Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Norm Enforcement

There's a lot of blameworthy behaviour around (especially on the internet). In what circumstances should we kick up a fuss?

Some might suggest 'never'. It's impolite to chastise others, after all. Better just to mind one's own business, live and let live, etc.

As stated, this categorical denial is surely too strong: we shouldn't just "turn a blind eye" if our associates engage in acts of cruelty or bullying, for example. The social enforcement of (at least some) moral norms seems essential for maintaining a decent society, especially given that not everything bad can be legally prohibited. So some moral failings, at least, may be other people's business. The question is where to draw the line. (I tend to favour more confrontation than most people, at least in theory, but that's probably due to my optimism about how constructive disagreement can be.)

At the other extreme, one might argue that wrongdoing is always others' concern (at least in principle): that's just what makes something a moral - rather than merely personal - failing. Here we need to clarify whether we mean it is the business of some or all others -- only the former seems plausible to me. But in any case, it doesn't follow that the appropriate way to respect this concern is always to voice it.

Note that it would seem ridiculous to actively seek out people to remonstrate. And even if I accidentally happen across a forum of noxious homophobes, or a news story about some evil dictator on the other side of the globe, it may not seem worth engaging my reactive attitudes. Although their blameworthiness renders them fitting or legitimate targets for censure, some further, practical reason is arguably required to make it actually worth doing.

This suggests two key factors: the importance of the violated norm, and the likely efficacy of our remonstrations -- whether at convincing the wrongdoer to repent, or strengthening the norm for others in our moral community. This latter goal suggests that our affiliations (if any) with the violator may strengthen the case for public censure, in hopes of counteracting the human tendency to show less respect for norms that others in their "group" have violated. (On the other hand, increased exposure may prove counterproductive for the same reason.) In any case, some kind of 'division of moral labour' may be appealed to here also: it'll generally be easiest if groups police their own -- not to mention more effective, as we're generally more responsive to the opinions of people "like us". (Widespread non-compliance renders this an imperfect rule, however.)

I also feel like more prominent, well-respected, or influential people ought to be subject to increased "vetting" and criticism. I guess it does more good to counteract the influence, so far as we can, of those that actually have some in the first place. They might also serve as evidence that a view is more widespread than we'd realized.

For example, it's one thing for nationalistic wingnuts to blithely disregard the interests of the global poor, but it's something else altogether to see Richard Posner advocating that foreign aid "that goes to fight malaria... or promote agriculture or family planning there could be redirected [in part]... to the United States to help get us out of our economic predicament". He chillingly concludes:
I grant that poor countries may be harder hit by what is a global depression than the United States, but I consider Americans' obligations to be primarily to Americans rather than to the inhabitants, however worthy, of foreign countries. I am also inclined to think that charitable giving abroad is so closely entwined with the nation's foreign policy objectives that it should be regulated by the State Department rather than left entirely to private choice.


But I digress. Any other suggestions regarding when censure is called for? (I guess in practice we can generally just follow our inclinations here, as in most matters, but they might always be refined. Besides, I'm curious.)


  1. Wow; if you hadn't linked to it I would never have believed that anyone would actually say that. Shudder indeed!

    It's a good set of questions. I'm inclined to add to your two key factors a third, namely, the degree to which the norm is violated; some violations, while still wrong, are much more understandable than others and can reasonably be treated as the mere occasional lapse (as the saying goes, To err is human), or as genuinely excusable under (say) stress or what have you; others are such that it is difficult to think of anything that even extenuates them, much less excuses them.

    My own view on this matter is fairly Thomistic, i.e., virtue theoretical; the thing is to allow fraternal correction, which is an act of good will and charity, but to avoid detraction. It doesn't really do any good to go after people just because they are somehow wrong (as Robert Burns says, "The Rigid Righteous is a fool, / The Rigid Wise anither"). But as you say, it becomes an issue when there is reason to think that it might do them good or when it becomes a matter of upholding what is right in the first place. With regard to the first, it's in principle best to do it privately when possible; but I find in practice that it's very difficult to judge both how feasible such private rebuke is and where the line is to be drawn between simple private protest and upholding the community norm. (It's also the case sometimes that what's just ordinary argument, not censure, can suddenly tip over into more without either party realizing it until it's too late. But I'm assuming these are slightly different cases than those considered here.)

  2. Another vote for remonstrating Posner. Seriously evil! And I usually like the guy too.

  3. On the one hand, social pressure and voluntary action is crucial to maintaining unstable norms, and liberal cosmopolitanism faces strong challenges in our evolved psychological machinery for ingroup-outgroup distinctions. On the other hand, it's very easy for denunciation of despised values to spiral out of control, and J.S. Mill's arguments about the epistemic danger of censuring minority viewpoints apply to nonlegal sanction.

    If I were to draw a line, it would be between expressions of values (which can be condemned) and claims about the physical world (to be refuted). Since Posner's post involves a bald statement of his disregard for foreign welfare, I would place it in the former category.

    On the merits, I'm torn because in one sense Posner is just making explicit something implicit in the choice and views of most citizens, even educated left-liberal citizens. The disproportion between the welfare benefits per dollar of domestic welfare spending and spending really aimed at the global poor is always huge. Activists or voters who care more about SCHIP than PEPFAR are implicitly showing the same disregard as Posner.

    The unusual thing about Posner's case is that he actually says that we should cut programs likely to save millions of foreign lives in favor of domestic redistribution, instead of saying that new money should be put into domestic redistribution rather than effective foreign programs. In other words, it seems that commonsense morality produces a ratchet effect: it's horrible to suggest cutting aid, but not correspondingly attractive to promote it. Kagan has written about this in "The Limits of Morality."

    Is it hypocritical to condemn Posner without simultaneously condemning the vast majority of Americans?

  4. I really can't believe that Posner said that. Wow.

    I don't think that it is hypocritical to criticize Posner for having this attitude without criticizing folks who don't care all that much about promoting aid. Now, it may be true that, in some sense, Posner's attitude isn't significantly worse than the common attitude, but that doesn't mean that it isn't more blameworthy. Blameworthiness does not perfectly correlate with wrongness. But because Posner has a moral failing that demonstrates uncommon callousness, we have a special reason to blame him. That's one way in which we have more reason to criticize his attitude than the common attitude.

    Another reason to blame Posner more than most folks is the following. Posner displays an attitude that might lead him to prevent a lot of good from happening, were he in the appropriate circumstances, in a way that most people would not. This fact makes him blameworthy in one way that other people are not.

    That said, a person who criticizes Posner but finds no fault in his own failure to help the distant needy is in one way hypocritical. Such a person finds fault in another for one reason, but finds no fault in himself because of an arbitrary distinction. But, if you're not such a person, I don't find anything hypocritical about being especially disturbed by Posner's attitude.


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