The daughter test

Here’s Adam Ozimek:

Guest-posting at The Dish, Elizabeth Nolan Brown has an interesting piece up discussing prostitution and pornography that is worth ruminating on. She writes:

Last night, a close friend told me he had been reading my posts about decriminalizing sex work. “I’m sympathetic,” he said, “and I want to agree with you. But I just keep thinking, ‘what if it were my daughter?’ That’s, like, every father’s worst nightmare.”

Brown goes on to rebut her friend by pointing out that if your daughter did become a prostitute, you’d want it to be legal because that makes it safer. While she is right about that, I think it gives her friend’s argument too much credence. The more important thing her friend is missing is this: this is a country of free people, not your children.

Whether you’d want your kid to do something is a terrible, selfish, and self-centered way to think about policy.

Ozimek also links to Damon Linker:

There’s just one complication to this happy story: no one, or almost no one, actually believes it. People may say they see nothing wrong with or even admire Weeks’ decision to become a porn actress, but it isn’t unambiguously true. And our ease of self-deception on the matter tells us something important about the superficiality of the moral libertarianism sweeping the nation.

How do I know that nearly everyone who claims moral indifference or admiration for Weeks is engaging in self-deception? Because I conducted a little thought experiment. I urge you to try it. Ask yourself how you would feel if Weeks — porn star Belle Knox — was your daughter.

I submit that virtually every honest person — those with children of their own, as well as those who merely possess a functional moral imagination — will admit to being appalled at the thought.

Linker also has this to say:

None of this should be taken to mean that I favor banning porn or making it illegal to work in the industry that produces it. In the end, I’m a libertarian, too.

I can think of four ways of looking at the daughter test.  It will help to first consider a couple hypotheticals.  Say you and your family go back in a time machine to the late 1800s, but still have your modern 21st century attitudes toward behavior.  How would you feel about your daughter walking along the beach in a bikini? During the Victorian era that sort of behavior would be viewed as a disgrace, and your daughter would no longer be accepted in respectable society.

Also consider how you’d feel if your daughter dropped out of high school and spent her adult life cleaning toilets at Penn Station.

Now let’s form some categories:

1.  One might regard certain behavior as immoral, and favor making it illegal.  You wouldn’t want your daughter doing that.  Ms. Brown’s friend has that view of prostitution.

2.  You might believe certain behavior is immoral, but also believe it should not be illegal.  You wouldn’t want your daughter doing that.  Mr. Linker has that view of porn.

3.  You might believe certain behavior is not immoral, but wouldn’t want your daughter doing it because she would be shunned by polite society.  Others view it as immoral.  That’s my hypothetical of the 21st century father transferred into the Victorian era.

4.  You might regard certain behavior as perfectly moral and even necessary, but wouldn’t want your daughter doing that because society views the job as rather dirty, degrading and low class. That’s my example of cleaning toilets.

So I can think of at least 4 cases where someone might feel really upset to find out their daughter ended up in a certain career, each having very different implications.  In other words, I’m not a fan of the daughter test.  That’s not to say the test doesn’t occasionally reveal hypocrisy on the part of people, especially men, and especially about sex.  It does.  But it’s very hard to draw any implications from these intuitions, especially if you are a moral realist (which I am not.)  Indeed the Victorian era raises some uncomfortable issues for moral realists.

PS.  If you insist on asking parents what they would think of their children doing something, then FOR GOD SAKE DON’T ASK AMERICAN PARENTS.  Reason just ran this story:

A whopping 68 percent of Americans think there should be a law that prohibits kids 9 and under from playing at the park unsupervised, despite the fact that most of them no doubt grew up doing just that.

What’s more: 43 percent feel the same way about 12-year-olds. They would like to criminalize all pre-teenagers playing outside on their own (and, I guess, arrest their no-good parents).

Those are the results of a Reason/Rupe poll confirming that we have not only lost all confidence in our kids and our communities—we have lost all touch with reality.

“I doubt there has ever been a human culture, anywhere, anytime, that underestimates children’s abilities more than we North Americans do today,” says Boston College psychology professor emeritus Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn, a book that advocates for more unsupervised play, not less.

I’ve talked to both European and Asian parents about this, and both seem to think American parents are utterly insane in their attitudes toward leaving children unattended.  Do we really want to rely on the moral intuitions of crazy people?


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49 Responses to “The daughter test”

  1. Gravatar of bill bill
    22. August 2014 at 16:37

    I’m 48. When I was 15, I spent a summer as an exchange student in Germany. I recall going to Munich with 4 or 5 other kids and no adults. One kid was only 12. We did fine. For them, it was normal. For me, it was a great experience.

  2. Gravatar of benjamin cole benjamin cole
    22. August 2014 at 16:41

    When I visited Pompeii Italy I found out that the ancient town’s leading families ran restaurant-hotels. The daughters of these leading families serviced guests, including night work.
    my point? Morality is relative.
    In old Japan farmers worked in the nude, clothe was too valuable for everyday use. There were public baths.

  3. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    22. August 2014 at 16:49

    The general level of social trust in the societies may be a factor.

  4. Gravatar of ThomasL ThomasL
    22. August 2014 at 17:03

    Regarding the part on 9 year old children and parks, that is a prudential, not a moral, judgment. You cannot–or at least should not–leap from a prudential error (acting rightly in reference to how the world really is) to implying moral error (determining between right and wrong).

    Maybe they are utterly insane in every sphere of life, in which case they need locked up, but a bad judgment about the physical safety of parks doesn’t not imply a person is incapable of determining right from wrong, it implies that are likely to over-estimate at one certain kind of bodily risk.

    It also serves to deemphasize entire nature of morality to suggest that these are “moral intuitions” rather than moral judgments. Some people have a very good intuitive perception of figures or of directions, but math and navigation cannot thereby be dismissed as pure intuition. They can also be investigated by reason, and one is usually better off doing it that way if the goal is to discuss it, since intuition is incommunicable by its very nature.

  5. Gravatar of ThomasL ThomasL
    22. August 2014 at 17:20

    @benjamin cole

    You cannot get to that conclusion from what you have said.

    Same story:

    A long time ago in Greece and Rome many people in leading families believed that the heavens were filled with ether. Nowadays most people believe that space is a vacuum. It is all relative.

    It could be that, or one or both of the statements couple be plain wrong. The fact that multiple people have said different things on a single subject does not somehow make all the answers right, and no one wrong.

    Your post would be equivalent to me saying, “Well, it was ether up there then, but it is vacuum now.” Generous, perhaps, but not accurate.

    (Footnote, if anyone highlights that the second example is a matter of fact, while the first is not, you’ve hit the nail on the head with the problem with the initial comment (and that particular objection), which is that hidden within it the assumption //which is also the conclusion// that morality is a the product of opinion, not something real. You can try to prove that, but you can never succeed in proving it by merely assuming it.)

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    22. August 2014 at 17:37

    Bill, Yes, people of our generation all have stories like that.

    Ben, Did Westerners teach them that public nudity was shameful?

    ThomasL, I don’t accept the distinction you make between “prudential” and “moral”, but perhaps that’s because I’m a utilitarian. But I do accept your point that people might have sound views in one area, but not another. On the other hand, given the way sexual morality fluctuates over time, that’s one area where I don’t have much confidence in public opinion.

    Regarding the question of whether morality is “opinion”, I’m inclined to think it is, and also that there is nothing in the universe more important than “opinion.” Morality is far more important if it is an opinion than if it is a fact.

  7. Gravatar of ThomasL ThomasL
    22. August 2014 at 17:59

    @scott

    If I do not fly because I think airplanes are too unsafe, is that a moral error or a prudential one? Am I making a judgment that flying is morally wrong (like lying, stealing, or murder) or that flying is not physically safe enough to be the best way to travel? If you don’t see a difference we are probably stuck. As a utilitarian, at least do you separate the end (eg, to provide the most good for the most people) as a moral statement? While the choice between means to that fixed end is a prudential question of which means is most likely to produce the desired outcome? What utilitarian means could I ever use to come to the conclusion that the most good for the most number is what I *ought* to be working for? Don’t I have to start with that as a given, and then be utilitarian about making it happen?

    One the second, is it true in fact that nothing is more important than opinion? Cause if that is true, the fact that it is true is more important than my opinion of that fact, and if it is not true, then why should I believe it? It is just your opinion.

  8. Gravatar of AbsoluteZero AbsoluteZero
    22. August 2014 at 18:09

    “In old Japan … There were public baths.”
    There are public baths, or sentou (銭湯), today. There are also hot springs, or onsen (温泉). You wash first, then get into the water and soak, without wearing anything. A sentou is usually separated into male and female sections, but there’s usually a person (either a man or a woman) sitting high up in the middle who can see clearly into both rooms where people change. Just one example.

  9. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    22. August 2014 at 18:10

    I suspect 99% of (American) women who voluntarily choose sex work never had a father who thought this: “what if it were my daughter? That’s, like, every father’s worst nightmare.”

  10. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    22. August 2014 at 18:33

    ThomasL, You said;

    “One the second, is it true in fact that nothing is more important than opinion? Cause if that is true, the fact that it is true is more important than my opinion of that fact, and if it is not true, then why should I believe it? It is just your opinion.”

    No, it’s not a fact. I’m not sure you should believe it, that’s up to you. I don’t think I’ve given you any good reason to believe it—just planted a seed. On the other hand many people blindly assume the opposite, that facts trump opinions. But why should anything in the universe be more important than opinions? And I suppose we could extend this to the religious folks out there and say that if God exists his or her opinions on morality are the most important thing of all. In any case, opinions are pretty much all that matter to me, at least in the area of morality.

    Don’t confuse the negative associations of the word ‘opinion’ with the actual meaning of the word ‘opinion.’ Opinions are wonderful things, not to be looked down on.

    I agree that the problem of ascertaining risk is not a moral issue. But the decision to let children play alone despite risk is a moral decision.

  11. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    22. August 2014 at 19:43

    I don’t know if you peeps are familiar with the Internet meme “you had one job” or not….

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tojBadSr2zI

  12. Gravatar of benjamin cole benjamin cole
    22. August 2014 at 20:31

    Scott: I do not know the history of Japan, but I do know the history of Thailand in regard to public nudity, at least at above the waist. In traditional rural dress in Thailand, all people wore a sarong wrapped around the waist (no tops). The Thai government had to wage a two-decade war to enforce a ban against with the sarong. It is interesting that modern-day Americans might regard Middle East Islamic countries as repressive in regards to female dress, and yet who would regard the Thai government and repressive for banning nude female breasts in public?
    ThomasL: I think you are conflating scientific knowledge with moral standards. Morals are extremely flexible and vary given time and place.

  13. Gravatar of ThomasL ThomasL
    22. August 2014 at 20:44

    @benjamin

    No, you are still assuming your conclusion. You assert that morality changes, then prove it by showing that some people at different times or places have believed different things about morality.

    But that is no proof that morality is different at different times and places. It is equally well answered by saying people in different times or places are or have been wrong.

    I am not making a moral claim or a scientific claim, I am making a logical claim; and logic is the same for morals as it is for science. Your conclusion simply does not follow.

  14. Gravatar of Michael Watts Michael Watts
    22. August 2014 at 20:58

    According to Gregory Smits at Penn State, Westerners definitely imposed on Japan the idea that public nudity was shameful. You can read an interesting draft chapter of a book of his here: https://web.archive.org/web/20130109221945/http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/g/j/gjs4/textbooks/MJ/ch4_main.htm

  15. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    22. August 2014 at 21:19

    Scott,

    nicely clear exposition. Especially the hidden gem you put in your comment, that opinion is far more important for policy making, than facts.

    On the hypothetical law against playing in the park I suspect it has something to do with discounting. The safer the society and the longer the life expectancy, the more paranoid people get about risk. The value of playing in the park unsupervised, including a very small actual risk, is perceived lesser than the discounted net present value of the child’s future. In objectively more dangerous societies kids are much more likely to play unsupervised because the rest of society, and the kids’ own future, is even more questionable. Not that I support the whole attitude. But it creeps in. I took way more risk in daily life at age 10 then I am letting my son have.

    Finally, Asian values regarding unsupervised time, it depends where. I can assure you in Singapore kids don’t get any unsupervised time at all. (joke: right up until retirement). In newspaper articles on education, people will point out in all seriousness that there needs to be at least a little “unstructured time” every day. Usually that is an hour in kindergarten / school where the kids are still under the eye of the educator, but not actually being told what to do, unless they hit someone, bite, scratch, yell, etc. Yes, I am being ironic. This has little to do with safety though, it’s about maximising the child’s learning time and keeping him/her anchored in a societal function at all points in time.

  16. Gravatar of infovoy infovoy
    22. August 2014 at 23:55

    You missed:

    5. One may have used porn or prostitutes oneself and have little moral qualms about them in truth, but decide to tell a moral story to justify one’s genuine feeling of disgust.

    That disgust is derived from the same unchecked selfish response that’s in-play when fathers are over-protective of their daughters having sex with *anyone*, plus the additional selfish response of protecting one’s social standing (in a prejudiced world), and a light sprinkling of genuine health & safety care.

    And the source of the over-protectiveness? Probably a projection of one’s own attitudes towards women and sex onto other men.

  17. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    23. August 2014 at 04:39

    Ben, Good example.

    ThomasL, Regarding science and morals. Some beliefs in each area do not change over time, some do. Ex ante, we can never be sure which one’s will change.

    Thanks Michael.

    mbka, Yes, longer life expectancy and also fewer kids per family. I think that the latter factor is key–and explains why these rules are about protecting parents, not the well-being of kids.

    infovoy, Good points.

  18. Gravatar of Major.Freedom Major.Freedom
    23. August 2014 at 04:45

    ThomasL:

    Well put.

    Moral opinions may have changed over the ages, but then so have scientific and historical opinions as well. Just like it does not follow from changing opinions on science or history that the actual physical laws or what happened during WW2 keeps changing along with opinions changing, so too does it not follow from changing opinions on morality.

    The ironic thing is that when pressed, Benjamin would almost certainly agree that miral opinion and moral truth are distinct. If he were asked whether it was or if it could ever be moral for people to do to other what the Nazis did during WW2, or if it was or if it could ever be moral for a person to rape another.

    To be consistent, Benjamin and all other pretend moral relativists (as per infovoy’s explanation) would have to believe that rape or genocide are just as moral at another age, as two people holding hands voluntarily is considered moral today.

  19. Gravatar of Major.Freedom Major.Freedom
    23. August 2014 at 04:51

    ssumner:

    ThomasL’s point is that while moral or scientific opinions change, this is not logically synonymous with moral or scientific truths changing.

    Ex ante we cannot know the content of future ethical opinions, but that doesn’t mean there does not exist a true ex ante ethic that we can use to interpret a moral practise in a country as being immoral from a perspective apart from mere opinions of some people. You do this with the drug war. Even if moral opinions of others were different from yours, you still believe they are ethically in the wrong.

  20. Gravatar of Philippe Philippe
    23. August 2014 at 05:42

    presumably some or many nazis didn’t think that what they were doing was wrong or completely unjustified. Sounds horrible I know.

    Even if all humans believed that something was wrong, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that it was an absolute, universal truth that such a thing was wrong.

  21. Gravatar of Brent Brent
    23. August 2014 at 05:58

    The thing that would upset me most, if I were Weeks’ father, is that she is so smart, but is for some dumb reason giving all the money she is making to Duke University. Ugh!

  22. Gravatar of roystgnr roystgnr
    23. August 2014 at 07:08

    A much better version of the “daughter test”: if you would want your daughter arrested, jailed, and/or fined for doing it, then it should be illegal.

    It may be a source of unnecessary confusion that we use the same word both for physical laws, which say something won’t ever happen, and governmental laws, which say that when something does happen it should lead to arrests, jail, and/or fines. I wonder if Prohibition (or Prohibition II: We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Amendments) would have been as popular if this distinction were clearer.

  23. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    23. August 2014 at 08:47

    Interesting post Scott.

  24. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    23. August 2014 at 08:54

    Brent, awesome comment!

    I don’t have kids myself, but my long suffering brother has two job-less college educated children (one Cornell, one UC Davis) in their late 20s living at home. I think he’d be thrilled if either of his kids starting bringing home a legitimate paycheck doing just about anything, not excluding fine careers in the porn or prostitution industries. I know I’d feel like a burden of shame had been lifted from our family. :D

  25. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    23. August 2014 at 09:08

    … I suspect my 97 year old dad would agree with me: his most frequent topic of conversation is wondering why these two particular grandchildren are jobless… shoot he has greatgrandchildren (from other siblings) working now. I’m sure it wouldn’t be his first choice for them, but it would represent a step in the right direction: something he could take a modicum of pride in: he could hold his head up and answer directly when the inevitable question comes at his Sunday morning old-Codger breakfasts… “Yes… yes as a matter of fact my granddaughter is working now!”

  26. Gravatar of A A
    23. August 2014 at 10:43

    Thomas L: “One the second, is it true in fact that nothing is more important than opinion? Cause if that is true, the fact that it is true is more important than my opinion of that fact, and if it is not true, then why should I believe it? It is just your opinion.”

    The semantics can be confusing, but the important point is the impact of opinions versus the underlying “truth” of whatever motivates opinions. An opinion about physical laws must survive physical consequences. If it doesn’t, then the opinon may persist, but at the cost of systematic mismatches between expectations and outcomes. But moral opinions seem to be more like preference statements. Outcomes don’t directly challenge the opinions. You would use outcomes to test your positive expectations built upon normative presumptions, but even failure would leave your moral opinions true, but for the uncooperativeness of reality.

  27. Gravatar of Garrett Garrett
    23. August 2014 at 10:44

    I was born in the 90s and when I was 8 I was riding my bicycle all over my town unintended, up to 2 miles away from my house, on busy streets. I’m sure I’ll be reminding myself of this someday when my kid(s) is 8.

  28. Gravatar of Nick Nick
    23. August 2014 at 11:56

    Tom,
    You, your father, and your brother should encourage the deadbeats to just raise some kids before you tell them to whore themselves out! It’s what people in their twenties without jobs have been doing for thousands of years. Children aren’t just a reward meant only for those who prove themselves worthy in the professional arena … They are also a punishment meant for those who have too much fun in their social lives! And people with great-grandchildren are among the happiest around.

  29. Gravatar of bill bill
    23. August 2014 at 13:40

    @ThomasL:
    It’s a prudential decision if you decide to keep your own child home. Once you advocate jailing people who let their own 10 year olds outside, it’s a horrible, immoral decision.

  30. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    23. August 2014 at 18:59

    Major F and ThomasL:

    Well, this is monetary policy blog, but since my name has been used….

    1. There can be no moral truths or absolutes without belief in divine creator, or arbiter. (See Robert Penn Warren’s novel “All the King’s Men” for a nice entreatment of this).

    2. Okay, say we believe in a divine creator. Then it comes to what he or she says to us, and we accept that as a divine truth.

    3. Islamics now say they not only have the permission, but the right and even moral obligation to murder or commit genocide against non-Islamics (or even Islamics of the wrong sect). Of course, most religions have made similar claims at one time or another.

    4. Ergo, there is a moral law, and it calls for genocide.

    Okay, so say we do not believe in a divine creator.

    Then any law is a fabrication of men, moral or legal. This is what I believe to be true.

    That is why all of us are really just creatures of our time and place. We believe nudity is good or bad, or prostitution is good or bad, or genocide is good or bad, depending on where and when we were born.

    In a way, we know and forgive this. There are statues of Robert E. Lee all over Virginia–a man who fought valiantly, and helped kill millions, in the name of sedition and slavery. But he is judged by his time and morals, not today’s morals.

    However, Major F., I am certain there is one moral truth: That fiat money is an cardinal sin, and that perpetrators of fiat money will burn in the deepest rung of hell for all of eternity and beyond! Roasting upon iron spits for billions upon billions of years!

  31. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. August 2014 at 06:11

    Phillippe, I agree. I am a Rortian pragmatist, and don’t believe that absolute universal truths exist. Truth is what we regard as truth, and hence is provisional. I reject the “correspondence” theory of truth.

    roystgnr, Good example.

    Tom, Linker underestimates the diversity of opinion on those moral “sins”. I’ve met all sorts of people over the course of my life.

    A, Keep in mind that new facts can change opinion about moral issues, not just scientific issues. The facts of importance to moral belief tend to be fuzzier—things like literature and film (and to a lesser extent philosophy and religion).

    I don’t think “underlying ‘truth’” is a useful concept. All we have access to is human beliefs about the world. We don’t really even know if underlying truths exist. That’s why human (and perhaps animal) opinions are so important. The universe is basically made up of two things, sterile lifeless atoms and opinions. Without opinions the universe would be a big nothing. Rocks with no one to look at rocks.

    Garrett, Glad to hear that childhood still existed as late as the 1990s.

  32. Gravatar of Joel Aaron Freeman Joel Aaron Freeman
    24. August 2014 at 07:31

    Professions I would appalled if a daughter of mine pursued them:

    1. Porn Actress
    2. Hollywood Actress (a new divorce every five years?)
    3. Reality TV Contestant
    4. Congresswoman (Paparazzi at Thanksgiving Dinner?)
    5. FDA regulator
    6. Accountant at Enron
    7. Psychiatrist (not thrilled about the drugs)
    8. Wheel of Fortune lady who walks back and forth
    9. Public School Teacher (I feel bad for people trapped in sclerotic bureaucracies)
    10. CEO of McDonalds (I think the product is harmful to our health)
    11. CEO of Facebook (I think the product is harmful to our health)
    12. Astronaut (Is that safe?)
    13. Peace Corps Volunteer (Is that safe?)

    This list is starting to get long. Nobody’s leaving early today, folks. We have A LOT of professions to outlaw.

  33. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    24. August 2014 at 11:30

    Nick, thanks for the advice. The odd thing about my niece and nephew though is that they are not party animals. They both live thrifty monk/nun like existences. My niece will sometimes drink, but my nephew is a teetotaler. Neither are druggies. They are “good kids” and always have been… but their ambition seems to have evaporated on graduation day. I don’t think either one of them has ever even had a serious romance. They are both articulate, intelligent, and physically attractive young people who have friends and social skills, but no jobs or significant others.

    I’m sure my bro would be thrilled to see either of them:

    1. Get a boyfriend/girlfriend
    2. Show the least bit of ambition about material wealth, romance or raising a family… or just show ambition of any kind actually!
    3. But most of all, get a job!!!

    When he goes on a trip leaving them at home he actually HOPES they have a wild party!… but he’s been cruelly disappointed every time.

    He truly would be delighted on multiple levels if they showed enough gumption to get involved in any industry, including the porn industry (which is practically right next door: he lives 20 minutes from the San Fernando Valley). But they’ve got to act now before their looks start to fade! As for my dad (who worked on a farm, a coal mine and a steel mill when he was young), he’d be the envy of the table with a story like that!

    My nephew (the older one) got his degree in economics from Cornell actually (to which he had a partial scholarship)… do you suppose that has something to do with it? :D

  34. Gravatar of A A
    24. August 2014 at 13:29

    Scott: “Keep in mind that new facts can change opinion about moral issues, not just scientific issues. The facts of importance to moral belief tend to be fuzzier—things like literature and film (and to a lesser extent philosophy and religion).”

    Fair points, but I don’t believe that new facts directly impact moral opinions, because moral opinions are not direct assertions about outcomes. Even if reality denies a moralist’s expectations, the moralizer would still be “correct” in the ‘if only [...] held true’ sense.

  35. Gravatar of Jim Glass Jim Glass
    24. August 2014 at 16:12

    @ssumner

    mbka, Yes, longer life expectancy and also fewer kids per family. I think that the latter factor is key–and explains why these rules are about protecting parents, not the well-being of kids.

    Disagreement here. Pinker’s book…

    http://www.amazon.com/Better-Angels-Our-Nature-Violence/dp/0670022950/

    …has a whole section examining this. The change in attitude towards child safety has been very real and has provided great real benefits to chidren, over even the last 30 years, documented there in detail.

    But remember how people think and changing social standards and concerns operate: Nobody calculates the effects of all their societal beliefs as applied through detailed actions at the margin (we wouldn’t have enough brain capacity left over to place one foot in front of the other if we did).

    They are applied through mental shortcuts and very rough judgements. So a real increase in concern for say child welfare will simultaneously drive both major real improvements in welfare and absurdly futile attempts at same — and over time, as the major gains are achieved, they will drive increasing overshoot into the futile and self-defeating.

    Some people will see the mockable absurdities and not realize the major real gains (like me before reading this book). Others will see the real gains and conclude that any well-intended efforts that don’t actually produce results at worse “can’t hurt”, so there can never be child-protecting rules enough. Both are wrong.

    I raised three kids over the last 25 years (just finishing off the third one now). Pinker documents gains in safety and welfare for my kids’ generation over my own generation that are a whole lot bigger than I’d have imagined even after living through both of them first-person. That’s on the one hand.

    OTOH, he also notes how millions of parents afraid of having their child become an Etan Patz (who lived in my neighborhood) now drive their children to school for safety’s sake, instead of putting them on a school bus or public transporation. In spite of the facts that (1) to expect a child to be kidnapped you’d have to send him to the bus stop for 700,000 years … and (2) today more than twice as many children are killed in accidents caused by parents driving their kids to school down those last couple of blocks by the school that are filled with kids, than in all other traffic accidents. Driving children to school for safety’s sake unambiguously kills children.

    As an aside, for anyone interested in the subject of whether middle-class welfare has increased over the last 40 years, this is a *must* read book. I’ve been telling people younger than me for years that off of my personal experience of living thru those years it is absurd to think welfare hasn’t improved *a lot* — but even I had no idea *how much* until I read this data.

    Although it is not about economics per se, this is the best book about the relationships between economic development and changing societal norms and levels of welfare, from the historical very long run worldwide to our contemporary present, that I have ever read.

    (Sadly, I was not paid for this endorsement.)

  36. Gravatar of ThomasL ThomasL
    24. August 2014 at 20:42

    @Benjamin Cole

    Do you listen to or believe your arguments? I really cannot tell. It in no way follows that if one acknowledges a Divine Lawgiver that Islam is the consequence. It is true that Islam acknowledges a divine law. It is not true that to acknowledge a divine law is the same thing as Islam.

    It is consistent at least, that you have called all law, moral and legal, is fabrication. So I ask, is anyone ever truly obliged to follow a fabrication? Is the only reason whatsoever that someone should not do something their concern over getting caught and punished? If I believed I would get away with it so that I was unconcerned by punishment, is choosing to steal or murder morally identical to choosing to refrain from stealing or murdering?

  37. Gravatar of A A
    24. August 2014 at 21:13

    ThomasL: “It is consistent at least, that you have called all law, moral and legal, is fabrication. So I ask, is anyone ever truly obliged to follow a fabrication? Is the only reason whatsoever that someone should not do something their concern over getting caught and punished? If I believed I would get away with it so that I was unconcerned by punishment, is choosing to steal or murder morally identical to choosing to refrain from stealing or murdering?”

    There are a lot of confused concepts interacting with each other in this short excerpt. It might be helpful to elaborate on how reality discriminates between your following a “fabrication” versus a “truth”. The latter questions don’t seem connected to your prior statements unless you hew to a model of human behavior in which you follow a “Divine Lawgiver” or fear punishment. Maybe your model is too reductive, so that your philosophical musings clumsily interact with real world musings.

  38. Gravatar of Daniel Daniel
    25. August 2014 at 00:31

    ThomasL

    You are a very ignorant man. There never has been, and never will be, any sort of absolute morality.

    When murder is what men must do to get ahead – guess what, they will rationalize it.

    Because that is what humans do.

    Deal with it.

  39. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    25. August 2014 at 00:44

    ThomasL: What I belieb to be moral is a result of the time and place I was brought up.

    Had I been born in the Andes 1000 years ago, I would probably worship the local leaders as descended from God, and given to divine inspiration. What they declared was moral is what I would believe is moral.

    If I was born in the American South in 1830, perhaps I would find divine justification for slavery, as many did.

    ThomasL, you have been hinting there is, in fact, a supreme divine or moral truth. An absolute moral truth. I am all ears—what is it? And by what method have you determined what is the absolute moral truth?

    BTW, some people believe the foremost cardinal sin is fiat money. The people who print fiat money will roast in hell for eternity.

  40. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. August 2014 at 05:42

    A, I don’t follow that argument. Facts can change peoples’ views whether those views predict outcomes or not. By the way, statements that “X really is immoral even though most people consider it moral” could be viewed as a prediction that “future generations will come to view X as being immoral.”

    Jim, I agree with those points, I didn’t make my points very clear if you assumed I didn’t.

  41. Gravatar of ThomasL ThomasL
    25. August 2014 at 07:56

    @A,

    The question was of obligation. How could I be obliged in conscience to do (or not do) something merely because “that guy over there” or “those people over there” made it up. That is what Benjamin is saying, and it obviously insufficient to create any kind of binding moral obligation.

    @Daniel

    Why rationalize it? I rationalize it by saying, “It’s not really that bad” or “it was actually justified because…” When the words “bad” and “justice” are both absolutely devoid of content, we are way beyond the need to justify anything. You do something because you want to, and you have the power to make it happen. That is morality enough, will and power. This is the argument of Thrasymachus in the Republic (read that one part and see if you agree), of Nietzsche, &c.

    @Benjamin

    Go read all those great fools of history that believed in a rationally knowable moral law, like Aristotle in his Ethics, Cicero’s On Moral Duty, St Thomas Aquinas’ sections in the Summa on the Natural Law, Plato’s Republic & Dialogues, Epictetus’ Discourses, and Plutarch’s Moralia. There a modern ways of saying the same, but the classics serve just as well.

  42. Gravatar of ThomasL ThomasL
    25. August 2014 at 08:00

    @Daniel, and it might be worth pointing out in general that morality is never a question of what people will do, or actually do, but what they ought to do. No where did I say people won’t murder each other. I did strongly imply they ought not murder each other. Those aren’t the same thing.

  43. Gravatar of Daniel Daniel
    25. August 2014 at 08:29

    ThomasL,

    What are you, 12 ? Grow up.

  44. Gravatar of Vivian Darkbloom Vivian Darkbloom
    25. August 2014 at 09:12

    @Jim Glass

    “… a real increase in concern for say child welfare will simultaneously drive both major real improvements in welfare and absurdly futile attempts at same — and over time, as the major gains are achieved, they will drive increasing overshoot into the futile and self-defeating.”

    I can’t help think that the media age is mostly responsible for this ” real increase in concern”. Prior to television in every home, an Etan Patz kidnapping would not have had such a big effect on public behavior. Now, the long odds of having one’s kid snatched on the way to school don’t really register when a Patz story is right there every day, real and in full color in everyone’s living room. How can a rational but abstract calculation of odds compete with that? This likely explains the major gains as well as the overshoot.

  45. Gravatar of A A
    25. August 2014 at 18:23

    Ssumner: “I don’t follow that argument. Facts can change peoples’ views whether those views predict outcomes or not. By the way, statements that “X really is immoral even though most people consider it moral” could be viewed as a prediction that “future generations will come to view X as being immoral.”

    The difference in whether you believe a moral view is distinguishable from, for example, a view on the physical world. Your opinions on the physical world implies models through which you form understanding. Unanticipated outcomes thus directly challenge your models, by definition.

    But a moral view is distinguishable from your predictive models. If you believed that X policy is moral, and part of your understanding is that future generations will adopt your belief, then even if they reject your policy, you would still be right to say that X policy would have been moral, given adoption. If you cannot make that statement, then your initial proposition, X, would have been morally “incorrect” on an ex ante basis. The moral judgement is upon the concept. The real world conception is measured by reference to the moral judgement.

  46. Gravatar of Major.Freedom Major.Freedom
    25. August 2014 at 19:41

    Benjamin Cole:

    “1. There can be no moral truths or absolutes without belief in divine creator, or arbiter.”

    Not all arbiters are supernatural or divine. There are moral truths inherent in we humans as actors. There are a series of deductions we can make that tells us what ethics are presupposed by the very act of thinking ethically, or at all. It is a long standing fallacy the belief that morality requires a divine creator.

    “2. Okay, say we believe in a divine creator. Then it comes to what he or she says to us, and we accept that as a divine truth.”

    Since I reject your 1., I don’t see any pressing need to address this argument.

    “3. Islamics now say they not only have the permission, but the right and even moral obligation to murder or commit genocide against non-Islamics (or even Islamics of the wrong sect). Of course, most religions have made similar claims at one time or another.”

    To believe in an objective morality does not imply a belief in the right to murder, rape, or steal. If one makes logical errors, then sure, it is possible.

    “4. Ergo, there is a moral law, and it calls for genocide.”

    The same argument can be made assuming there is no objective morality though:

    1. There can be no non-objective morality without some subjective foundation. All morality is subjective.

    2. OK, then whatever moral code that arises subjectively, we define that as morally just.

    3. Some moral relativists say that genocide is not absolutely immoral; it can be moral if certain necessarily arbitrary, subjectively determined criteria are met, such as “inferior” genetics.

    4. Ergo, there is a moral law, and it calls for genocide.

    “kay, so say we do not believe in a divine creator.”

    “Then any law is a fabrication of men, moral or legal. This is what I believe to be true.”

    There is an ethic that cannot be argued away.

    “That is why all of us are really just creatures of our time and place. We believe nudity is good or bad, or prostitution is good or bad, or genocide is good or bad, depending on where and when we were born.”

    That “historicist” ideology is internally contradictory.

    “In a way, we know and forgive this. There are statues of Robert E. Lee all over Virginia–a man who fought valiantly, and helped kill millions, in the name of sedition and slavery. But he is judged by his time and morals, not today’s morals.”

    Changing scientific beliefs does not imply the universe’s laws are changing along with them.

    “However, Major F., I am certain there is one moral truth: That fiat money is an cardinal sin, and that perpetrators of fiat money will burn in the deepest rung of hell for all of eternity and beyond! Roasting upon iron spits for billions upon billions of years!”

    You mean gold to you is a cardinal sin.

  47. Gravatar of Major.Freedom Major.Freedom
    25. August 2014 at 19:50

    Daniel:

    “There never has been, and never will be, any sort of absolute morality.”

    That is false. There is an absolute morality, and it is presupposed in action itself. You could not argue or think it away even if you tried.

    It is as difficult for you to notice this as it is difficult for a fish to know it is in water. It is so engrained in your being that you have adapted to it to the point of blindness. A hint that objective morality exists is the fact that you understand morality at all. And before you make a fool of yourself by knee jerking and responding with “What, because I understand what a unicorn looks like, then according to you they are objectively true?” In order to understand the argument, you have to learn that you understand what unicorns are only because horses objectively exist, and animal horns objectively exist. It is similar with morality. Humans are morsl beings. Just because there is disagreement, it does not mean there is no objective morality.

  48. Gravatar of Major.Freedom Major.Freedom
    25. August 2014 at 19:52

    Daniel:

    “What are you, 12 ? Grow up”

    Why do you continue to display for everyone to see the abusive torment you went through? Is this blog catharsis for you?

  49. Gravatar of Major.Freedom Major.Freedom
    25. August 2014 at 19:57

    Sumner:

    “I am a Rortian pragmatist, and don’t believe that absolute universal truths exist. Truth is what we regard as truth, and hence is provisional. I reject the “correspondence” theory of truth.”

    Rortyism self-contradicts.

    http://mises.org/document/93/In-Defense-of-Extreme-Rationalism-Thoughts-on-Donald-McCloskys-The-Rhetoric-of-Economics

    It is mind boggling how you continue to claim adherence to Rortyism despite the conclusive refutation of it that has been posted to this blog many times. Mental block? Crutch beliefs despite their unreasonableness?

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