The arrogance of the here and now: part 2

A few months back I did a post that annoyed lots of readers.  People seemed to think I was a moral relativist, whereas I was actually making aesthetic and methodological arguments, not a moral argument.  I was trying to suggest that our confidence (often bordering on self-righteousness) about our own value system is unseemly and dangerous.  I certainly wasn’t suggesting that as long as other cultures think X is OK, then I think it is acceptable for them to do X.

During my break I read an interesting 500 page Norwegian novel about angels, written by Karl Knausgaard.  This quotation reminded me of the Marias Javier quote I included in the earlier post.  Here’s Knausgaard:

As we know, the actual theory of evolution was developed by Charles Darwin and published in The Origin of the Species in 1959.  This was a huge success in scientific terms, and to this day has completely dominated our view of living things and their history.  Other theories have been pushed out into the cold.  It’s easy to imagine that the battle between them was fought out at the end of the nineteenth century, but this wasn’t so, by then the path had already been cleared for Darwin’s theory, the victory seemed assured.  To find the real struggle, one must go back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  There it is harder to decipher, as the different attitudes, which seem to us like complete opposites, and totally incompatible, could then exist side by side.  Not merely within one and the same culture, but within one and the same person.  And because these people not only thought differently about the world than we do, but also thought differently about themselves, it’s almost impossible to gain a clear picture of what they really believed.    Reason and emotion, historical events and mythological episodes, hard facts and wild speculation, were all mixed up inside them.  And all this, that was going on inside their heads, went on to permeate their bodies.  The thoughts that thought, the heart that beat, the lungs that breathed, the hair that grew, the wounds that healed, the eyes that saw, the ears that heard, all merged together, just as they do in us, without us realizing it, just as they didn’t realize it: only in retrospect does the human aspect become clear, in the form of what separates them from us.  The things they thought that we don’t think  The things they believed that we don’t believe. The things they saw that we don’t see.  And from this we can draw the following conclusion: one day, in a few hundred years’ time, the human race of the future will look on us in the same way.  What for us is an obvious truth, something we regard as so self-evident we don’t even think about it, because we can see it, it is like this, will to them be completely incomprehensible.  Perhaps they’ll laugh at us, perhaps just be fascinated by us, even say they have respect for us, but no matter what they say, they will end up feeling superior to us.  For they know.  They can see.

A good area to apply Knausgaards’s idea is sex scandals—where the feelings are typically strong and the reasoning is typically weak.

Try to sketch out a set of criteria for what determines whether a sexual indiscretion counts as a scandal, a firing offense, or a crime.  It’s not easy.  People seem slightly embarrassed to condemn others solely for sexual indiscretions.  It seems too prudish.  So the condemnations are often couched in terms of the “real issue” being lying under oath, or sexual harassment, or some other crime.  But as we saw with Weinergate, those protestations can’t be taken too seriously.  When people say “it’s not about sex,” you can be pretty certain that it is very much about sex.  Anthony Weiner was the one forced to resign, not the drunk driving Patrick Kennedy.

I’m sure people could come up with many explanatory factors, which shift around over time, indeed in this area culture often evolves quite rapidly.  There is the “great man” factor.  Roman emperors, Turkish sultans, and other powerful men could get away with murder.  Even as late as the Kennedy administration, sex scandals were covered up by the press.  The fact that JFK still has a high reputation, whereas Weiner is viewed as loathsome, suggests that getting caught is also important.  It’s partly about discretion.  It also depends on whether you are liked.  People judge a man’s record in all sorts of areas much more harshly when they don’t like the guy’s personality (as Barry Bonds and LeBron James have discovered.)  It also depends on how recently the event occurred.  The IMF president was roundly criticized after a recent rape accusation, whereas Bill Clinton got a pass after Lisa Myers interviewed a woman accusing him of committing rape more than a decade prior to the interview.

Of course I have my own views on these issues, as you can probably guess.  But I’m not interested in arguing right and wrong, what intrigues me is the reasoning process that goes into these cases.  I think it’s fair to say that we believe we are more enlightened than the puritanical Victorians.  That some sort of moral progress has occurred.  But there are even earlier periods of history where people were far more lascivious than we are.  I don’t think we typically believe that those cultures had progressed even more than we have (although Hugh Hefner might hold that belief.)

Perhaps our sense of moral progress comes from an increasing acceptance of utilitarian values.  Thus gay rights are often advocated for essentially utilitarian reasons, whereas bigamy is rejected for the same reason.  In ancient times people were much less utilitarian, and bigamy was more acceptable than gay marriage.  But if utilitarianism explains our current sexual ethics, how does one explain this map:

Are the utilitarian considerations really that different from one country to another?  Of course it’s also true that laws in various countries differ in many other respects, such as speed limits.  But that raises even more fundamental questions.  With speeding, the fine is generally proportional to the amount by which the speeder exceeded the legal limit.  That’s much less true for age of consent laws.  One day can make a big difference and, as far as I know, fines are not usually imposed for violations–prison or probation are more typical punishments.  Why is that?  Speeding puts others in danger, just like underage sex.  Are we actually relying on utilitarian reasoning?

I don’t have any answers here, indeed it’s hard to imagine any policy in this area that doesn’t have some flaws.  But I do find it interesting that the people I meet have so much confidence in their opinions about where various lines should be drawn, especially given that either American or Spanish age of consent rules (or more likely both) will probably look completely absurd to the average person born 100 years from today.

PS.  I don’t often use the term ‘lascivious.’  I’m reminded of the Lascivious Costume Balls held at the University of Chicago when I attended during the late 1970s.  I’m told that they no longer occur, as our society is moving back in the direction of the Victorians.  That’s something I never would expected in 1978–at the time I assumed that things would keep getting less puritanical as time went by.  I forgot that even hippies grow old.

PPS.  I predict society will get more utilitarian, and hence the outrages that future generations see in us will revolve around our less utilitarian characteristics; our restrictions on pain medication, our treatment of animals, our obliviousness to the risks of biological research, our views on organ markets, our attitudes toward war, and just about everything having to do with sex.   But just because their views are different, doesn’t mean they will be right.  They won’t be able to see things from our point of view, just as we can’t see things from the point of view of those who saw angels.



38 Responses to “The arrogance of the here and now: part 2”

  1. Gravatar of onliberty onliberty
    24. July 2011 at 11:11

    “When people say ‘it’s not about sex,’ you can be pretty certain that it is very much about sex.”

    This should read, “When people say, ‘it’s not about politics,’ you can be pretty certain that is very much about politics.”

    This explains the difference between Wiener and Ted Kennedy – they were operating from different positions of power.

    And the fact that politics is always about, well, politics and is never *really* about the issue du jour is at least one thing that has never changed throughout history.

  2. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    24. July 2011 at 11:27

    ‘…one must go back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.’

    Which was Shakespeare’s time…and he thought along modern lines.

  3. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    24. July 2011 at 11:41

    Here’s one that really rattles cages: Try telling people you think polygamy should be legal.

    The same people who so exquisitely and pompously support gay marriage (as I do) recoil when polygamy is mentioned–yet it was the norm in many parts of the world for millennia. Indeed, in my wife’s Thailand, upper-class sisters used to marry one husband (I assume to keep wealth concentrated).

    Moreover, up until the 1930s, average men and women in Thailand wore sarongs around their waists, no tops. It was a Thai modernization and Westernization drive in the 1930-50s that covered up women’s breasts.

    Now, we say Islamic women are repressed by wearing more-covering clothing. But not Thai women who wear bras and shorts on hot/muggy days.

    As I am the same age as Sumner, I can remember the disco-1970s, and the sense the sexual mores were evolving. Little did I know they would evolve backwards.

    I resent any inspection of another person’s private life, even public office holders.

  4. Gravatar of q q
    24. July 2011 at 12:29

    those of us who are a bit younger than mr sumner (myself i am 46) saw sexual mores change drastically as we came of age. it wasn’t just that hippies were getting old. it was partially demographics: there were fewer young people, so all of the youth movements lost steam. there was ronald reagan’s moralistic tone with its patriarchial overtones. and probably most importantly, there was AIDS.

  5. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    24. July 2011 at 14:19

    Benji I think in 20 years you’ll see more polygamy. Big Love had an strong female audience for a reason.


    Scott this whole post is a strong argument for states’ rights.

    To that end, check out our next President of the United States:

    “Our friends in New York six weeks ago passed a statute that said marriage can be between two people of the same sex. And you know what? That’s New York, and that’s their business, and that’s fine with me,” he said to applause from several hundred GOP donors in Aspen, the AP reported.

    “That is their call. If you believe in the 10th Amendment, stay out of their business.”

    President Perry will get PLENTY OF QE if and when he wants it.

  6. Gravatar of cassander cassander
    24. July 2011 at 14:24

    Benjamin Cole> Off topic, but something very similar happened in Turkey. As part of his modernization drive he banned the fez, and had to hang a bunch of people to make it stick.

  7. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    24. July 2011 at 14:37

    Will Wilkinson defends polygamy here. Megan McArdle and Karl Smith have more surreptitiously supported its legalization on twitter.

    The libertarian in me supports legalization, but the empiricist in me looks around and sees that places where polygamy is permitted tend to be undesirable places to live. Correlation isn’t causation but it is suggestive, and I end up confused.

  8. Gravatar of JPIrving JPIrving
    24. July 2011 at 14:46

    @Ben Cole

    I wonder if polygamy is practiced in any societies with high net migration ? With High GDP/head and accomplished universities? Your wife’s immigration to the West rather than yours to her country is telling.

  9. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    24. July 2011 at 15:12

    JP Irving-

    Actually, I am moving to Thailand, but polygamy is no longer legal there. Neither are bare breasts. Is life ever fair?

    As to polygamy and economies/education, Utah scores very high on all sorts of indicators, and polygamy is practiced there, though not legally.


    States’ rights has a ring, but remember it is local and state government that are uniformly the worst abusers of political and commercial rights.
    Until the federal government took action, many states blocked voting by blacks, and interracial marriage.

    Today, try to be a push-cart vendor, drive a jitney, try hooking, selling recreational drugs, barbering, lawyering, doctoring etc without state or local approval. Obviously, you will not get approval to run a one-man jitney operation in any city in America–the municipality monopolizes that.

    Or to be a push-cart food vendor. Local restaurants will run you out of business. Try selling liquor across state lines, or even inside a state.

    Try selling electrical power in the City of Los Angeles–you cannot, the LA DWP has a monopoly. I can’t even put a lot of solar panels on my roof and sell excess power to my neighbor.

    Now, on gay rights you have Gov. Rick “Huffington” Perry braying that it is a state issue–you mean, like interracial marriage was a state issue? Or the right to vote?

    The “leave it to the states” platform is very convenient, as it really means “leave to to local power structures in each state and city,” so they can perpetuate themselves at the expense of smaller businesses and start-ups, and can fuck with people who are different, be they gays, religious minorities etc.

    The federal government is a huge monster–but then each city and state is a threat to liberty also. There is some thought we ought to do away with states, and they are an historical anachronism.

  10. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    24. July 2011 at 15:22


    You are right about one thing: If we get a GOP president, then John Taylor, Cochrane and others will see the need for QE, and maybe the “deficits don’t matter” chant will come back.

    You see, with Perry installed, magically the “structural impediments” will be lessened, and perhaps a “national security” need will be identified that requires heavy federal spending that must be validated by an accommodative Fed.

    Still, something about the R-Party—they had control of the House, Senate, White House and Supreme Court 2000-2006 and tanked the economy. Our financial system collapsed.

    We may end up with a S&P 500 lower in 10 years than it is now–and we are lower now than 10 years ago. Actually, that may happen anyway, thanks to Fed policy.

  11. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    24. July 2011 at 16:08


    You won’t pay enough attention to this, and I know it sounds like a stupid silver bullet argument, but we only need to make TWO major changes in America to fix everything, and I truly think within the the base of GOP there is an admittance that we caused both of them:

    1. End public employee unions. When Bush, the MBA came into office, he DRAMATICALLY allowed public employees to increase their compensation.

    This was horribly wrong.

    I 100% advocate that Bush had to spend all the money, run up massive deficits, but he had no business leaving public employees in better shape than when he came into office.

    First because they fund Dems and second because as an MBA he should have viewed his time in their as CEO and chased 5%annual productivity gains in the public sector.

    I blame 9/11, but ultimately it was his fault. He should have spent all the money elsewhere.

    2. The backbone of this country are SMB business owners who invest in themselves.

    Our tax policies should treat this group as like the High School varsity football team. Bankers, corporatists, real estate investors, all need to be treated like “nice to haves,” but definitely BETAS next to the SMB alphas.

    Amongst hundred of non-religious grass root conservatives, I see genuine contrition on both of these issues.

    We now KNOW we have to crush the public employees and put the Fortune 1000 on the back of the bus.

    In day-to-day terms this is called Tax Reform, which mark my words will mean SMB owners pay less, and GE pays more.


    The 3rd GREAT TO HAVE is states’ rights.

    But I’m very optimistic about the US, I think most of this plays out nicely towards the ends I describe.

  12. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    24. July 2011 at 16:31

    onliberty, Good point.

    Patrick, Yes, but wasn’t he an exception?

    Benjamin, You said;

    “Here’s one that really rattles cages: Try telling people you think polygamy should be legal.”

    Not only do I think it should be legal, I think it is. Let’s face it, it’s perfectly legal for a man to live with three women, especially if they are in different cities. Most men of that sort really don’t care what the law says, so who cares if it’s not legally sanctioned. He can call them his wives in private.

    I really can’t imagine wanting more than one wife . . .

    The Europeans were shocked at the heathen South Sea islanders, and taught them proper morality. Now they all cover up, and the Europeans go topless at Club Med Tahiti.

    q, I don’t agree about Reagan as that’s when gay rights took off. Reagan had no interest in social issues. But otherwise I agree with your points. I also think it reflected smaller families and higher incomes. And when the sexual revolution hit the working class, the upper classes went the opposite direction. For instance divorce has soared among the lower income, and fallen sharply among the more affluent.

    Morgan, Perry may be fine for Texas, but he won’t sell nationally. That reminds me, time to place my bet on Obama winning.

    TGGP, When average men got some political power, one of the first things they did was ban polygamy–as most men come out behind in a polygamous society. You won’t see it in China anytime soon–they are already short of wives.

    Don’t worry about big changes here–it’s already legal for all intents and purposes.

  13. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    24. July 2011 at 16:47


    What is a “SMB”?

    And Bush jr may have an MBA, but I doubt he actually did the work required to earn it. “Is our children learnings?”–this Bushism just does not have an MBA ring to it.

  14. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    24. July 2011 at 17:14

    OK Scott, what do you want to bet? Do we have to wait for the GOP primary, or are you going to give me odds for selecting early for the win?

  15. Gravatar of onliberty onliberty
    24. July 2011 at 17:19

    “That reminds me, time to place my bet on Obama winning.”

    Unfortunately that will probably be a smart bet. Sigh.

  16. Gravatar of Robert Simmons Robert Simmons
    24. July 2011 at 18:23

    Related, Bill James on the changing definition of murder:

  17. Gravatar of cassander cassander
    24. July 2011 at 18:56

    Rather than monogamy vs polygamy, I’ll bet you’d find much larger differences in societies where wives came with a bride price vs. societies where they came with a dowry. Plus not having to deal with with Henry the 8th style soft polygamy will give you much clearer data.

  18. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    24. July 2011 at 19:06


    People forget our Founding Fathers often married for a dowry. George Washington married for a dowry.

    “Martha married George on January 6, 1759. The marriage changed George from an ordinary planter to a substantially wealthy landowner.”

    Imagine today a man marrying a woman openly for her dowry. There would be outrage! Though the reverse is often true.

    Times change, times change.

  19. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    25. July 2011 at 05:54

    Morgan, people talk a lot about small businesses, but a lot of them have no growth potential. Family operated ones, for instance. What matters is new businesses that are growing. But “small business” sells politically. The same sort of political distortion gives us massive agriculture subsidies.

  20. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    25. July 2011 at 06:26


    I am not talking alot about it, here are the basics:

    2% of SMB’s generate over 50% of revenues. This is the group I’m concerned with… the top 2%.

    Think of them like college football players.

    Now most of the college football players (the top 2% will not go pro, but some will, and a few will be superstars.

    The point is we should treat college players special, far more special than we treat the ones who have already gone pro BECAUSE what we want is MORE TURNOVER at the pro level.

    That represents a change in the current system, that is the change I’m after.

    My solution is to let SMB owners pay themselves a salary across as many ventures as they are involved in, and freely move profits from one venture to another.

    The issue I have is situations like this:

    You and your business partner bought your first Blimpy franchise 5 years ago, and have grown it to five shops during that time.

    Your share of profits is passed-through as income.

    If you want to invest in landscaping business with your brother, you do so AFTER you paid taxes on the profits.

    This is wrong. And since getting rid of the income tax itself is a politically a bridge too far, I prefer that we all use our love of SMB owners to justify treating them BETTER than we treat other kinds of investors.

    Scott will say “end corporate taxes” – that’s a bridge to far.

    I’m after finding the most politically palatable way of making the top 2% of SMB owners GOLDEN GODS.

  21. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    25. July 2011 at 06:27

    Ending subsidies is politically easier these days than you imagine.

  22. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    25. July 2011 at 07:11

    Morgan, I don’t bet with individuals, I bet in betting markets. In any case, I claim no political expertise, I bet for fun.

    Robert, Thanks for the link, I enjoyed that.

    Cassander, Good point.

    Benjamin, Yes, a lot has changed.

  23. Gravatar of Ryan Fitzgerald Ryan Fitzgerald
    25. July 2011 at 07:18

    Hey Scott, former UC undergrad here, just wanted to say that the Lascivious Ball is still going and it is still very lascivous as of last year. Thanks so much for your blog, it is where I start every morning!

  24. Gravatar of Kailer Kailer
    25. July 2011 at 07:26

    I think a strong argument could be made that values are always utilitarian, but they change much slower than the actual utility calculus. I guess you could say that values are sticky. Consider the example you suggest of the sexual revolution. The biggest cost of having sex without the intent to reproduce is that you reproduce when you don’t intend to. This cost has gone down tremendously because of the ability to reduce the likelihood of the adverse outcome (invention of birth control), prevent it entirely (legal abortion), and the cost of the adverse outcome itself (social safety net). Absent these innovations there are strong utilitarian arguments to be made for the state and society to strongly discourage extramarital sex. Once these innovations occurred values began to slowly drift towards the more utilitarian equilibrium.

  25. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    25. July 2011 at 09:57

    Scott, I’m with you on being careful about our own convictions. Your Knausgaard quotation reminded me of Wittgenstein’s “If lions could talk, we wouldn’t understand them”. Language and semantics only work when contexts and backgrounds match to some extent between the people that communicate.

    But I do think that utility is a value judgment and as such you can’t disentangle it from other value judgments. So I don’t think you can predict the direction societies will be going because “utility” is not a single, predetermined set of outcomes.

    I’m over 10 years younger than you and I also never thought society (world wide) would regress so much towards puritanical values.

  26. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    25. July 2011 at 14:00

    Ryan, That’s good to know, but I’d guess it’s not quite as lascivious as in the 1970s. But boomers always feel that way. 🙂

    Hope you enjoy the UC program.

    Kailer, That’s a good point, but I still think we are getting more utilitarian. Our attitudes toward pain and suffering are definitely getting softer. And the types of people we care about is expanding. There’s no way that slavery was based on utilitarian considerations, whites didn’t give a damn about the suffering of slaves. We care more about the well-being of gays than we used to. Our old attitudes were more based on religion and prejudice.

    We are increasingly likely to ban things like dog fights.

    mbk, I don’t follow your argument about utility and value judgments. I completely agree that utilitarianism is a value judgment. I was simply making a prediction that our values would continue to evolve in the way they had been evolving. I didn’t mean to suggest that my prediction was based on some objective data that utility is the right value to maximize. That’s certainly up for debate. I was merely trying to predict the outcome of that debate.

    We shouldn’t have been surprised by the regress (progress?) toward Puritan values. Society has been going back and forth for centuries–it swings one way, then the other. But I admit I was surprised.

  27. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    25. July 2011 at 14:10

    Wow, they really do tailor the ads to the topic. Maybe I should stay away from this topic.

  28. Gravatar of cassander cassander
    25. July 2011 at 23:19

    Scott> Steven Pinker has a book coming out on the decline on violence. I’m quite eager to see what he will say.

  29. Gravatar of cassander cassander
    25. July 2011 at 23:19

    Woops, forgot the link:

  30. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    26. July 2011 at 00:00

    Cassander: probably further and better particulars from this TED talk.

    Scott: Obama winning? You think the economy will pick up dramatically between now and November 2012? Of course, the great virtue of Obama being re-elected is that “racist Amerika!” will look really silly.

  31. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    26. July 2011 at 06:41

    Cassander, Yes, that fact is well-documented.

    Lorenzo, No, but I think he’ll win anyway.

  32. Gravatar of Rien Huizer Rien Huizer
    26. July 2011 at 23:31


    You should have looked at all those maps and noticed that the most liberal country in the set (no restrictions on cannabis, abortion an drinking alcohol) has an age of consent of no less that 16. I presume the idea is that people are free to harm themselves, and face hurdles when they come up with frivolous (like in the US) bedroom stories that are impossible to prove. In other words, there is not much of a discussion (and no ignorant juries either) The utilitarian argument would then be that below 16 there is no discussion either: no one is free to sexually harm a minor. Makes for a very efficient crime management system.

  33. Gravatar of Rien Huizer Rien Huizer
    26. July 2011 at 23:39


    As to utilitarianism in general, I doubt it. Utilitarianism has roots in rationalism and a good indicator of rationalism is the popularity of cults, fundamentalization of religions and intellectual quality needed for successful mass media advertizing.

    The kids are getting more often religious (than 20 years ago) and where they already are religious, more “fundamentalist” . The marketeers are also addressing them with increasingly irrational fare despite these kids being educated to ignore (mote than their parents ever were), for instance, fast food advertising. Does that give you a demographic of increasing utilitariansm over the next couple of generations? Guess not.

  34. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    27. July 2011 at 07:45

    Rien, The young people today seem much more utilitarian to me. Consider how they strongly favor gay rights.

  35. Gravatar of Rien Huizer Rien Huizer
    27. July 2011 at 18:16


    I do not think those religious kids would be opposed to gay rights (at least in Europe), because they have a warm, fuzzy, happy sort of religious experience. Drug free and “good”. Compassion with the underdog is a big part of that and why not with gays. They were taught (at least in Europe) that it is very wrong to discriminate on the basis of gender.

    It is something that keeps attracting the attention of older people in Europe (who tend to be much more “postmodern” -whatever that may mean and are watching in surprise (or horror) how these kids submerge themselves in this. A bit like the pietist movements (and socialism) springing up everywhere in the first part of the 18th century. With a modern twist of course. But what I know about it is quite anecdotal.

  36. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    28. July 2011 at 06:06

    Rien, That’s interesting, I didn’t know that.

  37. Gravatar of q q
    1. August 2011 at 12:29

    > q, I don’t agree about Reagan as that’s when gay rights took off. Reagan had no interest in social issues.

    oh come on, you’re talking about a president who had national forest/park service personnel harass folks for not wearing clothes in remote western wilderness.

  38. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    1. August 2011 at 17:47

    q, Well, I’m not sure that’s a major “social issue” and I doubt Reagan spent much time on it. It certainly has nothing to do with gay rights. But I agree those people shouldn’t have been harassed.

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