Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Continuing the discussion from yesterday, Phil suggests that we should assume that some types of remarks will cause violent reactions and modify our behavior accordingly (I hope this is fair).

I think Phil believes that this kind of self censorship won't change the behavior of the type of people who react violently but I disagree. The more concessions are made the more that type of behavior is encouraged. Bookstores won?t stock certain books and magazines, a play was prematurely closed and a Dutch politician was allowed to be hounded out of the country. These are concrete examples but I am more concerned about the general ethical climate that is more concerned with how some guy phrased comments about veils than the destruction of Danish embassies. The British government and the US government are both responsible for fostering this climate as well as many others.

To me it seems obvious that this attitude will lead to more demands and more violence but it probably isn't. I've seen abortion debates where the pro abortion side argues that legalizing abortion won't affect the number of unwanted pregnancies. They argue that abortion is (relatively) expensive and can be emotionally devastating; besides, who wants to go through the operation? Just because you can sew a hand back on, nobody is going to chop it off. The other side argues that legalization will take its effect at the margins. Women have been having backstreet abortions for centuries and there are plenty of women who are only slightly on the side of prudence because the cost was so very high, reduce the cost and they end up on the other side.

Now, I don't really think that this line argument is all that relevant in the abortion debate but people who argue that there will be more unwanted pregnancies are right. When abortion was legalized in America the number of conceptions went way up even as the number of births went down. Now, almost a third of pregnancies are terminated.

Plenty of examples can be suggested (seatbelt laws are an example), but they all make the same point; if you reduce the cost (or increase the benefit) of something, there will be more of it. Destruction of property during strikes is less severely punished than similar crimes under other circumstances, so people are more likely to destroy property during strikes! The violent reactions we have become used to have been encouraged by our tolerance. Is it really a coincidence that some Christian groups in England have become more "assertive" (i.e. willing to use violence) recently?

Exactly the same reasoning lies behind rules like, "don't negotiate with terrorists". It is possible that a terrorists group could get their hands on WMD's and demand the release of a few people from prison. The cost benefit analysis clearly suggests releasing the prisoners but that will show other terrorists that they can get their way using their techniques; there will be more of it.

The violent reactions are not inevitable as Phil suggests.

Addendum: When I was in London two men had an argument over who was looking at the DVD selection in the library (in Holborn, pretty swanky). The man of Middle Eastern appearance started choking the other man and screaming at him about his being an Islamophobe. Does the ethical climate contribute to incidents like this?

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