Literature

Book Review: The Managed Heart

[16 minute read]

Content warning: reading this book left me in a low state of existential panic and unable to respond appropriately to other people’s emotions for about a week. You have been warned.

If you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you probably know that I’m a big fan of the sociologist and feminist scholar Professor Arlie Russell Hochschild. Previously I have reviewed her books “Strangers in Their Own Land” and “The Second Shift“. I’ve also published a practical guide to sharing housework, inspired by reading “The Second Shift”. Today I’m going to review The Managed Heart the book that first brought Professor Hochschild to mainstream attention.

But before I begin the review, I’d like to talk about words.

Words are handles to grasp concepts. These handles (like the concepts they evoke) are by necessity blurry and fuzzy. They change. Is Pluto a planet? It depends on what “planet” means to you. If you’re an academic astronomer, you might answer this differently than one of the kids who sent Neil deGrasse Tyson hate mail.

Language must necessarily grow and evolve. I’ve given up trying to police the meaning of literally (although you’ll have to take the Oxford Comma from my cold, dead hands). That said, I really wish that every subculture dominated by people under thirty took one fucking second to do a fucking lit review before they grab academic sounding words for their HuffPo think pieces or blog posts.

(I live in a glass house here. I am loosely associated with the Rationalist Community, a group of people who have based their whole philosophy on the literal arch-enemies of the rationalist philosophical tradition. “Empiricist Community” didn’t sound as smart or clever, so it lost out as a name despite the fact it was far more accurate.)

Technical words mean specific things and their definitions are policed so that academic disagreement (and more rarely, agreement) can happen at all. Academics need to have a clear(ish) view of what concept-handles they’re playing with and clear(ish) boundaries on those concepts, lest they spend all of their days arguing about definitions, like a Clinton caught in a lie. Currently we filter that sort of person out of the general academic discourse by letting them go study Hegel, but there’s always a risk of that spilling over, to disastrous effect.

Worse, when a technical word is stolen for general vocabulary it often comes to mean what people think it should mean, rather than what it originally meant. Those concepts, which were important enough that they needed names, are now left to float, handle-less. For example, “market failure” is at risk of coming to mean “weird consequences of markets”, not “markets that are trapped away from the Pareto-frontier, such that they have an opportunity to make someone/some metric better off without making anyone/anything else worse off that cannot be realized”. The technical definition is not evoked as well by the phrase “market failure” and so is at risk of being elided in popular discourse.

A subsequent consequence of this is that academic debate becomes meaningless, confusing, or incomprehensible to ordinary people (as their ability to police the language they use for discussions results in inevitable linguistic drift when those same terms are misused elsewhere). Non-academics assume that academics are using the colloquial term, when in fact they’re saying something else. Switching terms like this often has serious consequences for the veracity of arguments!

When an economist says “a minimum wage can lead to market failures”, many people think the economist is saying “it would be better if people could be payed less”, where they might actually be saying “when a minimum wage exists, a company may fail to hire a low productivity worker (say a high school graduate, or someone who doesn’t speak the dominant language very well) while forcing another worker to work overtime; if no minimum wage existed, the company could hire that worker, making both the hired worker and the existing employee (now freed from overtime) better off, while leaving the company no worse off”.

All this is to say that “emotional labour” is a key concept from The Managed Heart. It was termed in this book. And as near as I can tell, it has literally never been used properly in a blog post or think piece.

So before I talk about what emotional labour (in the academic sense) is, I’d like to give several examples of what it isn’t.

Emotional labour isn’t the mental load that women have to carry when managing the chores and children of a household. Infuriatingly, this subject was covered by Professor Hochschild in another book. It has a whole chapter devoted to it! Properly termed, it would be “responsibility for managing the second shift” or something like that.

Emotional labour isn’t women helping men process and figure out their feelings without compensation. Under the framework introduced in The Managed Heart, I’d suggest that it could be called “feeling rules promoting asymmetric empathizing”, which I will admit is much less catchy.

Emotional labour isn’t even the work women do to manage their feelings in a relationship so that men feel supported and validated. That comes up in The Managed Heart and is one subset of “emotion work”.

I am not claiming that any of these other contenders for the term “emotional labour” do not exist, are not real problems, or do not deserve academic study of their own. I believe that they do exist, are real problems, and deserve study (much of which has been done by Professor Hochschild). But I am also going to ignore them, pretend they don’t exist, and talk only about emotional labour as it was defined by Professor Hochschild: “the commercialization of our capacity to influence our own feelings”.

Unpacking that seemingly simple definition will provide fodder for most of my review.

First, what are feelings?

Professor Hochschild carefully charts the development of theories of emotion. There’s Darwin’s physical theory of emotion, that holds that emotions are the evolutionary vestiges of certain acts. Teeth barred in a rictus of anger is, to Darwin, the evolutionary vestige of actually biting. Anger emerges as the remnant of what would have been aggressive action and shows up in situations where our ancestors might have been aggressive.

Freud had some nonsense about dammed up libido (I have a policy of ignoring everything Freud said that involves the words “libido”, “oedipal”, and “fixation”, and I’m not going to break it just for this review). William James held that emotions were signifiers of physical change; to James, the emotion of anger was merely what we feel when our body prepares to fight and is solely a consequence of underlying physiological processes.

Later theorists, like Gerth and Mills, situated emotions in a social context. They talked about how culture might influence emotions and how inchoate emotions might be made understandable when others interpreted them for us. For example, if a bride cries when left at the altar on her wedding day, her mother’s explanation “you must be furious” gives name and focus to her roiling emotions. The bride may come to believe that she is crying because she is angry, and that the roil of emotions in her belly is anger. Had her mother instead suggested that she was feeling “sorrow”, then perhaps that would have been the name she chose.

Professor Hochschild builds on these definitions (and many others) to get one she’s satisfied with. To her, emotion is a sense, like proprioception or touch. It allows us to sense how we relate to others actions or to developments. Emotion in a Hochschildian framework doesn’t just lead to action (e.g. I was angry so I attacked him), it also leads to cognition (e.g. I paused to wonder why I was so sad).

Professor Hochschild holds emotion up as one of the most important senses because it acts as a signal function. There is the tautological sense in which emotion lets us know how we feel about something, but there is also the sense in which it warns us. We talk about a twinge of jealousy or a sinking dread. These emotions help us realize that all is not right.

Emotions can be consonant with a situation (e.g. I feel so happy on my wedding day), or dissonant (e.g. I should be happy at my wedding, but I’m really just scared). Dissonant emotions are most often the ones we seek to change, but as emotion becomes commercialized, we are increasingly asked to change our consonant emotions as well.

What do we do when we can’t change our emotions? And how do we effect a change?

Surface acting is one way we can deal (in a socially acceptable manner) with “feeling the wrong thing”. In surface acting, we change our countenance or face, but make no attempt to change how we feel. We might grin through pain, wear a fixed smile, or hide that we want to cry. We may not fool anyone else and we certainly don’t fool ourselves, but sometimes surface acting allows us to pay our emotional dues to those around us.

Surface acting can feel exhausting; you can’t rest or relax while you are presenting a fake face to the world. Therefore, it is often beneficial for us to be able to engage in deep acting.

Deep acting is the sincere attempt to engender an emotion that you are currently not feeling. There are two ways that you can attempt deep acting. In the first, you can try and chivy and talk yourself into feeling what you desire. When someone says they are trying to fall in love, or conversely trying not to fall too hard, they are engaging in this first form of deep acting.

The second form of deep acting shares much with method acting. Method acting encourages the actor to bring in emotions from other parts of their life and use them to animate the emotions of their character. In deep acting, you push on your emotions by using memories of other emotional states. Deep acting might look like “I was unhappy on the day of my wedding, so I brought up memories of things I like about my partner until I was smiling“.

Society imposes on us many feelings rules, which we interact with by doing the emotion work of deep acting or the feigning surface acting. Here’s a simple feelings rule: it is considered impolite to feel anything other than happiness for a friend’s promotion. If you instead feel jealous, there will be a strong societal expectation that you show none of it. Instead, you must transmute the jealousy into joy via deep acting, or hide it via surface acting.

You might think that feeling rules only apply when you aren’t interacting with the people you’re closest with. Professor Hochschild disagrees. She believes that feelings rules bind us especially tightly when we are with our closest friends or our romantic partners. She talks briefly here (and at depth in “The Second Shift”) about the economy of gratitude that exists in a relationship and how it requires constant emotion work to maintain. You expect your partner to be excited on your behalf when you get a promotion or self-flagellating and apologetic if they cheat. Closeness acts like a filter; only people who instinctively manage their emotions in a way that is pleasing to you (or, in the case of partners who try and “win someone over”, put in a lot of effort) end up close to you, so the reality of the emotion work underlying close relationships is often obscured. Part of Professor Hochschild’s purpose in studying emotion work at work was to pull back this curtain and view emotion work that wasn’t so unconscious and unthinking.

There certainly can be a gendered dynamic to emotion work. Professor Hochschild believes that men are trained to expect a certain amount of emotion work from women: fluffing of the ego, soothing of the temper, etc. She also believes that emotion work is unevenly spread because women are better trained in it and men tend to be better off. Within the context of a heterosexual relationship, this often manifests in the unconscious deal of a man providing physical security through his more highly paid work, in exchange for a woman’s emotional labour and her labour around the house (this idea is more thoroughly dissected in “The Second Shift”).

The primary marketplace and arena of emotion work is “emotional bowing”. Emotional bowing encompasses two types of exchanges, improvisational and straight. In a straight exchange, you are following the rules and exchange rates of society. When you repay advice from a senior colleague with sincere gratitude, you are engaging in a straight exchange.

When the gratitude is feigned, obviously false, or the advice given grudgingly, you are still trying to play out the straight exchange, but you are quibbling about the exchange rate. Similarly, when you brush aside gratitude and claim the advice you gave was “my pleasure”, you are making a rather different point about the exchange rate and showing kindnesses and graciousness – and perhaps making something clear about the emotional tone you expect at your workplace. Even kindness can become a demand for future emotion work.

Many disagreements, especially among close friends and lovers are caused by different notions of the exchange rate between actions. In these close relationships, emotion work is just one way that we can repay others, but it is often the one that breaks down in response to problems, when we suddenly realize the thing we “should” be feeling takes actual work to feel.

In an improvisational exchange, the feeling rules themselves are called into question, often using sarcasm or irony. A man may jokingly tell a crying male friend “remember, men never cry”. By ironically referencing the feeling rule (that men cannot show emotion), he gives his friend permission to violate it. This sort of exchange requires clear knowledge and understanding of how everyone involved interprets feelings rules, so is uncommon except in close relationships.

When the crying man rejects the toxic masculinity that causes men to disown their emotions, referencing the feeling rule might cheer him up, as he is reminded that even his sorrow is a radical act in line with his values. But if he instead embraces that conception of masculinity, referencing the feeling rule might add to his grief and make him feel a failure. Only his friends would know which is likely to occur, so only his friends would risk an improvisational exchange.

This particular part of the book brought on my existential crisis, as I found myself unable to respond to emotional displays with anything other than attempts to calculate what was given, expected, and owed. I do now wonder if this is a common experience, or if my response was somewhat atypical? In either case, a warning before I (potentially) inflicted this on anyone else seemed prudent.

Anyway, all of this background brings us to emotional labour, the true topic of this book. Emotional labour is when emotion work is removed from its normal place in the home and in broader society, and starts to become part of someone’s economic responsibilities. Physical labour has long been commoditized and therefore made anonymous – that is to say, it does not matter which particular person manufactures your car, because any other labourer could have done it approximately as well. While emotional labour has long existed, it is only recently (with a decline in manufacturing jobs and increase in service jobs) that it has become commoditized and therefore gone mainstream.

Professor Hochschild takes a somewhat Marxist approach to the dangers of emotional labour. In the same way that Marx worried about labourers being alienated from the physical products of their work, Professor Hochschild worries about the effects of labourers being alienated from the emotional products of their work.

Like all of Professor Hochschild’s books, The Managed Heart is in some sense an ethnography. The subjects of this book are bill collectors (who are required to do the emotional labour of avoiding sympathy or pity) and flight attendants (who must do the emotional labour of providing a cheery, relaxed façade). In both of these cases, these required emotions (and the feeling rules that produce them) might be variously consonant and dissonant with what the worker may wish to feel.

Earlier, I said that workers are being increasingly asked to avoid consonant feelings. Take as an example the bill collector, moved by pity or charity to seek to find a repayment schedule that works for their client or a flight attendant furious at a customer who is repeatedly belittling them. In both of these cases, emotions are correctly functioning (both as a signal function, and in accordance with societal feelings rules), but economic realities demand that the worker feel something else. Corporate requirements impose a new set of feelings rules, which may clash with extant ones, potentially grinding up workers in the process.

Acting in response to these alien feeling rules can be exhausting. For flight attendants, Professor Hochschild identified three stances they can take towards their work, each with its own risks:

In the first, the worker identifies too wholeheartedly with the job, and therefore risks burnout. In the second, the worker clearly distinguishes her- self from the job and is less likely to suffer burnout; but she may blame herself for making this very distinction and denigrate herself as ‘Just an actor, not sincere.” In the third, the worker distinguishes herself from her act, does not blame herself for this, and sees the job as positively requiring the capacity to act; for this worker there is some risk of estrangement from acting altogether, and some cynicism about it– “We’re just illusion makers.”

No job is entirely without risks (both physical and psychological), yet work must get done. I would have like to see Professor Hochschild better engage with this fact. Her potential solution (to give workers more control over the emotional labour they are required to do) is not as free of costs as she seems to think it is. For whenever it is not universal, all those companies that refuse to give control of emotional labour over to their employees may find themselves at a steep advantage. The threat of this (if emotional labour is indeed a competitive advantage) might be enough to keep whole industries scared of allowing any worker control, absent a mechanism for perfect coordination.

(It seems like the best way to free people from emotional labour would be to prove that it is not important. But we are social animals and so I doubt such a proof is forthcoming. Or possible at all.)

Still, there is often something deeply troubling about how emotional labour is framed. Professor Hochschild gives the example of a seminar about “reducing stress and making work more pleasant” at the flight attendant recurrent training centre. Belying the messaging, it seemed like the real purpose of the seminar was to convince the flight attendants to sublimate any anger they might, in the future, feel at passengers into emotions less risky for the company. A pleasant working environment was secondary to the corporate goals.

In the model of emotion-as-signal-function, anger is important. Indeed, it seems that negative emotions (specifically the negative affect/fear cluster) are particularly important to living a safe life. There seems to be something deeply wrong and dangerous to workers in telling them that all anger in their professional life is their own problem, to be appropriately handled, rather than occasionally indicative of a customer who is seriously overstepping lines.

Regardless of the right or wrong of it, the flight attendants interviewed in the book had to manage their anger and they talked about several strategies they had developed to do so (some of which were taught to them at recurrent training). They might put themselves in the angry customer’s shoes and try and imagine that person as suffering from some life events that explained and excused their behaviour. Or they might remind themselves that they only had to deal with the customer for a little while, allowing them drive out their anger and replace it with relief. Asking other co-workers for emotional support was officially discouraged, because it might lead to anger spreading. Flight attendants who could help their colleagues feel the officially sanctioned emotions (e.g. by diffusing anger with light-hearted joking) were valued members of teams.

Professor Hochschild suggests that we are trained for emotional labour from a young age. Or rather, that some children are. She suggests that working-class children are prepared to have their actions governed by rules, while middle-class children are prepared to have their feelings governed by rules. Note that this isn’t necessarily explicit. I recall receiving no specific training on emotion management, but I know that I picked it up somewhere and that I’m somewhat disturbed by people who seem unable or unwilling to practice emotion management.

One way that emotion work is taught (or not) is by family dynamics. Professor Hochschild suggests that many working-class families use a positional family control system, while middle-class families use a personal control system. In a positional family, authority is derived from a certain mixture of age, gender, employment status, parenthood, etc. Those with authority make decisions within their spheres of authority and the other members of the family must act in accordance with these decisions, although they don’t have to like it.

In a personal control system, control is achieved via appeals to the emotions of a child. Because all decisions of the child are framed as a choice (but with an obvious correct answer), this can lead to a maddening chain of explanations. Whenever the child states their preference, the parent will explain the decision in more detail and explain why the child should feel differently, such that they’ll have the “correct” preference. I can’t remember if this was explicitly mentioned, but it seems to me that this would also serve the purpose of inculcating in the child a strong understand of normative feeling rules.

There is also a relationship between these control systems and discipline. Professor Hochschild cites research that middle-class parents are more likely to sanction intent, while working-class parents are more likely to sanction actions. The working-class parent sanctions the child because of the results of a temper-tantrum. The middle-class parent sanctions the child because they lost their temper.

Professor Hochschild suggests that the sum of this is three messages sent to a (middle-class) child:

  • Feelings in others, particularly their superiors, are important and worth trying to understand.
  • Their own feelings are important and a valid reason for making decisions.
  • Feelings are meant to be managed, controlled, and yoked to rules.

It’s clear that because of this education, feelings rules are a gender and class issue. First, the feelings rules learned in childhood act as a middle- and upper-class shibboleth, making it clear who was raised outside of those classes. Working-class members looking for upwards mobility will have to do catch-up work that is entirely invisible – except in lapses – to those they are seeking to blend in with.

Second, in a world in which the higher ranks of government and corporations are biased towards men, women are given a particular incentive to be sensitive towards the feelings of men, while men have no corresponding requirement to be sensitive towards the feelings of women. Combine this with a toxic masculinity that leaves men little room to acknowledge or talk about feelings and you’re left with a situation where many men will seriously lack the capacity to understand – or even the knowledge that they should be trying to understand – the feelings of women in their lives.

Professor Hochschild frames the intersection of class and feeling rules somewhat more bluntly than I have:

More precisely, the class messages that parents pass on to their children may be roughly as follows. Middle class: “Your feelings count because you are (or will be) considered important by others:’ Lower class: “Your feelings don’t count because you aren’t (or won’t be) considered important by others:’

Note that this was written in the 80s and Professor Hochschild did suggest that orientation towards controlling emotions might soon (after the time of publication) cut across class lines due to the advent of automation. To an extent I think this has been borne out, but I feel like there is also an aesthetic element here. Class determines what emotions are acceptable to show (although of course this relationship is complicated and fickle, much like fashion), which also determines what people are raised to be able to do.

For a book that was supposed to focus on emotional labour, remarkably little of this book concerned actual interviews with labourers. The case studies here were much less in depth than in “The Second Shift” or “Strangers in Their Own Land”. This necessarily made the book harder to read and more academic and dry in tone. Ethnography often gives me the thrill of meeting (vicariously) interesting people (and of discovering that people I haven’t given much thought to are shockingly interesting!), but I found that distinctly lacking in this book.

(It’s much more theoretical than practical and I have to say that I prefer Professor Hochschild’s more practical books.)

That’s not to say the book wasn’t interesting or thought provoking. On the contrary, I often found thinking about it overwhelming. It introduced me to powerful models in areas of my life where I’d previously done little modelling.

If you want to better understand emotion, I recommend this book. If you want to read an entertaining ethnography, or see in depth case studies of how emotional management ties in to work, I’m less certain that you should. If you want an introduction to Professor Hochschild’s work, I also recommend skipping this one until you’ve read “The Second Shift”; that book is much more focused and somewhat better written.

Really, I think that my view of The Managed Heart illustrates a common problem, known to anyone who goes back and reads the earlier (and less polished) work of a beloved author. People grow, change, and develop. I can see some of the things I loved about Professor Hochschild’s later work here, but many other parts were missing.

Luckily Professor Hochschild has written several other books and they undoubtedly have more of what I like most about her. My ambivalence for the style (although not the contents) of this book have not at all dulled my resolution to read more of her work. Expect to see more reviews of Professor Hochschild’s books here in the future.

Data Science, Literature, Model

Two Ideas Worth Sharing From ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’

Recently, I talked about what I didn’t like in Dr. Cathy O’Neil’s book, Weapons of Math Destruction. This time around, I’d like to mention two parts of it I really liked. I wish Dr. O’Neil put more effort into naming the concepts she covered; I don’t have names for them from WMD, but in my head, I’ve been calling them Hidden Value Encodings and Axiomatic Judgements.

Hidden Value Encodings

Dr. O’Neil opens the book with a description of the model she uses to cook for her family. After going into a lot of detail about it, she makes this excellent observation:

Here we see that models, despite their reputation for impartiality, reflect goals and ideology. When I removed the possibility of eating Pop-Tarts at every meal, I was imposing my ideology on the meals model. It’s something we do without a second thought. Our own values and desires influence our choices, from the data we choose to collect to the questions we ask. Models are opinions embedded in mathematics.

It is far too easy to view models as entirely empirical, as math made form and therefore blind to values judgements. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s value judgements all the way down.

Imagine a model that tries to determine when a credit card transaction is fraudulent. Fraudulent credit cards transactions cost the credit card company money, because they must refund the stolen amount to the customer. Incorrectly identifying credit card transactions also costs a company money, either through customer support time, or if the customer gets so fed up by constant false positives that they switch to a different credit card provider.

If you were tasked with building a model to predict which credit card transactions were fraudulent by one of the major credit card companies, you would probably build into your model a variable cost for failing to catch fraudulent transactions (equivalent to the cost the company must bear if the transaction is fraudulent) and a fixed cost for labelling innocuous transactions as fraudulent (equivalent to the average cost of a customer support call plus the average chance of a false positive pushing someone over the edge into switching cards multiplied by the cost of their lost business over the next few years).

From this encoding, we can already see that our model would want to automatically approve all transactions below the fixed cost of dealing with false positives [1], while applying increasing scrutiny to more expensive items, especially expensive items with big resale value or items more expensive than the cardholder normally buys (as both of these point strongly toward fraud).

This seems innocuous and logical. It is also encoding at least two sets of values. First, it encodes the values associated with capitalism. At the most basic level, this algorithm “believes” that profit is good and losses are bad. It is aimed to maximize profit for the bank and while we may hold this as a default assumption for most algorithms associated with companies, that does not mean it is devoid of values; instead it encodes all of the values associated with capitalism [2]. Second, the algorithm encodes some notion that customers have freedom to choose between alternatives (even more so than is encoded by default in accepting capitalism).

By applying a cost to false positives (and likely it would be a cost that rises with each previous false positive), you are tacitly acknowledging that customers could take their business elsewhere. If customers instead had no freedom to choose who they did business with, you could merely encode as your loss from false positives the fixed cost of fielding support calls. Since outsourced phone support is very cheap, your algorithm would care much less about false positives if there was no consumer choice.

As far as I can tell, there is no “value-free” place to stand. An algorithm in the service of a hospital that helps diagnose patients or focus resources on the most ill encodes the value that “it is better to be healthy than sick; better to be alive than dead”. These values might be (almost-)universal, but they still exist, they are still encoded, and they still deserve to be interrogated when we put functions of our society in the hands of software governed by them.

Axiomatic Judgements

One of the most annoying parts of being a child is the occasional requirement to accept an imposition on your time or preferences with the explanation “because I say so”. “Because I say so” isn’t an argument, it’s a request that you acknowledge adults’ overwhelming physical, earning, and social power as giving them a right to set arbitrary rules for you. Some algorithms, forced onto unwelcoming and less powerful populations (teachers, job-seekers, etc.) have adopted this MO as well. Instead of having to prove that they have beneficial effects or that their outputs are legitimate, they define things such that their outputs are always correct and brook no criticism.

Here’s Dr. O’Neil talking about a value-added teaching model in Washington State:

When Mathematica’s scoring system tags Sarah Wysocki and 205 other teachers as failures, the district fires them. But how does it ever learn if it was right? It doesn’t. The system itself has determined that they were failures, and that is how they are viewed. Two hundred and six “bad” teachers are gone. That fact alone appears to demonstrate how effective the value-added model is. It is cleansing the district of underperforming teachers. Instead of searching for the truth, the score comes to embody it.

She contrasts this with how Amazon operates: “if Amazon.​com, through a faulty correlation, started recommending lawn care books to teenage girls, the clicks would plummet, and the algorithm would be tweaked until it got it right.” On the other hand, the teacher rating algorithm doesn’t update, doesn’t look check if it is firing good teachers, and doesn’t take an accounting of its own costs. It holds it as axiomatic ­–a basic fact beyond questioning– that its results are the right results.

I am in full agreement with Dr. O’Neil’s criticism here. Not only does it push past the bounds of fairness to make important decisions, like hiring and firing, through opaque formulae that are not explained to those who are being judged and lack basic accountability, but it’s a professional black mark on all of the statisticians involved.

Whenever you train a model, you hold some data back. This is your test data and you will use it to assess how well your model did. That gets you through to “production” – to having your model out in the field. This is an exciting milestone, not only because your model is now making decisions and (hopefully) making them well, but because now you’ll have way more data. You can see how your new fraud detection algorithm does by the volume of payouts and customer support calls. You can see how your new leak detection algorithm does by customers replying to your emails and telling you if you got it right or not.

A friend of mine who worked in FinTech once told me that they approved 1.5% of everyone who applied for their financial product, no matter what. They’d keep the score their model gave to that person on record, then see how the person fared in reality. If they used the product responsibly despite a low score, or used it recklessly despite a high score, it was viewed as valuable information that helped the team make their model that much better. I can imagine a team of data scientists, heads together around a monitor, looking through features and asking each other “huh, do any of you see what we missed here?” and it’s a pleasant image [3].

Value added teaching models, or psychological pre-screens for hiring do nothing of the sort (even though it would be trivial for them to!). They give results and those results are defined as the ground truth. There’s no room for messy reality to work its way back into the cycle. There’s no room for the creators to learn. The algorithm will be flawed and imperfect, like all products of human hands. That is inevitable. But it will be far less perfect than it could be. Absent feedback, it is doomed to always be flawed, in ways both subtle and gross, and in ways unknown to its creators and victims.

Like most Canadian engineering students, I made a solemn vow:

…in the presence of these my betters and my equals in my calling, [I] bind myself upon my honour and cold iron, that, to the best of my knowledge and power, I will not henceforward suffer or pass, or be privy to the passing of, bad workmanship or faulty material in aught that concerns my works before mankind as an engineer…

Sloppy work, like that value-added teacher model is the very definition of bad workmanship. Would that I never suffer something like that to leave my hands and take life in the world! It is no Quebec Bridge, but the value-added teaching model and other doomed to fail algorithms like it represent a slow-motion accident, steadily stealing jobs and happiness from people with no appeal or remorse.

I can accept stains on the honour of my chosen profession. Those are inevitable. But in a way, stains on our competence are so much worse. Models that take in no feedback are both, but the second really stings me.

Footnotes

[1] This first approximation isn’t correct in practice, because certain patterns of small transactions are consistent with fraud. I found this out the hard way, when a certain Bitcoin exchange’s credit card verification procedure (withdrawing less than a dollar, then refunding it a few days later, after you tell them how much they withdrew) triggered the fraud detection software at my bank. Apparently credit card thieves will often do a similar thing (minus the whole “ask the cardholder how much was withdrawn” step), as a means of checking if the card is good without cluing in the cardholder. ^

[2] I don’t mean this as a criticism of capitalism. I seek merely to point out (that like all other economic systems) capitalism is neither value neutral, nor inevitable. “Capitalism” encodes values like “people are largely rational”, “people often act to maximize their gains” and “choice is fundamentally good and useful”. ^

If socialist banks had ever made it to the point of deploying algorithms (instead of collapsing under the weight of their flawed economic system), those algorithms would also encode values (like “people will work hard for the good of the whole” and “people are inherently altruistic” and “it is worth it to sacrifice efficiency in the name of fairness”).

[3] Dulce et decorum est… get the fucking data science right. ^

Data Science, Literature, Model

Two Fallacies From ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’

Much thanks to Cody Wild for providing editing and feedback. That said, I would like to remind my readers that I deserve full credit for all errors and that all opinions expressed here are only guaranteed to be mine.

[12 minute read]

I recently read Weapons of Math Destruction by Dr. Cathy O’Neil and found it an enormously frustrating book. It’s not that whole book was rubbish ­– that would have made things easy. No, the real problem with this book is that the crap and the pearls were so closely mixed that I had to stare at every sentence very, very carefully in hopes of figuring out which one each was. There’s some good stuff in here. But much of Dr. O’Neil’s argumentation relies on two new (to me) fallacies. It’s these fallacies (which I’ve dubbed the Ought-Is Fallacy and the Availability Bait-and-Switch) that I want to explore today.

Ought-Is Fallacy

It’s a commonly repeated truism that “correlation doesn’t imply causation”. People who’ve been around the statistics block a bit longer might echo Randall Monroe and retort that “correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there'”. Understanding why a graph like this:

In addition to this graph obviously being anchored, using it is obviously fair use.
Image Copyright The New York Times, 2017. Used here for purposes of commentary and criticism.

Is utter horsecrap [1], despite how suggestive it looks is the work of a decent education in statistics. Here correlation doesn’t imply causation. On the other hand, it’s not hard to find excellent examples where correlation really does mean causation:

This would be a risky graph to use if echo chambers didn't mean that I know literally no one who doesn't believe in global warming
Source: The National Centers for Environmental Administration. Having to spell “centre” wrong and use inferior units is a small price to pay for the fact that the American government immediately releases everything it creates into the public domain.

When trying to understand the ground truth, it’s important that you don’t confuse correlation with causation. But not every human endeavour is aimed at determining the ground truth. Some endeavours really do just need to understand which activities and results are correlated. Principal among these is insurance.

Let’s say I wanted to sell you “punched in the face” insurance. You’d pay a small premium every month and if you were ever punched in the face hard enough to require dental work, I’d pay you enough to cover it [2]. I’d probably charge you more if you were male, because men are much, much more likely to be seriously injured in an assault than women are.

I’m just interested in pricing my product. It doesn’t actually matter if being a man is causal of more assaults or just correlated with it. It doesn’t matter if men aren’t inherently more likely to assault and be assaulted compared to women (for a biological definition of “inherently”). It doesn’t matter what assault rates would be like in a society without toxic masculinity. One thing and one thing alone matters: on average, I will have to pay out more often for men. Therefore, I charge men more.

If you were to claim that because there may be nothing inherent in maleness that causes assault and being assaulted, therefore men shouldn’t have to pay more, you are making a moral argument, not an empirical one. You are also committing the ought-is fallacy. Just because your beliefs tell you that some aspect of the world should be a certain way, or that it would be more moral for the world to be a certain way, does not mean the world actually is that way or that everyone must agree to order the world as if that were true.

This doesn’t prevent you from making a moral argument that we should ignore certain correlates in certain cases in the interest of fairness, merely that you should not be making an empirical argument about what is ultimately values.

The ought-is fallacy came up literally whenever Weapons of Math Destruction talked about insurance, as well as when it talked about sentencing disparities. Here’s one example:

But as the questions continue, delving deeper into the person’s life, it’s easy to imagine how inmates from a privileged background would answer one way and those from tough inner-city streets another. Ask a criminal who grew up in comfortable suburbs about “the first time you were ever involved with the police,” and he might not have a single incident to report other than the one that brought him to prison. Young black males, by contrast, are likely to have been stopped by police dozens of times, even when they’ve done nothing wrong. A 2013 study by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that while black and Latino males between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four made up only 4.7 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for 40.6 percent of the stop-and-frisk checks by police. More than 90 percent of those stopped were innocent. Some of the others might have been drinking underage or carrying a joint. And unlike most rich kids, they got in trouble for it. So if early “involvement” with the police signals recidivism, poor people and racial minorities look far riskier.

Now I happen to agree with Dr. O’Neil that we should not allow race to end up playing a role in prison sentence length. There are plenty of good things to include in a sentence length: seriousness of crime, remorse, etc. I don’t think race should be one of these criteria and since the sequence of events that Dr. O’Neil mentions make this far from the default in the criminal justice system, I think doing more to ensure race stays out of sentencing is an important moral responsibility we have as a society.

But Dr. O’Neil’s empirical criticism of recidivism models is entirely off base. In this specific example, she is claiming that some characteristics that correlate with recidivism should not be used in recidivism models even though they improve the accuracy, because they are not per se causative of crime.

Because of systematic racism and discrimination in policing [3], the recidivism rate among black Americans is higher. If the only thing you care about is maximizing the prison sentence of people who are most likely to re-offend, then your model will tag black people for longer sentences. It does not matter what the “cause” of this is! Your accuracy will still be higher if you take race into account.

To say “black Americans seem to have a higher rate of recidivism, therefore we should punish them more heavily” is almost to commit the opposite fallacy, the is-ought. Instead, we should say “yes, empirically there’s a high rate of recidivism among black Americans, but this is probably caused by social factors and regardless, if we don’t want to create a population of permanently incarcerated people, with all of the vicious cycle of discrimination that this creates, we should aim for racial parity in sentencing”. This is a very strong (and I think persuasive) moral claim [4].

It certainly is more work to make a complicated moral claim that mentions the trade-offs we must make between punishment and fairness (or between what is morally right and what is expedient) than it is to make a claim that makes no reference to these subtleties. When we admit that we are sacrificing accuracy in the name of fairness, we do open up an avenue for people to attack us.

Despite this disadvantage, I think keeping our moral and empirical claims separate is very important. When you make the empirical claim that “being black isn’t causative of higher rates of recidivism, therefore the models are wrong when they rank black Americans as more likely to reoffend”, instead of the corresponding ethical claim, then you are making two mistakes. First, there’s lots of room to quibble about what “causative” even means, beyond simple genetic causation. Because you took an empirical and not ethical position, you may have to fight any future evidence to the contrary of your empirical position, even if the evidence is true; in essence, you risk becoming an enemy of the truth. If the truth becomes particularly obvious (and contrary to your claims) you risk looking risible and any gains you achieved will be at risk of reversal.

Second, I would argue that it is ridiculous to claim that universal human rights must rest on claims of genetic identicalness between all groups of people (and trying to make the empirical claim above, rather than a moral claim implicitly embraces this premise). Ashkenazi Jews are (on average) about 15 IQ points ahead of other groups. Should we give them any different moral worth because of this? I would argue no [5]. The only criteria for full moral worth as a human and all universal rights that all humans are entitled to is being human.

As genetic engineering becomes possible, it will be especially problematic to have a norm that moral worth of humans can be modified by their genetic predisposition to pro-social behaviour. Everyone, but most especially the left, which views diversity and flourishing as some of its most important projects should push back against both the is-ought and ought-is fallacies and fight for an expansive definition of universal human rights.

Availability Bait-and-Switch

Imagine someone told you the following story:

The Fair Housing Act has been an absolute disaster for my family! My brother was trying to sublet his apartment to a friend for the summer. Unfortunately, one of the fair housing inspectors caught wind of this and forced him to put up notices that it was for rent. He had to spend a week showing random people around it and some snot-nosed five-year-old broke one of his vases while he was showing that kid’s mother around. I know there were problems before, but is the Fair Housing Act really worth it if it can cause this?

Most people would say the answer to the above is “yes, it really was worth it, oh my God, what is wrong with you?”

But it’s actually hard to think that. Because you just read a long, vivid, easily imaginable example of what exactly was wrong with the current regime and a quick throw away reference to there being problems with the old way things were done. Some people might say that it’s better to at least mention that the other way of doing things had its problems too. I disagree strenuously.

When you make a throw-away reference to problems with another way of doing things, while focusing all of your descriptive effort on the problems of the current way (or vice-versa), you are committing the Availability Bait-and-Switch. And you are giving a very false illusion of balance; people will remember that you mentioned both had problems, but they will not take this away as their impression. You will have tricked your readers into thinking you gave a balanced treatment (or at least paved the way for a defence against claims that you didn’t give a balanced treatment) while doing nothing of the sort!

We are all running corrupted hardware. One of the most notable cognitive biases we have is the availability heuristic. We judge probabilities based on what we can easily recall, not on any empirical basis. If you were asked “are there more words in the average English language book that start with k, or have k as the third letter?”, you’d probably say “start with k!” [6]. In fact, words with “k” as the third letter show up more often. But these words are harder to recall and therefore much less available to your brain.

If I were to give you a bunch of very vivid examples of how algorithms can ruin your life (as Dr. O’Neil repeatedly does, most egregiously in chapters 1, 5, and 8) and then mention off-hand that human decision making also used to ruin a lot of people’s lives, you’d probably come out of our talk much more concerned with algorithms than with human decision making. This was a thing I had to deliberately fight against while reading Weapons of Math Destruction.

Because for a book about how algorithms are destroying everything, there was a remarkable paucity of data on this destruction. I cannot recall seeing any comparative analysis (backed up by statistics, not anecdotes) of the costs and benefits of human decision making and algorithmic decision making, as it applied to Dr. O’Neil’s areas of focus. The book was all the costs of one and a vague allusion to the potential costs of the other.

If you want to give your readers an accurate snapshot of the ground truth, your examples must be representative of the ground truth. If algorithms cause twice as much damage as human decision making in certain circumstances (and again, I’ve seen zero proof that this is the case) then you should interleave every two examples of algorithmic destruction with one of human pettiness. As long as you aren’t doing this, you are lying to your readers. If you’re committed to lying, perhaps for reasons of pithiness or flow, then drop the vague allusions to the costs of the other way of doing things. Make it clear you’re writing a hatchet job, instead of trying to claim epistemic virtue points for “telling both sides of the story”. At least doing things that way is honest [7].

Footnotes

[1] This is a classic example of “anchoring”, a phenomenon where you appear to have a strong correlation in a certain direction because of a single extreme point. When you have anchoring, it’s unclear how generalizable your conclusion is – as the whole direction of the fit could be the result of the single extreme point.

Here’s a toy example:

Note that the thing that makes me suspicious of anchoring here is that we have a big hole with no data and no way of knowing what sort of data goes there (it’s not likely we can randomly generate a bunch of new countries and plot their gun ownership and rate of mass shootings). If we did some more readings (ignoring the fact that in this case we can’t) and got something like this:

I would no longer be worried about anchoring. It really isn’t enough just to look at the correlation coefficient either. The image labelled “Also Not Anchored” has a marginally lower correlation coefficient than the anchored image, even though (I would argue) it is FAR more likely to represent a true positive correlation. Note also we have no way to tell that more data will necessarily give us a graph like the third. We could also get something like this:

In which we have a fairly clear trend of noisy data with an average of 2.5 irrespective of our x-value and a pair of outliers driving a slight positive correlation.

Also, the NYT graph isn’t normalized to population, which is kind of a WTF level mistake. They include another graph that is normalized later on, but the graph I show is the preview image on Facebook. I was very annoyed with the smug liberals in the comments of the NYT article, crowing about how conservatives are too stupid to understand statistics. But that’s a rant for another day…  ^

[2] I’d very quickly go out of business because of the moral hazard and adverse selection built into this product, but that isn’t germane to the example. ^

[3] Or at least, this is my guess as to the most plausible factors in the recidivism rate discrepancy. I think social factors ­– especially when social gaps are so clear and pervasive – seem much more likely than biological ones. The simplest example of the disparity in policing – and its effects – is the relative rates of being stopped by police during Stop and Frisk given above by Dr. O’Neil. ^

[4] It’s possible that variations in Monoamine oxidase A or some other gene amongst populations might make some populations more predisposed (in a biological sense) to violence or other antisocial behaviour. Given that violence and antisocial behaviour are relatively uncommon (e.g. about six in every one thousand Canadian adults are incarcerated or under community supervision on any given day), any genetic effect that increases them would both be small on a social level and lead to a relatively large skew in terms of supervised populations.

This would occur in the same way that repeat offenders tend to be about one standard deviation below median societal IQ but the correlation between IQ and crime explains very little of the variation in crime. This effect exists because crime is so rare.

It is unfortunately easy for people to take things like “Group X is 5% more likely to be violent”, and believe that people in Group X are something like 5% likely to assault them. This obviously isn’t true. Given that there are about 7.5 assaults for every 1000 Canadians each year, a population that was instead 100% Group X (with their presumed 5% higher assault rate) would see about 7.875 assaults per 1000 people, a difference of about one additional assault per 3500 people.

Unfortunately, if society took its normal course, we could expect to see Group X very overrepresented in prison. As soon as Group X gets a reputation for violence, juries would be more likely to convict, bail would be less likely, sentences might be longer (out of fear of recidivism), etc. Because many jobs (and in America, social benefits and rights) are withdrawn after you’ve been sentenced to jail, formerly incarcerated members of Group X would see fewer legal avenues to make a living. This could become even worse if even non-criminal members of Group X would denied some jobs due to fear of future criminality, leaving Group X members with few overall options but the black and grey economies and further tightening the spiral of incarceration and discrimination.

In this case, I think the moral thing to do as a society is to ignore any evidence we have about between-group differences in genetic propensities to violence. Ignoring results isn’t the same thing as pretending they are false or banning research; we aren’t fighting against truth, simply saying that some small extra predictive power into violence is not worth the social cost that Group X would face in a society that is entirely unable to productively reason about statistics.  ^

[5] Although we should be ever vigilant against people who seek to do the opposite and use genetic differences between Ashkenazi Jews and other populations as a basis for their Nazi ideology. As Hannah Arendt said, the Holocaust was a crime against humanity perpetrated on the body of the Jewish people. It was a crime against humanity (rather than “merely” a crime against Jews) because Jews are human. ^

[6] Or at least, you would if I hadn’t warned you that I was about to talk about biases. ^

[7] My next blog post is going to be devoted to what I did like about the book, because I don’t want to commit the mistakes I’ve just railed against (and because I think there was some good stuff in the book that bears reviewing). ^

Literature

Book Review: The Second Shift

Fittingly enough, The Second Shift is the second book I’ve read by the famed sociologist Professor Arlie Russel Hochschild. It’s a book about the second working shift – the one that starts when people, especially parents, come home from work and find themselves confronted with a mound of chores.

I really liked this book. It’s one of the most interesting things I’ve read this year and I’ve regaled everyone who will listen with facts from it for the past few weeks. Now I’m taking that regaling online. I’m not going to do a full summary of it because I think a lot of its ideas have entered the cultural consciousness; it’s well known that women continue to do the majority of work at home and have less time for leisure than men and this popular comic about mental load summarizes that section of the book better than I ever could.

But even still, there’s lots of interesting anecdotes and figures to share.

(A quick note: This book focused on heterosexual couples because gay couples are much better at sharing the second shift. I’m going to use gendered language for partners that assumes heterosexual relationships throughout this post because this book talked about a problem of heterosexual relationships; specifically, it talked about a problem with how men act in heterosexual relationships.)

“Transitional” men are worse than traditional men

Professor Hochschild identifies three types of men. There are the traditional men, who believe in traditional gender roles and separate spheres for the sexes. These are the men who’d prefer to earn the money while their wives keep the house. Then there are the egalitarian men – the men who believe that men and women are equal and try (with varying amounts of success) to transfer this political principle to their personal relationships.

Then there are the transitional men. These men aren’t against women having careers, per se (like traditional men might be). Transitional man accept that women can be part of the workforce and often welcome the extra paycheque. Unfortunately, transitional men haven’t bought all the way into equality. They also believe that women should be in charge and do most of the work at home.

Transitional men were the worst sharers of chores. Seventy percent of egalitarian men shared the chores entirely. The rest did between 30% and 45% of them, an amount Professor Hochschild labelled “moderate” (none did less than 30% of the chores, labelled as “little”). Of traditional men, 22% shared entirely and 33% did little (with the balance doing a moderate amount). The transitionals? 3% shared, 10% did a moderate amount and a full 87% did little.

This seems to be because transitional men expect women to deal with a lack of time by cutting back at work. The transitional men profiled in the book tended to be emotionally supportive of the women in their lives who were caught between work and home, but most refused to support their partners by actually helping out more.

People talk about women wanting to “have it all”, with a career and motherhood. But if anyone should be accused of wanting to “have it all”, it’s these men. They wanted the extra spending money their wife brought in with her job, but weren’t prepared to support her in the chores at home. To these men, their wife being able to work was contingent on her first completing her “more important” duties in the home.

Working more can be a way to escape chores

Some couples try and have the same amount of leisure time, rather than do the same amount of chores. This allows them to balance things out if one partner works more. It also can set up bad incentives. Some of the men in this book used their long hours (and high salaries) as an excuse not to do chores at home.

When Prof. Hochschild looked at these men more closely, she discovered that they enjoyed their jobs much more than they enjoyed doing chores. It wasn’t that the jobs didn’t leave them drained – they certainly weren’t faking their need to flop down in front of the TV at the end of a day – but despite that, these men wouldn’t have chosen helping out with chores over being drained. They found work fulfilling, while chores were just a boring obligation.

The negative impacts of overtime work seem to pop up in a few studies. There’s no good reason (beyond signalling your dedication to your job) to work more than forty hours a week long-term. You simply can’t get anything more done. It’s better for your relationship (and your health!) to take some of the extra overtime you might do and spend it at home helping with chores.

Not everyone has the freedom to bring this up at work and not everyone enjoys their work. You might be stuck in a job you don’t like, a job that demands a lot of overtime to prove that you’re serious and this overtime might take a toll on you (like studies suggest it does). If you leaving that job isn’t feasible, you don’t like your job, and your partner works fewer hours or enjoys their job more, then it probably is fair for your partner to take on more of the housework. In all other cases, you probably shouldn’t use working longer hours as an excuse to do less of the housework, at least not if equality is important in your partnership.

This also applies to personal projects, even if they might increase your employability, bring in a bit of extra cash, or bring value to your community. If you’re an aspiring author and spend an hour writing each night, this shouldn’t entitle you to any lesser share of the chores. If you’re studying a subject you enjoy, you shouldn’t use night class as an excuse to shirk housework. And volunteering, while laudable, is an activity that you do. It shouldn’t entitle you to a pass on chores.

Family Myths

The most distressing tale (to me) in the whole book was the story of Nancy and Evan Holt. Nancy was an ardent feminist and egalitarian, while Evan was a transitional. Evan was happy that Nancy liked her job, but thought that the home should be primarily her responsibility. Nancy wanted Evan to share the second shift.

They clashed over this mismatch for years. Here’s what happened when Nancy tried to get Evan to share the cooking:

Nancy said the first week of the new plan went as follows. On Monday, she cooked. For Tuesday, Evan planned a meal that required shopping for a few ingredients, but on his way home he forgot to shop for them. He came home, saw nothing he could use in the refrigerator or in the cupboard, and suggested to Nancy that they go out for Chinese food. On Wednesday, Nancy cooked. On Thursday morning, Nancy reminded Evan, “Tonight it’s your turn.” That night Evan fixed hamburgers and french fries and Nancy was quick to praise him. On Friday, Nancy cooked. On Saturday, Evan forgot again.

As this pattern continued, Nancy’s reminders became sharper. The sharper they became, the more actively Evan forgot—perhaps anticipating even sharper reprimands if he resisted more directly. This cycle of passive refusal followed by disappointment and anger gradually tightened, and before long the struggle had spread to the task of doing the laundry.

Evan kept up his passive resistance for years and eventually Nancy cut back her hours at work in order to have more time for the second shift. But this was never framed as a capitulation. Instead, it coincided with the family myth that they were sharing the chores.

How? Well, they’d ‘split the house in half’. Nancy took the upstairs (cooking, cleaning, the majority of childcare) and Evan took the downstairs (fixing the car, dealing with the yard, and maintaining the house). For all that this apparently represented an even split, it wasn’t. Not only did Evan spend less time doing chores than Nancy, the chores he did gave him more freedom. It’s much easier to put off mowing the yard or some bit of home maintenance than it is to put off picking up your kid from daycare or cooking a meal.

The myth of the work being split in half allowed Nancy to feel like she hadn’t capitulated on her feminist principles, even though she had. From a certain point of view, the family myth was a useful fiction – it probably saved Nancy and Evan’s marriage. But it opened my eyes to the very real danger of allowing a convenient myth to become an unquestioned truth. It reminded me to be careful of any convenient myths and to favour data (e.g. directly comparing how much time my partner and I spend doing chores) over stories when deciding if things are fair.

Passive avoidance and making do with less

Another tactic favoured by men like Evan Holt who have little interest in helping with the second shift requires a combination of passive avoidance and making do with less. We saw the first half of this above. It was the strategy Evan used to get out of cooking. By forgetting the ingredients, he got out of the chore.

Passive avoidance allows for lazy partners to avoid chores they don’t want to do without having to have a conversation about why they’re avoiding them or if it is fair for them to. It was much easier for Evan to be berated for forgetting (a common human frailty) than for not wanting to split chores fairly, which Nancy might have taken (correctly?) to imply something about how much Evan cared about her.

On its own, this was a moderately effective way of getting out of work. To be truly effective, it had to be paired with making do with less. In the book, men who wanted their wives to do more of the cleaning claimed that their wife wanted things too clean; if it was just them, they’d clean much less often. Men who wanted to get out of cooking claimed that takeout was good enough for them. Men who were too lazy to help their wives shop for furniture claimed that they were perfectly happy in a bare house. Men who wished to get out of childcare said they were coddling the child too much and that their children should learn to be more independent.

By passively avoiding chores and then loudly claiming that the whole chore was unnecessary, men made their wives feel like asking for their help was an unreasonable imposition.

In The Second Shift, this was a highly gendered interaction. There were no women claiming that their husbands’ standards of cleanliness were too exacting. And while there’s no reason that this has to always be gendered, I suspect that as long as women are raised with more knowledge of chores (and expectations that they will be the ones to do them), this trend will continue.

The thing I find particularly unfortunate about this tactic is that it sets up a race to the bottom. Having the chores go to whomever cares the most sets up a terrible system of competitive insouciance.

While I acknowledge that it certainly is possible for partners to have very real differences in their desired level of cleanliness or in their desired calibre of meal preparation, I think it makes sense to have a strong habit of discounting those, so as to ensure a good incentive structure. As long as each partner has even one thing they care about more than the other, it should be possible for them to cultivate empathy and avoid the insidious temptation to put off chores by making do with less.

Not all chores are created equal

Even when men were splitting the chores evenly, this didn’t always translate to less work for their partners. The illustrative example here was Greg and Carol Alston. Both spent about the same amount of time working on tasks around the house, but this was driven in part by Greg taking on a variety of home improvement tasks.

Had Greg not done those, the family’s daily situation would have been the exact same. That’s not to say that this work at home wasn’t benefiting the family. It was increasing the resale value of their house and making their long-held dream of a move to the mountains and part-time work that much closer to fruition.

The Second Shift opened my eyes to the reality that some chores must get done in a household and it’s these chores on which I now want to judge sharing the second shift. It’s only these disruptive daily chores that can’t be set aside for something more important.

If Greg was exhausted, or sick, he could easily work less on the kitchen cabinets and make it up when he felt better. Carol had no such luck with her chores. Their daughter had to get fed and bathed regardless of how Carol felt.

Greg somewhat redeemed this imbalance by being entirely willing to help out with the daily chores when Carol needed him. If she was sick, he undoubtedly would have stepped in to help. This still left the burden of managing those daily chores and making sure they got done to Carol, but it offered her some buffer.

What chores are daily necessities will probably vary from couple to couple. If you and your partner are habitually neat but bad at cooking, you might decide that it is important that the house is tidied up daily, but you won’t mind if meals come from takeout.

In discussions with your partner about the second shift, it seems especially worthwhile to determine which chores you and your partner consider absolutely mandatory and ensure that in addition to balancing chores in general, you are approximately balanced here. Otherwise, the chores you do might not be lightening the load on your partner at all.

Gratitude

Despite that fact that Greg’s carpentry projects didn’t really reduce the burden on her, Carol was happy that he was doing them. For one, Greg treated her as someone with important opinions. He may have planned the projects, but he actively sought out and valued her input. In addition, by doing this, Greg was helping make one of Carol’s lifelong dreams a reality. Carol was grateful for the work that Greg was doing around the house.

Reading The Second Shift, it struck me how gratitude was the most important factor in how couples felt about how they split the chores. When one partner expected gratitude, but didn’t receive it, they felt a lot of resentment towards the other. Conversely, relationships were strengthened when one of the partners felt grateful for the things the other did by default.

This showed up in surprising places. When Nina Tanagawa started making more money than her husband Peter, he expected her to grateful that he was willing to accept it. On the other hand, when Ann Myerson started earning more than her husband Robert, he was ecstatic. He’s quoted as saying “[w]hen my wife started to earn more than I did, I thought I’d struck gold.” When furniture arrived, he was the one who waited for it, because it just made sense to him that the person making less money should take the time off work. His wife was reciprocally grateful that he wanted her to have a career and didn’t care if she made more than him. The existence of men like Peter made Ann grateful for Robert.

The worst situation was when one partner expected gratitude for something the other took for granted. When Jessica Stein cut back on work after the birth of her children, her husband Seth treated it like the natural order of the world. To Jessica, it stung. It wasn’t how she’d seen her life going. She’d thought that their careers would be treated as equally important. She expected gratitude (and perhaps equal sacrifices from Seth) in response to her sacrifice.

Seth’s “sacrifice” was working long hours for a large salary. But this wasn’t the sacrifice Jessica wanted of him. She wanted him to be present and helpful. Because of this mismatch, Jessica ended up withdrawing from her marriage and children. She spent the weekends in Seattle (she lived in the San Francisco bay area), with her old college friends. Professor Hochschild described the couple as “divorced in spirit”.

It’s all in the culture

So much of what drove gratitude was cultural. Nina felt grateful that her husband “tolerated” her higher salary because when she looked around at the other women she knew, she saw many of them married to men who wouldn’t have “tolerated” their wife making more than them.

Many of the men in Professor Hochschild’s study almost shared the second shift. They did something like 40% of the tasks around the home and with the kids. Interestingly, the wives of these men often felt like they shared (even though the men were likely to say that their wives did more). This became a sort of family myth of its own, that these men entirely shared, instead of almost entirely shared. Professor Hochschild suggests that this myth arose because when compared to other husbands, these men did so much more.

Who won conflicts about the second shift was often determined by the broader patterns of culture as well. If a husband did much more housework than the average (or was more willing to “tolerate” his wife working), then his wife was much less likely to be successful in causing him to contribute more. When compared against the reference class of “society”, many men did quite well, even though they were objectively lazy when compared to their wife.

This is a pattern I’ve observed in many relationship negotiations (both in my own life and in stories told by friends). It’s really hard to get the partner who is more willing to leave the relationship to do something they don’t want to do. In relationships that aren’t abusive or manipulative, people only do the things they freely choose. They obviously won’t freely choose to do anything that they like less than breaking up. But the very fact that breaking up will hurt them less than their partner makes it very hard for their partner to feel like they can push for changes.

In one of the two profiled couples who actually shared the second shift equally (Adrienne and Michael Sherman), their equality was brought about because Adrienne actually left Michael after his refusal to share the second shift and his insistence that his career come first. After two months, Michael called Adrienne and told her that he’d share. He loved her and didn’t feel like he could love anyone else as deeply as he loved her. She came back and they shared the housework and raising the kids. Michael surprised himself by how much he enjoyed it. He became the best father he knew and he took pride in this. But none of this would have been possible if Adrienne hadn’t been willing to leave.

While the division of the second shift is ostensibly an agreement among individuals, I don’t think the overarching problem is best addressed individually. As long as women feel like they’re getting a good deal when men almost do their fair share, many men won’t do any more. Policies – like extended, non-transferable parental leave after the birth of a child – that encourage men to spend time at home sharing the second shift are a necessary component of ending this gendered divide.

Literature, Science

Book Review: The Singularity is Near

I recently read The Singularity is Near as part of a book club and figured a few other people might benefit from hearing what I got out of it.

First – it was a useful book. I shed a lot of my skepticism of the singularity as I read it. My mindset has shifted from “a lot of this seems impossible” to “some of this seems impossible, but a lot of it is just incredibly hard engineering”. But that’s because I stuck with it – something that probably wouldn’t have happened without the structure of a book club.

I’m not sure Kurzweil is actually the right author for this message. Accelerando (by Charles Stross) covered much of the same material as Singularity, while being incredibly engaging. Kurzweil’s writing is technically fine – he can string a sentence together and he’s clear – but incredibly repetitious. If you read the introduction, the introduction of each chapter, all of Chapter 4 (in my opinion, the only consistently good part of the book proper), and his included responses to critics (the only other interesting part of the whole tome) you’ll get all the worthwhile content, while saving yourself a good ten hours of hearing the same thing over and over and over again. Control-C/Control-V may have been a cheap way for Kurzweil to pad his word count, but it’s expensive to the reader.

I have three other worries about Kurzweil as a futurist. One deals with his understanding of some of the more technical aspects of what he’s talking about, especially physics. Here’s a verbatim quote from Singularity about nuclear weapons:

Alfred Nobel discovered dynamite by probing chemical interactions of molecules. The atomic bomb, which is tens of thousands of times more powerful than dynamite, is based on nuclear interactions involving large atoms, which are much smaller scales of matter than large molecules. The hydrogen bomb, which is thousands of times more powerful than an atomic bomb, is based on interactions involving an even smaller scale: small atoms. Although this insight does not necessarily imply the existence of yet more powerful destructive chain reactions by manipulating subatomic particles, it does make the conjecture [that we can make more powerful weapons using sub-atomics physics] plausible.

This is false on several levels. First, uranium and plutonium (the fissile isotopes used in atomic bombs) are both more massive (in the sense that they contain more matter) than the nitroglycerine in dynamite. Even if fissile isotopes are smaller in one dimension, they are on the same scale as the molecules that make up high explosives. Second, the larger energy output from hydrogen bombs has nothing to do with the relative size of hydrogen vs. uranium. Long time readers will know that the majority of the destructive output of a hydrogen bomb actually comes from fission of the uranium outer shell. Hydrogen bombs (more accurately thermonuclear weapons) derive their immense power from a complicated multi-step process that liberates a lot of energy from the nuclei of atoms.

Kurzweil falling for this plausible (but entirely incorrect) explanation doesn’t speak well of his ability to correctly pick apart the plausible and true from the plausible and false in fields he is unfamiliar with. But it’s this very picking apart that is so critical for someone who wants to undertake such a general survey of science.

My second qualm emerges when Kurzweil talks about AI safety. Or rather, it arises from the lack of any substantive discussion of AI safety in a book about the singularity. As near as I can tell, Kurzweil believes that AI will emerge naturally from attempts to functionally reverse engineer the human brain. Kurzweil believes that because this AI will be essentially human, there will be no problems with value alignment.

This seems very different from the Bostromian paradigm of dangerously misaligned AI: AI with ostensibly benign goals that turn out to be inimical to human life when taken to their logical conclusion. The most common example I’ve heard for this paradigm is an industrial AI tasked with maximizing paper clip production that tiles the entire solar system with paper clips.

Kurzweil is so convinced that the first AI will be based on reverse engineering the brain that he doesn’t adequately grapple with the orthogonality thesis: the observation that intelligence and comprehensible (to humans) goals don’t need to be correlated. I see no reason to believe Kurzweil that the first super-intelligence will be based off a human. I think to believe that it would be based on a human, you’d have to assume that various university research projects will beat Google and Facebook (who aren’t trying to recreate functional human brains in silica) in the race to develop a general AI. I think that is somewhat unrealistic, especially if there are paths to general intelligence that look quite different from our brains.

Finally, I’m unhappy with how Kurzweil’s predictions are sprinkled throughout the book, vague, and don’t include confidence intervals. The only clear prediction I was able to find was Kurzweil’s infamously false assertion that by ~2010, our computers would be split up and worn with our clothing.

It would be much easier to assess Kurzweil’s accuracy as a predictor if he listed all of his predictions together in a single section, applied to them clear target dates (e.g. less vague than: “in the late 2020s”), and gave his credence (as it stands, it is hard to distinguish between things Kurzweil believes are very likely and things he views as only somewhat likely). Currently any attempts to assess Kurzweil’s accuracy are very sensitive to what you choose to view as “a prediction” and how you interpret his timing. More clarity would make this unambiguous.

Outside of Kurzweil’s personal suitability as an author and advocate (and his sagacity), I have one beef with singulatarian thought in general. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the silicon paradigm of computing will soon come to the end of its exponential growth. Switching to something like indium gallium arsenide and moving key processes to more optimized chips will buy a bit more time, but doesn’t represent a fundamental paradigm shift of the sort that gets us around the tunneling problem.

Furthermore, we’ve already began to bump up against the limit on clock speed in silicon; we can’t really run silicon chips at higher clock rates without melting them. This is unfortunate, because speed ups in clock time are much nicer than increased parallelism. Almost all programs benefit from quicker processing, while only certain programs benefit from increased parallelism. This isn’t an insurmountable obstacle when it comes to things like artificial intelligence (the human brain has a very slow clock speed and massive parallelism and it’s obviously good enough to get lots done), but it does mean that some things that Kurzweil were counting on to get quicker and quicker have stalled out (the book was written just as the Dennard Scaling began to break down).

All this means that the exponential growth that is supposed to drive the singularity is about to fizzle out… maybe. Kurzweil is convinced that the slowdown in silicon will necessarily lead to a paradigm shift to something else. But I’m not sure what it will be. He talks a bit about graphene, but when I was doing my degree in nanotechnology engineering, the joke among the professors was that graphene could do anything… except make it out of the lab.

Kurzweil has an almost religious faith that there will be another paradigm shift, keeping his exponential trend going strong. And I want to be really clear that I’m not saying there won’t be. I’m just saying there might not be. There is no law of the universe that says that we have to have convenient paradigm shifts. We could get stuck with linear (or even logarithmic) incremental improvements for years, decades, or even centuries before we resume exponential growth in computing power.

It does seem like ardent belief in the singularity might attract more religiously minded atheists. Kurzweil himself believes that it is our natural destiny to turn the whole universe into computational substrate. Identifying god with the most holy and perfect (in fine medieval tradition; there’s something reminiscent of Anselm in Kurzweil’s arguments), Kurzweil believes that once every atom in the universe sings with computation, we will have created god.

I don’t believe that humanity has any grand destiny, or that the arc of history bends towards anything at all in particular. And I by no means believe that the singularity is assured, technologically or socially. But it is a beautiful vision. Human flourishing, out to the very edges of the cosmos…

Yeah, I want that too. I’m a religiously minded atheist, after all.

In both disposition and beliefs, I’m far closer to Kurzweil than his many detractors. I think “degrowth” is an insane policy that if followed, would create scores of populist demagogues. I think that the Chinese room argument is good only for identifying people who don’t think systemically. I’m also more or less in agreement that government regulations won’t be able to stop a singularity (if one is going to occur because of continuing smooth acceleration in the price performance of information technology; regulation could catch up if a slowdown between paradigm shifts gives it enough time).

I think the singularity very well might happen. And at the end of the day, the only real difference between me and Kurzweil is that “might”.

Also: I repeat myself less.

Literature, Politics

Book Review: Shattered

[10 minute read]

Foreword: November 8th was one of the worst nights of my life, in a way that might have bled through – just a bit, mind you – into this review. My position will probably mellow as the memories of my fear and disappointment fade.

My latest non-fiction read was Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. In addition to making me consider a career in political consultancy, it gave me a welcome insight into some of the fascinating choices the Clinton campaign made during the election.

I really do believe this book was going to rip on the campaign no matter the outcome. Had Clinton won, the thesis would have been “the race was closer than it needed to be”, not “Clinton’s campaign was brilliant”.

Despite that, I should give the classic disclaimer: I could be wrong about the authors; it’s entirely possible that they’d have extolled the brilliance of Clinton had she won. It’s also true that Clinton almost won and if she had, she would have captured the presidency in an extremely cost-effective way.

But almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades and an election is neither. Clinton lost. The 11th hour letter from Comey to congress and Russian hacking may have tipped her over, but ultimately it was the decisions of her campaign that allowed Donald Trump to be within spitting distance of her at all.

Shattered lays a lot of blame for those bad decisions in the lap of Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager. Throughout the book, he’s portrayed as dogmatically obsessed with data, refusing to do anything that doesn’t come up as optimal in his models. It was Mook who refused to do polling (because he thought his analytics provided almost the same information at a fraction of the cost), Mook who refused to condone any attempts at persuading undecided or weak Trump voters to back Clinton, Mook who consistently denied resources to swing state team leads, and Mook who responded to Bill Clinton’s worries about anti-establishment sentiment and white anger with “the data run counter to your anecdotes”.

We now have a bit more context in which to view Mook’s “data” and Bill’s “anecdotes”.

I’m a committed empiricist, but Mook’s “data driven” approach made me repeatedly wince. Anything that couldn’t be measured was discounted as unimportant. Anything that wasn’t optimal was forbidden. And any external validation of models – say via polls – was vetoed because Mook didn’t want to “waste” money validating models he was so confident in.

Mook treated the election as a simple optimization problem – he thought he knew how many votes or how much turnout was associated with every decision he could make, and he assumed that if he fed all this into computers, he’d get the definitive solution to the election.

The problem here is that elections remain unsolved. There doesn’t exist an equation that lets you win an election. There’s too many factors and too many unknowns and you aren’t acting in a vacuum. You have an opponent who is actively countering you. And it should go almost without saying that an optimal solution to an election is only possible if the solution can be kept secret. If your opponent knows your solution, they will find a way to counter it.

Given that elections are intractable as simple optimization problems, a smart campaign will rely on experienced humans to make major decisions. Certainly, these humans should be armed with the best algorithms, projections, data, and cost-benefit analyses that a campaign can supply. But to my (outsider) eyes, it seems absolutely unconscionable to cut out the human element and ignore all of the accumulated experience a campaign brain trust can bring to bear on an election. Clinton didn’t lack for a brain trust, but her brain trust certainly lacked for opportunities to make decisions.

Not all the blame can rest on Mook though. The campaign ultimately comes down to a candidate and quite frankly, there were myriad ways in which Clinton wasn’t that great of a candidate.

First: vision. She didn’t have one. Clinton felt at home in policy, so her campaign had a lot of it. She treated the election like a contest to create policy that would apply to the rational self-interest of a winning coalition of voters. Trump tried to create a story that would appeal to the self-conception of a winning coalition of voters.

I don’t think one is necessarily superior to the other, but I’ve noticed that charismatic and generally liked leaders (Trudeau, Macron, Obama if we count his relatively high approval ratings at the end of his presidency) manage to combine both. Clinton was the “establishment” candidate, the candidate that was supposed to be good at elections. She had every opportunity to learn to use both tools. But she only ever used one, depriving her of a critical weapon against her opponent. In this way, she was a lot like Romney.

(Can you imagine Clinton vs. Romney? That would have been high comedy right there.)

After vision comes baggage. Clinton had a whole mule train of it. Her emails, her speeches, her work for the Clinton foundation – there were plenty of time bombs there. I know the standard progressive talking point is that Clinton had baggage because a woman had to be in politics as long as she did before she would be allowed to run for the presidency. And if her baggage was back room deals with foreign despots or senate subcommittees (the two generally differ only in the lavishness of the receptions they throw, not their moral character) that explanation would be all well and good.

But Clinton used a private email server because she didn’t want the laws on communication disclosures apply to her. She gave paid speeches and hid the transcripts because she felt entitled to hundreds of thousands of dollars and (apparently) thought she could take the money and then remain impartial.

Both of these unforced errors showed poor judgement and entitlement. They weren’t banal expressions of the compromises people need to make to govern. They showed real contempt for the electorate, in that they sought to deny voters a chance to hold Clinton accountable for what she said, both as the nation’s top diplomat and as (perhaps only briefly) its most exorbitantly compensated public speaker.

As she was hiding things, I doubt Clinton explicitly thought “fuck the voters, I don’t care what they think”, it was instead probably “damned if I’m giving everyone more ammunition to get really angry about”. Unfortunately, the second isn’t benign in a democracy, where responsible government first and foremost requires politicians to be responsible to voters for all of their beliefs and actions, even the ones they’d rather keep out of the public eye. To allow any excuse at all to be used to escape from responsible government undermines the very idea of it.

As a personal note, I think it was stupid of Clinton to be so contemptuous because it made her long-term goals more difficult, but I also think her contempt was understandable in light of the fact that she’s waded through more bullshit in the service of her country than any five other politicians combined. Politicians are humans and make mistakes and it’s possible to understand and sympathize with the ways those mistakes come from human frailty while also condemning the near-term effects (lost elections) and long-term effects (decreased trust in democratic institutions) of bad decisions.

The final factor that Clinton deserves blame for is her terrible management style. When talking about management, Peter Thiel opined that only a sociopath would give two people the same job. If this is true – I’m inclined to trust him under the principle that it takes one to know one – Clinton is a sociopath. There was no clear chain of command for the campaign. At every turn, people could see their work undone by well-connected “Clinton World” insiders. The biggest miracle is that the members of the campaign managed to largely keep this on the down-low.

Clinton made much of Obama’s 2008 “drama free” campaign. She wanted her 2016 campaign to run the same way. But instead of adopting the management habits that Obama used to engender loyalty, she decided that the differences lay everywhere but in the candidates; if only she had better, more loyal people working for her, she’d have the drama free campaign she desired. And so, she cleaned house, started fresh, and demanded that there would be no drama. As far as the media was concerned, there wasn’t. But under the surface, things were brutal.

Mook hid information from pretty much everyone because his position felt precarious. No one told Abedin anything because they knew she’d tell it right to Clinton, especially if it wasn’t complementary. Everyone was scared that their colleagues would stab them in the back to prove their loyalty to Clinton. Employees who failed were stripped of almost all responsibilities, but never fired. In 2008, fired employees ‘took the axes they had to grind, sharpened them, and jammed them in Clinton’s back during media interviews’. Clinton learned lessons from that, but I’m not sure if they were the right ones.

I’m not sure how much of this was text and how much was subtext, but I emerged from Shattered feeling that the blame for losing the election can’t stop with the Clinton camp. There’s also Bernie Sanders. I don’t think anyone can blame him for talking about emails and speeches, but I’ve come to believe that the chip on his shoulder about the unfairness of the primary was way out of line; if anyone in the Democratic Party beat Clinton on a sense of entitlement, it was Sanders.

Politics is a team sport. You can’t accomplish anything alone, so you have to rely on other people. Clinton (whatever her flaws) was reliable. She fought and she bled and she suffered for the Democratic Party. Insofar as anyone has ever been owed a nomination, Clinton was owed this one.

Sanders hadn’t even fundraised for the party. And he expected them not to do whatever they could for Clinton? Why? He was an outsider trying to hijack their institution. His complaints would have been fair from a Democrat, but from an independent socialist?

On the Republican side, Trump had the same thing going on (and presumably would have been equally damaging to another nominee had he lost). In both cases, the party owed them nothing. It was childish of Bernie to go on like the party was supposed to be impartial.

(Also, in what meaningful ways vis a vis ability to hire staff and coordinate policy would you expect a Sanders White House to be different from the Trump White House? If you didn’t answer “none”, then you have some serious thinking to do.)

You’d think the effect of all of this would be for me to feel contempt for the Democratic Party in general and Clinton in particular. But aside from Sanders, I came out of it feeling really sorry for everyone involved.

I felt sorry for Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Sanders’ inflammatory rhetoric necessitated throwing her under the bus right before the convention. She didn’t take it gracefully, but then, how could she? She’d flown her whole family from Florida to Philadelphia to see her moment of triumph as Chairwoman of the DNC speaking at the Democratic National Convention and had it all taken away from her so that Sanders’ supporters wouldn’t riot (and apparently it was still a near thing). She spent the better part of the day negotiating her exit with the Clinton campaign’s COO, instead of appearing on the stage like she’d hoped to. The DNC ended up footing the bill for flying her family home.

I felt sorry for Mook. He had a hard job and less power and budget than were necessary to do it well. He trusted his models too much, but this is partially because he was really good with them. Mook’s math made it almost impossible for Sanders to win. Clinton had been terrible at delegate math in 2008. Mook redeemed that. To give just one example of his brilliance, he prioritized media spending in districts with an odd number of delegates, which meant that Clinton won an outside number of delegates from her wins and losses [1].

I felt sorry for the whole Clinton campaign. Things went so wrong, so often that they had a saying: “we don’t get to have nice things”. Media ignores four Clinton victories to focus on one of Sanders’? “We don’t get to have nice things”. Trump goes off the rails, but it gets overshadowed by the ancient story about emails? “We don’t get to have nice things.”

Several members of the campaign had their emails hacked (probably by the Russians). Instead of reporting on the Russian interference and Russian ties to the Trump campaign, the media talked about those emails over and over again in the last month of the election [2]. That must have been maddening for the candidate and her team.

Even despite that, I felt sorry for the press, who by and large didn’t want Trump to win, but were forced by a string of terrible incentives to consistently cover Clinton in an exceedingly damning way. If you want to see Moloch‘s hand at work, look no further than reporting on the 2016 election.

But most of all, I felt sorry for Clinton. Here was a woman who had spent her whole adult life in politics, largely motivated by a desire to help women and children (causes she’d been largely successful at). As Secretary of State, she flew 956,733 miles (equivalent to two round trips to the moon) and visited 112 countries. She lost two races for the presidency. And it must have been so crushing to have bled and fought and given so much, to think she’d finally succeeded, then to have it all taken away from her by Donald Trump.

Yet, she conceded anyway. She was crushed, but she ensured that America’s legacy of peaceful transfers of power would continue.

November 8th may have been one of the worst nights of my life. But I’m not self-absorbed enough to think my night was even remotely as bad as Clinton’s. Clinton survived the worst the world could do to her and is still breathing and still trying to figure out what to do next. If her campaign gave me little to admire, that makes up a good bit of the gap.

I really recommend Shattered for anyone who wants to see just how off the rails a political campaign can go when it’s buffeted by a combination of candidate ineptitude, unclear chains of command, and persistent attacks from a foreign adversary. It’s a bit repetitious at times, which was sometimes annoying and sometimes helpful (especially when I’d forgotten who was who), but otherwise grippingly and accessibly written. The fascinating subject matter more than makes up for any small burrs in the delivery.

Footnotes:

[1] In a district that has an odd number of delegates, winning by a single vote meant an extra delegate. In a district with 6 delegates, you’d get 3 delegates if you won between 50% and 67% of the votes. In a district with 7, you’d get 4 if you won by even a single vote, and five once you surpassed 71%. If a state has ten counties, four with seven delegates and six with six delegates, you can win the state by four delegates if you squeak to a win in the four districts with seven delegates and win at least 34% of the vote in each of the others. In practice, statewide delegates prevent such wonky scenarios except when the vote is really close, but this sort of math remains vital to winning a close race.  ^

[2] WikiLeaks released the hacked emails a few hundred a day for the last month of the election, starting right after the release of Trump’s “grab her by the pussy” video. This steady drip-drip-drip of bad press was very damaging for the Clinton campaign, especially because many people didn’t differentiate this from the other Clinton-email story.

At this point, I want to know whether WikiLeaks is an organ of the Russian state, or just manipulated by them. Personally, I gravitate towards the first. Chelsea Manning is a hero, but everyone else aligned with WikiLeaks seems to hate the West so much that they’ll happily climb into Putin’s pocket if it means they get to take a shot at it. ^

Ethics, Literature, Philosophy

Book Review: Utilitarianism for and against (Part 2)

[33 minute read]

Three weeks ago, I reviewed the first half of Utilitarianism for and against. This week I’ll be reviewing the second half, the against side. I should note that I’m a utilitarian and therefore likely to be biased against the arguments presented here. If my criticism is rather thicker than last week, it is not because the author of the second essay is any worse than the first.

The author is one Sir Bernard Williams. According to his Wikipedia, he was a particularly humanistic philosopher in the old Greek mode. He was skeptical of attempts to build an analytical foundation for moral philosophy and of his own prowess in arguments. It seems that he had something pithy or cutting to say about everything, which made him notably cautious of pithy or clever answers. He’s also described as a proto-feminist, although you wouldn’t know it from his writing.

Williams didn’t write his essay out of a rationalist desire to disprove utilitarianism with pure reason (a concept he seemed every bit as sceptical of as Smart was). Instead, Williams wrote this essay because he agrees with Smart that utilitarianism is a “distinctive way of looking at human action and morality”. It’s just that unlike Smart, Williams finds the specific distinctive perspective of utilitarianism often horrible.

Smart anticipated this sort of reaction to his essay. He himself despaired of finding a single ethical system that could please anyone, or even please a single person in all their varied moods.

One of the very first things I noticed in Williams’ essay was the challenge of attacking utilitarianism on its own terms. To convince a principled utilitarian that utilitarianism is a poor choice of ethical system, it is almost always necessary to appeal to the consequences of utilitarianism. This forces any critic to frame their arguments a certain way, a way which might feel unnatural. Or repugnant.

Williams begins his essay proper with (appropriately) a discussion of consequences. He points out that it is difficult to hold actions as valuable purely by their consequences because this forces us to draw arbitrary lines in time and declare the state of the world at that time the “consequences”. After all, consequences continue to unfold forever (or at least, until the heat death of the universe). To have anything to talk about at all Williams decides that it is not quite consequences that consequentialism cares about, but states of affairs.

Utilitarianism is the form of consequentialism that has happiness as its sole important value and seeks to bring about the state of affairs with the most happiness. I like how Williams undid the begging the question that utilitarianism commonly does. He essentially asks ‘why should happiness be the only thing we treat as intrinsically valuable?’ Williams mercifully didn’t drive this home, but I was still left with uncomfortable questions for myself.

Instead he moves on to his first deep observation. You see, if consequentialism was just about valuing certain states of affairs more than others, you could call deontology a form of consequentialism that held that duty was the only intrinsically valuable thing. But that can’t be right, because deontology is clearly different from consequentialism. The distinction, that Williams suggests is that consequentialists discount the possibility of actions holding any inherent moral weight. For a consequentialist, an action is right because it brings about a better state of affairs. For non-consequentialists, a state of affairs can be better – even if it contains less total happiness or integrity or whatever they care about than a counterfactual state of affairs given a different action – because the right action was taken.

A deontologist would say that it is right for someone to do their duty in a way that ends up publically and spectacularly tragic, such that it turns a thousand people off of doing their own duty. A consequentialist who viewed duty as important for the general moral health of society – who, in Smart’s terminology, viewed acting from duty as good – would disagree.

Williams points out that this very emphasis on comparing states of affairs (so natural to me) is particularly consequentialist and utilitarian. That is to say, it is not particularly meaningful for a deontologist or a virtue ethicist to compare states of affairs. Deontologists have no duty to maximize the doing of duty; if you ask a deontologist to choose between a state of affairs that has one hundred people doing their duty and another that has a thousand, it’s not clear that either state is preferable from their point of view. Sure, deontologists think people should do their duty. But duty embodied in actions is the point, not some cosmic tally of duty.

Put as a moral statement, non-consequentialists lack any obligation to bring about more of what they see as morally desirable. A consequentialist may feel both fondness for and a moral imperative to bring about a universe where more people are happy. Non- consequentialists only have the fondness.

One deontologist of my acquaintance said that trying to maximize utility felt pointless – they viewed it as morally important as having a high score on a Tetris game. We ended up starting at each other in blank incomprehension.

In Williams’ view, rejection of consequentialism doesn’t necessarily lead to deontology, though. He sums it up simply as: “all that is involved… in the denial of consequentialism, is that with respect to some type of action, there are some situations in which that would be the right thing to do, even though the state of affairs produced by one’s doing that would be worse than some other state of affairs accessible to one.”

A deontologist will claim right actions must be taken no matter the consequences, but to be non-consequentalist, an ethical system merely has to claim that some actions are right despite a variety of more or less bad consequences that might arise from them.

Or, as I wrote angrily in the margins: “ok, so not necessarily deontology, just accepting sub-maximal global utility“. It is hard to explain to a non-utilitarian just how much this bugs me, but I’m not going to go all rationalist and claim that I have a good reason for this belief.

Williams then turns his attention to the ways in which he thinks utilitarianism’s insistency on quantifying and comparing everything is terrible. Williams believes that by refusing to categorically rule any action out (or worse, specifically trying to come up with situations in which we might do horrific things), utilitarianism encourages people – even non-utilitarians who bump into utilitarian thought experiments – to think of things in utilitarian (that is to say, explicitly comparative) terms. It seems like Williams would prefer there to be actions that are clearly ruled out, not just less likely to be justified.

I get the impression of a man almost tearing out his hair because for him, there exist actions that are wrong under all circumstances and here we are, talking about circumstances in which we’d do them. There’s a kernel of truth here too. I think there can be a sort of bravado in accepting utilitarian conclusions. Yeah, I’m tough enough that I’d kill one to save one thousand? You wouldn’t? I guess you’re just soft and old-fashioned. For someone who cares as much about virtue as I think Williams does, this must be abhorrent.

I loved how Williams summed this up.

The demand… to think the unthinkable is not an unquestionable demand of rationality, set against a cowardly or inert refusal to follow out one’s moral thoughts. Rationality he sees as a demand not merely on him, but on the situations in and about which he has to think; unless the environment reveals minimum sanity, it is insanity to carry the decorum of sanity into it.

For all that I enjoyed the phrasing, I don’t see how this changes anything; there is nothing at all sane about the current world. A life is worth something like $7 million to $9 million and yet can be  saved for less than $5000. This planet contains some of the most wrenching poverty and lavish luxury imaginable, often in the very same cities. Where is the sanity? If Williams thinks sane situations are a reasonable precondition to sane action, then he should see no one on earth with a duty to act sanely.

The next topic Williams covers is responsibility. He starts by with a discussion of agent interchangeability in utilitarianism. Williams believes that utilitarianism merely requires someone do the right thing. This implies that to the utilitarian, there is no meaningful difference between me doing the utilitarian right action and you doing it, unless something about me doing it instead of you leads to a different outcome.

This utter lack of concern for who does what, as long as the right thing gets done doesn’t actually seem to absolve utilitarians of responsibility. Instead, it tends to increase it. Williams says that unlike adherents of many ethical systems, utilitarians have negative responsibilities; they are just as much responsible for the things they don’t do as they are for the things they do. If someone has to and no one else will, then you have to.

This doesn’t strike me as that unique to utilitarianism. I was raised Catholic and can attest that Catholics (who are supposed to follow a form of virtue ethics) have a notion of negative responsibility too. Every mass, as Catholics ask forgiveness before receiving the Eucharist they ask God for forgiveness for their sins, in thoughts and words, in what they have done and in what they have failed to do.

Leaving aside whether the concept of negative responsibility is uniquely utilitarian or not, Williams does see problems with it. Negative responsibility makes so much of what we do dependent on the people around us. You may wish to spend your time quietly growing vegetables, but be unable to do so because you have a particular skill – perhaps even one that you don’t really enjoy doing – that the world desperately needs. Or you may wish never to take a life, yet be confronted with a run-away trolley that can only be diverted from hitting five people by pulling the lever that makes it hit one.

This didn’t really make sense to me as a criticism until I learned that Williams deeply cares about people living authentic lives. In both the cases above, authenticity played no role in the utilitarian calculus. You must do things, perhaps things you find abhorrent, because other people have set up the world such that terrible outcomes would happen if you didn’t.

It seems that Williams might consider it a tragedy for someone feel compelled by their ethical system to do something that is inauthentic. I imagine he views this as about as much of a crying waste of human potential as I view the yearly deaths of 429,000 people due to malaria. For all my personal sympathy for him I am less than sympathetic to a view that gives these the same weight (or treats inauthenticity as the greater tragedy).

Radical authenticity requires us to ignore society. Yes, utilitarianism plops us in the middle of a web of dependencies and a buffeting sea of choices that were not ours, while demanding we make the best out of it all. But our moral philosophies surely are among the things that push us towards an authentic life. Would Williams view it as any worse that someone was pulled from her authentic way of living because she would starve otherwise?

To me, there is a certain authenticity in following your ethical system wherever it leads. I find this authenticity beautiful, but not worthy of moral consideration, except insofar as it affects happiness. Williams finds this authenticity deeply important. But by rejecting consequentialism, he has no real way to argue for more of the qualities he desires, except perhaps as a matter of aesthetics.

It seems incredibly counter-productive to me to say to people – people in the midst of a society that relentlessly pulls them away from authenticity with impersonal market forces – that they should turn away from the one ethical system that seems to have as the desired outcome a happier system. A Kantian has her duty to duty, but as long as she does that, she cares not for the system. A virtue ethicist wishes to be virtuous and authentic, but outside of her little bubble of virtue, the terrors go on unabated. It’s only the utilitarian who can holds a better society as an end into itself.

Maybe this is just me failing to grasp non-utilitarian epistemologies. It baffles me to hear “this thing is good and morally important, but it’s not like we think it’s morally important for there to be more of it; that goes too far!”. Is this a strawman? If someone could explain what Williams is getting at here in terms I can understand, I’d be most grateful.

I do think Williams misses one key thing when discussing the utilitarian response to negative responsibility. Actions should be assessed on the margin, not in isolation. That is to say, the marginal effect of someone becoming a doctor, or undertaking some other career generally considered benevolent is quite low if there are others also willing to do the job. A doctor might personally save hundreds, or even thousands of lives over her career, but her marginal impact will be saving something like 25 lives.

The reasons for this are manifold. First, when there are few doctors, they tend to concentrate on the most immediately life-threatening problems. As you add more and more doctors, they can help, but after a certain point, the supply of doctors will outstrip the demand for urgent life-saving attention. They can certainly help with other tasks, but they will each save fewer lives than the first few doctors.

Second, there is a somewhat fixed supply of doctors. Despite many, many people wishing they could be doctors, only so many can get spots in medical school. Even assuming that medical school admissions departments are perfectly competent at assessing future skill at being a doctor (and no one really believes they are), your decision to attend medical school (and your successful admission) doesn’t result in one extra doctor. It simply means that you were slightly better than the next best person (who would have been admitted if you weren’t).

Finally, when you become a doctor you don’t replace one of the worst already practising doctors. Instead, you replace a retiring doctor who is (for statistical purposes) about average for her cohort.

All of this is to say that utilitarians should judge actions on the margin, not in absolute terms. It isn’t that bad (from a utilitarian perspective) not devote all your attentions to the most effective direct work, because unless a certain project is very constrained by the number of people working on it, you shouldn’t expect to make much marginal difference. On the other hand, earning a lot of money and giving it to highly effective charities (or even a more modest commitment, like donating 10% of your income) is likely to do a huge amount of good, because most people don’t do this, so you’re replacing a person at a high paying job who was doing (from a utilitarian perspective) very little good.

Williams either isn’t familiar with this concept, or omitted it in the interest of time or space.

Williams next topic is remoter effects. A remoter effect is any effect that your actions have on the decision making of other people. For example, if you’re a politician and you lie horribly, are caught, and get re-elected by a large margin, a possible remoter effect is other politicians lying more often.  With the concept of remoter effects, Williams is pointing at what I call second order utilitarianism.

Williams makes a valid point that many of the justifications from remoter effects that utilitarians make are very weak. For example, despite what some utilitarians claim, telling a white lie (or even telling any lie that is unpublicized) doesn’t meaningfully reduce the propensity of everyone in the world to tell the truth.

Williams thinks that many utilitarians get away with claiming remoter effects as justification because they tend to be used as way to make utilitarianism give the common, respectable answers to ethical dilemmas. He thinks people would be much more skeptical of remoter effects if they were ever used to argue for positions that are uncommonly held.

This point about remoter effects was, I think, a necessary precursor to Williams’ next thought experiment. He asks us to imagine a society with two groups, A and B. There are many more members of A than B. Furthermore, members of A are disgusted by the presence (or even the thought of the presence) of members of group B. In this scenario, there has to exist some level of disgust and some ratio between A and B that makes the clear utilitarian best option relocating all members of group B to a different country.

With Williams’ recent reminder that most remoter effects are weaker than we like to think still ringing in my ears, I felt fairly trapped by this dilemma. There are clear remoter effects here: you may lose the ability to advocate against this sort of ethnic cleansing in other countries. Successful, minimally condemned ethnic cleansing could even encourage copy-cats. In the real world, these are might both be valid rejoinders, but for the purposes of this thought experiment, it’s clear these could be nullified (e.g. if we assume few other societies like this one and a large direct utility gain).

The only way out that Williams sees fit to offer us is an obvious trap. What if we claimed that the feelings of group A were entirely irrational and that they should just learn to live with them? Then we wouldn’t be stuck advocating for what is essentially ethnic cleansing. But humans are not rational actors. If we were to ignore all such irrational feelings, then utilitarianism would no longer be a pragmatic ethical system that interacts with the world as it is. Instead, it would involve us interacting with the world as we wish it to be.

Furthermore, it is always a dangerous game to discount other people’s feelings as irrational. The problem with the word irrational (in the vernacular, not utilitarian sense) is that no one really agrees on what is irrational. I have an intuitive sense of what is obviously irrational. But so, alas, do you. These senses may align in some regions (e.g. we both may view it as irrational to be angry because of a belief that the government is controlled by alien lizard-people), but not necessarily in others. For example, you may view my atheism as deeply irrational. I obviously do not.

Williams continues this critique to point out that much of the discomfort that comes from considering – or actually doing – things the utilitarian way comes from our moral intuitions. While Smart and I are content to discount these feelings, Williams is horrified at the thought. To view discomfort from moral intuitions as something outside yourself, as an unpleasant and irrational emotion to be avoided, is – to Williams – akin to losing all sense of moral identity.

This strikes me as more of a problem for rationalist philosophers. If you believe that morality can be rationally determined via the correct application of pure reason, then moral intuitions must be key to that task. From a materialist point of view though, moral intuitions are evolutionary baggage, not signifiers of something deeper.

Still, Williams made me realize that this left me vulnerable to the question “what is the purpose of having morality at all if you discount the feelings that engender morality in most people?”, a question to which I’m at a loss to answer well. All I can say (tautologically) is “it would be bad if there was no morality”; I like morality and want it to keep existing, but I can’t ground it in pure reason or empiricism; no stone tablets have come from the world. Religions are replete with stone tablets and justifications for morality, but they come with metaphysical baggage that I don’t particularly want to carry. Besides, if there was a hell, utilitarians would have to destroy it.

I honestly feel like a lot of my disagreement with Williams comes from our differing positions on the intuitive/systematizing axis. Williams has an intuitive, fluid, and difficult to articulate sense of ethics that isn’t necessarily transferable or even explainable. I have a system that seems workable and like it will lead to better outcomes. But it’s a system and it does have weird, unintuitive corner cases.

Williams talks about how integrity is a key moral stance (I think motivated by his insistence on authenticity). I agree with him as to the instrumental utility of integrity (people won’t want to work with you or help you if you’re an ass or unreliable). But I can’t ascribe integrity some sort of quasi-metaphysical importance or treat it as a terminal value in itself.

In the section on integrity, Williams comes back to negative responsibility. I do really respect Williams’ ability to pepper his work with interesting philosophical observations. When talking about negative responsibility, he mentions that most moral systems acknowledge some difference between allowing an action to happen and causing it yourself.

Williams believes the moral difference between action and inaction is conceptually important, “but it is unclear, both in itself and in its moral applications, and the unclarities are of a kind which precisely cause it to give way when, in very difficult cases, weight has to be put on it”. I am jealous three times over at this line, first at the crystal-clear metaphor, second at the broadly applicable thought underlying the metaphor, and third at the precision of language with which Williams pulls it off.

(I found Williams a less consistent writer than Smart. Smart wrote his entire essay in a tone of affable explanation and managed to inject a shocking amount of simplicity into a complicated subject. Williams frequently confused me – which I feel comfortable blaming at least in part on our vastly different axioms – but he was capable of shockingly resonant turns of phrase.)

I doubt Williams would be comfortable to come down either way on inaction’s equivalence to action. To the great humanist, it must ultimately (I assume) come down to the individual humans and what they authentically believed. Williams here is scoffing at the very idea of trying to systematize this most slippery of distinctions.

For utilitarians, the absence or presence of a distinction is key to figuring out what they must do. Utilitarianism can imply “a boundless obligation… to improve the world”. How a utilitarian undertakes this general project (of utility maximization) will be a function of how she can affect the world, but it cannot, to Williams, ever be the only project anyone undertakes. If it were the only project, underlain by no other projects, then it will, in Williams words, be “vacuous”.

The utilitarian can argue that her general project will not be the only project, because most people aren’t utilitarian and therefore have their own projects going on. Of course, this only gets us so far. Does this imply that the utilitarian should not seek to convince too many others of her philosophy?

What does it even mean for the general utilitarian project to be vacuous? As best I can tell, what Williams means is that if everyone were utilitarian, we’d all care about maximally increasing the utility of the world, but either be clueless where to start or else constantly tripping over each other (imagine, if you can, millions of people going to sub-Saharan Africa to distribute bed nets, all at the same time). The first order projects that Williams believes must underlay a more general project are things like spending times with friends, or making your family happy. Williams also believes that it might be very difficult for anyone to be happy without some of these more personal projects

I would suggest that what each utilitarian should do is what they are best suited for. But I’m not sure if this is coherent without some coordinating body (i.e. a god) ensuring that people are well distributed for all of the projects that need doing. I can also suppose that most people can’t go that far on willpower. That is to say, there are few people who are actually psychologically capable of working to improve the world in a way they don’t enjoy. I’m not sure I have the best answer here, but my current internal justification leans much more on the second answer than the first.

Which is another way of saying that I agree with Williams; I think utilitarianism would be self-defeating if it suggested that the only project anyone should undertake is improving the world generally. I think a salient difference between us is that he seems to think utilitarianism might imply that people should only work on improving the world generally, whereas I do not.

This discussion of projects leads to Williams talking about the hedonic paradox (the observation that you cannot become happy by seeking out pleasures), although Williams doesn’t reference it by name. Here Williams comes dangerously close to a very toxic interpretation of the hedonic paradox.

Williams believes that happiness comes from a variety of projects, not all of which are undertaken for the good of others or even because they’re particularly fun. He points out that few of these projects, if any, are the direct pursuit of happiness and that happiness seems to involve something beyond seeking it. This is all conceptually well and good, but I think it makes happiness seem too mysterious.

I wasted years of my life believing that the hedonic paradox meant that I couldn’t find happiness directly. I thought if I did the things I was supposed to do, even if they made me miserable, I’d find happiness eventually. Whenever I thought of rearranging my life to put my happiness first, I was reminded of the hedonic paradox and desisted. That was all bullshit. You can figure out what activities make you happy and do more of those and be happier.

There is a wide gulf between the hedonic paradox as originally framed (which is purely an observation about pleasures of the flesh) and the hedonic paradox as sometimes used by philosophers (which treats happiness as inherently fleeting and mysterious). I’ve seen plenty of evidence for the first, but absolutely none for the second. With his critique here, I think Williams is arguably shading into the second definition.

This has important implications for the utilitarian. We can agree that for many people, the way to most increase their happiness isn’t to get them blissed out on food, sex, and drugs, without this implying that we will have no opportunities to improve the general happiness. First, we can increase happiness by attacking the sources of misery. Second, we can set up robust institutions that are conducive to happiness. A utilitarian urban planner would perhaps give just as much thought to ensuring there are places where communities can meet and form as she would to ensuring that no one would be forced to live in squalor.

Here’s where Williams gets twisty though. He wanted us to come to the conclusion that a variety of personal projects are necessary for happiness so that he could remind us that utilitarianism’s concept of negative responsibility puts great pressure on an agent not to have her own personal projects beyond the maximization of global happiness. The argument here seems to be (not for the first time) that utilitarianism is self-defeating because it will make everyone miserable if everyone is a utilitarian.

Smart tried to short-circuit arguments like this by pointing out that he wasn’t attempting to “prove” anything about the superiority of utilitarianism, simply presenting it as an ethical system that might be more attractive if it was better understood. Faced with Williams point here, I believe that Smart would say that he doesn’t expect everyone to become utilitarian and that those who do become utilitarian (and stay utilitarian) are those most likely to have important personal projects that are generally beneficent.

I have the pleasure of reading the blogs and Facebook posts of many prominent (for certain unusual values of prominent) utilitarians. They all seem to be enjoying what they do. These are people who enjoy research, or organizing, or presenting, or thought experiments and have found ways to put these vocations to use in the general utilitarian project. Or people who find that they get along well with utilitarians and therefore steer their career to be surrounded by them. This is basically finding ikigai within the context of utilitarian responsibilities.

Image Credit: Emmy van Deurzen via Wikimedia Commons

Saying that utilitarianism will never be popular outside of those suited for it means accepting we don’t have a universal ethical solution. This is, I think, very pragmatic. It also doesn’t rule out utilitarians looking for ways we can encourage people to be more utilitarian. To slightly modify a phrase that utilitarian animal rights activists use: the best utilitarianism is the type you can stick with; it’s better to be utilitarian 95% of the time then it is to be utilitarian 100% of the time – until you get burnt out and give it up forever.

I would also like to add a criticism of Williams’ complaint that utilitarian actions are overly determined by the actions of others. Namely, the status quo certainly isn’t perfect. If we are to reject action because it is not on the projects we would most like to be doing, then we are tacitly endorsing the status quo. Moral decisions cannot be made in a vacuum and the terrain in which we must make moral decisions today is one marked by horrendous suffering, inequality, and unfairness.

The next two sections of Williams’ essay were the most difficult to parse, but also the most rewarding. They deal with the interplay between calculating utilities and utilitarianism and question the extent to which utilitarianism is practical outside of appealing to the idea of total utility. That is to say, they ask if the unique utilitarian ethical frame can, under practical conditions have practical effects.

To get to the meat of Williams points, I had to wade through what at times felt like word games. All of the things he builds up to throughout these lengthy sections begin with a premise made up of two points that Williams thinks are implied by Smart’s essay.

  1. All utilities should be assessed in terms of acts. If we’re talking about rules, governments, or dispositions, their utility stems from the acts they either engender or prevent.
  2. To say that a rule (as an example) has any effect at all, we must say that it results in some change in acts. In Williams’ words: “the total utility effect of a rule’s obtaining must be cashable in terms of the effects of acts.

Together, (1) and (2) make up what Williams calls the “act-adequacy” premise. If the premise is true, there must be no surplus source of utility outside of acts and, as Smart said, rule utilitarianism should (if it is truly concerned with optimific outcomes) collapse to act utilitarianism. This is all well and good when comparing systems as tools of total assessment (e.g. when we take the universe wide view that I criticized Smart for hiding in), but Williams is first interested in how this causes rule and act utilitarianism to relate with actions

If you asked an act-utilitarian and a rule utilitarian “what makes that action right”, they would give different answers. The act utilitarian would say that it is right if it maximizes utility, but the rule utilitarian would say it is right if it is in accordance with rules that tend to maximize utility. Interestingly, if the act-adequacy premise is true, then both act and rule utilitarians would agree as to why certain rules or dispositions are desirable, namely, that actions that results from those rules or dispositions tends to maximize utility.

(Williams also points out that rules, especially formal rules, may derive utility from sources other than just actions following the rule. Other sources of utility include: explaining the rule, thinking about the rule, avoiding the rule, or even breaking the rule.)

But what to do we do when actually faced with the actions that follow from a rule or disposition? Smart has already pointed out that we should praise or blame based on the utility of the praise/blame, not on the rightness or wrongness of the action we might be praising.

In Williams’ view, there are two problems with this. First, it is not a very open system. If you knew someone was praising or blaming you out of a desire to manipulate your future actions and not in direct relation to their actual opinion of your past actions, you might be less likely to accept that praise or blame. Therefore, it could very well be necessary for the utilitarian to hide why acts are being called good or bad (and therefore the reasons why they praise or blame).

The second problem is how this suggests utilitarians should stand with themselves. Williams acknowledges that utilitarians in general try not to cry over spilt milk (“[this] carries the characteristically utilitarian thought that anything you might want to cry over is, like milk, replaceable”), but argues that utilitarianism replaces the question of “did I do the right thing?” with “what is the right thing to do?” in a way that may not be conducive to virtuous thought.

(Would a utilitarian Judas have lived to old age contentedly, happy that he had played a role in humankind’s eternal salvation?)

The answer to “what is the right thing to do?” is of course (to the utilitarian) “that which has the best consequences”. Except “what is the right thing to do?” isn’t actually the right question to ask if you’re truly concerned with the best consequences. In that case, the question is “if asking this question is the right thing to do, what actions have the best consequences?”

Remember, Smart tried to claim that utilitarianism was to only be used for deliberative actions. But it is unclear which actions are the right ones to take as deliberative, especially a priori. Sometimes you will waste time deliberating, time that in the optimal case you would have spent on good works. Other times, you will jump into acting and do the wrong thing.

The difference between act (direct) and rule (indirect) utilitarianism therefore comes to a question of motivation vs. justification. Can a direct utilitarian use “the greatest total good” as a motivation if they do not know if even asking the question “what will lead to the greatest total good?” will lead to it? Can it only ever be a justification? The indirect utilitarian can be motivated by following a rule and justify her actions by claiming that generally followed, the rule leads to the greatest good, but it is unclear what recourse (to any direct motivation for a specific action) the direct utilitarian has.

Essentially, adopting act utilitarianism requires you to accept that because you have accepted act utilitarianism you will sometimes do the wrong thing. It might be that you think that you have a fairly good rule of thumb for deliberating, such that this is still the best of your options to take (and that would be my defense), but there is something deeply unsettling and somewhat paradoxical about this consequence.

Williams makes it clear that the bad outcomes here aren’t just loss of an agent’s time. This is similar in principle to how we calculate the total utility of promulgating a rule. We accept that the total effects of the promulgation must include the utility or disutility that stems from avoiding it or breaking it, in addition to the utility or disutility of following. When looking at the costs of deliberation, we should also include the disutility that will sometimes come when we act deliberately in a way that is less optimific than we would have acted had we spontaneously acted in accordance with our disposition or moral intuitions.

This is all in the case where the act-adequacy premise is true. If it isn’t, the situation is more complex. What if some important utility of actions comes from the mood they’re done in, or in them being done spontaneously? Moods may be engineered, but it is exceedingly hard to engineer spontaneity. If the act-adequacy premise is false, then it may not hold that the (utilitarian) best world is one in which right acts are maximized. In the absence of the act-adequacy premise it is possible (although not necessarily likely) that the maximally happy world is one in which few people are motivated by utilitarian concerns.

Even if the act-adequacy premise holds, we may be unable to know if our actions are at all right or wrong (again complicating the question of motivation).

Williams presents a thought experiment to demonstrate this point. Imagine a utilitarian society that noticed its younger members were liable to stray from the path of utilitarianism. This society might set up a Truman Show-esque “reservation” of non-utilitarians, with the worst consequences of their non-utilitarian morality broadcasted for all to see. The youth wouldn’t stray and the utility of the society would be increased (for now, let’s beg the question of utilitarianism as a lived philosophy being optimific).

Here, the actions of the non-utilitarian holdouts would be right; on this both utilitarians (looking from a far enough remove) and the subjects themselves would agree. But this whole thing only works if the viewers think (incorrectly) that the actions they are seeing are wrong.

From the global utilitarian perspective, it might even be wrong for any of the holdouts to become utilitarian (even if utilitarianism was generally the best ethical system). If the number of viewers is large enough and the effect of one fewer irrational holdout is strong enough (this is a thought experiment, so we can fiddle around with the numbers such that this is indeed true), the conversion of a hold-out to utilitarianism would be really bad.

Basically, it seems possible for there to be a large difference between the correct action as chosen by the individual utilitarian with all the knowledge she has and the correct action as chosen from the perspective of an omniscient observer. From the “total assessment” perspective, it is even possible that it would be best that there be no utilitarians.

Williams points out that many of the qualities we value and derive happiness from (stubborn grit, loyalty, bravery, honour) are not well aligned with utilitarianism. When we talked about ethnic cleansing earlier, we acknowledged that utilitarianism cannot distinguish between preferences people have and the preferences people should have; both are equally valid. With all that said, there’s a risk of resolving the tension between non-utilitarian preferences and the joy these preferences can bring people by trying to shape the world not towards maximum happiness, but towards the happiness easiest to measure and most comfortable to utilitarians.

Utilitarianism could also lead to disutility because of the game theoretic consequences. On international projects or projects between large groups of people, sanctioning other actors must always be an option. Without sanctioning, the risk of defection is simply too high in many practical cases. But utilitarians are uniquely compelled to sanction (or else surrender).

If there is another group acting in an uncooperative or anti-utilitarian matter, the utilitarians must apply the least terrible sanction that will still be effective (as the utility of those they’re sanctioning still matters). The other group will of course know this and have every incentive to commit to making any conflict arising from the sanction so terrible as to make any sanctioning wrong from a utilitarian point of view. Utilitarians now must call the bluff (and risk horrible escalating conflict), or else abandon the endeavour.

This is in essence a prisoner’s dilemma. If the non-utilitarians carry on without being sanctioned, or if they change their behaviour in response to sanctions without escalation, everyone will be better off (then in the alternative). But if utilitarians call the bluff and find it was not a bluff, then the results could be catastrophic.

Williams seems to believe that utilitarians will never include an adequate fudge factor for the dangers of mutual defecting. He doesn’t suggest pacifism as an alternative, but he does believe that violent sanctioning should always be used at a threshold far beyond where he assesses the simple utilitarian one to lie.

This position might be more of a historical one, in reaction to the efficiency, order, and domination obsessed Soviet Communism (and its Western fellow travelers), who tended towards utilitarian justifications. All of the utilitarians I know are committed classical liberals (indeed, it sometimes seems to me that only utilitarians are classic liberals these days). It’s unclear if Williams’ criticism can be meaningfully applied to utilitarians who have internalized the severe detriments of escalating violence.

While it seems possible to produce a thought experiment where even such committed second order utilitarians would use the wrong amount of violence or sanction too early, this seems unlikely to come up in a practical context – especially considering that many of the groups most keen on using violence early and often these days aren’t in fact utilitarian. Instead it’s members of both the extreme left and right, who have independently – in an amusing case of horseshoe theory – adopted a morality based around defending their tribe at all costs. This sort of highly local morality is anathema to utilitarians.

Williams didn’t anticipate this shift. I can’t see why he shouldn’t have. Utilitarians are ever pragmatic and (should) understand that utilitarianism isn’t served by starting horrendous wars willy-nilly.

Then again, perhaps this is another harbinger of what Williams calls “utilitarianism ushering itself from the scene”. He believes that the practical problems of utilitarian ethics (from the perspective of an agent) will move utilitarianism more and more towards a system of total assessment. Here utilitarianism may demand certain things in the way of dispositions or virtues and certainly it will ask that the utility of the world be ever increased, but it will lose its distinctive character as a system that suggests actions be chosen in such a way as to maximize utility.

Williams calls this the transcendental viewpoint and pithily asks “if… utilitarianism has to vanish from making any distinctive mark in the world, being left only with the total assessment from the transcendental standpoint – then I leave if for discussion whether that shows that utilitarianism is unacceptable or merely that no one ought to accept it.”

This, I think, ignores the possibility that it might become easier in the future to calculate the utility of certain actions. The results of actions are inherently chaotic and difficult to judge, but then, so is the weather. Weather prediction has been made tractable by the application of vast computational power. Why not morality? Certainly, this can’t be impossible to envision. Iain M. Banks wrote a whole series of books about it!

Of course, if we wish to be utilitarian on a societal level, we must currently do so without the support of godlike AI. Which is what utilitarianism was invented for in the first place. Here it was attractive because it is minimally committed – it has no elaborate theological or philosophical commitments buttressing it, unlike contemporaneous systems (like Lockean natural law). There is something intuitive about the suggestion that a government should only be concerned for the welfare of the governed.

Sure, utilitarianism makes no demands on secondary principles, Williams writes, but it is extraordinarily demanding when it comes to empirical information. Utilitarianism requires clear, comprehensible, and non-cyclic preferences. For any glib rejoinders about mere implementation details, Williams has this to say:

[These problems are] seen in the light of a technical or practical difficulty and utilitarianism appeals to a frame of mind in which technical difficulty, even insuperable technical difficulty, is preferable to moral unclarity, no doubt because it is less alarming.

Williams suggests that the simplicity of utilitarianism isn’t a virtue, only indicative of “how little of the world’s luggage it is prepared to pick up”. By being immune to concerns of justice or fairness (except insofar as they are instrumentally useful to utilitarian ends), Williams believes that utilitarianism fails at many of the tasks that people desire from a government.

Personally, I’m not so sure a government commitment to fairness or justice is at all illuminating. There are currently at least two competing (and mutually exclusive) definitions of both fairness and justice in political discourse.

Should fairness be about giving everyone the same things? Or should it be about giving everyone the tools they need to have the same shot at meaningful (of course noting that meaningful is a societal construct) outcomes? Should justice mean taking into account mitigating factors and aiming for reconciliation? Or should it mean doing whatever is necessary to make recompense to the victim?

It is too easy to use fairness or justice as a sword without stopping to assess who it aimed at and what the consequences of the aim is (says the committed consequentialist). Fairness and justice are meaty topics that deserve better than to be thrown around as a platitudinous counterargument to utilitarianism.

A much better critique of utilitarian government can be made by imagining how such a government would respond to non-utilitarian concerns. Would it ignore them? Or would it seek to direct its citizens to have only non-utilitarian concerns? The latter idea seems practically impossible. The first raises important questions.

Imagine a government that is minimally responsive to non-utilitarian concerns. It primarily concerns itself with maximizing utility, but accepts the occasional non-utilitarian decision as the cost it must pay to remain in power (presume that the opposition is not utilitarian and would be very responsive to non-utilitarian concerns in a way that would reduce the global utility). This government must necessarily look very different to the utilitarian elite who understand what is going on and the masses who might be quite upset that the government feels obligated to ignore many of their dearly held concerns.

Could such an arrangement exist with a free media? With free elections? Democracies are notably less corrupt than autocracies, so there are significant advantages to having free elections and free media. But how, if those exist, does the utilitarian government propose to keep its secrets hidden from the population? And if the government was successful, how could it respect its citizens, so duped?

In addition to all that, there is the problem of calculating how to satisfy people’s preferences. Williams identifies three problems here:

  1. How do you measure individual welfare?
  2. To what extent is welfare comparative?
  3. How do you develop the aggregate social preference given the answer to the proceeding two questions?

Williams seems to suggest that a naïve utilitarian approach involves what I’ve think is best summed up in a sick parody of Marx: from each according to how little they’ll miss it, to each according to how much they desire it. Surely there cannot be a worse incentive structure imaginable than the one naïve utilitarianism suggests?

When dealing with preferences, it is also the case that utilitarianism makes no distinction between fixing inequitable distributions that cause discontent or – as observed in America – convincing those affected by inequitable distributions not to feel discontent.

More problems arise around substitution or compensation. It may be more optimific for a roadway to be built one way than another and it may be more optimific for compensation to be offered to those who are affected, but it is unclear that the compensation will be at all worth it for those affected (to claim it would be, Williams declares, is “simply an extension of the dogma that every man has his price”). This is certainly hard for me to think about, even (or perhaps especially) because the common utilitarian response is a shrug – global utility must be maximized, after all.

Utilitarianism is about trade-offs. And some people have views which they hold to be beyond all trade-off. It is even possible for happiness to be buttressed or rest entirely upon principles – principles that when dearly and truly held cannot be traded-off against. Certainly, utilitarians can attempt to work around this – if such people are a minority, they will be happily trammelled by a utilitarian majority. But it is unclear what a utilitarian government could do in a such a case where the majority of their population is “afflicted” with deeply held non-utilitarian principles.

Williams sums this up as:

Perhaps humanity is not yet domesticated enough to confine itself to preferences which utilitarianism can handle without contradiction. If so, perhaps utilitarianism should lope off from an unprepared mankind to deal with problems it finds more tractable – such as that present by Smart… of a world which consists only of a solitary deluded sadist.

Finally, there’s the problem of people being terrible judges of what they want, or simply not understanding the effects of their preferences (as the Americas who rely on the ACA but want Obamacare to be repealed may find out). It is certainly hard to walk the line between respecting preferences people would have if they were better informed or truly understood the consequences of their desires and the common (leftist?) fallacy of assuming that everyone who held all of the information you have must necessarily have the same beliefs as you.

All of this combines to make Williams view utilitarianism as dangerously irresponsible as a system of public decision making. It assumes that preferences exist, that the method of collecting them doesn’t fail to capture meaningful preferences, that these preferences would be vindicated if implemented, and that there’s a way to trade-off among all preferences.

To the potential utilitarian rejoinder that half a loaf is better than none, he points out a partial version of utilitarianism is very vulnerable to the streetlight effect. It might be used where it can and therefore act to legitimize – as “real”– concerns in the areas where it can be used and delegitimize those where it is unsuitable. This can easily lead to the McNamara fallacy; deliberate ignorance of everything that cannot be quantified:

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.

— Daniel Yankelovich “Corporate Priorities: A continuing study of the new demands on business.” (1972)

This isn’t even to mention something that every serious student of economics knows: that when dealing with complicated, idealized systems, it is not necessarily the non-ideal system that is closest to the ideal (out of all possible non-ideal systems) that has the most benefits of the ideal. Economists call this the “theory of the second best”. Perhaps ethicists might call it “common sense” when applied to their domain?

Williams ultimately doubts that systematic though is at all capable of dealing with the myriad complexities of political (and moral) life. He describes utilitarianism as “having too few thoughts and feelings to match the world as it really is”.

I disagree. Utilitarianism is hard, certainly. We do not agree on what happiness is, or how to determine which actions will most likely bring it, fine. Much of this comes from our messy inbuilt intuitions, intuitions that are not suited for the world as it now is. If utilitarianism is simple minded, surely every other moral system (or lack of system) must be as well.

In many ways, Williams did shake my faith in utilitarianism – making this an effective and worthwhile essay. He taught me to be fearful of eliminating from consideration all joys but those that the utilitarian can track. He drove me to question how one can advocate for any ethical system at all, denied the twin crutches of rationalism and theology. And he further shook my faith in individuals being able to do most aspects of the utilitarian moral calculus. I think I’ll have more to say on that last point in the future.

But by their actions you shall know the righteous. Utilitarians are currently at the forefront of global poverty reduction, disease eradication, animal suffering alleviation, and existential risk mitigation. What complexities of the world has every other ethical system missed to leave these critical tasks largely to utilitarians?

Williams gave me no answer to this. For all his beliefs that utilitarianism will have dire consequences when implemented, he has no proof to hand. And ultimately, consequences are what you need to convince a consequentialist.

Ethics, Literature, Philosophy

Book Review: Utilitarianism for and against (Part 1)

Utilitarianism for and against is an interesting little book. It’s comprised of back-to-back ~70 page essays, one in favour of utilitarianism and one opposed. As an overview, it’s hard to beat something like this. You don’t have to rely on one scholar to give you her (ostensibly fair and balanced) opinion; you get two articulate philosophers arguing their side as best they can. Fair and balanced is by necessity left as an exercise to the reader (honestly, it always is; here at least it’s explicit).

I’m going to cover the “for” side first. The “against” side will be in later blog post. Both reviews are going to assume that you have some understanding of utilitarianism. If you don’t, go read my primer. Or be prepared to Google. I should also mention that I have no aspirations of being balanced myself. I’m a utilitarian; I had much more to disagree with on the “against” side than on the “for” side.

Professor J.J.C Smart makes the arguments in favour of utilitarianism. According to his Wikipedia entry, he was known for “outsmarting” his opponents, that is to say, accepting the conclusions of their reductio ad absurdum arguments with nary a shrug. He was, I’ve gathered, not one for moral intuitions. His criticism of rule utilitarianism played a role in its decline and he was influential in raising the next crop of Australian utilitarians, among whom Peter Singer is counted. As near as I can tell, he was one of the more notable defenders of utilitarianism when this volume was published in 1971 (although much of his essay dates back a decade earlier).

Smart is emphatically not a rationalist (in the philosophical sense); he writes no “proof of utilitarianism” and denies that such a proof is even possible. Instead, Smart restricts himself to explaining how utilitarianism is an attractive ethical system for anyone possessed of general benevolence. Well, I’ll say “everyone”. The authors of this volume seem to be labouring under the delusion that only men have ethical dilemmas or the need for ethical systems. Neither one of them manages the ethicist’s coup of realizing that women might be viewed as full people at the remove of half a century from their time of writing (such a coup would perhaps have been strong evidence of the superiority of one philosophy over another).

A lot of Smart’s essay consists of showing how various different types of utilitarianism are all the same under the hood. I’ve termed these “collapses”, although “isomorphisms” might be a better term. There are six collapses in all.

The very first collapse put me to mind of the famous adage about ducks. If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. By the same token, if someone acts exactly how a utilitarian in their position and with their information would act, then it doesn’t matter if they are a utilitarian or not. From the point of view of an ethical system that cares only about consequences they may as well be.

The next collapse deals with rule utilitarianism and may have a lot to do with its philosophical collapse. Smart points out that if you are avoiding “rule worship”, then you will face a quandary when you could break a rule in such a way as to gain more utility. Rule utilitarians sometimes claim that you just need rules with lots of exceptions and special cases. Smart points out that if you carry this through to its logical conclusion, you really are only left with one rule, the meta-rule of “maximize expected utility”. In this way, rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism.

Next into the compactor is the difference between ideal and hedonic utilitarians. Briefly, ideal utilitarians hold that some states of mind are inherently valuable (in a utilitarian sense), even if they aren’t particularly pleasant from the inside. “Better Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” is the rallying cry of ideal utilitarians. Hedonic utilitarians have no terminal values beyond happiness; they would gladly let almost the entirety of the human race wirehead.

Smart claims that while these differences are philosophically large, they are practically much less meaningful. Here Smart introduces the idea of the fecundity of a pleasure. A doctor taking joy (or grim satisfaction) in saving a life is a much more fecund pleasure than a gambler’s excitement at a good throw, because it brings about greater joy once you take into account everyone around the actor. Many of the other pleasures (like writing or other intellectual pursuits) that ideal utilitarians value are similarly fecund. They either lead to abatement of suffering (the intellectual pursuits of scientists) or to many people’s pleasure (the labour of the poet). Taking into account fecundity, it was better for Smart to write this essay than to wirehead himself, because many other people – like me – get to enjoy his writing and have fun thinking over the thorny issues he raises.

Smart could have stood to examine at greater length just why ideal utilitarians value the things they do. I think there’s a decent case to be made that societies figure out ways to value certain (likely fecund) pleasures all on their own, no philosophers required. It is not, I think, that ideal utilitarians have stumbled onto certain higher pleasures that they should coax their societies into valuing. Instead, their societies have inculcated them with a set of valued activities, which, due to cultural evolution, happen to line up well with fecund pleasures. This is why it feels difficult to argue with the list of pleasures ideal utilitarians proffer; it’s not that they’ve stumbled onto deep philosophical truths via reason alone, it’s that we have the same inculcations they do.

Beyond simple fecundity though, there is the fact that the choice between Socrates dissatisfied and a fool satisfied rarely comes up. Smart has a great line about this:

But even the most avid television addict probably enjoys solving practical problems connected with his car, his furniture, or his garden. However unintellectual he might be, he would certainly resist the suggestion the he should, if it were possible, change places with a contented sheep, or even a happy and lively dog.

This boils down to: ‘ideal utilitarians assume they’re a lot better than everyone else, what with their “philosophical pursuits”, but most people don’t want purely mindless pleasures’. Combined, these ideas of fecundity and hidden depths, point to a vanishingly small gap between ideal and hedonistic utilitarians, especially compared to the gap between utilitarians and practitioners of other ethical systems.

After dealing with questions of how highly we should weigh some pleasures, Smart turns to address the idea of some pleasures not counting at all. Take, for example, the pleasure that a sadist takes in torturing a victim. Should we count this pleasure in our utilitarian moral calculus? Smart says yes, for reasons that again boil down to “certain pleasures being viewed as bad are an artifact of culture; no pleasure is intrinsically bad.

(Note however that this isn’t the same thing as Smart condoning the torture. He would say that the torture is wrong because the pleasure the sadist gains from it cannot make up for the distress of the victim. Given that no one has ever found a real live utility monster, this seems a safe position to take.)

In service of this, Smart presents a thought experiment. Imagine a barren universe inhabited by a single sentient being. This sentient being wrongly believes that there are many other inhabitants of the universe being gruesomely tortured and takes great pleasure in this thought. Would the universe be better if the being didn’t derive pleasure from her misapprehension?

The answer here for both Smart and me is no (although I suspect many might disagree with us). Smart reasons (almost tautologically) that since there is no one for this being to hurt, her predilection for torture can’t hurt anyone. We are rightfully wary of people who unselfconsciously enjoy the thought of innocents being tortured because of what it says about what their hobbies might be. But if they cannot hurt anyone, their obsession is literally harmless. This bleak world would not be better served by its single sentient inhabitant quailing at the thought of the imaginary torture.

Of course, there’s a wide gap between the inhabitant curled up in a ball mourning the torture she wrongly believes to be ongoing and her simple ambivalence to it. It seems plausible that many people could consider her ambivalence preferable, even if they did not wish her to be sad. But imagine then the difference being between her lonely and bored and her satisfied and happy (leaving aside for a moment the torture). It is clear here which is the better universe. Given a way to move from the universe with a single bored being to the one with a single fulfilled being, shouldn’t we take it, given that the shift most literally harms no one?

This brings us to the distinction between intrinsically bad pleasures and extrinsically bad pleasures – the flip side of the intrinsically more valuable states of mind of the ideal utilitarian. Intrinsically bad pleasures are pleasures that for some rationalist or metaphysical reason are just wrong. Their rightness or wrongness must of course be vulnerable to attacks on the underlying logic or theology, but I can hardly embark on a survey of common objections to all the common underpinnings; I haven’t the time. But many people have undertaken those critiques and many will in the future, making a belief in intrinsically bad pleasures a most unstable place to stand.

Extrinsically bad pleasures seem like a much safer proposition (and much more convenient to the utilitarian who wishes to keep their ethical system free of meta-physical or meta-ethical baggage). To say that a pleasure is extrinsically bad is simply to say that to enjoy it causes so much misery that it will practically never be moral to experience it. Similar to how I described ideal utilitarian values as heavily culturally influenced, I can’t help but feel that seeing some pleasures as intrinsically bad has to be the result of some cultural conditioning.

If we can accept that certain pleasures are not intrinsically good or ill, but that many pleasures that are thought of as intrinsically good or ill are thought so because of long cultural experience – positive or negative – with the consequences of seeking them out, then we should see the position of utilitarians who believe that some pleasures cannot be counted in the plus column collapse to approximately the same as those who hold that they can, even if neither accepts the position of the other. The utilitarian who refuses to believe in intrinsically bad pleasures should still condemn most of the same actions as one who does, because she knows that these pleasures will be outweighed by the pains they inflict on others (like the pain of the torture victim overwhelming the joy of the torturer).

There is a further advantage to holding that pleasures cannot be intrinsically wrong. If we accept the post-modernists adage that knowledge is created culturally, we will remember to be skeptical of the universality of our knowledge. That is to say, if you hold a list of intrinsically bad pleasures, it will probably not be an exhaustive list and there may be pleasures whose ill-effects you overlook because you are culturally conditioned to overlook them. A more thoughtful utilitarian who doesn’t take the short-cut of deeming some pleasures intrinsically bad can catch these consequences and correctly advocate against these ultimately wrong actions.

The penultimate collapse is perhaps the least well supported by arguments. In a scant page, Smart addresses the differences between total and average happiness in a most unsatisfactory fashion. He asks which of two universes you might prefer: one with one million happy, healthy people, or one with twice as many people, equally happy and healthy. Both Smart and I feel drawn to the larger universe, but he has no arguments for people who prefer the smaller. Smart skips over the difficulties here with an airy statement of “often the best way to increase the average happiness is to increase the total happiness and vice versa”.

I’m not entirely sure this statement is true. How would one go about proving it?

Certainly, average happiness seems to miss out on the (to me) obvious good that you’d get if you could have twice as many happy people (which is clearly one case where they give different answers), but like Smart, I have trouble coming up with a persuasive argument why that is obviously good.

I do have one important thing myself to say about the difference between average and total happiness. When I imagine a world with more people who are on average less happy than the people that currently exist (but collectively experience a greater total happiness) I feel an internal flinch.

Unfortunately for my moral intuitions, I feel the exact same flinch when I image a world with many fewer people, who are on average transcendentally happy. We can fiddle with the math to make this scenario come out to have greater average and total happiness than the current world. Doesn’t matter. Exact same flinch.

This leads me to believe that my moral intuitions have a strong status quo bias. The presence of a status quo bias in itself isn’t an argument for either total or average utilitarianism, but it is a reminder to be intensely skeptical of our response to thought experiments that involve changing the status quo and even to be wary of the order that options are presented in.

The final collapse Smart introduces is that between regular utilitarians and negative utilitarians. Negative utilitarians believe that only suffering is morally relevant and that the most important moral actions are those that have the consequence of reducing suffering. Smart points out that you can raise both the total and average happiness of a population by reducing suffering and furthermore that there is widespread agreement on what reduces suffering. So Smart expects utilitarians of all kinds (including negative) to primarily focus on reducing suffering anyway. Basically, despite the profound philosophical differences between regular and negative utilitarians, we should expect them to behave equivalently. Which, by the very first collapse (if it walks like a duck…), shows that we can treat them as philosophical equivalents, at least in the present world.

In my experience, this is more or less true. Many of the negative utilitarians I am aware of mainly exercise their ethics by donating 10% of their income to GiveWell’s most effective charities. The regular utilitarians… do the exact same. Quack.

As far as I can tell, Smart goes to all this work to show how many forms of utilitarianism collapse together so that he can present a system that isn’t at war with itself. Being able to portray utilitarianism as a simple, unified system (despite the many ways of doing it) heads off many simple criticisms.

While I doubt many people avoided utilitarianism because there are lingering questions about total versus average happiness, per se, these little things add up. Saying “yes, there are a bunch of little implementation details that aren’t agreed upon” is a bad start to an ethical system, unless you can immediately follow it up with “but here’s fifty pages of why that doesn’t matter and you can just do what comes naturally to you (under the aegis of utilitarianism)”.

Let’s talk a bit about what comes naturally to people outside the context of different forms of utilitarianism. No one, not even Smart, sits down and does utilitarian calculus before making every little decision. For most tasks, we can ignore the ethical considerations (e.g. there is broad, although probably not universal agreement that there aren’t hidden moral dimensions to opening a door). For some others, our instincts are good enough. Should you thank the woman at the grocery store checkout? You probably will automatically, without pausing to consider if it will increase the total (or average) happiness of the world.

Like in the case of thanking random service industry workers, there are a variety of cases where we actually have pretty good rules of thumb. These rules of thumbs serve two purposes. First, they allow us to avoid spending all of our time contemplating if our actions are right or wrong, freeing us to actually act. Second, they protect us from doing bad things out of pettiness or venality. If you have a strong rule of thumb that violence is an inappropriate response to speech you disagree with, you’re less likely to talk yourself into punching an odious speaker in the face when confronted with them.

It’s obviously important to pick the right heuristics. You want to pick the ones that most often lead towards the right outcomes.

I say “heuristics” and “rules of thumbs” because the thing about utilitarians and rules is that they always have to be prepared to break them. Rules exist for the common cases. Utilitarians have to be on guard for the uncommon cases, the ones where breaking a rule leads to greater good overall. Having a “don’t cause people to die” rule is all well and good. But you need to be prepared to break it if you can only stop mass death from a runaway trolley by pushing an appropriately sized person in front of it.

Smart seems to think that utilitarianism only comes up for deliberative actions, where you take the time to think about them and that it shouldn’t necessarily cover your habits. This seems like an abrogation to me. Shouldn’t a clever utilitarian, realizing that she only uses utilitarianism for big decisions spend some time training her reflexes to more often give the correct utilitarian solution, while also training herself to be more careful of her rules of thumb and think ethically more often? Smart gave no indication that he thinks this is the case.

The discussion of rules gives Smart the opportunity to introduce a utilitarian vocabulary. An action is right if it is the one that maximizes expected happiness (crucially, this is a summation across many probabilities and isn’t necessarily the action that will maximize the chance of the happiest outcome) and wrong otherwise. An action is rational if a logical being in possession of all the information you possess would think you to be right if you did it. All other actions are irrational. A rule of thumb, disposition, or action is good if it tends to lead to the right outcomes and bad if it tends to lead to the wrong ones.

This vocabulary becomes important when Smart talks about praise, which he believes is an important utilitarian concern in its own right. Praise increases people’s propensity towards certain actions or dispositions, so Smart believes a utilitarian aught to consider if the world would be better served by more of the same before she praises anything. This leads to Smart suggesting that utilitarians should praise actions that are good or rational even if they aren’t right.

It also implies that utilitarians doing the right thing must be open to criticism if it requires bad actions. One example Smart gives is a utilitarian Frenchman cheating on wartime rationing in 1940s England. The Frenchman knows that the Brits are too patriotic to cheat, so his action (and the actions of the few others that cheat) will probably fall below the threshold for causing any real harm, while making him (and the other cheaters) happier. The calculus comes out positive and the Frenchman believes it to be the right action. Smart acknowledges that this logic is correct, but he points out that by the similar logic, the Frenchman should agree that he must be severely punished if caught, so as to discourage others from doing the same thing.

This actually reminds me of something Hannah Arendt brushed up against in Eichmann in Jerusalem while talking about how the moral constraints on people are different than the ones on states. She gives the example of Soghomon Tehlirian, the Armenian exile who assassinated one of the triumvirate of Turkish generals responsible for the Armenian genocide. Arendt believes that it would have been wrong for the Armenian government to assassinate the general (had one even existed at the time), but that it was right for a private citizen to do the deed, especially given that Tehlirian did not seek to hide his crimes or resist arrest.

From a utilitarian point of view, the argument would go something like this: political assassinations are bad, in that they tend to cause upheaval, chaos, and ultimately suffering. On the other hand, there are some leaders who the world would clearly be better off without, if not to stop their ill deeds in their tracks, then to strike fear and moderation into the hearts of similar leaders.

Were the government of any country to carry out these assassinations, it would undermine the government’s ability to police murder. But when a private individual does the deed and then immediately gives herself up into the waiting arms of justice, the utility of the world is increased. If she has erred in picking her target and no one finds the assassination justified, then she will be promptly punished, disincentivizing copy-cats. If instead, like Tehlirian, she is found not guilty, it will only be because the crimes committed by the leader she assassinated were so brutal and clear that no reasonable person could countenance them. This too sends a signal.

That said, I think Smart takes his distinctions between right and good a bit too far. He cautions against trying to change the non-utilitarian morality of anyone who already tends towards good actions, because this might fail half-way, weakening their morality without instilling a new one. Likewise, he is skeptical of any attempt to change the traditions of a society.

This feels too much like trying to have your cake and eat it too. Utilitarianism can be criticized because it is an evangelical ethical system that gives results far from moral intuitions in some cases. From a utilitarian point of view, it is fairly clearly good to have more utilitarians willing to hoover up these counter-intuitive sources of utility. If all you care about are the ends, you want more people to care about the best ends!

If the best way to achieve utilitarian ends wasn’t through utilitarianism, then we’re left with a self-defeating moral system. In trying to defend utilitarianism from the weak critique that it is pushy and evangelical, both in ways that are repugnant to all who engage in cultural or individual ethical relativism and in ways that are repugnant to some moral intuitions, Smart opens it up to the much stronger critique that it is incoherent!

Smart by turns seems to seek to rescue some commonly held moral truths when they conflict with utilitarianism while rejecting others that seem no less contradictory. I can hardly say that he seems keen to show utilitarianism is in fact in harmony with how people normally act – he clearly isn’t. But he also doesn’t always go all (or even part of) the way in choosing utilitarianism over moral intuitions

Near the end of the book, when talking about a thought experiment introduced by one McCloskey, Smart admits that the only utilitarian action is to frame and execute an innocent man, thereby preventing a riot. McCloskey anticipated him, saying: “But as far as I know, only J.J.C. Smart among the contemporary utilitarians is happy to adopt this ‘solution'”.

Smart responds:

Here I must lodge a mild protest. McCloskey’s use of the work ‘happy’ surely makes me look a most reprehensible person. Even in my most utilitarian moods, I am not happy about this consequence of utilitarianism… since any injustice causes misery and so can be justified only as the lesser of two evils, the fewer the situation in which the utilitarian is forced to choose the lesser of two evils, the better he will be pleased.

This is also the man who said (much as I have) that “admittedly utilitarianism does have consequences which are incompatible with the common moral consciousness, but I tended to take the view ‘so much the worse for the common moral consciousness’.”

All this leaves me baffled. Why the strange mixture? Sometimes Smart goes far further than it seems any of his contemporaries would have. Other times, he stops short of what seems to me the truly utilitarian solution.

On the criticism that utilitarianism compels us always in moral action, leaving us no time to relax, he offers two responses. The first is that perhaps people are too unwilling to act and would be better served by being more spurred on. The second is that it may be that relaxing today allows us to do ten times the good tomorrow.

(Personally, I expect the answer is both. Many people could do more than they currently do, while many others risk burnout unless they relax more. There is a reason the law of equal and opposite advice exists. Different people need to hear different things.)

But take this and his support for rules of thumb on one side and his support for executing the innocent man, or long spiel on how a bunch of people wireheading wouldn’t be that bad (a spiel that convinced me, I might add) and I’m left with an unclear overall picture. As an all-is-fine defence of utilitarianism, it doesn’t go far enough. As a bracing lecture about our degenerate non-utilitarian ways, it also doesn’t go far enough.

Leaving, I suppose, the sincere views of a man who pondered utilitarianism for much longer than I have. Chance is the only reason that makes sense. This would imply that sometimes Smart gives a nod to traditional morality because he’s decided it aligns with his utilitarian ethics. Other times, he disagrees. At length. Maybe Smart is a man seeking to rescue what precious moral truths he can from the house fire that is utilitarianism.

Perhaps some of my confusion comes from another confusion, one that seems to have subtly infected many utilitarians. Smart is careful to point out that the atomic belief underlying utilitarianism is general benevolence. Benevolence, note, is not altruism. The individual utilitarian matters just as much – or as little – as everyone else. Utilitarians in Smart’s framework have no obligation to run themselves ragged for another. Trading your happiness for another’s will only ever be an ethically neutral act to the utilitarian.

Or, I suspect, the wrong one. You are best placed to know yourself and best placed to create happiness for yourself. It makes sense to include some sort of bias towards your own happiness to take this into account. Or, if this feels icky to you, you could handle it at the level of probabilities. You are more likely to make yourself happy than someone else (assuming you’ve put some effort towards understanding what makes you happy). If you are 80% likely to make yourself happy for an evening and 60% likely to make someone else happy, your clear utilitarian duty is to yourself.

This is not a suggestion to go become a hermit. Social interactions are very rarely as zero sum as all that. It might be that the best way to make yourself happy is to go help a friend. Or to go to a party with several people you know. But I have seen people risk burnout (and have risked it myself) by assuming it is wrong to take any time for themselves when they have friends in need.

This is all my own thoughts, not Smart’s. For all of his talk of utilitarianism, he offers little advice on how to make it a practically useful system. All too often, Smart retreats to the idea of measuring the total utility of a society or world. This presents a host of problems and begs two important questions.

First, can utility be accurately quantified? Smart tries to show that different ways of measuring utility should be roughly equivalent in qualitative terms, but it is unclear if this follows at a quantitative level. Stability analysis (where you see how sensitive your result is to different starting assumptions) is an important tool for checking the veracity of conclusions in engineering projects. I have a hunch that quantitatively, utilitarian results to many problems will be highly unstable when a variety of forms of utilitarianism are tried.

Second, how should we deal with utility in the future? Smart claims that beyond a certain point we can ignore side effects (as unintended good side effects should cancel out unintended ill side effects; this is especially important when it comes to things like saving lives) but that doesn’t give us any advice on how we can estimate effects.

We are perhaps saved here by the same collapse that aligned normal utilitarians with negative utilitarians. If we cannot quantify joy, we can sure quantify misery. Doctors can tell you just how much quality of life a disease can sap (there are tables for this), not to mention the chances that a disease might end a life outright. We know the rates of absolute poverty, maternal deaths, and malaria prevalence. There is more than enough misery in the world to go around and certainly utilitarians who focus on ending misery do not seem to be at risk of being out an ethical duty any time in the near future.

(If ending misery is important to you, might I suggest donating a fraction of your monthly income to one of GiveWell’s top recommended charities? These are the charities that most effectively use money to reduce suffering. If you care about maximizing your impact, GiveWell is a good way to do it.)

Although speaking of the future, I find it striking how little utilitarianism has changed in the fifty-six years since Smart first wrote his essay. He pauses to comment on the risk of a recursively self-improving AI and talk about the potential future moral battles over factory farming. I’m part of a utilitarian meme group and these are the same topics people joke about every day. It is unclear if these are topics that utilitarianism predisposes people to care about, or if there was some indirect cultural transmission of these concerns over the intervening years.

There are many more gems – and frustrations in Smart’s essay. I can’t cover them all without writing a pale imitation of his words, so I shan’t try any more. As an introduction to the different types of utilitarianism, this essay was better than any other introduction I’ve read, especially because it shows all of the ways that various utilitarian systems fit together.

As a defense of utilitarianism, it is comprehensive and pragmatic. It doesn’t seek to please everyone and doesn’t seek to prove utilitarianism. It lays out the advantages of utilitarianism clearly, in plain language, and shows how the disadvantages are not as great as might be imagined. I can see it being persuasive to anyone considering utilitarianism, although in this it is hampered by its position as the first essay in the collection. Anyone convinced by it must then read through another seventy pages of arguments against utilitarianism, which will perhaps leave them rather less convinced.

As a work of academic philosophy, it’s interesting. There’s almost no meta-ethics or meta-physics here. This is a defense written entirely on its own, without recourse to underlying frameworks that might be separately undermined. Smart’s insistence on laying out his arguments plainly leaves him little room to retreat (except around average vs. total happiness). I’ve always found this a useful type of writing; even when I don’t agree, the ways that I disagree with clearly articulated theses can be illuminating.

It’s a pleasant read. I’ve had mostly good luck reading academic philosophy. This book wasn’t a struggle to wade through and it contained the occasional amusing turn of phrase. Smart is neither dry lecturer nor frothing polemicizer. One is put almost in the mind of a kindly uncle, patiently explaining his way through a complex, but not needlessly complicated subject. I highly recommend reading it and its companion.

Literature, Politics

Book Review: Strangers in Their Own Land

I just finished Professor Arlie Hochschild’s latest book, “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right”, a book some people are trumpeting as the one that explains Trump.

That wasn’t exactly how I read the book. I think Trump’s win is well explained by some combination of the “fundamentals” and the Comey Letter just before the election. I’m also wary of falling into the trap of drawing conclusions about America because Trump won. The result of the election could have been changed by dozens of random events. I’m following Scott Alexander’s advice and not basing my narratives off of which potential events happened to actually happen.

Besides, Trump is barely even in this book. He only appears in any substantive way in the last chapter and Prof. Hochschild doesn’t devote much ink to him. If you’re using this book to explain Trump, you’re going to have to do a lot of the work yourself.

At its core, Strangers in Their Own Land is an ethnography about a specific group of people with all of the advantages and perils that entails. We get to learn a lot about its subjects, but we have to be careful whenever applying any of its conclusions beyond the small group of people actually profiled.

Like any ethnography, Strangers in Their Own Land lives or dies by the interest the author can evoke in her subjects. Here, the subjects are a small group of Louisiana Tea Party members. Prof. Hochschild certainly managed to make me interested in them by using them as a lens through which to peer at the “Great Paradox” of American Politics: why do many of those who could most benefit from the government hate it so much?

I’ve forayed into discussions of the Great Paradox before. Like Prof. Hochschild, I’m skeptical of the purported “two rungs up” explanation of the paradox. It goes like this: yes, lower income counties tend to vote against government programs, but it is not actually the people on those programs (or their loved ones) voting against them. People relying on government programs rarely actually vote. Actual voters in Republican-leaning counties are better off and are voting solely for lower taxes.

By focusing Strangers in Their Own Land on pollution, Prof. Hochschild was able to sidestep this explanation. Pollution doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor – one of the more heartbreaking stories in the book is about a nine-year-old who died from a rare neuroblastoma, which everyone suspects was caused by pollution. Despite this, his well-off parents and well-off family friends continued to oppose the EPA.

A focus on pollution made Louisiana the obvious setting for this book. It’s one of the most polluted states in America and has some of the weakest and most ineffectually enforced environmental laws. Louisiana also has a very high rate of welfare use, which let Prof. Hochschild compare the two rungs up theory with alternatives (as she could count on finding people who were or knew someone on welfare).

In Louisiana, Prof. Hochschild found no one who was happy about pollution. The Tea Party voters she interviewed loved the outdoors. Many of them grew up hunting and fishing and almost all of them continued to cherish those outdoor pastimes in adulthood. It hurt them deeply to have no game to hunt or to be unable to eat the fish they caught. Yet still they opposed more regulations on pollution.

Reasons for this varied. Some believed that regulating pollution would hurt the oil and gas industry and lead to unemployment. They were saddened by the effects of pollutions on the environment, but they refused to put the environment ahead of other people.

Others believed that the government was (indirectly) responsible for pollution. They saw the government as protecting the worst polluters while coming down hard on any “little guy” who leaked even a tiny amount of gas from his boat. They believed that any additional regulations would be applied to them and their friends, not to the big companies responsible for the real pollution. They figured that the free market would disincentivize pollution well enough if the government could just leave everything alone and let it work.

Yet others were religious and figured that the world would not be around for much longer. They saw God’s commandment in Genesis 1:28 (“fill the earth, and subdue it”) as justification for any pollution in the interim. Even justifying pollution wasn’t very important for the faithful though; they cared far more about a rapture they saw as close to hand than they did about any worldly concerns.

No one that Prof. Hochschild talked to said: “yes, the government could fix this, but we don’t want them to”. Instead, she got responses like “the EPA would just use whatever power we gave it to take away our freedoms”, or “the government can’t help, it’s in the pockets of the polluters and hates the little guys like us”; none of the Tea Party voters trusted the government.

Prof. Hochschild was used to people distrusting certain government figures or departments, while still believing that good government was possible, necessary, and worth fight for. Here Prof. Hochschild saw people so used to incompetent, hostile, or distant government that they had given up hope that good government could ever exist for them. Prof. Hochschild immediately wanted to know how this could happen.

She found that religious people tended to see the government as usurping the traditional role of the church. They thought that ensuring the welfare of members of a community should be the responsibility of that community. With welfare, the government was destroying the bonds that held communities together. They viewed the liberal tendency to leave the care of the poor to a central bureaucracy as evidence of a terrible culture of neglect and moral bankruptcy.

Some adherents of capitalism saw the government as the enemy. To them, job creation and economic dynamism came from private enterprise, which the government stifled through bureaucracy, regulation, and taxes.

Other interview subjects saw the government as taking their money and giving it to people who were unlike them, people outside of their communities. They thought they’d done everything right, played by the book, suffered, yet still found prosperity elusive. They worked long hours for scant compensation, while not far away, the government was just giving away money to single mothers – who they viewed as hedonistic sinners who had far more children than was reasonable. Factually incorrect beliefs about the number of children people on welfare had or the percentage of the population that was on welfare were rampant in this group.

This isn’t to say that everyone fell into one of these categories. Many people combined beliefs. It actually reminded me of a point Joseph Heath made in light of the sex education controversy in Ontario – when social conservatives realize they can’t get the regressive solution they want (everyone forced to live by their values), they tend to swing to the other extreme and ask for ultra-liberal solutions. They may most prefer the government forcing everyone to have their values, but absent that, they’d rather the government force no one to do anything, so that it can’t force them to give up their values.

I should also mention that not all Tea Partiers ignored the consequences of pollution. Strangers in Their Own Land also profiles Tea Partiers who cared about pollution, viewed it as a pressing issue, and advocated for the Tea Party to make pollution one of its core principles. They echoed something I heard in some of the Conservative Party of Canada leadership debates: “conservation is a conservative principle.”

Still, it was hard to take the anti-pollution Tea Party activists too seriously. They want to solve a collective action problem with the free market. Solving collective action problems with the free market is a bit like doing surgery with a pizza cutter. It’s not that it’s impossible, strictly speaking. It’s just that there are ways of doing it (in this case, via government) that are far less messy and far more likely to give the desired outcome.

It’s hard not to feel like the conservatives in this book are being betrayed by the industries they stand up for. One of the Tea Partiers who actually cared about pollution cared because his house was ruined in the Bayou Corne Sinkhole. Even as he stood up against pollution, he continued to advocate for a freer market, fear the EPA, and vote Republican. All of this has counted for nothing with Texas Brine, the company responsible for the disaster. It continues to drag its feet on the class action lawsuit launched by residents.

Further to this point, Prof. Hochschild dug up a damning report, prepared at the behest of the California Waste Management Board by some very fancy (and expensive!) consultants. The report identifies communities that won’t complain about “locally undesirable land use” (LULU), with the goal of identifying these communities so polluting (and property value lowering) activities can be more easily sited. Protests are very inconvenient for construction, after all.

Communities identified as ill-suited to resist LULU are:

  • Composed of long-time residents (who are unlikely to want to move away)
  • Small
  • High school educated
  • Catholic
  • Without a culture or history of activism
  • Involved in “nature exploitative occupations” (e.g. farming, ranching, and mining)
  • Conservative
  • Republican
  • Primarily peopled by advocates of the free market

The communities where Prof. Hochschild did her research hit basically every single one of these criteria. This prompted some introspection on her part, as realized that one of the ways that her home of Berkeley is able to avoid substantial pollution is by foisting the negative externalities of modern life (like pollution) off onto communities like those in poor, rural Louisiana.

The back of the book purports to contain an analysis that shows that communities where people are more conservative (and more likely to believe that pollution isn’t a problem) are more polluted. I’m cautious of adopting the conclusions from it though, because conclusions are all it contains. From those, it’s clear that multiple hypothesis could have been easily tested [1] but unclear whether or not this was specifically controlled for. Without being able to look at the raw data or see the analysis methodology, I can’t tell if the correlation is likely real or a statistical artifact.

I will beg the question for a bit though, because Prof. Hochschild treats the correlation as real and spends some time explaining it. I think her explanations are interesting enough to talk about, even if they may be based on a flawed analysis.

Prof. Hochschild doesn’t put willingness to endure pollution down to the poor ignorant workers being deceived by the big dastardly corporations, a change from leftist discourse that I found refreshing. Instead she focuses on stories and teams.

Prof. Hochschild believes that the people of the south are (in general) conditioned to look forward, towards what were historically the planter elite and are now the resource extraction executives. They want to be like the most fortunate people in their communities and so support the same things they do. When liberals tell them they should be looking backwards and trying to help people less fortunate than them, this feels like an attempt to enforce foreign feeling rules. They feel like they are being told that to be respectable or good, they must perform concern or other emotions that don’t feel genuine [2].

I’m using forward and back deliberately here. This is the book that coined the “standing in line” metaphor for the anger of white working class Americans. In this metaphor (called by Prof. Hochschild a “deep story”; a story that feels emotionally true), there is a long line stretching to the top of a hill. Just beyond the brow of it lies the American dream. The line is moving slowly (or perhaps not moving at all) and the people in it are weary from their waiting.

Despite this, they stand there, patiently waiting their turn. But something terrible happens. There are people cutting in line! From the interviews she used to construct this metaphor, Prof. Hochschild identified the line cutters as African-Americans using affirmative action, women taking traditionally male jobs, immigrants working more cheaply than American whites are willing to, and (somewhat amusingly) pelicans, protected by environmental laws that were killing jobs. While the people standing in line expected the government (personified by Barack Obama) to do something about the line cutters, they were horrified to instead see President Obama helping and supporting them.

I want to make it clear that this isn’t something that either Professor Hochschild or I believe is literally happening. When it comes to the actual suffering of the people interviewed in this book, Professor Hochschild is inclined to blame big business interests, while I think the blame belongs more to a changing economy and automation (there is of course significant overlap between these two causes). When it comes to pollution, we’re in agreement that Louisiana would really benefit from tougher environmental laws coupled with more rigorous enforcement of its existing regulations.

Even though I believe there is no real displacement, no cutting in line, this metaphor seemed to resonate with many of the Tea Partiers interviewed in this book. To those people, the government is betraying them, working against them for another team. This makes them utterly incapable of trusting the government (with the exception of the military) and makes them incredibly defensive of people they do feel are on their team, like Louisiana’s petrochemical industry, one of the few sources of jobs that feel ennobling for them in the state.

Like I mentioned earlier, the communities where Prof. Hochschild conducted her research also relied heavily on the government. Nearly everyone Prof. Hochschild interviewed was on some form of welfare, had been on some form of welfare, or had a family member who was currently or had in the past been on some form of welfare. No one was particularly happy about this though. People did what they had to survive, but there was much more honour in going it alone. They viewed work as inherently ennobling and accepting anonymous charity as shameful, the sort of Calvinist curse that seems to be common on the American psyche.

This actually reminded me of a topic that frequently popped up on Freddie de Boer’s now deleted blog [3]. Freddie was constantly worried that conspicuous consumerism was ruining the left. Freddie was apt to point out that there is a class of modern leftist that acts as if the important political projects of the left can be accomplished if they only signal their “woke” views hard enough, signalling primarily accomplished by consuming the correct media. Imagine, as an example, someone who is enthusiastic about Hamilton as if it were a meaningful political or institutional blow for leftist interests.

For both “woke” consumerist leftist cliques and Tea Party libertarians, the best off are able to buy virtue (or at least status), while the less fortunate have the misery of want compounded with the misery of failing to live up to an ideal that is predicated on a certain amount of disposable income (Hamilton tickets aren’t cheap, after all).

As much as the standing in line narrative has gotten air time, I want to caution against believing it as a universal motivating factor in Trump’s voters or working class whites more generally. Because this book is more an ethnography than anything else, it would be improper to take its conclusions, conclusions made about very small group of Tea Party activists and apply those conclusions across a country as varied and vast as the United States.

Strangers in Their Own Land doesn’t include polling data; it’s unclear how many of the people who supported Trump share the “deep story” presented by Prof. Hochschild. Remember, many of Trump’s voters decided at the last-minute and many of those last-minute voters voted more against Clinton than for Trump (due to Comey’s letter).

One hint that the views expressed by Prof. Hochschild’s subjects are niche comes from their near complete abhorrence of government programs. Polls of the American public mark this view as an anomaly, even in a country that voted ~46% Republican. In 2015, 83% of Americans said Social Security was very important. 77% said the same thing about Medicare, and 75% said it about federal aid to public schools. A “mere” 73% said the military was very important. It would probably be incorrect to take the views of the Tea Partiers who want to cut these programs and represent them as common.

It’s also important to remember just how much of Trump’s victory came from evangelicals voting solely (or mostly) out of the belief that Republicans stand against abortion. 81% of evangelicals (who comprise a full quarter of the US electorate) voted for Trump. We don’t need some new narrative to explain why groups like this voted for the Republican nominee; they’ve voted reliably for Republicans in every election that Pew has stats for.

Despite my quibbles, Strangers in Their Own Land was a fascinating portrait of the deep divisions in America and Prof. Hochschild was an excellent narrator. She consistently fought to react with empathy, even to people she disagreed with on virtually everything. When a woman named Madonna told her that she loved Rush Limbaugh because he stood up to Femi-Nazis, Prof. Hochschild (the feminist writer who coined the terms “emotional labour” and “the second shift”) invited her out to lunch because “it seemed like it would be interesting”. Nowhere in this book did Prof. Hochschild exhibit scorn or a sense of superiority.

I think it’s important to note that Professor Hochschild hasn’t sold this book as a complete explanation for Trump. That’s on a media that desperately wants a single easy story to hold on to. Strangers in Their Own Land doesn’t contain that singular story, but it does hold one fascinating piece of it.

One thing that may have helped Prof. Hochschild connect with the Tea Party members she interviewed was her own rootedness. The clash between cosmopolitan (multicultural, migratory, and individualist) and local (homogenous, traditional, and community-oriented) values was every bit as on display as the clash between right and left. Reading the acknowledgments section, I was struck by just how rooted in Berkeley Prof. Hochschild is. She has a small legion of friends and acquaintances and (one assumes) a deep web of interdependency with them.

Prof. Hochschild seems to be neither migratory, nor caught up in the atomization of society. Several of the people she interviewed directly critique this atomization and its corresponding effect on the breakdown of systems of mutual aid and support. Prof. Hochschild, by virtue of her position in a vibrant community (as well as her previous work that has touched on atomization) was well positioned to understand these critiques of the contemporary cosmopolitan.

I know that myself (and many other cosmopolitan-leaning liberals) have begun to feel the pain that can come with our migratory impulses. I abandoned a graduate degree, in part because it took me away from a community I had grown to love. For all that I often found myself completely disagreeing with the Tea Party members profiled in this book, I was glad to find that I might be able to talk with them about the benefits of community. I’m not sure if that would be enough of a starting point to convince them of anything substantial – rootedness and community are just one axis of (dis)agreement, just one part of the story – but it’s where I would start if I ever had to build a bridge to these strangers in their own land.

Footnotes

[1] Specifically, Prof. Hochschild looked for correlations between agreement with the statements “people worry too much about progress harming the environment”, “industrial air pollution is dangerous to the environment”, “the U.S. does enough to protect the environment”, and “Some people think that the government in Washington is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and private businesses”, political affiliation (Democrat/Republican), and pollution rates. Her analysis found that agreement with the statement “people worry too much about progress harming the environment” (as well as membership in the Republican party) was correlated with relative risk of being exposed to toxic chemical release. Because I don’t even have the P values these were significant at, let alone knowledge of how they corrected for multiple comparisons and how many comparisons were attempted, I have to treat the correlation as liable to be caused by chance. ^

[2] I think Prof. Hochschild could have done a bit more analysis around feelings rules, because in my experience, they cut both ways. As far as I can tell, there seem to be one set of local feelings rules and another set of cosmopolitan feeling rules. Cosmopolitan feelings rules emphasize charity and welcoming the stranger, while local feelings rules emphasize responsibility to family and community. In both cases, it is grating to feel compelled to pretend to emotions that aren’t genuine. ^

[3] I can’t find any remnants of Freddie’s blog that make the point I’m ascribing to him, but if you want to get an idea of the tone of it, I’ve found an excerpt from the post “Our Nightmare”, which talks about a different way he feels the left is under threat. Freddie is an excellent writer, and I do recommend checking out his current blog, The ANOVA. ^

History, Literature, Politics

Book Review: Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan is the second book I’ve read about World War II and culpability. I apparently just can’t resist the urge to write essays after books like this, so here we go again. Since so much of what I got out of this book was spurred by the history it presented, I’m going to try and intersperse my thoughts with a condensed summary of it.

Aside from the prologue, which takes place just after Hirohito’s (arguably) extra-constitutional surrender, the book follows Hirohito’s life chronologically. Hirohito’s childhood was hardly idyllic. He spent most of it being educated. Meiji Era Japan drew heavily from Prussia and in Hirohito’s education, I saw an attempt to mold him into a Japanese Frederick the Great.

I think Dr. Bix is right to spend as much time on Hirohito’s childhood as he does. Lois McMaster Bujold once criticized authors who write characters that pop out of a box at 22, fully formed. It’s even more lamentable when historians do this.

The baby Hirohito

Had Dr. Bix skipped this part, we’d have no explanation for why Hirohito failed so completely at demonstrating any moral fibre throughout the war. In order to understand Hirohito’s moral failings, we had to see the failings in Hirohito’s moral education. Dr. Bix does an excellent job here, showing how fatuous and sophistic the moral truths Hirohito was raised with were. His instructors lectured him on the moral and temporal superiority of the Imperial House over the people of Japan and the superiority of the people of Japan over the people of the world. Japan, Hirohito was taught, had to steward the rest of Asia towards prosperity – violently if need be.

For all that Hirohito might have been a pacifist personally, his education left him little room to be a pacifist as a monarch.

This certainly isn’t without precedent. The aforementioned Frederick the Great was known to complain about his “dog’s life” as a general. Frederick would have much preferred a life of music and poetry to one of war, but he felt that it was his duty to his country and his people to lead (and win wars).

Hirohito would have felt even more pressure than Frederick the Great, because he probably sincerely believed that it was up to him to save Asia. The explicitly racist immigration policies of western nations, their rampant colonialism, and their refusal to make racial non-discrimination a key plank of the League of Nations made it easy for Hirohito’s teachers to convince him that he (and through him, all of Japan) was responsible for protecting “the yellow race”.

It is unfortunate that Hirohito was raised to be an activist emperor, because as Dr. Bix points out, the world was pretty done with monarchs by the time Hirohito was born. Revolutions and First World War had led to the toppling of many of the major monarchies (like Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany). Those countries that still had monarchies heavily circumscribed the power of their monarchs. There were few countries left where monarchs both ruled and reigned. Yet this is what Hirohito’s teachers prepared him to do.

After an extensive education, Hirohito entered politics as the prince-regent for his ailing father, the Taisho Emperor. As regent, he attended military parades, performed some of the emperor’s religious duties, appointed prime ministers, and began to learn how Japanese politics worked.

There was a brief flourishing of (almost) true democracy based on party politics during the reign of the Taisho Emperor. Prime Ministers were picked by the emperor on the advice of the genrō, an extraconstitutional group of senior statesmen who directed politics after the Meiji Restoration (in 1868). The incapacity of Hirohito’s father meant that the genrō were free to choose whomever they wanted. Practically, this meant that cabinets were formed by the leader of the largest party in the Diet (the Japanese parliament). Unfortunately, this delicate democracy couldn’t survive the twin threats of an activist monarch and independent military.

The prime minister wasn’t the only power centre in the cabinet. The army and navy ministers had to be active duty officers, which gave the military an effective veto over cabinets ­– cabinets required these ministers to function, but the ministers couldn’t join the cabinet without orders from their service branch.

With an incompetent and sick emperor, the military had to negotiate with the civilian politicians – it could bring down a government, but couldn’t count on the genrō to appoint anyone better, limiting its bargaining power. When Hirohito ascended to the regency, the army began to go to him. By convincing Hirohito or his retinue to back this candidate for prime minister or that one, the military gained the ability to remove cabinets and replace them with those more to their liking.

This was possible because under Hirohito, consulting the genrō became a mere formality. In a parody of what was supposed to happen, Hirohito and his advisers would pick their candidate for prime minister and send him to Saionji, the only remaining genrō. Saionji always approved their candidates, even when he had reservations. This was good for the court group, because it allowed them to maintain the fiction that Hirohito only acted on advice and never made decisions of his own.

As regent, Hirohito made few decisions of his own, but the court group (comprised of Hirohito and his advisors) began laying the groundwork to hold real power when he ascended to the throne. For Hirohito, his education left him little other choice. He had been born and raised to be an active emperor, not a mere figurehead. For his entourage, increasing Hirohito’s influence increased their own.

I’m not sure which was more powerful: Hirohito or his advisors? Both had reasons for trusting the military. Hirohito’s education led him to view the military as a stabilizing and protective force, while his advisors tended to be nationalists who saw a large and powerful military as a pre-requisite for expansion. Regardless of who exactly controlled it, the court group frequently sided with the military, which made the military into a formidable political force.

Requiring active duty military officers in the cabinet probably seemed like a good idea when the Meiji Constitution was promulgated, but in retrospect, it was terrible. I’m in favour of Frank Herbert’s definition of control: “The people who can destroy a thing, they control it.” In this sense, the military could often control the government. The instability this wrought on Japan’s cabinet system serves as a reminder of the power of vetoes in government.

In 1926, the Taisho emperor died. Hirohito ascended to throne. His era name was Shōwa – enlightened peace.

Hirohito after his enthronement ceremony

As might be expected, the court group didn’t wait long after Hirohito’s ascension to the throne to begin actively meddling with the government. Shortly after becoming emperor, Hirohito leaned on the prime minister to commute the death sentence of a married couple who allegedly planned to assassinate him. For all that this was a benevolent action, it wreaked political havoc, with the prime minister attacked in the Diet for falling to show proper concern for the safety of the emperor.

Because the prime minister was honour bound to protect the image of Hirohito as a constitutional, non-interventionist monarch, he was left defenseless before his political foes. He could not claim to be acting according to Hirohito’s will while Hirohito was embracing the fiction that he had no will except that of his prime minister and cabinet. This closed off the one effective avenue of defense he might have had. The Diet’s extreme response to clemency was but a portent of what was to come.

Over the first decade of Hirohito’s reign, Japanese politics became increasingly reactionary and dominated by the army. At the same time, Hirohito’s court group leveraged the instability and high turnover elsewhere in the government to become increasingly powerful. For ordinary Japanese, being a liberal or a communist became increasingly unpleasant. “Peace Preservation Laws” criminalized republicanism, anarchism, communism, or any other attempt to change the national fabric or structure, the kokutai – a word that quickly became heavily loaded.

In the early 1930s, political criticism increasingly revolved around the kokutai, as the Diet members realized they could score points with Hirohito and his entourage by claiming to defend it better than their opponents could. The early 1930s also saw the Manchurian Incident, a false flag attack perpetrated by Japanese soldiers to give a casus belli for invading Manchuria.

Despite opposition from both Hirohito and the Prime Minister, factions in the army managed to leverage the incident into a full-scale invasion, causing a war in all but name with China. Once the plotters demonstrated that they could expand Hirohito’s empire, he withdrew his opposition. Punishments, when there were any, were light and conspirators were much more likely to receive medals that any real reprimand. Dr. Bix believes this sent a clear message – the emperor would tolerate insubordination, as long as it produced results.

After the Manchurian Incident (which was never acknowledged as a war by Japan) and the occupation of Manchuria, Japan set up a client kingdom and ruled Manchuria through a puppet government. For several years, the situation on the border with China was stable, in spite of occasional border clashes.

This stability wasn’t to last. In 1937, there was another incident, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident.

When an unplanned exchange of fire between Chinese and Japanese troops broke out in Beijing (then Peking), some in the Japanese high command decided the time was ripe for an invasion of China proper. Dr. Bix says that Hirohito was reluctant to sanction this invasion (over fears of the Soviet Union), but eventually gave his blessing.

Japan was constantly at war for the next eight years. Over the course of the war, Dr. Bix identified several periods where Hirohito actively pushed his generals and admirals towards certain outcomes, and many more where Hirohito disagreed with them, but ultimately did nothing.

I often felt like Dr. Bix was trying to have things both ways. He wanted me to believe that Hirohito was morally deficient and unable to put his foot down when he could have stood up for his principles and he wanted me to believe that Hirohito was an activist emperor, able to get what he wanted. This of course ignores a simpler explanation. What if Hirohito was mostly powerless, a mere figurehead?

Here’s an example of Dr. Bix accusing Hirohito of doing nothing (without adequate proof that he could have done anything):

When Yonai failed to act on the long-pending issue of a German alliance, the army brought down his cabinet and Hirohito did nothing to prevent it. (Page 357)

On the other hand, we have (in Hirohito’s own words) an admission that Hirohito had some say in military policy:

Contrary to the views of the Army and Navy General Staffs, I agreed to the showdown battle of Leyte, thinking that if we attacked at Leyte and America flinched, then we would probably be able to find room to negotiate. (Page 481)

I really wish that Dr. Bix had grappled with this conflict more and given me much more proof that Hirohito actually had the all the power that Dr. Bix believes he did. It certainly seems that by Hirohito’s own admission, he was not merely a figurehead. Unfortunately for the thesis of the book, it’s a far leap from “not merely a figurehead” to “regularly guided the whole course of the war” and Dr. Bix never quite furnishes evidence for the latter view.

I was convinced that Hirohito (along with several other factions) acted to delay the wartime surrender of Japan. His reasoning for this was the same as his reasoning for the Battle of Leyte. He believed that if Japan could win one big victory, they could negotiate an end to the war and avoid occupation – and the risk to the emperor system that occupation would entail. When this became impossible, Hirohito pinned all his hopes on the Soviet Union, erroneously believing that they would intercede on Japan’s behalf and help Japan negotiate peace. For all that the atomic bombings loomed large in the public statement of surrender, it is likely that behind the scenes, the Soviet invasion played a large role.

Leaving aside for a minute the question of which interpretation is true, if Hirohito or a clique including him wielded much of the power of the state, he (or they) also suffered from one of the common downfalls of rule by one man. By Dr. Bix’s account, they were frequently controlled by controlling the information they received. We see this in response to the Hull note, an pre-war American diplomatic communique that outlined what Japan would have to do before America would resume oil exports.

At the Imperial Conference on December 1, 1941, Foreign Minister Tōgō misled the assembled senior statesmen, generals and admirals. He told them that America demanded Japan give up Manchuria, which was a red line for the assembled leaders. Based on this information, the group (including Hirohito) assented to war. Here’s a quote from the journal of Privy Council President Yoshimichi Hara:

If we were to give in [to the United States], then we would not only give up the fruits of the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, but also abandon the results of the Manchurian Incident. There is no way we could endure this… [I]t is clear that the existence of our empire is threatened, that the great achievement of the emperor Meiji would all come to naught, and that there is nothing else we can do. (Page 432)

The problem with all this is that Hull cared nothing for Manchuria, probably didn’t even consider it part of China, and would likely have been quite happy to let Japan keep it. By this point, the Japanese conquest of Manchuria had been a done deal for a decade and the world had basically given up on it being returned to China. Hull did want Japan to withdrawn from French Indochina (present day Vietnam) and China. Both of these demands were unacceptable to many of the more hawkish Japanese leaders, but not necessarily to the “moderates”.

Foreign Minister Tōgō’s lie about Manchuria was required to convince the “moderates” to give their blessing to war.

Hirohito presides over a similar meeting in 1943

A word on Japanese “moderates”. Dr. Bix is repeatedly scornful of the term and I can’t help feeling sympathetic to his point of view. He believes that many of the moderates were only moderate by the standards of the far-right extremists and terrorists who surrounded them. It was quite possible to have an international reputation as a moderate in one of the pre-war cabinets and believe that Japan had a right to occupy Chinese territory seized without even a declaration of war.

I don’t think western scholarship has necessarily caught up here. On Wikipedia, Privy Council President Hara is described as “always reluctant to use military force… he protested against the outbreak of the Pacific war at [the Imperial Conference of December 1]”. I would like to gather a random sample of people and see if they believe that the journal entry above represents protesting against war. If they do, I will print off this blog post and eat it.

Manipulation of information played a role in Japan’s wartime surrender as well. Dr. Bix recounts how Vice Foreign Minister Matsumoto Shinichi presented Hirohito with a translation of the American demands that replaced one key phrase. The English text of the demands read: “the authority of the Emperor… to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers”. In the translation, Shinichi replaced “shall be subject to” with “shall be circumscribed by”.

Hirohito, who (in Dr. Bix’s estimation) acted always to preserve his place as emperor accepted this (modified) demand.

Many accounts of World War II assume the civilian members of the Japanese cabinet were largely powerless. Here we see the cabinet shaping two momentous decisions (war and peace). They were able to do this because they controlled the flow of information to the military and the emperor. Hirohito and the military didn’t have their own diplomats and couldn’t look over diplomatic cables. For information from the rest of the world, they were entirely at the mercy of the foreign services.

One man rule can give the impression of a unified elite. Look behind the curtain though and you’ll always find factions. Deprived of legitimate means of conflict (e.g. contesting elections), factions will find ways to try and check each other’s influence. Here, as is often the case, that checking came via controlling the flow of information. This sort of conflict-via-information has real implications in current politics, especially if Donald Trump tries to consolidate more power in himself.

But how was it that such a small change in the demand could be so important? Dr. Bix theorized that Hirohito’s primary goal was always preserving the power of the monarchy. He chose foreign war because he felt it was the only thing capable of preventing domestic dissent. The far-right terrorism of the 1930s was therefore successful; it compelled the government to fight foreign wars to assuage it.

In this regard, the atomic bombs were actually a godsend to the Japanese leadership. They made it clear that Japan was powerless to resist the American advance and gave the leadership a face-saving reason to end the war. I would say this is conjecture, but several members of the court clique and military leadership actually wrote in their diaries that the bombs were “good luck” or the like. Here’s former Prime Minister Yonai:

I think the term is perhaps inappropriate, but the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war are, in a sense, gifts from the gods [tenyu, also “heaven-sent blessings”]. This way we don’t have to say that we quit the war because of domestic circumstances. I’ve long been advocating control of our crisis, but neither from fear of an enemy attack nor because of the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war. The main reason is my anxiety over the domestic situation. So, it is rather fortunate that we can now control matters without revealing the domestic situation. (Page 509)

Regardless of why exactly it came about, the end of the war brought with it the problem of trying war criminals. Dr. Bix alleges that there was a large-scale conspiracy amongst Japan’s civilian and military leadership to hide all evidence of Hirohito’s war responsibility, a conspiracy aided and abetted by General Douglas McArthur.

Hirohito and MacArthur

The general was supreme commander of the allied occupation forces and had broad powers to govern Japan as he saw fit. Dr. Bix believes that in Hirohito, McArthur saw a symbol he could use to govern more effectively. I’m not sure if I was entirely convinced of a conspiracy – a very good conspiracy leaves the same evidence as no conspiracy at all – but it is undeniable that the defenses of the “Class A” war criminals (the civilian and military leadership charged with crimes against peace) were different from the defenses offered at Nuremburg, in a way that was both curious and most convenient for Hirohito.

Both sets of war criminals (in Tokyo and Nuremburg) tried to deny the legitimacy of “crimes against the peace” and claim their trials were just victor’s justice. But notably absent from all of the trials of Japanese leaders was the defense of “just following orders” that was so emblematic of the Nazis tried at Nuremburg. Unlike the Nazis, the Japanese criminals were quite happy to take responsibility. It was always them, never the emperor. I don’t think this is just a case of their leader having survived; I doubt the Nuremburg defendants would have been so loyal if Hitler had lived.

Of course, there is a potential parsimonious explanation for everyone having their stories straight. Hirohito could have been entirely innocent. Except, if Hirohito was so innocent, how can we explain the testimony Konoe made to one of his aides?

Fumimaro Konoe was the last prime minister before the Pearl Harbour attack and an opponent of war with the United States. He refused to take part in the (alleged) cover up. He was then investigated for war crimes and chose to kill himself. Of Hirohito, he said:

“Of course His Imperial Majesty is a pacifist and he wished to avoid war. When I told him that to initiate war was a mistake, he agreed. But the next day, he would tell me: ‘You were worried about it yesterday but you do not have to worry so much.’ Thus, gradually he began to lead to war. And the next time I met him, he leaned even more to war. I felt the Emperor was telling me: ‘My prime minister does not understand military matters. I know much more.’ In short, the Emperor had absorbed the view of the army and the navy high commands.” (Page 419)

Alas, this sort of damning testimony was mostly avoided at the war crimes trials. With Konoe dead and the rest of Japan’s civilian and military leadership prepared to do whatever it took to exonerate Hirohito, the emperor was safe. Hirohito was never indicted for war crimes, despite his role in authorizing the war and delaying surrender as he searched for a great victory.

Some of the judges were rather annoyed by the lack of indictment. The chief judge wrote: “no ruler can commit the crime of launching aggressive war and then validly claim to be excused for doing so because his life would otherwise have been in danger… It will remain that the men who advised the commission of a crime, if it be one, are in no worse position than the man who directs the crime be committed”.

This didn’t stop most of the judges from passing judgement on the criminals they did have access to. Some of the conspirators paid for their loyalty with their lives. The remainder were jailed. None of them spent much more than a decade in prison. By 1956, all of the “Class A” war criminals except the six who were executed and three who died in jail were pardoned.

The business and financial elite, two groups which profited immensely from the war got off free and clear. None of them were even charged. Dr. Bix suggests that General McArthur vetoed it. He had a country to run and couldn’t afford the disruption that would be caused if all of the business and financial elite were removed.

This leaves the Class B and Class C war criminals, the officers who were charged with more normal war crimes. Those officers who were tried in other countries were much more likely to face execution. Of the nearly 6,000 Class B and Class C war criminals charged outside of Japan, close to 1,000 were executed. A similar number were acquitted. Most of the remainder served limited criminal sentences.

Perhaps the greatest injustice of all was the fate of Unit 731. None of them were ever charged, despite carrying out bacteriological research on innocent civilians. They bought their freedom with research data the Americans coveted.

For all that their defenses differed from the Nuremburg criminals, the Japanese war criminals tried in Tokyo faced a similar fate. A few of them were executed, but most of them served sentences that belied the enormity of their crimes. Life imprisonments didn’t stick and pardons were forthcoming once the occupation ended. And as in Germany, some of the war criminals even ended up holding positions in government. Overall, the sentences gave the impression that in 1945, wars of aggression were much less morally troubling than bank robberies.

I had thought the difficulties Germany faced in denazification – and holding former Nazi’s accountable – were unique. This appears to be false. It seems to be very difficult to maintain the political will to keep war criminals behind bars after an occupation ends, as long as their crimes were not committed against their own people.

In light of this, I think it can be moral to execute war criminals. While I generally oppose the death penalty, this opposition is predicated on there being a viable alternative to execution for people who have flagrantly violated the social contract. Life imprisonment normally provides this, but I no longer believe that it can in the case of war criminals.

The Allies bear some of the blame for the clemency war criminals received. Japan’s constitution required them to seek approval from a majority of the nations that participated in the Tokyo trial. Ultimately, a majority of the eleven nations that were involved in the tribunal put improved ties with Japan over moral principles and allowed clemency to be granted. This suggests that even jailing war criminals outside their country of origin or requiring foreign consent for their pardon can be ineffective.

With both of these options removed, basic justice (and good incentive structures) seem to require all major war criminals to be executed. A rule of thumb is probably to execute any war criminal who would have otherwise be sentenced to twenty years or more of prison. It’s only these prisoners who stand to see their sentence substantially reduced in the inevitable round of pardons.

I also believe that convicted war criminals (as a general class) probably shouldn’t be trusted with the running of a country. To be convicted of war crimes proves that you are likely to flagrantly violate international norms. While people can change, past behaviour remains the best predictor of future behaviour. Therefore, it makes sense to try and remove any right war criminals might otherwise have to hold public office in a way that is extremely difficult to reverse. This could take the form of constitutional amendments that requires all victimized countries to consent to each individual war criminal that wishes to later hold public office, or other similarly difficult to circumvent mechanisms.

This is one area where the International Criminal Court (ICC) could prove its worth. If the ICC is able to deliver justice and avoid bowing to political pressure in any of its cases, then the obvious way of dealing with war criminals would be to send them to the ICC.

The section of the book that covers the war crimes trials and post-war Japan is called “The Unexamined Life”. I think the title is apt. There’s no evidence that Hirohito ever truly grappled with his role in the war, whatever it was. At one point, in response to a question about his war responsibility, Hirohito even said: “I can’t answer that question because I haven’t thoroughly studied the literature in this field”. This answer would be risible even if Hirohito were completely blameless. If there was anyone who knew how much responsibility Hirohito bore for the war, it was the man himself.

In the constitution promulgated by the occupying Americans, Hirohito became a constitutional monarch in truth. Dr. Bix reports that Hirohito was miffed to find that he could no longer appoint prime ministers and cabinets. He adjusted poorly to his lack of role and spent most of the fifties and sixties hoping that he could be made politically useful again. This never happened, although some conservative prime ministers did go to him for advice from time to time. His one consolation was the extra-constitutional military and intelligence briefings he received, but this was a far nod from the amount of information he received during the war.

Ultimately, the only punishment that Hirohito faced was his irrelevance. That is, I think, too small a price to pay for launching (or at the very least, approving) wars of aggression that killed millions of people.

The last section of the book also includes the only flaw I noticed: Dr. Bix cites a poll where 57% of the population (of Japan) thought Hirohito bore war responsibility or were unsure whether he did. Dr. Bix goes on to claim that this implies that Hirohito’s evasive answers were out of step with the opinion of the majority of the Japanese population. I think (although I can’t prove; the original source is Japanese) that this is probably obscuring the truth.

Assuming that a decent fraction of the respondents were unsure, then we’re looking at a plurality (43%) of Japanese believing Hirohito bore no responsibility and smaller fractions unsure and believing he did. If at least 14% of the respondents were unsure (common for polls like this), then you could flip the stance of Dr. Bix’s sentence and have just as much proof. This sort of thing is a common enough tactic of people who want to stretch their data a bit further than it’s worth.

This shades into the larger issue of trust. How much should I trust Dr. Bix? He obviously knows a lot more about Hirohito than I do and he can speak and read Japanese (I cannot). This makes this book more authoritative than previous books by Americans that relied entirely on translations of Japanese scholarship, but it also makes verifying his sources more difficult.

I was able to find critiques of the book by Japanese scholars. That said, skimming through the titles of other works by the scholars has me fairly convinced that they come from the vein of Japanese conservatism that is rife with war apologism and historical revisionism.

On a whole, this has left me somewhat unsatisfied. I’m convinced that Hirohito was more than a harmless puppet leader. I’m also convinced he didn’t wield absolute power. By Dr. Bix’s own admission, he acted contrary to his own wants very often. For me, this doesn’t jibe with autocratic power. My best interpretation of Dr. Bix’s research is that Hirohito was an influential member of one organ of the Japanese state. He wielded significant but not total influence over national policy. I do not believe that Hirohito was as free to act as Dr. Bix claims he was.

I do believe Dr. Bix when he says that Hirohito’s role expanded as the war went on. If nothing else, he became the most experienced of all of Japan’s leaders at the same time as the myth of his divinity and benevolence became most entrenched. Furthermore, Hirohito and his retinue were most free to act when the army and navy were at loggerheads. This became more and more common after 1937.

Dr. Bix actually posits that these disagreements were the ultimate reason that Hirohito could grasp real power. The cabinet (which included civilian, army, and navy decision makers) was supposed to work by consensus. Where there were deep divisions, they would paper over them with vague statements and false consensus, without engaging in the give and take of negotiation that real consensus requires. Since everything was done in Hirohito’s name, he and the court group could twist the vague statements towards their preferred outcomes – all the while pretending Hirohito was a mere constitutional monarch promulgating decisions based on the advice of the cabinet.

This system was horribly inefficient and at least one person tried to reform it. Unfortunately, their “reform” would have led to a military dictatorship. Here’s a quote about the troubles facing one of the pre-war prime ministers:

“Right-wing extremists and terrorists repeatedly assailed him verbally, while the leading reformer in his own party, Mori, sought to break up the party system itself and ally with the military to create a new, more authoritarian political order.” (Page 247)

I’m used to seeing “reformers” only applied positively, but if you’re willing to look at reform as “the process of making the government run more effectively”, I suppose that military dictatorships are one type of reform. I think it’s good to be reminded that efficiency is not the only axis on which we should judge a government. It may be quite reasonable to oppose reforms that will streamline the government when those reforms come at the cost of other values, like fairness, transparency, and freedom of speech.

It’s my habit to try and draw lessons from the history I read. Because Dr. Bix’s book covers so troubled a time, I did not find it lacking in lessons. But I had hoped for something more than lessons from the past. I had hoped to know definitively how much of the fault for Japan’s role in World War II should lie at the feet of Hirohito.

Despite this being the whole purpose of the book, I was left disappointed. It is almost as if Dr. Bix let his indignation with Hirohito’s escape from any and all justice get the better of him. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan tried to pin almost every misdeed during Hirohito’s reign on the emperor personally. In overreaching, it left me unsure of how much of itself to believe. I cannot discount it entirely, but I also cannot accept wholesale.

It doesn’t help that Dr. Bix paints a portrait of the emperor so intimate as to humanize him. While Dr. Bix seems to want us to view Hirohito as evil, I could not help but see him as a flawed man following a flawed morality. As far as I can tell, Hirohito would have been happiest as a moderately successful marine biologist. But marine biology is not what was asked of him and unfortunately, he did what he saw as his duty.

Here I again wish to make a comparison with Eichmann in Jerusalem. Had Hirohito not been singularly poor at introspection, or had he not had “an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else” (while Hannah Arendt said this about Adolf Eichmann, I think it applies equally well to Hirohito), Hirohito could have risen above the failings in his moral education and acted as a brake on Japanese militarism.

Hirohito did not do this. And because of his actions (and perhaps more importantly, his inaction), terrible things came to pass.

The possibility for individuals to do terrible things despite having no malice in their hearts is what caused Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil”. Fifty years later, we still expect the worst deeds humans can commit to only come from the hands of monsters. There is certainly security in that assumption. When we believe terrible things can only be done deliberately and with malice, we allow ourselves to ignore the possibility that we may be involved in unjust systems or complicit in terrible deeds.

It’s only when we remember that terrible things require no malice, that one may do them even while being a normal person or while acting in accordance with the values they were raised with, that we can properly introspect about our own actions. It is vital that we all take the time to ask “are we the baddies?” and ensure that our ethical systems fail gracefully.

Obviously, Hirohito did none of this. That’s all on him. No matter how you cut the blame pie, Hirohito did nothing to stop the Rape of Nanjing, the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Bataan Death March,  and the forced massed suicides of Okinawans. Hirohito demonstrated that he had the power to order a surrender. Yet he did not do this when the war was all but lost and Japanese cities were bombed daily. He delayed surrender time and again, hoping for some other option that would allow him to cling to whatever scraps of power he had.

For all that Dr. Bix failed to convince me that Hirohito was one of the primary architects of the war, he did convince me that Hirohito bore a large measure of responsibility. I agree that Hirohito should have been a Class A war criminal. I agree that Hirohito escaped all but the faintest touch of justice for his role in the war. And I agree that Hirohito’s escape from justice has made it more difficult for Japan to accept the guilt it should bear for its wars of aggression.