If Kim Jong-Un Opened A KFC, Would You Eat There?

Philip Morris is pivoting to smoke-free cigarettes, because “society expects us to act responsibly, and we are doing just that by designing a smoke-free future”. Also, KFC “promises not to let vegans down” with their new meatless chicken-like nuggets. They’ll have to compete with factory-farming mega-conglomerate Tyson Foods, who are coming out with their own vegetarian chicken option.

Clearly this is progress. Tobacco-free cigarettes have helped a lot of people quit smoking; meat substitutes have helped a lot of people (recently sort of including me) become vegetarian. I want a smoke-free meatless future. But does it become a mockery when the same companies that provided the smoky meaty past are selling it to us? If they make a fortune being evil, resist change, and lose, should they get to make a second fortune being good? If Hitler, when the war turned against him, quit the Nazism industry and opened a matzah bakery, would you buy his matzah?

I think the answer is supposed to be yes. I’ve heard many smart people argue that we should offer evil dictators a comfortable and lavish retirement, free from any threat of justice. After all, if they take the offer, they’ll go off and enjoy their retirement instead of continuing to dictate. But if they expect to be put on trial for war crimes the second they relinquish power, they’ll hold on to power forever. If Hitler had been willing to give up and open a bakery when he lost Stalingrad in 1943, think how many lives would have been saved by letting him. And if Kim Jong-Un wants to give up and move to Tahiti, of course you say yes.

In the same way, if evil companies want to go good, you should let them. If they have a line of retreat, they won’t fight so hard against change. If Tyson Foods wants to use its lobbyists to support meat substitutes instead of sabotaging them, that’s good for everybody. If they want to use their research budget to push plant-based meats forward, so much the better.

The counterargument is that punishment is the only tool we have to make bad actors do good things. If dictators fear punishment, maybe they won’t dictate to begin with. If companies know that moral progress will eventually leave the immoral companies bankrupt, maybe they’ll try being moral before it’s immediately profitable.

We’re in a weird situation where before anything happens, we might want to precommit to “punish companies who do evil, no matter what”. After companies have started doing evil, we might want to break our previous precommitment and switch to “let evil companies avoid punishment if they stop doing evil”. And after companies have stopped doing evil, we might want (if only for the sake of our own sense of justice) to break both of our previous precommitments and go with “punish them after all”.

What is the right action?

I’m not sure, but I lean toward “buy the meatless chicken from KFC”, for a few reasons.

First, I’m skeptical that corporations can predict moral progress, and I expect them to have high discount rates. I don’t think Colonel Sanders in 1952 was thinking “Maybe I shouldn’t sell chicken, just in case later generations punish my successors.” That removes a lot of the advantage of precommiting to always punish evil corporations, but keeps the advantage of rewarding evildoers who turn good.

Second, realistically there are probably many companies that are as bad as these (like oil companies), which we don’t think about because they’re not in the process of going good in ways that make their evil more ironic and salient. It would be dumb to boycott only the companies that are trying to improve.

Third, boycotting companies is hard. In the process of writing this article, I learned Tyson Foods until recently owned Sara Lee, the cookie company, which itself owns a bunch of popular coffee brands. Also, they seem to have invested in Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats and all the other vegan-meat-substitute companies that we would feel good about buying from if we boycotted Tyson. If Tyson Foods really wants to make money off of vegans, they can probably do it without those vegans noticing.

I’m curious what other people think, so here’s a poll you can take on this.

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472 Responses to If Kim Jong-Un Opened A KFC, Would You Eat There?

  1. smilerz says:

    The strongest case against punishing corporations that are trying to do good is that the mostly likely reason that they are changing course (from doing evil to doing good) is that they are made up of different people!

    Do we really want to create a word in-which the incentives for socially minded people is to avoid achieving leadership positions in large evil companies?

  2. jensfiederer says:

    That last question deserved an “It’s complicated” response rather than a left-right one….or maybe one of those diamond charts?

  3. durumu says:

    Great post! Minor correction, though — Tyson ended up dumping their Beyond Meat equity right ahead of the IPO (probably because they’re doing meatless stuff themselves)

  4. carvenvisage says:

    I’d put “it’s complicated/not sure” if I was answering the survey but actually I think there are some pretty easy definite principles to follow for such questions, just different ones from the dichotomy.

    1. Generally, **you shouldn’t punish someone who has you has you at their mercy for having mercy on you**, as that’s just ayn-rand-caricature level suicidal stupidity, but you also **shouldn’t count the cost of making evil unprofitable**. i.e. it’s not so much about incentives as about power. If someone has you in the palm of their hand, don’t bite them for letting you out of it, (unless you’re just *that mad*; that you don’t mind degrading yourself and incentivising the killing of your children -which could happen under the right dictatorship and is in keeping with the balance), but also don’t count the cost when trying to make evil unprofitable. — TL:DR: act in accordance with primitive notions of honor, depending on who was in who’s power. Did they scarper? Then hunt them down, no mercy for tyrants. Did they let you and your clan our of the unbreakable grip of their power? then hate them but don’t make mercy on your brothers’ children a bad idea (unless they were just *that bad* that that consideration doesn’t move you; for example if your brothers’ children are already dead.)

    2. I’m selecting “it’s complicated”, but again I think pretty much just doing what’s primitively honorable will tend to give you the right answer, so long as your notion of honor includes not being an ayn-rand-villain that snarls at mercy, and a little sophistication in recognising that a company isn’t a single entity and doesn’t inherit guilt from its former self in 100% the same way as an individual human: 1. You don’t want to support corrupting influences on society, but if they’re the only people making [vegetarianism] viable and that’s really important, then don’t bite your thumb off to-spite-your-face, (with the same get out clause as before- “unless they’re *that bad* that you want to make yourself a vengeance maximising paperclipper, (which might be somewhat less likely in the case of corporations than individual tyrants) 2. and/but equally don’t support them against people who you like more in your concentric circles of allegiance, e.g. independent vegetarian suppliers and restaurants. TL:DR act in accordance with primitive notions of honor (support allies and not foes, except against a bigger foe) bearing in mind that corporations aren’t people.

    TL:DR “it’s complicated” but we hoomans come with a pre-built-in system for estimating the incentive effects of exactly this kind of horribly entangled situation. Just have a sense of **honour**; one which isn’t totally 100% disconnected from your sense of rationality, and listen to it.

    -It’s a really difficult and complex problem, but/and-that’s-exactly-why you’re unlikely to do better than building on the foundations laid in the stone age- by a million years of evolution for social intelligence and need to resolve disputes and cooperate. So long as you apply it in a quarter-sane manner: i.e. no treating things which aren’t individuals as individuals.

  5. Worley says:

    There are some deeper cultural factors in play as well — do you have a Calvinist or a Baptist approach to morality?

    I live in Boston, and all of my friends are well-educated white liberals. None of them have ever been inconvenienced by Jim Crow and all of them consign Strom Thermond to the deepest circle of Hell. But by the end of his life, Thurmond reliably got a majority of the black voters of South Carolina to vote for him, despite that approximately all of them had been subject to Jim Crow. The difference is that my friends are Calvinists, and to a Calvinist, if you sin once, you have shows that you are not one of the elect, and you are destined for Satan. The Baptist approach is that all humans will err, so the crucial thing is maintaining the process by which sinners can repent and be saved. And Thurmond, if anyone challenged him about his past, quite willingly told of how he realized his errors and repented of them. (Quite likely this realization was encouraged by blacks being enabled to vote, but everybody recognizes that earthly incentives are legitimate encouragement of spiritual virtues.)

  6. MostlyCredibleHulk says:

    I wonder how anybody offering an ex-dictator a retirement deal expects to uphold it. Killing an individual person is not that hard, US presidents, royalties, popes and other prominent people were assassinated many times. There would be many, many people who would want to take vengeance on the ex-dictator, and some of them would probably possess significant resources. So either the ex-dictator should be provided security comparable to one they enjoyed while dictating, or they should disappear into complete anonymity somewhere in nondescript town in the middle of nowhere, like witness-protection deal. Which is usually not very lucrative compared to what a successful dictator can enjoy. Some may enjoy a Diocletian type deal, but that requires certain type of personality which not coincides with dictatorship too often.

    That is not counting the fact that in a democratic country, the policy of one government may be overturned and completely discarded by the next one. One day we sign a deal, next year there’s an election, the winning candidate produces a fiery speech about how the failed policy of her predecessor enabled vile dictators and are tantamount to treason, and boom – the deal is off. What the ex-dictator would do, sue the government in the DC court?

    And the dictators would know that upholding this kind of a deal is very unlikely, so why would they agree to it?

    • Protagoras says:

      Some of the Young Turks were hunted down by vengeful Armenians after WWI, but it doesn’t seem to be something that consistently happens to all ex-tyrants. At least my impression of the historical pattern is that you greatly overestimate this risk.

    • John Schilling says:

      There would be many, many people who would want to take vengeance on the ex-dictator, and some of them would probably possess significant resources.

      By definition, none of them would possess social support in a society that does not support the killing of ex-dictators who have peacefully retired. Humans being social creatures, that’s the most critical resource of all. Give someone ten million dollars and the certainty that they will be reviled as a villain if they kill their worst enemy, and their worst enemy can probably sleep soundly. Give a poor schmuck like Gavrilo Princip a twenty-dollar pistol and a group of friends to cheer him on, and the Crown Prince of Austria is going down.

      We have, in the past, had a broad social norm that dictators who quietly retired and went far away were not to be pursued, and as Protagoras notes, it pretty much worked. The ex-dictators and their henchmen whose later deaths were condoned and celebrated were mostly the ones who didn’t retire so much as flee the mob and try to hide.

      We have now a system where you don’t even need the twenty-dollar pistol because a bunch of bureaucrats and magistrates will do the dirty work for anyone who asks and make it look not so dirty.

  7. Jiro says:

    If Hitler quit the Naziism business because it was too dangerous for him, I wouldn’t want to buy matzahs from him for the same reason that I think that Hitler should be shot–I think people who do a certain level of evil should be punished regardless of whether the punishment is efficient. I don’t care if the punishment prevents bad actors from doing bad things–I just want to punish Hitler.

    I’d suggest, in fact, that “irrational desire for revenge” is a way that real humans precommit.

    After companies have started doing evil, we might want to break our previous precommitment and

    If it’s possible to break your precommitment, it was never a precommitment. The definition of one implies that you can’t break it.

    • albatross11 says:

      I see your point, but

      a. I also see the point that there might be a place where we could make the world a lot better (like, a million fewer deaths and a corresponding decrease in misery and horror) by offering a Hitler-level villain a safe and luxurious exile somewhere far from power on a nice island in the South Pacific.

      b. In general, we put pragmatism ahead of justice in foreign affairs all the time. This is why (for example) we’re not bending our foreign policy to stop the cultural genocide of the Uighurs, or the godawful civilian toll of the war in Yemen. So this seems like an odd place to draw that line. We all accept that leaders who engage in crimes against humanity and keep sufficient power afterward don’t pay any price. Stalin died in bed, and if the war had ended before the US came in and Hitler had stayed in power, there’s zero chance we would have invaded Germany just to stop the Holocaust. Just like we didn’t do anything about the Armenian genocide, or the Cultural Revolution, or any number of other horrible things done by countries far away that we didn’t have any essential interests in.

    • John Schilling says:

      If it’s possible to break your precommitment, it was never a precommitment.

      If your precommitment depends on hindsight, it’s not a useful precommitment. The difference between a Heroic Liberator and a first-generation Evil Dictator is for the most part recognizable only in hindsight, even by the principals. So, for that matter, is the difference between Liberal Reformer and Second-Generation Evil Dictator.

      Trying to use deterrence to shape decisions people won’t understand they are making until it’s too late, is a poor strategy that isn’t improved because you couch it in game-theoretic terms.

  8. John Richards says:

    Scott, you can list all the reasonable, philosophical reasons you want. I think I know why you leaned this way. It’s because you have within you a spirit of forgiveness. Never let it go, for it is a beautiful spirit.

  9. arancaytar says:

    I don’t feel like the analogy really works, for several reasons. Firstly, it’s a lot easier to coordinate action against a company, and the company is also amoral and only cares about profits. Secondly, the company is short-sighted, and its planning horizon is limited by how long the people in charge expect to stick around.

    If 10% of customers care enough about an issue to boycott a company, that’s a 10% loss of revenue, and the company can run its numbers and decide (hopefully) that the cost of altering its behavior is justified by the improvement of its image. If 10% of people in a dictatorship hate the dictator, it will be very hard and dangerous for them to coordinate at all – it’s an all-or-nothing deal; either the dictator loses power or doesn’t. You can’t punish the dictator unless he loses, or even safely threaten to punish him.

    I would count these as reasons to be purely consequentialist when dealing with companies (reward/punish exactly the behavior you want/dislike at a given moment, with no promises to not reward/punish other behaviors later on), but to deal with dictators more strictly (resolve in advance to punish all crimes against humanity, and follow through).

  10. rita says:

    There is a whole discipline behind this within the field of penology. Why do we punish? The answers that we’ve come up are deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution, and restitution. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-criminallaw/chapter/1-5-the-purposes-of-punishment/

  11. statsman says:

    I suggest anyone contemplating consuming these “healthy” meat substitutes have a look at the ingredients list

    TLDR => toxic waste from a chemical factory

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      It’s been said before, but: Indian healthy meat substitutes are beans, lentils and dairy products.

    • Nornagest says:

      Coming out of a chemical factory and having a name you can’t pronounce doesn’t make it toxic waste, and assuming it does is one of the more obnoxious habits that health-food types perpetrate.

      Ever heard of (/me throws dart at metabolic pathways poster) dihydroxyacetone phosphate? You probably haven’t, unless you’re a biochemist, but it’s entirely natural, your cells make it (as do a number of chemical plants), and without it you would be unable to complete food metabolism and probably die.

      • bzium says:

        Spoken like a typical shill for the dihydrogen monoxide industry.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        That image nearly broke my browser, and is amazing.

      • Faza (TCM) says:

        That image nearly broke my browser, and is amazing.


        • John Schilling says:

          Thirded, and I only wish they had included some of the less well understood metabolic pathways just for the excuse to slip in “…and then a miracle occurs” and maybe “here there be dragons”.

      • DinoNerd says:

        True, but containing ingredients that don’t have a common name is a good heuristic for identifying foods that are highly processed and not created according to recipes derived from long term cultural evolution.

        It’s not perfect – new names are routinely created for ingredients that have developed bad reputations 🙁 – and lobbyists work hard to allow food companies to omit ingredients from the ingredient lists. And of course a perverse producer could choose to use chemical names in place of common names. But no heuristic is perfect.

        • CatCube says:

          I don’t think it’s a good heuristic. It’s raising ignorance to an art form. If you can’t pronounce a chemical name, the problem is with you. Does something become good if I have some minor skill in reading systematic nomenclature? Does medicine prescribed by my doctor become evil when I learn the chemical name (which it had before its pretty marketing name) and it’s incomprehensible?

          How good or bad something is for you is completely orthogonal to how easily the name is pronounced. There are good and bad things with names that can be pronounced, and good and bad things with names that cannot be pronounced.

          Atropine can kill you whether you call it atropine or (RS)-(8-Methyl-8-azabicyclo[3.2.1]oct-3-yl) 3-hydroxy-2-phenylpropanoate. It’s incredibly toxic, having been used as a poison. It’s used as a medication to treat, among other things, nerve gas exposure, and in that instance not taking it will kill you. It’s also completely natural, coming from the nightshade plant.

          One of the most unscientific and toxic mentalities we have running around today is that you can derive goodness or badness from either lexicographical difficulty or natural occurrence.

          • DinoNerd says:

            *sigh* Oh, I agree there. I’ve encountered plenty of fools with opinions like “herbs are all safe”. But heuristics aren’t supposed to be perfect … just helpful. And it’s a good bet that the person using this heuristic isn’t a chemist.

            And no, being able to pronounce a long chemical name, or understand the way chemical nomenclature works doesn’t change anything. I still prefer the bread that contains only flour, water, yeast, salt, and oil to the one that contains a long list of chemical names, even while expecting the latter to keep better etc..

            (Because I can’t seem to organize my life to grocery shop more than weekly, or bake my own bread, more than half of the bread I eat is in the latter category. But it’s never as pleasant to eat. – I don’t have the data to determine if either is less healthy, except that the former seems closer to traditional preparation.)

        • Nornagest says:

          “Highly processed” isn’t much better. Manioc goes through a lot of processing steps before it’s ready for consumption and it’s as traditional a staple as you could hope for. Same for maize, and one of the traditional steps there even has a scary-sounding name (nixtamalization) — indeed, if you described it in industrial terms (it involves heating whole unhusked kernels in an alkaline solution, often derived from caustic lye), you’d probably get 90% of the slow-food people up in arms.

          You can be pretty confident that a traditionally prepared food won’t kill you or have any serious long-term side effects. But that’s all. Long-term cultural evolution isn’t magic, and our environment’s so different from an Anasazi village, let alone a forager band, that what’s adaptive then isn’t necessary adaptive now.

  12. Charles Engelke says:

    Its really more like the real situation since WWII,
    Hitler the original architect of evil was defeated and killed, Germany’s next generations accept defeat and evolved their country to please the winners. Should you punish them for Hitler to prevent new dictators following his example?

  13. Carlos Serrano says:

    “Rewarding evildoers who turn good” has been the crux of the Colombian peace accord, and a point many of our Congress members haven’t understood. The Colombian far right has manipulated public opinion by painting the accord in a negative light, claiming it’s not sufficiently punitive on the former rebels, and even claiming the terms reward them for all their crimes. What this position fails to get is that, while the terms do include provisions that can be interpreted as a reward, it’s not a reward for bad things done, but a reward for good things expected. We’ve lost too much energy discussing the difference.

  14. HarmlessFrog says:

    meat substitutes have helped a lot of people (recently sort of including me) become vegetarian.

    My condolences.

    I want a (…) meatless future.

    No, you don’t. You really don’t.

    • statsman says:

      Look beneath the surface – the whole “healthy” low fat hi carb push has the effect, and I argue the intent, of promoting the consumption of cheap low nutrient density addictive foods at the cost of human health. But at the benefit of profit margins in the packaged food industry that would make big pharma weep with envy.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Banned for three months for being pointlessly annoying.

  15. patjab says:

    Scott says:
    “Second, realistically there are probably many companies that are as bad as these (like oil companies), which we don’t think about because they’re not in the process of going good in ways that make their evil more ironic and salient.”

    Actually oil companies are a great example of companies that are in the process of doing exactly this. Many of the biggest oil companies are also some of the biggest investors in renewable energy, buying up a lot of smaller renewable companies. BP-owned Lightsource is Europe’s largest solar development company for example, while Shell is spending $1-2 billion a year on clean energy. Less dramatically but probably more important for near term emissions, most of the big ‘oil’ companies in Europe at least (less sure about the US) are actually moving much more towards natural gas than oil, as it is less polluting.

    Of course, this makes perfect economic sense – they are diversifying their portfolios and buying up potential future competitors. Same with KFC – by offering both meat and vegetarian options they cater to both markets and reduce risk. They are unlikely to stop selling meat entirely. The same logic doesn’t necessarily apply to dictators – it’s hard to ‘diversify’ ruling both democratic and autocratic regimes at the same time, hedging your bets in case one or the other kicks you out. Generally people can’t rule more than one country (Queen Elizabeth II and President Macron who technically rules both France and Andorra aside)

  16. Hitfoav says:

    There’s something deeply “first world problems” about comparing KFC and Phillip Morris to Hitler and Kim Jong Un. I almost have an April Fool’s feeling about this article.

    • Shion Arita says:

      Things can be similar in quality and different in magnitude. I do think there are some qualitative differences as well, since we’re comparing corporations to individuals, but In general I think my point still stands.

    • MostlyCredibleHulk says:

      This is all too common “everything I don’t like is literally Hitler” attitude. Apparently it is common enough to infect even the rationalist community, maybe not as hard as other, less sane communities, but enough to seriously entertain such comparisons. Of course, once everything is literally Hitler, nothing is.

      • carvenvisage says:

        This is all too common “everything I don’t like is literally Hitler” attitude.

        Are you usually good at guessing why people do things? Well regardless in this case your guess^presented-as-a-fact is wrong: https://slatestarcodex.com/2015/03/26/high-energy-ethics/

        tl;dr version: it’s called a thought experiment and the idea is you go to extremes for unambiguity (was this really a bad case or not? people are liable to be on different pages if you don’t choose an ur-example), and in order to ensure predominance of the chosen factor in the scenario (i.e. as a way of isolating the variable)

  17. Ventrue Capital says:

    When people train animals to do fancy tricks — for example, a dog walking backwards on its hind legs, then doing a backflip — they don’t start by rewarding the animal only when it does the entire trick.

    They start by rewarding the animal when it does the *first* part of the trick — in this case, standing up on its hind legs.

    After it’s mastered that task, they stop rewarding it for just standing up, and start rewarding it for walking backwards.

    Obviously, then, it is simple good sense to reward KFC now for introducing meatless chicken.

  18. JoeCool says:

    I think the whole give a dictator a golden parachute can work in certain situations (basically in conjunction with a credible plata o plomo type deal, but without the threat of violence its useless, as I imagine dictators get a huge none monetary benefits out of dictating, to the point that like an really old fortune 500 CEO who still insists on not retiring, they’re not really in it for the money.

    I’d like to see all the fairly responsible countries of the world (China, Russia, U.S, E.U) strategically make plata o plomo deals with every tinpot really obviously bad dictator that doesn’t currently have nuclear weapons.

  19. What would happen if all the Big Tobacco companies stopped selling cigarettes? Farmers would continue to grow tobacco, and small businesses would soon arise to roll and distribute it. On the plus side, the price would go up as efficiencies of scale are lost and some smokers would be induced to quite. On the minus side, many would continue to smoke, they’d just be poorer than they were before.

    Now that’s not going to happen. But we could get a broadly similar effect by raising the tobacco tax. So why don’t we? It would be politically unpopular, the smokers would mostly hate it and it would conflict with the libertarianish rhetoric of people who want legal marijuana or lower taxes. Still, an effort to raise tobacco taxes would have a much greater probability of success than an effort to shame Phillip Morris to stop selling tobacco. I’m not saying no one tries to raise tobacco taxes, they do try and they sometimes succeed. Still, if you gave people the questions “is Phillip Morris evil for selling cigarettes” and “should we raise the cigarette tax significantly,” I’d think far more people would agree with the first question than the second.

    It’s a very Hansonian story. We want to signal our disapproval of an activity without suffering the social conflict that would occur where we to actually try to combat it through law or social shaming of the people who do it. So we settle on an impersonal corporation to socially shame. It does do good in a roundabout way, by reminding smokers we do not approve of the activity.

    • albatross11 says:

      Indeed, this was always something that drove me crazy about the big anti-tobacco lawsuits in the 90s. The claim was that this specific set of companies had lied about the risks of smoking and fudged research results, and that as a result many people had smoked themselves into an early grave. But the result was to impose all kinds of new agreements that left those companies in existence, but restricted the whole industry.

      If we were concerned with justice, the answer would have been to liquidate those companies to pay for their customers’ burial costs, and allow new companies to arise who would not lie about the risks. (“Coffin Nails brand–great taste, AND the elevated risk of cancer and heart disease you’ve come to expect.”).

      Letting those big companies go bankrupt and leaving the industry lightly regulated w.r.t. selling their product to adults was not a politically acceptable outcome. So we kept those companies around, despite the claim that they’d lied a bunch of their customers into an early grave.

      • Faza (TCM) says:

        The claim was that this specific set of companies had lied about the risks of smoking and fudged research results, and that as a result many people had smoked themselves into an early grave.

        Which, all in all, seems a pretty strange argument.

        The case could perhaps be made a long time ago (i.e. prior to the Surgeon General’s warning; and similar ones elsewhere) that smokers could be oblivious to the dangers of smoking, but certainly not after the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act.

        More curious is the argument that tobacco companies downplayed/denied the health risks associated with smoking. The sensible reaction is: well they would do that, wouldn’t they? Anyone taking their word for it, without considering their incentives, only has themselves to blame.

        In practice, I note that while it’s not impossible to get a comprehensive and well-supported picture of the actual dangers associated with smoking, it isn’t as easy as it might seem. The tobacco companies aren’t the only party in this game that has an incentive to over-play their hand.

        • Dave says:

          It’s an odd bit of the common law, but theoretically the tobacco companies shouldn’t have even been capable of fraud past 1960 or so, because while they kept lying _no one believed them_. It was a common trope of mainstream comedy in the 60s and 70s that tobacco companies did nothing but lie. So much so that it could be easily argued that no one was harmed by their later lies because they were basically performance art, not taken seriously by even the simplest.

          • Clutzy says:

            It goes much further back than that. No one sincerely thought it wasn’t bad for you at least going back to the American founding.

    • MostlyCredibleHulk says:

      The way to make people smoke less tobacco is giving them the better alternatives. Like e-cigarettes. So, if makes sense that San Francisco just banned sale of E-cigarettes: https://www.sfexaminer.com/the-city/sf-becomes-first-u-s-city-to-ban-sale-of-e-cigarettes/ – because it’s San Francisco.

  20. Dave says:

    I’ve seen this in play, through a very strange program of the US State Department. The program is known colloquially as “The Generals”. Basically, if you are a military general officer nearly anywhere in the world and you are approaching retirement age, you are approached by the US State Department with an offer. The US State Department will move you and your immediate family to the United States, give you a comfortable pension, and offer an interesting variety of scheduled pleasurable retirement activities. This is evidently _way cheaper and easier_ for the US State Department than any of the other things that aging military general officers could get up to if left in their country of origin. Evidently the British Empire did similar calculations, where certain troublesome politicals in their colonies were give comfortable lives in London with the tacit understanding they would never, ever try to cross the Channel.

    My interaction with this program was that it uses the same whitewater rafting company that I do in northwest Montana once a year, and it’s easy to get the guides talking. The generals spend a couple of days per year being flown at taxpayers expense up to Missoula, MT and then rafting down the Flathead river outside Polson. This is delightful, and if you have a chance, you should absolutely give it a try. The generals involved aren’t notable monsters, but given their life paths they all certainly had the opportunity to _try_ to be monsters if they put their mind to it. I mostly assume government programs are designed by idiots trying to feel better about themselves at other’s expense, but this one seems fairly sensible.

    • JoeCool says:

      if you don’t mind sharing, what is the name of the white water rafting company??

      • Dave says:

        Flathead Raft Company, located in Polson, MT

        • gwern says:

          Montana? Is this what Red October was referring to with the stuff about ‘I will live in Montana.’?

          • Dave says:

            Probably not, but I certainly got the sentiment. Montana is an excellent place to live remote from the rest of humanity, and lacks notable nastiness (bar the winter) (and bears). Much of Montana is gorgeous, and it has about the number of people as Austin, Texas, in an area about half as big as Texas as a whole. Not much economy but tourism and ranching, bit of mining still in some parts, and wheat out east. Importantly, it’s got fewer aggressive idiots than Idaho/Wyoming/the Dakotas. Rural, but with a history of at least some progressivism (albeit not much cosmopolitanism). Gets some rich west coast folk buying up property (no big deal, there’s plenty), but it’s far enough from convenient air travel that they don’t spend much time there. Per gossip, the Generals are only there for a weekend per year, otherwise being on other field trips.

        • Dave says:

          BTW, and I don’t fault you if this is the case, but I realized after I answered that sounds like a journalist question. Is that the case? I’d love to see a story if you get one.

  21. PeterDonis says:

    I lean toward “buy the meatless chicken from KFC”

    You’re assuming that the smoke free cigarettes and the meatless KFC nuggets are actually better for you. I’m not so sure.

    • albatross11 says:

      The smokeless cigarettes seem really unlikely to be as bad for you as the normal kind. OTOH, the meatless chicken is being discussed in the OP in moral terms, not health terms.

      • PeterDonis says:

        The smokeless cigarettes seem really unlikely to be as bad for you as the normal kind.

        They should have a much reduced risk of lung cancer and COPD and similar diseases, yes. But they might have an increased risk of nicotine addiction, since they are actually delivering nicotine more efficiently than traditional cigarettes do. Not to mention other problems associated with nicotine.

        My point is that the companies are not doing this to actually be healthier. They are doing it to seem like they are being healthier. Sure, they will say, and quote studies saying, that smokeless cigarettes are healthier. What makes those claims any more credible than their claims for decades that smoking traditional cigarettes carried no health risks?

        • Dave says:

          Nicotine use (or even addiction) seems to slightly increase blood pressure, maybe, and has no other notable dangers that shows up in epidemiology. If you’re not burning plant matter and shoving it in your lungs (admittedly completely atrocious, health-wise), the dangers of nicotine use seems on par with caffeine use, and certainly less than alcohol or cannabis use. Nicotine is very habit-forming, but otherwise pretty benign. Biochemistry, it seems, is not always puritan.

  22. Harkonnendog says:

    This is off topic but the meatless future idea got my contrarian brain kicking.
    How far does this idea go and where do you stop thinking? Is a chicken brought up to be eaten better off never having existed at all? Has that been considered and worked out?

    If the idea is to stop suffering, do you kill all the mountain lions so they won’t kill deer? Watch a youtube video of a bear slowly eating a deer while it is still alive… its’ horrific.
    Do you cage the carnivores and feed them lab grown deer meat? And do you then painlessly kill deer so they won’t starve to death due to overpopulation?

    • JoeCool says:

      Essentially, yes.

      At least that is what I think.

    • Nick P. says:

      This is largely the main issue I have with more extreme “MUST BE UTIL MAXIMIZING ROBOT BEEP-BEEP-BOOP” ethical systems as the answer to the question of “How far does this idea go and where do you stop thinking?” is “Forever and you don’t.”

      This does indeed lead to ideas that we should as painlessly as possible sterilize the biosphere to prevent further suffering, that no one should have children ever because they might suffer, and indeed a positive outcome for the universe would be having self replicating robot probes covert all of the universes mass into computing substrate running as many copies as possible of the bare minimum neural architecture that can experience “pleasure” and maintaining said copies in a maxed out wireheaded bliss state.

      If at any point in there you’re like, “Woah, hey now, I think that’s going just a little too far!” the response will be, “THEN YOU ARE CONTINUING TO ALLOW SUFFERING TO EXIST IN SOME FORM. YOU MONSTER.”

      Personally I’ve just decided to bite the bullet, admit that my preferred Not-Being-A-Simulated-Wireheaded-Cricket-Brain worldview will require “suffering” of some sort to continue to exist and deal with that.

      If that makes me a degenerate monster then I guess it’s high time to carve lines in my head, stick a bunch of pins into my flesh and start going on about having such sights to show you.

      EDIT: Done me a typo or two.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Personally I’ve just decided to bite the bullet, admit that my preferred Not-Being-A-Simulated-Wireheaded-Cricket-Brain worldview will require “suffering” of some sort to continue to exist and deal with that.

        Somebody ought to write an SF story where India in the Buddha’s time is inventing computers, and him spreading the doctrine that life is suffering saves the world from anyone building a utilitarian AI.

        • Nornagest says:

          You could probably make this basic plot work in the setting of The Peshawar Lancers, although it would have to be Buddhists, not the Buddha himself.

          Plus, it’s a setting that could use more fanfic. Although I get the feeling that I’m about the only guy who ever gets the urge to read (let alone write) fanfic for literary SF.

      • Harkonnendog says:

        Personally I’ve just decided to bite the bullet, admit that my preferred Not-Being-A-Simulated-Wireheaded-Cricket-Brain worldview will require “suffering” of some sort to continue to exist and deal with that.

        Thank you for expressing what (I couldn’t quite figure out) bothered me! I don’t want to be heartless either, but to pretend we know enough to quantify these things…

        I’m not even sure chickens in these farms are netting on the suffering side. We have wild chickens all over the place where I live, and all the hens ever voluntarily do is eat. Sex is forced, unless the way they run screaming from the roosters and scream while being penetrated is some sort of mating ritual. They seem to care for their chicks, but then again, sometimes it seems like they couldn’t care less.
        As far as I can tell they have very basic programming… “Find food, eat it.” “If you hear a chirp find it.” “Sit on eggs if you hatch them.” The one that is constant is the “Find food, eat it.”
        If they get a little pleasure every time they satisfy that command these chicken farms are mass producers of net satisfaction. Why destroy that?

        • HarmlessFrog says:

          Sex is forced, unless the way they run screaming from the roosters and scream while being penetrated is some sort of mating ritual.

          It’s complicated. Sometimes hens eagerly submit and “assume the position”, no chasing involved. But in a typical backyard situation, where roosters are far too many relative to the polygynous chicken society standard, hens are going to be oversexed, and they particularly don’t like being oversexed by low status roosters.

      • Faza (TCM) says:

        This does indeed lead to ideas that we should as painlessly as possible sterilize the biosphere to prevent further suffering

        I consider this to be the best-named philosophical argument of all time, hands down.

        • Harkonnendog says:

          That’s why I love this place. The concept that I was flailing to grasp has already been threshed out by some random genius, and given an awesome name. Thanks for the link.

  23. Rand says:

    This is why I’m a monarchist.

    Juan Carlos I of Spain wasn’t some hereditary monarch from birth whose only job was to cut ribbons and wear frilly hats. He was the handpicked successor of Generalísimo Franco, fascist dictator of Spain. And Juan Carlos helped the Spanish transition to democracy (including stopping a Franco-ist coup) and for that he and his descendants get to wear crowns and fancy clothes.

    Deal. A thousand times deal. A million frilly hats for the Kims.

  24. Deiseach says:

    Probably not the direction this debate is meant to go, but now I really, really want to know what Korean Fried Chicken would be (is?) like.

    Anybody familiar with Korean food? Do they have a version of fried chicken?

    EDIT: Google has not let me down, there is indeed a Korean version of fried chicken!

  25. beej67 says:

    This article was very disappointing. I hate to be a hater, but it may have been the worst slate star article I’ve ever read, and I’m a pretty big fan. It’s an intriguing concept, but it revolves around a postulate that’s not supported, and there are plenty of other SSC articles which should, by rights, undermine this one outright.

    First off, it presumes Tyson Foods is “evil,” without defining evil. Second off, it completely ignores marketplace dynamics, which is something I definitely didn’t expect from the guy who wrote the best Libertarian FAQ around, one which literally unpacks the game theoretical implications of libertarian concepts in an open market to show how coordination problems arise.

    – What makes meat evil?
    – What makes the company evil for selling meat?
    – If we outright grant that meat is evil, why isn’t it the meat eaters who are evil instead of the company?

    If Tyson Foods were to stop selling meat, which Scott believes would be the “non-evil” thing to do, then all that would happen is they’d lose market share to another company which would rise to (meet) the (meat) demand. There is no parallel to evil dictators. The actual “evil” in the equation, should we consider meat to be evil, is the meat eaters. So long as there are meat eaters, a company will supply them with meat. Because markets.
    He appears to have stumbled into the “right” action, which is indeed the right action, totally blindly.

    What is the right action?

    I’m not sure, but I lean toward “buy the meatless chicken from KFC”, for a few reasons.

    First, I’m skeptical that corporations can predict moral progress, and I expect them to have low discount rates. I don’t think Colonel Sanders in 1952 was thinking “Maybe I shouldn’t sell chicken, just in case later generations punish my successors.” That removes a lot of the advantage of precommiting to always punish evil corporations, but keeps the advantage of rewarding evildoers who turn good.

    Companies do not exist to predict moral progress. They exist to meet an existing market demand, and their only prediction they need to make is what the future market demands will be. And they only need to meet those future market demands when they arise.

    So obviously Tyson Foods would have some vegetarian synthetic R&D crap they were working on, and obviously they would only roll it out once there is a demand for it. To view this as bandwagoneering or such is simply blind. They’re doing it for the same reason they always do it, because companies are not thinking entities. They are machines which meet demands.

    Second, realistically there are probably many companies that are as bad as these (like oil companies), which we don’t think about because they’re not in the process of going good in ways that make their evil more ironic and salient. It would be dumb to boycott only the companies that are trying to improve.

    WTF? Oil companies are working on algae fuels and alternate energy right now, in exactly the same way that Tyson Foods is working on chicken nuggets made of processed vegetable goop, for exactly the same reason. When the market finally bears the new product, they will start selling the new product. There’s no differentiation here. And the thing that brings him to think that there’s a differentiation appears to be the short sighted way in which he applied “evil” to the delivery method instead of the end user.

    It reminds me in some ways of liberal gun control rhetoric.

    Third, boycotting companies is hard. In the process of writing this article, I learned Tyson Foods until recently owned Sara Lee, the cookie company, which itself owns a bunch of popular coffee brands. Also, they seem to have invested in Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats and all the other vegan-meat-substitute companies that we would feel good about buying from if we boycotted Tyson. If Tyson Foods really wants to make money off of vegans, they can probably do it without those vegans noticing.

    The real reason boycotting companies is hard, is that when a company is selling things that people demand, you’ll never get them to stop with a boycott, because people still demand that thing. The company is just a delivery method for a demanded object. If the company quit, some other company would show up and deliver the demanded thing.

    While I eat meat happily, I can grant that an argument exists that meat is bad. The trick to ending meat, should we presume for the sake of argument that meat is bad, is to convince people to stop eating meat.

    • Matt M says:

      I appreciate these posts, if only because they serve to instruct us (and possibly Scott himself) as to what sort of bubbles Scott exists in. And the answer, apparently, is the type of bubble wherein “KFC and oil companies are evil” is so inherently obvious and taken as a given such that no real explanation or evidence is considered necessary.

      • beej67 says:

        I wonder if the disconnect isn’t just thought bubbles, but is literally epistemic. It’s a common left wing thought process to assign the immoral act to the tool instead of the person.

        So “meat is murder” is solved by attacking the meat companies, not by convincing people to not eat meat. They attack the delivery method, as if people weren’t capable of making their own decisions about their own lives. This is the same thing we see with the gun debate, where the drive is to ban the tools, instead of holding the individuals accountable for their individual actions.

        The root schism appears, at least to me anyway, to be one between individualism and collectivism. And this schism appears to be getting tremendously worse over the last ten years, with the postmodernist academics pushing the idea that there is no individual identity at all.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        Scott has a series of older posts about wanting to limit his meat consumption.


        To me, it’s pretty clear that paying someone to kill a chicken for me so I can eat it has the same moral weight as killing the chicken myself. That might be a small moral weight, but I don’t avoid it pay establishing a commercial relationship.

      • Nornagest says:

        Berkeleyans gonna Berkeley.

    • beleester says:

      Tobacco companies put a lot of money into funding research that “proved” tobacco was safe and didn’t cause cancer. That’s not just meeting consumer demand – nobody is saying “Gosh, I really wish someone would lie to me about my cancer risk, is there a company I can hire to do that?” That counts as “corporations being evil” in my book.

      Corporations are not “machines which meet demands.” They are machines that extract money from consumers, usually by meeting their demands, but not always. Sometimes it’s done by lying to the consumer about what they need to demand. Sometimes they meet demands by causing greater harm elsewhere (externalities). Sometimes they meet demands by lobbying governments to pass laws that create demand, or make it hard for others to compete.

      And I think it’s reasonable for someone to look at a company that used to do one of these things, and ask “Have the people in charge actually stopped being evil, or are they simply temporarily lacking in opportunities to do it?”

    • HarmlessFrog says:

      The trick to ending meat, should we presume for the sake of argument that meat is bad, is to convince people to stop eating meat.

      That’s self-harming behaviour, much like one of those human extinction movements. All that will achieve is the dissenters becoming more powerful in the long term. Meat is pretty much the most nutritious thing you can eat, and humans require animal products of some variety to meet their micronutrient needs… and not everyone can tolerate eggs or dairy.

  26. andagain says:

    I wonder how many people who would argue for boycotting KFCs vegan chicken, also boycott Whole Foods, on the grounds that it also sells meat.

  27. danjelski says:

    I think it’s a stretch to label Tyson Foods and KFC as “evil companies.” You can do that only if you think people who eat meat are evil–an attitude that will condemn most of the world’s population.

    I’m not even sure Philip Morris is an evil company. At least they’re not trying to peddle marijuana!

    If I were picking a company to call “evil”, it would Facebook. But then I never use that platform so that solves that problem.

    At least in a democracy, any legal business can’t really be considered evil. And even some illegal businesses aren’t really evil, either.

  28. Hoopyfreud says:

    At the corporate level, the law is a good framework, I think. If a company operates within the law, forgiveness is reasonable if behaviors change as laws do. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prefer companies with a longer history of moral action – I get warm fuzzies about companies that didn’t segregate prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, for example – and to the extent that morality plays into your decisions there’s nothing wrong with thinking of them as more moral or giving them more money. If the moral implications of your company’s competitors’ behavior are substantial enough that everyone prefers them, I don’t see anything wrong with that. No company has a social mandate, or “deserves” to continue existing in the face of better-liked competitors. To the extent they have a mandate, it’s enshrined by the law.

    When it comes to dictators, things are more difficult. Overthrowing dictators is (obviously) illegal, but the argument tends to go that the dictator is violating their mandate (possibly by becoming a dictator in the first place). I think that the violation of a mandate ought to be punished, but what that mandate actually is is an interesting question. Some combination of “the will of the people” and “respect for human rights.” What that actually means in practice is probably up to whoever overthrows the dictator.

    • Ghillie Dhu says:

      I get warm fuzzies about companies that didn’t segregate prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act

      The stylized narrative I’ve received is that companies that segregated were operating in States whose laws legally mandated such; are there examples of either (a) companies that segregated in States without such mandates, or (b) companies that did not segregate in violation of the State’s laws?

  29. Peffern says:

    Bad things are bas because they are bad, not because bad people do them. If KFC or whoever wants to to do something that is good, they should be rewarded for it, same as they should be punished for doing something bad. They don’t have to get a grand moral evaluation. Corporations or capitalism or whatever you want to call it doesn’t have intrinsic morality. KFC isn’t bad because corporations are bad, they’re bad because of inhumane animal treatment (among other things). If they want to remed that, good on them.

    • drunkfish says:

      This is massively oversimplified. Brands exist. If consumers behave in a way that “companies’ behave morally” is more profitable, companies will (hopefully) behave more morally. They don’t have to have “intrinsic morality” to have self interested morality. We should hold brands to moral standards *precisely because* there’s no intrinsic morality, so we have to force a profit-motivated morality. We can and should look at brands holistically, because those brands know that they have identities beyond their individual actions.

  30. Watchman says:

    Is evil being used here as hyperbole or is this now a valid rationally-constructed viewpoint, that things we don’t like but others do can be considered as evil? It seems rather fundamentalist to me, especially as the major area of discussion in the essay was on animal welfare, an area where I don’t see a consensus on what is right (albeit I come from the ‘we are gods’ school here: these animals literally only exist for us to eat, so let us eat them). I appreciate the underlying discussion but think the use of evil as a label for activities that other people enjoy and do no harm is seriously moving into bad idea territory. Apart from the moral aspects it is in effect unnecessary virtue signalling. Be an advocate for a meat-free future by all means, but perhaps both the question here and the advocacy would work better without the absolutism of labelling a position ‘evil’ when it is not obviously harmful.

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      I appreciate the underlying discussion but think the use of evil as a label for activities that other people enjoy and do no harm is seriously moving into bad idea territory.

      I think I have identified the problem here.

  31. rapa-nui says:

    There’s a trade-off: if you structure the world in such a way that bad actors can reform and have “easy” escape routes, then you will both end up with more of them be willing to give up their bad acts, but you will also have more actors choose to become bad in the first place.

    There’s an “antifragility” argument to be made here- you punish bad actors, ruthlessly and relentlessly always. Because otherwise the bad behavior propagates.

    Right now, in Norway, there’s a group of people trying to figure out a way to brokerage an agreement between Venezuela’s Maduro autocratic government and Guaido’s US-backed interim government. A NYT op-ed (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/11/opinion/guaido-venezuela-norway.html) expressed exactly the opinion that you expressed: we agree to let Maduro and his evil cronies get some strong guantees of a sweet and happy life forever more so that they relinquish the country. The stronger the assurances of non-repercussion for their murders of civilians and mismanagement/looting of the economy, the more likely they are to eventually capitulate. This is bad, because it sends the signal to any future government of a banana republic that they can pretty much get away with whatever level of corruption, and so long as they control the men with the guns, they will get cut a pretty sweet deal.

    Screw that.

    • PersonOfInterest says:

      I disagree with this completely. The flaw in your logic is that the “bad actors” almost certainly don’t see themselves as “bad”. I don’t even think Maduro had bad intentions when he took over in 2013. Venezuela got to where it is today largely because of mismanagement, bad economics, and low-level corruption. It wasn’t because Maduro wanted to make them suffer on purpose. Right now, he’s in a situation where he’s putting his own survival over anything else.

      To be clear, I have a deep, frothing hatred of Nicolas Maduro, but I support every effort to ensure safe transport for him and his key supporters to Cuba (or some other friendly country). Bringing him to anything approaching justice would extend the suffering of the Venezuelan people for years and almost certainly require military intervention by the US. Removing him from power and restoring democracy is far more important and more ethical on balance. Maduro will (likely) never receive the fate he deserves, but I’m willing to accept this reality as a cost of alleviating the suffering of Venezuelans.

      • rapa-nui says:

        The flaw in your logic is that the “bad actors” almost certainly don’t see themselves as “bad”.

        Forget morality. Let’s say there’s a range of actions we want to dissuade: repression, cult of personality, violence against opposition, “plata o plomo” type deals, etc. It doesn’t matter whether you see these as bad or good actions (you’re a consequentialist who views all strategies as viable options for the correct long-term cause), as long as the international community makes it clear that these are sanctionable acts. This changes behavior. If you do not impose a cost on certain acts (again, disregarding whether they are ‘bad’ or ‘good’ in a moral sense) they become more common.

  32. drunkfish says:

    I guess it’s too late now, but I wish the poll had come before the rest of the post. You’ve significantly impacted my thinking about the issue, and I’m probably not alone, so you’ll likely at least partially get your post parroted back to you by the poll.

  33. Kevinw says:

    Not sure it follows to support businesses like KFC if you have been campaigning against them or object to the large scale animal exploitation they have been engaging in. I suspect for people who don’t recognise speciesism or particular issues with KFC then they are unlikely to stop supporting them, though their commitment to eating chickens could be variable, so they may also choose to support the vegan options.

    For people who are raising awareness of animal exploitation and speciesism then it seems more reasonable to support the businesses which have supported the social changes which are beginning to impact on the larger animal exploiting companies, rather than now championing them because they offer a single option and are no longer marginalising vegetarianism or veganism to encourage sales of non-vegan products. Something McDonald’s have been particularly good at, especially through the humane myth.

    Whilst i’m not sure it is necessarily about boycotts and punishment, but focussing on more positive organisations and businesses which more closely reflect positive values. Particularly those which are consistent and exemplify generating new norms. I would say this line of thinking can also be applied to donating to non-profits, so i tend to support those which discuss issues of speciesism and reflect the value of other animals that would lead to veganism (which means avoiding popular “welfare” organisations).

    Also not sure the Hitler analogy particularly works unless the dictatorship is surrendered. So it would be steps in the “right” direction. So maybe Hitler stops killing one type of person, and that means you start trading resources with Hitler (on favourable terms) to reward that good behaviour so prolongs killing.

    In terms of the animal rights movement there isn’t really an official boycott of any of the fast food chains, but they tend to be criticised for labour, environmental, animal exploitation practices and usually avoided.

  34. notpeerreviewed says:

    You know who else hated tobacco companies?!?!

    • Deiseach says:

      You know who else hated tobacco companies?!?!

      James VI and I?

      And for the vanities committed in this filthie custome, is it not both great vanitie and vncleanenesse, that at the table, a place of respect, of cleanlinesse, of modestie, men should not be ashamed, to sit tossing of Tobacco pipes, and puffing of the smoke of Tobacco one to another, making the filthie smoke and stinke thereof, to exhale athwart the dishes, and infect the aire, when very often, men that abhorre it are at their repast? Surely Smoke becomes a kitchin far better then a Dining chamber, and yet it makes a kitchen also oftentimes in the inward parts of men, soiling and infecting them, with an vnctuous and oily kinde of Soote, as hath bene found in some great Tobacco takers, that after their death were opened. And not onely meate time, but no other time nor action is exempted from the publicke vse of this vnciuill tricke: so as if the wiues of Diepe list to contest with this nation for good maners their worst maners would in all reason be found at least not so dishonest (as ours are) in this point. The publike vse whereof, at all times, and in all places, hath now so farre preuailed, as diuers men very sound both in iudgement, and complexion, haue bene at last forced to take it also without desire, partly because they were ashamed to seeme singular (like the two Philosophers that were forced to duck themselues in that raine water, and so become fooles as well as the rest of the people) and partly, to be as one that was content to eate Garlicke (which he did not loue) that he might not be troubled with the smell of it, in the breath of his fellowes. And is it not a great vanitie, that a man cannot heartily welcome his friend now, but straight they must bee in hand with Tobacco? No it is become in place of a cure, a point of good fellowship, and he that will refuse to take a pipe of Tobacco among his fellowes, (though by his own election he would rather feele the sauour of a Sinke) is accounted peeuish and no good company, euen as they doe with tippeling in the cold Easterne Countries. Yea the Mistresse cannot in a more manerly kinde, entertaine her seruant, then by giuing him out of her faire hand a pipe of Tobacco. But herein is not onely a great vanitie, but a great contempt of God’s good giftes, that the sweetenesse of mans breath, being a good gift of God, should be willfully corrupted by this stinking smoke, wherein I must confesse, it hath too strong a vertue: and so that which is an ornament of nature, and can neither by any artifice be at the first acquired, nor once lost, be recouered againe, shall be filthily corrupted with an incurable stinke, which vile qualitie is as directly contrary to that wrong opinion which is holden of the wholesomnesse thereof, as the venime of putrifaction is contrary to the vertue Preseruatiue.

      Moreouer, which is a great iniquitie, and against all humanitie, the husband shall not bee ashamed, to reduce thereby his delicate, wholesome, and cleane complexioned wife, to that extremetie, that either shee must also corrupt her sweete breath therewith, or else resolue to liue in a perpetuall stinking torment.

  35. Tenacious D says:

    Somewhat related: public sector pension funds like CalPERS are falling out of love with divestment: https://www.wsj.com/articles/calpers-dilemma-save-the-world-or-make-money-11560684601

    • Protagoras says:

      I admit that my sources on this may be biased, but based on stories I’ve heard about CalPERS, perhaps they think that it is hypocritical for them to avoid investing in evil.

  36. Alex Zavoluk says:

    Major category error: Corporations are not actual living entities that make decisions. Actual people make decisions. If all of the executives and scientists who mislead the public about the link between smoking and cancer are dead, and many of the more recent executives who profited from those efforts are retired or at other companies, who are you really punishing by punishing the tobacco company now? As you point out, the very people who have decided to make the change, and also a lot of regular employees who played no part in the relevant decisions and haven’t particularly profited off of them.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      Corporations aren’t people, but they are still subject to incentives. Imperfectly, but it’s also imperfect when done against humans.

      (I’m not necessarily approving of efforts to apply those incentives.)

    • Jaskologist says:

      “Living entities” is an ill-defined term. If consciousness is simply an emergent property of physical systems performing complex calculations, then corporations are living entities that make decisions.

      • deciusbrutus says:

        “Consciousness” is not life. But assuming corporations are conscious:

        Corporations lack a nociception capacity, so per se punishment of a corporation is impossible, and the closest thing to punishing a corporation is damaging its interests.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Corporations lack a nociception capacity

          Prove it. They do respond to stimuli, especially stimuli which indicate a threat to them. Unless you’ve solved the problem of qualia, I don’t think you can just state that they don’t experience punishment or suffering.

          Arguing that corporations are not conscious is basically just another version of Searle’s Chinese Room, and I think is essentially equivalent to saying that AIs can never really be conscious or make decisions either.

          (All of which may be true! I lean in that direction myself! But don’t then turn around and say “but when I run electricity through these metal bits in just the right way, I’ll have something that makes decisions and is worthy of moral consideration.” Be a consistent materialist or a consistent dualist.)

          • deciusbrutus says:

            Describe a couple cases where you think a corporation responded to a painful stimulus.

            I’m not asserting that there cannot be a corporation that experiences pain, I’m merely asserting that there are not.

    • blacktrance says:


      In the dictator analogy, suppose the brutal dictator dies unrepentant and power passes to his son, who winds down the dictatorship. While the son may not be entirely innocent (the brutality continued early in his reign), punishing him would definitely create a bad incentive.

    • John Schilling says:

      Major category error: Corporations are not actual living entities that make decisions.

      Dictatorships are also not actual living entities that make decisions.

      Dictators are, but so are CEOs, and both subject to similar constraints in their decision-making. Mostly, we’re just being sloppy with the terminology and should probably pay closer attention to that.

  37. Ghillie Dhu says:

    I expect them to have low discount rates

    I think you mean high discount rates; low discount rates mean you discount the value of future states only a little relative to the present state.

    • Matt M says:

      I suspect you’re right and that he got the terms confused.

      But I also think that’s incorrect, and that despite the frequent insistence otherwise, private, for-profit, corporations are probably the entities in society whose incentives are most aligned to produce long-term rather than short-term thinking, motivations, goals, plans, etc.

      • Ghillie Dhu says:

        I make no assertion about whether corporations in general have longer or shorter time horizons than individuals; I would intuitively expect discount rates to be lower for entities who expect to exist longer, but although corporations do not face the reaper they can be much shorter-lived than humans. #itdepends

        • Alex Zavoluk says:

          I think this is an example of the point I made immediately below. Corporations may exist for far longer than any human, but the people making decisions do not. It is a total fallacy to suggest that corporations have different time horizons than people because companies aren’t limited by biological life spans.

          There might be reasons why corporations “care” about the long term, but these are no different from the reasons that people care about what happens after they are dead (people care about how they are remembered, they care about their descendants, they want their life’s work to have meaning, etc.)

          • Ghillie Dhu says:

            The context in which corporate decisions are made is qualitatively different than that of personal decisions. Corporate decisions are more likely to be explicitly quantified and, in so doing, discounted exponentially (i.e., time consistently); personal decisions are more likely to be made intuitively which leans toward (time inconsistent) hyperbolic discounting (isomorphic to exponential discounting with a non-zero hazard rate, i.e., chance of death).

          • Alex Zavoluk says:

            The fact that decisions are made quantitatively and with greater system 2 involvement is not the same thing as different incentives. No individual person is incentivized to make a corporation last 100 years.

            Moreover, corporations are far from gauranteed to live forever. Companies go under all the time, and I see no reason why they shouldn’t include the probability of going under in their time discounting estimates.

          • Ghillie Dhu says:

            No individual person is incentivized to make a corporation last 100 years.

            In a way, they are. The requirement to discount future cash flows in a time consistent fashion results in decisions optimized for an eternal entity. Use time inconsistent discounting and you’re not maximizing shareholder value and will be replaced.

          • JubileeJones says:

            Shareholders evaluate you from year-to-year, or quarter-to-quarter. They don’t examine your time-discounting algorithms and methodology, they just see that you’re making the stock price go up. The individual managers are absolutely incentivized to sacrifice the long-term for the sake of the short term, for example by failing to make capital expenditures for as long as possible. In the corporate world of manufacturing, there’s even an industry term for the trick of inflating your short-term numbers in that fashion: “starving a plant”. The trick, apparently, is to keep moving up or laterally before the consequences catch up with you. I strongly suggest, Ghillie Dhu, that you read Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers; it seems like you have this curiously idealistic mental picture of the corporation as a monolithic entity, when in fact it’s made up of people, who, unsurprisingly, follow their incentives just like everybody else.

          • Ghillie Dhu says:

            it seems like you have this curiously idealistic mental picture of the corporation as a monolithic entity


            I have an understanding of the way corporate structure systemically incentivizes the individual decision makers, and am presenting the Econ 101 frictionless vacuum description; focusing on transient phenomena over steady-state obscures more than it enlightens.

  38. gbdub says:

    What does it say that this post, casually comparing fried chicken to the Holocaust, gets tagged “ethics” while “toxoplasma of rage” gets tagged “things I will regret writing”?

    This is low grade snark and I apologize, but I think it is at least true and kind of necessary.

    • profgerm says:

      Personally, I think it’s an insightful observation/question phrased in an amusing manner.

    • Dacyn says:

      TIWRW is meant for posts on highly controversial / culture war topics. Nowadays posts with that tag have comments disallowed automatically. I think it is a good thing we are able to comment on this post.

  39. ajfirecracker says:

    What is wrong with providing oil, or tobacco, or chicken to people who want it?

    • notpeerreviewed says:

      I don’t think the answer is “nothing”, by any means, but these things are so far from being comparable to Hitler or Kim Jong-un that the entire thought experiment seems pretty strange to me.

    • drunkfish says:

      Tobacco companies actively misled the public about the harms of smoking. Oil companies actively misled the public about the impacts of CO2 emissions. Chicken is fuzzier, but I think the lengths they go to to hide practices going on inside their farms also probably count as actively misleading the public.

      Even if providing people what they want isn’t inherently evil, funding bad science and propaganda to try to sell your (harmful) product is definitely evil.

      • Clutzy says:

        Richard Epstein has demonstrated that the tobacco companies never actually lost a suit under that rationale.

        • drunkfish says:

          What’s your point? Legality, and provability to the satisfaction of a court, is only weakly correlated to truth. If it’s a fact that they tried to suppress research or fund specific conclusions, I don’t care whether it was illegal or not.

          • Clutzy says:

            Its just an important notation, because there is and was plenty of evidence going back to the 1700s about the health detriments of smoking. The people who were tricked wanted to be tricked, like a fat person who sees one of those studies about how chocolate eaters have good heart health.

  40. Jaskologist says:

    Although keeping parrots and curlus, they do not adopt an orphaned child. Rather they expose children who are born at home. And yet they take up the young of birds. And so they prefer irrational creatures to rational ones.

    Clement of Alexandria

  41. gbdub says:

    “Kill Kim Jong” and “offer him a golden parachute” both seem like plausible ways to solve the problem of North Korean evil dictatorship.

    “Refuse to buy Tyson fakemeat until they stop factory farming chickens” is remarkably unlikely to end factory farming. Tyson isn’t operating under some moral imperative to torture chickens. They aren’t using fakemeat to fund their costly chicken murder campaign. They are offering a product that consumers want. If your boycott-of-thing-you-weren’t-buying-anyway somehow succeeds in convincing them to stop factory farming chickens, or puts them out of business, that will change nothing except that Jim Perdue will get richer.

    If you want to end factory farming, you need to create a public consensus strong enough to get the large majority of people to voluntarily stop buying factory farmed meat. Or at least enough to get laws against certain practices passed. Do that and Tyson solves itself, because again, they aren’t killing chickens as a crusade. They won’t fight to the last man. They’ll adapt their business and charge what they need to to make a profit, or they’ll go bankrupt.

    • Viliam says:

      “Kill Kim Jong” and “offer him a golden parachute” both seem like plausible ways to solve the problem of North Korean evil dictatorship.

      We can use a mixed strategy. First, seriously try to kill the guy. Assassins, lasers from orbit, etc. If he survives, then offer him the golden parachute. With the implied threat that if he doesn’t accept, more assassins will be sent and more lasers fired.

      This weakens a bit the objection “what about our precommitment to punish?” Yes, we tried. And perhaps in some parallel universes we succeeded. But we lost here. So the dictator is rewarded for giving up despite having perfect defenses. And it doesn’t provide much of an incentive to become a dictator for people who don’t believe they would have perfect defenses.

      Offering the golden parachute is only immoral if there was no serious assassination attempt first.

      (Also, timing. If the dictator refuses, and later his position weakens, you stop offering the golden parachute, and send the assassins again. The golden parachute is a reward for giving up while invincible.)

      • John Schilling says:

        We can use a mixed strategy. First, seriously try to kill the guy. Assassins, lasers from orbit, etc. If he survives, then offer him the golden parachute. With the implied threat that if he doesn’t accept, more assassins will be sent and more lasers fired.

        And if he does accept, you’re going to kill him anyway. Or worse, lock him in a cell until he rots. He knows this. Worse than that, he believes this, and with a certainty that you will never be able argue him out of.

        If in the post-Pinochet and post-Gaddafi era there is any sliver of a window left open for the Dictator’s Golden Parachute idea, that window gets slammed shut with the first assassination attempt. There may be alternate universes where we still have some flexibility in that area, but in this one, other people have already pretty thoroughly precommitted you as a representative of Western Civilization to killing or imprisoning Kim Jong Un at the first practical opportunity no matter what, and if you want to buy back any credibility in that regard you have to very unambiguously and conspicuously distance yourself from Plan Kill KJU No Matter What.

    • Tuesday says:

      “Kill Kim Jong” and “offer him a golden parachute” both seem like plausible ways to solve the problem of North Korean evil dictatorship.

      Do they? Someone above asked for instances where a dictator retired, democracy followed, and all was well. There were a few examples mentioned, notably Pinochet and some close-enough-for-government-work cases from East Asia. But I’m having a harder time coming up with examples of “the evil dictator was killed, democracy followed, and all was well”, let alone “the evil dictator was killed by (or with substantial backing from) foreign powers, democracy followed, and all was well”*. Perhaps Park Chung-hee? But Park’s dictatorship doesn’t seem especially evil to me. Or Nicolae Ceaucescu? Though someone here said that killing him was probably a mistake.

      Perhaps one could make an argument that this is because violent removal of the dictator generally happens with governments so perverse and countries so dysfunctional that they were doomed to chaos or relapse anyway. But that would also suggest that we should try the golden parachute option first, and the assassination option only afterwards.

      * This does not count cases like Germany, Italy, and Japan post-WWII, given the whole ‘needing to fight a war with and then occupy the country in question’ thing. Unless someone here seriously thinks that the best option is invasion and occupation of North Korea.

      • gbdub says:

        Interesting conversation but you guys are missing the point. “Eliminate the dictator by carrot or stick” is at least a path to “no more dictator”. Feel free to argue about which way is better or more likely.

        But “vegetarians boycott Tyson foods” is NOT a plausible path to “no more chicken killing” because there are already many competing chicken brands that will immediately fill in the gap.

        Although, it could be said that failure to remove the “demand” for authoritarianism or various atrocities is why dictator removal schemes often fail.

        • albatross11 says:


          The whole point is that the dictator may very well be in a situation where holding onto power is the only way to keep him, his closest supporters, and his family from being killed. In that case, he has an incentive to fight to the death, because there’s no upside in surrendering.

          Having the option of accepting a one-way flight to exile in {the US, Cuba, London, some nice Island in the South Pacific} and being reasonably confident that that exile won’t turn out to involve a flight to the Hague for war crimes trials, makes it possible to convince the dictator to give up short of fighting to the death.

  42. DragonMilk says:

    As humans are omnivores, you may want to note/clarify why a meat producer is “evil”. The assumption strikes me as only obvious in certain liberal bubbles. Hunter gatherers were much healthier than farmers for a reason.

    Perhaps some links to modern production methods, etc. would help, but it rubs me the wrong way to go from smoking to Hitler, talk about evil people and companies, and carry on assuming it’s obvious that Tyson Foods is evil. To me it’s a symptom of profit incentives taken to an extreme without regard to ethics, but that goes for all companies. To categorically label meat production, oil, fried chicken, or even tobacco companies as evil does not seem productive.

  43. Deiseach says:

    I don’t think Colonel Sanders in 1952 was thinking “Maybe I shouldn’t sell chicken, just in case later generations punish my successors.”

    In 1952 if you had said to practically anyone “Hey, do you know fried chicken is evil?”, they would have looked at you like “Who let this crazy person escape from the mental hospital?”

    Philip Morris is somewhat different of a case, because even from the introduction of tobacco, there were vehement anti-smoking protests. But even there, it was an open question as to “is tobacco smoking really that bad for you? or do people simply coincidentally die of nicotine poisoning and cancer and things like that because correlation ain’t causation?” until undeniable evidence was provided.

    I learned Tyson Foods until recently owned Sara Lee, the cookie company, which itself owns a bunch of popular coffee brands. Also, they seem to have invested in Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats and all the other vegan-meat-substitute companies

    Welcome to the beauties of capitalism. Principles don’t amount to a hill of beans, but if it looks like there’s money in it or likely to be money in it, big companies will leap aboard that bandwagon faster than they can paint their gates like a rainbow for Pride Month. For any of the commenters recommending maintaining purity of values and only buying from always-been-vegan companies, sorry: once a big company comes around throwing money at them like snuff at a wake, the pure stainless ones will be very happy to grow their business by taking a share of that bloodstained carnist lucre. This is how business works.

    Also you never know who really owns what because generally there is one big giant mega-corporation which has bought out brands all over the place and has a surprising range of varied items under its umbrella.

  44. deciusbrutus says:

    We need an “It’s complicated” point on the political spectrum.

  45. bowndim says:

    Philosophically my solution is to have two tiers

    If you are this evil we kill you

    If you achieve this much higher level of evil you win and you get an island.

    We calibrate so that at inception evil plans have a negative expected value but we still have an off ramp for the worst cases.

    Notably there is no easy off ramp for middling evil but this is fine. Because by the very fact these actors failed to achieve the upper echelons of evil we can defeat them. Killing them is the off ramp.

    Pragmatically, isn’t that exactly how it already works?

    • DragonMilk says:

      I recommend you watch the anime “Psycho Pass”

    • drunkfish says:

      That seems like a super dangerous precommitment to make. It incentivizes mildly evil dictators to be as evil as they can be. Couple that with “evil plans … expected value” being presumably hard to calculate and even harder for (probably inherently) narcissistic dictators, this seems like it just ensures moderate dictators stop existing.

      • It incentivizes mildly evil dictators to be as evil as they can be.

        “Sir, the UN inspectors say that your genocide only killed 500,000.”

        “NO! Tell them to give me more time and check the numbers again! I swear it’s over a million! Can’t these incompetents find the mass graves I laid out?”

      • bowndim says:

        There could be some marginal inefficiencies!

        But I think big picture it is important to note. No one can simply choose to be in the top tier. Once you embark on evil we deploy all the usual deterrents up to and including kill you. And the efforts to succeed amplify the more evil you get. Middling dictators just don’t get there. There equilibrium is a level where their level of misdeed falls short of encentivizing the effort required to bring one of there strength to heal.

        Pragmatically of course we can’t measure evil so precisely so the uncertainty you describe can go both ways. Society can apply discretion when to reward a successful villain without losing credibility for disencentivizing future villainy.

  46. aphyer says:

    I seem to recall an earlier Scott article to the effect of “don’t try to punish people in order to enforce social norms that only exist in your head.” I do not think there is a broad consensus that eating meat is evil.

  47. DinoNerd says:

    I am personally very slow to trust people and institutions with a bad history. If it turns out that smokeless cigarettes provide serious health hazards of their own, Phillip Morris is more likely than most to work hard to suppress the evidence. I also consider them more likely than most to do other things that would tend to reduce the safety of their products, and try to solve that little problem via lobbyists and advertisements, rather than simply making the product safer. (e.g. random hazardous contaminants, as well as bad things added because they improve flavour, make manufacturing easier, etc.)

    Fortunately for these companies, most people don’t remember these things. They’ll buy from those who burned them in the past, and be surprised or resigned when they get burned again.

    All this is separate from trying to reward companies for change or punish them for past misdeeds. It’s impossible to find a corporation with clean hands; some are merely worse – or more notorious – than others. So I see no point going down that path at all. We should punish evil corporate behaviour with jail time for executives. We basically don’t do that. “Punishing” the corporation by not buying from it just gets lost in the noise, and in any case the solution from their POV is more non-good behaviour to replace any lost revenue.

  48. Bobobob says:

    I suggest using Stalin rather than Hitler as the personification of evil. (Not that I want to start any contests.)

    • Tuesday says:

      Why? What difference would that make?

      • Bobobob says:

        Well, for starters, Hitler only killed people he considered his enemies, and went pretty easy on his loyal minions. Stalin not only killed tens of millions of innocent people, but arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and executed his closest friends. He was also (I believe) the first dictator ever to go to war against his own country.

        Hitler and Stalin were both evil, but Stalin’s evil had an added dimension that it is still difficult to understand.

  49. Conrad Honcho says:

    Well TIL. I wanted to get the quote right so I googled it before posting and discovered that Sun Tzu never said “Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.” That said, it still sounds like a pretty good idea.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      Sun Tzu DID say to not attack an enemy when they cannot retreat, and even gave an example of a general who placed his army in a position where they could not retreat precisely to bait his opponent into attacking them there. With nowhere to retreat to, the cornered army did not break.

  50. Edward Scizorhands says:

    My view is that humans are over-wired to punish. It’s extremely easy to justify in our meaty brains why we should keep on kicking the shit out of our enemy even after he has reformed. Whatever your meaty brain says about keeping the pressure on, realize it’s wrong by a few ticks, and correct in the other direction. (If you consider yourself “rational”, that means you should do this even more, because you have no excuse for not realizing you are an irrational meaty brain.)

    “Trust but verify” is a good lesson from what I’m pretty sure is the most important de-escalation in human history.

    • My view is that humans are over-wired to punish.

      You could say that because of evolution: humans are extremely well wired to the need to punish necessary in more than a hundred thousand years of hunter and gatherer tribes; very well wired to the need to punish necessary in tens of thousands of years of agrarian society; somewhat well wired to the need to punish necessary in thousands of years of pre-industrial civilization, and; not well wired at all to the need to punish necessary in industrial civilization.

      Quite possibly the Mukopo Tribe living in the region that will later become Portugal, in the year 17,000 B.C. was right to ritualistically burn crop thieves alive after chopping off their hands and feet, but with everything modernity has given us technologically and economically, we’re probably better off putting crop thieves in cushy prisons for a few months.

  51. C.H. says:

    The counterargument is that punishment is the only tool we have to make bad actors do good things.

    That’s not true. The whole point of a capitalist economy is to have incentives align with societal preferences. Incentives are supposed to make bad actors do good things, which can be both a punishment (a negative incentive) or a gain like simple profit (positive incentive).

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      That’s not true. The whole point of a capitalist economy is to have incentives align with societal preferences. Incentives are supposed to make bad actors do good things, which can be both a punishment (a negative incentive) or a gain like simple profit (positive incentive).

      This. You maximize the output of what people in society want by aligning the incentives of people who have some money to invest.
      Even having this discussion makes it sound like Scott only wants pure Bay Areans to count as people who get to make decisions. But I have my own customs! Look at my craaazy passport! [/Futurama]

  52. Radu Floricica says:

    I really missed a “Why is this even worth discussing?” option in the poll. Who on earth would think to punish KFC for offering vegetarian food, or tobacco companies for offering a healthier option? My reading is that we as a society failed to solve smoking through social means or education, so it’s damn good that we’re finally solving it with technology – even if it takes longer. Same for meat eating.

    About dictators, a tangent – in Romania we had the Revolution in ’89, and our dictator Ceausescu was shot (tried and shot in the span of a few hours in the middle of the whole thing). Everybody thought it was a good idea for a long time – but it was an idiotic thing to do. We got a little revenge, and we allowed the new guys free rain. The poor guy kept saying while his hands were tied for the execution that “we don’t know what we’re doing” – and we didn’t. We really really didn’t, and took us many years to realize it. Having the ex-dictator as a public person, even without any political power whatsoever would have offered him the possibility to tell us exactly what we were doing and who was pulling the strings. Which is, of course, the reason why he was shot.

  53. gbdub says:

    KFC is a massive corporation that involves everyone from farmers to HR ladies to fry cooks to franchise owners to middle management all the way to the CEO. How many of them deserve to be punished for working for KFC? Are none of them allowed to use their ill-gotten chicken bucks and work experience to start a new career in vegan foods? Or any career/business at all?

    I will note that we did not, in 1946, hang every German. Or every German soldier. Or every member of the SS. Or even every guard at death camps. So where do you draw the line, and how do you “precommit” to that consensus?

    At what point did KFC’s business model become “evil” enough to deserve punishment? How many people have to decide that something previously considered perfectly acceptable is now “evil” before the people who haven’t come around to that position quite yet deserve punishment?

    When did Bill Clinton’s 1996 position on gays become officially homophobia deserving of shunning? What about Barack Obama’s pre-2012 public position on the same issue? How long are you allowed to disagree with an evolving and fuzzy moral consensus before you’re firmly in the “wrong side of history” camp of punishment-worthy “resisting change”? Is it better, worse, or indifferent if you need to resist that change to protect your livelihood?

    Do you want witch hunts and purity spirals? Because this is how you get witch hunts and purity spirals. I thought we had rules against ex post facto laws?

    • Mark Atwood says:

      Do you want witch hunts and purity spirals? Because this is how you get witch hunts and purity spirals.

      I realized long ago that for more and more people, this is not a bug, this is the intent.

  54. pochti says:

    For corporations, at least, I think you have to take intent into account. Were they deliberately and knowingly doing harm?

    Let’s ignore farming practices for the moment and say only that Tyson sells meat. People have to eat something, eating meat is not egregiously harmful, Tyson is not actively deceiving us about the risks*, and the practice is totally uncontroversial for most of the population. If they resist the ideas that meat is unsustainable and animal farming is immoral, I think it’s fair to chalk that up to reluctance to have your livelihood be destroyed. It hardly seems reasonably to punish those practices.

    Philip Morris, on the other hand, sells cigarettes. These are not necessities. Philip Morris knew or strongly suspected for decades that smoking was egregiously harmful, funded advocacy groups and research to actively mislead the public about said harms, and specifically targeted children to market their addictive and harmful product.

    I think there’s a good argument that Philip Morris’s practices need to be punished even if it causes other companies in similar situations to hold out longer, because this is an area where prevention is key. Society should want executives or employees who are thinking about covering up the harms their company has created need to also be thinking that that decision could ruin their lives.**

    And, as others have pointed out, there is a middle ground here: go after wrongdoers, but offer a graceful exit for early whistleblowers. Emphasis on early, since that gives an incentive to take the escape pod before someone else gets it.

    * For the sake of argument.
    ** While buying smokeless cigarettes from Philip Morris allows them to profit a second time off a problem they created, boycotting them is hardly the kind of punishment that would have deterred their original malfeasance.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      Boycotting a cigarette manufacturer for lying about the dangers of cigarettes is kinda weird.

      You still smoke, because otherwise your boycott is empty; but you buy your products exclusively from companies that never denied, even to themselves, that they were killing you?

      • pochti says:

        Ha! I suppose that is how a boycott of a cigarette company would have to work: if you weren’t going to stop smoking, you would want to reward the company that had at least been honest with you…right?

  55. JPNunez says:

    Companies are not people; IBM helped the holocaust, as did many german companies, and yet, beyond demanding IBM recognizes/donates to holocaust memorials, nobody gives much of a fuck.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      IBM helped the holocaust

      No, a German subsidiary of IBM, Dehomag, helped the German government conduct their census and search through its records. People don’t give much of a fuck because there’s no way IBM knew what the Nazis were going to do with the results of those searches.

      • andrewducker says:

        Watson was given a medal by Hitler in 1937.

        They knew what was going on.


        • Conrad Honcho says:

          1937 was maybe a little before the holocaust, though, wasn’t it?

          • deciusbrutus says:

            My two minutes of good faith Googling to confirm comes up jammed by more modern databases, but my understanding was that the database of Jews was created pretty far in advance of trying to put them all into camps.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Scott has a post somewhere where the nation-states that had the worst record-keeping were the best at hiding their Jews.

            It’s tough to be able to get a rule out of this. There are a lot of good things a state can do with data, and there are lots of bad things a state can do with data. Expressed in a vacuum and without the “keep track of the Jews” framing, “the state shouldn’t have that data about me” tends to be a more right-wing than left-wing position. (Scott has an entirely different post, but still relevant, about seeing like a state.)

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Yes, I do not deny that IBM’s computers aided the Nazis in conducting the holocaust. I’m just saying we don’t hold them particularly morally responsible because their actions were before the death camps and they didn’t know about the death camps.

            ETA: I’m also generally against the practice of 1) reaching into the past to bash people for their immorality especially with 2) the benefit of hindsight. I see this a lot with the escalation of the Japanese/Japanese-American relocation-cum-internment camps into “concentration camps.” They were not.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            Um… The internment camps were literally concentration camps, (sites where a large concentration of a minority population are concentrated) but there’s a difference between concentration camps and death camps, and also there’s a lot of variation within the category ‘concentration camps’ as well, meaning the only point of arguing about the definition is to sneak in our exclude connotations.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            No, they were not meant to keep the Japanese Americans concentrated. They were to facilitate moving them away from the exclusionary zones (large portions of California, Oregon and Washington along the coasts), which is why they were originally called “relocation camps.” The Japanese Americans were then free to leave*, just they can’t go back into the EZs. Go to Ohio or whatever. About a quarter of them did. With hindsight, we recognize the failure to understand human nature: you tell people “well, you can’t go home, but you can go someplace that’s not home and without your community or stay here for the duration of the war” and the vast majority of people are going to wait it out so they can go home. The camps then became “internment camps” because the people were staying there rather than relocating. But they were never “concentration camps,” because the people were free to leave, which defeats the assumed goal of a concentration camp (to concentrate people). Modern revisionists like to try to call them concentration camps so they can reach into the past and condemn people for exaggerated immorality so they can claim moral superiority over dead people who can’t defend themselves or explain the context of their actions.

            * With the exception of Japanese citizens who were in America when the war broke out, and a very small number of US Citizens of recent Japanese descent who renounced their citizenship and swore allegiance to the Japanese emperor. These were the few camps with guards/barbed wire for the duration of the war from which people could not leave.

          • JPNunez says:

            It seems Watson was approving materials being sent to Poland post invasion to support the nazi computation efforts; CNET says that IBM sent punch cards as late as 1941 to occupied Holland.

            America then joins WW2 and it becomes ilegal for Watson to keep helping Hitler. By the time the actual final solution started, Germany had had all the help it needed from IBM. Nevermind that mass killings of jews had started already, even before America entered ww2, just not the systematic use of gas chambers, etc, etc.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            Claiming that there was an alternative to the concentration camps requires demonstrating that such an alternative actually existed. Saying that people were allowed to move to Chicago is different from saying that they were able to move to Chicago.

            Just like Jews were ‘free to leave’ Nazi Germany at first, but weren’t able to immigrate to anywhere else.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Are you suggesting that the people of Chicago had a “no Japanese allowed” policy? I’d need some evidence of that. The Jews had “no place to go” because other countries refused to take them. And after the relocation attempts ended, the Jews were not “free to leave if they could find a place to go.” They were pressed into forced labor or murdered. That’s the difference between a concentration camp prison and an internment camp from which you are free to leave.

            “Nearly a quarter of the internees left the camps to live and work elsewhere in the United States, outside the exclusion zone.” So, you can’t tell me “they had no place else to go” when 25% of them did find such places. Some left and were allowed back in the exclusion zones under a program where sponsors vouched for their loyalty. Some left to study at universities, and a few thousand left the camps and were accepted into the US military where they fought for their country against the Empire of Japan. And those who remained, remained not because Chicago or Ohio would have forbidden them entry (like countries that refused entry to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany), but because waiting it out was a less-bad alternative to starting over in Chicago or Ohio. Calling the Japanese American relocation-cum-internment camps “concentration camps” is a deceptive attempt to create a moral equivalence between the United States and Nazi Germany. It is not true, it is not kind, and it is definitely not necessary.

            Was it a good situation? No. But what would you do? You’re FDR. You’re fighting two total wars against evil, autocratic regimes that would enslave or exterminate anyone who isn’t them. You’ve got people inside the country who are cousins, first second and third of the enemy. You have solid intelligence that some of them are still loyal to their extended family and their emperor, and that the emperor has plans to sway them to his side. A little over 100,000 of these people live close enough to the coastal military bases (through and from which the soldiers, ships and war materiel vital to victory will flow) to sabotage or spy on them. Victory is a long, long way away and by no means certain, and the fate of the world, be it liberal democracy or totalitarian hell hangs in the balance. What do you do?

            Total war calls on every citizen to make sacrifices. Rationing. War bonds. Round the clock production. 6 million Americans volunteered for the military and another 10 million were inducted by conscription. About 400,000 of them died. Hundreds of thousands more were wounded, disabled or crippled. And about 100,000 Japanese Americans were drafted to sit this one out. So were 7,000 German Americans and 3,000 Italian Americans. I thank them for their service to their country. But I’m not sorry.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        Any large corporation with a presence in Germany was doing business with Nazis. Google and Amazon didn’t interact with the Nazis because they weren’t around.

        But they are interacting with the Chinese, which (very arguably) will be seen as accommodating evil, looking back on now from 50 years in the future. There is a lot of debate going on here, and while I’m more likely than others to say “yeah China is evil” I’m not really sure completely disengaging so that the Chinese simply build their own versions is the right way to go. (I’m also sure that the profit-motive will skew any internal debate at Google or Amazon.)

  56. Thunderfoot says:

    Forgive me if this is a little off-topic, but it’s something that I’ve often wondered: why are so many vegetarians interested in eating wretched and unconvincing meat substitutes when there are so many delightful vegetarian options from cultures that had already perfected vegetarian cooking techniques back when geocentrism was cutting edge science?

    I’m not a vegetarian, but I lived off Indian vegetarian food for years when I was poor, and I never came close to exhausting all of the wonderful possibilities of this one culinary tradition. Even if you’re lazy or extremely busy, there are lots of pre-made frozen items that, whatever their shortcomings, are infinitely better than imitation chicken nuggets.

    • gbdub says:

      I agree with the sentiment. But note that you had to eat Indian vegetarian food, which not all Americans have access to and fewer know how to cook well. India has a whole cuisine built around vegetarianism. The traditional cuisine for most Americans is built around some format of “meat + sides”. And there are whole rituals, traditions, and nostalgia built around meals that center on meat… the Thanksgiving turkey, the backyard bbq, etc. You can have a tasty vegetarian Indian meal, but you can’t replace throwing a football around while dad flips burgers on the grill in his cargo shorts and New Balance sneakers with eggplant curry.

      • Thunderfoot says:

        To be accurate, I didn’t have To eat Indian vegetarian food, it just happened that I found it fascinating at a time when money was short.

        And while I agree that some cultural/culinary rituals inherently involve meat, using a soy or gluten based meat substitute would certainly be every bit as disruptive as adding a couple vegetarian dishes.

        • gbdub says:

          The point was you had a “culinary tradition” you had access to that feels perfectly complete and satisfying without meat. If all you have, and all you’ve ever eaten from, is grandma Smith’s cookbook, lack of meat will be much more restrictive.

          “Meat substitutes” let you hang on to preparation techniques and recipes you’re used to, rather than building a veggie based menu from scratch. If you’re a burger restaurant, it’s a lot easier to offer a patty that you can treat just like a frozen meat puck and keep everything else the same.

          One thing I’ve learned is that most people really are terrible, uncreative cooks, so “here’s this thing, treat it just like you would meat in a similar format” is going to be a lot more successful even if it is strictly worse than either the original meat dish or a recipe concocted as meatless or meat-optional from the start.

          • Deiseach says:

            I don’t know about America, but most chippers in Ireland will offer a “veggie burger” (usually comes with mayonnaise and maybe cheese, so not a vegan option) and while I don’t know the exact ingredients, I suspect the burgers are much of the Birds Eye type.

            So large American fast-food chains offering vegetarian burgers is only catching up with us 🙂 Though having proper vegan ‘fake meat’ burgers is, of course, surpassing us.

          • Thunderfoot says:

            “One thing I’ve learned is that most people really are terrible, uncreative cooks”

            Sadly true. I suppose I’m lucky to have grown up in a family with a matriarch of great culinary skill and discernment. The down side of that was the fact that everyone who married into our family wanted to come to our very small house for holiday meals. Holidays were often as busy as a Sunday morning at IHOP (though admittedly the food was much better).

    • naath says:

      I really don’t know, I’m very low-meat (also low-conflict, so I eat meat if I am presented with it) because I like vegetarian food. I have honestly no interest in ‘vegan chicken’ it is bound to be an inferior version of a chicken dish that is already nasty. Like if Nestle became world leaders in curing cancer I might stop boycotting but I’m not about to drink Nescafe.

      I am forced to conclude many people love eating meat, but feel it is ethically wrong to do so, and desire a solution that involves things that taste of meat.

    • Peter says:

      Semi-lapsed vegetarian (I’ve gone pesci) here.

      Interesting question. Certainly at the outset it was never my intention to eat fakemeat. I wouldn’t go as far as “wretched” (although things called “vegetarian bacon” come very close), and “unconvincing” suggests that these things are deeper into the uncanny valley than they are – they don’t seem to be even trying to convince.

      Somewhere along the line I got the taste for it I suppose.

      Partly there’s the fit-into-meals thing. Sometimes what you want is a plate full of boiled potatoes and veg and a slab of something proteinaceous, and a slab of fakemeat will do. Or, these days for me, fish. Making a big casserole? Obviously a big place for mushrooms and beans, but hey, let’s through some veggie sausage into the mix.

      This is where fast food comes in. Depending on the food type there’s often some possibly gruding concession to veggies or whoever. If you go in a group and there’s one or two veggies, it’s useful for there to be something on the menu. I haven’t looked in a while, but I remember KFC being particularly bad for this, whereas other meat-centric fast food chains did a bit better.

      The other side is… sometimes I just have a bit of a craving for the stuff. Upbringing I suppose.

      Good and bad, better and worse, are contextual I suppose, and in some small contexts, right there and then, generally inferior pseudochicken nuggets are better than anything else available at the time, shocking though the thought may be in a larger context.

      So, fakemeat found its way into my diet in a fairly alarming way despite me being dead against it in the beginning. Still, it’s not a huge part of my diet, probably a lot smaller than amount of meat I’d be eating.

    • Clutzy says:

      I always presume there is a sort of “outsider” effect and a bit of a “tinpot dictator” effect in these situations. First they want to normalize their behavior, eventually at least a portion of them will want to impose their norms upon everyone else. You can’t get either by getting people to eat Aloo Mutter, because Aloo Mutter exists in an unchanged world, and your desire is to change the world.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Forgive me if this is a little off-topic, but it’s something that I’ve often wondered: why are so many vegetarians interested in eating wretched and unconvincing meat substitutes when there are so many delightful vegetarian options from cultures that had already perfected vegetarian cooking techniques back when geocentrism was cutting edge science?

      When I was a vegetarian, the arguments that convinced me also led me to Hinduism (Buddhism would have worked too, but I found their epistemology less coherent). So yes, Indian food made it pleasant.
      I was only aware enough that vegans existed to refute their arguments against eating dairy, having no idea that it was part of a lifestyle centered on being wealthy professionals in the Bay Area who don’t own houses and pledge loyalty to something called “polyamory” (even if he chooses only to have sex with females). So yes, vegetarianism as part of a religion is knowledge and joy, This other thing is suffering.

    • Viliam says:

      This is probably some status thing.

      Before the modern torture/meat factories, meat was pretty expensive. As an average person, you only had it on Sunday, as a high-status food. Rich people could afford to eat meat more often, which again contributed to eating meat being perceived as high-status.

      Then you got the cheap meat, but our status perceptions are a bit conservative, so now people tried to eat meat as much as possible, to appear high-status. Also, offering meat to your guests and your customers seemed like the polite thing to do.

      For example, traditional Slovak kitchen is full of various sauces, dumplings, etc. Not necessarily vegetarian, but often with a tiny piece of meat surrounded by something else. However, if you now go to a restaurant in Slovakia, most of the foods will be “meat + something”, usually with potatoes or rice. If you want the traditional food, you either cook it at home, or you go to a rare restaurant that is specialized for cooking the traditional foods.

      When I want to eat in proximity of my job some food that is not 50% meat, my only choices are: (1) an Indian restaurant, that provides both meat and vegetarian options, (2) an all-you-can-eat Asian restaurant, where I can make a vegetarian selection, and (3) an expensive hipster vegan restaurant where I can put a few green leaves on my plate, pay more than in the previous two options, and leave half-hungry. This despite the fact that the traditional Slovak food is exactly what I would like to eat, except… you can’t find it in a restaurant in the center of the capital of Slovakia.

      So, basically, this is a trend in many countries and many cultures: as they get rich, they increase the meat consumption, because it is high-status. Sometimes to such degree that the previously common meals become almost impossible to buy, because no one wants to be the low-status guy who sells them. Of course, as a consequence, the next generation in the country gets a wave of “civilisational diseases”.

    • Bugmaster says:

      FWIW, when I’ve lived in Israel, I ate hummus and falafel almost exclusively (until I got somewhat tired of it). If you’ve never tasted Israeli hummus/falafel, it’s hard to describe what makes it so good; American version are but pale imitations.

      That said though, “wretched and unconvincing meat substitutes” are designed to imitate the taste of meat, for people who believe that eating meat is immoral (or for a small minority who’d become unable to digest it for some reason). They are meant to give people who crave meat something meat-like to consume, not for people who want to change their diets away from eating meat.

    • HarmlessFrog says:

      why are so many vegetarians interested in eating wretched and unconvincing meat substitutes

      Hard to go against instinct. Humans are obligate hypocarnivores in the wild.

  57. MeepMorp says:

    This reminds me of an argument I had about Blizzard (the game company) and their queer representation. My friend and I both agreed that Blizzard doesn’t actually care about queer folks, and that the fact that they make this or that character gay is an obvious cash grab. However, he thought that because their heart wasn’t in it, people shouldn’t reward them by buying their games. I thought that the fact that “putting queer characters in a game” is now popular enough to be a cash grab was a victory in and of itself; punishing Blizzard for not doing it earlier would just disincentivize other current or future neutral companies from doing the same.

    So, back to KFC. I highly doubt KFC execs suddenly realized their meat practices are evil and they should change tack. I suspect they are making a cash grab by appealing a market for meatless meat that didn’t exist ten years ago.

    But on the other hand, are new companies starting up now that sell meatless meat any better? Arguably they’re making the same extra-moral decision to appeal to the growing vegetarian market. But are they less evil just because they were born after the wave broke?

    (IMO, a better analogy than dictators is slavery. Dictators tend to know (I assume) that they’re doing something evil to achieve their goals of power/change/survival/whatever. But meat companies likely don’t factor animals into their moral calculations. On the one hand, this seems reasonable. On the other hand, we used to do the same thing with people.)

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      This reminds me of an argument I had about Blizzard (the game company) and their queer representation.

      How did you feel about J.K. Rowling retconning Dumbledore into a homosexual? After all the books were out and the movie tickets sold, natch.

      I thought it was like Stolen Valor, or photoshopping yourself into a picture marching with Dr. King. I guess the difference is that wasn’t even a cash grab: she’d already made the billions and just wanted the applause.

      • l33tminion says:

        That really does seem very similar, incentives-wise, since Rowling could have faced no flack for letting the filmmakers replace that subtext-to-the-point-of-nontext with something flatly contradicting that in the adaptation.

        (I think the way that’s been painted as an attention-grab has also been really exaggerated. I think Rowling’s reaction to the reaction to that is painted as her expecting applause, instead of just her (naively) expecting not to be attacked from that direction.)

        • andrewducker says:

          Yes. She was being asked a bunch of “What happens to these characters next?” At a Q&A and someone asked if he gets together with McGonnagal. So she answered.

          It’s not like it was an announcement for Pride or something like that.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        I don’t know, Conrad. Isn’t Dumbledore celibate during Harry’s school days, and the only lover ever mentioned is Wizard Hitler? That looks suspiciously like an ad for Catholic attitudes to homosexuality, even though I know Rowling is far too Blue to see it that way.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          You know, that would be a hilarious trolling campaign. “See kids? Dumbledore also experienced same sex attraction, which is not itself a sin, and you know what he did? He did not fall into sin, by resisting that temptation and staying celibate. Thank you, J.K. Rowling, for giving young people a virtuous, positive Christian homosexual role-model.”

      • JPNunez says:

        Gotta agree.

    • Matt M says:

      This reminds me of an argument I had about Blizzard (the game company) and their queer representation.

      I actually do sympathize with the game companies on this one. Getting representation “right” is tough. I recall that Bioware was getting pressured over trans representation, so in Mass Effect Andromeda, they included a random NPC who you walk up and talk to and they’re like “HI I AM TRANS. MY NAME IS SHELLY BUT IT USED TO BE STEVE. IM SO GLAD TO SERVE ON A SHIP WHERE EVERYONE ACCEPTS ME EVEN THOUGH I AM TRANS.”

      To the surprise of no one, this did not go over well, as the activists (correctly) pointed out that this is not how trans people actually talk or behave. But how else can you “prove” to the public that your universe is properly representative of trans people among its NPC population? Short of going the JK Rowling route like Conrad suggests and just retconning things after the fact?

      The only way they could satisfy the activists is to have a major character be trans, but at this point, you’re letting activism take over your creative decisions. And other activist groups will have similar demands. What about disabled representation? Religious diversity? And this already is happening in a universe where it’s pretty much a given that your number of human main characters is limited to a few, because you also have to have proper diversity to represent the in-universe alien races…

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        By the way, Matt, on your recommendation (from before your unplanned hiatus) I played Andromeda. Picked up a copy off eBay for $6.

        UI: Ass.
        Graphics: Ass. Absolute ass. Beyond ass. Did I mention how ass the graphics were?
        Combat: Very good. Really tight and exciting combat.
        Story: Pretty good. Definitely left me wanting more.

        So, curses to the Frostbite engine, but I hope the series isn’t dead because of that. It was definitely worth $6.

        • Matt M says:

          UI: Ass.
          Graphics: Ass.

          I don’t recall either being noticeably different/worse than previous entries in the series! Are you saying they are, or that “previous entries in the series” also suffered in this department?

          Also I’m still really mad at all the trolls/haters who got my favorite series cancelled. I WANT MORE MASS EFFECT!!!

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            It’s been a long time since I played ME 1-3 so I don’t remember the UI from those, but the Andromeda UI was frustrating. Like having to go into a bunch of different sub menus to see different mission types or figure out what things I had open and doable.

            The graphics, though, man…come on. Everybody looked like plastic. My wife couldn’t stop laughing at the animations. Just go on youtube and search for “mass effect andromeda vs mass effect 1.” Plenty of people did comparisons and ME1 looks (slightly) better. And Andromeda came out 10 years later. Certainly didn’t help I played it right before Red Dead Redemption 2 (which was also ass, but the graphics were amazing).

            ETA: Also the voice acting took a big dive. Going from Martin Sheen and Seth Green to Literally Whos.

      • Orion says:

        I suppose one of the aliens could be trans. An Asari who transitioned to male would be guaranteed to be more interested than PeeBee was, (corollary to the general theorem that literally anything > Peebee).

        Introducing a Krogan transwoman would be sure to lead to a fascinating but #problematic storyline, since Krogan gender roles and sexual politics are so different from our own.

  58. Jack Lecter says:

    Partway through the article- I’ve noticed myself taking a few days to read these carefully, then going to comment and finding I’m too late. So I’ve decided to risk overcorrecting. Anyway:

    If they make a fortune being evil, resist change, and lose, should they get to make a second fortune being good?

    What kind of resistance are we talking about, here? I feel like that word gets used to describe a really wide range of behavior, to the point that now every time I hear it used alarm bells go off in my head.

    If I’m honest, my real model of the world, the one that controls my anticipations, is something like this:

    1. ‘Doing X and resisting change’ intuitively sounds much worse than ‘Doing X,’ even if X is generally agreed to be very bad. Ditto for a number of variations on ‘resisting change’, like ‘resisting arrest’ or ‘standing in the way of progress’.

    2. When people talk about norm violations, one thing they really want to convey to others is their emotional state; how they feel about what happened. (I’m fine with this, by the way- I think seeing others and being seen is a pretty common deeply-felt need, and even if it was uncommon I’d wish people the best of luck in getting it met.)

    3. When people feel like norm violation X was really really bad, they look for a way to convey that. As a result, they sometimes end up making additional allegations that are either poorly supported or too vague to be meaningful; in practice, ‘resisting change’ can sometimes just mean ‘failing to initiate change,’ or ‘failing to cooperate with change as strongly as I think they should have’. (I’m a lot less fine with this. I can rationalize why it’s a bad thing for society, and my rationalizations might even be accurate, but on a visceral level I hate it*.)

    Scott’s usually pretty good about this, but it doesn’t hurt to check. And I think it helps to be seen checking- it maybe nudges people toward a more accuracy-friendly pattern of behavior.

    *Which does not mean I hate the people engaging in it. I suspect this is often a case of people using what communication tools they have to get their needs met. I would like them to stop using this particular tool, but plausibly the best way to effect that is to give them a better one to replace it with, or changing the culture so that the base task they’re trying to accomplish is easier.

    (I suspect it would help a lot if it was more socially acceptable to say, ‘I think he’s a good man, but I viscerally despise him’. Or, ‘That’s a pretty good policy, but on a gut level I just hate it’. Or ‘I realize X is terrible according to commonly accepted standard Y, but I get a warm feeling when I think about it’. I feel like we’ve stumbled into a norm where facts matter but feelings don’t, and since feelings in fact do matter a lot to people, they try to use facts to express them- with predictably little concern for whether those facts actually obtain. And if you want them to stop doing that- which, yeah, I really do- you probably want to set up some alternative channels for them to use to talk about feelings.)

    • Aapje says:

      What kind of resistance are we talking about, here? I feel like that word gets used to describe a really wide range of behavior, to the point that now every time I hear it used alarm bells go off in my head.

      Indeed. It seems to regularly mean: do what a majority thinks is right, rather than bow to a minority.

    • Dacyn says:

      I don’t think it would help to make explicit statements of feeling more socially acceptable as you say. It feels different “from the inside” to think “He’s an asshole” versus “I viscerally don’t like him”, and I suspect there is are psychological and evolutionary reasons for this. Our brains treat explicit statements differently from subtext, and it is not clear that it is possible or reasonable to change that via culture.

  59. belvarine says:

    What do you mean by punishing companies? How are you supposed to punish them? Fines? Google has been fined billions of dollars repeatedly in the past few years by the EU for antitrust violations. It hasn’t slowed them down. They’re being investigated for antitrust violations right now by the FTC.

    How about tougher antitrust laws? Does that even matter when you can push legislation to exempt certain businesses from antitrust regulations? What’s going to stop an extremely business friendly government from just scrapping antitrust laws entirely, as Congress did with Glass-Steagal?

    Do you disband these companies? Do you arrest the board of directors and put them in jail?

    I don’t mean to sound combative. I am exasperated. We’re talking about punishing corporations here when they’ve proven themselves to be ageless, invincible, and unchanging.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      It’s not entirely impossible. Hulk Hogan Atomic Leg Dropped Gawker into oblivion, and we’re all better off for it.

      • FrankistGeorgist says:

        This doesn’t seem that reassuring. So in extremis, the most annoying and targetable corporations can be brought down by millionaires backed by other millionaires with a grudge? Makes me think like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          the most annoying and targetable corporations


          can be brought down by millionaires backed by other millionaires

          Not fair when the complaint is about wanting governments to smack down corporations. It would still be the immensely powerful doing the smacking.

  60. thomasbrinsmead says:

    Luke 15:7. I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

    But seriously, the situation is slightly clearer if you are negotiating with the second party in advance of their decision whether or not to follow the course we desire AND we have genuine negotiation power. If the second party is in a strong negotiation position at the time of negotiating, we should offer to take the threat off the table if they voluntarily, with little fuss, make the choice that we approve of. However, if they were in a weak position at the time of negotiation, they can be punished with the negative outcome because we both know that they are going to do what we want them to anyway, and they should be punished for their past sins.

    Offer Hitler amnesty at the height of his military power, but if he is on the run, the threat of a trial for genocide is still on the table. If KFC is popular and profitable selling tortured chickens, tell them that you’ll buy the vegan option from them if they offer it. On the other hand, if the general population has well and truly moved on with everyone a Hare Krishna, and KFC is trying to catch up – they’ve left it too late to deserve to be rewarded for change. Continue to boycott them until they go broke – rightful punishment for failing to adapt quickly enough to changing community expectations, they have no negotiation power and there is no need to offer them a lifeline. Consistently, patronise the new startups selling vegan only options in preference to the dinosaur restaurants with a small vegan offering but still selling mostly meat.

    The situation is less clear if there is no explicit negotiation, threat and agreement, before the second party makes their decision. We are now in the world of acting “as if” a negotiated agreement had taken place even though it didn’t. But the same principle applies, albeit it is now a little murkier to evaluate the empirical facts of the relative negotiation power situation.

    If the second party was in a powerful position when it made the decision to take the desired course, we reward them. But if they were forced into the “correct” decision by loss of material power, then no rewards for making the “ethical” choice should apply. If Hitler had voluntarily stepped down at the height of his powers, give him amnesty. If he waited until the Reich was on its last legs before surrendering – try him at Nuernberg. For your chicken companies – if they starting offering the meatless option as soon as they reasonably could, or in advance of the shift in community expectations, sure – reward them (even without an explicit pre-negotiated agreement) by buying the newer, more ethical product. But if they are being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, trying their hardest to market the old ways and trying to avoid change until market forces are overwhelming, with or without your threat of boycott having been made explicitly in advance of their decision, there is nothing to be gained in retrospectively granting any sort of amnesty.

    So in general, reward companies that are ahead of the curve and getting on to the right side of history early. Patronise if they lead the ethically desired progressive change. (Assuming boycotts have an impact), boycott companies who take too long to recognise that they are marketing an increasingly unconscionable product, and don’t reward them for changing if it only happens because they are desperately trying to catch up while trying to hold back the inevitable social change.

  61. So, I’m kind of terrible at keeping grudges in general. If I get the impression someone is sincerely trying to change their ways, I’m happy to forgive just about any transgression. This is a failing for big picture scenarios, and I know it is, but in every day life it’s actually served me really well, so I haven’t tried to change it.

    That said, I voted trial for the first question. A trial doesn’t imply an outcome (well, I mean, sometimes it does, but I’m going to naively assume we can now do better than, say, Nuremberg, which strikes me as having been a somewhat poor execution of a good idea). We can factor in that they changed ways. As long as this actually affects the outcome and it’s clear that it does, we’re still incentivising (to a degree) that evil dictators consider their actions.

    I voted buy whatever product is best for the second question, because, like Jack V said:

    I want to separate out “normal purchasing habits” from “boycotts”. Most of the time I’ll buy products I want and just hope that companies choose to produce more of those, and less of other ones. So I’ll buy the vege-chicken wherever it’s available from and look forward to the future where everyone eats sustainable/ethical/no meat and companies have been forced to adapt.

    (That said, being from the Church of Cobalamin and deathly afraid of lapsing back into vitamin B12 deficiency, I am currently not even slightly vegetarian, but I’m still hoping eventually my panic about this will subside and I’ll trust my supplements to be sufficient.)

    That said, primarily my stance would be “punish evil while it’s happening (and you know about it)” (with various caveats like “if you know about it only because the media is suddenly talking about it, be very hesitant to pile on”). But I also agree with some other commenters here that dictators and companies are quite different things and we should treat them differently (see e.g. Alkatyn and Hackworth).

    P.S. I’m going to lodge my (hypocritical) disappointment in the commentariat for not having answered the title question yet. 😉

    • John Schilling says:

      That said, I voted trial for the first question. A trial doesn’t imply an outcome

      I’m going to push back on this. Certainly in the contemporary United States and I believe in most of the western world,

      1. Actual criminal trials are at least theoretically allowed only when preliminary legal proceedings have established with p>0.50 that the defendant is guilty and so outside observers will reasonably interpret the fact of a trial as indicating the probable guilt of the defendant, and

      2. Criminal trials come with often life-ruining financial and social costs, which neither the prosecution nor anybody else generally tries to compensate the defendant for when they are not found guilty, and

      3. The list of possible outcomes does not practically and in some case does not even theoretically include the trial court ruling the defendant to have been innocent of the charges of which he was accused.

      A criminal trial implies one of two outcomes: either we have proved the villain was guilty and so we get to put him in jail, or we couldn’t quite prove that the villain was guilty but he’s still obviously a villain and we’re going to do whatever we can to screw him over even though we aren’t allowed to put him in jail.

      As usual, David Friedman is your go-to source for ways people have done this differently and maybe better in other times and places.

      • JubileeJones says:

        I’m afraid you are wrong about the law concerning trials. Criminal trials are allowed to occur when there is “probable cause” that the defendant committed the crime. That term gets defined in lots of different ways in various opinions, but it is definitely lower than “p>0.50”. It gets litigated mostly when challenging whether a warrant was sufficient, but it’s also the standard required for indictment before trial, and the definition I’ve seen used most frequently in briefs is “a state of facts as would lead a [person] of ordinary caution or prudence to believe and conscientiously entertain a strong suspicion” of the person’s guilt.

  62. Dan says:

    The scenarios seem more opposite than parallel. In the Kim case, everyone agrees he is evil, but we have limited power/authority to stop him. In the Philip Morris case, there is much less consensus about their moral culpability, but no theoretical impediment to simply obliterating them if they were unambiguously evil.

    If KFC decided to pivot from frying chicken to exterminating the Jews, I don’t think many people would object to the government shutting them down and seizing their assets. (Other than the people who object to everything the government does)

  63. Hackworth says:

    There has to be a middle ground. Let the perpetrator off easily as long as the extent of their guilt does not cross a certain threshold, but impose appropriate sanctions when they do. Essentially, give everyone a choice between good and bad outcomes, depending on their own actions. If there are only bad outcomes, then why stop doing whatever you are doing that gives you an advantage? If there are only good outcomes, why be afraid of them and stop doing whatever you’re doing? If the outcome is independent of the action, there can be no effect on future behaviour.

    KFC’s business model has been perfectly acceptable for decades. Now they are adapting – their only “crime” is that they are adapting at “large company with many stakeholders” speed, not “social media shitstorm frenzy” speed. I say let them off the hook, and buy their products (or not) depending on their own quality, not of the company’s history.

    Hitler’s “business model”, on the other hand, was inacceptable even before 1933, when he had been helping the NSDAP gain power through organized street violence and destabilization of the first German democracy, not to mention anything after 1933. Punishment for everyone involved after the war was absolutely mandated and, arguably, did not go nearly far enough, considering how many key figures had a respected post-war career even in their same professions despite their voluntary, cheerful participation in the many crimes of Nazi Germany.

  64. Alkatyn says:

    On the dictator analogy, I think companies and individuals are disanalogous because they can change much more radically. A human being has certain characteristics of behaviour that are not going to change over time (eg psychopathic or megalomaniacal tendencies) but a company can be radically restructured and have all the people inside it replaced. E.g. Volkswagen today shares no people and minimal institutional structure with the Volkswagen of the 1940s. As such via regulation or market forces the nature of a company can change radically very quickly

  65. I think I’m more inclined to be forgiving of companies that operated under the laws of my country and therefore were doing things that a majority of my fellow citizens thought were acceptable, even if I disagree with them. It’s generally not effective to try to punish people in those circumstances.

  66. MadRocketSci2 says:

    So …. Phillip Morris is evil because they tried to sell you cigarettes and “morality” has “moved on”? Eating meat is evil too apparently.

    But marijuana should be legal. (LSD too, apparently!) Is someone evil if they try to sell you marijuana? What if “morality” moves on? Should they be allowed to rejoin polite society if they sincerely repent attempting to sell you a joint?

    (The marijuana/cigarette dichotomy is especially illustrative since *every single one* of the externality arguments employed in the moral revival against cigarettes in the 90s apply to BOTH.)

    At this point I’m pretty much philosophically evil. It seems far more coherent to me than the ever shifting sands of “moral” fashion, which as far as I can tell is never much more than a rationalization of universalizing the preferences of the moralist. I understand my interests, and usually what I want. I’m pretty sure I understand the interests of people trying to sell me what I want in most cases.

    • profgerm says:

      Hear hear!

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      (The marijuana/cigarette dichotomy is especially illustrative since *every single one* of the externality arguments employed in the moral revival against cigarettes in the 90s apply to BOTH.)

      Eh. After legalization exceedingly few people are going to be habitually smoking marijuana cigarettes — reefers — in the subway car on the way to work.

    • FrankistGeorgist says:

      I mean, marijuana should definitely be legal if tobacco is legal, and tobacco is legal. Both can be considered evil, both can be legalized. These are different axes. They’re both addictive. Both create unpleasant smells and so are discouraged in public. The fact that culturally, marijuana elicits more joy and is associated with less dying-of-cancer is probably an anomaly created precisely because marijuana was illegal for so long. But I also think they lend themselves to different habits. For a few centuries, everybody smoked. I suspect the turn against tobacco will prevent marijuana ever becoming so ubiquitous. Also all the marijuana legalization advocates are happy to offer it up for taxation, and for the same reasons as tobacco. Mitigate damages, reap the rewards of that sweet inelastic demand.

      People may not like the consolidation of massive marijuana farms and a burgeoning marijuana industry that preys on people’s addictions, but they dislike the Cartels more. I suspect the glow won’t wear off of that turn for quite a while too. Right now we’re still hearing about plucky marijuana farmers going their own way without any federal support. Frankly, in the world of farm subsidies it’s someone’s ideal.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        My only real concern with marijuana is use by adolescents. See recent articles reporting on studies that adolescent use of marijuana causes measurable cognitive decline and depression, anxiety and psychosis. (epistemic status: NY Times and WaPo ha ha ha! But they do link to actual studies…) If 25-year-olds want to get high instead of drunk, fine, but there also needs to be some serious propaganda that “teenage stoner culture” is not a joke. The kids are going to wind up dumb and crazy.

        • FrankistGeorgist says:

          That seems well within the Overton Window since we already have the same discussion about underage drinking. America being so completely car centric, perhaps we need a Mother’s Against High Driving. This seems like the job of the busybodies. I suspect they’ll close ranks fairly soon. They certainly have in my home state of Idaho, with its all too permeable border with Washington.

      • thisheavenlyconjugation says:

        They’re both addictive.

        Not really comparably; tobacco is basically the most addictive drug outside of illegal ones known for being incredibly addictive (opiates etc.) whereas cannabis is significantly less addictive than alcohol.

        • FrankistGeorgist says:

          I completely agree with you, but have historically been making my arguments to people for whom addictiveness is considered a binary, not a spectrum. I feel better conceding that ground and pointing to the legality of tobacco and alcohol rather than getting bogged down in where the state’s Paternalism line should be (even though it would be well past the addictiveness threshold of marijuana for all but frankly the weirdest people).

      • Dack says:

        For a few centuries, everybody smoked.

        That’s not true. Maybe 1950-1980 would be more fair, but still hyperbole.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I am less upset at them for selling cigarettes than for spending decades hiding their evidence that cigarettes were bad for people, and fighting other people’s attempts to demonstrate this. I also think (though I can’t back up beyond vague impressions), that they exploited advertising and optimized their products for addictiveness in order to to build up demand, rather than just supplying an existing market.

      • Bugmaster says:

        that they exploited advertising and optimized their products for addictiveness

        While I agree with you, how is this different from what any company does ? I admit that the mechanism of addiction (chemical vs. social) is much more powerful (and therefore exploitable) in this case; but in principle, how is tobacco advertising different from, say, pickle advertising ?

        • JubileeJones says:

          You’ve answered your own question, I think. Advertising in order to create and exert social pressure to consume a substance which will then be chemically addictive is qualitatively different from, say, pickle advertising.

  67. deltafosb says:

    Also, what about punishing memeplexes? I do hold a grudge against many conservative attitudes, some of which attack me personally, and – being quite impulsive – naturally when I think of these, I want to make sure this kind of behavior does not go unpunished (my point is not that conservatives are doing everything bad – I’m just conveying my emotions).
    I’m sure the impulsive conservatives here react the same to whatever progressives are doing wrong (in their perception). In this case it might lead to really unstable society and probably that’s what is actually happening now with regards to culture war – the goal of “universal adoption of our rules” could have been replaced with “punish the opposite side for their resistance”.
    Binary choice might not be the best option here though – intuitively, it’s possible that small nonzero amount of punishment stabilizes the system, while a larger amount leads to arms race. I don’t know how to employ this strategy when it comes to KFC or cigarette companies though.

    • Well... says:

      For some reason this reminded me of an observation I made years ago while commuting through a commercial area: at jammed up red lights, sometimes an occasional driver would slip through a gas station to make a right turn. This is illegal but I never saw anyone get pulled over for it even when there were cops present. Likely the cops didn’t notice or had bigger fish to fry, but my thought was that if cops did stop what they’re doing to pull over and ticket every driver who did this, the system of traffic flow and law enforcement might be less efficient overall.

      • deltafosb says:

        You mean the gas station is situated at the corner and has two exits? Interesting to hear that’s illegal, it doesn’t sound like it endangers anyone (it might jam up the gas station though).
        I suspect that optimal punishment strategy is different in the case of individuals and, well, ideas, so it’s hard to make direct comparison. I can’t think of a single case the latter actually worked as expected (but I often have blank mind when thinking of examples until my thoughts unclog [in nondeterministic time]). Excluding, of course, use of physical force, but that’s not what we’re talking about (I’m thinking rather about classic iconoclasm and symbolic violence).

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          Sometimes it’s called “avoiding a traffic control device.”

          It turns out that cutting thru a gas station is legal in Georgia based on a recent court ruling! https://www.thenewspaper.com/news/64/6403.asp

        • Well... says:

          You mean the gas station is situated at the corner and has two exits?


          Interesting to hear that’s illegal, it doesn’t sound like it endangers anyone (it might jam up the gas station though).

          It might jam up the gas station, it might endanger people who are pumping gas/walking between their cars and the convenience store (because of impatiently-driven cars whizzing by them), and it contributes to wear and tear on the gas station’s property.

          • John Schilling says:

            It definitely does all of these things and to a very high degree if it becomes such generally accepted behavior that the pavement between the two entrances to the gas station becomes a de facto turning lane with the same traffic density as the surrounding streets. There needs to be at least a broadly-accepted norm of not doing this; the question is whether it requires legal enforcement.

            A libertarian purist might say it should be legal unless the gas station’s owners put up “no through traffic” signs and then it becomes trespassing, but then approximately every gas station owner puts up such signs and society has merely enriched sign-makers at the expense of higher gasoline prices for everyone else.

            As a pragmatist living in a society that has and is comfortable having a whole lot of laws that it rarely enforces, this one is nowhere near the top of my list of rarely-enforced laws to strike from the books.

          • Well... says:

            @John Schilling:

            Yep, that’s sort of my point. It’s good to have some laws that sort of work most of the time but can be occasionally broken essentially without fear of punishment. It works a little like a pressure valve.

  68. Loris says:

    realistically there are probably many companies that are as bad as these (like oil companies)

    I’ve noticed that “oil companies” seem to be many people’s go-to example of evil companies. I’m not clear on why this is.
    I mean, I have two hypotheses for the thought-process:
    1) oil companies are evil because they take risks or shortcuts for economic reasons, which risk polluting the environment.
    2) oil companies are evil because they are in the business of extracting fossil fuels, which when used further climate change.

    But I don’t really see why either of these apply to oil companies specifically.
    Sure, regarding (1) they may do that, but I don’t have the impression that it’s ubiquitous over all of them. And companies in other sectors definitely do that sort of thing just as much as they can get away with.
    And for (2), well, they’re supplying demand for products people want. It would seem more appropriate to blame the customers driving cars, or buying plastic… that is, practically everyone in the first world.

    So I feel like I’m missing something.

    • Pepe says:

      I am not a big fan of the ‘oil companies are evil’ thing either. I think that the arguments are that 1. They profit without having to bear any of the costs to society that pollution/CO2 (mostly CO2 nowadays) generate and 2. Some of them knew about climate change and tried to keep it hidden.

      I think #1 is somewhat fair, but very few companies bear their social costs, so singling oil companies out is unfair. As for #2, ok, if you find that any specific company acted improperly, punish them for it. That doesn’t make all ‘oil companies’ inherently immoral though. Plus, if we are going to blame them for all the bad things that their business causes, are we also willing to thank them for all the good things their business enable?

      • John Schilling says:

        2. Some of them knew about climate change and tried to keep it hidden.

        “Oil companies are evil” was a thing long before “climate change” had entered public consciousness. From IIRC 1973-1989, it was a mix of greedy corporate executives conspiring to raise the price of a vital economic necessity that Americans simply can’t live without and so impoverish us all to make themselves rich, and greedy corporate executives getting us entangled in stupid Middle Eastern conflicts to secure their supply of oil and so get us all killed to make themselves rich. The Exxon Valdez incident added befouling our air and water to make themselves rich to the list, and that pivoted fairly quickly to murdering Gaia to make themselves rich, but the gasoline prices and foreign wars are still part of the indictment.

    • MadRocketSci2 says:

      Oil companies produce and sell a product without which the majority (perhaps 3/4-9/10) of mankind would starve to death. (Seriously, a horse-powered agrarian economy cannot support our current population – not without artificial ammonia based fertilizers.)

      So of course oil companies are evil. Look out for your interests, join team evil: we have all the good stuff. >:)

    • Aapje says:


      People on the far left seem to blame companies for what happens with their product. For example, there is a lawsuit in my country against Shell, where they get blamed for the entire CO2 pollution caused by the products they sell. Yet there is absolutely no obligation for their consumers to burn the oil-based products they buy.

      • jumpinjacksplash says:

        “We just sell the petrol. If our customers want to [i]burn[/i] it as some sort of [i]fuel[/i] that’s nothing we could have predicted!”

        I think you’re right, though. Whether, as a society, we use oil isn’t a decision that should be taken by private companies (or protestors, for that matter). It’s a civilisation-altering decision, and if we’ve decided to use oil then it’s not the companies’ moral fault.

        • JubileeJones says:

          I mean. . . that sounds reasonable, except that they spend money accrued by selling the oil, in order to shape what “we” decide, in the form of lobbying for laws in a way private actors can’t meaningfully match. Kinda seems like it IS their moral fault.

    • Well... says:

      In addition to the above reasons, I think there’s also a sense that natural resources somehow ought to belong to everyone, so the fact that some private companies profit by extracting, refining, and selling these resources strikes people as unfair or something. The value of labor is harder for most people to understand, I guess, than the value of material.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        “The meek shall inherit the Earth, but not its mineral rights.”

        — J. Paul Getty

             — Civilization 5

    • DinoNerd says:

      Oil companies are evil because they, like tobacco companies, are in the business of spreading falsehoods and undermining science, so as to get both governments and individuals to make decisions that are bad for them in the long term.

      Now if you don’t believe in global climate change and/or believe that humans will be better off in dinosaur era climate and/or believe that geoengineering will solve everything more affordably than any other choice, you’ll think I’m a slogan spewing fool – but I’ll think you are one of the many people duped by these companies and their lobbyists.

      Ditto if you believe that smoking is harmless, as just about everyone agreed in my youth.

      • Well... says:

        What if it’s not that black and white? What if, for instance, organizations rallying against oil and tobacco companies also spread falsehoods that undermine science? What if they exaggerate scientifically sound claims well beyond the point at which they can be meaningfully called true?

        Who is evil if everyone is evil?

        • zzzzort says:

          Everyone, obviously. It’s a tautology.

        • DinoNerd says:

          This sounds like the lead in to an argument in a left wing textbook about how it’s impossible not to be complicit in late stage capitalism – the only way to compete is to lie/cheat/etc. and it’s even routinely claimed that this is part of any company executive’s duty to the owners/shareholders.

          On a bad day, I’m inclined to agree with this – everyone’s evil, from the CEOs and politicians down to the kids lying to their parents and cheating on their exams – and the best thing that could happen to the planet would be for the human species to go extinct.

          On a good day, my tendency to depression is more under control than that.

          But somehow I don’t think that’s where you were coming from ;-(

          • Aapje says:


            It is a fundamental feature of humanity to be biased in a way that rationalizes and helps achieve the interests/goal of you as an individual or the group that you are part of, even when this is at the expense of other individuals or groups.

            Greenpeace can’t avoid this anymore than Shell can.

            Communists were/are wrong by blaming capitalism for selfishness, thinking that eliminating it would unleash human altruism. It didn’t and it can’t. It made things much worse, instead.

            The solution is not human extinction (as animals are no less selfish than we are, so what would that solve?), but to establish checks and balances, so there is better push back against the self-interested behavior.

          • Well... says:

            But somehow I don’t think that’s where you were coming from

            Correct. Personally I’m inclined to be slower to take sides, adopt a “Man from Mars” mindset as much as possible, and keep an open mind for the truth while admitting epistemic uncertainty.

        • Aapje says:



          There was a conflict between Greenpeace and Shell over the disposal of an obsolete oil platform where it turned out that Greenpeace’s calculation of the remaining oil in the thing was wildly incorrect. They refused to accept that possibility and kept telling falsehoods in their ads.

          From my perspective, Shell et al are not significantly different from any organization with an interest: they all tend to be biased towards their interests. Some, like tobacco companies go extremely far in this, but oil companies in general seem fairly average.

      • Watchman says:

        So they’re evil because their actions are opposed to what you believe to be the best course of action? Isn’t this a very dangerous line of thinking, since it assumes disagreement is an inherent flaw not a different interpretation? It appears that you’re basically taking away the option of disagreeing in honest terms by applying a label that necessitates no debate. Regardless of whether you’re right or wrong you’re effectively turning this into a good versus evil conflict rather than a sensible discussion.

        • DinoNerd says:

          No, not unless the disagreement is about ethical principles. In which case, yes, if your interpretation is that the “good” consists of lying, stealing, murdering, assault, rape and similar then I’ll happily class you as evil based on this disagreement.

          Note that if you get down to cases – or worse yet, contrived ethical dilemmas – you can find situations where any one of these might be the least bad choice available, if not effectively good.

          That’s not what I’m arguing against, and I suspect you may realize that.

          There are issues of disagreement here too. It’s conceivable (not bloody likely) that various oil companies and their owners are not intentionally funding bad science, as well as spreading FUD etc. for the purpose of continuing to make profits regardless of the damage caused. Believing that doesn’t make you evil – gullible, perhaps, but not evil. But assuming the companies are doing what I say, “evil” is an appropriate label for them.

          And I’m about as likely to believe they are not lying as to believe that some specific translation of the Christian Holy Book is inerrant, literally true, etc. etc. (Though the evidence against the inerrant Bible is somewhat stronger, I guess, as any literate person can read it and spot the inconsistencies … whereas I can’t directly examine the behaviour of oil company executives, just e.g. read things that purport to come from them.)

      • but I’ll think you are one of the many people duped by these companies and their lobbyists.

        That is quite unlikely, given the origin of the various arguments that make me skeptical of climate catastrophism.

        Do you count Freeman Dyson as an oil company lobbyist? The people at various times and places who did research on the effect of CO2 on plant yields? William Nordhaus who, in the process of defending the catastrophist position, carelessly mentions his calculation of the human cost of waiting fifty years to do anything instead of taking the optimal policies immediately—and doesn’t mention that it comes to a reduction in world GNP by about .05%

    • profgerm says:

      “Oil companies are evil” started long ago, with the beginning of oil companies: Standard Oil. Their practices and near-monopoly spawned a landmark anti-trust case.

      Alternatively, concern about climate change is evil, oil companies produce products that release a lot of CO2 in use, and people ignore their own complicity in that equation by not returning voluntarily to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

    • thisheavenlyconjugation says:

      Oil spills are pretty bad, and there’s stuff like Shell’s activities in Nigeria (encouraging the military to shoot/torture/execute protestors, hiring militants as security who then carry out massacres etc.).

      • moridinamael says:

        It still seems like negative externalities like oil spills are a sin that should be allocated to every person who uses hydrocarbon products, and not just to the company the commits the spill, unless the company was being negligent.

      • Aapje says:


        Oil spills are pretty bad

        Yet those are of course not intentional. They cost the oil companies a lot of money.

        Shell’s activities in Nigeria (encouraging the military to shoot/torture/execute protestors, hiring militants as security who then carry out massacres, etc

        The problem with these accusations is that the conditions there are quite bad in the first place, so it’s most likely not actually possible to operate there without these bad things also happening around oil extraction operations.

        For example, there is violence against Shell employees and Shell logically asked the government to safeguard their workers, just like they would do if the same happened in a Western country. Yet in Nigeria, the police often behaves badly. You blame Shell for how the police behaves, but do you seriously believe that they should accept violence against their employees instead?

        Shell doesn’t hire militants as security, but pays off militants to leave them alone. This is fairly standard practice. Western nations have done so quite often when operating in the third world. Again, the alternative is that their workers are attacked and thus, that they probably have to leave.

        A lot of critics seem extremely quixotic, apparently believing that corporations have the power to end conflicts, transform poor governments to well-functioning democracies, etc. In reality, there is no truly ethical way to operate in these places. Their only options are either to accept the bad with the good (like bringing jobs to these places and providing funds to the government so they can pay for things), or to leave.

        • thisheavenlyconjugation says:

          Yet those are of course not intentional. They cost the oil companies a lot of money.

          Negligence is a thing.

          For example, there is violence against Shell employees and Shell logically asked the government to safeguard their workers, just like they would do if the same happened in a Western country. Yet in Nigeria, the police often behaves badly. You blame Shell for how the police behaves, but do you seriously believe that they should accept violence against their employees instead?

          False dichotomy; they could also for instance hire private security. If you agree that they have some responsibility regarding the conduct of their security, it seems weird to say that relying on the police because that would be fine in Europe is sufficient to discharge this responsibility if you know how Nigerian government forces will behave. Indeed, this is not the argument Shell use; their defence against all accusations against them seems to be “we were unaware of this”, not “it was OK to do this”.

          Also, you picked a more defensible use of government power than the one I mentioned. I suppose Shell might ask e.g. the British government to “deal with” protestors in some way, but presumably we would still condemn that. So I can’t see how you could defend asking the Nigerian government to do the same when you know their method of dealing involves torture/murder.

          Shell doesn’t hire militants as security, but pays off militants to leave them alone.

          I believe they did both. But I think the latter is worthy of condemnation especially in this instance: paying the Danegeld is inherently bad, but it’s worse if there are multiple groups of Danes and paying one group encourages others to fight to be the ones paid.

          • Aapje says:

            Negligence is a thing.

            True, but the claim of Shell is that the pipeline was attacked. That’s not negligence.

            False dichotomy; they could also for instance hire private security.

            It depends on what kind of security they need. It is definitely not legal for me to hire armed security where I live and it may not be legal to do so in Nigeria.

            The rest of the world is not like the US, with their liberal gun laws in some parts of the country.

            I suppose Shell might ask e.g. the British government to “deal with” protestors in some way, but presumably we would still condemn that.

            It would depend completely on the details. If the protesters were shooting guns and throwing Molotov cocktails, I would support prosecution and would not condemn a company for asking for prosecution.

            So I can’t see how you could defend asking the Nigerian government to do the same when you know their method of dealing involves torture/murder.

            Imagine that a killer would be after you, but that you also think that the government sometimes abuses prisoners. Would you accept getting killed to prevent those abuses from happening or would you ask the police to protect you, with a bad taste in your mouth?

            I believe they did both [hiring militants as security and paying militants to be left alone].

            In this article, I see claims that security personnel tortured and killed people, but Shell claiming that these facilities are majority owned by the Nigerian government and that Nigeria handles security at these facilities.

          • thisheavenlyconjugation says:

            True, but the claim of Shell is that the pipeline was attacked. That’s not negligence.

            I was talking about oil spills in general rather than in Nigeria/by Shell specifically. Nigerian militants didn’t have anything to do with e.g. Deepwater Horizon. Regarding the specific case of the (many) oil spills in Nigeria, Shell does blame the vast majority of them on sabotage but they’re hardly a neutral source, and they have accepted liability for some of them. It’s also definitely possible to be negligent in failing to take proper precautions against malicious actors; if I hire you to clean my house while I’m not there, you leave the door unlocked, and someone comes in and steals stuff I should be able to take action against you even though the thief takes the majority of moral blame.

            It would depend completely on the details. If the protesters were shooting guns and throwing Molotov cocktails, I would support prosecution and would not condemn a company for asking for prosecution.

            Obviously. But that’s not relevant because the protestors in question were unarmed and peaceful.

            Imagine that a killer would be after you, but that you also think that the government sometimes abuses prisoners. Would you accept getting killed to prevent those abuses from happening or would you ask the police to protect you, with a bad taste in your mouth?

            You’re missing my point and again engaging with the example that’s convenient for your argument — “At Shell’s request, Nigerian police brutally deals with militants attacking Shell’s infrastructure and employees” — rather than the example I gave — “At Shell’s request, Nigerian police brutally deals with peaceful protestors”. My point is that a company asking a nice European government to deal with peaceful protestors (e.g. by not giving them a permit to demonstrate) would be bad, so asking the Nigerian government to deal with them when you know they may do so violently is even less defensible.

          • Aapje says:

            Deepwater Horizon doesn’t have anything to do with Shell, though.

            Also, negligence is different from intentionally causing harm. A basic truth of life is that negligence is inevitable. We all have to limit our precautions and such.

            Perhaps the oil industry is worse at taking precautions than other industries, but I haven’t seen any solid evidence for this claim.

            Regarding the specific case of the (many) oil spills in Nigeria, Shell does blame the vast majority of them on sabotage but they’re hardly a neutral source, and they have accepted liability for some of them.

            You still haven’t explained why Shell wouldn’t want to reduce large oil spills, as it costs them a lot of money. Note that the number of oil spills in Nigeria seems extremely high. What explanation do you have why Shell would spill much more oil in Nigeria, other than sabotage and such?

            Note that any technology is going to fail sometimes. If you get upset at Shell for not preventing technological failures that cause oil spills, then your real issue seems to be with oil extraction in general, not the companies that do it.

            It’s also definitely possible to be negligent in failing to take proper precautions against malicious actors[…]if I hire you to clean my house while I’m not there, you leave the door unlocked,

            Yes, but houses also get broken into where the door was locked. You are like a person who believes accusations without proof that the cleaning person left the door unlocked because the house was broken into, and regards protestations of innocence to be unreliable due to bias, but ignores that the accuser also has bias.

            But that’s not relevant because the protesters in question were unarmed and peaceful.

            Unarmed and peaceful protest is not all what’s going on:




            Any foreigners operating there have to prepare for attempts to kidnap or worse. They can’t just assume that protests will be peaceful.

            Also, it is quite common for the police to end peaceful protest in the West, that goes beyond the mere exercise of speech. Try blocking the laying of a pipeline with a peaceful ‘sit-in.’ The government will not let you stop the construction, but will remove you. So it doesn’t seem inherently wrong for Shell to ask for interventions against peaceful protesters that block construction or such.

            You’re missing my point and again engaging with the example that’s convenient for your argument — “At Shell’s request, Nigerian police brutally deals with militants attacking Shell’s infrastructure and employees” — rather than the example I gave — “At Shell’s request, Nigerian police brutally deals with peaceful protestors”.

            I have seen no evidence that Shell directly asked the Nigerian police to brutally deal with peaceful protesters. Take this Amnesty report, page 9. The title of the relevant section is “SHELL MOTIVATED THE GOVERNMENT TO STOP THE OGONI PROTESTS.” The word ‘motivated’ is extremely vague and is not the same as ‘asked’.

            If you look at the actual requests by Shell, they consist of asking for “intervention to enable us carry out our operations given the strategic nature of our business to the economy of the nation, complaining that community disturbances, blockade and sabotage” led to a large drop in production and asked for help to “minimize the disruptions.” The boss of Shell Nigeria also discussed with the government: “the problem of the Ogonis and Ken Saro-Wiwa, pointing out that Shell had not been in the area for almost a year. We told him of the destruction that they had created at our sites of which he was apparently unaware.”

            Amnesty writes that: “Although there is no evidence that Shell asked the military or police to execute or assault people, the company asked them to act when it knew that extrajudicial executions and assault were the likely outcome.” However, that seems premised on Shell believing the protesters over what the Nigerian government was telling them. I see no evidence that Shell actually believed the protesters, but rather the opposite.

            Note that there seems to be a long-standing conflict between the Nigerian government and the Ogoni people, going back to 1968, when Ogoniland was conquered by Nigeria, who have since struggled for (more) independence and such.

            It still seems to me that Shell only really had the option to withdraw, as an alternative to what they did.

    • ana53294 says:

      If you exclude Norway, the UK, and the US, the majority of oil is located in countries where doing business means you are already doing something shady. So, if it isn’t possible to extract oil in Iraq/Kuwait/UAE without bribery and shady deals with war lords, that means that all companies that extract oil there are engaged in bribery and shady deals.

      And then there are the oil companies that are the extension and source of income of an evil government, such as Rosneft, Aramco, PDVSA, etc.

      There aren’t that many industries that seem to be so linked to shady dictatorships as the oil industry.

      • Faza (TCM) says:

        So, if it isn’t possible to extract oil in Iraq/Kuwait/UAE without bribery and shady deals with war lords, that means that all companies that extract oil there are engaged in bribery and shady deals.

        I know that pedantry isn’t really contributing to the main point, but in the interest of epistemic hygiene I’m gonna be pedantic.

        I don’t know about Iraq, but:
        1. You’re unlikely to find warlords to do shady business with in the UAE or Kuwait (I grew up in the latter),

        2. The oil industry is government-owned in Kuwait – it was nationalized in order to ensure the benefits accrue to the people of Kuwait, as opposed to post-colonial business interests; I believe this is also the case in the UAE, as well as pretty much everywhere else in the Mid-eastern petro-states.

        Doing business there is no more shady than in Europe or the US. We might disagree with the culture, legal system or politics of the various states, but it’s all above board.

        Iraq is likely an exception, but that’s partly because we wrecked its shit back in the day.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t mind them providing us with oil (we’re the ones asking for it, after all), but my impression is they also do a lot of lobbying to prevent action on climate change and protect their unreasonable subsidies.

      I think there are also some other really bad things relating to human rights in e.g. Nigeria, but I don’t know enough about this to have more than vague impressions.

    • broblawsky says:

      Oil companies were regarded as evil dating back to Standard Oil, after people decided that John D. Rockefeller becoming maybe the richest man who ever lived via monopolistic business practices was unacceptable.

    • zzzzort says:

      Extractive companies might not be necessarily or inevitably evil, but they’re probably going to be more evil than the average company. Extraction can generate large rents while relying on a relatively small amount of human capital and so can be profitable in social situations that are quite horrible. The most extraction reliant countries in the world are notoriously bad on human rights, and the discovery of a resource seems to cause instability in countries with shaky institutions. Now maybe this isn’t the fault of the company, but when they’re some repressive dictator sitting on a fortune of oil the incentives of BP or Exxon are less than perfectly aligned with ethical actions than for a generic business.

    • Bugmaster says:

      As I said above, oil companies (as well as all other companies) are not evil or good; they’re just profit maximizers. That said, oil companies are especially profitable and powerful (as compared to other industries), which means that they can buy significantly more legislation than other companies. Thus, they can consistently outbid “the will of the people” when it comes to passing and enforcing legislation.

  69. deltafosb says:

    I would recommend putting the poll before the main text, so that the points you are making do not skew the results.

    • Aapje says:

      Perhaps he wants to see how people feel after making his argument.

    • I would recommend not using a one dimensional right/left scale. I marked myself as one point short of extreme right, but that was a compromise between “the anarcho-capitalist position carries the pro-market position, often thought of as right, all the way, so I should be extreme right” and “lots of people think of ‘right’ in terms of policies such as immigration restriction, by which definition I am extreme left.”

      • Ventrue Capital says:

        What @DavidFriedman said.

        I marked myself, on that poll, as the most extreme right.

        FWIW I agree with him about pretty much everything.

        In fact, he once wrote that “You might find two libertarians somewhere who agree about everything, but I am not one of them.”

        Well, I agree with him about everything. (Well, almost.)

  70. Faza (TCM) says:

    I want a smoke-free meatless future. But does it become a mockery when the same companies that provided the smoky meaty past are selling it to us?

    Related question: given that I want neither a smoke-free nor meatless future (both seem abhorrent to me), should I be boycotting Philip Morris, KFC and Tyson Foods?

    (I don’t believe I’m a customer of any of those companies – not KFC certainly, ‘coz there’s too much Kentucky, not enough Chicken – but I want to know: can I continue to not buy from them, now as a Matter of Principle?)

    • bzium says:

      Could you unpack a bit why smoke-free or meatless futures seem abhorrent to you?

      • Faza (TCM) says:

        Does it matter?

        • souleater says:

          I think it does!

          If you are opposed to a smoke/meat free future due to ethical reasons, it would suggest a different course of action than if it was a preference based on enjoying a good cigar/steak.

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            Why not both? They’re not mutually exclusive.

            Well… has articulated some of the reasons below, quite… ahem… well.

            To this I would add that arriving in such a future would probably involve the proliferation of a certain mindset in the general population – specifically that portion of same that might possibly be imposing sanctions on Mr Kim’s All-You-Can-Eat Chicken Buffet – and death seems preferable to having to share a planet with any unavoidably perceptible quantity of such people.

            If someone wants to dictate my behaviour to me, they could at least have the common decency to not claim it is for the cause of Good. The matter is in dispute, as far as I’m concerned.

          • albatross11 says:

            Surely that would be Mr Kim’s All-You-Can-Eat Chicken Buffet and Cigar Bar.

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            Mr Kim’s All-You-Can-Eat Chicken Buffet and Cigar Bar

            Ooh, I like the sound of that…

            Moreso, if he’s serving chicken-burgers like the ones available at the place I lived above in London. That was some finger-lickin’ chickin.

      • Well... says:

        Faza (TCM) rightly feels no obligation to answer, but since I agree with a weaker version of what s/he said (I simply am not interested in a meatless smoke-free future and don’t like the absolutism and vaguely implied totalitarianism of it) and am willing to unpack my own reasoning, and sense that you’re just curious, I will:

        1. I like eating meat a few times a week (plus eggs almost daily), and on extremely rare occasions I like a nice cigarillo.

        2. I don’t have a problem with other people smoking. I certainly don’t have a problem with other people eating meat.

        3. Even though I wish people made consumer decisions more thoughtfully, I’m not very interested in imposing my tastes on others.

        4. It’s not obvious to me that a smokeless meatless future is more moral than a smokey meaty one.

        (And now for some reason I’m in the mood for smoked sausage…)

        • Faza (TCM) says:

          (And now for some reason I’m in the mood for smoked sausage…)

          Pork tenderloin for me, please. The real woody, salty kind…

        • bzium says:

          I see. I guess I interpreted the phrase about meatless, smoke-free future differently. It doesn’t have to imply anything totalitarian.

          It could come about because less and less people smoke cigarettes until tobacco companies go out of business or pivot to vaping stuff. Or because meat-replacement products increase in quality, outcompete meat on the market and it just stops being a thing. Though it’s more likely that it happens because vat-grown meat becomes a viable alternative and people actually want a factory-farming-less future rather than a meatless one.

          I think it more likely that this is what Scott meant rather than some sort of Totalitarian Vegan Revolution, seeing as this is an article about effecting gradual change via consumer choice, and that such revolution wouldn’t treat Scott kindly at all.

          • Well... says:

            Right. I considered that as one possibility to bring about the smokeless meatless future, it’s just that the phrase itself to me has more of a totalitarian scent to it.

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            the phrase itself to me has more of a totalitarian scent to it

            As opposed to woody, junipery goodness.

            (Sorry, still thinking about the smoked meats…)

  71. citrinitae says:

    Romans had the concept of Murum Aries Attigit — latin “the ram has touched the wall”. If you’re a Roman general going to siege a city, you can negotiate with them until the first time your battering ram hits the wall. After that, you’re obligated to make your siege as destructive as possible (I haven’t been able to verify the strength of the obligation or the extent of destruction required). It seems like similar concepts were used by sieging armies across history.
    The intent was to avoid having to siege at all, by making surrender before the first strike comparatively very attractive. In the case of dictators, this probably looks like giving them amnesty as long as they don’t cross a certain threshold of genocide.
    In the case of companies, I think this looks like an agreement to let the aggressor recover as long as things don’t get so bad that they have to be legislated. The disincentive is that once the law gets passed, it is not likely to go away, and it is likely to hamper your future profit-making. When this system succeeds, it looks like efficient and effective self-regulation.

    • Hackworth says:

      I think Murum Aries Attigit is a sound principle. In German tax law, withholding taxes on a large scale is, obviously, a crime. However, if you voluntarily make that fact known to and fully cooperate with the authorities, you can get away with only paying the withheld amount. However, if you open up only after an investigation into you has already begun (whether you know it or not), it’s too late to get that benefit, and the “no punishment when cooperating” is replaced by “stronger punishment when not cooperating”.

      Relatedly, it’s also the fundament of my pet theory regarding harmful drugs: Get rid of illegal drugs through economics rather than the justice system. Punish people that produce, sell, and buy drugs illegally to whatever extent you want, to drive up prices. At the same time, give everyone a legal and, importantly, a more affordable alternative that is regulated like any other industry that produces consumable goods, but is otherwise unrestricted except for legal consumption age. Also, just like with e.g. alcohol, treat addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

      • Lignisse says:

        In your second paragraph, when you say “legal […] alternative”, do you mean the same chemical substance but with laws rewritten to exempt it if purchased correctly? Or did you have in mind an actual substitute product? Are there substitute products?

        • Hackworth says:

          Same chemical substance, but with regulated and controlled production and distribution. Think moonshine vs. regular, store-bought alcohol. Require a license for producing e.g. marijuana and derived products, with clear labeling of ingredients, especially THC concentration. Prescribe maximum concentrations of active psychoactive substances, and allow only approved mixtures of different psychoactive substances. Make all regulated steps from production to sale subject to inspection and fines (or criminal prosecution if necessary), just like regular food and drink products. Get rid of producers that cut corners at the expense of consumers or workers. Make a distinction between good actors and bad actors, and enforce it.

    • jumpinjacksplash says:

      The murum aries attigit in this situation is presumably, “You can step down, at any point until an invasion/uprising starts; after that, you don’t have an escape.” There’s a pretty strong case for this as a principle, because otherwise dictators have an incentive to hang on until they definitely can’t win, then surrender and move to their island. If they’ve got to quit before things go bad, they have an incentive to step down now before they lose the opportunity.

      • Tenacious D says:

        I don’t have kids, but this reminds me of the parenting tactic of counting to 3. You offer as much of an off-ramp from misbehaviour as you can, but if it’s rejected you have to follow through on consequences.

    • Clutzy says:

      Beautiful pin

    • Galle says:

      The main issue with such principles is that there’s always going to be some idiot who’s absolutely certain you either can’t or won’t back up your threats, no matter how credible your precommitment, and when you run into them a lot of innocent people are going to get hurt.

      The second issue is that those idiots seem disproportionately likely to become dictators to begin with.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        Even if a pre-commitment to punish doesn’t convince everyone, it can often convince enough people to stop a lot of violence from starting.

        But it’s careful not to oversell this. There are lots of people who want to be bullies that do it with the justification I supplied in my first paragraph, who have an overwhelming desire to believe it so.

  72. AFallenBanner says:

    shouldn’t you put the poll before the argument?

  73. Bugmaster says:

    It makes no sense to agonize over morality of corporations, no more than it makes sense to agonize over the morality of rocks. Why are some rocks evil (those that e.g. fall on people’s heads), while others good (those that e.g. form natural bridges across rivers) ? How should we punish evil rocks and reward good ones ?

    Rocks aren’t good or evil, they are just objects that minimize their potential energy. Corporations aren’t evil or good either, they are just constructs that maximize profit. If you want them to make more veggie quasi-chicken, buy more veggie quasi-chicken. If you don’t, then don’t. Boycotts don’t work, because convincing people to forego something they really enjoy is virtually impossible. Laws don’t really work, because corporations have more money than you, so they can buy more laws. So, all you can do is buy the stuff you think is good, and avoid the stuff you think is evil. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.

    • Aftagley says:

      This viewpoint always confuses me. Corporations aren’t some weird autonomous being that emerge from the aether ready to maximize profit, they’re collections of people. Collections of people can definitely choose make decisions that are evil or resist making those decisions.

      • benjdenny says:

        A corporation can, technically, make some nice beautiful choice that maximizes morality or niceness; you are right that this is an action they can do. The problem is that unless they are already a monopoly that can’t be competed against (YKK zippers), they have competitors who would then offer a cheaper product, and the newly company would be competed away.

        As a general rule of thumb, you’d either have to coordinate all the companies to make the desired change at once (nothing but changing and enforcing laws does this consistently) or change a majority of buyer’s habits at once, but buyers have never been interested enough in good behavior that they’d do the work of research to know who to punish.

        It’s a little like saying a pacifist boxer would be nice. It could be, for a second, but then the other boxer would punch him because they both live in a world with rules that reward punching.

        • JohnBuridan says:

          There is enormous amount of wiggle room in corporations. Leaders of corporations have moral responsibility for the way their organization affects society just like everyone else in positions of authority.

          Some corporations do well by being fair in their contract dealings, others by being ripoffs. Some are incompetent and mislead vendors, others try to find a fair price for the goods they offer.

          Read, for example, The Gospel of Wealth by Andrew Carnegie.

          Take something you might have direct experience with car dealerships. Some are sleazy, some are honest. Some cook their books to look good, others shoot straight. We won’t live in hell, unless we excuse every unjust action as
          “necessary for competition.” It’s true the punishment mechanisms for corps are weak and it basically impossible to make them surefire good without destroying the economy. Unfortunately, that’s why we need people to actually be morally upright – whatever that means. Incentives only is not good enough.

          • benjdenny says:

            I’ve grown up around salesmen; there’s virtually no difference between major car dealerships at a given level. They will all attempt to sell you a car for the maximum amount they think they can. Unless you are talking “honest” and “sleazy” in a “new car lot” “used car lot” “small used car lot” dichotomy way, where the level of sleaze is mainly determined by how bad your credit can be and still effectively buy a car there. There’s no haggle lots, where you pay more for a car than you would if you haggled, but they are selling the same product + convenience + lies and smiles.

            As an example of this, take a look at the Google reviews for basically any major franchise new car dealership in any major metropolitan area. You will be shocked to find that all of them hover between 4.0-4.5 stars, the highest a reputation management company can scam your reviews. They all lie to customers in exactly the same way. Or look at the much less consumer-friendly and much more exploitative CarMax in any major city – same reviews! It’s almost as if they are all subject to the same market forces.

            The idea that an individual business seeks “fair prices” is a pretend, at least outside of small business outliers. If somebody else can sell lower than them, they either match the prices or fail to and lose business. Go price a can of pork and beans at a dozen stores, and you will very quickly find that the price varies very little. Do it with a television; do it with a video game console. Do it with a couch. What little variance there is generally has more to do with the buying environment than the product, I.E. Target is slightly more expensive than Walmart because of slightly nicer decor and slightly fewer meth addicts.

            It’s not that I can’t be convinced you are right and I’m wrong, but I think my falsifiabilty standards here are pretty hard; I’d need to see more than a few products being sold in a fairly competitive market for much less than similar competitors outside of a special discount/sale situation.

    • Well... says:

      Boycotts don’t work, because convincing people to forego something they really enjoy is virtually impossible. Laws don’t really work, because corporations have more money than you, so they can buy more laws.

      Boycotts work sometimes. Laws work most of the time (especially in relatively uncorrupt countries like the US).

      Echoing Aftagley, corporations are controlled by people, and people can make decisions. I don’t understand where this fatalistic viewpoint comes from.

      Where I disagree with Aftagley is I don’t think it’s almost ever as simple as “make decisions that are evil or resist making those decisions”. Of the decisions a corporate decisionmaker might make in his capacity as corporate decisionmaker, what percentage comprise a clearly evil choice and a clearly non-evil one? Maybe the percentage is nonzero, but it’s definitely close to zero.

      • Aftagley says:


        Good point, my initial post was too simple. I don’t mean to imply that I think it’s ever as simple as obviously evil vs. clearly good choices. I’m just saying that the people in corporations mantain their capacity for free will in deciding what actions to pursue. That

      • Bugmaster says:

        I think that benjdenny described the situation pretty well in his comment above: the people running a corporation can make a wonderful, compassionate choice… but unless that choice also maximizes their profit, they will be out-competed by another group of people running a different corporation.

        This does not mean that corporations make 100% evil choices 100% of the time. It means that they are morally neutral. The choices they make (when seen as a historical aggregate) are those simply maximize profit. If the vast majority of consumers come to believe that e.g. blue shirts are evil, then they’ll stop buying them, and no corporation will sell blue shirts. The CEOs are not going to sit there, twirling their mustaches and going, “mwa ha ha, we shall make enough blue shirts to cover the whole world”, because if they do… they will be out-competed into oblivion.

        I would agree that my viewpoint is somewhat fatalistic, in the sense that no individual consumer has enough power to affect the market in any kind of a significant way; but that’s not the same as prophesying a thousand years of darkness (assuming humanity even lasts that long, but that’s another story).

    • HomarusSimpson says:

      Corporations aren’t evil or good

      Quite so. Corporations are amoral, not moral or immoral. They are subject to Darwinian type pressures, and the ones best adapted to their environment survive. A poorly adapted one, ie one that does not maximise it’s profit, will be out-competed by one that does.

      The moral part comes from the framework (environment) in which they operate, which for all intents and purposes is set by government in the form of law. I leave out here the dirty reality of regulatory capture, revolving doors and the like. If the moral part it lacking, it is a lack of appropriate legislation.

      Over and above this, corporations can break the law, and for that there should be punishment. Not the same thing.

      Really can’t make corporations equivalent to dictators.

      • Bugmaster says:

        As I said in my comment, laws are basically for sale to the highest bidder, so they have a fairly weak impact on corporations (if any). Aggregate consumer behavior is a much stronger force, albeit one that is very difficult to steer.

  74. Well... says:

    I’m not convinced that eating vegetables is morally better than eating meat. Vegetables (and fungi) are living things with something analogous to a nervous system, in some cases very complex and sophisticated ones. Plants and fungi know and can react to an awful lot about their environment. The phrase used in the post, “plant-based meats”, says more to me than it probably was intended to. We sympathize more readily with animals, and with warm-blooded vertebrates especially, so sure let’s minimize their suffering wherever practical, but I don’t think completely eliminating it at the expense of what tasty things I can eat or where I can get my protein is a sensible extreme because to me it implies we ought to minimize the suffering of plants and fungi as well, until I’m a Jainist who’ll only eat fallen fruit or something like that. (I switched to first-person there because I have a more sensitive relationship to food than perhaps is average (?); to me, the whole experience of preparing, plating up, forking, chewing, and swallowing diverse tasty foods is a central joy in life but I know other people who would be fine just popping Meal Pills if it was a feasible alternative.)

    OK, so I guess that was just my own throat-clearing. Taking the object level assumption of “meat = bad” for granted, I’m also skeptical whether individuals can predict moral progress any better than corporations. The moral lines around “produces and sells meat” are certainly not as clear-cut as they are around “evil dictator”.

    • profgerm says:

      I know other people who would be fine just popping Meal Pills if it was a feasible alternative.

      A key reason to be suspicious of any suggestions coming from the Bay about food! Seems like a lot was written about this when Soylent came out.

      More on the “shouldn’t this also lead to concern for plants and fungi?” point: that’s assuming the principle is just about suffering and not taking the Overton Window into consideration. “KFC employees are genocidal” is certainly outside the window of, I would guess, 90% of people, but close enough to the Bay Overton Window (higher concentration of vegans, more consequentialist utilitarians that care deeply about non-humans, etc) to be usable. Technology is making fake meat more palatable, so the comparison can be made and meat-eaters reminded more often that they’re evil.

      Once the technology starts to be developed to synthesize meal-pills directly from CO2 and constituent elements, then the calls for stopping the genocide of lettuce and portobellos will begin.

      • Well... says:

        I don’t know how true the generalization about people in the Bay Area is, but sure let’s handwave it through. If we reach the point where the finest steaks can be grown cheaply in a lab from chemicals distilled out of the atmosphere, and at that point everyone starts worrying about the welfare of our fellow eukarya (as for archea and bacteria, fuck’em, the prokarya scum!) then I’ll smugly approve.

        • profgerm says:

          Yeah, it’s definitely an availability-bias generalization.

          But that’s fair. I’d go for it at that point too.

    • Deiseach says:

      I’m not convinced that eating vegetables is morally better than eating meat.

      Well, if the below is ever tried anywhere on this good green earth, it’ll likely be tried in the Bay Area 🙂

      From “The Napoleon of Notting Hill”:

      And Mr. Mick not only became a vegetarian, but at length declared vegetarianism doomed (“shedding,” as he called it finely, “the green blood of the silent animals”), and predicted that men in a better age would live on nothing but salt. And then came the pamphlet from Oregon (where the thing was tried), the pamphlet called “Why should Salt suffer?” and there was more trouble.

      • crilk says:

        Chesterton had it right. Oregon (particularly Eugene) is the epicenter of American crazy.

      • JohnBuridan says:

        And the corollary from The Man Who Was Thursday concerning our protagonist’s upbringing [SPOILER ALERT]:

        GABRIEL SYME was not merely a detective who pretended to be a poet; he was really a poet who had become a detective. Nor was his hatred of anarchy hypocritical. He was one of those who are driven early in life into too conservative an attitude by the bewildering folly of most revolutionists. He had not attained it by any tame tradition. His respectability was spontaneous and sudden, a rebellion against rebellion. He came of a family of cranks, in which all the oldest people had all the newest notions. One of his uncles always walked about without a hat, and another had made an unsuccessful attempt to walk about with a hat and nothing else. His father cultivated art and self-realisation; his mother went in for simplicity and hygiene. Hence the child, during his tenderer years, was wholly unacquainted with any drink between the extremes of absinth and cocoa, of both of which he had a healthy dislike. The more his mother preached a more than Puritan abstinence the more did his father expand into a more than pagan latitude; and by the time the former had come to enforcing vegetarianism, the latter had pretty well reached the point of defending cannibalism.

        Being surrounded with every conceivable kind of revolt from infancy, Gabriel had to revolt into something, so he revolted into the only thing left—sanity.

        Can we get a spoiler clicker for the comments section? 😀

    • thisheavenlyconjugation says:

      Peta kind of agrees with you.

      I don’t though. Plants may have something analogous to a nervous system, but that is not the same as actually having a nervous system.

      • Well... says:

        Of course they’re not the same thing, but why does it matter if it means being equally capable of experiencing extreme levels of stress when being killed/eaten?

        • thisheavenlyconjugation says:

          If that were true, it wouldn’t matter. I don’t see any evidence that it is true.

          • Well... says:

            There’s plenty of evidence that plants and fungi have pretty sophisticated abilities when it comes to sensing, communicating, and responding to their environment.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think I reject your premise and don’t think plants are capable of suffering. But even if they were, there would be gradations. I’d prefer eating a chimp to eating a human, eating a chicken to eating a chimp, and eating a lobster to eating a chicken. I think it makes sense to prefer eating a potato to eating a lobster.

      • Well... says:

        The existence of gradations means you are arbitrarily drawing a line somewhere. I said in my parent comment that we sympathize more with animals and especially with warm-blooded vertebrates, implying that subjective level of sympathy is what determines where the line is drawn. Why not make this argument instead of insinuating it’s based on some kind of objective moral truth?

        But anyway you reject the notion that plants suffer. Maybe they don’t, but if so then it’s certainly true that some animals — simpler ones, perhaps, like polyps — don’t suffer either. But surely they experience something intensely stressful when injured/predated/etc. In which case, we’re back to gradations.

        • JohnBuridan says:

          Let’s focus on the word “Arbitrary.”
          From the Greek arbiter meaning a judge.
          The facts about the ontological status of different creatures is not something one discovers out there in the world. No, instead one exercises judgment based upon evidence about the manner in which different species exist and experience the world.

          You seem confused by the word suffer. In these types of moral questions suffering is an experience in the mind, and the mind presumably emerges from brain/complex nervous processes (but theories of mind differ so caveat emptor), pain otoh denotes a mechanical response to a harsh phenomenon in the environment. When someone says plants don’t suffer, we mean something like, “Plants lack the neural complexity necessary to have impressions about their own existence.”

          While it is true that we seem naturally drawn to sympathize with mammals, anyone who is actually interested in the philosophical project of understanding the minds of diverse creatures researches the intelligence of octopodes and all sorts of creatures for indications of a capacity to suffer, but good judgment will necessarily be involved.

          • Varl says:

            JohnBuridan’s answer is very good, but I just wanted to point out that there is a stream of animal rightsism that does directly consider the “experiential capacity” or what-have-you of organisms on a case-by-case basis instead of just binning them into “plants” and “animals”. Peter Singer eats oysters, after all.

          • Well... says:


            By coincidence I happen to have just finished reading “Other Minds” by Peter Godfrey-Smith, much of which is about cephalopod minds.

            Anyway, I understand what you mean by suffer and that it assumes some amount of neural complexity and self-awareness. Or rather, it assumes this when convenient; unlike Peter Singer most vegetarians will not eat oysters. Polyps aren’t really edible to humans but if they were, would vegetarians eat them? They are part of the animal kingdom after all.

            My problem is not even necessarily that this assumption about what is necessary for suffering seems unfounded, it’s that at the end of the day what the moral vegetarian says is OK to eat is not really about what can experience suffering and what can’t. It’s a Schelling point based on what seems familiar to us as humans. But to admit this would be to cede the claim that there is an objective moral truth about what we should and should not eat.

        • Varl says:

          You meet a huge number of people in your life, and your relationships run the spectrum of personal affection from loathing to toleration to friendliness to ardent love. Yet most only marry exactly one other person. Why are they arbitrarily drawing a line somewhere?

          We have a limited budget of energy/cognition/whatever to manage complexity and so a lot of human life involves converting continuous distributions into discrete variables: married or not married, eat or don’t eat. This is part of the rationale behind Schelling fences. I mean, presumably you could make a table of the fractional value you assign to every extant species and brew up some animal matter slurry in which they’re mixed in proportion to their moral weight, but you could also just order the menu item with the green V next to it.

          • John Schilling says:

            An oxygen or even nitrogen atom will meet a huge number of similar atoms bouncing around in the atmosphere, and oxygen or nitrogen atoms can clearly bind together into molecules with three or more like-minded atoms. Yet most will bind with exactly one other such atom. Why not more?

            “Alice’s relationship with Bob is her absolute #1 social priority and Bob’s relationship with Alice is his absolute #1 social priority” has a symmetry that promotes stability, and remains so when you tweak it to “#2, following their relationship with their jointly-parented children”. That goes away when you try to add Charlie or Diana to the mix. Empirically, we have long evidence across many cultures that Alice+Bob just plain works. Alice+Bob+Charlie… is exciting while it lasts, but much more prone to energetically rearranging itself into lower-energy pairs and free radicals.

          • Well... says:


            I reject your premise that loathing/toleration/friendliness/ardent love are all points on the same spectrum. Also, marriage has to do with a lot more than just love.

            But I think the concept you’re looking for here is Schelling points, not fences. And yes, as I said, we sympathize with other animals and especially with warm-blooded vertebrates like ourselves. It’s arbitrary, but it makes sense as a Schelling point. What I’m saying is that the moral argument for vegetarianism (“minimize suffering”), if it was being ingenuous, would simply name this as a convenient Schelling point rather than trying to establish it as an objective moral topography.

          • Varl says:

            @John Schilling
            Sure, there are other factors militating for monogamous marriage besides its conceptual simplicity. And atoms are such that there are only a few stable bonding configurations available to them. But barring isotopes, etc., every atom of a particular element is identical to every other such atom, whereas I’m told each person is a glorious and unique universe unto themselves, but we still persist in binning the ones we know into a pretty limited number of buckets: Friend, Co-worker (Not Friend), Good Friend, Enemy. Invite to Birthday / Do Not Invite To Birthday. The point isn’t specific to marriage, which was perhaps a bad example, just that for practical reasons we collapse a ton of variation like this all the time in a way that I don’t think Well would question. Or maybe their birthday invites explicitly state the number of minutes you’re allowed to attend, as determined by how much they like you, I don’t know.

            I don’t think “sympathize most with things like yourself” is exactly what I’d call arbitrary. But then I also don’t think it’s the principle underlying vegetarianism, to the extent that vegetarianism is principled. And most isn’t; the modal vegetarian is probably no more capable of giving a reasoned moral defense of their position than the modal “Fuck Yeah Science” evolution-booster is capable of tossing off the Breeder’s Equation, since the modal person mostly cobbles together an ideology from tribal signaling, appeals to authority and duct tape. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the truth value of evolution by natural selection, or of the moral consistency of a deeply considered vegetarianism.

            Fun fact: I used to work with a biologist who was friends with Peter Singer, and he claimed he’d randomly get calls where Singer would urgently need to know the current state of understanding of nociception in some particular species of shellfish. So that he could decide whether they could, morally, be eaten. So yes, “minimize suffering” was absolutely at the forefront of his mind, and he’s easily one of the top animal rights theorists of the past generation. “Sympathize with things similar to me” is pretty low on the list for a guy who grants that yeah, sure, you can go ahead and harvest organs from the terminally brain-dead, go nuts.

            But yes, I did mean Schelling point.

          • Well... says:

            Maybe someone should coin a “Peter Singer Law”, something about using Peter Singer as an example for anything being useless because he’s so often the exception that proves the rule.

            Anyway, I wasn’t saying the ethic of “sympathize because more like me” is arbitrary, I was saying the particular point at which we say “enough like me to sympathize” is arbitrary. At first glance, it appears to “cut nature at the joints” by specifying kingdom animalia, but if you look closer, as I guess Singer has, you see it’s not really where the joints are. And I personally am not convinced the joints are anywhere even close to there.

            And yes, most vegetarianism isn’t thoughtfully considered. That’s why I specified about those who make a moral case for vegetarianism, often having to do with minimizing suffering.

    • FrankistGeorgist says:

      Does “the experience of preparing, plating up, forking, chewing, and swallowing diverse tasty foods” extend to hunting and preparing animals? I don’t mean this as a judgment. While I’m a meat-minimizer myself who is perhaps drifting towards vegetarianism, I have killed animals (both hunted and farmed). If anything it deepened my appreciation of meat eating, and I feel obligated to eat with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls as much as the choicest bits.

      • Well... says:

        I have similar sentiments: the meat of animals I’ve caught/hunted is especially deeply appreciated, and care is taken to see that the whole body goes to some productive end. Same goes for vegetables I’ve personally grown.

        Still, even if I buy meat/veggies at the store I earnestly hope the unsold parts are used productively (deliberate composting counts) rather than just thrown out. Given two closely-priced and otherwise equal choices, if one of them bore a badge that said “waste portions of this animal/plant/etc. were composted/used for X” I’d buy that one even if it cost slightly more.

  75. Jack V says:

    I want to separate out “normal purchasing habits” from “boycotts”. Most of the time I’ll buy products I want and just hope that companies choose to produce more of those, and less of other ones. So I’ll buy the vege-chicken wherever it’s available from and look forward to the future where everyone eats sustainable/ethical/no meat and companies have been forced to adapt.

    I feel fatalistic about boycotting, and feel like I can only boycott the WORST things, or things where there’s a big momentum from other people, with any hope of getting anywhere.

    Boycotting companies for something they USED to do feels entirely futile, I don’t think enough people will ever get engaged enough to make a difference. In some cases there should be legal recourse, if what the company did was bad enough.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      There’s also the backlash from boycotts, particularly when they go along tribal lines. When the Blue Tribe boycotted Chick-fil-A because the owners campaigned against gay marriage, the Red Tribe made lines out the door to get them some of God’s Chicken. I guess all of this made a point somehow but it didn’t hurt Chick-fil-A.

    • Garrett says:

      I feel fatalistic about boycotting, and feel like I can only boycott the WORST things, or things where there’s a big momentum from other people, with any hope of getting anywhere.

      If I go with boycotting every place I disagree with on some level, I’ll run out of places to buy stuff. It’s already a challenge.

      • ksdale says:

        I was in college when the whole Chik-fil-a thing happened, and though I disagreed entirely with their politics, I thought, “I love eating Chik-fil-a, and they don’t care at all if I don’t eat there, so who’s really punished by a boycott?” I know that doesn’t make sense from an economic perspective… but it felt like letting their opinions that I already really disagreed with also require me to forgo something that I really enjoyed would be like them stickin’ it to me twice.

    • theredsheep says:

      Given the heavy collateral damage of boycotts, I generally only believe they’re acceptable if the entity being boycotted is doing something I believe should be literally illegal.

      • thisheavenlyconjugation says:

        What collateral damage?

        • Well... says:

          Realistic scenario: poor single vegan nonsmoker mom works as a customer service rep for a company owned by Evil Corporation. Boycott occurs against Evil Corporation. Evil Corporation responds to resulting lack of revenue by closing a bunch of their subsidiaries. Our unwed protagonist is laid off and has no immediate way to feed her kids. (Jonathan Swift suggests feeding on them instead, but this is generally rejected by polite society.)

          • theredsheep says:

            More or less. Most of the people who work for any given entity will have limited say over its policies, and those little people will feel the pinch long before the ones who really control things.

            Also, if your intention is to compel a certain behavior, you are effectively wishing contrary behavior to be illegal, so you really should be consistent.

          • albatross11 says:

            The point of targeting KFC is that it’s a single decisionmaker who might be convinced to change its ways–probably not to become vegan, but at least to (say) require better conditions on the chicken farms they buy from. Protesting/boycotting individual farmers or individual diners is extremely inefficient, because you have to convince thousands/billions of people to change their ways.

          • Hoopdawg says:

            The point of targeting KFC is that it’s a single decisionmaker who might be convinced to change its ways

            And sometimes, it actually works. This is the line of thinking that makes progressive activists support both government and corporate capitalism.

          • thisheavenlyconjugation says:

            I don’t think that makes sense. Two perspectives:
            1. Boycotts are just expressions of changed preferences. In general, this is not regarded as problematic. Suppose the previously fashionable Red Widgets become uncool and consumers switch to Blue Widgets. This may cause Red Widget Co to lose some employees but it would unusual to blame the consumers for acting on their preferences and causing this.

            2. One of the reasons for this is the inverse broken windows fallacy. The money consumers aren’t spending has to go somewhere. To take your example, perhaps the boycotting consumers take their trade to Good Corporation instead, which then expands by employing poor vegan nonsmoker single dad.

          • theredsheep says:

            But boycotts are organized political behavior specifically intended to compel the target to change course. Not comparable to simple changes in fashion, which are the aggregate of tons of individual decisions not undertaken with any aggressive intent towards the merchant in question. Apples and oranges.

  76. andrewducker says:

    I’m really, _really_ sure that “Set out to conquer the world, while murdering millions of people in death camps” is not morally equivalent to “Put a product on the market which is generally considered to be morally acceptable by the majority of the world” (i.e. chicken nuggets).

    Selling cigarettes once you know that they cause cancer is somewhere in-between, but still nowhere near The Holocaust in the deliberately murdering people without their consent stakes.

    • theredsheep says:

      This post was plainly meant as an analogy, not a comparison. That is, he isn’t saying Hitler is morally equivalent to KFC, except in the very limited way of “people who do things I don’t approve of.” He used Hitler as an example absolutely everyone is familiar with, and also because he’s our go-to for symbolic bad people.

      • Aapje says:

        My experience is that most people treat analogies as comparisons of severity and not just of kind. Arguably, the severity changes the kind.

        There may also be good reasons to object, because such comparisons may fairly easily be abused.

        • andrewducker says:

          Thank you. “The severity changes the kind” is exactly the kind of sentence I wish I’d thought of when making the original comment.

          And also, “Doing a thing you know definitely causes nonconsensual harm” is already a different quality from “Doing a thing which is arguably negative, but entirely consensual”.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Yeah, but this is “Moral Thought Experiments 101.” Take the moral question and drive it to an extreme and see if it still holds.

            1. It is wrong to lie.

            2. Is it wrong to lie about whether or not your wife’s dress makes her look fat?

            3. Is it wrong to lie to stop Hitler from murdering ~11 million people?

            Nobody is saying genocide and mass murder are equivalent to hurting your wife’s feelings.

          • RandomName says:

            Is KFC consensual for the chickens? To someone who takes animal rights extremely seriously (I’m not sure if anyone takes it quite this seriously though), the KFC to Hitler comparison is actually pretty spot on.

          • Hoopdawg says:

            Seconding the above. In the case of KFC to Hitler comparison, it’s not the severity that changes the kind. It’s the kind that changes the kind – a moral value of human life compared to chicken’s. Severity is actually distinctly similar (lower on Hitler’s side, if anything).

        • theredsheep says:

          Yeah, but if he used anybody but Hitler (or near equivalent like Stalin, Mao, etc.) he’d run the risk of his audience either saying “who?” or disagreeing that whoever he picked was evil at all. Hitler’s advantage is universally known and agreed evil. He is our stock standard evil trope.

          If Scott used someone else, he could get sidetracked into arguments about, e.g., whether Robert E. Lee was a tragic figure. And it’s hard to establish precise “evil equivalence” between disparate groups. Not being a vegetarian, I don’t see much wrong with KFC beyond their using much the same inhumane farming practices as everyone else, but I do agree that selling tobacco is bad. How bad, though? Is the CEO of Philip Morris as bad as Al Capone? Bernie Madoff? Benedict Arnold? Boss Tweed? Vlad the Impaler? Nero? You could argue about it using various moral theories, but it may or may not lead anywhere interesting, and it’s all a sidetrack anyway.

          Since everybody agrees that Hitler was a nearly unique figure of moral depravity anyway, it seems more reasonable to allow that analogy is distinct from comparison and no, Scott was not declaring moral equivalence between a chicken company and the modern equivalent of Satan.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Yes, this place is so full of contrarians you can’t even pick “absolutely written to be evil fictional characters.” Emperor Palpatine was just trying to save the galaxy from the coming Yuuzhan Vong invasion, and Sauron Did Nothing Wrong: he’s just fighting for orc rights against racist elves and men.

      • gbdub says:

        Aapje makes a good point. But it’s not just severity. I don’t think “KFC and Tyson are definitively evil to the point we should be discussing serious collective punishment” is anything like a consensus, or within a mile of a consensus, outside deep Blue enclaves like the Bay Area. You should probably win the war before you start planning Nuremberg.

      • Jaskologist says:

        The post is using a technique known as “assuming the sale.” He’s getting us to argue about what level of badness KFC is, moving us past the premise of “KFC is bad” without properly examining it.

        I ain’t buying it. There is nothing wrong with killing and eating chickens, and KFC’s business is as morally licit as selling clothing. I’ll even go one step further: vegetarianism is itself indicative of a broken moral compass. It indicates a flawed view of humanity’s worth relative to animals, and is very often used by practitioners to avoid paying attention to the actual moral abominations they support.

        • theredsheep says:

          I took it as him wanting to argue about our approach to people who did bad (by someone’s appraisal) and are now attempting to do good (by someone’s appraisal). And I see no point in vegetarianism either. Presumably the point would still hold if he were examining an example that worked from a Red perspective, like a Planned Parenthood phasing out abortions to focus on adoption

        • thisheavenlyconjugation says:

          There is nothing wrong with killing and eating chickens

          The strongest argument for vegetarianism (or veganism or similar) is not that killing animals is wrong, but that most animals farmed for food live in terrible conditions.

          • profgerm says:

            most animals farmed for food live in terrible conditions.

            That sounds more like an argument for better farming practices, less Tyson and more Polyface, rather than an argument for veganism. Why is it you think the opposite? Or perhaps, why do you think the conclusion is “so, go vegan” instead of “so, buy your meat from someone respectable”?

          • edmundgennings says:

            It is difficult for consumers to verify the actual conditions the animals were raised in. Words like cage free are easily exploited.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            1. How could I find something like Polyface in my area?

            2. Which claims are the most important for animal welfare? This is somewhat subjective, but even knowing which terms mean what helps.

            *EDIT* I didn’t realize that Polyface was Joel Salatin’s farm. In some ways that’s cool, but the problem is that there are very few Salatins in the world.

          • thisheavenlyconjugation says:

            Yes, it’s definitely not obvious that this argument proves the need for veg*anism rather than better conditions for farm animals. The former does have various advantages: for instance more symbolic power, less bookkeeping needed on the part of the consumer, and lower risk of making ethical mistakes by consuming misleadingly-labelled products. But someone’s desire for meat could certainly outweigh these. However, I think most veg*ans who are persuaded solely by this argument and/or are of the EA bent rather than of the kind that anthropomorphises heavily would look favourably on someone who eats meat but only from genuinely good sources.

          • profgerm says:


            1. Good question, I don’t personally know of any central listings for high-quality farms. My favorite I met at the local farmer’s market and got to know them. You could try WWOOF as a starting point, which is more like an internship/training site, but does list organic farms by region

            And yes, there are unfortunately few Salatins.

        • Matt M says:

          I ain’t buying it. There is nothing wrong with killing and eating chickens, and KFC’s business is as morally licit as selling clothing.

          See, my issue is less this, and more of a “shifting of blame from the most blameworthy to the most visible.”

          Even if you believe that factory chicken farming is a moral abomination… guess what… KFC is not a business that factory farms chickens. They purchase chickens from farms, and cook them, and serve them to hungry people. Worst case scenario, they are guilty by association for purchasing factory farmed products.

          But the actual chicken farmers themselves really are doing the evil thing you hate. So why not go protest them? Because they aren’t as well known? What a cheap cop-out!

          • Tuesday says:

            If we’re in a discussion about boycotts, then the only way for average consumer Joe to boycott / pressure the evil factory farms is through KFC et al.

            I’m not a vegetarian, I don’t see KFC as evil, etc., hell I’m not even particularly averse to dictatorial government, but I’m happy to consider this whole discussion on its own terms.

          • Matt M says:

            And that’s fine. I don’t expect vegetarians to eat at KFC.

            But what KFC actually does is essentially a three-step process:

            1. Buy chicken from farms (which may or may not raise chickens in poor conditions)
            2. Cook/prepare the chicken for human consumption
            3. Sell prepared chicken to those who eat meat

            KFC itself does not do any of the things that vegetarians strictly object to. It may purchase factory farmed chicken, but it doesn’t factory farm. It may sell chicken to meat eaters, but it doesn’t eat meat. It is the least deserving of public scorn than anyone else in the entire value chain (including its meat-eating customers).

          • Tuesday says:

            I really don’t get your thinking on this. KFC is a link in the evil supply chain (‘evil’ here means ‘evil to a vegetarian’). KFC is also the only link in that supply chain that the regular vegetarian consumer can actually boycott, and can pressure / persuade their non-vegetarian friends to boycott*. Whether it “deserves public scorn” compared to the other links in that supply chain is rather beside the point.

            * The vegetarian could also try to persuade their friends to go vegetarian as well, but I imagine it’s a lot more difficult than getting them to avoid KFC.

          • Matt M says:

            Maybe we’re getting hung up on semantics here, but from my view, a vegetarian cannot “boycott” KFC, because a vegetarian doesn’t even want KFC’s products in the first place.

            Suggesting that a vegetarian is “boycotting” KFC is like suggesting that I’m “boycotting” eating raw crickets. I mean it’s true in the sense that I don’t buy and consume raw crickets. But that’s not out of some organized effort to engage in political protest. It’s out of the fact that I don’t want any.

            So put aside boycotts for a second and focus on organized protest. Like, showing up with a sign and chanting shameful slogans at people. I’d say, if you’re into animal welfare, the people you should be mad at are, in some approximate order:

            1. The people who raise animals in horrid conditions
            2. The people who actually kill animals
            3. The people who consume animal products
            4. The people who convert raw animal products into cooked animal products

            KFC are the people least deserving of shame here. They aren’t the ones torturing animals. They aren’t the ones killing animals. They aren’t the ones eating animals. They simply cook. And vegetarians don’t oppose cooking. Transforming a raw chicken breast into a cooked chicken breast is not an immoral act under any sort of code of values that I’m aware of…

          • Tuesday says:

            In the original post, Scott mentions KFC’s plan to roll out a new line of vegetarian / vegan options. So that’s where I was coming from with the “vegetarians boycott KFC” thing, because they’ll (probably) soon be able to. (And many probably will do so). So boycotts absolutely are relevant here. Substitute “Tyson” for “KFC” if it’d make things clearer.

            As for public protest, the point is to protest publicly (I know, great insight from me there). Where are the protests supposed to happen? Outside some chicken farm out in the middle of nowhere, where they’ll just get ignored to death by the farmers? No, you do it in the most visible location, which leads us right back to the KFC. There, they’ll get way more attention, not to mention the fact that they might actually shame some potential customers away from getting that good ol’ fried chicken fix. (Or the potential customers won’t want to interact at all with the protests and avoid going in for that reason. Either way the protests have their effect.)

            Again, “which link of the chain deserves how much blame” is not part of the process at all. The point is to attack the supply chain as a whole, and you do that by going after whatever link is available.

          • They purchase chickens from farms, and cook them, and serve them to hungry people.

            And the hungry people buy them, so if KFC is evil for buying the chickens from those who raise them, the customers of KFC are similarly evil.

            Indeed, arguably more evil. If KFC stopped selling chicken but the customers still wanted to buy chickens, they would buy them from someone else and about the same number of chickens would be factory farmed. If the customers stopped buying chickens and KFC continued to try to sell them, the number of chickens factory farmed would go down.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            If you thought eating chickens was evil[1], you would think every component of the chain was evil.

            There is an exception: if KFC can deliver chickens in a slightly less evil way, they can improve the system by being part of it. (We then have to go through the Copenhagen Ethics debate for all the new visitors to the topic, but such is life.)

            And, in fact, there is evidence that consumers can get the major chains to do things that are slightly less evil. KFC and Purdue have the clout to enforce marginally better conditions of the chickens they raise. As with most things where we’ve previously been optimizing along just one axis (cost in this case), I expect there are things which would noticeably improve the lived experienced of the chickens [1] while only marginally increasing the cost.

            [1] What this means is its own discussion. To start, I go for the “does the chicken get to live pretty much like a wild chicken would?”, with bonus points for a merciful slaughter.

      • Paul Zrimsek says:

        Even so, when the bad people you’re talking about are non-vegetarians it’s a bit maladroit to pick Hitler as the the Symbolic Bad Person.

    • Ketil says:

      It’s not just severity. The dictator is in a position of negotiation, and holds bargaining power proportional to actual power. Like has been pointed out, and ousted or capitulated dictator gets punished.

      The company did something that was completely acceptable fifty years ago that we, the Concerned Citizens, disapprove of today. There is no way the company can update its past to match current idealists. Punishing evil corporations quickly deteriorates into rule by lynch mob, and I don’t like it one bit. Punish corporations through law, and if you don’t think the laws suffice, then work to have them changed. Obviously, law doesn’t equal justice, as nothing stops the mob from enacting unjust laws if they can get a sufficient majority – c.f. Hitler again, but at least there are a few principles applied. The mob just attaches itself to whatever compelling narrative, and heads roll haphazardly.

  77. Rachael says:

    “If Hitler, when the war turned against him, quit the Nazism industry and opened a matzah bakery, would you buy his matzah?”

    No, because they might be poisoned (probably with small doses so that all his customers don’t immediately drop dead in an obvious way).

    This isn’t an issue in the tobacco or KFC cases, because their wrongs don’t involve ideological dislike of their potential customers.

  78. brmic says:

    1) I think the offer only makes sense in the context of the dictator being in power and interested in keeping it. I would not extend it to dictators that left because they were done dictatoring or forced out.

    2) The main reason not to eat KFC’s vegetarian option is that their competitors for that same option don’t have a sideline in animal cruelty and usually are also more comitted to ethical practices elsewhere. The veg+ free range alternative to KFC would probably have to close if it turned out it abused its workers or the meat wasn’t actually free range or anything else dubious [extrinsic motivation] and also usually is run and staffed by people who care about these things [intrinsic motivation]. Neither is true for KFC. So unless I’m willing to dig deep into the business practices of either company, the KFC competitor a priori has a much higher likelihood of having the kind of business practices I want to support. ‘Punishment for past behavior’ doesn’t enter into it, except that ‘the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior’.
    That said, if a group I’m in ends up at KFC for whatever reason, I’d have no problem ordering their veg option.

  79. siwhyatt says:

    Hmm, very interesting conundrums.

    My initial intuition was that company vs person is not a fair comparison. I think we often make the mistake of personifying corporations, when in fact there’s not really such a thing as ACME Ltd. 20 years down the line, after mergers, take overs, CEO replacements, is it really the same ship? That said, one could probably say the same for an individual.

    The big difference, however, is that unlike dictators, companies are generally fulfilling customer demands. I don’t think one can call fast food companies evil. They never forced people to eat their food.

    Industrially farmed meat is terrible, I personally won’t eat it. I think the blame has to be shared equally between producers and consumers however.

    Of course, there is the argument that the companies are evil as they lie to the consumers. They obfuscate the true origins of the meat with photos of quaint looking farms, and covered up the smoking and cancer links for many years.

    Certainly, the employees involved in fraud need to be prosecuted, and the truth exposed. Let then market forces decide the fate of the company. Can and should people trust them again? Do they care?

    The mention of Sara Lee highlights another interesting point. Is this the same as Hitler simply shaving his moustache and calling himself by a new name? Or if the ethos of the team behind it is genuinely totally different, is it more like someone funding a democratic left wing campaign with Nazi gold?

    If you have an ethical start up that you know can benefit society, should you accept venture capital from a source that has a dubious moral history?

  80. ckrf says:

    I voted “Not sure / it’s complicated” on the first poll question (dictators) because, if I were the opposition leader managing the transition, I would do opposite things in two different scenarios:

    1. If there was a negotiation to get the dictator to step down, I would offer him a safe way out, and honor it. That seems like it would minimize the chance of first-order worse outcomes, like massacres or the defeat of the democracy movement. There would be second-order disadvantages, like political fallout and increased risk of future dictatorships, but I think because the future is so hard to predict, you should heavily focus on short-term, concrete causal pathways. Eliezer probably has some principle here.

    2. If there had been no negotiation and the dictator was unseated by a coup, for example, I would put him on trial. There doesn’t seem to be a clear benefit to our country of letting him go. Other countries might benefit, but I don’t think dictators in other countries will pay that much attention. I would however be concerned about future would-be dictators in my country, and I would want to dissuade them from trying.

    • Aapje says:

      Indeed. The pardon should be dependent on the dictator stepping down with the express purpose of creating a democracy.

      It is also very questionable whether the mere fact that a person is a dictator, rather than a very murderous one, should merit imprisonment. A decent case can be made that some countries don’t have the culture or institutions to currently support a democracy. In fact, introduction of democracy can precipitate a genocide or such. In that case, is being a dictator evil in itself?

      • albatross11 says:

        It’s hard to make the dictator-retirement-plan idea work, but it might save a lot of lives if we could.

    • Deiseach says:

      I was inclined to vote “trial” at first but then switched to “it’s complicated” because of the phrasing: the dictator is retiring. So he’s voluntarily stepping down, or if being forced out of power, it’s not in a situation of an armed conflict (yet; presumably the pressure being applied is “step down now before we storm the palace, drag you out by the heels, and hang you from the nearest lamp post”).

      So in that case, going to trial might make the situation worse; right now, you’ve got some kind of peaceful transition of regime, no matter how tenuous, whereas a trial would rile up one side (the victims) versus another (the dictator/his administration/his tribespeople who supported him into power with their guns) and might kick off a shooting war.

      I’m thinking in this instance of the Good Friday Agreement, where in order to get both paramilitary sides to the table and get them to agree to ceasefires and decommissioning of weapons, things like early release of prisoners and an amnesty (which is what it was in effect) for the so-called “on the run” suspects had to be agreed and carried out, to a mixture of public outrage (that terrorists should walk free) and acceptance (that you had to give up tribal vengeance and if the guys on your side went free, so would the guys on the other side, for the sake of the sunrise).

      I was born in Londonderry
      I was born in Derry City too
      Oh what a special child
      To see such things and still to smile
      I knew that there was something wrong
      But I kept my head down and carried on

      I grew up in Enniskillen
      I grew up in Inis Ceithleann too
      Oh what a clever boy
      To watch your hometown be destroyed
      I knew that I could not stay long
      So I kept my head down and carried on

      Who cares where national borders lie?
      Who cares whose laws you’re governed by?
      Who cares what name you call a town?
      Who’ll care when you’re six feet beneath the ground?

      From the corner of my eye
      A hint of blue in the black sky
      A ray of hope, a beam of light
      An end to thirty years of night
      The church bells ring, the children sing
      What is this strange and beautiful thing?
      It’s the sunrise
      Can you see the sunrise?
      I can see the sunrise
      It’s the sun rising

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      yes, same here. I was thinking the exact same thing and gave the same answer. I don’t think it was a great poll.

  81. FlorianDietz says:

    Back when KFC was established, nothing about them was considered immoral. They have simply taken a while to adapt to changing social norms. Better late than never. There is no good reason for a boycott.

    • ChrisA says:

      Is it now conclusively proven that eating meat is evil? I would guess that only a very small minority think this. Adapting a rule that says people who eat meat are evil is going to cause quite a bit of trouble. Personally I am quite troubled I must say by the casual equivalence of a restaurant selling meat with what Hitler did. I don’t think most people would consider them in the same moral universe, even if they were vegans.

      • johan_larson says:

        I would guess that very few people found KFC’s poultry farming practices immoral back when they were founded, but now a significant (though still relatively small) portion do.

        I have to admit the more I learn about modern animal husbandry practices, the less I like them. But meat is delicious and I am lazy.

        • Gabriel Conroy says:

          I have to admit the more I learn about modern animal husbandry practices, the less I like them. But meat is delicious and I am lazy.

          That’s roughly my position. I find factory farming morally questionable (at best), but I still eat meat and most of that meat is probably factory farmed. I’d also eat KFC if there was one in easy reach.

          • benwave says:

            @gabriel, johan, How easy is it to switch to free-range meats from factory farmed ones where you live? Where I live they’re available pretty widely in supermarkets. You do pay a premium for them but I’ve found it pretty doable as a way to satisfy both my tastes/diet needs and my desire to reduce animal cruelty

          • Gabriel Conroy says:


            It’s probably pretty easy where I live, and I’m fortunate to have enough resources to pay more if I wanted to. So for me, it’s (mostly) laziness.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          A quick google suggests that factory farming of chickens started after 1965, so it might well be more inhumane today.

      • Paul Zrimsek says:

        I seem to see a lot of this sort of thinking lately. Call it “triumphalism without the triumph”.

      • profgerm says:

        Consider the source. Or perhaps more accurately, consider the culture surrounding the source. Given some of the aspects of said culture, namely puritanical tendencies and non-mainstream moralities, I don’t think the comparison should be that surprising at all.

        And it would be hard to prove conclusively. Personally I prefer more humane farming practices to that of KFC, and I pay more for my hipster-chicken because of it. I’m also slightly suspicious of the lab-produced meat replacements, for reasons related to “unknown unknowns,” micronutrients, etc.

        But if someone says “I don’t believe non-primates (or other distinction that excludes chickens) have moral standing” a lot of arguments about it go up in smoke. They only work on people already mostly in agreement about the matter.

      • Rand says:

        There isn’t a “casual equivalence of a restaurant selling meat with what Hitler did”. Scott, recall, is not (completely/yet?) a vegetarian, but he is firmly in the anti-Hitler camp. It’s simply that Hitler is a common subject for philosophical thought experiments, since he is broadly recognized as an evil figure. And, in particular, there are philosophical debates about allowing Hitler to quietly retire to an island that help distinguish between different philosophies of justice. (This isn’t the dilemma here, but there are echoes.)

        So no: Eating meat (/killing non-human animals) isn’t conclusively proven (or even widely accepted) to be evil. This post is simply operating under the assumption that it is, though it makes no assumptions about how evil.

        (My own stance: It is impossible to prove that eating meat is evil; there is no correct answer to “is eating meat evil?”; and I generally behave as though eating meat were evil with respect to my own dietary practices and not much else.)

      • JoeCool says:

        I think many vegans would totally think that, which is a very wild thing when you think about it.

  82. Vallet13 says:

    I don’t see this as equivalent to “What should we do to Hitler when he retires voluntarily?”, but more like “After D-Day Hitler commits to rebuilding some parts of eastern Europe should we support him?”. He is still running concentration camps and spewing out racist, fascist propaganda.
    KFC will still continue to have factory farmed chicken as their core business and most likely will lobby and advertise as much as possible to keep this business alive. If I buy their vegan things, some of this money is likely to go to these propaganda efforts. As long as there are other companies which do not have an interest in keeping animal agriculture alive buying vegan things from businesses with meat as a core business is at least counterfactually bad and might even be negative overall for the progress of plant-based foods.

    • fion says:

      KFC will still continue to have factory farmed chicken as their core business and most likely will lobby and advertise as much as possible to keep this business alive.

      But isn’t that the point? That maybe if their vegan chicken is successful enough they might find it more profitable than their factory farmed chickens and they eventually won’t have factory farmed chickens as their core business?

      • Vallet13 says:

        It is, but my thesis is that the output of change towards complete veganism is less per money spent than if you’d spent it at some vegan fast food place.
        If current trends continue they will at some point have to switch their core business to plant-based products, but until this point comes they have an interest in delaying it’s coming as much as possible and will use their income for this. For us as a consumer, it doesn’t matter much if KFC switches to plant-based chicken wings or gets replaced by a plant-based chicken wing restaurant chain. So if we want to maximise plant-based foods consumed as soon as possible choosing to buy from restaurants which already have it as their core business instead of KFC or similar is more supportive of our goal.

        • RicardoCruz says:

          If current trends continue they will at some point have to switch their core business to plant-based products

          Changes are gradual. Today, it’s 1% of revenue, then 20%, etc. There is no “switch”.

        • Dack says:

          For us as a consumer, it doesn’t matter much if KFC switches to plant-based chicken wings or gets replaced by a plant-based chicken wing restaurant chain.

          Sure it does. Does it taste better? Does it cost more? Those are going to be the top two concerns (by a wide margin) of a supermajority of consumers. Make imitation chicken taste better and cost less than real chicken and your battle wins itself.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Check the comment you responded to again. That wasn’t part of the distinction between the two situations.

            There’s no end difference if people are buying their plant-based chicken from KFC or buying it from Brand-New-Never-Served-Real-Chicken Company.

          • Dack says:

            The point was rather that that end seems unlikely rather than inevitable (because it would require an imitation product to simultaneously be higher quality and less expensive.)

            I’d wager the backers of Crystal Pepsi thought all beverages would inevitably be clear.

        • Ghillie Dhu says:

          So if we want to maximise plant-based foods consumed as soon as possible choosing to buy from restaurants which already have it as their core business instead of KFC or similar is more supportive of our goal.

          It’s at least conceivable that KFC’s greater operational expertise would enable them to suffuse the country with imitation dinosaur sooner than a new firm still trying to figure out scaling issues.

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            It’s at least conceivable that KFC’s greater operational expertise would enable them to suffuse the country with imitation dinosaur sooner than a new firm still trying to figure out scaling issues.

            As long as they’re not serving imitation chicken feet, they should be fine.

            … I’ll get my coat.

        • albatross11 says:

          Are there popular vegan fast food places?

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          +1 to this. Don’t forget that having good vegetarian options enable a crowd with 1 vegetarian to go to KFC.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      There is nothing about KFC that locks them into “factory-farmed” chicken. Major food providers are capable of switching to more humane methods of raising their meat, while still serving meat. (McDonald’s switched away from rain-forest meat, and away from polystyrene, under consumer pressure.)

      I have tried to figure out which meats are really more humane than others. It is hard because a large component of the people I would ask will just say that any animal treatment is inhumane, as if I am the one who just needs to hear the sermon one more time.

  83. shakeddown says:

    I think I’d go with the “maintain order, and maybe try to push it a little” position. A non-vegetarian-friendly KFC doesn’t really have to worry about boycotts for its animal-rights treatment – there aren’t that many vegetarians, and they don’t eat there anyway, and we don’t really have an established norm in society that eating meat is evil. So directly punishing KFC doesn’t matter.

    That doesn’t mean we can’t shift social norms so that it would – but it would first involve making animal cruelty an issue more people care about, so that KFC at least know they’re violating a (possibly weak) norm. *Then*, we can start punishing norm-breakers.

    Similarly on the dictator question – I’d say a prerequisite for punishing the dictator is that we have anti-dictatorship norms set in the first place. This means it makes sense to punish Hitler (who was in 20th century Europe, with anti-dictatorship norms) but not, say, punish Aragorn for not allowing democracy (it’s not even a concept in his world, let alone a norm that it’s common knowledge he’s violating).

    • RicardoCruz says:

      20th century Europe, with anti-dictatorship norms

      Can any historian confirm this?
      I am Portuguese, and we learn that during the 20s and 30s, communism and fascism were on the rise. Liberalism and republicanism were on the rise during the 18th and the 19th century, but during the beginning of the 20th century many countries turned to some form of socialism autocracy: Portugal and all our allies (Spain, Italy, Brazil) became authoritarian. In school, we don’t learn much about countries that were not our allies, but I know that at least Russian became communist. Didn’t more countries across Europe become authoritarian also?

      In any case, I agree with the point you are trying to make.

      • jumpinjacksplash says:

        Nope, inter-war Europe was full of dictatorships. Just prior to Anschluss (when the number of countries starts falling:

        12 Democracies:
        UK, Ireland, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Luxembourg

        15 Dictatorships:
        Italy, Austria, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, USSR, Albania, Danzig

        Romania was hard to classify and swung back and forth (we’d probably now call it a “hybrid regime”). I’ve also excluded the micro-states, even though San Marino was a fascist dictatorship, because a dictatorship where everyone was at high school with the dictator and lives within walking distance of the border is frankly silly.

        • shakeddown says:

          Questions of greater Europe aside, my impression from high school history was that Hitler did a lot of shady palpatine-esque things to seize supreme power. Or was that seen as a legitimate way to change the government structure at the time (like, say, making Puerto Rico a state would be, rather than like declaring yourself US president for life).

    • AnthonyC says:

      That doesn’t mean we can’t shift social norms so that it would – but it would first involve making animal cruelty an issue more people care about, so that KFC at least know they’re violating a (possibly weak) norm. *Then*, we can start punishing norm-breakers.

      I think this is an underused strategy. It reminds me of a number of places that use something like this as a regulatory strategy. The EU, especially, sometimes has rules that basically say, “We’re banning X, but you can apply for waivers that last until you or one of your competitors finds a viable way to make do in your industry without X. Once that happens, everyone is required to adopt the alternative(s).” You don’t want to punish people until they have been told they’re in the wrong, and shown a way to do better, and still chosen not to.

  84. Said Achmiz says:

    The first question of the poll asks:

    An evil dictator retires. After his country becomes a democracy, it should:

    Scott, what are some (let’s say, three) examples of an “evil dictator” retiring, and his country immediately thereafter becoming a democracy? How many times has this ever happened, in history?

    (Note the italicized parts; I am asking about cases where all of these have held.)

    • Doug says:


    • ckrf says:

      Good one, Doug.

      Also, Indira.

      • Noah says:

        Well, in her case, what the democratic country decided to do is reelect her. Makes you wonder.

    • Kuiperdolin says:

      While he hardly ruled as a dictator himself, Juan Carlos of Spain inherited his power from Franco and immediately liberalized the regime. Spain seems to have followed Scott’s startegy (and gone further) : he’s been kept as Head of State (in a mostly ceremonial role) and can maintain an expensive lifestyle.

      I don’t know that Spain is worse for it.

      • niohiki says:

        In case anyone hears about it, there is a position that says that because there was no “revolution” (violent or Portuguese-style) a lot of “hidden Franco-ism” remains in the country, in the form of structures of power and people who remained in key institutional positions.

        I personally think that the most properly fascist traits of the regime were already gone by the late years, maybe because of the US influence (who merrily kept the regime in place in exchange for a nice place to have military bases) but for sure mostly due to the increased power of Opus Dei. Their mentality is, and was, much closer to what is now associated with conservativism (from Catholic faith to personal responsibility in earthly matters, and some corresponding economic freedom) than to the Spanish fascists (Falange), who actually disliked Opus Dei, keeping them away in the early years even with accusations of being part of freemasonry. Some say that the economic disaster of the fascist recipes led Opus Dei to regain power within the regime, and their slightly more open (if still deeply conservative) policies permitted the kind of social change (and economic improvements) that led to the transition to democracy.

        Of course, a lot of these values of the late years (and those holding them) remained through the transition, but since they are not really the original Falangist values, but rather a part of the messy social dynamics that got Spain to kind of open and catch up with the rest of Europe, it is harder to say, as some claim, that the “dictatorship never ended”. Instead, Spain keeps a lot of very conservative values/tribes, that I cannot find at all more radical in their conservativeness that plenty of sectors of the current US Republican party (that everybody knows to be a descendant of the Franco regime). Those values have also been eroded over the democratic decades (with a small resurgence lately, part of the current European right-wing wave) and I think now Spain is much closer to standard west-european social-democratic values.

        Seeing how “previous regime values” can clearly survive shocking regime changes (say, the “Tsarist” style that has gone straight from Nicholas to Stalin to Putin through a communist revolution and the fall of the Soviet block), I’d say that Spain’s evolution has not been bad at all.

        In all, what I want to tell is that these changes are way too complicated to demand something like “immediately thereafter becoming a democracy“, but that I am nonetheless very happy that nobody had the brilliant idea in 1970 to suddenly “liberate” Spain the hard way, replenish the regime’s ideological ammunition, and surely result in its prolongation.

        • Murphy says:

          From talking to my brother who lives in spain, the country still has a lot of police state elements and a lot of suppression of dissent.

          Publishers of pro-basque newspapers have been interned, held for many months or years before trial… which typically finds them innocent but the point was holding them before trial because it’s remarkable how disappearing for an extended period can screw up your life.

          Due to the way the legal system there works people have very limited or no right to compensation in such cases.

          There’s a lot of poverty outside Madrid, partly because under Franco a lot of the countries wealth was siphoned away towards the capital.

          A lot of the conflicts between the regions and the central government still stem from effects of Franco’s rule.

          But overall it could be a lot worse.

        • ana53294 says:

          There’s a lot of poverty outside Madrid, partly because under Franco a lot of the countries wealth was siphoned away towards the capital.

          There was no intentional government siphoning of the wealth to Madrid. It just happens that corporations have to have their headquarters somewhere, and Madrid is the most convenient place for headquarters. Which means they pay taxes in Madrid for activity from all Spain.

          What happened was that the government did nothing to stop the flows of money and people from the Spanish interior towards Madrid, the Basque Country and Catalunya (the last two were part of an intentional policy of spanicizing them).

        • niohiki says:

          I come from Galicia myself, so I am not unaware of the economic differences between the regions of Spain. I found myself disagreeing with @ana53294 that the government was a purely passive actor in all this (why would it be? It is a government, it should definitely act on its interests). But then her final remark about the capital flow to the Basque Country and Catalunya hits the bullseye. Those are the two most heavily industrialized regions of Spain (heavy as industry can be in the country). There can be a cultural component to the financial prowess of both regions, but heavy industries (such as metallurgic or car manufacturing) have the hand of the state all over them, and it is more than obvious that the capital flow towards them happened (happens) in direct proportion to their ability to disrupt national politics.

          Some call it “blackmail”, although it honestly seems like politics 101 to me. But it makes me dislike this notion of Franco sending money to Madrid. First, because regions like Galicia, Murcia or the like are still notably poor, and yet this very year got cuts in the national budget, while more money is dedicated to the above-average regions of Catalunya and the Basque country. Second, because this happens now, and it happened under Franco, and it happened before. Franco was a terrible thing, and his and his regime’s many crimes include repressive laws, summary executions, political imprisonments, the early autarky, the famines that followed, and a long list of worse stuff. But the inter-region economical dynamics started way before that, and are still happening today. So I do not like it when modern-day politicians/activists/pundits tell me that the only reason the poor parts of Spain are poor is Franco’s legacy, as if there was nothing to be fixed today.

          Going back to the point of the extended influence of dictatorships. Nationalism in the Basque country actually starts with a succession war. Those who lost (Carlists) had a strong presence in the north, and also favoured a more feudal (or at least regionalistic) view of the kingdom. From that, early nationalism (arguably with Sabino Arana, late 19th) was born. Also from that, this nationalism was, and is, highly conservative, catholic, and economically liberal. Of course any obvious relation to any nationalism during the dictatorship was a way to end with your bones in prison, since that’s what dictatorships do. But after under democracy, conservative nationalism (PNV, Basque Nationalist Party) has been the main political force in the Basque country, they have set the course of their own affairs with more autonomy than any other region (except maybe Navarra, who are under similar influences), and they are usually a key player in Spanish politics. Nationalist conservative thinkers and intellectuals have spoken out as loud as they wanted, and whatever dislike and stereotypes Spain has of them they have of Spain. Life goes on.

          Now, left nationalism is a different, very specific issue, and I am pretty sure that these cases you mention in the Basque country are not just “pro-basque”, but specifically “abertzale”. This did grow under Franco, propelled by the socialism-as-antifascism narratives coming from Europe, conveniently mixed with regionalistic ideas. Because young people feeling like making history are happier to go along with violence, ETA appears. Franco has no problem with stomping anyone with connections to left nationalism, which just fuels the flames. Then Franco dies, Spain begins to get the whole democracy thing going, but ETA already has its narrative and its not planning to go away any time soon. Sure enough, democratic Spain handles this not in exactly the best way, often overreacting (and sometimes instead compromising if that would give an electoral edge). But in some way it has to react to a terrorist group, or else innocents die. And so the worst thing (in my opinion) done under Spanish democracy in the name of the fight against ETA were the GAL. This was a government-sponsored paramilitary group that went around executing whoever they thought was suspicious of being a part of ETA. With the obvious result that sometimes they were wrong, etc etc, that’s why rule of law, that’s why tribunals, that’s why human rights, you know it. The little detail here is: the government that created the GAL were the socialists, a party whose name includes socialist, and whose membership under Franco could have given you a no-return ticket to the side of some abandoned road.

          Many stupid and evil things are done by established democracies under the excuse of fighting terrorism, crime, or some other vague threat. How many fundamental freedoms were stripped, how many lives destroyed, and for which reasons, under the McCarthyist purges? How the hell can anyone condone Gantanamo Bay “because its mostly people from other countries”? How can one justify the arbitrary conditions under which many blacks are arrested and judged in modern US? How is it in any way sensible to send a Parachute Regiment to counter (…kill) civilian protesters in Northern Ireland? How is it even possible to do it immediately again? And, if we are to believe in the necessary implication of the dictatorship to explain current events in the Basque country, how was any of this possible in long-standing democracies that have public discourses obsessed with “freedom”?

          At this point, if you are thinking “well that’s irrelevant, because you cannot just arbitrarily arrest people, whether you have the excuse of a previous dictatorship or not”, you are completely right. And you’ve hit the key point: the dictatorship is not an excuse, and probably not even a cause.

          This discussion is about whether Spain significantly still lives under the “influence” of Franco, and in general, how much can a country move on after a peaceful transition to democracy. Too often I hear that this or that problem is still “the dictatorship’s fault”, as if a) the only solution to the problem is to keep singing antifa songs and b) our side is by definition incapable of doing anything evil, as we are not the political descendants of the evil dictatorship. This mode of thinking is frightening because it is exactly the mode of thinking that makes, say, a socialist government set up a bunch of death squads since they are doing it for the right reasons.

          • ana53294 says:

            I disagree that the government was a purely passive actor in all this (why would it be? It is a government, it should definitely act on its interests).

            And if it is in the government’s interest to not do anything, because economic forces are acting in its interests (poor Spaniards leaving their poor regions and going to rich Basque or Catalan regions, thus spanicizing those regions), then it is in the government’s interest to not stop migration flows by, e.g., investing in the industrialization of Extremadura.

            When I think of the government actively stripping resources from the countryside so they go to other places, I think of Stalin and the Holodomor, the collectivization of farmland in the USSR and China; the government actively taking stuff away from people.

            I am not a fan of Franco, but I have to acknowledge that except for a few Republicans here and there, Franco did not take away people’s property or land (and when he did, it usually went to loyal franquist relatives). He did have a tendency to take a few nice things for himself (Pazo de Meiras, statues from Santiago), but his regime did not strip possessions from the Spanish countryside so they went to Madrid. And neither did the taxes of, say, Extremadura go to Madrid. In fact, Madrid is a net giver of taxes to other regions.

            The trouble is, you have to invest a lot of money into the poor regions of Spain, because if you do nothing, all the people, industries and resources will leave. So by doing nothing, great harm can be done.

            In the Basque country, the closing of the metal works, and especially Altos Hornos Vizcaya in the post Franco era, was catastrophic (and there was a huge demographic bust there). Only active investment by the Basque government prevented future decline.

    • fluffyribbit says:

      Didn’t King George do this?

    • AlesZiegler says:

      Czechoslovakia and whole host of other formerly communist countries in 1989.

    • niohiki says:

      And in these examples, relevantly, it was not that the dictator thought up a plan to turn the country into a democracy – of course he would not. It was just pretty obvious that people were not really in the mood any more, and things were allowed to roll with the times because it was the easy way to go. Which is exactly what happens with companies that adapt -with lag- to society’s values.

    • Hackworth says:

      The German Democratic Republic (aka East Germany)

    • MadRocketSci2 says:

      Any Roman dictator (originators of the term!) during the Republic. (Well, except the last two.)

      That’s 400 years of dictators very emphatically retiring after their term of service.

      • niohiki says:

        In all fairness, that’s playing with words. The context was “unelected autocrat”=>”representative system” and the implied regime change.

        • Protagoras says:

          Yeah, the ancient version would be looking for examples of tyrants who retired and were followed by democracies. Let’s see, Aristomachos of Argos (seems to be arguable, and seems to have eventually changed his mind about retirement), Pittacus of Mytilene (though he was initially elected, so doesn’t seem like much of an autocrat), and on a quick search not coming up with any further candidates. Apart from Sulla types who take power briefly to reorganize the government to their liking, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s intended here.

          • niohiki says:

            I’m not exactly an expert in ancient greek history, and those are probably good examples. But Roman republican dictators are not, when there is no regime change at all.

    • Squirrel of Doom says:

      Right, those things don’t happen, because the mental model of a single Dictator holding an otherwise democratically inclined country “prisoner” is not how dictatorships work. These countries *are* dictatorial, and when the current dictator is removed, another will take his place.

      There is a different case, which is when inherently democratic countries are dictatorially ruled by a foreign power. Once the foreign power retreats, democracy can take hold. This is what happened in Eastern Europe when communism fell.

      In reality, the path of a society from being “dictatorial” to being “democratical” is long and complex, and if there is a quick way to describe it, I don’t know what it is. My favorite cynical way to think of it is that money is power, and once you have a wealthy middle class, it will have most of the power, it it will be expressed by democratic elections.

    • Hanfeizi says:

      Pinochet was already mentioned. There’s always something of a transition period, but three other examples come to mind:

      1. Chiang Ching-Kuo of Taiwan. He died in office, but had already considerably reformed the government towards allowance of dissent, a relaxing of martial law and allowing for multiparty governance. Lee Teng-Hui was an appointed successor, but (arguably) acted more like a democratic politician than a military dictator and allowed the transition to complete.

      2. Chun Doo-hwan of South Korea. Took power in a coup following the assassination of Park Chung-hee. Instituted a constitution, under pressure by the military, that would only allow him a single seven-year term. He stepped down at the end of the term, allowing for national elections. He lives in quiet retirement in Seoul (he was put on trial for his coup and a massacre of protestors, but was only briefly imprisoned before being pardoned).

      3. Suharto. Famed for his coup and his brutal massacres of suspected communists (totaling more than a million deaths), Indonesia began a pretty rapid democratic transition after his retirement in 1998, with his successor only serving for one year before holding general elections; he lived a quiet retirement in Jakarta and was given a state funeral on his death 10 years later, and is still widely admired in Indonesia for building the country into a modern state.

      So there are a few examples.

      It’s telling, though, that all three are US allies.

  85. fluffyribbit says:

    A wrinkle: things are a bit different for a dictator who took power themselves, like Hitler, and one who inherited it, like Kim. I think I might still give the offer to Hitler, but I’m much more inclined to give it to Kim. I mean, what perverse incentive am I trying to avoid? Try not to be born the son of a dictator?

    • Jon Gunnarsson says:

      Kim Jong-un is not just some guy who happened to innocently inherit the post of dictator from his father. North Korea doesn’t have primogeniture and Jong-un was chosen over his older brothers because he was thought to be more suitable to rule. He secured his power by murdering his uncle and probably also had his half-brother killed.

      • Aapje says:

        Supposedly, he is not very smart. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kim Yo-jong is the person who is really in charge.

        • John Schilling says:

          Supposedly, he is not very smart. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kim Yo-jong is the person who is really in charge.

          Kim Jong-Un appears to be the person who is really in charge.

          Beyond that, this discussion should probably be rescheduled until everyone has had a chance to read “The Great Successor“. Pretty much everything you think you know about Kim Jong-Un comes to you from journalists who were just in it for the clicks; Fifield is one of the very few who ever took the North Korean regime seriously and tried to figure out what was really going on.

          I’m only partway through and I had it preordered. May give a summary here when I’m finished.

          • C_B says:

            Checking in for “I’m probably not going to buy this book, but would be excited to read your effortpost about it.”

          • Aapje says:

            @John Schilling

            Kim Jong-Un appears to be the person who is really in charge.

            Yeah, but to what extent is the information he gets filtered are his advisers consistently pushing him in a certain direction?

            I’m interested in your review.

      • jumpinjacksplash says:

        But he was raised in an environment without non-dictatorial role-models, and never had the non-dictatorial opportunities that non-dictators had! Society expected him to become a dictator so he became one!

        On a serious note, I’d be inclined to cut him enough slack to allow him to retire to an island. He was raised/groomed to rule North Korea and rule it in a certain way, with the background assumption that this was all completely normal/fine. And given his options were 1) murder relatives and become king, or 2) get murdered by relatives as they become king, and then became 1) dismantle regime and get Gadaffi’d or 2) continue ruling North Korea as dictator, I’m not confident I wouldn’t act similarly.

        In Kim’s case, if you give him “dismantle regime and retire to an island” as an option and he takes it, it shows that he wasn’t that bad as a person; the disanalogy with Hitler/Stalin/Saddam etc. is that they’d only have taken the island when enemy tanks were rolling towards the palace.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          “I want to be rich and powerful and everyone has to do what I say!”

          One finger on the monkey’s paw closes…

          Poof, you’re Kim Jong-un. Just saying, if I were that guy I’d be very jealous of say, Saudi Princes. Still rich. Still powerful. But they can crash a supercar on the way to buying their next supercar before flying their G6s to Vegas and banging high end American prostitutes and you’re stuck in North Korea and 96% of the world hates you and would murder you if you set foot outside of it.

        • Aapje says:

          He actually got his education in Switzerland, so he might have had non-dictatorial role models, unless you consider schools in the West to be rather dictatorial (which they might be).

          • Tuesday says:

            From what I read, his social life there was rather constrained in order to preserve his ability / desire to take the North Korean reins.

            Also, I really don’t see why retirement and dismantling the regime is considered the only “good” option here. There’s the strong possibility that he might be persuaded into becoming North Korea’s Deng Xiaoping, which would be of huge benefit to basically everyone.

          • John Schilling says:

            I’m pretty sure the North Korean Tank Man winds up being drawn and quartered, by tanks.

            Deng Xiaoping may have been a net good for China overall, but he broke an inordinate number of eggs in making that omelet. And while the general presentation of Kim Jong Un as a cartoon supervillian is in large part clickbait and hype, he genuinely does make Daenerys Targaryen look like Mahatma Gandhi when it comes to mercy and forgiveness towards his (domestic) enemies. Or to those who are just slow to bend the knee, and it’s when a regime starts liberalizing that you see people testing the limits of dissent and protest and general knee-unbending en masse.

            Offering KJU to step down and retire would be a worthy goal; convincing him to do his best Deng Xiaoping imitation would I think be a very dangerous one.

          • Tuesday says:

            @ John Schilling

            Deng Xiaoping may have been a net good for China overall, but he broke an inordinate number of eggs in making that omelet.

            What exactly does “inordinate” mean in this context? Given the disaster and insanity of the Mao regime, it seems to me like Deng managed the transition with a shockingly low body count. Tiananmen Square was a drop in the gigantic river of blood that constitutes 20th century Chinese history.

            And it’s not just China. Almost all of East Asia pulled itself up into modernity and prosperity under dictatorial government (South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore all come to mind).

            I will give you one thing though: Kim will have a much harder time with it, not being a Cold War-era US ally nor being (like China) too big to be seriously threatened by outside powers.

            But I don’t think the answer is to make it even harder for him. His position is: maintain power, or die. That’s the way the regime is set up. I think it will be very, very hard to convince him that ‘safe retirement’ is possible (and we’d have to convince the other cogs in the NK machine). It’s probably easier to convince him that ‘open up, close the labor camps, and we’ll leave you in power’ is possible. China did it. Vietnam did it. Heck, I thought that’s why we had him go to Singapore and Vietnam—so he could see how it might turn out.

          • Jiro says:

            Tank Man was exaggerated by the media. People think he stood in front of the tank to prevent the tank from running over protestors or something similarly nefarious. He didn’t; he did it the day after the massacre when the tanks were returning.

        • Kuiperdolin says:

          The “island” thing helped me make the connection I felt at the back of my mind.


          At the end of the War of the Sixth Coalition, Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated at the Treaty of Fontainebleau. He was soundly beaten but still had the troops and strategic depth to drag things on and be a nuisance. But he did not. As a reward (?) for that, and possibly with the same reasoning as Scott on the part of the Coalition, he was given very generous personal terms : the whole island of Elba, off the Italian coast, as a tinpot principalty, a few thousand subjects to lord over and a government pension paid by the British government, to keep him living in a grand style, under relatively lax supervision.

          It did not work well. After a few months Boney grew restless, escaped back to France and seized the country again. Seventh Coalition tiem.

          Then he got punked again and this time they sent him to St Helena, literaly one of the most remote islands in the world with one (1) access point by ship, in harsh and deliberately demeaning captivity. This time it worked well, he just lingered on in irrelevancy until he croaked.

          Makes u think.

          • The lax supervision was probably the failure point. Maybe we should have a norm of “if you’re a brutal dictator and you willingly give up, we’ll arrange a peaceful and luxurious retirement for you, BUT if you escape and return to your usual business, then the second time we capture you, we will find ways to torture you that balance excruciating pain against keeping you alive as long as possible”.

            We want dictators to believe there is a way out for them, but we simultaneously want them to understand that it isn’t because we are a soft touch, it is absolutely at our behest, and that if they break the terms of the offer, they’ll suffer more than a mere public execution.

          • Tuesday says:

            It’s an interesting comparison, but on the other hand Napoleon was, well, Napoleon: crazy military adventurer par excellence.

            Someone like Kim, whose main objective seems to be keeping his head firmly attached to his shoulders, doesn’t seem likely to try his own Hundred Days.

          • azantium says:

            Napoleon was sent to Elba by treaty in part because the leaders of Europe had no other options by the international laws of the time. Napoleon’s wars weren’t illegal – war, in general, was the right of sovereigns, and Napoleon was a legal sovereign.

            In 1920-something, aggressive war was made illegal, and then with the United Nations, the world built enforcement mechanisms and international law that gives us tools and expectations that did not exist before then. Now it’s possible to imagine Kim Jong Un as someone we could remove because of his crimes.

          • patjab says:

            One of the main motives for Napoleon’s escape from Elba was supposedly that the allies failed to live up to their end of the deal though. His wife and son were kept in Vienna instead of being sent to join him and the new King of France (perhaps understandably) was not keen on paying Napoleon the allowance he had been promised.

            Perhaps the lesson is therefore not so straightforward. If you are going to offer a comfortable retirement to former dictators either make sure it really is as comfortable as you promised OR make damn sure there’s no way for them to escape and return. The mistake in 1814 is they did neither. In 1815 they opted for the latter.

      • Noah says:

        Jong-un was chosen over his older brothers because he was thought to be more suitable to rule.

        Reminds me of a quote from Schwartz’s The Dragon (pardon my translation)

        Henry:….I was taught that way.
        Lancelot: Everyone was taught. But why did you have to be the star pupil, you bastard?

      • Furslid says:

        It’s tough to condemn someone out of actions that could be wholly pragmatic. The only way to survive as a dictator is often to continue being a dictator. If the choice is to kill your uncle or have your uncle kill you, I’m not sure what I’d advise. Especially if the uncle is not a nice guy.

        I thought for a while “What would I do as dictator in North Korea.” Sadly, the answers I came up with were “Get myself killed and have a brutal successor.” or “Act very similarly to Kim Jong-un is now, and angle for an island retirement.”

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          There is also “arrange a diplomatic mission to Canada, and then defect.” Much easier for the guy in charge than some poor peasant.

          • John Schilling says:

            If you’re the guy in charge, it’s too late. The act of taking charge of a standard-issue Evil Dictatorship, never mind running it for any length of time, will almost inevitably involve doing things that meet the technical standard for crimes against humanity subject to universal jurisdiction under the Pinochet precedent. The act of taking charge of a standard-issue Evil Dictatorship also results in your inheriting all the enemies of the previous dictator, who very much wanted to punish him and will transfer that ire to you as his successor.

            If you defect before you are scheduled take over as dictator, you’ve got a good chance of getting the Kim Jong-nam treatment. The new replacement dictator will see you as a potential threat who could return to challenge him in some future crisis, but the host country you defect to will see you as an impotent nobody who doesn’t merit head-of-state level security.

          • Furslid says:

            Not really an option. He could kill his brother outside of North Korea. So he would reasonably know that if he defected, he could be killed. Having a claim to the throne without the power of the throne to protect yourself is not a safe position.

        • I thought for a while “What would I do as dictator in North Korea.” Sadly, the answers I came up with were “Get myself killed and have a brutal successor.”

          Seems like all you need to do to avoid being killed is appease the military. Probably there’s some sort of middle ground where you do that without surplus brutality.

          • Matt M says:

            Yeah. I might be willing to listen to the idea that Kim Jong Un, by the nature of his position, occasionally has to execute people, even if he’d rather not, because failing to do so would result in his own death.

            But that doesn’t mean he has to execute people by, say, tying them to anti-aircraft guns…

          • albatross11 says:

            I suspect that:

            a. There’s some level of terror and brutality that is necessary for keeping his position.

            b. There’s a lot that’s not necessary, but having near-absolute power and nobody around to tell you when you’re doing wrong is corrosive to the soul.

            What I’d expect to see from someone who was brutal only as policy would be relatively decent treatment for most people, but occasionally coming down like a ton of bricks on someone who crosses a line–both to get rid of them and to send a message about how seriously you take that line. I’d expect that dictator to kill his potential rivals (if he can’t buy them off or send them into exile in a safe way), but to be pretty decent and even gentle to normal people who aren’t a threat.

          • JubileeJones says:

            Gilbert and Sullivan knew it!

            “But many a king on a first-class throne,
            If he wants to call his crown his own,
            Must manage somehow to get through
            More dirty work than ever I do,

            For I am a Pirate King!”
            – “Oh, Better Far to Live and Die”, from The Pirates of Penzance

          • Furslid says:

            Tying people to AA guns actually makes sense. It doesn’t increase the amount they suffer. Civilized countries have used more painful methods in the modern era. It does increase the theatricality of their deaths, and makes them better examples.

            If he had them crucified or impaled, that would be an argument for evil over pragmatism.

    • John Schilling says:

      A wrinkle: things are a bit different for a dictator who took power themselves, like Hitler, and one who inherited it, like Kim.

      Not as much as you think, because most dictators who took power themselves did so in the sincere belief that they were liberating their country from an irredeemably corrupt regime that was causing enormous hardship possibly unto the death-by-literal-starvation to their countrymen, and that they would be able to limit the illiberal exercise of their dictatorial power to the true villains who A: deserved it and B: couldn’t be dealt with by lesser means. Then they find out that reforming a corrupt regime is much harder than it looks from the outside, and that “we can use illiberal exercise of dictatorial power against the true villains” is too appealing a tool to hold to a narrow definition of “true villains”.

      And also they’ve probably made major errors of fact like grossly overestimating the number of Jews actually engaged in conspiracies to enrich the Jewish community at the expense of everyone else. But, bottom line, Palpatine is a fictional character that doesn’t map terribly well to reality, and the Weimar Republic made Valorum look like a paragon of virtuous and decisive action.

      So we have dictators who mostly sincerely thought of themselves as reformers until, oops, too late. And sons of dictators who inherited the family business under penalty of being killed by rivals within the family. And we have corporations which built their core business model around selling “evil” when the alleged evil was generally considered admirable and good.

      Punishment as deterrent only works when the other party understands that they are making a decision people will want to punish and deter, at the time they are making the decision. In most of the examples at hand, dictatorial or corporate, that isn’t the case and so you will get better results by offering the supposed evildoers a safe off-ramp. And saying “the off-ramp is in the rear-view mirror, you were supposed to recognize your own evil nature before we noticed you were evil” doesn’t cut it.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think it’s a no-brainer before he starts doing bad things, but at some point the new crimes are on him. King Leopold was innocent of everything except being the heir of the last guy when he took the throne, but I don’t think he deserves any slack for his later misdeeds.

      • Tuesday says:

        There’s an additional wrinkle here, which is that King Leopold masterminded and built the monstrosity down in the Congo himself, whereas Kim’s crimes are pretty much part of the ‘normal’ running of the North Korean government. He inherited that machinery.

        So are Kim’s crimes “new”? How much time should be allotted to him to dismantle / reform the system? And how much space should we (the US / international community) give him to do so?

      • Aapje says:

        Leopold II actually built the Congo Free State as a private enterprise. So he basically had two jobs:
        – King of Belgium, where he had to share power with a parliament elected by men who earned above a certain threshold, which was replaced by universal male suffrage during his reign
        – King of Congo Free State, where he had absolute power

        It is pretty clear that the abuses in Congo were Leopold’s doing, because after the abuses became public, the Belgian state took over rule of Congo, whereupon conditions improved quite a bit.

        • albatross11 says:

          I think the horrors of the Belgian Congo were much less due to Leopold’s moral failings than due to his incentives. Set the incentives up right, and a lot of people will become monsters. West Indies sugar plantations are probably a good parallel case–there wasn’t a single villain there, probably lots of people involved started out as non-monsters, but they built a fair approximation of Hell on earth in order to make money selling sugar.

          • Tuesday says:

            Wouldn’t “overriding your incentives because following them would lead to enormous suffering” be a pretty key component of morality, and not doing so a clear ‘moral failing’?

            Also, a minor thing but one I do want to mention: the Belgian Congo and the Congo Free State are different things, run largely by different people, and ultimately resulting in different outcomes.