The White House says there will be a temporary ban on new deep-water drilling, and BP will have to pay the salaries of oilmen who have no work during that ban.  I scratched my head trying to figure out the logic behind this.  This was my first attempt:

  1. BP caused an oil spill.
  2. The oil spill caused a ban on drilling.
  3. The ban on drilling caused oilmen to be out of work.
  4. Therefore, BP caused oilmen to be out of work.
  5. Therefore, BP should pay these oilmen.

This logic works equally well in this case:

  1. Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring.
  2. Silent Spring caused a ban on DDT use.
  3. The ban on DDT use caused factory workers to be out of work.
  4. Therefore, Rachel Carson caused factory workers to be out of work.
  5. Therefore, Rachel Carson should pay these workers.

But "everyone" would agree that the second example is fallacious.  Are people so angry at BP that they can't think at all?

Then I came up with this second argument.  ("At fault" is legalese for "caused by an immoral or illegal action.")

  1. An oil spill caused a ban on drilling.
  2. The ban on drilling caused oilmen to be out of work.
  3. Therefore, the oil spill caused oilmen to be out of work.
  4. The party at fault should pay the injured party.
  5. BP is at fault for the oil spill.
  6. Therefore, BP should pay these oilmen.

Applied to Rachel Carson:

  1. Silent Spring caused a ban on DDT.
  2. The ban on DDT use caused factory workers to be out of work.
  3. The party at fault should pay the injured party.
  4. The producers of DDT are at fault for environmental damage.
  5. Therefore, those producers should pay these factory workers.

Both these chains of reasoning are still faulty, but they're more similar to the reactions of most people.  They are faulty because they're not specific about the connection between the fault and the injured party, or about what an "injury" is.  In the second case, there is no injury to the workers; the company simply stopped employing them, and could only be held morally responsible for this under something like feudalism.  In the BP case, you could argue that non-BP oilmen were injured, because they want to work and their (non-BP) employers want to hire them, but outside forces prevented them.

However, being at fault for the oil spill is not the same as being at fault for (causing by immoral action) the ban on drilling.  The word "cause" is too vague for moral responsibility to be transitive over it; and "X caused Z" does not preclude "Y caused Z".  The ban on drilling is not a ban only on drilling by BP; this means that the powers that be decided the ban on drilling is good for the country, not a punishment of BP.  It is a decision that the expected cost of further drilling outweighs the expected benefits.  There is no moral failing and no one at fault, and either the government should pay them, or the oilmen should bite it the way any workers do when their industry has a downturn and rely on existing safety nets such as unemployment insurance.  (This is completely different from the case of fishermen put out of work directly by the oil spill; I believe it makes sense for BP to pay them.)

Figuring out how moral responsibility propagates through a chain of events is complicated.  I propose that people are using the "sin-based" model of cause and effect.  This model says that all bad outcomes are caused by moral failings.  (On the radio yesterday, I heard a woman being interviewed whose house had been destroyed by a landslide.  The first question the interviewer asked was, "Whose fault was this?")

In the sin-based model, when you enumerate a chain of events that is causally linked, and some events are bad outcomes, all you need to do is transfer blame for the bad outcomes to the moral failings preceding them in the chain.  Oilmen are out of work; you construct a chain of events leading to them being out of work, identify the closest preceding moral failure in the chain, and pin the blame on that moral failing.  No need for painful thinking!

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This is an interesting theory, but you may be overthinking the causal chain in order to get your sin-based theory.

I imagine it looks more like this: Advisor 1: "Something must be done about this BP fiasco! Let's put a moratorium on offshore drilling."

Advisor 2: "Good idea, but that would put people out of work, which would be bad press, especially in this economy. We'd need to find a way to pay them off."

Advisor 1: "Everyone thinks BP is doing a terrible job and won't have to pay enough for this disaster. Let's make them foot the bill."

"Sin" may be part of it, but if BP had much better PR (which would probably entail, in part, being more effective), I expect people wouldn't be all about punishing them, even if they were at fault for the oil spill.

Agreed, this looks like pretty straightforward politics. Given that there is a temporary ban on drilling, what should happen with the oilmen who are temporarily out of work? Making BP pay them looks like the least politically unpopular option.

Leaving them unpaid could intensify opposition to the moratorium, since they're sympathetic victims of the government's policy. Having the government pay them would attract the ire of deficit hawks, plus it would probably have to go through a battle in Congress, and it would also attract more negative attention to the moratorium. Forcing the other oil companies to pay their workers could also seem unfair and draw more opposition, plus it might not be easy for the government to get them to make those payments. BP has at least some causal responsibility for these oilmen being out of work, they're unsympathetic (so people don't really mind if they have to pay more), and the government has a lot of leverage over them to make them pay, so naturally they end up with the bill.

Have you explored alternate theories, such as "people seek to define in- and out-groups, and their punishment intuitions follow this model rather than any causal moral reasoning"?

BP is being punished because they are the current reminder that the world is riskier than most of us like, and this makes them an easy target to rally against. "they're bad people, take their stuff and give it to the good people (us)" is about the level of reasoning I hear from people who actually support such actions. It's very hard to give any credence to the more complicated rationalizations you give,

Sigh. You may be right.

It's easy to be cynical; but hard to be cynical enough.

But that there is a damn good effort in the right direction! :D

I think the difference here is negligence - BP was (allegedly - p>0.7) negligent in its maintenance, which caused this oil spill. Anybody suffering because of this negligence - such as the fishers you mention - are entitled to compensation if the negligence can be proved.

Other oil workers are a different boat however, and I think the breakdown in logic is this:

"The oil spill caused a ban on drilling."

No - the government caused a ban on drilling. Maybe the disaster served as a wake-up call that the old regulatory regime was inadequate, though it's more likely that the government is simply knee-jerking to look useful. But whichever is true, this doesn't fall back on BP.

For example: if a highway gets shut down after a bad accident, it doesn't matter if A)the road was unsafe and needs a redesign anyway, or B)the driver who caused the accident was unsafe and the government is overreacting - either way nobody in the trucking industry gets compensation. And nobody would expect them to.

The difference here is that "The oil spill caused a ban on drilling" is a seductive concept for three main reasons: most people trust government (they don't view it as the mindless amoral bureaucracy it actually is), most people are feeling financially desperate right now (doesn't matter whether they get the payola or not, as long as somebody does it's comforting), and thirdly there's the whole 'oil companies are evil, ummmkay?' bias colouring their perceptions.

Basically it boils down to plain old tribalism - the oil drillers are good ole' working boys, while the oil company is a bunch of evil outsider despots.

~sigh~ How's that fertility-eugenics tech coming along?

~sigh~ How's that fertility-eugenics tech coming along?

As soon as the first child selected for high IQ who comes out with autism is created, there will be a ban on it. None of the workers in the other companies in the field will be compensated, because all of them share in the sin of "playing god."

Also: Hitler supporter Eugenics, ergo it is EVIL.

...most people trust government (they don't view it as the mindless amoral bureaucracy it actually is...

Umm.... government is government. To describe it unqualifiedly as a "mindless amoral bureaucracy" is ultra-simplistic, no matter what economic views you hold. Suppose I were to call every oil CEO a heartless robber baron?

Otherwise I more or less agree with you.

Umm.... government is government. To describe it unqualifiedly as a "mindless amoral bureaucracy" is ultra-simplistic, no matter what economic views you hold. Suppose I were to call every oil CEO a heartless robber baron?

"Mindless amoral bureaucracy" is making a descriptive claim, not just name calling. It is contrast to a popular yet naive model of the "government" as a agent which acts according to some explicit goal or moral prerogative.

"Mindless amoral bureaucracy" is making a descriptive claim, not just name calling. It is contrast to a popular yet naive model of the "government" as a agent which acts according to some explicit goal or moral prerogative.

Do you actually think it's true, though? Don't get me wrong, I don't think of the government as a single unified actor with a clear agenda, and yet it's certainly true that subsets of government act like agents with explicit goals.

For example, the ruling Liberal Party of Canada legalized gay marriage a few years ago. This was based on the moral convictions of its members and their explicit goals for Canadian society... you would be hard pressed to call it amoral or mindless.

I've no doubt that government sometimes fits that description, but not always - not by a long shot. The comment also makes me wonder whom Aurini does consider mindful and moral, but I will end the speculation there.

I find it easier to understand the actions of governments (and to a lesser extent most individuals who achieve high levels of power) as amoral, responding to the influences of people they govern because it is necessary to remain in power. I would attribute the moral virtue of the Canadian society to the Canadian society itself and not to the government. The government merely processes the influence of the people, the money and the power and outputs decisions.

I find this model far more apt than a modeling a government as a moral agent.

I would attribute the moral virtue of the Canadian society to the Canadian society itself and not to the government. The government merely processes the influence of the people, the money and the power and outputs decisions.

Okay, but I can give you a counterexample. Desegregation in the US happened in the teeth of much contemporary popular support for segregation, and without any salient financial motive.

I can see how your model might be a better first approximation in most cases, though, than a 'moral agent' model.

Okay, but I can give you a counterexample. Desegregation in the US happened in the teeth of much contemporary popular support for segregation, and without any salient financial motive.

That is a good example (accepting for the sake of the discussion the premises based on US history that I am not excessively interested in). It is evidence that the individual leaders are other than amoral power maximizers and somewhat weaker evidence that the government could be usefully modeled as a moral agent.

"most people trust government"

Would you happen to have any evidential backup on that? Because people arguing that the government is helping a situation have been known to say the precise opposite.

This comment כ Kingreaper: Too lazy to do his own research since 1988 :p

There's some fairly direct experimental evidence supporting your hypothesis that people's causal judgments are influenced by judgments of wrong-doing. Joshua Knobe (dscussed here) concluded from his research in the area that

causal attributions are not purely descriptive judgments. Rather, people's willingness to say that a given behavior caused a given outcome depends in part on whether they regard the behavior as morally wrong.

But, it's not clear that the broader pattern (never mind BP for a moment) represents a mistake. In Cause and Norm , Knobe and Christopher Hitchcock argue that the point of the concept of one particular event causing another is to pick out appropriate targets for intervention.

Since we’re on the subject already, there’s something else that bothers me about the reactions to the spill. I’ve seen quite a bit of angry reactions to the fact that BP’s plans for a possible spill were “obviously inadequate”. (Which they were; see the article for details.)

However, I haven’t seen anyone point out that those plans were approved by the federal government. As I see it, it was explicitly the government’s responsibility (via the relevant regulatory agency) to determine that the company’s policies were appropriate before allowing it to drill.

Putting all the moral blame on BP sounds to me a bit like putting all the blame on a company for killing its customers after the government’s drug-safety agency approved its plans to sell human medicine based on clinical tests on insects. (Except in the case of oil drilling there are actually much fewer companies, AFAIK, that do that, so there’s no excuse for being “swamped with applications” or anything similar.)

I'm not from the US and have little knowledge of US politics in this case. But from what I've heard, there is a lot of anger being directed at BP. I therefore suggest this simpler explanation:

  1. Many people want BP to be punished for the spill, regardless of the drilling ban. Congress and the governemnt are under public pressure to do so, and some politicians want it themselves.
  2. Many people expect BP to be punished much less than they want them to be punished, whether due to law or BP's political power.
  3. For reasons of safety, the government decides to ban new drilling.
  4. This is a convenient opportunity to make BP foot the bill, making them pay for their real crime.

I predict that if BP had somehow caused a ban on drilling without causing such an oil spill, they would not have been punished by having to pay the oilmen.

That might well reflect the processes that actually lead to their supporting making BP pay, but it doesn't seem to reflect the mental processes that lead to people supporting the ban.

Edit: corrected as per DanArmak

Do you mean the ban, or the fact that BP must pay compensation to oilsmen who are out of work?

I don't know the reasons for or against supporting the ban on drilling itself. My argument says it's "for reasons of safety" (i.e. to prevent other leaks) but that's just a reasonable assumption on my part.

Thanks, yes.

A ban on drilling pending further research would only seem to make sense if there was imminent danger of another disaster, which seems unlikely.

In fact, a ban on new drilling makes little sense if most of the danger is coming from existing, badly maintained platforms. I imagine BP themselves are quite interested in building new platforms better than the one that malfunctioned.

A ban on new drilling would have the effect of locking out newcomers from the business, consolidating the power of existing companies like BP who control the aforementioned existing, badly maintained platforms. It's possible that BP bribed Washington to impose the ban, in some sort of last-ditch effort to salvage some benefit from the whole situation.

Even if most of the present danger comes from existing, badly maintained platforms, it might still make sense to ban new drilling if one expected new drilling to eventually overtake current drilling in dangerousness.

But they say it's a temporary ban...

Ah. I didn't know how long the ban was.

Given the political power wielded by companies interested in drilling (not just BP), I don't believe Congress would either want or be able to institute a permanent ban. They are far more likely to spend their efforts on legislating and enforcing stricter security standards on both old and new platforms.

That statement sounds underdetermined. I would support it if it were modified to this:

Halting drilling pending further research would only seem to make sense if the expectation of loss from another disaster exceeded the profits accruing from further drilling without extra research, which seems unlikely.

Of course, that's from the company's view. To ask whether the government should ban drilling, pending further research, we have a stronger standard to meet: Does the expectation of externalized costs from another disaster exceed the benefits to society of continuing drilling without further research?

Also, oil companies may well not be interested in building new platforms better than the one that malfunctioned: Their expected loss is limited by their market capitalization; once they go into receivership the rest is externalized. So for extremely infrequent instances of loss much greater than the value of the company, the rational company will accept the risk.

There is weak evidence to support this: Hayworth was appointed CEO after a deadly refinery explosion; one would expect a chief executive brought onboard specifically to promote a new image of safety to take all cost-effective safety measures.

At least... it doesn't reflect the mental processes used when people are justifying their support of the ban.

At least, it doesn't reflect what people say out lout when justifying the ban.

I am trying to decide whether what I said or what you said is the most cynical. I'm going for 'tie'.

[-][anonymous]12y 0

Why do you say that? As I said, I don't know many details and that may be relevant.

The White House says there will be a temporary ban on new deep-water drilling, and BP will have to pay the salaries of oilmen who have no work during that ban. I scratched my head trying to figure out the logic behind this.

This isn't to agree or disagree, but to say that if you think something is being argued that is stupid, it would make sense to link to the text wherein that argument is to be found. Otherwise you're setting up a straw man. What was the US' executive's actual argument for calling on BP to pay those salaries?

I don't know. All I've seen/heard is news stories reporting the statement, not giving the reason. Based on prior experience, with both parties, I wouldn't expect the official explanation of a White House decision to clarify the matter or to bear much relation to the actual reasons.

One possible justification for the punishment of BP is that while BP may not be causally responsible for the unsafeness of other companies' oil rigs, BP is the only oil-drilling company whose procedures were provably unsafe.

In other words, if the government decided to ban drilling because it suddenly realized, with p ~ 0.9, that drilling, on average, caused more harm than good, then of course the payments for displaced workers should come from the general public treasury, or, at worst, from the drilling industry as a whole.

What actually happened seems to be that the government continues to have no idea whether drilling, in the abstract and done cautiously, causes more harm than good, but that the government has suddenly updated its estimate that an arbitrary currently existing dirller is negligent from ~ 0.01 to ~ 0.3, and has suddenly updated its estimate that BP is negligent from ~ 0.01 to ~ 0.95. Given that "data," and without making any attempt to vouch for the accuracy or precision of the government's conclusions, it does make sense to punish BP, not punish other drillers, and shut down drilling.

It makes sense to punish BP because BP was almost certainly negligent, whereas Rachel Carson was not negligent; she warned of the dangers of DDT in good faith and with ample consideration of the risks of causing economic inefficiencies.

It makes sense not to punish other drillers because there is no way for the government to cheaply prove their negligence; a massive investigation of the entire industry would consume too much political capital. Although the government suspects that many, if not most drillers were negligent, no one driller (besides BP) is so clearly negligent as to deserve the punishment of being held responsible for displaced workers.

Finally, it makes sense to ban drilling, because, even if individual negligent drillers (besides BP) cannot be reliably and cheaply identified, it seems clear that there are at least a few other negligent drillers in the marketplace right now, and that allowing drilling while knowing that there are probably some negligent drillers out there is expected to do more harm than good.

Thanks a lot for the post. Your analysis looks correct to me. It's fascinating how consequentialism mixes with deontologism in our minds: we seem to search the causal chain from any bad consequence backwards until we find some deontologically bad action and attach the blame to that. Without deontological morals we'd have no mechanism to decide who is "responsible" or determine which step in the causal chain should be modified in response to the bad consequences.

(This is a tricky point and I'm not sure this comment is correct. Hopefully someone will set me right.)

The way to maintain consequentialism is to focus on incentives. We try to minimize the chances of an environmental disaster by holding the company that causes one financially responsible for its consequences. That way they have the proper incentives to make their operations as safe as possible, and to avoid any operations are too inherently risky.

These kinds of disasters generally have lots of bad direct and indirect consequences, and it's often not possible to make the company pay for all of the costs, so if a few things that they shouldn't really be held responsible for get added to their bill that might not be such a bad thing.

There is a significant difference between BP and Carson that has nothing to do with sin or morality:

Many more human decisions lie between Carson writing her book and factory workers losing their jobs. Carson just made a persuasive case. Other people decided to accept the case and to implement bans, which in turn led to people losing jobs. In contrast, the only human decisions in the causal node just prior to the spill were BP's, and no human decisions stand between the oil spill and the fishers being unable to fish. That, at least, is the common conception of the chain of events.

As I said in the post, it is reasonable for BP to pay the fishers. The post is about the reasoning regarding the oilmen.

Burn the witch!!... is what I was tempted to write, with no followup ;-)

On the other hand, I could see how it might be useful for social beings to coordinate their behavior with relatively little cognitive effort by collectively implementing relatively simple "witch finding and punishing heuristics" (perhaps with punishment of non-punishers mixed in?) while at the same making sure they never do anything that calls attention to themselves as a possible witch.

Personally, I would think that the deep problem with such a scenario is not that some people might be unjustifiably burned, but that particularly clever people might game the system, extracting value from other people in a way that doesn't trigger a witch hunt, because the witch detecting heuristics probably have gaps. It would not surprise me if the practical upshot, absent a perfect "accounting" system for causal utility, was some amount of "cycling through moral fashions" due to iterated application of Goodhart's Law.

Downvoted for main (and avoidable) focus on politics to make a very narrow point.

Agreed that social treatment of workers who suffer from major outside economic factors is pretty capricious, though.

Perhaps you would like to make a list of topics we should not address and the data we should avoid using on LessWrong. If politics is off-limit, certainly religion should be as well!

The LW standard is to avoid discussion of current politics unless it's crucial to your point, which it's not in your article. This has been the standard for a long time, for well-discussed reasons. I thought you would be familiar with that, being a long-timer.

Plus, you spend a significant amount of the article on the political predicates rather than on your ultimate point about appropriate back-inference of moral culpability.

I apologize for the snideness of my reply, since there is precedent for talk of politics being discouraged even though it's always open season on religion. It had slipped my mind.

However, re-reading Eliezer's original post, I interpret it as advice, not as a prohibition: "I'm not saying that I think Overcoming Bias should be apolitical, or even that we should adopt Wikipedia's ideal of the Neutral Point of View. But try to resist getting in those good, solid digs if you can possibly avoid it." I think my use of a political example here falls within those guidelines, particularly since I'm not a Republican or an Obama-basher and therefore conclude that I'm not trying to jab anybody other than the irrational.

As to the Wiki saying we have a gentleman's agreement not to discuss politics, I don't recall agreeing to that. I could easily have missed it; or this may be a case of wikiocracy (government by whomever edited the wiki last).

My interepretation is that "politics is the mind-killer" it's up to the discretion of the poster to post, and up to the discretion of everyone else to vote up or down. In this case, I wouldn't have posted at all if I were required to reframe everything to not refer to political events. I don't think the question of repayments to unemployed oil workers is a political flashpoint, and I don't know what you mean about spending a significant amount of the article on the political predicates.

Most of the article is spent discussing politics with only a little bit at the end about inferring moral culpability from the causal diagram. The reason for avoiding political references is because it makes people take sides based on their liking a person or a party, and so should be avoided if possible. It was possible to avoid discussing the specific political debate in question, and because very little of it was devoted to its non-political point, so I voted it down, per my reading of the standard and its intent.

I apologize for the snideness of my reply, since there is precedent for talk of politics being discouraged even though it's always open season on religion. It had slipped my mind.

I removed my earlier vote on the grandparent. I objected to the 'snideness + implications I don't think hit the mark' combination and certainly not for condemning general injunctions on topics. Some politics doesn't seem to damage the site as a whole and the thought of people getting to arbitrarily reject topics is seriously 'Ugh'.

In this case I do actually think that some mind killing is in place. People here (at least those for whom the politics is relevant) do seem to have a strong position on what the right political decision is. I do perceive that interfering with their judgement on the abstract idea that is the nominal topic of the post. To the 'big picture' of our instincts it is just a small patch of territory on a social battlefield, a fact which I think we can see in play.

This issue doesn't really seem like partisan politics to me, which I think is the spirit of the "no current politics" rule. I don't think anyone is suggesting that any particular failing of the president's political ideology is to blame here, it's just being suggest that this is a general rationality fail of the kind all politicians make routinely.

I think you are avoiding Silas's point.

Downvoted for main (and avoidable) focus on politics to make a very narrow point.

I didn't vote but I share that objection. I also add that that 'very narrow point' is not the important political factor that it is made out to be and so the combination is misleading (or naive).