"Libertarian Paternalism"

Check out Dan Klein's excellent response to Sunstein and Thaler's “Libertarian Paternalism is not an Oxymoron” paper. Dan basically calls bullshit and accuses S&T of arriving at a provocative title by fudging the meanings of 'libertarian' and 'paternalism'. Sunstein's reply to Klein is pretty pathetic, as Klein notes.
S&T strike me as holding the utterly dull and correct position that the design of institutions, insofar as they are going to be designed, ought to take into account the effects that they have on human well-being, and so if people are likely to do better under one of two non-coercive institutional schemes, pick the one under which they will do better. How this principle is patricularly libertarian or paternalistic is beyond me, and Klein too.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

32 thoughts

  1. I don’t know. I could probably come up with a continuum such that you and a cotton ball are both on it.

  2. If I might borrow from the legal world, this continuum question tries to solve through tort what is really a question of contract. In other words, while there are obvious conceptual similarities and differences between the various forms of sexual expression listed here, there’s no simple answer to the effect that, e.g., “porn is OK” or “porn is not OK” when in a relationship. In some relationships it’s fine; in others, it isn’t; it just depends on what the parties have agreed to among themselves.
    It seems to me like this argument is assuming some kind of Rule In The Sky about what’s Right vs Wrong in a relationship, which seems silly. There’s no god out there, remember? You have to figure it out as you go, which means in this case that the answer here is always going to be relationship-specific.

  3. “However, for most people whose minds have not been addled by religious dogma, the distinction between touching yourself and touching someone not your spouse or committed monogamous partner is well nigh categorical.”
    You know, you might acknowledge that there’s something to the idea that thinking sexual thoughts about individuals other than the one you’re committed to makes acting on those thoughts easier and in general can habituate your sexual energies away from the person you’re committed to. Jesus wasn’t just full of crap when he suggested that thinking sexual thoughts about others has moral disvalue. You might think he’s wrong, but its not “just silly”.
    In general, I love your blog. But you get on seriously disreputable ground whenever you talk about religious morality. You don’t appear to be familiar with the arguments for your opponents’ positions.
    Probably Catholic natural law theorists (your primary intellectual opponents on these matters), for instance, deserve a seat at the table of the Reasonable – they’ve been making efforts at a rational defense of their position for millenia. They’re certainly more serious thinkers on the matter than, I dunno, Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and other guys you (wrongly) take seriously.

  4. Ezra, Indeed, everything is similar to everything else in some respect or other. Which is why you can jump from one thing to any other thing through a chain of similarity, as long as you are willing to keep varying the dimension of similarity. Which I suspect Ross is doing, here.

  5. thegarbageman, I do think Catholic natural law theorists are silly. Religions are false. Religious morality is thus based in falsehood, insofar as they are distinctively religious. I don’t know why I should take people who are wrong more seriously than people who are right. Also, I think it’s more respectful to be frank about what I think and treat religious people like adults, responsible for what they believe, than it is to allow religious people a special zone of personal irrationality, not to be mentioned in a bad light, lest they become insulted.
    Thinking sexual thoughts about someone other than your partner can also enliven sexual energy for them. So it really depends, doesn’t it.?

  6. So, Will, your position is that only those whose minds are addled by religious dogma would believe that a spouse’s “paying to watch a prostitute perform sexual acts for [his or her] voyeuristic gratification” is on a continuum with paying a prostitute for sex. This is an empirical claim, not a moral one, and I can’t help but wonder whether you have any more support for your position than Ross has for his. I mean, obviously you don’t have any problem with this kind of behavior (though I confess I’m surprised that you don’t think they’re on a continuum in which both are appropriate, given your enthusiastic defense of sex work), but that’s quite a bit different from saying that most people (or most non-religious people) think like you.

  7. It may be very silly to say that two people may only have sex if they have agreed to bind themselves to each other forever. But that has nothing to do with what Ross Douthat was talking about.
    He was talking about fidelity, in particular between married people who have promised it for better or worse. If you want to be detailed he was talking about the implied (or express) contract between them about what fidelity means. And his ‘continuum’ is about what wives would think of as breaking the vows of marriage.
    He may be wrong about whether paying a prostitute to have sex with you violates a commitment of fidelity the same way that paying people to have sex while you watch does, and that paying a video rental place for a movie so you can watch the same events. But that has nothing to do with your point that some people think unmarried people shouldn’t have sex.
    Douthat is talking about what kind of relationship two people chose for themselves when they get married, and you are talking about society not letting two people choose the kinds of relationship they want. It would be more interesting if you were to actually disagree with his continuum on the basis that spouses don’t actually care about those types of things, or that they have no good reason to care.

  8. I do dismiss economically illiterate social democrats. I dismiss Catholic Natural Law, first, because of the Catholicism part. All the key tenets of Catholicism are false. (God did not create the universe; Jesus did not rise from the dead; the Catholic church has no special insight or authority on moral matters, etc., etc.) Second, the theory of natural selection is true, so it is a fact that either organisms have no natural end or that our natural end is to maximize inclusive fitness, depending on what you think of Darwinian theories of natural functions. In either case, you have nothing on which to ground “natural law.” I do think there are law-like regularities about effective social coordination that ground the authority of moral rules, so in some sense I am a kind attenuated natural law theorist. But in a very attenuated sense that can make no sense of the idea that whacking off to moving pictures of naked bodies is contrary to a binding law of nature.

  9. “He was talking about fidelity, in particular between married people who have promised it for better or worse.”
    I believe that Will’s point was that fidelity is not a universally applicable rule. It seems to me that the point is that each couple would have to decide what does and doesn’t count a infidelity. I’ll agree that the senario Douthat posits is interesting, but to claim it should be true in all cases is wrongheaded.
    I think it’s also quite possible to see that pornography and watching people have sex is different in the same way that watching a movie and paying the actors to come to your home is different. One is much more labor intensive, the other simply a way to have fun or whatever. I would argue that the “filter” is important in this situation because it creates space. But again this is completely dependent upon the couple and I can’t argue that my rule is correct in all situations or relationships.

  10. I think this is why Cowen (I think on EconTalk) said philosophy blogs don’t work very well.
    Will, you may be right about what you discuss, but no one knows why you’re right. Making statements like: “I do think Catholic natural law theorists are silly. Religions are false,” and so on may be correct, but they are intensely offensive to many people, and so they necessitate explanation. Unless, of course, your purpose is simply to offend, and not to educate.
    I admit that I’m skeptical of philosophers. As Caplan notes:
    “Profs and grad students alike largely seemed to accept the following list of topics where members of their occupation actually have expertise:
    1) Accurately describing the views of other philosophers, living and dead.
    2) Checking arguments for logical validity/internal consistency.
    No one claimed that the philosophy profession was good at figuring out true answers to philosophical questions. One even claimed the the primary product of philosophy is “broken arguments.””
    I hope this is not correct, but I fear that it is. And your terse, sweeping statements have done nothing but convince me otherwise. Please prove me wrong. Explain your moral philosophy in a more cogent way, or at least point us to others who can.
    Other than that, I enjoy the not-so-philosophical posts–especially the happiness research stuff. So, keep up the good work on that front.

  11. Here would be something I’d love to get your extended and cogent opinion on: If there is no God and no objective moral order, are crimes like murder wrong? If so, why?
    Thanks Will!

  12. Will,
    In the scholastic tradition, natural law (universally valid, accessible to ordinary reason) was contrasted with positive law (valid because of local custom or as command from valid authority). It is perfectly possible for natural law in this sense to be the product of evolution-through-natural-selection. You would be denying the Catholic account of how we came to have access to nautral law (because God implanted it in us vs. it is a useful trick for solving nonzero sum games), not natural law itself.
    Even stipulating that natural law is inherently teleological, I’m not sure the truth of Darwinism proves that we have no other end than inclusive fitness. “Genes fixate because they tend to promote inclusive fitness” is a true causal story, but that is efficient causality. It is consistent with the idea that our end is happiness, or interstellar travel or worshiping God.

  13. Joey, I blog about these topics and talk about them on my Bloggingheads TV show ALL THE TIME. Dig around the archives. It’s all in there. As much as I’d like to, I simply can’t do a sophomore level philosophy seminar every time I get a new reader.

  14. About being “offensive”… that’s a “it takes two to tango” sort of thing. Religions ARE false. The standard arguments to this effect are sound. (I like Sam Harris’s book, for example.) If that offends somebody, I really don’t think it’s my fault. Religion is a main source of wild, sustained, pernicious falsehood. The insistence of the religious that their very delicate sensibilities not be offended by people pointing out that they believe false things is one of the main cultural buttresses propping up wild, sustained, pernicious falsehood. I do relent to that insistence strategically, to avoid pointless conflict in my day-to-day business, but I’m not about to be spooked out of truthsaying — or to feel obliged to negotiate the right to plainly assert my opinions — in my own forum. I welcome readers to read or not.

  15. No one is discussing your “right” to post whatever you want–it’s your blog afterall! We’re talking about civility as a means to an end–namely convincing people of your point. If your intention is not to educate your readers, I suppose I have misread the intent of this blog.
    I would, though, like to know how confident you are in your opinions, because you state them with supreme confidence. What do you think is the chance that you’re wrong about your core beliefs?
    I ask because I grew up in a religous family and became repelled by the unflinching certainty of it all. I started reading pop-atheists (including Harris), and found them equally repulsive in their certainty. I subscribe to the (of course, uncertain) belief that no one can really be certain of anything. For instance, there really is no way to prove that God does or doesn’t exist.
    So, out of curiosity how sure are you of the proposition that God doesn’t exist? Or more generally, how certain can humans be about anything?

  16. I wonder if Ross feels any complicity in homicide when he sees an entertaining movie where someone is murdered? Even if it’s just make believe, there’s still that moral continuum and all. What about softcore porn? Porn literature?
    Joey, it seemss to me there really is no way to prove that unicorns do or don’t exist. But would you think me unreasonable if I took the position that they simply don’t exist?

  17. Some of Ross’ psychological assumptions need to be challenged. The act of watching porn does not necessarily entail the fantasy of wanting to have sex with one of the actors. It might just be titillation, and entertaining in that regard. One need not fantasize to enjoy. I think this might even apply to strip clubs to a lesser extent. Not everyone who gets a lap dance does so in order to fantasize about having sex with the stripper. Some just enjoy the titillation and find it entertaining.

  18. Shecky,
    No, I wouldn’t think you unreasonable at all. Nor do I think Will unreasonable for not believing in God. The thing is, there are compelling arguments on both sides of the God debate, and none (to my knowledge) in the unicorn debate. However, there really is no way to prove one side is right and the other side is wrong with respect to the existence of God. Thus, my only complaint is the forcefulness with which both hardcore theists and atheists assert their superiority.
    Look, this is Will’s blog, and he can write whatever the hell he wants. I’m just making a minor suggestion.

  19. I’m a little surprised that Haidt’s purity/disgust moral axis has not been discussed here. On a reciprocity axis, Will’s claim that “One’s just wrong, one’s just not” is correct. However, if infidelity is viewed as a purity (or pollution) issue within a relationship then the Ross’ makes some sense.

  20. I’d like to see the words “can be” used instead of “is” in a lot of places, and this is one of them. If a man should use pr0n as a way of avoiding engagement with his spouse, there would seem to me to be a similarity with adultery. I think this is bolstered by the human ability to form a “personal” relationship with purely notional persons—pixels, text, a notional deity’s kid, corporations, nations, to name a few—which makes it possible for a “relationship” to partially or fully displace a relationship with an actual person.
    On the other hand, this assumes a pseudo-{zero-sum} relationship: as one loves the third party more, one loves the party of the second part (or “Chico”) less, or that the second party devalues the equal love felt for them [sic] because it is not exclusive. My polyamourous friends assert that this is not the case for them when all such activity is super mensa…I’d say, “I’ll believe it when I see it,” but I’m not interested enough in them or the practice to look, so instead I’ll take them on their word for now.
    On the whole, though, I’d avoid the word “adultery” because it’s nuclear. I once in 2002 had an e-mail correspondence with a local, half-reasonable radio talk-show host over his use of the term “treasonous” to describe some opponents of Bush’s Iraq policy. In the end, he retreated to calling them “morally treasonous”, to which I objected on the grounds that using the word “treason” automatically brings more juice to the offence than consideration might well deem reasonable. It’s used more as a way of deciding the outcome of an argument, rather than of arguing, tantamount to circular reasoning.

  21. [crossposted comment to Distributed Republic]
    If you think comparing watching porn to having an affair is batshit crazy (and it is, of course), just be glad you didn’t have to grow up learning that masturbation “is the most severe of all Torah forbidden sins“, including not just murder, but “when one emits sperm to waste it is as if he destroys the earth.” Which is, of course, “punishable by death.”
    So give Ross Douthat some credit here; at least he is only comparing masturbation to having an affair. His analogy could have been a whole lot batshit crazier.

  22. Joey,
    It’s not clear that one needs to prove that God doesn’t exist in order to have best and sufficient reason to not believe in God. Probably, all one needs in order to have such reason is to think that the classic arguments for the existence of God aren’t sound and that reference to God isn’t needed in our best explanations about the world.
    Also, it seems as though the most relevant (to this post and its comments) conception of God is something like the Judeo-Christian God. And there’s great reason to think that that God can’t exist, given what he’s supposed to be like (all-good, all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing, sends non-believers to hell forever).
    Lastly, Will’s certainty with respect to his position doesn’t seem to be noticeably higher than yours about yours. We’re often justified in making claims, with certainty, in cases where we have best and sufficient reason to believe the things we’re claiming.

  23. Darby Clash and t have seen the point here. The continuum is the one of fidelity and devotion — how much mind-share and libido-share are you giving to your spouse/partner.

  24. Just re-read my sloppy comment above. In the first paragraph I meant to say that it’s not clear that one needs to prove that God doesn’t exist in order to have best and sufficient reason to believe God doesn’t exist (as opposed to not believing in God).
    Also, I should’ve added the following sentence to the end of the last paragraph of the post: “And Will is merely making a claim about God, with certainty, in a case where he reasonably takes himself to have best and sufficient reason to believe the thing he’s claiming.”
    There. It’s still sloppy, I suppose. Just less so.

  25. Well, like Jesus says, ” You heard that it was said, ‘ You must not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone that keeps on looking at a woman so as to have a passion for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt 5 : 27,28)

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