Category Archives: Social Criticism

The World is Not a Therapy Session

Braver Angels does fantastic work helping people improve conversations with those they have significant and stress-inducing disagreements with so that they can gain greater mutual understanding of each other, thereby reducing polarization. It seems to work. As I noted earlier, though, the desire to maintain or improve one’s relationships with others is only one of the two main reasons we engage in discourse. The other is to exchange information, both “teaching” and “learning.” As I noted in that previous post, I worry about the “truth deficit” likely to emerge if we stress mutual understanding (of each other rather than of each other’s views). Here, I’ll discuss this a bit further.

What is encouraged in Braver Angels’ workshops is active listening, where one attends to what the other says, providing non-verbal clues of interest, along with reflecting back to the other what they said. In a therapeutic setting, reflecting back to another what they said can be incredibly useful. “People like having their thoughts and feelings reflected back to them” (Tania Israel, page 51) and so increases their comfort level when in therapy, thereby allowing them to open up. For therapeutic purposes, it seems really quite useful. Nonetheless, I have long been uncomfortable with it in other settings.

I had a date once with a woman who, throughout dinner, reflected back to me what I had said. It so threw me off that I didn’t really know what to make of it. I don’t recall how long it took for me to realize that she might have resorted to the tactic because she found what I was saying antithetical to her own views (I don’t recall what we were discussing). I’ll never know for sure as I found it so distasteful that I never saw her again. If the same thing would’ve happened today, I’d probably ask why she was doing it, but I suspect there are others who would do as I did and walk away. (I don’t deny, of course, that others appreciate it.)

Again, the technique has value—there is good evidence that it helps people feel comfortable which can be useful both in developing relationships and in therapy situations (see Israel footnotes 5 and 6 on page 74). Importantly, though, the world is not a therapy session and sometimes what matters is exchanging information, not (or not merely) developing a relationship. Put another way, while it’s true that we sometimes want to develop a relationship and learn about the person, other times we want to figure out the truth about a topic and are less willing to except the truth deficit. If we are trying to persuade someone to change their views about abortion, capitalism, gun control, immigration, schools, welfare rights, or any number of other contentious topics, we might want to know more about our interlocutor, but we also just want to persuade—or be persuaded. (Part of why we want to know who they are is to determine how we might persuade them!)

To be clear, when we are engaging in a serious discussion with someone about an issue we disagree about, we should be open to the possibility that the view we start the conversation with is mistaken and that we can thus learn from our interlocutor. Of course, when we start, we will believe we are right and hope to teach (persuade) the other, but we have to know we can be wrong. We should also be open to the possibility that neither of us is right and there is some third position (perhaps somewhere between our view and theirs, perhaps not) that is better still. What is important in these cases, though, is figuring out the truth about the issue (or getting closer to it). We shouldn’t give that up lightly.

Getting to the truth may, in some instances, be aided by reflecting to each other what we’ve said. Obviously, if we do not understand what our interlocutor has said we should ask them to explain. Sometimes we simply need some clarification. We need to know, after all, that we are actually talking about the same thing and we need to understand where our views overlap and where they do not. Sometimes, also, we might ask someone to repeat what they say in different words to make sure we understand; we might also do it for them (common in teaching). But if reflecting back to each other is used for other reasons (making the other feel comfortable, for example), I wonder how far it goes. It seems to me that we need to challenge each other. Sometimes, we may even need to be abrasive—or to have others be abrasive toward us. This can help us improve our own views. (For more on that see Emily Chamlee-Wright’s article on the topic here, as well as my response. See also Hrishikesh Joshi’s Why Its OK to Speak Your Mind.)

In short, it seems to me that in normal discourse with someone with whom we disagree, we ought to be at least as concerned with determining the best view as we are with making each other comfortable. Making each other comfortable is important, but perhaps primarily as a precursor to honest conversation. If I say, for example, that “I believe we should have completely open economic borders, perhaps just keeping out known criminals” and you reply “let me be sure I understand; you think we should not stop anyone from coming into the country (perhaps unless they are criminals in their own country) even if it means they take our jobs, push for an end to Judeo-Christianity, and bring in drugs,” I am likely to skip over the first part—which strikes me as unnecessary and vaguely insulting—and move on to the latter claims, which I think are all mistakes. I might think “OK, so they wanted to be clear” or “OK, they wanted time to gather their thoughts,” but if it becomes a regular part of the conversation, I am less likely to continue engaging (and, frankly, less likely to trust the other). I may even wonder why why people approach all of life as if it’s a therapy session.

Three News Items to Rally Around

Since I spend a good bit of my time thinking about polarization and ways to combat it, I thought I would bring attention to three recent news items that should help reduce polarization but seem to mostly go unnoticed.

First, there is this from WaPo 10/24/2021, about a police chief in a town in Georgia, seeking to have police officers shoot to incapacitate rather than to kill (so, shooting in the legs or abdomen, for example, instead of the chest).  Of course, it would be best if no one had to be shot at all, but those that (rightly) complain about police violence should be embracing this as an improvement as it would presumably mean fewer killings by police.  And those who worry endlessly about “law and order” would seem to have to choose between that and saying “yeah, we don’t mind it if the police kill people.”  Since the latter would likely be seen as including some nefarious beliefs, it’s hard to imagine why they, too, wouldn’t embrace it.

Second, from NYT 11/3/2021, is a short about a Swiss company literally taking CO2 out of the air and making soda with it. Why everyone isn’t talking about this ecstatically is beyond me. I know folks on the (pretty far) left who worry endlessly about global warming and claim we have to stop this and stop that to at least slow it down before we all die. I know folks on the (pretty far) right who claim, more or less, that global warming is fake news. Either way, this should be good news. If global warming is fake, then this sort of technological advancement may be uninteresting in the long run—but those on the right should be happy to say “OK, we know you’re worried, why don’t you invest in this to help?” If its not fake news (fwiw, it’s not), this may be the way to save us and the planet. Those on the left (assuming they don’t want simply to be victims and keep fighting about “green new deal” sort of regulations) should be embracing the possibilities, declaring “yes, we need more of this as a good way forward without killing the economy and making everyone worse off.”

Finally, from Axios 11/5/2021, is a story on the jobs report.  In a nutshell, “America has now recovered 80% of the jobs lost at the depth of the recession in 2020. … Wages are still rising: Average hourly earnings rose another 11 cents an hour in October, to $30.96. That’s enough to keep up with inflation.”  I know that some question the specific numbers.  That’s no surprise.  What is surprising (even given how bad Dems usually are on messaging) is that Biden and the Dems haven’t been touting this at every chance.  It should please Reps a well except that it may make some swing voters less likely to go to their side.  

The above three stories are pretty clearly good news for everyone.   The third is perhaps better for Dems than Reps, but somehow they haven’t decided to hype it up or use it as a way to convince moderate legislators or voters to help them.  The first and second are good for everyone.  Yet it doesn’t seem like many are talking about any of the three.  It’s almost as if both sides of our political divide want to remain divided.  And to alienate those of us who refuse to take either side.  Or perhaps they want to clearly demonstrate that neither side should be taken seriously and it’s high time for a party to emerge in the middle. 

The “middle” here might be interesting.  What party consistently opposes state coercion and force against civilians?  What party consistently opposes the state looking the other way when negative externalities become worse and worse?  What party consistently favors policies that grow the economy so that all will do better?  There is such a party, even if it has its own problems.

Vaccines, Science, Judgement, & Discourse

My very first entry into this blog—back on July 2, 2020—was about wearing face coverings because of Covid. That was fairly early into the pandemic, but I think the post has aged very well and I still stand by it.  It seems clear that when there are many cases of a serious new infection, people should wear masks if they go into an enclosed space with lots of unknown others. I also think, though, that it would be wrong to have government mandates requiring that people wear masks (except in places, like nursing homes, where the occupants would be at a known and significant risk) and that private businesses should decide the policy for their brick and mortar operations, just as individuals should decide the policy for their homes.  There is nothing inconsistent in any of that.

Similarly, it seems to me that everybody who can, should want to be inoculated against serious infections (having had the actual infection is likely sufficient). Again, that doesn’t mean that it should be government mandated. (I’m so pro-choice, I think people should be able to choose things that are bad and foolish; I don’t think they should be able to choose things that clearly cause harms to others, but neither the vaccine nor its rejection by an individual does that, so far as I can tell.) We shouldn’t need government mandates to encourage us to follow the science.  So let’s discuss that.  

Acetylsalicylic Acid alleviates headaches, fevers, and other pains.  I don’t know how that works.  Here’s a guess: the acid kills the nerves that are firing.  I actually doubt there is any accuracy in that guess at all, but it doesn’t matter.  I don’t need to know how aspirin works.  I know it works and is generally safe so I use it. How do I know this?  It’s been well tested, both by scientists and by tremendous numbers of people throughout the world.

Now, I actually think I have a better sense of how vaccines work than how aspirin works, though I doubt that holds for the new mRNA vaccines and I realize I could be wrong.  Again it doesn’t really matter.  I’ll use them nonetheless—and for the same reason. The fact is that most of the time, most or all of us simply trust in science.  We use elevators, escalators, cars, planes, trains, clothing with new-fangled fabrics, shoes with new-fangled rubber, foods with all sorts of odd new additives, etc.—all of which were developed with science.  And we don’t usually let that bother us.  

What seems to me foolish in standard vaccine refusal is roughly the same as what seems foolish to me in opposition to using the insecticide DEET in areas where mosquitoes carry malaria, which kills many people. It’s true that the DEET causes some significant problems, but it is unlikely that those problems are worse than the many deaths that would result without it.  This seems clear just based on historical use of the chemical. Similarly, vaccines may cause some problems but the (recent) historical use suggests pretty clearly that they save lives.

Of course, there are always mistakes.  Science is constantly evolving—it is more of a process, after all, than a single state of knowledge.  Scientists make mistakes.  Worse, sometimes scientists bend to their desires and sometimes industries have enough financial power to change the way science is presented. (Looking at you, sugar Industry!) Given that and a personal distrust of government, I certainly understand when people want to wait for evidence to settle.

A drug or other scientific advancement used too early may well turn out to be more problematic than its worth.  But aspirin has been well tested.  And vaccines have been well tested.  Even the recent Covid vaccines have been well tested.  The fact is you are far more likely to die from Covid if you are unvaccinated than if you are.  Granted, the odds of dying either way are thankfully slim for most of us.  But what people are now faced with is a free and easy way to avoid (a small chance of) death.  Admittedly, it’s possible that in 20 years we’ll learn that these new vaccines cause cancer or such.  But scientific advancement will continue and the fight against cancer is already far better than it was any time in the past.  So the option is between a free and easy way to avoid a chance of death or serious illness now combined with some chance of added problem later that we may know how to deal with and, well, not avoiding that.  Maybe this is a judgement call, but the former seems pretty clearly the better option in standard cases.  (Other downsides, so far as I can tell, are mostly fictitious.  If you’re worried about a computer chip embedded in the vaccine, for example, realize you could have had one put in you when you were born.)

About it being a judgement call. Consider using a GPS.  Some people just slavishly listen to the directions from their GPS. Unfortunately, this can have pretty bad results.  Other people refuse to use a GPS at all, perhaps thinking they have to do it on their own. For me, the GPS (in my phone) is a tool that is helpful to get where I need to go when I can’t really remember all the directions well or simply don’t trust my ability to do so. Still, I listen to the GPS and sometimes override its directions, for example, if I think it’s going in an unsafe way or a way that’s likely to cause more problems.  Here too, judgment is needed.

Unfortunately, we all seem to think we individually have great judgment even though it’s obvious that not all of us do.  Or perhaps better, none of us do all of the time.  Sometimes one has to recognize that we have to trust others to know better than we do.  

So, what should we do?  We should each try to be honest with ourselves about whether our judgment is likely to be better than those telling us to do other than we would choose. We should listen to people who are actually able to consider all of the relevant evidence.  Because it’s unlikely that any single source of information will always be completely trustworthy, we should likely listen to variety of generally trustworthy sources. 

We need to find people we can rely on—mentors or people recognized as experts in the relevant field—and take their views seriously.  This may simply push the problem back a step: those whose judgment lead them to make bad choices may simply choose to listen to other people with similarly bad judgement.  That is a real problem worth further investigation.  My only suggestion here is to trust those who are leading good lives and who have the trust of their professional peers.  I don’t pretend that is sufficient, but can’t say more here except to note that we can only hope to get better decisions, for ourselves and others, if we have better discussions.  To that end, see this postAlso, realize that if people would in fact standardly make better decisions (in part by having better discussions prior to making decisions), there would be less call for government intervention.  Indeed, if we had better conversations across the board, we would have less people wanting government intervention.  Realizing that those who have suffered through COVID are inoculated, for example, should stop others from trying to pressure them to get vaccinated.


Thanks to Lauren Hall, Connor Kianpour, and JP Messina for suggesting ays to improve this post.

Community, Selfish Miscreants, and Civil Discourse

In my last post, I discussed the paradox of community. Recently, I was reminded of one standard way that paradox is ignored and debates within communities are badly framed.  Its worth considering this as a way not to proceed if one wants to improve civil discourse.

Typically, one of the parties in a dispute about the way the community should move—and this could be newcomers or long time members, though it’s more likely to be the latter simply because they likely have some cohesiveness as a group—is to claim they represent the overall community while the other side is simply selfishly representing themselves.  The dialogue might be explicitly put in terms of those who are selfish and those who are selfless or in terms of those interested only in themselves and those interested in the community as a whole. 

Here is an example: One group might say they are seeking to add a pool to the community (at the expense of all community members) because it would be good for the community as a whole, giving community members a location and activity in which to foster discussion which is good for encouraging community (by strengthening the relationships of community members) while also (of course) providing a form of exercise to keep community members healthy. Advocates of the pool might then say they’ve talked to many of the others in the community who also want the pool and so those who advocate for the pool are really the “we” while those arguing against the pool are selfishly concerned only with their own finances and not with the health of their community members or the community itself. 

The pool issue is thus framed as one between those concerned with “we, the community” and those concerned with “the me”—anyone arguing against the pool is portrayed as being selfishly concerned only with their own interests, unable to suppress their selfishness for the greater good of the “we” that is the whole community. They don’t even understand that as part of the “we,” getting the pool would be good for them! This, of course, is nonsense. (See Isaiah Berlin’s statement about “positive liberty” on pages 22-24 here.)

Consider a different way the issue might have been framed if those opposing the pool started the discussion.  They would insist they have the community’s interests at heart, worried that the added expense will be hard on community members, that some may genuinely fear a pool (perhaps a sibling drowned in in a pool), and that all community members will have additional liability, not merely financial, moving forward.  In short, on their view, the addition of a pool puts a strain on community members, and thereby strains the community.  They then insist that those advocating for a pool are selfish, interested in something only a few swimmers will benefit from, while all share the costs.  

Again, the pool issue is framed as one between those concerned with “we, the community” and those concerned with “the me”—this time, anyone arguing for the pool is portrayed as being selfishly concerned only with their own interests, unable to suppress their selfishness for the greater good of the “we” that is the whole community. They don’t even understand that as part of the “we,” not getting a pool would be good for them!  This, of course, is again nonsense.

In both scenarios—one where pool advocates control the terms of debate and one where anti-pool folks control the terms of the debate—the other side Is said to be selfish, each on that side only concerned with the “I.”  The possibility that they are genuinely concerned with the entire community is disregarded in the normal Orwellian move to use language to one’s advantage regardless of truth. (If it’s old-timers arguing for one side, they might even try to “explain”—Orwell style—that those arguing against it are newcomers who don’t understand the importance of the “we” in this community because they are still embedded in the “me” culture.  They may even believe this.)*

This way of engaging in discourse with others—whether in a small community or a large polity—is misguided at best.  Once again, what we need is open and honest discourse where all realize that disagreement is possible (even likely) and useful and that those we disagree with can be honest and well meaning.  Insistence on labeling those we disagree with “selfish” is a more likely indication that one is a miscreant than being so labeled.


*For my part, I wish people would get over thinking there was something wrong with being concerned with one’s own interests. If people would really concern themselves with their own interests (and that of their own family and friends), they would spend less time bothering others (see this). They might even be more receptive to open and honest dialogue.

The Paradox of Community

Conceptually, community is distinct from neighborhood.  A community can be in a neighborhood, but it might instead consist of widespread people who share some commonality (the community of PPE scholars, for example).  A neighborhood, for its part, may merely be a place people live, not knowing those that also live there. 

Take communities to be groups of people bound together by traditions. Traditions are essential to community. They also vary by community. They might be matters of language, religion, commitment to country, behaviors, holidays, heritage, or any number of other things, some requiring more strict abidance by group norms, some requiring less. Traditions necessarily (but, importantly, not always problematically) hold us back, keep us limited—for the simple reason that people are committed to them. When people are committed to one way of doing things, they are resistant to changes to it. A commitment to car culture, for example, makes it less likely that a group would find (or even look for) an alternative means of transportation. (Or accept such if offered. Think of Segways—why aren’t these available for long distance use? or sealed from rain and cold?)

While traditions hold people back, they also provide a foundation for change.  From the security of being able to interact with others in accepted ways, one can develop new ways to do so—and new ways not to do so.  Because they have traditions, communities make it possible to innovate. Innovation, though, can cause the community to change or even disintegrate. Tradition and innovation are symbiotic even while they simultaneously threaten each other.  Call this the paradox of community (it’s at least a significant tension).

The paradox of community—the fact that a community’s traditions make innovation possible while simultaneously trying to prevent innovation (because innovation could bring the end of the tradition)—makes life in community … interesting.

Another fact about communities is that they either grow or die; stasis is illusory. Communities grow as their members change (some join, some exit, some change themselves), innovate, bring about changes to the traditions (adding some, altering others, ending still others). This is why the paradox is so important.

Some within a community can become so committed to a particular tradition(s) of the community that they work to slow the pace of the community’s growth in order to prevent the altering or ending of their favored tradition(s) or the inclusion of others.  They may do this by trying to encourage newcomers to learn and accept the existing traditions of the community or by actively working to create an environment whereby those seeking change are limited. If they succeed too much—preventing any change in the community’s traditions—they attain stagnation rather than stasis.  This is because absence of change in a community (as for an individual person or any animal) brings the end of the community.  It means no new members–and with no new members, it dies as it’s members die.  Change—innovation—is essential to community.

Of course, new people may attempt to join the community. When they do, they would bring their own histories, cultures, beliefs, and ideals. They could (and perhaps should) learn about the community’s ways of doing things. That is consistent with their bringing their own ways of doings (and their histories, cultures, beliefs, and ideals). It is consistent, that is, with change. But if those within the community seek to limit change, they may try instead to indoctrinate the newcomers into the community’s traditions so that they live as those in the community now live, rather than bringing anything different. Indoctrination thus treats newcomers as having nothing of their own to contribute, as if their histories, cultures, beliefs, and ideals have no place in the community. Newcomers would thus not be allowed to bring their ideas and preferences into the community’s traditions–those traditions would not be allowed to change. Such newcomers are, then, likely to exit the community. (Notice that this does not mean they physically move away or drop their official membership–remember, communities are not the same as neighborhoods (or associations)).

To build community, change must be permitted. This means that all in the community must listen to each other, open to hearing new things that might be incorporated into the web of community activity and the traditions that shape them. This does not mean jettisoning everything previously held dear, but it does mean being open to the possibility of doing so (likely not all at once). Long time members of the community can teach newer members how things were or are done, but that counts no more than what newer members bring to the table. Importantly, those whose ideas are rejected out of hand have no reason to participate in the community. Ignoring this–thinking that all learning here is in one direction–will simply give rise to factions, splintering what was a community, killing it while perhaps giving birth to new, smaller, communities as those factions continue to grow.

So, both tradition and innovation are essential to community. What this means, in part, is that while change is necessary, the pace of change may be too much for some people within a community, at least those committed to one or more of its traditions. Still change can’t be stopped; a successful attempt to stop it, kills the community. The question for those in a community is thus whether their favored tradition(s) and it’s (or their) history are more important than the community itself. To side with a tradition is to side with those no longer present; to side with community is to side with those currently constituting the community—including those who wish to see change.

Of course, those siding with a tradition may take that tradition to have independent value and thus to be worth protecting. They may take this to be a principled defense of preventing change in the community. It is not. The community from which a defended tradition stems, like all communities, must be able to change. (Again, stagnation means death.) Indeed, all surviving communities have what can reasonably be called traditions of change–ways that change takes place. So when defenders of one tradition seek to prevent change, they are pitting one part of the community and its traditions against another and claiming that one of the traditions should be defended at the cost of another—their favored tradition at the cost of the community’s tradition of change. That, though, is just a preference. One cannot just assume that one favored tradition is more valuable than another. After all, those seeking change may rightly claim to be defending a tradition of change within the community.

Putting the last point differently, those seeking change are defending the community as the community currently is and is growing with its current members and their preferences. Those seeking to prevent change, by contrast, are defending only part of the community—some specific tradition(s) they happen to prefer—and, by seeking stagnation, killing the community.

Lest I be thought too critical of defenders of particular traditions, I should note that I do not think there is a good principled reason for either protecting particular traditions or for changing or jettisoning them. In either case, on my view, further considerations are necessary. What we need to determine, on my view, is when interference is justifiably permitted–what principles of interference we ought to accept rather than simply what traditions we happen to prefer. (I discuss some such considerations here and in my 2014.)

Rainbow Capitalism

Suppose you have a beach house and a “friend,” Jane, who invites herself to use it all the time. I put “friend” in quotes because Jane does not actually value you as a friend; she values you only for your beach house. From July to May, Jane is hard to get in touch with. Every time you reach out to her, she comes up with transparent excuses about how busy she is. But during the month of June, Jane eagerly reaches out to you and ingratiates herself to you so that she can enjoy your beach house during her vacation month. When you eventually sell your beach house because of financial troubles, Jane predictably stops associating with you.

If you are anything like me, you will have a low opinion of someone like Jane. By someone like Jane, I mean someone who feigns intimacy with someone or some group of people to advance her own interests, without affording due consideration to the interests of the person or persons with whom she is feigning intimacy. Unfortunately, there are many Janes in the world. But not all Janes are individual people. Sometimes, they are corporations. 

LGBT+ Pride month is coming to a close, and so too are the annual discussions about “rainbow capitalism.” For those who are unfamiliar with the term, rainbow capitalism refers to how corporations pander to the LGBT+ community and its allies, especially during Pride month, by branding their products with Pride symbols such as rainbows. Some believe, for example, Target essentially does to LGBT+ people what Jane does to you in the scenario above: Target ingratiates itself to the LGBT+ community to profit from the sale of limited-edition merchandise, without ever substantively showing concern for LGBT+ people. Others, however, argue that rainbow capitalism, if not wholly good, is “a step in the right direction” because it normalizes LGBT+ representation in public. After all, just 15 years ago we would not have dreamed of the public embracing Pride the way it does today. 

In my view, both and neither of these positions is correct. If Target were doing to LGBT+ people what Jane does to you, then Target would be engaging in problematic rainbow capitalism. But this is not what Target is doing. To see this, let’s return to our example with Jane. Suppose that instead of valuing you for your beach house alone, Jane valued you for many reasons. She values your happiness and flourishing for your own sake among other things. Still, in addition to all of that, she also values being able to go to your beach house. When you sell your beach house, Jane is upset, but supports you and respects your decision. This is closer to what Target does when it engages in rainbow capitalism: Target employs LGBT+ people, has an LGBTQ+ diversity business council, published a Pride manifesto, and took a stand for transgender people when the transgender bathroom controversy was ablaze, in addition to branding merchandise with rainbows for profit during the month of June. To be a rainbow capitalist under these conditions seems to me genuinely benign. 

Now consider a different case. Some corporations have allegedly donated substantial sums of money to anti-LGBT+ organizations. It is not always clear what one means when they say that an organization is anti-LGBT+, though, so let’s stipulate that a hypothetical organization lobbies to abolish the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, and some multinational corporation funnels hundreds of millions of dollars to this organization. Then, during Pride month, the corporation slaps rainbows and “#LoveIsLove” on tees they sell to profit off of the LGBT+ community and its allies. This is clearly problematic, and worthy of criticism. Still, some will insist that the corporation participating in Pride by selling limited-edition merchandise is good on balance because it represents the strides we’ve taken toward including LGBT+ people in our society.

Social inclusion, of course, has value. Still, social inclusion for the right reasons has even greater value. It may be valuable for the awkward friend to be invited to an important party, even if the only reason he is invited is because he is friends with people cooler than he, who are also invited. But it would be of undoubtedly greater value to the awkward friend to be invited to that party because the party host likes him and wants him there. In my view, criticisms of rainbow capitalism are legitimate when they are aimed at getting corporations to treat LGBT+ people with dignity year-round, rather than showing indifference or hostility to the community until it benefits them enough to hypocritically proclaim their commitment to equality. This does not necessarily mean that we should boycott businesses that are transparently performative in allying themselves with the LGBT+ community, or that we should demand they stop selling flamboyant paraphernalia during Pride month. But it does mean that we can (and should!), in some way, hold corporations to account for failing to live up to an ideal of inclusion for the right reasons.

Thanks to Andrew J. Cohen for feedback on an earlier draft of this post.

By the way, Radical Classical Liberals turns 1 tomorrow! Honored to be a part of it. 

   

Against Busybody Moves to Limit Liberty


I grew up in a fairly densely populated but suburban area, primarily with single family homes and duplexes. Each home had a yard, perhaps 30 feet by 75, mostly fenced in. We knew all of our neighbors on the block—say a dozen homes on each side—and a few on surrounding blocks. Many moved there from more crowded, mostly urban areas. Some people had vegetable gardens in their back yards, most did not. (Almost) no one had farm animals. I am not sure if there were any laws prohibiting such. A neighbor on the next block over (but only 4 houses away from us), had chickens in their yard. Chickens! For some, this was scandalous. The idea that someone might keep live chickens in their yard in our neighborhood was just appalling to them. And they did their best to rid the neighborhood of this apparently appalling pox on mankind. I no longer recall if they succeeded—I don’t think they did, but I may be wrong.

To be honest, back then I didn’t think much about those chickens—or those adults seeking to get them out of the neighborhood. Lately, I find myself thinking a lot about such people and the immense variety of things they would prohibit. Of course, some things should be banned—involuntary slavery, for example. Unfortunately, though, the list of things for which there are advocates of prohibition is extremely lengthy. That list includes:

large sodas; alcohol; cigarettes; marijuana, cocaine, other currently illicit drugs; certain books and magazines; curse words and profanity; hateful speech; guns; chickens, pigs, and rabbits (in suburban or urban areas); tall grass; parking on an unpaved space, even on one’s own property; crossing the street against the light, even when no cars anywhere around; non-standard building structures; non-standard colors for homes; homes built less than 30 feet apart; homosexuality; non-monogamous intimate relationships; intimate relationships with more than 2 partners; picking up prescription medications for one’s spouse; working for a wage below some minimum (perhaps a legally enforced minimum, perhaps someone’s idea of a “liveable wage”); grants from corporate donors; and far more.

As noted, some things should be prohibited. Involuntary slavery, murder, and rape are obvious examples. None of the items on the list above are like those three. All three necessarily make use of unconsented-to force against another. (In language I use elsewhere, all necessarily involve the wrongful setting back of one or more person’s interests by another.) None of the other things I’ve named above do that. And yet, there people have proposed banning each. The arguments for banning them usually involve one or more of four rationales. There are, of course, sophisticated arguments for and against each of these; here I just point out a simple problem with each. The four rationales and a simple objection to each are:

(1) The items in question or their uses are bad for the user, reducing their level of well-being. BUT: It’s interesting that those making these claims—for example, that accepting a job for less than a “liveable” or legally minimum wage is bad for you and you thus shouldn’t be allowed to accept it–don’t seem to consider the possibility that they themselves likely do things that might be bad for them. For example, proponents of such bans might work long hours, drink too much alcohol, care too much about the prevailing zeitgeist, etc. Perhaps those things should be banned. More time with family, relaxing, communing with nature, etc, is likely better for you than working long hours after all. It’s not clear why it’s less reasonable to ban comparatively long hours than it is to ban comparatively low wages. Some people, after all, may be quite happy being productive at some task without making alot of money. Proponents of bans for paternalist based reasons seem generally incapable of imagining that other people might think something they like is bad for them. (I am not denying that there are objective standards of what is good or bad for someone; I am denying such claims justify limiting liberty, whether they are objective or not.)

(2) The items in question or their uses are somehow offensive to others. BUT: Again, it’s interesting that those making these claims—for example, that pornography is offensive and should thus be banned–don’t seem to consider the possibility that others might find something they like or do offensive. Indeed, some of us might find the attempt to ban pornography offensive. It’s not clear why it’s less reasonable to think banning pornography is offensive than permitting it. A ban, after all, might make people mistakenly think there is something wrong with nudity or sexuality, essential aspects of being a human person. Proponents of bans for offense based reasons seem generally incapable of imagining that other people might find something they like offensive. (Again, I am not denying that there are objective standards of offensiveness; I am denying such claims justify limiting liberty, whether they are objective or not.)

(3) Banning the items or their use is good for others not using them (even if the items or their use do not offend or harm those others). Robby’s carrying a gun puts others at risk; Jill’s doing meth in the house next door might lower their property value. BUT: It’s not clear how much risk is usually present in these sorts of cases or why someone else’s benefit justifies interference with Robby or Jill. Of course, if the risk of gun carrying is sufficiently high, banning it would really be about protecting others from harm, not merely benefitting them–and that, I agree, would be a good reason to prohibit something. But while reducing the risk of a harm is a benefit, the claim here is only about benefiting someone, not reducing the risk of a harm. If I gift you $1000, I benefit you, but not gifting you the $1000 is not harming you. Banning meth in my neighborhood may well benefit me in terms of raising my property values—something I am very happy to see happen. But does my preference for increased property values justify interfering with Jill’s use of meth? Would it justify punishing Sally for keeping her yard messy? Banning Sheila’s use of an old, falling apart car? All of those things—visible meth use, messy yards, and junker cars— would reduce property values in a neighborhood. And again, proponents of interference with some to benefit others don’t seem to recognize that there are lots of ways to interfere with them–the proponents of interference--to help others. Perhaps they could be forced to teach at a local school, pay higher taxes, clean up messy yards, help out at addiction clinics, fix up cars. (And again, I am not denying that there are objective standards of benefit; I am denying such claims justify limiting liberty, whether they are objective or not.)

(4) The items in question (or their uses) are themselves immoral. (I’ve written about this here before; e.g., see this, this, and this.) BUT: Arguments for such immorality are usually not forthcoming and of course, proponents of these claims of immorality never consider the possibility that their interference with the way other people choose to live their lives is itself immoral. It’s precisely, of course, the sort of problem solved in Loving v Virginia and Obergefell v. Hodges. Thankfully, we no longer abide by the wishes of those who would ban interracial or same sex marriage. The busybodies that wanted to interfere with such were defeated. If only we could defeat the rest of the busybodies wishing to interfere in the lives of their neighbors. Again, proponents of bans for morality based reasons seem generally incapable of imagining that other people might find something they like immoral. While some think a marriage of 3 or more people is immoral, others think that heteronormative marriage is immoral. While some think cocaine and meth use are immoral, some think alcohol use is immoral. Some of us think banning any of these is immoral. (And again, I am not denying that there are objective standards of morality; I am denying such claims are usually accompanied with good arguments about such, or that they would justify limiting liberty, whether they are objective or not.)

As suggested, I think the only good reason to ban something is that it is itself harmful or used to cause harm. But it’s not enough merely to assert that something (guns, alcohol, what have you) causes harm. We need—and often don’t get—clear evidence of the harms discussed and why/how they are necessarily connected to the items for which a ban is sought.

So why are attempts to prohibit things so frequent (and too often successful)? It seems clear enough that the proponents of bans that get attention are simply good at working other people into a frenzy to join their crusade, whether the crusade be for good or bad (though it’s always claimed to be for good). Such people, it seems to me, rather enjoy imposing their desires on others–either because they are not satisfied with the degree of control they have over their own life (perhaps it is not enough) or because they are not satisfied with having control only over their own life (perhaps its too much!). It is a desire for power over others rather than a desire for power to live ones life as one wishes that seems to drive these people. We might do well to figure out how to decrease the occurrence of such a desire. (Even if not prohibiting it!)

Congressional SnowFlakes

I wasn’t going to write anything about this as it seemed too obvious to comment on, but I haven’t seen others do so—and it is worth noticing.

There has been, and continues to be, talk about college students and people on the left as “snow flakes” and weak/soft/thin-skinned, too easily hurt by speakers on campus. The extent to which college students take offense at comments may (or not) be greater than it was in the past. Last week, though, we saw Republican Congresspeople doing the same thing. See this.

Liz Cheney has been telling the truth about the 2020 election and (some of) the lies coming from Donald Trump and his sycophants. She has not, so far as I have seen, been particularly rude about it. She has simply pointed out that some people seem intent on enabling and spreading Trump’s lies. The response includes claims of being offended and “hurt.” (TN Rep. Chuck Fleishmann: “It hurt me very much.” A lobbyist: “what she’s said was offensive to me, and many others.”)

It is not unusual on college campuses to hear claims that speech can harm so badly that we should not only be concerned, but also set policies to prevent such. Speech codes were/are meant to prevent harm. This is the sort of concept creep—where we talk of things previously thought non-harmful as harmful—that I worried about in my Toleration and Freedom from Harm and that Frank Furedi worried about in his On Tolerance.

Furedi’s concern was with acceptance of a “transformation of distress into a condition of emotional injury” (106) that would be used to justify interference meant to silence discussions that might somehow endanger those offended (or those they pretend to protect). A standard response is that such people are too weak to hear (or have others hear) anything that might offend them, cause them to doubt themselves, or that simply might not put them in the best light. Cheney is clearly not putting most of those in her party in the best light and offending some to the point of “hurt.” One wonders if her detractors will try to pass some sort of congressional speech code.

Collective vs. Individual Risk Assessment: An Illustration

This is a guest post by John Hasnas (Georgetown University)


I move between two worlds. I work at Georgetown University in Washington, DC and I live in the Lake Barcroft community in Northern Virginia. The former is governed by the collective risk assessment made by the government of the District of Columbia and the University. The latter is largely governed by the individual risk assessments made by the residents. The former is a sad, lonely, and oppressive place. The latter is a cheerful, friendly, happy place.

This semester I have been teaching a hybrid class at the Georgetown Law Center. Entering the building in the hours before class is like stepping into the twilight zone episode, “Where Is Everybody?” in which Earl Holliman wanders through a totally deserted city. The class is held, not in a classroom, but in a large auditorium, which in pre-pandemic times seated 328 people. Now a maximum of 35 out of the 105 enrolled students sit in their own 42 square foot bubbles. The students, all of whom have tested negative for the coronavirus, are required to wear masks at all times and are not permitted to eat or drink in the building. During the 10 minute break in the 2 hour class, they must stand on little blue circles on the floor separated by 6 feet when they talk to each other. The law school encourages students and staff who observe violations of these rules to report the offenders who may then be barred from campus. Some of my students were reported for taking their masks off to eat or drink during the break and for standing too close to each other. I have been fully vaccinated since March 13, but I must teach wearing a mask.

The Lake Barcroft community surrounds a lake that has several artificially created beaches. Sunday was a beautiful, warm, sunny day in Northern Virginia. I decided to take a kayak out onto the lake for relaxation and little exercise. When I got to the beach it was filled with people. Families were playing together. Kids were wading and paddling around on kayaks and paddle boards. Several groups of friends, both teenagers and adults, were socializing together or playing frisbee or spike ball. There was laughter. And nary a mask in sight.

On the other hand, on my way to the beach, I passed individuals and couples who were out for a walk by themselves, some wearing masks, some not. Some of these crossed the street to make sure they did not come too close to me. Everyone nodded or waved hello as we passed.

I am fairly certain that my students and I would behave differently if we were free to make our own risk assessments. I believe that several of my students who are aware that everyone in the room has tested negative for Covid would sit closer together, socialize more in the break, and perhaps not wear masks. I certainly would not wear a mask when teaching. Having been both vaccinated and tested negative, I do not believe I am at risk myself or pose a significant risk to the students, the nearest of whom are several yards away from me. Of course, some of the students who come to class might not be comfortable with such conduct, and may decide to stop attending in person and join the rest of the class who are taking the course online. The two groups would be the analog of the people happily congregating at the beach and those walking alone along the street.

When we are free to make risk assessments for ourselves, we consider not only the danger to be avoided, but also the cost of what we must give up to avoid it. When risk assessments are made collectively, all that is considered is what will most effectively reduce the danger. There is no way to consider the varied personal cost felt by each individual and no incentive to do so. This is a rather mundane observation. But as I move between my classroom at Georgetown and the beach at Lake Barcroft, I feel its profound effect on the happiness of those in each camp.

Moralism and Busybodies: From Community to Police State

In previous posts (for example, here), I have discussed what seems to me an extremely worrisome form of legal moralism wherein people essentially invoke “community” as a moral good in order to instantiate what they want regardless of what others in their supposed communities prefer.  Put differently, they think interference with your activities is warranted simply to maintain or promote the existence of a community they value, whether or not you or anyone else values the sort of community they do.  They might want a neighborhood community where all of the houses are painted the same color or that have the same flowers in front, for examples.  Should you want a different color paint or different type of flower, it’s too bad for you.  These are examples you might hear of in a Homeowners or Condo Association, and are fairly insignificant.  Indeed, in an HOA or a COA, where the rules are in the legal documents, I’d suggest there is no problem at all—because living in an HOA or a COA entails voluntary agreement to the terms of those documents.

These sorts of rules, though, might exist in neighborhoods lacking such an agreement.  Sometimes neighbors simply pressure each other to not use some paint colors, for example, in order to prevent reductions in property values.  While annoying, even these aren’t the sorts of problems I really worry about—perhaps because the claims involved aren’t—and aren’t meant to be—moral claims.  When the same dynamics involve moral claims, the intensity of demands and thus disagreements are often worse.

The general problem is what we euphemistically call “busy bodies.”*  These are people who think they should not only pay attention to your life, but also think they should tell you what to do.  Often, such people mean well.  They are simply trying to help.  Some busybodies cross a line, however, by not merely offering advise but demanding your compliance.  They might demand you not paint your house a certain way, for example, explaining that it will hurt property values and then adding that if you did it anyway, you would be failing in your obligations to your neighbors (see this for a related amusing story).  In what such obligations are grounded, though, they don’t say. 

This is still a minor issue—it’s just painting your house.  But busybodies might also come and tell you how to discipline your child—and again, while this can be done in a friendly “here’s some advice, take it or leave it” way, it can also be done as a demand based in some unstated moral view.  They might insist, for example, that your child not be allowed to play in the woods, be left alone, climb a wall, or ride a specific type of bike.  They might say “if you do allow those things, you are a bad parent; good parents don’t behave that way.”  (Of course, about some things they may well be right.)

Make no mistake, some people have no problem interfering with the lives of others; some are naturally interventionist. They think they know how other people should live. They think they know how you and I should live. And, very importantly, they believe the government should make us do what they think we should do and disallow us doing what they think we should not.  Here’s where we get the biggest problems—problems that arise from further steps along a path to authoritarianism.  From encouraging people to maintain their homes for simple practical reasons or offering (even undesired) parenting advise, to claiming we have duties to follow such advice, to seeking governmental power to force compliance, we have a spectrum of activities that are worrisome. 

To make the point clear, consider that some people believe smoking tobacco cigarettes—perhaps especially menthol flavored—is not only bad for you, but also (perhaps for that reason) immoral.  And that some people (President Biden) are perfectly happy to use government power to enforce your compliance—all for your own good.  The U.S. FDA’s stance on this is clear:

Banning menthol—the last allowable flavor—in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives … With these actions, the FDA will help … address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products,” said Acting FDA Commissioner J. Woodcock, M.D.

Should any of us, including people in communities of color, low-income populations, or amongst LGBTQ+ individuals, think the benefits of smoking outweigh the costs for us, its too bad for us.  The busybodies are perfectly willing to use their power to bully the rest of us.  Such people do not mind sending police to arrest you should you try to sell single cigarettes, sell any without a license you’ve paid them for, or even for smoking one in your own home.  They will also not mind putting you in prison for failing to comply—or killing you on a street corner. (See this, if the story does not sound familiar.)

We should not think, though, that this is just about government.  Busybodies are often willing to use any sort of organization to make others comply with their desires. They are more than willing to vote to limit your ability to do what you want, of course.  But they are also quite willing to work to impose such restrictions in the workplace or neighborhood. They have no compunction against encouraging the boss to set policies that limit your ability to do what you want. They don’t mind petitioning a business to stop performing a service you enjoy or to stop selling a product you like.  They certainly don’t mind having the government make activities you enjoy illegal or limited.  What they seek is a society they like, regardless of what you or anyone else likes.  If some people must be imprisoned or killed for the cause, they seem to think that is simply a cost of attaining a good community or society. 

*See Antony Davies and James Harrigan’s Cooperation and Coercion: How Busybodies Became Busybullies and What that Means for Economics and Politics for more on the general problem.