Taking offence at thought experiments

I love Brad DeLong’s academic work. He’s way smarter than me and, more importantly, clearly works much much harder than I do. And he tackles interesting questions. But every time I check his blog, I get an awful “Everyone in the world is evil or stupid or both except Brad and a few of his friends” vibe.

I’d not been there for a while, but switching to The Old Reader (for now) from Google Reader messed up my RSS habits. And so, there I was, looking at Brad DeLong saying that Steven Landsburg is the stupidest man alive and that “the University of Rochester has a big problem” – presumably Landsburg’s continued employment there.

What was the cause? A piece at Gawker taking great offence at a thought experiment Landsburg proposed. I’ll link Gawker at the end so you’re not tempted to read it before reading the original Landsburg piece.

In grad school, we had a lot of fun with thought experiments of this sort. The classic one is Nozick’s experience machine. Step into the machine and you’ll experience a simulated life much better than the one you’d otherwise live; moreover, you’ll never remember that you’re actually in the machine. If you stay out of the machine, there has to be something that matters more to you than experienced utility.

Tyler Cowen liked to ask a variant on it in our Economics & Philosophy class: World B is identical to World A, as far as you are ever able to observe, but in World B, your wife has been cheating on you for years and you never ever knew it, nor will you ever know it. The worlds are identical except for the unknown-to-you fact of your wife’s infidelity. Are you worse off in World B? If so, clearly state exactly how, and make that consistent with other things you believe about utility.

So, what was Landsburg’s offensive thought experiment? Recall that the rules of thought experiment club are that you don’t add in auxiliary assumptions but stick to what’s stated in the thought experiment. Landsburg asked a series of three questions, then wanted to know why our answers to 1 and 2 might differ from our answer to 3. Here they are.

Farnsworth McCrankypants just hates the idea that someone, somewhere might be looking at pornography. It’s not that he thinks porn causes bad behavior; it’s just the idea of other people’s viewing habits that causes him deep psychic distress. Ought Farnsworth’s preferences be weighed in the balance when we make public policy? In other words, is the psychic harm to Farnsworth an argument for discouraging pornography through, say, taxation or regulation?

That’s scenario 1. Most economists just ignore that psychic harm – the world’s essentially impossible to evaluate when we add this kind of thing in. Further, Farnsworth could pay other people not to watch pornography if he really cared about it that much. But we could assume that away to stick within the proper confines of the thought experiment: say transactions costs prevent it. Is pyschic harm of this sort admissible in the utilitarian calculus? Here’s scenario 2:

Granola McMustardseed just hates the idea that someone, somewhere might be altering the natural state of a wilderness area. It’s not that Granola ever plans to visit that area or to derive any other direct benefits from it; it’s just the idea of wilderness desecration that causes her deep psychic distress. Ought Granola’s preferences be weighed in the balance when we make public policy? In other words, is the psychic harm to Granola an argument for discouraging, say, oil drilling in Alaska, either through taxes or regulation?

Actually, policy does weigh Granola’s concerns. It’s counted as existence value over and above option value or use value. Sound analyses don’t put much weight on it, but it does sometimes count. If I get existence value from thinking heroic Randian thoughts about oil derricks and man’s mastery of nature, that gets ignored in the cost-benefit analysis for some reason. But, again, all these kinds of pyschic distress are treated pretty dismissively in economics. And now the third and controversial question:

Let’s suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar, is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm — no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission. (Note: The Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I’ve read, was not even aware that she’d been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later.) Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?

If we take this as a parallel thought experiment, the only trauma here allowable is the psychic distress, which we otherwise typically ignore.

It is a hard question and so a good one. All our intuitions tell us to condemn the third scenario while dismissing the psychic harms in the first two. But if we stick within the confines of the thought experiment, it’s hard to distinguish the cases. We can say the psychic harm is worse in the third case, and it would be in the real world, but it’s not hard to have a thought experiment Granola McMustardseed who gets more psychic harm from oil drilling than from being in Scenario 3. Or a Scenario 3 victim who never learns that it happened – a case pretty close to Cowen’s World A vs World B.

I don’t have any great answer other than that when we step away from the thought experiment and into the real world, a rule allowing Scenario 3 that imposes psychic harm no greater than that imposed in Scenarios 1 & 2 would also necessarily allow much much greater harm because we cannot set rules only allowing Scenario 3. But that’s a cop-out, because even if we could do it in the real world, I’d still want it banned – in the same way that I think I’m worse off in Cowen’s World B and that I wouldn’t want to step into Nozick’s machine. My maximand isn’t just experienced utility.

Meanwhile, Gawker turns it into a story about how Landsburg thinks rape is OK and DeLong signs onto their interpretation. The contrast between the quality of comments at Landsburg’s post and DeLong’s is interesting too… Landsburg’s commenters wrestle with a difficult thought experiment; DeLong’s want Landsburg fired.

[cross-posted to Offsetting Behaviour]

17 thoughts on “Taking offence at thought experiments

  1. In a sense, I understand the thought experiment. However, in third example there has been an actual violation of bodily integrity. To me that is qualitatively different from the first two examples. It’s a trespass. A landowner can hold a trespasser liable without any showing of harm. Similarly, most non-consensual contact is considered a battery under the law regardless of harm. There really is a difference between McCrankypants’ or McMustardseed’s psychic distress at the actions of someone else that does not touch the body and an actual violation of your bodily integrity even if it causes no physical harm.

    Consider this example: Suppose someone breaks into your house while you are away. They do not harm anything during the break-in nor do they steal anything from your house. They lock the door after they leave. All they do is enter your house, look around, and leave. I would have a big problem with that, and I think most people would as well. I think it would be even worse if it was someone breaking into my body rather than my house.

    Is it really that hard to distinguish these examples in light of the violation of a personal, private space?

    1. Landsburg notes on this one that it’s the definition of the property right that’s at stake, so we can’t invoke it as reason. And, if we take a David Friedman line on it, then we ought to set a property right that’s efficient. Should McCrankyPants have the property right over whether others get to look at pornography? I’d say no. Should Granola have a property right over drilling far away from her? Again, I’d say no. But if the psychic damage is the only issue at stake, and by the confines of the thought experiment it is, then why do we get to conclude that Scenario 3 should be illegal and that the victim gets the property right if we’ve done the opposite in the prior two scenarios? I think Scenario 3 should be illegal, but I have to turn to something other than experienced utility.

      1. But why is some greater level of harm necessary to establish a property right to one’s own body? Is the point for us to simply admit that we are basing the rule on something other than utility? Ok, fine. Personal autonomy is very important to humans, so it really is no surprise to me that we put more weight on distress caused by a violation of autonomy than we do on distress caused by violations disconnected from our personal experience. I think protecting autonomy (balanced with concerns for the autonomy of others and some level of social welfare) is sufficient justification in and of itself. What more do we need?

      2. Philip: look, I’m with you that we should be starting out by assuming self-ownership and letting stuff flow from there. But there’s a plausible counterargument that says that it begs the question to do so and that we should establish the rightness of law by appeal to utilitarian calculus. Landsburgh’s showing a spot where that can go awry.

      3. I agree with the idea that relying purely on utilitarian calculus as the basis for law is insufficient, but that seems to be a rather obvious point. It seems to me somewhat improvident to attempt to demonstrate this with an example that is guaranteed to provoke a large amount of outrage and backlash.

  2. I don’t think anyone should get a free pass from criticism of what they say simply because they say it in the form of a thought experiment.

    Landsberg is interested in evaluating the consequences of our actions. It seems to me that making a blog post questioning the wrongness of raping unconscious women might have consequences. Particularly when the author is a college professor, and statistics show that rape is disturbingly common on college campuses.

    Particularly when actual rapists (and witnesses who didn’t intervene) have expressed doubts similar to Landsberg’s about whether rape really “counts” when the victim (oh, but I suppose that would be begging the question) when the raped individual doesn’t protest.

    And particularly when the author chooses to insert an actual, living person into his hypothetical–a person who might potentially see the post, and who it seems to me has already suffered enough.

    But I suppose any additional distress she might experience would only be psychological, so would it really matter?

    1. It’s currently illegal and the substantial legal proceedings against the guys in the cited case ought to be reasonable deterrent to those with similar ideas. I think it’s an awful idea to rule out thought experiments of this kind on grounds of that “somebody might do it”.

      The point of the thought experiment is that the psychic distress in the third case seems real and important to us while the psychic distress in the first two cases doesn’t – it asks us to think hard about why that should be the case. It’s a good question!

    2. That’s an interesting view, that we cannot possibly asking ourselves why we believe certain widely held societal views, for the risk that some people will not be convinced.

      I can certainly imagine a society where abortion is illegal (and the ban is widely accepted) banning professors from making thought experiments about violinists, for fear of convincing people that abortion is okay. I don’t think I agree with that, though.

  3. Philip is right. People have a basic property right over their own bodies–more basic than ownership of a house or a piece of land. The examples are not comparable because we’re comparing psychic distress vs. psychic distress plus violation of the rape victim’s fundamental rights.

    And the reference to the Steubenville rape victim was beyond tasteless.

  4. What are the “benefits” from raping an unconscious woman? Landsburg thinks there are some. I don’t believe there are any. And I don’t want somebody who thinks there are from being in a place where they might ever run across one of my female relatives–or any other female for that matter.

    And you shouldn’t either.

      1. But Landsburg doesn’t think it’s a perverse utility function, does he? He thinks it’s a normal utility function–in fact, it’s the post’s author’s utility function, isn’t it? Is it your utility function too?

      2. I didn’t expect that Landsburg didn’t find it a perverse utility function, but I cannot see into his soul (or anyone else’s). Would you presume that someone modeling the murderer’s utility function shares the murderer’s utility function? Seems a bit odd.

        It wouldn’t be my utility function. The sex hedons would be swamped by shame anti-hedons mixed with revulsion at violating someone else’s person. But I can understand that other people have different utility functions.

  5. I wouldn’t say all of his commenters wrestle with a difficult thought problem. At least one made light of it:

    Comment 8
    I beg you potential witnesses: if I am ever raped by beautiful women while being unconscious, I want to learn every detail about it.

    If it is a thought problem, couldn’t he have used another example than an underaged teen who was raped and then who has suffered death threats and all kinds of verbal abuse for coming forward?

  6. First problem, the “hypotheticals” are not realistic, and they do not influence public policy.
    #1 is easily dismissible (and this is not the reason some people oppose pornography anyway, but more on that later)
    #2 is strange. Policy is influenced by scientists, next we may make a collective choice as too the balance of short term prosperity, long term sustainability, energy security and sovereignty we want.
    While I’m sure we can find a Bozo who opposes drilling for possible hiking trips, the author’s aversion to encouraging drilling, but imposing a tax or regulations boggles the mind. Unless he rejects basic concept, modern citizenship ties human beings to a land. If we want to extract resources from the said land, it only makes sense that society should slightly benefit from the resource extraction. It only makes sense we shouldn’t be paying the entire clean up costs (once it is over) with taxpayer’s money. There are real external costs to extraction, and the price comes off our paycheck (usually in medical or environmental costs). It’s econ101.
    Now, I wish to merge #3 with #1. As a society, we have accepted pornography without real restrictions) even the 18+ rule is moot, and the California condom law is a ridiculous outlier). Except for pedophilia. Why? Really, where’s the harm? If the child is young enough, he won’t even know it’s wrong! What, are you uncomfortable with the distress the child will have later as a result of not liking the idea of being abused by his father? Pshaw, it’s just like #1, right? Plus, I’m sure the father is benefiting from this.
    I have huge sympathy for pedophiles, and how they don’t have recourse to help without being criminalized. But somehow, there’s a difference between drugging and raping kids and being offended at consensual pornography.
    The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter if you think bodily autonomy isn’t a thing. It doesn’t change that it is the basis for American society (and others too). But it’s good to know that there are volunteers to alleviate rape in society. Sign up, we can set up safe places where you can be drugged and sodomized (safely) by old men. If you’re not into it, you’re just like the dude who wants to have the idea of a landscape in Alaska.

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