Engaging Steven Landsburg


In my post yesterday, I made no effort to spare criticism for those who refused to engage the controversial thought experiment of Steven Landsburg. To avoid being a hypocrite, I plan to do so.

There are quite a few issues with Landsburg’s post. To begin with, I think the fundamental premise of his post is wrong. He poses three examples. In each, a person is psychically distressed by something that is happening not to them. Person 1 is distressed by the fact that people watch pornography. Person 2 is distressed by the destruction of natural habitat, and person 3 is distressed by a rape that happened to someone else they know.

Landsburg then asks the question of whether all three of these facts should affect public policy.

The problem is that none of them actually do, so far as I know. Jacob Levy updated his BHL post to reflect this particular problem, and I think his answer is spot on (though he takes an ethics approach rather than a policy approach). People don’t talk about issues this way. He says:

“I experience discomfort at knowing that you are doing something I don’t approve of” is not  basic building block of how humans express morality to each other. “I disapprove of what you are doing because…” is the normal way to begin– and it doesn’t count as a successful end to the sentence to say “… because it causes me psychic discomfort to think about your doing that.”

Rape is illegal and immoral in part because of the trauma inflicted on the individual, not because of the trauma inflicted on their friends. Anti-pornography activists want to ban pornography because they believe it is harmful to society, not because of their personal distress. Environmentalists would like to protect natural habitats because they believe that destroying them jeopardizes humanity (among other reasons). Yes, all three of these people are upset, but they do not seek policy change because they are upset. They seek it because of what they think is an objective harm.*

So that’s a pretty easy solution to his originally posted thought experiment. Should people’s psychic distress over something that doesn’t happen to them directly effect public policy solely because of that distress? No, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who thinks so. 

Landsburg then derails in his “some thoughts” section, and I think this is probably where he gets in trouble. He breaks the bounds of his own thought experiment repeatedly and does not make clear when he’s discussing psychic harm due to something that happens to someone else and harm that comes from something done to an individual. I do pick that apart, and you can see that some here, but in the interest of charity, I’m going to focus on the core of what I think he’s trying to say.

Why does psychological distress in some cases result in legal action but not others?

Again, this answer is pretty easy.

Psychological trauma is legally actionable and immoral when the person experiencing the trauma is the person who has been acted upon (see: harassment, sexual assault, etc.). The line, as Landsburg rightly points out, is our own bodies or, as he misses, our own personhood. In the case of assumed equal trauma between an environmentalist, anti-pornography activist, and a rape victim, the difference between the three is still in the rape instance, action has come upon an individual, while in the other two, no person has been individually violated. The deepness of the trauma is irrelevant to the consideration here. It is who has been acted upon.

Ultimately, after having interacted with his thoughts some, I do think the “world” overreacted a bit to this post. They are incoherent, largely inconsistent ramblings of someone thinking out loud to himself. I do not think that Landsburg seriously intended to suggest that the rape of unconscious people be legal or moral, and to assume so is an incredibly uncharitable reading of this piece. His thoughts are not dangerous things and are easily dealt with with a little courtesy and time.

See more of my thoughts on the different aspects of Landsburg’s post here.

*In fairness, Landsburg might be positing that the actual reason why people want policy prescriptions in this area is because of their deep psychic stress, not for their stated objective reasons. Levy touches on this a bit as well, but I think his dismissal of this perspective is ill-considered. Landsburg would not be alone in thinking this. My homeboy David Hume, among others, posits that ethics come from deep distress and gut reactions upon seeing things that we don’t like. Whether or not this is true is, obviously, up for debate. As Landsburg doesn’t explicitly state this, though, I will leave that caveat here as a potential charitable solution for now.