Saturday, 18 June 2016

Steve Landburg & sex with corpses

Steve Landsburg is now saying- 'Sex with a corpse is probably a positive-sum game; it’s unlikely to interfere with anyone else’s plans.'
Previously he  had suggested that the rape of an unconscious person which doesn't result in injury, disease or pregnancy, might be 'efficient' in the sense in which the term is used in Welfare Economics.

On that occasion, David Friedman wrote a post suggesting that there was something interesting from the philosophical point of view in Landsburg's post.

Both were wrong because they thought that Utilitarianism acts in a mechanical manner to sum the utilities of agents alive or conscious at a given time. This may indeed be the limit case of a one period economy with no interdependence of Utility functions. However, in the real world, there is a 'rule Utilitarianism' which is 'regret minimizing' and takes account of global opportunity cost. Moreover, by redefining an act as stretching to all its intentional or imperative consequences (which, of course, would require a Hannan consistent model and thus be equivalent to the 'regret minimizing' calculus) Act Utilitarianism, too, would yield the same result.

Once this has been clarified, no scandal of the sort Friedman claimed to have found in Landsburg's argument would obtain for Libertarian Political Philosophy.

Indeed, English Judges, relying on an argument of, the Utilitarian Legal Scholar, Glanville Williams in the case of Regina vs Shivpuri, punished the intention to commit a crime as heavily as its actual perpetration and this is sound law.

In the horrific case Landsburg is now referencing, a British Court would ceteris paribus have had no difficulty in giving the same sentence to the culprit had he been apprehended before going on the date with the unfortunate victim. This was because, by lying about himself on the relevant dating website, he demonstrated an intention to get close to a woman and it was previously known that he intended to kill and desecrate the corpse of a woman, should he get the opportunity.
In other words, Utilitarian jurisprudence, as applied by British Courts, already recognizes something which the Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase has been trying to drum into the heads of his American colleagues all these years- viz. opportunity cost is a global concept across possible worlds and thus intentions, though frustrated in the real world (e.g., in the case of Shivpuri, 'dyed vegetable matter' not drugs had been supplied, thus no drugs were actually brought into the country) are the proper grist for the Utilitarian calculus.

Landsburg isn't making precisely the same argument in connection with the murder and subsequent necrophilia of an innocent victim as he did in the case of the rape of an unconscious person in Stuebenville.
He is asking a question about the rationality of our moral sentiments. The following is taken from his blog. My comments are in bold.

1) Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel sure that it’s not uncommon, when a guy is murdered for a pair of shoes, or for the 23 cents in his pocket, that we tend to read commentary about how this murder is made particularly tragic and/or reprehensible by the fact that the killer gained so little.
Homicidal violence is a 'costly signal'. We expect it to arise in an Evolutionarily Stable 'separating equilibrium'- in which case an 'Efficiency based' rational choice hermeneutic has salience in the relevant imperative Public Discourse which, consequently, can cash out as a problem for Mechanism Design.
However, clearly, if people are being killed for 23 cents, then what we have is a 'pooling equilibrium'- which is prima facie inefficient, not Evolutionarily Stable, and militates for a Thymotic, not Purely Rational, response.
Similarly, if we hear that a SWAT team shot an armed bank robber making off with hundreds of thousands, our reaction is quite different to when we hear of an elderly jaywalker being shot by a lard-ass cop who couldn't be bothered to get out of his patrol car.  
In the former case, Public Policy militates for an inquiry featuring technical arguments, in the latter, root and branch reform based on a popular outcry is called for.

2) The murder of schoolteacher Katie Locke is being widely condemned as particularly tragic and/or reprehensible because the killer had sex with her corpse, which was apparently his goal all along.

Do you see my problem here? How can a good outcome for the killer make a murder both better and worse?
Landsburg is asking a question about expected utility. If you shoot me thinking I have at least ten dollars in my pocket whereas, in fact, I have only 23 cents then this is a 'bad' outcome for you. However, Landsburg has also mentioned being killed for a pair of shoes. In that case the expected gain for the killer was fully realized. It was a 'good outcome'. 
As a matter of fact, potential victims are careful to send appropriate signals by the way they dress. I don't go prancing down the midnight alleys of an insalubrious Council Estate dressed in an opera cloak and evening clothes. I wear a hoodie like everybody else. I might still get shot but in that case it isn't because of a signal I was sending but one which the killer wanted to send- viz. confirmation that he is a bad-ass sociopath.
Alright, let’s ask what the key difference is. Here’s one: Robbing a corpse (or a soon-to-be corpse) is a zero-sum game. What the robber acquires comes from the pockets of the heirs. Sex with a corpse is probably a positive-sum game; it’s unlikely to interfere with anyone else’s plans.
The parents of the innocent victim did not have a plan to bury their child because they had no reason to fear her imminent demise. However, from the global point of view- i.e. one that takes in all possible worlds- they certainly had the default contingency plan common to their fellow Britishers- viz. the plan to ensure respectful treatment of her earthly remains. Sex with the corpse, even if carried out by a mortuary attendant, interferes with those plans and is punishable according to Utilitarian Jurisprudence. There was a case in Taiwan where the parents forgave the violator of their daughter's corpse, because this brought her back to life- but Taiwan has a different culture and legal system.  
Unfortunately, that only makes things even more unsettling. It leads to this syllogism:
People feel better about a murder when they learn that the killer stole $10,000 from the heirs as opposed, to, say, 23 cents. This suggests that they care more about the killer than they do about the heirs, who could be pretty much anyone.
No, a person with 23 cents in their pockets or one who, on the basis of appearance, has no greater fungible asset than the shoes they are wearing are likely to be sending the signal 'don't rob me. I have nothing'. The killer, by reason of extreme sociopathy, disappointed their expectation. No one cares that the killer got only 23 cents as opposed to 2 dollars. That is not why people are upset. What they care about is the tragic end to a life not greatly unlike their own.
People feel worse about a murder when they learn that the killer got some satisfaction even if it came at nobody’s (additional) expense. This suggests that they care a negative amount about the killer.
It is certainly the case that people 'care a negative amount for the killer' and assign a negative value, in the relevant Social Welfare Function to any Utility he gains from his crime.
Put all that together, and these people must be pretty much seething with hatred for the world at large.
Not the world at large, but bad mechanism design in the world at large- to which Economics Professors contribute- which permits worthless sociopaths to perpetrate sick crimes even though the relevant authorities were alerted to the likelihood of this eventuality.
Or to put this another way: It appears (taking the murder as given) that people want killers to achieve their goals when and only when those goals are achieved at someone else’s expense. That’s pretty much the definition of “anti-social”.
Everybody wants everybody else to 'achieve their goals at someone else's expense' unless there are interdependent Utility functions. I might want my son to eat at my expense on a special occasion- e.g. his birthday- but at other times I am perfectly happy if he eats at the expense of his in-laws or employer or whatever.
With respect to strangers, it isn't 'the definition of anti-social'- though it may be the definition of 'un-Christian'- to want them to eat at somebody else's expense all the time. 

Exercise: Come up with some way to reconcile the instincts in points 1) and 2) above without being forced to conclude that the world is a cauldron of hate. You might want to consider the possibility that when people say a murder is particularly tragic or particularly reprehensible, what they really mean is that it should be particularly targeted for deterrence. (No, it’s not obvious that this helps — but it’s worth considering.)

Regret Minimizing Rule Utilitarianism faces no scandal of the sort Landsburg avers as arising in the case of sex with dead or unconscious persons. The Societal duty of 'culpa levis in concreto' is well founded in this and every other coherent theory of Jurisprudence. 
Landsburg's fallacious reasoning can't overturn this 'overlapping consensus'.


  1. 'Homicidal violence is a 'costly signal'. We expect it to arise in an Evolutionarily Stable 'separating equilibrium'- in which case an 'Efficiency based' rational choice hermeneutic has salience in the relevant imperative Public Discourse which, consequently, can cash out as a problem for Mechanism Design.'
    This is by no means a mainstream view.
    Any citations to back this up?

  2. Hi, thanks for your comment. I'm assuming that Aumann's view of Rule Rationality is mainstream and that people keep abreast of developments in the Life Sciences.
    However, I confess that Googling this just now, nothing obvious came up- so, fair cop Guv.