Sympathy for the incel

Post 237: May 6 JDN 2458245

If you’ve been following the news surrounding the recent terrorist attack in Toronto, you may have encountered the word “incel” for the first time via articles in NPR, Vox, USA Today, or other sources linking the attack to the incel community.

If this was indeed your first exposure to the concept of “incel”, I think you are getting a distorted picture of their community, which is actually a surprisingly large Internet subculture. Finding out about incel this way would be like finding out about Islam from 9/11. (Actually, I’m fairly sure a lot of Americans did learn that way, which is awful.) The incel community is remarkably large one—hundreds of thousands of members at least, and quite likely millions.

While a large proportion subscribe to a toxic and misogynistic ideology, a similarly large proportion do not; while the ideology has contributed to terrorism and other violence, the vast majority of members of the community are not violent.

Note that the latter sentence is also entirely true of Islam. So if you are sympathetic toward Muslims and want to protect them from abuse and misunderstanding, I maintain that you should want to do the same for incels, and for basically the same reasons.

I want to make something abundantly clear at the outset:

This attack was terrorism. I am in no way excusing or defending the use of terrorism. Once someone crosses the line and starts attacking random civilians, I don’t care what their grievances were; the best response to their behavior involves snipers on rooftops. I frankly don’t even understand the risks police are willing to take in order to capture these people alive—especially considering how trigger-happy they are when it comes to random Black men. If you start shooting (or bombing, or crashing vehicles into) civilians, the police should shoot you. It’s that simple.

I do not want to evoke sympathy for incel-motivated terrorism. I want to evoke sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of incels who would never support terrorism and are now being publicly demonized.

I also want to make it clear that I am not throwing in my hat with the likes of Robin Hanson (who is also well-known as a behavioral economist, blogger, science fiction fan, Less Wrong devotee, and techno-utopian—so I feel a particular need to clarify my differences with him) when he defends something he calls in purposefully cold language “redistribution of sex” (that one is from right after the attack, but he has done this before, in previous blog posts).

Hanson has drunk Robert Nozick‘s Kool-Aid, and thinks that redistribution of wealth via taxation is morally equivalent to theft or even slavery. He is fond of making comparisons between redistribution of wealth and other forms of “redistribution” that obviously would be tantamount to theft and slavery, and asking “What’s the difference?” when in fact the difference is glaringly obvious to everyone but him. He is also fond of saying that “inequality between households within a nation” is a small portion of inequality, and then wondering aloud why we make such a big deal out of it. The answer here is also quite obvious: First of all, it’s not that small a portion of inequality—it’s a third of global income inequality by most measures, it’s increasing while across-nation inequality is decreasing, and the absolute magnitude of within-nation inequality is staggering: there are households with incomes over one million times that of other households within the same nation. (Where are the people who have had sex one hundred billion times, let alone the ones who had sex forty billion times in one year? Because here’s the man who has one hundred billion dollars and made almost $40 billion in one year.) Second, within-nation inequality is extremely simple to fix by public policy; just change a few numbers in the tax code—in fact, just change them back to what they were in the 1950s. Cross-national inequality is much more complicated (though I believe it can be solved, eventually) and some forms of what he’s calling “inequality” (like “inequality across periods of human history” or “inequality of innate talent”) don’t seem amenable to correction under any conceivable circumstances.

Hanson has lots of just-so stories about the evolutionary psychology of why “we don’t care” about cross-national inequality (gee, I thought maybe devoting my career to it was a pretty good signal otherwise?) or inequality in access to sex (which is thousands of times smaller than income inequality), but no clear policy suggestions for how these other forms of inequality could be in any way addressed. This whole idea of “redistribution of sex”; what does that mean, exactly? Legalized or even subsidized prostitution or sex robots would be one thing; I can see pros and cons there at least. But without clarification, it sounds like he’s endorsing the most extremist misogynist incels who think that women should be rightfully compelled to have sex with sexually frustrated men—which would be quite literally state-sanctioned rape. I think really Hanson isn’t all that interested in incels, and just wants to make fun of silly “socialists” who would dare suppose that maybe Jeff Bezos doesn’t need his 120 billion dollars as badly as some of the starving children in Africa could benefit from them, or that maybe having a tax system similar to Sweden or Denmark (which consistently rate as some of the happiest, most prosperous nations on Earth) sounds like a good idea. He takes things that are obviously much worse than redistributive taxation, and compares them to redistributive taxation to make taxation seem worse than it is.

No, I do not support “redistribution of sex”. I might be able to support legalized prostitution, but I’m concerned about the empirical data suggesting that legalized prostitution correlates with increased human sex trafficking. I think I would also support legalized sex robots, but for reasons that will become clear shortly, I strongly suspect they would do little to solve the problem, even if they weren’t ridiculously expensive. Beyond that, I’ve said enough about Hanson; Lawyers, Guns & Money nicely skewers Hanson’s argument, so I’ll not bother with it any further.
Instead, I want to talk about the average incel, one of hundreds of thousands if not millions of men who feels cast aside by society because he is socially awkward and can’t get laid. I want to talk about him because I used to be very much like him (though I never specifically identified as “incel”), and I want to talk about him because I think that he is genuinely suffering and needs help.

There is a moderate wing of the incel community, just as there is a moderate wing of the Muslim community. The moderate wing of incels is represented by sites like Love-Shy.com that try to reach out to people (mostly, but not exclusively young heterosexual men) who are lonely and sexually frustrated and often suffering from social anxiety or other mood disorders. Though they can be casually sexist (particularly when it comes to stereotypes about differences between men and women), they are not virulently misogynistic and they would never support violence. Moreover, they provide a valuable service in offering social support to men who otherwise feel ostracized by society. I disagree with a lot of things these groups say, but they are providing valuable benefits to their members and aren’t hurting anyone else. Taking out your anger against incel terrorists on Love-Shy.com is like painting graffiti on a mosque in response to 9/11 (which, of course, people did).

To some extent, I can even understand the more misogynistic (but still non-violent) wings of the incel community. I don’t want to defend their misogyny, but I can sort of understand where it might come from.

You see, men in our society (and most societies) are taught from a very young age that their moral worth as human beings is based primarily on one thing in particular: Sexual prowess. If you are having a lot of sex with a lot of women, you are a good and worthy man. If you are not, you are broken and defective. (Donald Trump has clearly internalized this narrative quite thoroughly—as have a shockingly large number of his supporters.)

This narrative is so strong and so universal, in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised if it has a genetic component. It actually makes sense as a matter of evolutionary psychology than males would evolve to think this way; in an evolutionary sense it’s true that a male’s ultimate worth—that is, fitness, the one thing natural selection cares about—is defined by mating with a maximal number of females. But even if it has a genetic component, there is enough variation in this belief that I am confident that social norms can exaggerate or suppress it. One thing I can’t stand about popular accounts of evolutionary psychology is how they leap from “plausible evolutionary account” to “obviously genetic trait” all the way to “therefore impossible to change or compensate for”. My myopia and astigmatism are absolutely genetic; we can point to some of the specific genes. And yet my glasses compensate for them perfectly, and for a bit more money I could instead get LASIK surgery that would correct them permanently. Never think for a moment that “genetic” implies “immutable”.

Because of this powerful narrative, men who are sexually frustrated get treated like garbage by other men and even women. They feel ostracized and degraded. Often, they even feel worthless. If your worth as a human being is defined by how many women you have sex with, and you aren’t having sex with any, it follows that your worth is zero. No wonder, then, that so many become overcome with despair.
The incel community provides an opportunity to escape that despair. If you are told that you are not defective, but instead there is something wrong with society that keeps you down, you no longer have to feel worthless. It’s not that you don’t deserve to have sex, it’s that you’ve been denied what you deserve. When the only other narrative you’ve been given is that you are broken and worthless, I can see why “society is screwing you over” is an appealing counter-narrative. Indeed, it’s not even that far off from the truth.

The moderate wing of the incel community even offers some constructive solutions: They offer support to help men improve themselves, overcome their own social anxiety, and ultimately build fulfilling sexual relationships.

The extremist wing gets this all wrong: Instead of blaming the narrative that sex equals worth, they blame women—often, all women—for somehow colluding to deny them access to the sex they so justly deserve. They often link themselves to the “pick-up artist” community who try to manipulate women into having sex.

And then in the most extreme cases, they may even decide to turn their anger into violence.

But really I don’t think most of these men actually want sex at all, which is part of why I don’t think sex robots would be particularly effective.

Rather, to clarify: They want sex, as most of us do—but that’s not what they need. A simple lack of sex can be compensated reasonably well by pornography and masturbation. (Let me state this outright: Pornography and masturbation are fundamental human rights. Porn is free speech, and masturbation is part of the fundamental right of bodily autonomy. The fact that increased access to porn reduces incidence of sexual assault is nice, but secondary; porn is freedom.) Obviously it would be more satisfying to have a real sexual relationship, but with such substitutes available, a mere lack of sex does not cause suffering.

The need that these men are feeling is companionship. It is love. It is understanding. These are things that can’t be replaced, even partially, by sex robots or Internet porn.

Why do they conflate the two? Again, because society has taught them to do so. This one is clearly cultural, as it varies quite considerably between nations; it’s not nearly as bad in Southern Europe for example.
In American society (and many, but not all others), men are taught three things: First, expression of any emotion except for possibly anger, and especially expression of affection, is inherently erotic. Second, emotional vulnerability jeopardizes masculinity. Third, erotic expression must be only between men and women in a heterosexual relationship.

In principle, it might be enough to simply drop the third proposition: This is essentially what happens in the LGBT community. Gay men still generally suffer from the suspicion that all emotional expression is erotic, but have long-since abandoned their fears of expressing eroticism with other men. Often they’ve also given up on trying to sustain norms of masculinity as well. So gay men can hug each other and cry in front of each other, for example, without breaking norms within the LGBT community; the sexual subtext is often still there, but it’s considered unproblematic. (Gay men typically aren’t even as concerned about sexual infidelity as straight men; over 40% of gay couples are to some degree polyamorous, compared to 5% of straight couples.) It may also be seen as a loss of masculinity, but this too is considered unproblematic in most cases. There is a notable exception, which is the substantial segment of gay men who pride themselves upon hypermasculinity (generally abbreviated “masc”); and indeed, within that subcommunity you often see a lot of the same toxic masculinity norms that are found in the society as large.

That is also what happened in Classical Greece and Rome, I think: These societies were certainly virulently misogynistic in their own way, but their willingness to accept erotic expression between men opened them to accepting certain kinds of emotional expression between men as well, as long as it was not perceived as a threat to masculinity per se.

But when all three of those norms are in place, men find that the only emotional outlet they are even permitted to have while remaining within socially normative masculinity is a woman who is a romantic partner. Family members are allowed certain minimal types of affection—you can hug your mom, as long as you don’t seem too eager—but there is only one person in the world that you are allowed to express genuine emotional vulnerability toward, and that is your girlfriend. If you don’t have one? Get one. If you can’t get one? Well, sorry, pal, you’re just out of luck. Deal with it, or you’re not a real man.

But really what I’d like to get rid of is the first two propositions: Emotional expression should not be considered inherently sexual. Expressing emotional vulnerability should not be taken as a capitulation of your masculinity—and if I really had my druthers, the whole idea of “masculinity” would disappear or become irrelevant. This is the way that society is actually holding incels down: Not by denying them access to sex—the right to refuse sex is also a fundamental human right—but by denying them access to emotional expression and treating them like garbage because they are unable to have sex.

My sense is that what most incels are really feeling is not a dearth of sexual expression; it’s a dearth of emotional expression. But precisely because social norms have forced them into getting the two from the same place, they have conflated them. Further evidence in favor of this proposition? A substantial proportion of men who hire prostitutes spend a lot of the time they paid for simply talking.

I think what most of these men really need is psychotherapy. I’m not saying that to disparage them; I myself am a regular consumer of psychotherapy, which is one of the most cost-effective medical interventions known to humanity. I feel a need to clarify this because there is so much stigma on mental illness that saying someone is mentally ill and needs therapy can be taken as an insult; but I literally mean that a lot of these men are mentally ill and need therapy. Many of them exhibit significant signs of social anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder.

Even for those who aren’t outright mentally ill, psychotherapy might be able to help them sort out some of these toxic narratives they’ve been fed by society, get them to think a little more carefully about what it means to be a good man and whether the “man” part is even so important. A good therapist could tease out the fabric of their tangled cognition and point out that when they say they want sex, it really sounds like they want self-worth, and when they say they want a girlfriend it really sounds like they want someone to talk to.

Such a solution won’t work on everyone, and it won’t work overnight on anyone. But the incel community did not emerge from a vacuum; it was catalyzed by a great deal of genuine suffering. Remove some of that suffering, and we might just undermine the most dangerous parts of the incel community and prevent at least some future violence.

No one owes sex to anyone. But maybe we do, as a society, owe these men a little more sympathy?

Social construction is not fact—and it is not fiction

July 30, JDN 2457965

With the possible exception of politically-charged issues (especially lately in the US), most people are fairly good at distinguishing between true and false, fact and fiction. But there are certain types of ideas that can’t be neatly categorized into fact versus fiction.

First, there are subjective feelings. You can feel angry, or afraid, or sad—and really, truly feel that way—despite having no objective basis for the emotion coming from the external world. Such emotions are usually irrational, but even knowing that doesn’t make them automatically disappear. Distinguishing subjective feelings from objective facts is simple in principle, but often difficult in practice: A great many things simply “feel true” despite being utterly false. (Ask an average American which is more likely to kill them, a terrorist or the car in their garage; I bet quite a few will get the wrong answer. Indeed, if you ask them whether they’re more likely to be shot by someone else or to shoot themselves, almost literally every gun owner is going to get that answer wrong—or they wouldn’t be gun owners.)

The one I really want to focus on today is social constructions. This is a term that has been so thoroughly overused and abused by postmodernist academics (“science is a social construction”, “love is a social construction”, “math is a social construction”, “sex is a social construction”, etc.) that it has almost lost its meaning. Indeed, many people now react with automatic aversion to the term; upon hearing it, they immediately assume—understandably—that whatever is about to follow is nonsense.

But there is actually a very important core meaning to the term “social construction” that we stand to lose if we throw it away entirely. A social construction is something that exists only because we all believe in it.

Every part of that definition is important:

First, a social construction is something that exists: It’s really there, objectively. If you think it doesn’t exist, you’re wrong. It even has objective properties; you can be right or wrong in your beliefs about it, even once you agree that it exists.

Second, a social construction only exists because we all believe in it: If everyone in the world suddenly stopped believing in it, like Tinker Bell it would wink out of existence. The “we all” is important as well; a social construction doesn’t exist simply because one person, or a few people, believe in it—it requires a certain critical mass of society to believe in it. Of course, almost nothing is literally believed by everyone, so it’s more that a social construction exists insofar as people believe in it—and thus can attain a weaker or stronger kind of existence as beliefs change.

The combination of these two features makes social constructions a very weird sort of entity. They aren’t merely subjective beliefs; you can’t be wrong about what you are feeling right now (though you can certainly lie about it), but you can definitely be wrong about the social constructions of your society. But we can’t all be wrong about the social constructions of our society; once enough of our society stops believing in them, they will no longer exist. And when we have conflict over a social construction, its existence can become weaker or stronger—indeed, it can exist to some of us but not to others.

If all this sounds very bizarre and reminds you of postmodernist nonsense that might come from the Wisdom of Chopra randomizer, allow me to provide a concrete and indisputable example of a social construction that is vitally important to economics: Money.

The US dollar is a social construction. It has all sorts of well-defined objective properties, from its purchasing power in the market to its exchange rate with other currencies (also all social constructions). The markets in which it is spent are social constructions. The laws which regulate those markets are social constructions. The government which makes those laws is a social construction.

But it is not social constructions all the way down. The paper upon which the dollar was printed is a physical object with objective factual existence. It is an artifact—it was made by humans, and wouldn’t exist if we didn’t—but now that we’ve made it, it exists and would continue to exist regardless of whether we believe in it or even whether we continue to exist. The cotton from which it was made is also partly artificial, bred over centuries from a lifeform that evolved over millions of years. But the carbon atoms inside that cotton were made in a star, and that star existed and fused its carbon billions of years before any life on Earth existed, much less humans in particular. This is why the statements “math is a social construction” and “science is a social construction” are so ridiculous. Okay, sure, the institutions of science and mathematics are social constructions, but that’s trivial; nobody would dispute that, and it’s not terribly interesting. (What, you mean if everyone stopped going to MIT, there would be no MIT!?) The truths of science and mathematics were true long before we were even here—indeed, the fundamental truths of mathematics could not have failed to be true in any possible universe.

But the US dollar did not exist before human beings created it, and unlike the physical paper, the purchasing power of that dollar (which is, after all, mainly what we care about) is entirely socially constructed. If everyone in the world suddenly stopped accepting US dollars as money, the US dollar would cease to be money. If even a few million people in the US suddenly stopped accepting dollars, its value would become much more precarious, and inflation would be sure to follow.

Nor is this simply because the US dollar is a fiat currency. That makes it more obvious, to be sure; a fiat currency attains its value solely through social construction, as its physical object has negligible value. But even when we were on the gold standard, our currency was representative; the paper itself was still equally worthless. If you wanted gold, you’d have to exchange for it; and that process of exchange is entirely social construction.

And what about gold coins, one of the oldest form of money? There now the physical object might actually be useful for something, but not all that much. It’s shiny, you can make jewelry out of it, it doesn’t corrode, it can be used to replace lost teeth, it has anti-inflammatory properties—and millennia later we found out that its dense nucleus is useful for particle accelerator experiments and it is a very reliable electrical conductor useful for making microchips. But all in all, gold is really not that useful. If gold were priced based on its true usefulness, it would be extraordinarily cheap; cheaper than water, for sure, as it’s much less useful than water. Yet very few cultures have ever used water as currency (though some have used salt). Thus, most of the value of gold is itself socially constructed; you value gold not to use it, but to impress other people with the fact that you own it (or indeed to sell it to them). Stranded alone on a desert island, you’d do anything for fresh water, but gold means nothing to you. And a gold coin actually takes on additional socially-constructed value; gold coins almost always had seignorage, additional value the government received from minting them over and above the market price of the gold itself.

Economics, in fact, is largely about social constructions; or rather I should say it’s about the process of producing and distributing artifacts by means of social constructions. Artifacts like houses, cars, computers, and toasters; social constructions like money, bonds, deeds, policies, rights, corporations, and governments. Of course, there are also services, which are not quite artifacts since they stop existing when we stop doing them—though, crucially, not when we stop believing in them; your waiter still delivered your lunch even if you persist in the delusion that the lunch is not there. And there are natural resources, which existed before us (and may or may not exist after us). But these are corner cases; mostly economics is about using laws and money to distribute goods, which means using social constructions to distribute artifacts.

Other very important social constructions include race and gender. Not melanin and sex, mind you; human beings have real, biological variation in skin tone and body shape. But the concept of a race—especially the race categories we ordinarily use—is socially constructed. Nothing biological forced us to regard Kenyan and Burkinabe as the same “race” while Ainu and Navajo are different “races”; indeed, the genetic data is screaming at us in the opposite direction. Humans are sexually dimorphic, with some rare exceptions (only about 0.02% of people are intersex; about 0.3% are transgender; and no more than 5% have sex chromosome abnormalities). But the much thicker concept of gender that comes with a whole system of norms and attitudes is all socially constructed.

It’s one thing to say that perhaps males are, on average, more genetically predisposed to be systematizers than females, and thus men are more attracted to engineering and women to nursing. That could, in fact, be true, though the evidence remains quite weak. It’s quite another to say that women must not be engineers, even if they want to be, and men must not be nurses—yet the latter was, until very recently, the quite explicit and enforced norm. Standards of clothing are even more obviously socially-constructed; in Western cultures (except the Celts, for some reason), flared garments are “dresses” and hence “feminine”; in East Asian cultures, flared garments such as kimono are gender-neutral, and gender is instead expressed through clothing by subtler aspects such as being fastened on the left instead of the right. In a thousand different ways, we mark our gender by what we wear, how we speak, even how we walk—and what’s more, we enforce those gender markings. It’s not simply that males typically speak in lower pitches (which does actually have a biological basis); it’s that males who speak in higher pitches are seen as less of a man, and that is a bad thing. We have a very strict hierarchy, which is imposed in almost every culture: It is best to be a man, worse to be a woman who acts like a woman, worse still to be a woman who acts like a man, and worst of all to be a man who acts like a woman. What it means to “act like a man” or “act like a woman” varies substantially; but the core hierarchy persists.

Social constructions like these ones are in fact some of the most important things in our lives. Human beings are uniquely social animals, and we define our meaning and purpose in life largely through social constructions.

It can be tempting, therefore, to be cynical about this, and say that our lives are built around what is not real—that is, fiction. But while this may be true for religious fanatics who honestly believe that some supernatural being will reward them for their acts of devotion, it is not a fair or accurate description of someone who makes comparable sacrifices for “the United States” or “free speech” or “liberty”. These are social constructions, not fictions. They really do exist. Indeed, it is only because we are willing to make sacrifices to maintain them that they continue to exist. Free speech isn’t maintained by us saying things we want to say; it is maintained by us allowing other people to say things we don’t want to hear. Liberty is not protected by us doing whatever we feel like, but by not doing things we would be tempted to do that impose upon other people’s freedom. If in our cynicism we act as though these things are fictions, they may soon become so.

But it would be a lot easier to get this across to people, I think, if folks would stop saying idiotic things like “science is a social construction”.

Moral responsibility does not inherit across generations

JDN 2457548

In last week’s post I made a sharp distinction between believing in human progress and believing that colonialism was justified. To make this argument, I relied upon a moral assumption that seems to me perfectly obvious, and probably would to most ethicists as well: Moral responsibility does not inherit across generations, and people are only responsible for their individual actions.

But is in fact this principle is not uncontroversial in many circles. When I read utterly nonsensical arguments like this one from the aptly-named Race Baitr saying that White people have no role to play in the liberation of Black people apparently because our blood is somehow tainted by the crimes our ancestors, it becomes apparent to me that this principle is not obvious to everyone, and therefore is worth defending. Indeed, many applications of the concept of “White Privilege” seem to ignore this principle, speaking as though racism is not something one does or participates in, but something that one is simply by being born with less melanin. Here’s a Salon interview specifically rejecting the proposition that racism is something one does:

For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing.”

If racism isn’t something one does, then what in the world is it? It’s all well and good to talk about systems and social institutions, but ultimately systems and social institutions are made of human behaviors. If you think most White people aren’t doing enough to combat racism (which sounds about right to me!), say that—don’t make some bizarre accusation that simply by existing we are inherently racist. (Also: We? I’m only 75% White, so am I only 75% inherently racist?) And please, stop redefining the word “racism” to mean something other than what everyone uses it to mean; “White people are snakes” is in fact a racist sentiment (and yes, one I’ve actually heard–indeed, here is the late Muhammad Ali comparing all White people to rattlesnakes, and Huffington Post fawning over him for it).

Racism is clearly more common and typically worse when performed by White people against Black people—but contrary to the claims of some social justice activists the White perpetrator and Black victim are not part of the definition of racism. Similarly, sexism is more common and more severe committed by men against women, but that doesn’t mean that “men are pigs” is not a sexist statement (and don’t tell me you haven’t heard that one). I don’t have a good word for bigotry by gay people against straight people (“heterophobia”?) but it clearly does happen on occasion, and similarly cannot be defined out of existence.

I wouldn’t care so much that you make this distinction between “racism” and “racial prejudice”, except that it’s not the normal usage of the word “racism” and therefore confuses people, and also this redefinition clearly is meant to serve a political purpose that is quite insidious, namely making excuses for the most extreme and hateful prejudice as long as it’s committed by people of the appropriate color. If “White people are snakes” is not racism, then the word has no meaning.

Not all discussions of “White Privilege” are like this, of course; this article from Occupy Wall Street actually does a fairly good job of making “White Privilege” into a sensible concept, albeit still not a terribly useful one in my opinion. I think the useful concept is oppression—the problem here is not how we are treating White people, but how we are treating everyone else. What privilege gives you is the freedom to be who you are.”? Shouldn’t everyone have that?

Almost all the so-called “benefits” or “perks” associated with privilege” are actually forgone harms—they are not good things done to you, but bad things not done to you. But benefitting from racist systems doesn’t mean that everything is magically easy for us. It just means that as hard as things are, they could always be worse.” No, that is not what the word “benefit” means. The word “benefit” means you would be worse off without it—and in most cases that simply isn’t true. Many White people obviously think that it is true—which is probably a big reason why so many White people fight so hard to defend racism, you know; you’ve convinced them it is in their self-interest. But, with rare exceptions, it is not; most racial discrimination has literally zero long-run benefit. It’s just bad. Maybe if we helped people appreciate that more, they would be less resistant to fighting racism!

The only features of “privilege” that really make sense as benefits are those that occur in a state of competition—like being more likely to be hired for a job or get a loan—but one of the most important insights of economics is that competition is nonzero-sum, and fairer competition ultimately means a more efficient economy and thus more prosperity for everyone.

But okay, let’s set that aside and talk about this core question of what sort of responsibility we bear for the acts of our ancestors. Many White people clearly do feel deep shame about what their ancestors (or people the same color as their ancestors!) did hundreds of years ago. The psychological reactance to that shame may actually be what makes so many White people deny that racism even exists (or exists anymore)—though a majority of Americans of all races do believe that racism is still widespread.

We also apply some sense of moral responsibility applied to whole races quite frequently. We speak of a policy “benefiting White people” or “harming Black people” and quickly elide the distinction between harming specific people who are Black, and somehow harming “Black people” as a group. The former happens all the time—the latter is utterly nonsensical. Similarly, we speak of a “debt owed by White people to Black people” (which might actually make sense in the very narrow sense of economic reparations, because people do inherit money! They probably shouldn’t, that is literally feudalist, but in the existing system they in fact do), which makes about as much sense as a debt owed by tall people to short people. As Walter Michaels pointed out in The Trouble with Diversity (which I highly recommend), because of this bizarre sense of responsibility we are often in the habit of “apologizing for something you didn’t do to people to whom you didn’t do it (indeed to whom it wasn’t done)”. It is my responsibility to condemn colonialism (which I indeed do), to fight to ensure that it never happens again; it is not my responsibility to apologize for colonialism.

This makes some sense in evolutionary terms; it’s part of the all-encompassing tribal paradigm, wherein human beings come to identify themselves with groups and treat those groups as the meaningful moral agents. It’s much easier to maintain the cohesion of a tribe against the slings and arrows (sometimes quite literal) of outrageous fortune if everyone believes that the tribe is one moral agent worthy of ultimate concern.

This concept of racial responsibility is clearly deeply ingrained in human minds, for it appears in some of our oldest texts, including the Bible: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,” (Exodus 20:5)

Why is inheritance of moral responsibility across generations nonsensical? Any number of reasons, take your pick. The economist in me leaps to “Ancestry cannot be incentivized.” There’s no point in holding people responsible for things they can’t control, because in doing so you will not in any way alter behavior. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on moral responsibility takes it as so obvious that people are only responsible for actions they themselves did that they don’t even bother to mention it as an assumption. (Their big question is how to reconcile moral responsibility with determinism, which turns out to be not all that difficult.)

An interesting counter-argument might be that descent can be incentivized: You could use rewards and punishments applied to future generations to motivate current actions. But this is actually one of the ways that incentives clearly depart from moral responsibilities; you could incentivize me to do something by threatening to murder 1,000 children in China if I don’t, but even if it was in fact something I ought to do, it wouldn’t be those children’s fault if I didn’t do it. They wouldn’t deserve punishment for my inaction—I might, and you certainly would for using such a cruel incentive.

Moreover, there’s a problem with dynamic consistency here: Once the action is already done, what’s the sense in carrying out the punishment? This is why a moral theory of punishment can’t merely be based on deterrence—the fact that you could deter a bad action by some other less-bad action doesn’t make the less-bad action necessarily a deserved punishment, particularly if it is applied to someone who wasn’t responsible for the action you sought to deter. In any case, people aren’t thinking that we should threaten to punish future generations if people are racist today; they are feeling guilty that their ancestors were racist generations ago. That doesn’t make any sense even on this deterrence theory.

There’s another problem with trying to inherit moral responsibility: People have lots of ancestors. Some of my ancestors were most likely rapists and murderers; most were ordinary folk; a few may have been great heroes—and this is true of just about anyone anywhere. We all have bad ancestors, great ancestors, and, mostly, pretty good ancestors. 75% of my ancestors are European, but 25% are Native American; so if I am to apologize for colonialism, should I be apologizing to myself? (Only 75%, perhaps?) If you go back enough generations, literally everyone is related—and you may only have to go back about 4,000 years. That’s historical time.

Of course, we wouldn’t be different colors in the first place if there weren’t some differences in ancestry, but there is a huge amount of gene flow between different human populations. The US is a particularly mixed place; because most Black Americans are quite genetically mixed, it is about as likely that any randomly-selected Black person in the US is descended from a slaveowner as it is that any randomly-selected White person is. (Especially since there were a large number of Black slaveowners in Africa and even some in the United States.) What moral significance does this have? Basically none! That’s the whole point; your ancestors don’t define who you are.

If these facts do have any moral significance, it is to undermine the sense most people seem to have that there are well-defined groups called “races” that exist in reality, to which culture responds. No; races were created by culture. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: The “races” we hold most dear in the US, White and Black, are in fact the most nonsensical. “Asian” and “Native American” at least almost make sense as categories, though Chippewa are more closely related to Ainu than Ainu are to Papuans. “Latino” isn’t utterly incoherent, though it includes as much Aztec as it does Iberian. But “White” is a club one can join or be kicked out of, while “Black” is the majority of genetic diversity.

Sex is a real thing—while there are intermediate cases of course, broadly speaking humans, like most metazoa, are sexually dimorphic and come in “male” and “female” varieties. So sexism took a real phenomenon and applied cultural dynamics to it; but that’s not what happened with racism. Insofar as there was a real phenomenon, it was extremely superficial—quite literally skin deep. In that respect, race is more like class—a categorization that is itself the result of social institutions.

To be clear: Does the fact that we don’t inherit moral responsibility from our ancestors absolve us from doing anything to rectify the inequities of racism? Absolutely not. Not only is there plenty of present discrimination going on we should be fighting, there are also inherited inequities due to the way that assets and skills are passed on from one generation to the next. If my grandfather stole a painting from your grandfather and both our grandfathers are dead but I am now hanging that painting in my den, I don’t owe you an apology—but I damn well owe you a painting.

The further we become from the past discrimination the harder it gets to make reparations, but all hope is not lost; we still have the option of trying to reset everyone’s status to the same at birth and maintaining equality of opportunity from there. Of course we’ll never achieve total equality of opportunity—but we can get much closer than we presently are.

We could start by establishing an extremely high estate tax—on the order of 99%—because no one has a right to be born rich. Free public education is another good way of equalizing the distribution of “human capital” that would otherwise be concentrated in particular families, and expanding it to higher education would make it that much better. It even makes sense, at least in the short run, to establish some affirmative action policies that are race-conscious and sex-conscious, because there are so many biases in the opposite direction that sometimes you must fight bias with bias.

Actually what I think we should do in hiring, for example, is assemble a pool of applicants based on demographic quotas to ensure a representative sample, and then anonymize the applications and assess them on merit. This way we do ensure representation and reduce bias, but don’t ever end up hiring anyone other than the most qualified candidate. But nowhere should we think that this is something that White men “owe” to women or Black people; it’s something that people should do in order to correct the biases that otherwise exist in our society. Similarly with regard to sexism: Women exhibit just as much unconscious bias against other women as men do. This is not “men” hurting “women”—this is a set of unconscious biases found in almost everywhere and social structures almost everywhere that systematically discriminate against people because they are women.

Perhaps by understanding that this is not about which “team” you’re on (which tribe you’re in), but what policy we should have, we can finally make these biases disappear, or at least fade so small that they are negligible.