Note added on 4/5: Readers who want the short version can skip down to where it says “Edited to Add”.
I’m somewhat hesitant to post this, since I believe my regular readers will find it all to be entirely obvious and hence entirely unnecessary. But we’ve had more than the usual number of non-regular readers here the past few days, largely in response to my post on psychic harm, and more than a few of them have made the mistake of plunging into a conversation they didn’t understand (often, apparently, without even reading the post they were responding to). Per my usual policy in long threads, I’ve deleted comments that failed to advance the discussion, either because they were off topic or did no more than repeat things that had already been said. In most, but not all, such cases, I drop short notes to the commenters, explaining why their posts were deleted and inviting them to come back with something more germane. Often (and this week has been no exception), I get notes back from these people saying they’ve learned something, which is gratifying enough that I keep on sending those explanatory notes. (If your post was deleted and you didn’t get a note, you probably just had the bad luck to post at a time when I was unusually busy or distracted.) But since certain points come up repeatedly, it might be more efficient to mention them here.
1. This was not a post about censorship, or about the environment, or about rape. It was a post about where to draw lines between purely psychic harm that should receive policy weight and purely psychic harm that shouldn’t. This is an issue I raise from time to time, because I find it both perplexing and important. And it interacts with lot of other standard issues in public policy in ways that make it impossible (for those of us who care about such things) to ignore.
2. The post was laden with unrealistic hypotheticals. That’s the only way I know of to approach these questions. Take rape, for example. Rape frequently has ghastly physical and psychological consequences for the victim. We all know that, which is precisely why it’s important (in this kind of discussion) to assume those consequences away. The whole point is to focus on the stuff we’re not sure of, such as: Should my distress over someone else‘s rape receive policy weight? To focus on that question, it helps to imagine a scenario where that’s the only distress. In other words, we assume away all the usual harm to the victim precisely because we’re already know that this harm is dreadful and merits policy weight. To focus on examples where the victim sustains damage would be to say, in effect, that we’re not sure how to feel about that damage. (Otherwise, why investigate those examples?)
Or to put this yet another way: In this business, the way one acknowledges that an issue is settled is to assume it away. It is settled that damage to rape victims is real, great, important, and deserves the attention of the law. Thus we assume it away.
Edited to add: Two extremely thoughtful commenters have pointed out that the first post dealt both with psychic harm to the victim and with psychic harm to the general public, and that these are two different issues. Indeed they are, but both are difficult in the same way, and both of them are clarified by hypothetical examples.
3. If you think it’s obvious that my distress over someone else’s rape should receive policy weight, you’ve got to explain why my distress over someone else’s Sabbath violation should not (or allow that it should). To people who haven’t confronted these questions before, it might seem like there’s some sort of obvious bright line between the two. To people who have thought hard about these questions, it’s pretty clear that drawing that line is a lot harder than it looks. (And again — this has nothing to do with the question of whether rape is horrible for the victim.)
4. The use of hypotheticals as attention-focusers is not unique to economics or to policy analysis. Physicists, for example, frequently assume away friction in order to focus on other forces they’re more interested in. That doesn’t mean that physicists deny the reality of friction. Imagine being a physicist who writes a paper about frictionless billiard tables and then gets a flurry of email beginning “You insensitive lout! My father lost an arm and a leg to friction in an industrial accident. And you dare to just dismiss that experience?” That’s how I’ve felt from time to time over the past couple of days.
5. I’m struck by the number of commenters who thought it was some sort of contribution to say “What if you were the victim?” First of all, I’d think it should be obvious that, for the kind of analysis we’re doing, it doesn’t make a bit of difference who the victim is. Second, as it happens, in this particular case I did (for no particular reason) start off by assuming I was the victim. This makes me suspicious that maybe some of these people did not read the post too carefully.
6. Occasionally I post about topics I’m passionate about, and I’m glad when those posts get a lot of attention. This was not one of those occasions. This post was more idle noodling than anything else, with no good arguments and no conclusions; the whole point is that I can’t seem to figure out what the good arguments are on this subject, and I was hoping for a little help from my readers. In particular, I have no horse in this race. I don’t know the right answers, and that was the point of the post. I was struck by the number of new commenters who thought they were disagreeing with me. But since I’d done nothing more than raise questions without answers, there was nothing to disagree with. Really; if you want to read provocative arguments with actual conclusions, go back through the archives.
7. A few posters have asked if there’s anything I regret saying in this post. Of course there is. There are things I regret about every blog post I’ve ever made. These things are dashed off pretty quickly, not pored over for months the way a journal article might be. They’re meant as fodder for thought, and sometimes they work better than other times. This particular post seems to me to be a somewhat subpar effort, primarily because it consists only of questions with no useful answers. And of course there are parts where the wording could have been better or clearer, but again, that’s always the case.
8. I care about abstract policy analysis using contrived hypotheticals to focus attention on difficult issues. So do many of my readers. I also care about the foundations of mathematics, the fabric of the universe, applied price theory, American musical theater and high modern poetry. Those are some of the topics that are likely to arise on this blog. If any of them suit your fancy, I hope you’ll pull up a chair and join us. If they’re not to your taste, there are lots of other things to read on the Internet.
PS As always with long posts, when you comment, it will be helpful to other readers if you mention which numbered point you’re responding to.
Edited to add: Perhaps the above was too long-winded for some. Here is the point in a nutshell:
We’re looking for a rule about what should be legal.
First Attempt: You can do anything you want as long as you’re not hurting anybody. This doesn’t work very well, because anything you do is liable to hurt someone. You can enrage, sadden and depress people by driving on the Sabbath, reading Karl Marx or loving someone of the same gender. Those are all forms of harm, but most of us believe they’re the sort of harms that the law should ignore. So “as long as you’re not hurting anybody” is the wrong way to put this.
Second Attempt: You can do anything you want as long as you’re not causing anybody direct physical harm. This allows you violate the Sabbath and read Marx, but it would also allow you to rape an unconscious victim if there were no physical consequences. That seems grotesque, so this rule seems wrong too.
Therefore the second attempt fails, and we’re left flailing around looking for a better rule.
The reason rape gets mentioned here is because rape is particularly bad, so we can be quite sure we don’t want to adopt a rule that might allow it, even in the extreme hypothetical case with no physical damage. In other words, it’s mentioned because it’s horrible.
The whole point here is that the second attempt seems to allow rape. Some readers might have thought that was an argument for rape. It wasn’t; it was an argument against the second attempt.