thegnskald says:

            So Japan has returned the property of the Ainu people? (Granted, they aren’t overtly legally awful to them since 1997.). And that is without going into the widespread discrimination directed at non-Japanese people. (Somebody brought up refugees and asylum seekers – Israel is more open than Japan.)

            South Korea is pretty oppressive, and in a similar situation as Israel, except that there aren’t any ethnic lines drawn by which to be specifically terrible to specific groups of people. Instead, they just treat critics of South Korea as suspected agent provocateurs. Not exactly a great example of human rights, either.

      • John Schilling says:

        From my perspective, Israel is held to an impossible standard of behavior which wouldn’t be tolerated by anyone;

        1. Don’t “redistribute” land that you control, away from people who legally own it and whose families have lived on it for generations, to people who reliably vote for your regime.

        2. When people complain about #1, don’t shoot live ammunition at them unless you’re willing to defend each bullet by the standards appropriate to peacetime law enforcement.

        3. If #2 turns into a war, you started it.

        Is there any first-world nation that isn’t held to these standards? Any nation at all that doesn’t get called out when they “settle” someone else’s property with their loyalists and shoot the ones who resist?

        • Civilis says:

          How many first world nations directly border hostile third-world nations? The only other one I can think of is South Korea, and I shouldn’t need to go into the issues with the border there beyond ‘it’s the biggest obstacle to banning the use of land mines’.

          The problem with history is that its filled with unique situations, and everyone differs as to why their situation is different from every one that came before.

          • John Schilling says:

            Jordan is neither a third-world nation nor hostile to Israel.

            And if it were those things, the bit where someone moves a bunch of their favored citizens from apartments out of range of “hostile” artillery, to nice big houses within artillery range, tells me that they are big fat liars if they say this had anything to do with security. You site military bases for security. Civilian settlements are for legitimizing land grabs, or rewarding loyalists.

        • Thegnskald says:

          Can you name a country which doesn’t, or hasn’t, done exactly this?

          Nevermind that the history of Palestine is more “Revolt against British rule and riots against immigrating Jewish settlers whose purchase of land pissed off religious leaders followed by being conquered by Jordon and Egypt and Syria then lost after those countries tried a second war against Israel” than “Israel kicks people off their land for no reason”. Palestinians in Israel proper were not treated this way, and it was the wars, followed by the refusal of Jordan, Egypt, and other countries to permit refugees from the wars they started to enter the countries they were theoretically citizens of which provoked the original issues.

          Which isn’t to say Israel has always acted morally or correctly, but if you are going to blame somebody, maybe Jordan and Egypt and Syria should take some of.the blame there as well? And maybe Britain? And maybe the Palestinians themselves, given that they helped started the whole mess with the revolutionary war against British rule (which was started because their leaders were angry that Jewish people were coming over and buying land?)

          I mean, the entire era was a bloody mess, but Israel was only one of many participants.

          • John Schilling says:

            Can you name a country which doesn’t, or hasn’t, done exactly this?

            I don’t give a damn who did that a hundred or two hundred years ago. We aren’t talking about the Indian Wars or the Trail of Tears here. When we do talk about those things, we pretty much universally agree that they were wrong.

            And when we see someone trying that same sort of thing today, it’s usually in someplace like Zimbabwe and we give them a lot more grief over it than we ever do Israel. Seriously, who is taking land away from their outgroup subjects and giving it to loyal ingroupers, today, and how’s that working out for them on the diplomatic front?

            Nevermind that the history of Palestine is more “Revolt against British rule and riots against immigrating Jewish settlers whose purchase of land pissed off religious leaders followed by being conquered by Jordon and Egypt and Syria

            We aren’t talking about 1918 or 1948 here either. We are talking about the post-1967 and especially post-1979 Israeli settlement of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and its effect on the Palestinian population.

            That is a criminal, wrongful, harmful thing that Israel did, after the wars that had threatened its territorial integrity had ended. Egypt didn’t make them do it, Jordan didn’t make them do it, Britain certainly didn’t make them do it, they did it all by themselves for their own private reasons.

            Whatever wrong things were done to Israel in the past, this wrong thing that they did is entirely on them. And the world calling them out on it, is entirely consistent with the way the world treats e.g. Zimbabwe’s government.

          • Thegnskald says:

            History matters.

            The reason these settlements were established is exactly the events that led to the six day war – Israel ceded seized territories back to the aggressors, and then these regions were then built up for another attempt at destroying Israel.

            The settlements began as a private effort to make it politically untenable to cede these territories back to the countries that had attacked them a second time, to prevent a recurrence.

            So yes. Israel citizens worked really hard to make sure their government wouldn’t just give the territory back to countries that had established a pattern of repeatedly trying to annihilate them. That is why the 70’s were such a period of settlement.

            And the major issue with these settlements is the disregard for private property rights – other countries frequently seize property from private citizens. On a smaller scale, that is exactly what the Kelo decision was about.

            Do you want to complain about the way Israel stole property from its own citizens when it forced them out of the Gaza Strip settlements they had lived in for years? Or does that not count? It is the same thing; why is one a bad thing, and the other good?

          • Aapje says:

            @Thegnskald

            So Israel has a license to treat Palestinians badly forever, because of what happened in the past?

            Does that mean that I have the right to steal from Germans, because of the Nazis did in WW 2 to my country?

            Does that mean that black Americans get to physically abuse you if they feel like it? After all, white people did abuse blacks.

            It’s amusing/sad/typical that this started out as a complaint that Israel gets treated worse than other countries, yet it changed into a demand for special privileges. The goalposts are moving quite rapidly here.

            Do you want to complain about the way Israel stole property from its own citizens when it forced them out of the Gaza Strip settlements they had lived in for years?

            It is only slightly bad, because those settlers are or should have been aware that they got stolen property.

            If you buy something very cheaply from a homeless drug user and the real owner later brings the police to demand his property back, then my sympathy is limited.

            Finally, I want to point out that Palestinians are individuals. You are advocating abuse of individual Palestinians because of a collective/historic guilt, which is obnoxious.

          • Thegnskald says:

            John –

            No. I am telling you why those settlements exist; your turning that into “treat Palestinians bad forever” is just beating on a strawman.

            And the Israeli citizens weren’t just forced to leave the land, they were also forced to leave industrial equipment, for example, on a never-fulfilled promise of reimbursement.

            This will likely be my last comment in response to you on this topic; I don’t find your explanations helpful, and they are just biasing me against hearing better arguments and taking them seriously.

          • Thegnskald says:

            Oh – sorry, John, that was Aapje. I was put off by the sudden and hostile tone shift, didn’t realize there was a more obvious reason.

            ETA:

            And to reiterate – the objection isn’t to criticizing Israel, the objection is to the way Israel is singled out for criticism for behavior that isn’t actually all that interesting. This isn’t “The standard for first world nations, which Israel falls terribly short of” – this is a uniquely high standard that applies to Israel and Israel alone, and which most other countries fail at as well. And if your position is that all countries should live up to this standard, focusing on Israel as the sole and uniquely evil transgressor doesn’t support that perspective.

            The literal best I can say about this whole line of thought is that it is a double standard built out of ignorance. The bad behavior of Israel is brought to your attention, so you are aware of it – but your ignorance of the fact that these bad behaviors aren’t all that special turns into a special hatred of Israel.

            I asked why the double standard, and I guess “ignorance” is the correct answer, so I am sort of satisfied, in a very unsatisfying way. Ah well.

          • Aapje says:

            @Thegnskald

            A major change in the 20th century was that the dominant view became that colonialism is morally wrong and that native peoples deserve sovereignty. Furthermore, after WW II, ethno-nationalism was strongly rejected.

            The result of these changes was lots of independence movements (and sympathy for them, even if they were violent), decolonization of the second and third world, a boycott of South-Africa, dissolution of various unions/countries, etc.

            Israel is a bit of an anachronism in this respect, because it was and is building up itself using ethno-nationalist & colonialist mechanisms, at a time when this was/is no longer generally accepted.

            I think that your sentiment, that Israel is treated extremely badly*, is caused partially by your moral beliefs being very different from the critics. Where you see similar situations treated differently, they see different situations.

            * I do think that Israel gets disproportionate criticism, but not to the extent that you do & I also think that they get disproportionate support.

    • John Schilling says:

      On the object-level, I still haven’t seen convincing evidence that:
      1. The Syrian government is using chemical weapons.

      We’ve been through this before.

      The Syrian government is for real and for certain using chemical weapons, or was until quite recently.

  33. J Mann says:

    I think Caplan is conflating a bunch of related issues that are somewhat banal (albeit discouraging) when viewed separately.

    1) Enforcing social norms via viral mob is inherently unpredictable. I have no idea why Burger King’s Mary J Blige chicken commercial is more outrageous than some of Popeye’s more eye popping ads. (It might be, but I suspect it’s more that twitter caught up the ad). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the people wielding the twitter stick – a little randomness in punishment might make people even more careful not to enter the problematic penumbra – but if Caplan wants consistency in who gets twitter shamed, he might as well complain that some viral cat videos aren’t as catchy as ones that get overlooked.

    2) People get upset about stuff for reasons other than pure utilitarian logic. I’m not sure why a shooting of ten people or a plane crash is more emotionally arresting than twenty single shootings or car crashes, but it seems to be to most people.

    3) Lastly, to Scott’s point, sometimes you draw a red line around something bad that you can deter. Technically, our red line against chemical weapons looks almost unintentional, but the steelman case for it is (a) you can deter chemical weapons but you can’t deter gunfire, so pick the fruit you can reach and (b) a norm against some of the world’s worst weapons might avoid future tragedies.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      I like your (3b). Among other things it leads to the idea that we may try to red-line certain things because we want to prevent them from evolving into worse threats.

      We red-line terrorist bombings that kill fewer people than furniture accidents, not because our society can’t tolerate having some lunatic detonate a bomb that kills ten people every several years, but because we can’t tolerate having truck bombs running into large buildings every week, or nuclear terrorism blowing up a city every decade.

      We red-line chemical weapons because it’s part of a convention that also lets us red-line biological weapons, and while chemical weapons have a pretty sharp upper limit on how scary they can get, biological weapons are one of the biggest candidates for “existential risk of the century.” So far we’ve managed to keep that particular X-risk genie firmly in the bottle, and if having a red-line ban on chemical weapons has made keeping the seal on that bottle even a few percent easier, it’s worth it.

      Likewise, we might red-line ban unwanted sexual advances in the workplace because we’re trying to extend this and parlay it into, say, a ban on coercing people into sex more generally.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Also, 3b extends to horrible weapons that haven’t been conceived of or invented yet. The redline against chemical/biological/nuclear weapons extends to, say, nanobots that grey goo your enemies.

  34. Picador says:

    I agree with your analysis, but the disconnect is even weirder than Caplan’s “verbal abuse” example: there are plenty of Hollywood luminaries with histories of confirmed and/or alleged physical abuse, including physical abuse of women, and these men are still celebrated by the same people jumping on board the #metoo bandwagon. Nobody is boycotting Russel Crowe or Michael Fassbender movies that I know of. Apparently in Hollywood you can (allegedly!) try to murder a woman as long as you don’t put your hand on her knee.

    Putting this through your “bright line taboo” framework, I think people are pretty dumb about domestic violence, and also about male-on-male violence, and so they haven’t applied any bright lines to these behaviours the way they have to boob-grabbing. I would say that’s a problem, and it makes me a bit of a cynic on #metoo.

    • benwave says:

      You do have to start somewhere. I think we all agree that sexual harassment by people in power-relations is a bad thing, there’s collectively enough interest in the issue right now to establish a practical norm against it so by all means we should. Ride the wave while it’s high. In all likelihood, if this is successful it will make it easier to take action against physical abuse later.

  35. John Schilling says:

    Resources devoted to enforcing that norm won’t just solve the immediate problem in China, they’ll also help maintain a credible taboo against this kind of thing so it’s less likely to happen the next time.

    Resources devoted to enforcing that kind of norm won’t solve the immediate problem in China at all, which will weaken the credibility of the taboo. Unless the resources are missiles, delivered with the understanding that China will deliver some missiles back at us before/instead of abolishing the camps, and hoping they aren’t nuclear.

    That’s the part of the equation you are missing. Generally speaking, “devoting resources” to enforcing taboos works only if the resources actually end the visible taboo violation du jour. The police have to actually arrest, convict, and imprison muggers. Employers have to actually fire sexual harassers. And nations have to actually shut down other nations’ concentration camps. It isn’t enough to try, and it isn’t wise to assume that just because you do try sincerely you will succeed.

    Specifically, you don’t have anything resembling a credible plan for shutting down China’s concentration camps, just a vague notion of “economic sanctions”. Looking at Wikipeida’s list of concentration and internment camps, exactly none of them were shut down by economic sanctions. Economic sanctions basically never cause governments to stop activities they feel are necessary for internal or regime security, except in the rare case where they result in regime change, and that only happens when the target is weak enough that they can’t retaliate in any significant way. China’s regime, can retaliate.

    If you want to make professional behavior taboo, you have to be willing to fire workers over it
    If you want to make personal behavior taboo, you have to be willing to imprison people over it
    If you want to make national behavior taboo, you have to be willing to wage war over it
    Otherwise someone will call your bluff, and the taboo will collapse.

    So, are you willing to wage war with China over the Uighurs? If not, what is your plan and why should we believe it will do anything but weaken the barely-even-a-norm against concentration camps?

    • Randy M says:

      Economic sanctions basically never cause governments to stop activities they feel are necessary for internal or regime security

      Exactly, why would they? The regime isn’t going to feel the pinch, and if they had a high concern for their citizen’s well being, well, we wouldn’t be in that situation.
      Exception might be in a regime entirely dependent on an export if you had global coordination. Which you won’t.

    • Eugene Dawn says:

      This is a good point, but it seems to me too strong. There may still be value in enforcing the weaker, associated taboos “don’t abet countries who are implementing concentration camps” by applying pressure to companies who help build the concentration camps or the surveillance systems used to populate them, and “don’t let officials in charge of building concentration camps have free access to assets in your country’s banking system” by freezing the assets of people so implicated.
      Presumably neither of these must necessarily lead to war; they will also not actually end China’s use of camps. But they can still raise the costs of building the camps, which on the margin can still disincentivize other governments from doing so. By analogy, even if police only raise the costs of a successful mugging, they can still disincentivize mugging.
      Obviously one still has to argue that the costs you incur to enforce the taboo outweigh the costs incurred by the violators, and very plausibly this is not the case, especially with respect to strong countries like China.

      • Randy M says:

        I would presume construction firms are somewhat local; in any event, I’m pretty sure China could manage to find some that don’t have business to lose with the west. In terms of surveillance, well, one thing China can throw at the problem is manpower.

        don’t let officials in charge of building concentration camps have free access to assets in your country’s banking system” by freezing the assets of people so implicated.

        That’s another matter; there are probably many Chinese officials who utilize the US in some way, from universities to investments. I would expect a lot of solidarity among the Chinese officials, though, as they all want the freedom to act without outside interference. It might have an effect on the margins, but for policies that China was committed too, I wouldn’t get my hopes up and it isn’t without risks.

        • Eugene Dawn says:

          I was referring to American tech companies who have partnered with Chinese companies to help build surveillance software:e.g.”Intel and Nvidia are both reportedly supplying Dahua with advanced hardware to build an AI-powered video recorder called DeepSense, which can perform a real-time comparison of 100,000 faces.”

          I agree it’s unlikely to make much dent in China’s case, but the costs of freezing assets of officials who help build camps are much lower than war with China, so at least the expected value calculation isn’t quite so mismatched. It still doesn’t mean there’s positive expected value of course, but I’m just making the point that there’s enforcement and then there’s enforcement.

      • John Schilling says:

        That’s a completely different argument than “we’re enforcing a taboo”, which is what we are discussing here.

        Also, concentration camps aren’t built on the basis of marginal cost-benefit analysis; national security doesn’t work that way. People either see threats or they don’t, and if they see a threat they’ll vastly overpay to make it go away. And anybody who tries to stop them is the enemy, in league with the very enemy they are trying to secure their nation against and so making that threat even larger and its eradication more imperative.

        Also also, it runs into the problem that if I’m looking for cheap razor wire, manacles, or surveillance cameras, a quick google suggests I am going to be buying from Chinese companies. So, lots of luck with that plan to make China, or anyone else, pay more for their concentration camps by “applying pressure” to their contractors.

        • Jiro says:

          Precommitting to overpay when fighting threats is rational. And lots of “irrational” human actions can be modelled as rational precommitment.

        • Eugene Dawn says:

          Ok, I concede that from the point of view of enforcing a taboo, we are unlikely to be able to commit to punishing any violation reliably enough to keep the taboo going.

          But I still think your argument is too categorical. Nuclear weapons are an issue of national security, and yet it’s possible for sanctions and international pressure to influence states in the direction away from developing nukes. Apartheid too was a national security issue for white South Africans, but sanctions and international pressure helped lead to the end of apartheid. Of course, China is bigger, more powerful, and more important than Iran or South Africa and unlike Iran already has nukes–I’m not arguing that because sanctions can work against some countries, they can work against all. But your argument seems to imply that international pressure can never work to stop states from pursuing policies they see as necessary for national security, which I don’t think is true.

          Also, as mentioned above, I’m suggesting “applying pressure” to American or European tech companies who help supply hardware for China’s surveillance state. Forcing China to develop the necessary technologies on its own can raise the cost of the surveillance program, and perhaps delay it; and also shows a willingness to enforce the subsidiary taboo “don’t collaborate with people who build concentration camps”.

          Finally, it seems to me the west can in fact impose real costs on Chinese companies that do things the west disapproves of. Not all Chinese companies are equally susceptible to this sort of pressure, but at least some of the Chinese companies implicated in the Xinjiang security state do business with the west. To quote from the article I posted above: “Bloomberg even declared in April that “Foreigners Can’t Get Enough” of Hikvision’s stock thanks to the firm’s high profit margins, without expanding on exactly how such margins were attained. A wide array of institutional funds representing millions of clients from firms like Vanguard, JPMorgan, and Fidelity have also invested in the firms.” I don’t see why the west couldn’t apply pressure to Hikvision.

          • John Schilling says:

            Nuclear weapons are an issue of national security, and yet it’s possible for sanctions and international pressure to influence states in the direction away from developing nukes.

            It used to be possible; not clear that it still is. But the bit where it used to be possible was in large part because, for the first two decades or so, building nuclear weapons was prohibitively expensive for most proliferators, and for the two decades after that because we could point to Israel bombing the Osirak reactor and the rest of the (non-Arab) being fine with that, as evidence that we were actually willing to bomb people over this.

            Also, as mentioned above, I’m suggesting “applying pressure” to American or European tech companies who help supply hardware for China’s surveillance state.

            OK, but how does that do anything about the concentration camps? Concentration camps are literally 19th-century technology; China doesn’t need western technology to round up Uighurs and put them into camps.

            The “surveillance state” is the alternative to concentration camps. Ubiquitous surveillance makes it safe, or at least safer, for China to let suspicious Uighurs walk around in relative freedom and still be reasonably sure they won’t be conspiring to commit terrorist attacks. At the margin, less high-tech surveillance gear means more Uighurs locked away behind razor wire. Meanwhile, I see zero pushback on US tech companies helping e.g. the UK or UAE set up their own ubiquitous-surveillance systems, and I don’t believe for one minute that this is because of the technical differences.

            This is exactly the opposite of the sort of focused, “arbitrary” deploring Caplan and Scott are talking about, where saying this one thing will not be tolerated, and consistently punishing that thing, can have a deterrent effect. This is just going to come across as “China Bad, we hate China, mostly we don’t notice China, but whatever we do notice China doing we will interpret in the worst possible light and punish it – possibly mistaking it for a completely different thing but it’s China doing it so it’s bad and we should punish it”.

            That has zero deterrence effect. Quite the opposite; it means China will be motivated to absolutely lock down the Uighur situation by any means necessary to keep the US from stirring up trouble on that front, and make sure their economy is as sanction-proof as possible while buying as much leverage over our economy as possible. And making sure their nukes are “tippy-top”.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            The articles I’ve read have suggested that the surveillance in Xinjiang is being used to determine who gets put in the camps; I think they are more properly re-education camps than concentration camps so the government is trying to target “subversives”.
            It’s possible though that even if you could impair China’s ability to use this surveillance state, they would just skip to full-on concentration camps, and maybe it’s impossible to separate the surveillance that puts people in the camps and the camps themselves anyway.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Minor penalties at least send the message “we’ve noticed this and are reacting to it” and suggest that the penalties might be stronger in conditions where we have more leverage.

      I admit I’m not sure it works this way, and you could make an equally good case for “minor penalties are worse than no penalties because they demonstrate that we noticed but don’t really have the energy to do something serious.”

      • John Schilling says:

        If you pretend you haven’t noticed, that leaves people unclear on what will happen when you do notice. Even if it’s obvious that you’re pretending, it’s plausible (even likely) that the need for such pretense is that you would be obligated to do something drastic if you did officially notice and are for the moment trying to hold off on that.

        If you officially notice and do something small, that’s pretty much what the phrase “slap on the wrist” means, and that phrase isn’t exactly a synonym for “really effective deterrent because the target fears greater retaliation in the future”. Decisive action, or none at all.

        And if the goal is to draw and defend bright red lines, it has to be decisive action every time you are noticed as having noticed someone stepping over the line. There is an alternate strategy where you deliberately don’t draw the line, and leave the adversary with the equivalent of an unmapped minefield to worry about, but that also doesn’t work if you give slap-on-the-wrist warnings whenever he gets close to a mine.

    • mdet says:

      If you want to make personal behavior taboo, you have to be willing to imprison people over it

      “Imprison” is way too strong. Racial slurs are taboo, and we accomplished that without imprisoning everyone who used them. And various small communities that don’t have the authority to prosecute and incarcerate people still establish their own norms and taboos. So “be willing to expel people from your social group, and maybe fire them in extreme cases, over it” is enough.

      Good comment otherwise.

  36. Z says:

    You give up and do honest work.

    Or you retrain as a burglar?

  37. dndnrsn says:

    If there are some forms of atrocity that are easier with chemical weapons than with conventional ones – ie a dictator with a limited arms budget can kill more people with a choice between chemical and conventional weapons than they can when restricted to conventional weapons alone – then the taboo against chemical weapons saves lives.

    This is a big if, though. In WWI, poison gas was intended to break a stalemate; it didn’t. Pretty quickly better protective equipment was developed, then new gas was used, and better equipment was developed. By the end of the war, gas deaths were very low – a smaller % of casualties were fatal than artillery or small arms casualties. At that point it was not being used primarily as a killing weapon, but rather to degrade the performance of the enemy troops by forcing them to wear a gas mask.

    Chemical weapons are better against defenceless civilians than military personnel with protection, but that’s true of all weapons. Death squads killing using un-banned small arms are probably a better bet for the dictator on a budget than having a chemical weapons program.

    That chemical weapons create more horror than ordinary weapons that just cause you to lose a considerable amount of blood or whatever, isn’t connected to their being more deadly.

  38. aciddc says:

    For some reason the reaction to Syrian chemical weapons use seems more ridiculous to me than the other examples. I think it’s that I think chemical weapons are tools to accomplish a negative outcome rather than being the outcome themselves (that would be people dying I guess). The issue is they are pretty perfectly substitutable with conventional weapons. A mugger may give up on crime rather than retrain as a burglar, but a national government is not going to give up on killing the people it wants to kill just because it can’t use chemical weapons to do so. It will find another tool for the same job.

  39. yildo says:

    Suppose, for example, that a major celebrity is extremely emotionally abusive to all his subordinates. He screams at them all the time.

    Jeffrey Tambor just got fired from Transparent and two of the Star Trek showrunners just got fired as well for being emotionally abusive to subordinates.

  40. rlms says:

    I don’t think the explanation works for celebrity abuse. There are a lot of renowned jazz musicians who were violent towards their subordinates, but it feels reasonable to me to be OK with that but not with levels of sexual assault that would be comparable if done by a non-celebrity individual. I think the reason for this is that sexual assault/harassment is deliberate, whereas non-sexual violence in this context often seems to be part of eccentricity which often seems to be a necessary part of greatness. So the perpetrators of it are seen as less sane and hence less culpable. Also, it’s less icky to say “if you want to play with us, you have to risk Mingus punching you in the mouth” rather than “if you want to be in this film, you have to risk [whoever] sexually assaulting you” — we’re general more willing to let people risk non-sexual violence than comparably bad sexual violence for some reason.

    • Picador says:

      My intuitions go the other way, not least because the majority of the conduct that is getting people fired in the #metoo moment is not “sexual assault” or even “sexual harassment” (which, among other things, requires some kind of power imbalance between the parties), but is simply called “sexual misconduct” and is in some cases pretty minor. If a new hire gets told “The boss may physically assault you when angry”, that strikes me as a million times more crazy and objectionable than “The boss gets a bit handsy when he’s had a few drinks”, or as in many of these cases, “One of your co-workers may make sexually inappropriate comments if you’re out for drinks after work”.

      • albatross11 says:

        Social media (and traditional media, for that matter) are *really* bad at enforcing any kind of consistent standards. What gets attention is a scandal involving both sex and prominent/interesting people. A very prominent actor or tech CEO or pro athlete having a couple unsubstantiated claims of minor sexual misconduct (say, pressuring coworkers for dates but eventually taking no for an answer) is news in a way that a midlevel manager at a plastics factory more-or-less coercing his secretary into sex in order to keep her job isn’t. The public attention something gets is not all that strongly a function of how bad it is. And there’s an incentive for everyone to fold them all together, so that the media personality with tendency to get handsy with coworkers when he’s drinking gets mapped into the same bin as the media personality who locked women into his office so they couldn’t get away from him when he decided to force himself on them.

      • rlms says:

        You missed the “comparably bad” qualifications in my comment. The central example of physical assault (punching someone reasonably hard I think) is a lot worse than the making of inappropriate sexual comments outside of the context of work, so unsurprisingly it’s worse within that context. But if we take an example of physical assault that would be about as traumatising etc. as inappropriate sexual comments outside of the context of work (say, rudely shoving someone out the way), I think the sexualised misconduct is seen as worse within the context of work, and this is true if we scale up the badness.

        But also see the rest of my point about eccentricity. Another difference is that it’s difficult to imagine a film producer having premeditated plans to catch people alone so he can punch them, and conversely it’s difficult to imagine someone saying “well, he’s just so passionate about music that he sometimes sexually assaults people who don’t play well enough”.

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          @rlms. You think bad behavior is worse because it is pre-meditated? I would not agree with that.

  41. eqdw says:

    Honestly, for all four examples given (sexual harassment vs professional harassment, poison gas vs conventional weapons, Jim Crow vs immigration, Mai Lai vs Hiroshima) there’s a much simpler explanation: Having the outrage break in this curiously “arbitrary” way is convenient to the people in charge.

    For some quazi-hypothetical examples to illustrate this:

    Sexual Harassment vs Professional Harassment: It’s a well-observed trend that, in general, the higher up an authority chain someone is, the more likely they are to be sociopathic. This would suggest that professional harassment is _rampant_ among those in power. If there was a backlash against people like that, well, it could boil over into a generalized opposition to the people at the top.

    On the other hand, sexual harassment is something that is not as rampant (as in, it’s not 90+% of everyone). It’s much easier to hide. It’s much more ambiguous: if you control the framing, you can make egregious violations look trivial, and trivial ones look egregious.

    If you’re in charge of an institution, organization, or government body, you’re probably a sociopath. Your subordinates are probably also sociopaths. On the other hand, you may or may not be a sexual harasser and, if you are, it’s much easier to hide this fact. In the event of an explosion of outrage regarding sociopathy, you might get burned. In the event of an explosion of outrage regarding sexual harassment, it’s much easier for you to redirect that outrage and/or weaponize it against a rival

    Poison gas vs conventional war: Let’s say the US has some strategic interest in intervening in Syria. They can’t just march armies in. This would likely generate severe backlash from the locals, severe backlash at home, and might influence strategic rivals to behave in ways the US doesn’t want. If the pretext is “thousands are dying in a civil war via conventional weapons”, all of the above applies. There are any one of a thousand moments to intervene. There’s no credible stopping point, save “the war is over”, which is ambiguous at best. There are also hundreds of other places in which this is happening, and intervening in Syria over 1000s of conventional deaths creates a burden of justifying non-intervention in other countries with similar situations.

    On the other hand, poison gas. It’s rare, so the risk of setting a precedent that would require intervention elsewhere is low. It’s very clear and concrete, which means that the US’s intervention can be formally scoped and telegraphed to any rivals that might perceive an escalation (“we’re bombing the gas facilities. Don’t want more bombing, don’t build more gas facilities”). There’s an easy story to sell to the American people, so any resistance to this move is muted.

    Jim Crow vs immigration: I don’t want to say too much on this lest I run afoul of culture war boundaries. But, speaking in broad generalities: Basically everyone agrees that Jim Crow was bad, and it happened far in the past. This means that any outrage against it is harmlessly dissipated in the form of people yelling at history. Meanwhile, in the present, people are strongly divided on the question of immigration. This means that any outrage directed at immigration can both a) threaten a current power bloc’s ability to achieve their goals; and b) might actually affect the stability of the world. No matter how much you’re mad about the past, you can’t change history. But if you’re mad at the present, you can change the course of the future.

    Mai Lai vs Hiroshima: Hiroshima was ordered from the top and can be safely assumed to be the will of those in power. Mai Lai, at least based on my 20 minutes reading the wikipedia article, was a rogue company, and can safely be assumed to _not_ be the will of those in power at the top.

    Going past the object level, there’s a deeper level too. The people in power care very strongly about their subordinates following orders. Hiroshima happened because everyone followed orders. Mai Lai happened because a company _didn’t_ follow orders. It’s strongly within the interests of those at the top to channel outrage against Mai Lai, so as to disincentivize future rogue companies. It’s also strongly within the interests of those at the top to deflect outrage from Hiroshima, because, after all, some day they might order their subordinates to do something just as bad as that, and they don’t want to deal with everyone refusing to do so when that happens

    • quanta413 says:

      I heartily endorse this explanation for selective moral outrage. You can case by case slowly give “reasonable” mistake-theory explanations for why selective moral outrage isn’t really that arbitrary. But for each situation you basically have to give a fresh explanation.

      Or you can accept that power does matter and explain the broad outlines of what is more likely to be paid attention to with one explanation. The postmodernists weren’t wrong about the influence of power on discourse, they just marched way too far.

    • albatross11 says:

      Along the lines of the Hiroshima/MaiLai distinction, you can also look at the outrage w.r.t. Abu Girab vs the whole torture program. I think military people actually did jail time for Abu Girab, and I think the general in charge had her military career ended. This manifestly did not happen w.r.t. the bigger torture program, probably because it was ordered from the top and had a lot of powerful people complicit in it.

    • DavidS says:

      Genuine question: would we expect professional harassment to be rampant among sociopaths?

      The Jim Crow / immigration equivalence only seems to me to work if you take as a given that people think of themselves and their governments having the same moral relationship to fellow citizens and foreigners. This is vanishingly rare as a premise.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      It’s a well-observed trend that, in general, the higher up an authority chain someone is, the more likely they are to be sociopathic.

      If you’re in charge of an institution, organization, or government body, you’re probably a sociopath.

      What?! Maybe your other examples hold, but these two comments are clearly untrue.

  42. riceowlguy says:

    There’s no official history I can find to back this up, but there was a part of a Tom Clancy novel that stated matter-of-factly that what you posit happening w/r/t the police and muggings actually did happen in this US, but it was the FBI and kidnapping. Kidnapping people for money in the US basically stopped being a thing somewhere in the early-to-mid 20th century; once the victim has been missing for long enough to have been taken across state lines the FBI rolls in with a ton of resources, and potential kidnappers-for-ransom have realized it’s a fool’s errand. It probably had something to do with the Lindbergh case.

    • Aapje says:

      The major difficulty is money transfer, but cryptocurrency would in principle make that far easier. So perhaps it is due for a comeback?

      • John Schilling says:

        but cryptocurrency would in principle make that far easier.

        The fact that it has “crypto” in its name is misleading in this context. Cash raises suspicion when you try to spend or bank it in large quantities, but it is at least somewhat anonymous, and usually impractical to track by serial number.

        Every bitcoin you try to cash or bank, comes with an attached spreadsheet documenting every transaction it has ever been through, and it’s worthless if one bit of that spreadsheet is changed. You really want to be the one with a bunch of bitcoin whose last recorded transaction was a ransom payment for a kidnapping, in hopes that someone will buy it from you without checking?

        Cryptocurrencies work, for now, for much lower-profile crimes that don’t call for a full-court press by the FBI.

        • Aapje says:

          I’d use Monero, rather than bitcoin to start with.

          You can buy stuff from other criminals with it, making the paper trail their problem.

          Another option is a money mule, perhaps from a second or third world country. Good luck persecuting or getting the money back from a homeless addict, poor Nigerian, Ukrainian, etc.

          • John Schilling says:

            You can buy stuff from other criminals with it, making the paper trail their problem.

            Yeah, and you can shoot a cop with a pistol and then sell that pistol to some other criminal so it’s his problem. Except, A: he’s going to rat you out the instant the other cops talk to him, and B: if the pistol comes with a spreadsheet that lists everyone it’s ever been used to shoot, he’s not going to buy it from you in the first place when he sees that the last victim was a cop.

            Once drug dealers start being publicly arrested because, while their drug dealing went unnoticed, someone else’s bitcoin-ransom kidnapping turned into their FBI-SWAT-raid problem, criminals will start checking for that.

  43. SEE says:

    Well, “ethnic minorities in concentration camps” is one way to view the situation in China, sure.

    But “reactionary holders of counter-revolutionary beliefs in re-education camps” is a quite legitimate alternative framing, and one the Western left has never been willing to support a civilization-wide bright-line rule against (as opposed to hemming and hawing about it being an unfortunate excess).

    And between the operators of the facilities (Chinese communist party) and the apparent focus on indoctrination rather than extermination, the second framing really seems more natural.

  44. Theresa Klein says:

    It’s not just about defending existing social norms, but about establishing and defending new norms. In some cases, it’s about attempting to establish a norm when there is not yet general consensus in society about that norm.
    In the case of sexual harassment and the #metoo movement, I think the new norm is generally correct – bosses shouldn’t sexually harass their subordinates, powerful men shouldn’t use their positions to coerce sex from women. (They shouldn’t have to anyway!). However, some of the debate here is not just about whether there should be a new norm, but about what constitutes a violation of the norm, with people trying to push the boundaries on enforcement a bit too far and others trying to push back, sometimes a bit too far. This is how society works things out, though.
    The battle-ground issues where new norms are being established and old ones torn down is always going to be where the most controversy is generated and thus the most attention is paid.

    • albatross11 says:

      Yes, I think this is right. When we all agree on norms, it’s easy to coordinate on enforcement. When we disagree on what the norms should be, there’s going to be a lot of argument about what norms should be enforced, where the line is, etc., and a lot of people arguing that group X is using the norm enforcement as a way of furthering their political/social agenda. (And that’s likely to be true sometimes, people being people.)

      #MeToo is one example of this, but there are plenty of others. Consider the norm of outing and shaming Communists in government or entertainment jobs. There was a disagreement about how/whether these norms should be enforced, and plenty of use of norm enforcement to get rid of rival political candidates.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      That was worthwhile, and he highlighted something that made me realize something important was overlooked:

      We can’t credibly demand our elites are never jerks to their subordinates – jerkishness is too vague a concept, there’s too much of it around, and it’s just not really an enforceable norm. But we have sort of credibly demanded our elites don’t sexually harass their subordinates, and it seems like we might be getting enough of a coalition together to enforce this in a lot of cases.

      What we’re going to get outraged on and act on needs to be sufficiently describable to create a norm out of, and rare enough to enforce.

      “Don’t be a jerk” is hard to code.

      “Don’t have sex with subordinates” is easy to code.

      “Don’t use chemical weapons” is easy to code, and chemical weapons use is rare already.

      “Don’t use conventional weapons” is, while easy to code, impossible to implement (* points to all of human history *)

      So consider liskantope’s segue into gun control and school shootings below. Every time this happens, sections of the gun control crowd exclaim they want to ban guns, or perhaps just ban “assault weapons.” Occasionally they will use the words “automatic” or “semi-automatic.” But automatic weapons are already banned (with a few caveats) and I don’t think anyone in America has been killed with an automatic weapon in…ever? But this was an easily codeable ban: an automatic weapon is one with a mechanism such that one pull of the trigger results in multiple shots fired. There never were a lot of them anyway. Easy to code, easy to ban.

      But “assault weapon” is not well-defined. People will describe the sort of weapon they want banned. It’s black. Scary looking. Maybe has a barrel shroud. “High capacity.” “High rate of fire.” But the capacity is just a feature of the magazine. An AR-15 with a 10 round magazine is still an AR-15. And the rate of fire is “semi-automatic” which means “each pull of the trigger fires a round and loads a new one.” And that describes about half of rifles and almost every handgun in America. And there’s almost as many guns as people in this country. So it’s hard to describe and impossible to enforce given the already massive numbers of such weapons in existence, which is why nothing will ever seriously move on the gun control front. But the outrage will never subside, either.

      • perlhaqr says:

        I don’t think anyone in America has been killed with an automatic weapon in…ever?

        There are illegal automatic weapons in the US, and they do get used, but in general you are correct. There is, to the best of my knowledge, only one case of an American being killed by a legally owned automatic weapon in America, and that was a woman who was murdered by her police officer husband.

        And there’s almost as many guns as people in this country.

        More. Recent estimates are ~400M firearms in private hands in the US.

        • Lillian says:

          Keeping in mind here that only about a third of households actually own guns. So we have more guns than people because we’re a rich country with a substantial population of gun collectors. This means the number of guns is not particularly indicative of the prevalence of guns. A man after all can only wield one or two at a time. A good exaple is the Vegas shooter who brought something like 30 guns with him, but as far as i know only fired two of them. The rest were pure dead weight.

    • helloo says:

      I do feel this is a really weird position for Scott to take stake in.

      A lot of this blog seems to be highlighting how various positions and statements are inaccurate or seem to be more virtue based than rational based.

      To then just go and cheer for virtue based enforcement, even if it possibly means overhanded conduct seems really out of place.
      I mean, I do understand that this is “reasonable” for many people (and thus why so many people do such things), but not for Scott to endorse it and not consider the negative consequences of such rules.

  45. liskantope says:

    I’m totally on board with this argument. I just realized that it puts its finger on the crux of what bothers me when I hear anti-gun-control arguments about how a child in school has more chance of having a heart attack than of getting shot (or the like), so it doesn’t make sense to be passing legislation to reduce the chances of getting shot. Because the process of setting policy is not and never has been determined by the severity of the harms we’re trying to prevent, according to a calculus that computes their total disutility as a continuous function of some theoretical legislation. It’s just not practical, and this is underscored by the very fact that the anti-gun-controllers making such arguments aren’t proposing legislation to reduce the incidence of heart attacks among schoolchildren. If there are two dangers for schoolchildren that we’re considering, shootings and heart attacks, surely managing to do something about one of those is better in principal than not doing anything about either one?

    Of course, some utility has to be paid in the effort it takes to set any given legislation, and a given piece of legislation may not be as effective as purported or have other unintended consequences which decrease utility. But that’s not directly relevant to the argument I’m making here.

  46. Andy Bethune says:

    And then when mugging stops, the police chief wants to be sure that everyone continues to believe his commitment to solving mugging cases, and so has a beggar beat within an inch of his life every other month, just to make sure that that potential muggers are paying attention to what happens when you ask someone for money.

    • christhenottopher says:

      No, no, no, this is a humane and sophisticated town. They just take every June 19th off as a holiday where they burn effigies of Blaise Pascal to get the point across.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      The satire you just presented is basically the largest single criticism of “broken windows” policing and systems that revolve around encouraging police to rack up large numbers of misdemeanor arrests.

      Basically, once you’ve created a situation where the genuinely hardened, habitual criminals are in jail, the police still need to signal to the richer slice of the taxpayers that they take crime seriously. And disproportionately targeting certain neighborhoods that have poor relationships with the law tends to have this effect, even if some poor beggar gets beaten within an inch of his life now and then.

  47. spinystellate says:

    Scott’s argument could be used to justify both:

    1) disproportionate efforts to punish illegal border crossers (illegal border crossing is a red line: if we take away their children, it will be such a strong disincentive to cross that no one will do it anymore; then we won’t have to invest so many resources in stopping border crossings and dealing with illegal immigration)

    and

    2) disproportionate outrage about those punishments (taking children from peaceful parents is a terrible: if we protest it loudly, we create a norm where taking children away from their parents is understood to be a human rights violation that will then be less likely to occur in other contexts, and so we won’t have to spend our energy protesting it).

    • Simon_Jester says:

      Which is where we have to stop having highly meta debates about the structures of valid arguments, and get down into the weeds to address the object-level question of how good this argument of “do it pour encourager les autres” is in a particular case. We ask ourselves questions like:

      1) Is the stated end of this particular policy desirable in and of itself? Obviously saying ‘we do this thing to achieve this result’ leans heavily on the desirability of the result.

      2) Do the ends justify the means from a utilitarian standpoint? Torturing people to death for jaywalking would probably discourage jaywalking, but it wouldn’t be worth it. It’s not necessarily worth compromising on a core value to take care of a small problem.

      3) Are the means necessary towards the end- that is, yes they’re disproportionate and that’s okay, but only as long as they’re not too disproportionate.

  48. Beck says:

    I’m a little surprised at the pushback on Caplan’s post. To me, his argument seems parallel to some of the reasoning behind effective altruism; that people often for reasons involving social signalling or vividness rather than rational evaluation, and I can’t recall anyone here arguing against that (although I may have just missed it).
    Call his idea Effective Outrage, maybe.

    (Note that I don’t know a great deal about effective altruism, so please let me know if I’m way off with that.)

    • gbdub says:

      I had the same thought regarding parallels to EA – there are subtleties here, but at the top level it makes Scott seem a bit inconsistent.

  49. MugaSofer says:

    Is there a comparison to be made to your Isolated Demands For Rigour post?

    I.e. even though it seems unfair and arbitrary, it might be a good thing if we all got together and demanded high epistemic rigour on some arbitrary topic – racism, say – the sort of rigour that we would like to demand for every topic but don’t have the resources to. And then once we’ve created a strong norm, it becomes mostly self-sustaining and the world is improved without needing much continuing input of resources.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      The key distinction between the claim “I’m making an isolated demand for rigor” in Scott’s usual sense, and the statement “I’m targeting this behavior disproportionately in hopes of getting rid of it so I can focus on other things and not have it come back…”

      Well, I think the key distinction is whether or not you would want to apply this kind of rigor to other areas. A classical isolated demand for rigor isn’t something you apply inconsistently because you lack the time or energy to be that rigorous all the time. It’s something you apply inconsistently because your biases cause you to honestly not notice when you’re using imperfectly logical argument in support of a conclusion you already believe.

  50. theredsheep says:

    Okay, question: what makes specifically ethnic persecution worse than other kinds of persecution? I ask because China also keeps loads and loads of other people in horrible and inhumane conditions–as do many other countries. Does the possibility that a set of cultural traits, or a bloodline/genetic group, might be wiped out weigh more heavily than the mere scope of human suffering?

    Or, consider Hitler and Stalin. They killed roughly equal numbers of their own people in a more or less equally brutal manner. Right? And we consider them both monsters. But Hitler is our emblem of pure evil, while it’s okay to say Stalin had a mixed legacy or even have him as a playable character in Civilization games. Partly this is the historical legacy of Stalin picking the right side. Partly, I think, it’s because his cause didn’t get utterly wiped out when he died, and we tend to forgive influential people a lot as long as they don’t fail. Which is why we don’t call Alexander the Great “Alexander the Mass Murderer,” but are not so kind to Tamerlane who did basically the same thing but had his empire collapse more quickly after.

    Sorry, digression. Anyway, Stalin is also more forgivable because he wasn’t (by comparison) racist. He didn’t kill people for being Jews nearly as often as he killed them for belonging to an arbitrarily-defined and essentially made up class called “kulaks.” Which is … better, somehow? Why? They were still innocent people. I think the answer is partly that we in America (and to some extent in Europe) have a troubled past when it comes to racial relations, due to the transatlantic slave trade, the Indians, and of course the treatment of Jews. It’s personal for us with Hitler, whereas we have no history of deliberate persecution based on fanciful economic categories that I know of. And there’s no group identity to assert itself for kulaks, because kulaks don’t exist, whereas any Jew can look at Hitler’s camps and say “that could have been me.”

    I can get how ethnic cleansing is a particular kind of evil with its own special risks, but I also think we tend to be a bit myopic about this, and about other group-identity issues. I remember a quote I read in a BBC fluff piece a few weeks back, on a celebrity initiative to help poor women: “Poverty is sexist, and that’s a big problem.” My immediate thought was: “So, if the exact same number of people were poor, but roughly fifty percent of them were men, poverty would not be a problem, or be less of a problem?”

    Could say more, but I’ll stop there.

    • SEE says:

      It isn’t worse; it’s just that in order to have the Nuremberg Trials, we had to cut a deal with the Soviets (and their many fellow-travelers in the West), and so the “bright line” drawn by those trials included Hitler but not Stalin. After that, the line was definitively drawn to include race and religion but not social class or political opinion.

      Just like in the original hypothetical, where mugging and burglary are declared to be equally bad; one gets cracked down on and the other doesn’t for arbitrary reasons, but it still makes sense to maintain the bright line.

      • theredsheep says:

        Have we actually maintained that line, though? I’m really weak on modern history, but I thought we’ve had a number of ethnic cleansing incidents since WWII, most recently the Rohingya deal. When Darfur happened, a bunch of celebrities urged us to take action, but we looked at it, muttered something about logistical difficulties and prior commitments, and left it to solve itself. The only strong response I can recall is the Kosovo problem in the nineties, and at the time everyone said it was Slick Willy’s way of distracting us from the Lewinsky scandal.

        I’m also concerned about the price we pay of social fragmentation when we view the concerns of particular subsets of the population as having intrinsically greater importance than those of a comparable number of fellow-citizens. Sorry, I can’t get into more now, since I have to go to work, but that’s the short version.

        • SEE says:

          Darfur? There was actually a deployment of UN/African Union peacekeepers to Darfur in 2007 (20,000+ initially, still roughly 10,000 today). There’s also an International Criminal Court indictment and warrant out for Sudan’s dictator, ignoring the usual head-of-state/government immunity to criminal charges, based on a referral to the court from the UN Security Council.

          So while nobody bombed the shit out of Khartoum over Darfur or imposed regime change, there was a definite reaction involving the commitment of military forces for a decade, and at least an attempt at imposing personal responsibility, that had at least the passive consent of all the Great Powers (the US, China, Russia, France, Britain all could have vetoed either the deployment or referral).

          • theredsheep says:

            Ah. I somehow missed that. I supposed I tuned it out after … how long did it take us, anyway? I seem to recall the news broke in the US (in the sense of becoming big) maybe a year after we invaded Iraq. I spent a couple of months picking up every scrap of news I could get about it, and when nothing happened I just sighed and stopped looking. Well, it’s good that we did something, eventually.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I largely agree with you, but “immutability” plays a role. If I’m in Stalin’s Russia even if I think Stalin is a tool and communism is bunk, I can still clap along with everyone else and maybe avoid gulag. I could even change my mind and learn to love Comrade Stalin and Glorious Revolution. But a Jew in Hitler’s Germany has no such option, because he can’t stop being ethnically Jewish (yes I know there were a handful of Jewish Nazis but those were exceptionally rare).

      Political persecution is less bad because, ya know, you could just stop having the wrong politics.

      • dndnrsn says:

        Plenty of faithful Communists who went with the party line got purged. If being a good Communist predicted not getting sent to the gulags or shot, you wouldn’t have so many Wikipedia articles of high-ranking guys whose lives end abruptly in 1937-1940 or whenever. Your chances of something bad happening to you were probably greater the higher ranking you were, and being high ranking required that one at least be able to pretend convincingly to be a good Communist. Plus, you could easily fall under suspicion because of who you were related to, which is pretty immutable. Stalin also persecuted many ethnic groups on political grounds – if your entire people is getting deported because of supposed disloyalty, being a good Communist won’t help.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          I completely agree with you. I’m just saying political persecution is Hellscape Factor 8 instead of Hellscape Factor 9 ethnic persecution. It’s all still a Hellscape.

        • I’d ask you to provide some concrete examples. I don’t know of any Communists who got purged for perfectly following the then-existing party line. Some Old Bolsheviks got purged because the Party Line moved on an issue but their stance didn’t. Some Bolsheviks like Yezhov got purged for implementing a Party line too recklessly.

          And let’s be clear about what “purge” meant. In cases where their Party factionalism did not seem to present a security threat, it simply meant demotion and re-assignment to a less influential Party post, or expulsion from the Party. In more severe cases, it meant internal exile, house-arrest, or gulag. In only the most severe cases (roughly 800,000) did it mean execution.

          As for falling under suspicion due to being related to someone, how is that unique to Stalinist USSR? People are going to talk to their relatives more freely, disclose sensitive details, and have better than average success at recruiting them. What security state doesn’t track the relatives of extreme national security threats?

          As for deporting entire ethnic groups, that’s on par with the Japanese internment and not something I can really defend, except to say that unlike in America, the Soviet authorities actually had specific cases to point to of traitorous acts from some members of these ethnic groups (in the case of the Chechens, an entire 4-year period of insurgency and collaboration with the Germans involving tens of thousands of Chechens). And I also acknowledge that a poorer country will have a materially more difficult time funding legal proceedings against tens of thousands of individuals. During and after the American Revolution, did every terrorized Tory who had to flee to Canada from angry mobs receive individual due process and reparations? Hah!

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            There were plenty of Japanese-Americans who renounced their citizenship or pledged loyalty to the Emperor. And FDR had access to decoded Japanese messages that made him believe the Japanese were planning to employ spies and saboteurs along the west coast, drawn from the Japanese-American population. So the Japanese-Americans were relocated to camps away from the coast, which was designated as an “exclusion zone.” They were then free to leave the camps if they chose, but many preferred to stay in the camps with the free food, shelter and schooling to wait out the war rather than settle somewhere else like the Midwest or the east coast. There were similar exclusion zones for Italian-Americans and German-Americans.

            Lots of American citizens were drafted and sent to fight and die. Some Japanese-Americans were drafted to stay away from the coast. It sucks, but war is like that, and the camps were nothing like the gulags, and those who lived there were free to leave.

          • bean says:

            I’m going to ask for a cite about being free to leave. I’ve never heard that, although my research into the subject has mostly avoided the camps themselves.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            From the wikipedia article:

            The WRA Relocation Centers were semi-permanent camps that housed persons removed from the exclusion zone after March 1942, or until they were able to relocate elsewhere in the United States outside the exclusion zone.

            They were officially called “relocation camps,” not “internment camps” because the goal was removing the Japanese-Americans from the exclusion zones, not imprisoning them. Even so, just because you can leave doesn’t necessarily mean you’d want to. You’d be isolated in a country full of white people at war with people who look like you. Maybe it would be best to just lay low in the camps until the war is over, and that’s what most chose to do.

            I’m not trying to excuse the camps by saying “they could leave if they want to!” I know it’s more complicated than that. Just clearing up the misconception that they were anything like gulags or concentration camps.

            There were a few camps that were detention camps, but those were for non-American Japanese, or Japanese-Americans who were considered to be disloyal and going to be deported to Japan.

          • bean says:

            Interesting. That definitely changes the “why didn’t they close the camps later in the war” picture. They presumably tried to (if people leave, the government doesn’t have to pay for their food) but there was nowhere to go.

          • Protagoras says:

            At his show trial, Yezhov was charged with implementing a Party line too recklessly. As I understand it, documents made available since the fall of the Soviet Union indicate that he was scrupulously following orders, and seems to have been made a scapegoat for a policy that came from Stalin.

    • “Kulaks” might seem like an arbitrary category to you, but to Marxists it makes perfect sense.

      According to Marxism, conflicts of interest between economic classes are objective and cannot be avoided by pretending that they don’t exist. In other words, you HAVE to deal with the Kulaks. Their interests will be opposed to everyone else, and they will have no choice but to yield to objective economic incentives and work against everyone else, even if they actually WANT to be charitable to others who are not in their economic class.

      In other words, his conflict of interest does not depend on each party perceiving their relationship as conflicting, but rather instead that the conflict is rooted in something objective, something outside of the intentions of each party to be hostile to one another—a conflict of interest that would persist even if both parties had the intention of overcoming that conflict of interest, or a conflict that would persist even if neither party had any conscious awareness of the existence of that conflict of interest.

      It might be difficult to see how a conflict can exist if neither side wants to fight it or even knows of its existence. We tend to see conflicts as solely the result of clashes between opposed subjective intentions. People harm each other because people want to harm each other. To get them to stop harming each other, we just need to “stop the hate!” Preach peace and love. Sing kumbayaa while holding hands in a big circle.

      Imagine that a landless peasant and the Kulak who employs him/her, or a wage-worker and an employer, go through this ritual, pledge to be nice and generous towards one another, and pledge to devote their energies towards a common goal (such as building a wholesome country…or invading some neighboring country). Will that erase their class conflict? Will that create a classless society?

      The Nazis thought yes. Hitler thought that, if the children of the Hitler Youth made sure not to allow classist sentiments to arise between those who had rich parents and those who had poor ones, those children would grow up into a harmonious, classless German people. For example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vM3DfNGZUUc

      The Nazis were mistaken. Even if a wage-worker and an employer, or youth of different backgrounds, pledge to be nice to each other, the employers/Kulaks will still find themselves pressured into paying as low of a wage as they can by objective economic incentives originating outside of anyone’s conscious control. “I would like to pay you a higher wage, but I just can’t.”

      Let’s say that the employer chooses, through iron force of will, to not yield to these pressures. Fine. It makes no difference. That employer will be out-competed, and gradually driven out of business, by the employers who do yield to the incentive.

      “Greed” and class conflict are enforced under capitalism not by subjective wills, but by that abstract system of economic incentives that Adam Smith called “The Invisible Hand,” that Marx called “The Law of Value” or simply “Capital.” This is what it means for a conflict to be “fundamental” and “objective” rather than due to any subjective intentions by one side or the other to harm or hate.

      Interestingly, many on the far-right adopt a mirror-image of Marx’s thinking, arguing that it is in fact class conflict that is a socially-constructed conflict (socially-constructed “by the Jews” to weaken their group, no doubt), whereas racial and/or religious and/or gender conflicts are actually the objective ones. If you tell them that these conflicts only exist because of their hate of these other groups, and that the conflict would end if they simply stopped hating, they will tell you, “No, the conflict will rage on whether we return fire or not. To give up what you call our “hate” would simply make us defenseless in the face of this inevitable conflict.”

      • J Mann says:

        Thanks, that’s helpful.

        Why would a Marxist need to liquidate the Kulaks? If owning more farmland than average makes you a Kulak, wouldn’t expropriating some or all of your land change your economic relationship with others and make you not a Kulak?

        • You are exactly right. That’s in fact what the Soviets tried to do. The aim was to liquidate the Kulaks as a class, which meant expropriating their land (or rather, merging it into a collective farm while allowing the ex-Kulaks to keep a small private plot for their own use). The Kulaks were then free to work as equal members of the new co-ops.

          The problem came when Kulaks reacted to this deal by sabotaging animals and equipment and forming committees and militias to revolt against the Soviet state. Then they were physically relocated and in some cases executed.

          • J Mann says:

            Thanks again for taking the time – I’m learning a lot and really appreciate it.

            Is there a good sense of how serious Kulak sabotage actually was? (Versus, say, scapegoating of Kulaks for production shortages or normal political opposition by Kulaks?) I googled it, but I mostly found pages arguing that Western scholars are unreliable on this question.

          • Aapje says:

            I don’t see how there can be any reliable data on that.

            Especially since the non-Kulaks had a strong incentive to blame everything that went wrong on the Kulaks, as to not get punished themselves.

      • theredsheep says:

        Well, suppose the previous property owner is liquidated/removed; what keeps the new owner of the property from having the exact same incentives? This is a tangent, of course, but let’s go with it.

        • Great question! I think many Marxists avoid this question all-too blithely.

          A common argument that you’ll get from Stalinists is, “It’s okay if the State now owns the property because this State is a “Workers’ and Peasants’ State” that represents the interests of all toiling classes. Since it is the Workers and Peasants who are in control, why would they exploit themselves?”

          Me: “How do you know that the Workers and Peasants are in control of this state, and thus its property?”

          Stalinist: “Because the capitalists were expropriated and liquidated as a class, so which other class is there for the state to serve except for the workers and peasants?”

          Me: “Could not state managers become a new class and bend the state to their will, especially if they rig the electoral system to become self-perpetuating rather than freely elected?”

          Stalinist: “But state managers don’t have legal title to the state’s assets, silly!”

          Me: “What difference does it make if the state has legal title to the state’s assets, but the state managers lock-in a self-perpetuating and hereditary system of access to, and control of, those state assets? The state managers become the de-facto owners of the state and all of its assets. And if de-facto control isn’t enough to give them peace of mind, they can always stage a counter-revolution from the inside and become the de-jure owners of those state assets, as after perestoika.”

          Something that no Stalinist has ever adequately explained to me is, “If workers were in control of the State in the USSR, why did they let it all unravel in the late 1980s/early 1990s with an apathetic sigh. No ruling class in history has ever given up so easily.”

          Stalinist: “Due to Khrushchev and revisionism, workers were no longer in control after 1956. The capitalist-roaders within the Party increasingly took control and started introducing profit-oriented reforms at each enterprise, which re-introduced capitalist incentives and capitalist consciousness to the managerial class at these enterprises.”

          Me: “Okay, but before 1956 you think the workers were still in control? If so, then why did workers allow the capitalist-roaders to gradually take over the Party starting in 1956?”

          Stalinist: “…….[silence]……..” or “Imperialism was TOO STRONK!” (a non-sequitur considering that, if anything, according to them Stalinism was supposed to make the Soviet Union develop even more quickly than messing around with profit and market reforms; so the logical response to a strong challenge from imperialism would have been even more Stalinism, even more of the 1930s).

  51. Kyle Thomas says:

    Game theory models support a couple of your intuitions here. First, the point about coordinated punishment from multiple individuals, which requires solving coordination problems (and often common knowledge, technically defined). Second, that norms can fit the requirements for creating common knowledge for coordinated punishment. Third, that one of these particular conditions that norms fit well is that they are qualitative rather than quantitative (or as you put it, the concepts of more vs. less are much harder to coordinate around than happened vs. didn’t happen). Lastly, the commitment bit is important inasmuch as perpetrators can anticipate whether a coalition can align against them.

    These game theoretic dynamics have been formalized by Moshe Hoffman, Erez Yoeli, and colleagues, and are pithily summarized in their “Effective Red Lines” letter here to The Economist on Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Deeper, more formal treatment here.

  52. lambdaphagy says:

    For what it’s worth, this strategy is known as dynamic deterrence.

  53. blankmisgivings101 says:

    Two criticisms: the ‘me too’ movement is as much about the creation of a new norm as the enforcement of an existing one, in that the ‘casting couch’ was arguably the unspoken normative practice in Hollywood until the movement began.
    Secondly, just because there is an existing norm, e.g the prohibition on chemical weapons, it doesn’t mean that that norm represents some kind of optimum. Cynical interpretations of that prohibition might point out that chemical weapons threaten to dilute the military supremacy of great powers (or are perceived to), etc.
    Caplan’s core point holds I believe – and I would go further and say norms tend to crystallize around the interests of the powerful, not around public interest per se, which makes the critique of norms valuable and not as easy to dismiss as Scott seems to suggest.

    • Theresa Klein says:

      Yes, exactly. When a new norm is being established, it is extra important to vigorously enforce it as there will still be many people not willing to obey it. Similarly if an old norm or a recently established new norm is under threat, then there is extra utility to enforcing it. there is possibly a risk that the norm against chemical weapons will break down if some actors are allowed to use them without punishment. So a little added enforcement goes a long way in keeping that norm established.

  54. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    I’m reminded of something in Chesterton about the public reacting according to symbolism and last straws, rather than something more reasonable. Anyone have a specific quote?

    • engleberg says:

      Tremendous Trifles, Chapter VII: ‘People who have both small troubles and big ones have the right to say that they feel the small ones most bitter; and it is undoubtedly true that a back bowed under loads incredible can feel a faint addition to the load; a giant holding up the earth and all its animal creation might still find the grasshopper a burden. But I am afraid the maxim that the smallest worries are the worst is sometimes used or abused by people, because they have nothing but the smallest worries. The lady may excuse herself for reviling the crumpled rose leaf by telling herself with what extraordinary dignity she would wear the crown of thorns- if she had to. The gentleman may permit himself to curse the dinner and tell himself he would behave much better if it were a mere matter of starvation. We need not deny that the grasshopper on a man’s shoulder is a burden, but we need not pay much respect to the gentleman who is always calling out that he would rather have an elephant, when he knows very well there are no elephants in the country. We may concede that a straw may break a camel’s back, but we would like to know it really is that last straw and not the first.’

      Yeah, nothing about symbolism, so maybe the wrong quote.

  55. patrissimo says:

    There are a variety of dynamics in play as to what gets outrage. There may be an effect like Scott cites, of outrage as efficient punishment via pre-commitment. But there may also be effects where outrage is inefficiently used for virtue signaling, unrelated to whether it helps enforce an existing norm.

    These arguments are very different in a way that makes the second much more plausible. The first is an analysis of how these outrages could be efficient if somehow they have arisen from a mechanism that produces socially efficient, coordinated rules. The latter is a description of how the pattern might occur based on individual incentives for individual benefit. Patterns of this type occur far more easily, and are far more likely.

  56. patrissimo says:

    If outrage was for efficient enforcement of norms (a la @slatestarcodex), topics & positions would not vary so much based on political affiliation. Outrage would be focused on old, largely-eradicated behaviors commonly agreed to be bad. Instead, outrage generally focuses on highly-disputed topics of great political symbolism, and comes from only one party or with opposite outrages for each side. That suggests it’s signaling (a la Robin Hanson & Kevin Simler).

    The signaling explanation both fits and adds nuance to Bryan Caplan’s original “vividness + herding” criticism of outrage. Vivid = highly symbolic, an effective signal of values. Herding = how groups use signals to show shared values. https://www.econlib.org/archives/2017/12/the_unbearable.html

    While Bryan makes good counterpoints on the specific cases of chemical weapons and sexual harassment in his response, I think this more general, case-independent critique of the proposed “rational outrage” is much stronger.

  57. MB says:

    No, there has never been any norm against putting minorities into concentration camps. This is just a left-wing propaganda point, to be used when necessary and discarded when no longer so.
    When the USSR, North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Maoist China did it, there was no response in left-wing intellectual circles.
    Or is this norm restricted to ethnic minorities? (and I think SA is leaving this point intentionally ambiguous). Then this ties to my previous statement. Ethnic persecution is seen as inherently right-wing (it’s not; see Roosevelt; it’s just that the right gets the blame), hence it can be condemned by leftists in the abstract, who think they are striking against the right.
    Thus, the current debate within left-wing circles is about whether the Chinese government can still be considered sufficiently left-wing or friendly to the left. If it is (and indeed it is), then the “norm” won’t be enforced. This is the main moral dilemma: rehabilitating communism and setting up China as an ideological alternative to the US (as a technocratic, rational, and atheist society governed by experts vs. Trump’s irrational outbursts and the US’ religiosity) vs. half-heartedly condemning the Uyghur camps.
    My advice? Ignore the issue and hope it goes away with time. For the left, there’s nothing to be gained from condemning the oppression of the weak by the strong.

  58. ferris_buellaw says:

    Hi. Long time reader first time poster here. Also, I didn’t read the whole comment thread, so sorry if this is already covered.

    I think every good consequentialist/rationalist has thought about the arbitrary nature of what peoplel freak out about morally. Bright lines seem to be a major part of it, but I always assumed that it wasn’t about enforcement but legibility and reducing cognitive burden.

    It’s not that cognitively demanding to ask if a bright line has been passed. It’s not like calculating the number of lives that would be saved by spending more of the foreign aid budget on bednets or whatever. Being outraged over a transgression of a simple bright line rule is cognitively undemanding: there aren’t a lot of grey areas to worry about, and you don’t have to dig in and look around to weigh the harms. Its like an automated system: you just set down the bright line and don’t think about it until its transgressed. Legibility achieved!

    I realize this isn’t incompatible with your enforcement thesis, but I can’t help thinking that it’s at least as plausible an explanation.

    As a lazy thinker who is always looking for new heuristics to add to my tool kit, I can sympathize with people’s desire to reduce their cognitive load. But I can’t help thinking that it can be very harmful.

    *edit for style and clarity

  59. dgold114 says:

    It seems like Scott spend the whole essay arguing why his theory is plausible, but never explains why Caplan’s is implausible or compares the 2. They seem to yield testable predictions. For example, if the disproportionate response here were because people wanted to use limited enforcement resources efficiently, we wouldn’t see the same quality for natural disasters, where people give inefficiently high amounts of money. To me it seems like the media explanation from Caplan performs better in that scenario.