John Stuart Mill on Being Offended at Other People's Opinions or Private Conduct

John Stuart Mill was a Utilitarian. A thoroughgoing Utilitarian has to confront the unpalatability of counting into Social Welfare calculations the utility people get from knowing that other people are off doing what they want other people to do. Is the pain a homophobe feels at contemplating married gay couples to be deducted from Social Welfare? I consider this question still unresolved. As Dan Benjamin, Ori Heffetz, Nichole Szembrot and I discuss in “Beyond Happiness and Satisfaction: Toward Well-Being Indices Based on Stated Preference,” some philosophers and social scientists suggest basing one’s social welfare calculations on “laundered” preferences that leave out, say, racist attitudes.

The alternative that I am drawn to is to deconstruct “dirty” preferences into the “clean” preferences they are composed of. For example, resentment at another race may stem from a desire to be respected oneself, plus a false belief that the only way to be respected is if some group is clearly put on a lower plane–and the ethical judgment that using such means is OK. The desire to be respected is itself a legitimate desire, but that legitimate desire is poisoned by a belief about the cause of one’s troubles and a reprehensible strategy for achieving that desire. In other words, racism or homophobia are bad, but is it (a) the underlying desires that are bad, (b) the beliefs accompanying those desires, or (c ) the willingness to harm others (perhaps through government restrictions) implicit in homophobia or racism.

In On LibertyChapter IV, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual” paragraph 12, John Stuart Mill effectively downplays the problem of direct preferences over others’ conduct or opinions by arguing that preferences over others’ self-regarding conduct or others’ opinions tend to be weak compared to the strength of preferences over one’s own conduct or opinions:

There are many who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an outrage to their feelings; as a religious bigot, when charged with disregarding the religious feelings of others, has been known to retort that they disregard his feelings, by persisting in their abominable worship or creed. But there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the desire of the right owner to keep it. 

I love the last sentence so much that I made it into a quotation post in its own right yesterday:

… there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the desire of the right owner to keep it. 

What John doesn’t address is what to do in a case where, say, I have only a mild preference over my own conduct or opinion, and for some reason you have a strong preference over my conduct or opinion. In many cases, some sort of modest side payment can usually take care of such cases, precisely because of that imbalance of preferences. But who makes a side payment to whom depends on the assignment of initial rights, which is the key question here.  

One way to deal with the theoretical issue is to define “other-regarding” conduct (including holding certain offensive opinions) as conduct that others care as much or more about than the one doing the conduct (or holding the opinion). But this is an invitation to those who dislike some conduct (or opinion) to get themselves worked up enough that their indignation is big enough to get counted.

Here I have in mind Ed Glaeser’s “The Political Economy of Hatred.” I liked the working paper version of this paper because of its model of a psychological production function for hatred in the working paper version of this paper. In the published version, that was replaced by a more rational model of hatred induction. The shift can be seen in the difference between the abstract of the working paper and the abstract of the published version. Here is the abstract of the working paper:

What determines the intensity and objects of hatred? Hatred forms when people believe that out-groups are responsible for past and future crimes, but the reality of past crimes has little to do with the level of hatred. Instead, hatred is the result of an equilibrium where politicians supply stories of past atrocities in order to discredit the opposition and consumers listen to them. The supply of hatred is a function of the degree to which minorities gain or lose from particular party platforms, and as such, groups that are particularly poor or rich are likely to be hated. Strong constitutions that limit the policy space and ban specific anti-minority policies will limit hate. The demand for hatred falls if consumers interact regularly with the hated group, unless their interactions are primarily abusive. The power of hatred is so strong that opponents of hatred motivate their supporters by hating the haters.

By contrast, here is the abstract of the published version:

This paper develops a model of the interaction between the supply of hate-creating stories from politicians and the willingness of voters to listen to hatred. Hatred is fostered with stories of an out-group’s crimes, but the impact of these stories comes from repetition not truth. Hate-creating stories are supplied by politicians when such actions help to discredit opponents whose policies benefit an out-group. Egalitarians foment hatred against rich minorities; opponents of re-distribution build hatred against poor minorities. Hatred relies on people accepting, rather than investigating, hate-creating stories. Hatred declines when there is private incentive to learn the truth. Increased economic interactions with a minority group may provide that incentive. This framework is used to illuminate the evolution of anti-Black hatred in the United States South, episodes of anti-Semitism in Europe, and the recent surge of anti-Americanism in the Arab world. 

Either way, strong feeling ginned up by political entrepreneurship does not seem to me like something that should be respected in the social welfare function. 

All of these issues deserve much more discussion.