Cross-posted from my blog

It feels like most people have a moral intuition along the lines of "you should let people do what they want, unless they're hurting other people". We follow this guideline, and we expect other people to follow it. I'll call this the permissiveness principle, that behaviour should be permitted by default. When someone violates the permissiveness principle, we might call them a fascist, someone who exercises control for the sake of control.

And there's another moral intuition, the harm-minimising principle: "you should not hurt other people unless you have a good reason". When someone violates harm-minimisation, we might call them a rake, someone who acts purely for their own pleasure without regard for others.

But sometimes people disagree about what counts as "hurting other people". Maybe one group of people believes that tic-tacs are sentient, and that eating them constitutes harm; and another group believes that tic-tacs are not sentient, so eating them does not hurt anyone.

What should happen here is that people try to work out exactly what it is they disagree about and why. What actually happens is that people appeal to permissiveness.

Of course, by the permissiveness principle, people should be allowed to believe what they want, because holding a belief is harmless as long as you don't act on it. So we say something like "I have no problem with people being morally opposed to eating tic-tacs, but they shouldn't impose their beliefs on the rest of us."

Except that by the harm-minimising principle, those people probably should impose their beliefs on the rest of us. Forbidding you to eat tic-tacs doesn't hurt you much, and it saves the tic-tacs a lot of grief.

It's not that they disagree with the permissiveness principle, they just think it doesn't apply. So appealing to the permissiveness principle isn't going to help much.

I think the problem (or at least part of it) is, depending how you look at it, either double standards or not-double-enough standards.

I apply the permissiveness principle "unless they're hurting other people", which really means "unless I think they're hurting other people". I want you to apply the permissiveness principle "unless they're hurting other people", which still means "unless I think they're hurting other people".

Meanwhile, you apply the permissiveness principle unless you think someone is hurting other people; and you want me to apply it unless you think they're hurting other people.

So when we disagree about whether or not something is hurting other people, I think you're a fascist because you're failing to apply the permissiveness principle; and you think I'm a rake because I'm failing to apply the harm-minimisation principle; or vice-versa. Neither of these things is true, of course.

It gets worse, because once I've decided that you're a fascist, I think the reason we're arguing is that you're a fascist. If you would only stop being a fascist, we could get along fine. You can go on thinking tic-tacs are sentient, you just need to stop being a fascist.

But you're not a fascist. The real reason we're arguing is that you think tic-tacs are sentient. You're acting exactly as you should do if tic-tacs were sentient, but they're not. I need to stop treating you like a fascist, and start trying to convince you that tic-tacs are not sentient.

And, symmetrically, you've decided I'm a rake, which isn't true, and you've decided that that's why we're arguing, which isn't true; we're arguing because I think tic-tacs aren't sentient. You need to stop treating me like a rake, and start trying to convince me that tic-tacs are sentient.

I don't expect either of us to actually convince the other, very often. If it was that easy, someone would probably have already done it. But at least I'd like us both to acknowledge that our opponent is neither a fascist nor a rake, they just believe something that isn't true.

New Comment
71 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:
Some comments are truncated due to high volume. (⌘F to expand all)Change truncation settings


Here's another example of "failing to notice the subjectivity of what counts as social convention". Many people are annoyed by aggressive vegetarians, who think anyone who eats meat is a bad person, or by religious people who are actively trying to convert others. People often say that it's fine to be vegetarian or religious if that's what you like, but you shouldn't push your ideology to others and require them to act the same.

Compare this to saying that it's fine to refuse to send Jews to concentration camps, or to let people die in horrible ways when they could have been saved, but you shouldn't push your ideology to others and require them to act the same. I expect that would sound absurd to most of us. But if you accept a certain vegetarian point of view, then killing animals for food is exactly equivalent to the Holocaust. And if you accept a certain religious view saying that unconverted people will go to Hell for an eternity, then not trying to convert them is even worse than letting people die in horrible ways. To say that these groups shouldn't push their morality to others is to already push your own ideology - which says that decisions about what to eat and what to believe are just social conventions, while decisions about whether to kill humans and save lives are moral facts - on them.

One thing worth noting is that these all describe cases where if the sides took things seriously, they would act much more harshly and heroically. For example, there are very few people using either coercion or effective-altruism-like schema to save animals (and those who do have major scope insensitivity, or pick sympathetic victims).

Hobbes uses a similar argument in Leviathan -- people are inclined towards not starting fights unless threatened, but if people feel threatened they will start fights. But people disagree about what is and isn't threatening, and so (Hobbes argues) there needs to be a fixed set of definitions that all of society uses in order to avoid conflict.

It feels like most people have a moral intuition along the lines of "you should let people do what they want, unless they're hurting other people".

I seem to live on a different planet where the generally overriding moral intuition is that "people should be forced to do good", and people are only left to do what they want when no particular opposing good has been identified. For utilitarians, every action but the optimal action is "harm".

Utilitarians are still allowed, even encouraged, to notice that "for me to do X increases utility" and "for me to force others to do X increases utility" are not identical propositions. (although I'd agree that lots of muddled utilitarianish philosophies ignore this distinction and/or assume that others are ignoring it as well)
Even with a strict utilitarianism world view, there is a big gap between "everyone should do as much good as possible" and "everyone should be forced to do as much good as possible", since forcing people to do something itself creates negative utility. (Assuming that people don't like to be forced to do things, and also assuming that freedom itself has some utility for most people). Also, you should leave a wide margin for error there, since as a general rule people tend to underestimate the harm they cause by forcing other people to do "the right thing". There probably are cases where it's correct to force someone to do something for the good of everyone, but it would have to do a lot of good.
That's a common assumption, all right. But what if many people actually wish to be slaves, wish to be forced into service? Christianity and Islam are predicated on being a slave of God or Allah. The doctrine seems to sell quite well, and has for a long time. But more importantly, I see a world full of people for whom seeing others forced has great utility as long as their allegiance is to the institution doing the forcing. The details can be as absurdly trivial as you like, as long as the result is domination by your side and submission by others. In fact, as in Christianity and Islam, the usual true desired state is submission by everyone, only with extra abuse and force against those who resist domination. George Bush said something like "A yearning for freedom beats within the hearts of all mankind." Does it? I look at world history, and see quite the opposite. A desire for freedom is the great exception, not the rule.
What the hell? This has no basis in fact.
I wouldn't say no basis... but yeah, it's really quite phenomenally wrong.
Well, I'm told that "Islam" translates roughly to "submission", and most of the common theophoric names in the Islamic world include an "'abd-" (or "'amah-", for female names) component, meaning servant or slave [of God]. It's not clear to me how much this is supposed to imply literal slavery as opposed to running with the standard temporal hierarchy metaphor you find in most monotheistic religions, but it's suggestive, at least. References to slavery seem rarer in Christianity, but it does use a lot of verbiage suggestive of royalty or nobility, and most of its early evolution took place in times and places where slavery and subserviance (rather than mere loyalty) to a lord were easily within spitting distance of each other. On the gripping hand, this is all supposed to be based on willing subordination to God. "Forced into service" doesn't seem to describe the psychology very well, from where I'm standing.
Even ignoring the threat of eternal torture for failing to submit and obey, it's not just that you give subordination or not, but that such subordination is God's due - you owe it to him. You are his property.
If people are on the whole content to be forced by other people (say, by the govnerment) into doing things for their own good against their will, then why didn't prohibition work? Getting people to stop drinking so much alcohol was clearly going to create positive utility all around, right? So why did people resist so strongly against that loss of freedom? Your religious argument is interesting, but frankly that's a whole other conversation; it does seem to be possible to get people to do something "good" by convincing them that that's what God wants them to do, but that's really not the same thing as using actual force.
There are quite a few definitions of good that make "people should be forced to do good" trivially false.

I once saw a picture of a bumper sticker that said this:

"Don't like slavery? Don't own one!"

The person who posted the picture did not like it.

1andrew sauer
Surely the one with the bumper sticker didn't like it either, and was using it as an analogy to attack some other argument? At least, that's what I'd hope.

It feels like most people have a moral intuition along the lines of "you should let people do what they want, unless they're hurting other people".

If it feels like that, you probably have a very provincial understanding of human moral intuitions. Haidt identified 6 moral foundations, only one of which is harm-based.

  1. Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.
  2. Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions (He has also referred to this dimension as proportionality.)
  3. Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He has also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
  5. Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority. (He has also connected this foundation to a notion of Respect.)
  6. Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (He has also referred to this as Purity.)
6Josh You
I don't see how the fact that the permissiveness principle is only based on one (two, actually, including the third one) of the six foundations would imply that it's not a widely-held intuition.
You're falsely conflating the permissiveness principle with those moral foundations. The permissiveness principle is a much stronger position, which states that things are only immoral if they cause harm.
I was thinking of the PP as more of a rule of thumb.
What specifically does "foundation" mean in this context? Are those things evaluated by different parts of the brain, do they create different emotions, or...? Without this information, they are basically just six different applause lights. Or course different people may have different applause lights. But what exactly is the difference between a person who values loyalty and hates betrayal intrinsically, and a person for whom loyalty means fairness + care, and betrayal means cheating and harm? (Loyalty could be modelled as an informal mutual aid pact.)
It's possible to determine that certain features as (virtually) universal across cultures, without also identifying why exactly they are or how they work.

I happen to live in a small eastern European country...

Examples of big local policy debates: should a predominantly Polish community be allowed to keep street signs on the buildings that are in both Polish and Lithuanian, or should those be replaced, at a considerable expense? Another policy debate: should Polish people be allowed to use the letter W in their names in the passport?

How do you think opinions about the above questions correlate with the views on abortion?

Now, it seems to me that in the policy debates concerning something like abortion, ethics is only a part of the motivation, in only a fraction of people who are against abortions.

Does this have anything to do with racism and fakes? Because while reading it I kept swapping them and trying to second-guess what your point would be and now my brain hurts.

I'm pretty sure "facist" is a misspelling of "fascist", not of "racist". Also, it would seem that the word "rake" has some colloquial meaning that I've never heard before. From context I assume it's something like "willfully evil person", but I don't actually know.

Also, it would seem that the word "rake" has some colloquial meaning that I've never heard before. From context I assume it's something like "willfully evil person", but I don't actually know.

It's an early modern-era term for a man accustomed to vice, especially sexual misconduct. I particularly associate the word with "A Rake's Progress", a series of paintings depicting a young aristocrat's descent into debt and insanity by way of all the dissolution you'd probably expect to find in a story like that, but you needn't limit it to that.


Crap, yes, that's fascist, thanks. Edited. (It's so obviously wrong now that you've pointed it out...)

Rake is actually kind of an old-fashioned word. I'm not very happy with it, but I couldn't think of one that I liked better. It's not so much willfully evil as indifferently evil: "I eat tic-tacs because I like the taste and don't care about their suffering". "Amoral" would have worked, but I wanted a noun. Possibly I should not have wanted a noun as much as I did.

Edit: I've inserted a working definition in the post.

I'm used to "rake" meaning an amorous nobleman; originally connoting disapproval but now implies more dashing than anything else. I don't think it really means evil.

Many people have proposed this model with respect to animals but it isn't true. This old post covers a particular saliant time it came up in the rationalist community.

Vegans: If the meat eaters believed what you did about animal sentience, most of them would be vegans, and they would be horrified by their many previous murders. Your heart-wrenching videos aren't convincing to them because they aren't already convinced that animals can feel.


I think the people who changed m

... (read more)

While this applies to issues like abortion and animal rights, it fails to describe the "fascist" case in many other debates, such as those about homosexuality, marijuana legalization, organ markets, inequality (not absolute poverty, inequality), etc. I don't think most people who are against homosexuality believe that it's harmful, they just have a "Yuck!" response to it, which they think justifies opposition to it.

It's worth noting that the overwhelming majority of humanity opposes yucky things; it's just the western college-educated liberal cluster that's weird and thinks they're ok as long as they don't hurt anyone else. So yeah, I think the whole premise of the post is off, or at least not cross-culturally generalizable.

I think this post would have been stronger without any use of the term fascism, and then you also could have left out the term "rakes."

The title could be "Permissiveness and Harm" or something like that. You only even use the titular terms a few times, more than three quarters of the way through the article.

This post reads like it's going to great lengths not to talk about whatever the thing is it's actually talking about, that inspired it. It's easy to sound reasonable if you generalise sufficiently. And it distracts people from noticing this if you use eyecatching words like "fascist" in the process.

Are you thinking of abortion, vegetarianism, donating to charity, or something else? I think the post is widely applicable.
I have no idea what the original topic was, but it reads like it was written in reaction to a specific thing, and it's really obviously dodging saying what it is. And gratuitously throwing in "fascist" with the effect of directing attention away from this.
Dodging the original issue might be a good idea; chances are good it's a mind-killer. I like the post, even if it's just making explicit something I probably knew.
So which is it? Is philh a dirty pro-lifer who is trying to sound more reasonable, but you saw right through him? Or a dirty meat-eater? Or a dirty non-donater? I wanna know the exact reason why we shouldn't listen to anything he says.

There are not all that many who follow any real permissiveness principle at all, and almost none that claim it wrong to attempt to change the behavior of someone who's hurting someone else. Everyone's BOTH a fascist (in terms of how they try to influence others) and a rake (in terms of self-justification for non-perfect behaviors) on topics they care about.

Couple that with the common (and correct, IMO) belief that use of exclusionary resources is a harm to those who are thus prevented from using the resource, and there's not much principled permissiveness... (read more)

My first reaction is thinking that the permissiveness/fascism angle unduly complicates the model.

Sometimes a disagreement is really a moral disagreement -- two people having different values. I don't think something is a big deal but you think it's wrong; or I think that it is the lesser of two evils, whereas you think it is the worst evil. In any case, if I do this thing, you think I'm a rake -- that I just don't care. Sometimes a disagreement is really about someone being a rake. Lots of times people do bad stuff because they just don't care, even they ... (read more)


What should happen here is that people try to work out exactly what it is they disagree about and why. What actually happens is that people appeal to permissiveness.

This is a valid political/moral argument. It might not be the most convincing one, but it does hold weight. Moral principles do not override eachother, they fight like soldiers.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

I feel like people don't really care about tic-tacs. They get angry, but they don't seem to really care.

Suppose half the country thought tic-tacs were sentient, and half thought life-savers were sentient. What you'd expect to happen is that when a politician runs for president on the platform of banning both, everyone would vote for him. The pro-tic-tac party would dislike that he's banning life-savers, but it would be worth it for the increased chance of victory over someone who just bans tic-tacs. Similarly, the pro-life-savers would vote for him.

If ther... (read more)

I think Yvain did a good summary here; it's not that people don't believe what they say (or at least, believe they believe what they say), it's that most people are fundamentally irrational, and definitely nonconsequentialist, so they don't take the actions that most benefit the tic-tacs.

Since this post is obviously mostly about abortion, you might as well just say so. The only moral dilemmas we currently face in the civilized world that hinge on whether or not something is a moral agent are abortion, and more rarely, whether it should be legal to euthanize humans in persistent vegetative states.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

I thought this post was about eating animals.

Huh. I think you might be right--that really never occurred to me, and I'm not sure why.

For what it's worth, abortion was indeed the motivating example. But maia's right, I wanted to be meta-level - I wanted to avoid people from seeing that I'm talking about tic-tac sympathisers, talking sympathetically about them no less, and assuming that I'm a dirty tic-tac sympathiser myself and have nothing to say to them on the subject of tic-tacs. (I think LW could have handled it, but I'd like to eventually have an audience larger than LW.)

Even though abortion and animal rights are the two obvious applications, the interpretation that first came to my mind when reading the post was political correctness --I mapped "tic-tacs suffer when eaten" to "women/minority groups are significantly harmed by such-and-such uses of language". I guess because heated discussions on this topic arise more often in LW than on the other ones.
But that doesn't apply in the case of either abortion or animal rights. Everyone already knows that these are central aspects of those issues. All arguments about them acknowledges that (but not all vilification of the opponent, intended for internal consumption).
I think that one thing I was doing without realising it , when I wrote this post, was thinking about the sort of arguments you see on reddit. (As opposed to debates in congress, for example, which I don't get much exposure to.) I don't think it's uncommon to see redditors accuse a pro-lifer of just wanting to punish people for having sex, or to exert control over women's bodies. I do think this is less of an issue with vegetarianism, but the vegetarianism debate seems to be less heated. I've seen people on facebook say that it's okay to be vegetarian/vegan but you shouldn't force that choice on your cats and dogs; but it came with the argument that cats and dogs can't be healthy without meat, which makes it not a great example. (It might be wrong for humans to eat meat, but not wrong for humans to feed meat to cats and dogs.) I did a search for PETA, expecting to find people calling them fascists in some sense, but didn't find much. Vegetarians accusing non-vegetarians of being rakes seemed more common.
Really? That isn't true of nearly all arguments on the issue that I've seen.

I think the poster's intent was to invent an example so that this post would be on the meta-level, instead of being about a particular issue.

You may have interpreted it as being about a particular issue, but I don't think that was on purpose, as evidenced by the fact that someone else interpreted it as being about a different particular issue.

I suppose it's about abortion... yes, abortion debate is not between fascists and non-fascists. But plenty of political debates are, e.g. ones having to do with immigration, ones having to do with prohibition (in the past, of alcohol, now of other things), ones having to do with sentencing of criminals, and so on.

On the topic of fascism and the like, nobody really thought nazis would be the net utilitarian benefit; people thought the nazis were good for them. Same goes for most other such debates concerning the issues where voters are able to identify the... (read more)

Good for their tribe. There were large number of Nazis who thought they might be worse off (e.g., mowed down by machine gun fire) who were still supportive as they perceived a net benefit to their tribe.
Why do you believe this?
There was a competing party promising net utilitarian benefit. Communist/socialist party. The national-socialist party was different in the sense that it promised greater benefit to specifically aryans. edit: by the way, I happen to live in a small eastern European country with strong nationalism and a significant neonazi population. Example of a big local policy debate: should a Polish community be allowed to keep street signs in both Polish and Lithuanian? Another policy debate: should Polish people be allowed to use the letter "w" in their names in the passport? Literally, the vast majority of debates have actual fascists on one side. Nobody ever argues that it is a net social benefit to waste money replacing the street signs. Or that it is a net social benefit not letting the Polish use W in their names.
It's entirely possible for two conflicting groups to promise net utilitarian benefits by different means, or by different standards. In fact, I'd say this is the case for most political conflicts. It's somewhat rare for political groups to use utilitarian rhetoric on a broad scale, or to base ideology on utilitarian calculations -- certain strains of socialism are the only ones I can think of for the former, and I can't think of any prominent examples of the latter -- but if you ask an ideologue whether their ideology will lead to less overall happiness in the long run, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the answer will be "no". Fascists are no exception -- it's just that they happen to believe subordination to a state to be the highest expression of human values. The NSDAP were an odd group even among fascists, though. I haven't read enough of their stuff to be certain that they're one of the exceptional cases, but I'm not confident that they're not, either.
I'm not speaking of the hypothetical of what happens if you ask someone. I'm saying that NSDAP did explicitly claim that their policies will benefit German people in such and such ways, using the phrase "German people" as often as they could, very openly saying that their allegiances lie with the German people, rather than people in general. Now, let's model a voter as selfish. German voter (in the pre-war sense) can expect greater benefit with a leader that speaks of benefits to specifically German people, than with a leader that speaks of a benefit to the people in general. This gave an edge to NSDAP.
I don't think voters, even in Weimar Germany, are very well modeled as selfish agents. The NSDAP certainly benefited from proclaiming -- often and loudly, as you say -- their allegiance to the German volk, but I model that more as a way of positioning themselves as the party of German pride: a pretty clear political niche, at the time, and one that could easily be framed as promising restitution for perceived or actual wrongs rather than exploitation of others. (Though you don't need to be a Nazi to be excellent at rationalizing the latter as the former.) After six years or so of Nazi rule, they did manage to finagle this into a justification for genocidal expansionism, but that isn't the choice that was presented to German voters in 1933.
I'm not saying a purely selfish agent. People are at least partially selfish, though, except for perhaps very few who are completely saintly. Let's consider the immigration debate. You will get nowhere by arguing that open borders are a benefit to the Mexicans, but you can get somewhere by arguing that open borders are good for US businesses, or by arguing that Americans lose their jobs.
I don't think this post applies to all policy debates, but I do think that very few policy debates are between fascists and non-fascists. E.g. prohibition. I think there's an exception to permissiveness: "if a behaviour is sometimes harmful, and we can't easily permit only the non-harmful instances, then it may be okay to prohibit all instances of it". Now people can disagree about how harmful the behaviour is, how often it is harmful, how easy it is to permit only the non-harmful instances, how much people gain from the behaviour when it isn't harmful, and how much each of those factors should be weighed. Some people will think that the exception applies to drug use, and some people will disagree. I agree there are people who have incentives to keep drugs criminalized even if they think society would be better off without prohibition, and even if they think society thinks society would be better off without prohibition, but I don't think they're the only reason prohibition exists.
I'm not speaking of the very principle, I am speaking of the implementation that leads to prison population 8x that of other countries of comparable wealth. edit: just google about prison guard unions lobbying for harsher sentencing. Do they think harsher sentencing is a net social benefit? No they don't, they think it is a net benefit to prison guards. A lot of debates boil down simply to different groups pushing for things that benefit said group at someone else's great expense.