Friedman on Psychic Harm

Four terrific posts by David Friedman, partly on psychic harm, partly on talking about psychic harm. I’d recommend these highly even if they hadn’t invoked my name.

Landsburg v Bork: What Counts As Injury?

Response to Bork and Landsburg

Frightening Ideas

Why Landsburg’s Puzzle is Interesting

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15 Responses to “Friedman on Psychic Harm”

  1. 1 1 Ken B


    If DF is reading these comments, let me try to convince him many of the critics ARE being evil. The ones I have in mind, and we have seen them at TBQ, are those focusing on any man’s temerity in using a rape example. The subtext here is that males should only mention rape with a genuflection and an apologetic air, that they feel guilt that other men have raped. That kind of mau mauing is evil. No-one should have to prove he is worthy to debate.

    Also, many of the comments that misread Steve also assume only women are raped. No-one who thinks for three seconds believes that, so what this entails really is belittling male rape. Bryan Caplan has noted that problem repeatedly.

    Bravo on the four posts.

  2. 2 2 Roger

    Perhaps the problem is that some people do not believe that there is any such thing as harmless rape. The law has expanded the definition of rape to where it now includes scenarios that are not necessarily harmful.

  3. 3 3 Windypundit

    Hmmm…so, let me see if I can shorten David Friedman’s argument: If the young lady had been a prostitute who offered to let the men have sex with her for $300 and they had declined, only to later have sex with her while she was unconscious, we’d all see the economic harm quite clearly. The fact that she’s not a prostitute, and her decision to have sex doesn’t depend on a cash payment, doesn’t mean there’s any less harm. Or perhaps it’s better to say the fact that she could have charged them for sex means it’s wrong for them to take it.

    If your neighbor could charge you for reading porn — perhaps because you were staying over at his house and he made “don’t read porn” a condition of entry — then reading porn would also be form of harm.

  4. 4 4 Ken B

    It’s not what counts as harm, it’s what mechanism makes sense to control it.

  5. 5 5 DocMerlin

    Thats ignoring Steve’s premise of utilitarian ethics, and instead basing your ethical system on property rights.

  6. 6 6 Steve Landsburg


    Thats ignoring Steve’s premise of utilitarian ethics, and instead basing your ethical system on property rights.

    Yes, let me elaborate on this. About four days a week, I call myself a libertarian; the other three I call myself a consequentialist. It’s extremely fortunate for me that these two very different starting points so often lead to the same conclusions. When they don’t, I get uncomfortable (see, e.g. the chapter in More Sex is Safer Sex called “Things That Make Me Squirm”.

    All these recent posts on psychic harm have been written from a largely consequentialist perspective. A few commenters have labeled the whole approach “libertarian”, which baffles me; this is the most unlibertarian (and in many ways anti-libertarian) stuff I’ve ever written. Libertarians (speaking very broadly) tend to have no problem asserting the sanctity of certain property rights; I’m violating that sanctity by asking why the property rights shouldn’t be assigned otherwise.

  7. 7 7 Martin-2

    Ken B (1): From my experience, saying something like “male rape is just as bad as female rape” leads to a very nasty tree-falling-in-the-forest argument. I think you mean the marginal male rape is just as bad as the marginal female rape, but if you don’t specify this then an indignant person is likely to inform you that the former is less common than the latter and then get into systematic oppression of woman-kind, rape-culture, etc. No need to go there.

  8. 8 8 Mark Draughn

    Thats ignoring Steve’s premise of utilitarian ethics, and instead basing your ethical system on property rights.

    Isn’t that what Friedman is arguing we should do? Or rather, isn’t he arguing that if your utilitarian calculation takes into account the difficulties of enforcement, especially assessing subjective harm, then it will favor a system of property rights? Something like that? Dammit, thinking is hard…

  9. 9 9 Xan

    All four of those are wonderful blog posts. In the third, “Frightening Questions,” he mentions he has “no adequate argument” against moral nihilism, a topic I’ve been wanting to bring up on your blog for some time. But I wanted to be sure that I crafted the question in such a way as to not seem “evil, or stupid,” and be dismissed outright. Friedman’s blog post seems the perfect opening. Bear with me.

    Once, you had an opportunity to elaborate on this question in response to Bennett Haselton, who, in comment 4 on your article, “Life, the Universes, and Everything” (Dec. 2 2009), posed this question: “Should you help a stranger who needs a sandwich to eat? Under the all-universe hypothesis, it makes no difference what you do, because either way, there continues to exist a universe in which you helped him, and […] a universe in which you didn’t. The total amount of suffering by conscious beings is the same.”

    You dismissed the question in 5: “Your argument makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. I have to take what’s going on in the other Universes as outside my influence. If I can do good here in this Universe, that good is not diminished by the fact that others elsewhere are suffering. Just as there is great moral value in feeding a starving child, even in a world where millions of other children starve to death.” You fostered good discussion elsewhere in the comments, but I think that in this case, you missed an opportunity to go down an interesting avenue.

    Let’s take your example of the value of helping starving children, and change it a bit. Suppose you have an opposite twin (not evil necessarily, just opposite). He exists in your same universe, and does the opposite of any good or evil you do. For every starved child you feed, he will starve a fed child, or, for every rape you perform, he will prevent some other rape from happening, etc. etc. There’s nothing you can do to stop him. As a consequentialist, do you have an adequate argument for why your actions, good or bad, would matter?

    Does it change anything, if, instead of one “twin” in this universe, you have many “twins” who, in otherwise identical mathematical patterns/universes, make choices opposite of the ones that you make in this universe? If reality is made of math, and math is unchangeable, does that not make reality equally unchangeable?

    I do not know if Friedman shares your math=reality hypothesis, but moral nihilism is a very interesting question even without that dimension.

    If you were to dedicate a blog to the subject, think of it as returning a favor to Friedman. He responded to a perplexing question on your blog with several illuminating posts. Perhaps you could respond to his perplexing question?

  10. 10 10 Alex

    Martin-2: Maybe it’s indeed best not to go there, but it’s worth noting the reasonable likelihood that there are more male rape victims (and rapes) in America than female:

  11. 11 11 khodge

    Steve, many thanks for asking the questions; I was quite unable to come up with a coherent response to your initial question. I have problems, however, with Friedman’s liability vs property analysis, especially as one considers how “the law” addresses the issue of paying for donor organs. If you do not like the logical consequence of a liability analysis, you say that it, properly speaking, is an issue of property.

  12. 12 12 Martin-2

    Alex (10): Added to bookmarks. Thank you.

  13. 13 13 Mike H

    @Steve – presumably libertarianism is fine with you choosing to be a consequentialist. However, does consequentialism accept your libertarian views? Is that why you keep it at 42.9% instead of 57.1%?

    PS – Feel free to blame a lack of coffee for this post.

  14. 14 14 Eric Rasmusen

    Keep thinking about this, Steve and David. As David notes in one of his posts, in practice the problem is often solved because mental harm has such a measurability problem (thus, porn, rape, abortion, etc. are governed by criminal law— made either legal or illegal— rather than trying to figure out mental harm and damages or justification). Standing to sue civilly is another problem, with dispersed mental harm.

    It is closely related to another puzzle: whether to disclose bad events. If my friend’s wife has a bad past, do I tell him? (Streetcar Named Desire) Is the world better off if discover that a Vermeer is a forgery? If a woman has been raped while unconscious but doesn’t know it, should you tell her, or just punish the rapist? Why do I value a genuine medieval coin more than a replica?

    Take comfort, as I expect you do, in knowing that the more outrage you get, the more it shows you are teaching an ignorant public about how to reason. Or, at least, you are making them aware that reasoning about hard questions is a possibility.

    You might find my old paper on desecration slightly helpful (David, you may have seen it as I was writing it back at Chicago), but it really just adds a front-end: in the present context, perhaps that girls won’t go to parties if they run the risk of rape, and that hurts everybody.
    “The Economics of Desecration: Flag Burning and Related Activities.” Journal of Legal Studies (June 1998) 27(2): 245- 270 (lead article). When a symbol is desecrated, the desecrator obtains benefits while those who venerate the symbol incur costs. The approach to policy used in this paper is to ask whether the benefits are likely to exceed the costs. I conclude that they usually do not. Desecration is often motivated by a desire to reduce the utility of others, which generally is inefficient. Also, if desecration occurs, people have less incentive to create and maintain symbols. Symbols, like other produced goods, need property- rights protection if the outcome is to be efficient. Laws against desecration are a good way to provide this protection, given the likely failure of the Coase Theorem and the possibility of efficient breaking of the laws. In tex or pdf (

  15. 15 15 Harold

    #14 – A bit late to come back here, but putting it down will at least clarify my thoughts.

    I am not sure how willingness to pay (WTP) and WTA impacts on your Smithians and Jones example. We could postulate a wealthy Jones with a passing interest in desecrating the impoverished but devout Smithians’ flag. For Jones WTP and WTA are about the same, he would take anything over $500 to not desecrate, but would pay up to $500 to desecrate. However, for the Smithians, they would not accept less than $3,000 for someone to desecrate their flag, but can only pay $400 due to lack of funds. What is the efficient outcome? According to Coase, the efficient outcome will result wherever we place liability, if bargaining is possible.

    Applying the Coasian analysis, if the law allowed Jones to burn the flag and sell his right, then the Smithians would be unable to pay, so the flag gets burned. If however desecration is not allowed, but the Smithians are allowed to sell the right to burn the flag, then the flag does not get burned. Unlike in the example in the paper, a different outcome results.

    Is it possible in a world of zero transaction costs envisaged by Coase for WTA and WTP to be different?

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