Exclusion: The Uncanny Moral Valley
By Bryan Caplan
Suppose the people of group X are a blight on society. They may not be uniformly bad, but statistically speaking, they’re trouble. Perhaps they’re criminals. Perhaps they’re parasites. Perhaps they’re bad voters. Whatever the specifics, they’re proverbially “screwing up America” (or whatever your country happens to be). What should be done? Here are some remedies, in descending order of brutality.
1. Murder. Round up the members of group X and wipe them out. If they make any converts, murder them, too.
2. Sterilization. Round up the members of group X and destroy their ability to have children. This does nothing to reduce their current poor behavior, but – in the absence of rapid conversion – ensures group X will eventually become extinct.
3. Exclude. Enact immigration restrictions to keep members of group X out of your country. This does nothing to undo the harm that group X currently inflicts. Nor does it prevent the harm future generations of X will inflict. But it does effectively contain the social damage group X inflicts.
4. Brainwash. Subject members of group X, or perhaps just their children, to mandatory “re-education” to suppress – or at least dilute – their identity.
5. Censor. Forcibly silence members of group X to prevent them from spreading their identity by speaking or writing.
6. Disenfranchise. Deny members of group X the right to vote so the political system ignores their wishes.
Mercifully, the first two measures – murder and sterilization – are now extremely unpopular. Indeed, groups inclined to mass murder and forced sterilization now top our lists of people who are a blight on society.
The last three measures – brainwashing, censorship, and disenfranchisement, are only slightly more accepted. Sure, people tolerate a little propaganda in public schools. But at least in democracies, curricula avoid blatantly disrespecting students’ group identities – even if their group is widely seen as a blight on society. Censorship is even less prevalent. A few hate speech laws aside, democracies let people speak their minds – even if their minds are twisted and evil. And in modern democracies, the mildest measure on my list – disenfranchisement – is nigh unthinkable. Everyone deserves a say in their government, right?
Lest you conclude toleration has triumphed, however, note that virtually every country enthusiastically uses method #3 – exclusion. Contrary to anti-immigration propaganda, existing restrictions are very strict; that’s why human smuggling prices are so high and only a tiny fraction of would-be migrants actually come. Countries don’t just bar criminals or suspected terrorists. “Cultural differences” alone are a common rationale for exclusion.
It’s tempting to say, “Civilized countries avoid draconian policies in favor of milder approaches,” but that’s flatly false. Countries avoid both draconian and mild approaches, while using method #3 to the hilt. If you doubt exclusion is harsher than brainwashing, censorship, or disenfranchisement, just ask yourself: How many would-be migrants would decline a green card if they were warned, “If you come, your whole family must attend weekly citizenship classes,” “If you come, you have to keep your beliefs to yourself,” or “If you come, you can’t vote.” Indeed, it’s unclear that sterilization is harsher than exclusion. Plenty of Third Worlders and refugees would gladly go under the knife to get a green card.
It’s similarly tempting to insist, “Countries belong to their citizens, so their citizens have the right to decide who can come. Our land, our rules.” But this doesn’t explain popular aversion to brainwashing, censorship, and disenfranchisement. Families and private clubs do more than restrict membership. They also routinely tell their members what to think, silence dissent, and restrict the right to vote. If collective property justifies the former, why not the latter?
In videogames and robotics, designers have long noticed an “uncanny valley.” Human beings readily relate to simple stick figures. Human beings readily relate to fellow human beings. But semi-realistic depictions freak us out.
When modern human beings ponder ways to deal with allegedly unpleasant out-groups, an analogous uncanny moral valley emerges. Everything from murder to denying the vote seems abhorrent. Except, of course, for immigration restrictions, which almost everyone accepts without shame despite the immense harm they inflict on hundreds of millions of innocent people.
What’s going on? I see a severe case of “out of sight, out of mind.” Immigration restrictions don’t bother us much because the people we harm aren’t here yet. All of the other measures, in contrast, have visible targets. This also explains, of course, why immigration debates focus so much on amnesty for current illegal immigrants, rather than higher quotas for legal immigrants. The former group feels more human than the latter.
How can we intellectually resolve the illogic of the uncanny moral valley? The consistent authoritarian route, of course, is to say, “Since draconian exclusion is a great idea, so are vigorous brainwashing, censorship, and disenfranchisement.” The consistent civil libertarian, in contrast, says, “Since even mild brainwashing, censorship, and disenfranchisement are unacceptable, so is exclusion,” perhaps combined with the bon mot that authoritarians – trigger-happy to impose collective punishment – are the leading group X that blights society.
Between these extremes, naturally, there lies a continuum of internally consistent positions. Personally, though I’m far closer to the civil libertarian than the authoritarian, I draw a fine line between disenfranchisement and everything higher up the list. As Jason Brennan powerfully argues in his forthcoming Against Democracy, democracy has only instrumental value. Voting isn’t about doing what you want with what you own; it’s about doing what you want with what other people own. And as poll taxes show, most people barely value the right to vote anyway; how many people would pay even $100 to vote this year? The upshot: If group X is genuinely “screwing up society,” depriving group X of the right to vote would be unobjectionable. Anything harsher, though, is uncivilized.