How Evil is that Sheep?
By Bryan Caplan
And in any policy debate, I don’t assume that the people on my side intellectually are somehow morally superior or more honest. In any particular case I usually give that 50-50.
–Tyler Cowen, July 31, 2008
This essay is not politically correct and at times it is misogynous and yes I believe the author is evil (seriously).
–Tyler Cowen, August 2, 2008
Moral philosophers distinguish between (a) the right; (b) the good; and (c) the virtuous.
Rightness is a moral property of actions; we should do right actions and refrain from wrong ones.
Goodness is a moral property of overall states of affairs; the more valuable stuff a state has, the more goodness is has.
Virtue, finally, is a property of a human being’s character. A virtuous person is willing to perform the right action purely because it is right. When we describe someone as “morally superior” to another person, or just plain “evil,” we’re normally talking about their virtue, or lack thereof.
Now it’s often hard to know what’s right or good. Strange as it seems, for example, it’s often wrong to do good. But figuring out who’s virtuous is even harder. A person could do the right thing without fail, but still be entirely vicious. For example, it’s right not to murder people. But if the reason why you don’t murder people is that there’s not enough money in it, you’re still a villain.
What makes assessing virtue especially difficult, though, is the well-known fact that people are sheep. They do stuff because they want to be like other people. It’s conceivable, then, that a very nice person might be no more virtuous than the typical Nazi, circa 1941. If you switched their peer groups, would they switch their behavior? If so, why do you consider one more virtuous than the other?
Note, however, that we can reverse this thought experiment. If you meet a very nice person in Nazi Germany, he’s probably extremely virtuous. If you meet a Nazi in modern America, he’s probably satanically evil. You have to be a serious villain to stand up for unpopular atrocities.
Questions: If you’re with me so far, what does this imply about Tyler’s lead quotes? Are the people who agree with you really no more virtuous than average? Is it reasonable for Tyler to conclude that Devlin is “evil”? Why or why not?