Against Human Weakness
By Bryan Caplan
Whenever a politician is exposed as an adulterer, the same meme always resurfaces: “We’re all human, we shouldn’t have ‘unrealistic’ expectations, everyone has moments of weakness, so let’s forgive and move on…” Micha Gertner gives an eloquent version over at Distributed Republic:
[T]here is clearly something wrong with the social expectation of
life-long monogamy. It is totally unrealistic to the point of being
laughable, and seems to lead to more frustration and family
disintegration than if the expectation didn’t exist at all. I
understand some people have trouble dealing with their petty
jealousies, but maybe they should try a little Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
instead of the nuclear option?
I’m not a principled advocate of monogamy; it’s not for everyone, and I am after all a fan of Big Love. I am however a principled advocate of honoring your contracts and promises. If you don’t want to practice monogamy, here’s an idea: Don’t agree to it. If you want a non-traditional marriage, write a contract for it. Don’t accept the standard-issue version, then pretend that you didn’t have a choice.
But aren’t monogamous contracts “unrealistic”? This claim makes no sense. If 50% of people who vow life-long monogamy keep their promise, what’s “unrealistic” about it? Monogamy is no more unrealistic than hundreds of promises that we expect people to keep – to show up for work on time, buy lunch next time, pay their workers, or give dissatisfied customers their money back. In each instance, if you think the terms are onerous, refuse them. Don’t say yes, then blame the fates.
But what about human weakness? Here I take a hard line: Human weakness is a choice, and it should be criticized, not excused. I’m particularly baffled when economists say otherwise. In what economic model is “lots of people feel tempted to do it” a reason to turn a blind eye? I embrace a simple alternative: Do the right thing all day, every day.
Now I know what you’re thinking. “Bryan’s holding himself up as a saint, but if I spied on him, I’m sure I could dig up all kinds of dirt on him.” Perhaps you’re even hoping I’ll issue a hubristic Gary Hart-style challenge to follow me around. My response:
1. I do many embarrassing things every day. I sing off-key, dance badly when no one is watching, say things about people that I wouldn’t say to their faces, and much more. I’d rather not see any of this on Youtube. Still, I insist that my behavior is merely embarrassing. If I thought it was wrong, I would cease and desist – not plead human weakness.
2. Public defenses of human weakness are part of an insidious pooling equilibrium. Someone fails to live up to their marriage vows or other solemn agreements, and bystanders are supposed to either invoke human weakness or stay quiet. What happens if you condemn the guilty party? You risk being singled out for hyper-scrutiny, and harsh condemnation for the smallest stain on your record. (Or alternately, you single yourself out as a bitter, pathetic victim). As a result, wrong-doers caught red-handed deflect attention from their own bad behavior onto those who vocally disapprove of what they’ve done. What kind of incentives are those?
3. Doesn’t this contradict my earlier attack on hypocrisy? Not at all. Adulterers who publicly attack adultery are indeed worse than garden-variety adulterers, for the reasons I’ve previously offered. But people guilty of minor offenses who criticize major offenses are not worse than people who commit major offenses.
My friends often chuckle at my puritanism, but it’s a tolerant puritanism. I’m not telling anyone what kind of contracts and promises to make, but merely to honor the contracts and promises they’ve made. That’s not too much to ask of human nature.