The Sacrifice Trap

Beware the tendency to oppose improvements that make moot your sacrifice. Kajta Grace:

A pattern … I have noticed before … goes like this. Some people make personal sacrifices, supposedly toward solving problems that don’t threaten them personally. They sort recycling, buy free range eggs, buy fair trade, campaign for wealth redistribution etc. Their actions are seen as virtuous. They see those who don’t join them as uncaring and immoral. A more efficient solution to the problem is suggested. It does not require personal sacrifice. People who have not previously sacrificed support it. Those who have previously sacrificed object on grounds that it is an excuse for people to get out of making the sacrifice. … Some examples of this sentiment:

  • A downside to recreating extinct species with cloning is that it will let people bother even less about stopping extinctions.
  • A recycling system where items are automatically and efficiently sorted at the plant rather than individually in homes would be worse because then people would be ignorant about the effort it takes to recycle.
  • Modern food systems lamentably make people lazy and ignorant of where their food comes from.
  • Making cars efficient just lets people be lazy and drive them more, rather than using real solutions like bikes.
  • The internet’s ready availability and general knowledge allows people to be ignorant and not bother learning facts. …

Is vegetarian opposition to preventing animal pain an example of this kind of motivation? Vegetarianism is a big personal effort, a moral issue, a cause of feelings of moral superiority, and a feature of identity which binds people together.

Most of Katja’s examples are from the left; what are examples from the right?  For example, do folks oppose birth control because it makes their chastity sacrifices moot?

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  • Not a perfect analogy. Those people acknowledge that they view chastity as a good in itself, not as a means to an end. If you ask people why they recycle, however, they will hide the moral-superiority aspect of their action and simply say they care about Mother Earth.

  • goldfishlaser

    My thought is because people recognize how powerful an argument needs to be in order to induce people to sacrifice. This fits in with the painless meat and birth control at least. Birth control prevents the fear of pregnancy, which might be a crucial factor in a person’s choice to remain abstinent, which is the end-desire of abstinence-promoters. Painless meat calms the consciousnesses of many people who find it unpleasant that an animal would experience pain, but vegetarians/vegans who merely want the death of animals to stop fear that this will encourage on-the fence folks to go ahead and keep eating meat.

  • Robin: You make an interesting point, but I think many of your examples have problems.

    1. Are there really a lot of people who oppose “A recycling system where items are automatically and efficiently sorted at the plant”? I would imagine thatI most of the people who would oppose such a thing are people who oppose the entire idea of recycling.

    2. I thought the problem people had with modern food systems is that they deliver unhealthy food to people. The basic idea is that we evolved in an environment in which food was hard to get, and that our bodies aren’t really so well prepared to deal with unlimited supplies of Coca-Cola and cornflakes. Maybe this is true, maybe not, but I don’t see this as being about “sacrifice” at all. If anything, recent developments of the modern food system leads many people to sacrifice more (in the form of dieting).

    3. The point with cars is not that fuel efficiency is a bad thing, but that some of the gains from fuel efficiency will get taken up by people driving more, so it won’t save as much fuel as a simple calculation might expect. I don’t think that “laziness” comes up much.
    In any case, my impression is that this criticism of fuel-efficient cars is generally made by conservatives such as Dick Cheney who oppose conservation measures. It’s the liberals, I think, that support fuel-efficiency laws, and conservatives who talk about unintended consequences of such rules.

    4. My impression is that it’s just a few curmodgeons out there who are putting down the internet. Are there really very many people with a moral objection to search engines??

    In sum, I suspect that you and Katja Grace have encountered some people with unusual views (not so hard to find on the internet!) and may be overgeneralizing. The whole “personal sacrifices” thing, to me, misses the point. As you’ve discussed many times, it’s often hard for people to change their minds. I don’t see the need to invoke any special motivation in these examples.

    Finally, let me add one more example that is neither “left” nor “right”–it’s not political at all, in the usual sense. About ten years ago I saw a movie about some families with deaf children who had the option of receiving cochlear implants to restore their hearing. Some of the parents gave the treatment to their kids, some didn’t. There were arguments on both sides–for one thing, the implants don’t always work–but most interesting, from the perspective of your blog entry, was the argument that, by getting hearing, the kids would lose their chance to be part of deaf culture–with American Sign Language and all the rest.

    • fenn

      The flick is called “Sound and Fury,” and is well worth watching. The main set of parents is a fascinating example of a lot of issues discussed on this blog.

      Way back when I saw it, the father really infuriated me, but the mother is more interesting.

    • Chris

      Concerning point 4, I have observed such attitudes coming mainly from teachers. I had the following experience during college while a librarian was explaining how to use the internet:

      Librarian: “And remember, spelling is important.The search engine won’t give you the right information if you spell the words wrong.”

      Me: “Why don’t you type a misspelled word into google to show us?”

      Google: “Did you mean: renaissance”

      Strangely, she got angry at me, rather than happy about new technology.

      Another example: back in the day, many C++ programmers grumbled about garbage collection which makes their memory management skills obsolete.

    • Jeff

      I do think that there’s an element of truth in the original post, but that these positions have been taken to extreme (ridiculous), either by Katja, or by some (small? large? I don’t know) portion of the people who hold the original beliefs.

      A big component of this seems to be simplification-by-repetition. For example, the cars-vs-bikes thing is about a lot of issues: bikes encourage physical activity, cars do not; more drivers means more congestion and more time for commutes; cars require more space, which requires more roads and more roadbuilding; cars are much more dangerous to operate than bikes.

      All of those reasons are too many to stick on a bumper sticker, so you get people arguing for bikes, not cars, and then it repeats without the arguments attached.

      Then, when someone comes along and argues “more efficient cars!” they’re responding to one problem of cars, and the bike-arguers will split into camps. There’ll be those who view their sacrifice as meaningful (identity) and won’t want people to give up their sacrifice. But there’ll also be those who, knowing the arguments or not, feel that the new argument doesn’t attack all of the root causes of wanting people to bike.

    • Dallas

      Years ago when I worked on recycling — automated equipment to do the separations — the opposition was from those who wanted sacrifice. Our approach was cost effective and shown to work, but our opposition got a lot of laws passed with subsidies and container fees, etc. that shifted the economics in favor of our present multi-container recycling systems.

      I never really understood the activities of automated recycling opponents and this discussion helps a lot. I was always arguing science, technology and economics and they were always winning the votes with emotional arguments.

  • Michael Turner

    I guess I’d be more enthusiastic about this discussion if the apparent anecdotes were actually backed up with citations. Did she really “notice” these things, or are they interpretations or second-/third-hand distortions?

    Most environmentalists want more efficient cars and more bike paths.

    How is it some leftist sentiment that “The internet’s ready availability and general knowledge allows people to be ignorant and not bother learning facts …”? I know a number of leftists, and I’ve never heard this from them; I do have a friend who has expressed concern that people won’t remember things because they’ll always be able to look stuff up, but he’s a conservative.

    And I don’t understand why “vegetarian” and “vegan” are being lumped together here. They are not the same. Most vegetarians are concerned mainly for their own health, maybe secondarily for environmental impact of meat consumption. Vegans are mostly motivated out of a desire to respect animal rights and to end factory farming of animals — the health issues are pretty secondary to many of them. (I once saw about half the cooking staff of a vegan restaurant out on the sidewalk for a cigarette break. I registered my puzzlement and got only puzzlement back from them: “That’s not what it’s about”). Vegans might argue that making animals pain-free is just another way to rob them of their rights — and, after all, if somebody forced you to be pain-free (and therefore more prone to inadvertent self-injury), you’d probably feel your rights had been violated. But some vegetarians might actually approve of pain-free animal husbandry, for all I know.

    • Jess Riedel

      Robin wasn’t implying that the search-engine sentiment was leftist. He said “Most of Katja’s examples are from the left”, not all.

    • Psy-Kosh

      Huh? I’m vegetarian mainly for ethical reasons rather than personal health reasons. (ie, I consider “farm and kill cows/pigs/whatever for food” to be morally qualitatively similar at least to “farm and kill humans for food”, depending on stuff like capacity for subjective experience and so on)

      And while I’m not quite familiar with the whole pain-free animal husbandry thing, I am more familiar with the concept of vat meat. (ie, the notion of cultured meat) and I have no moral objection to it at all. I fully endorse going that route.

      • Pwno

        Would you eat pain-free meat?

      • Psy-Kosh

        Pwno: hrm, seems there’s no link to reply directly to you, but if you mean “pain free, but still a being with nontrivial amounts of subjective experience had to be systematically farmed and killed” probably not.

        I appeal to my intuitions of “would I eat pain-free human meat?”

      • Pwno

        At what level is a non-trivial amount of subjective experience? And why are you so sure animals are at or above this level? Why are you putting on par their level of subjective experience with humans?

        In my opinion, an animals (not humans) non-suffering, short-lived existence is more favorable than not existing at all. Even if the animal was destined to be killed for food.

      • Psy-Kosh

        Why would that logic not extend then to farming humans?

        “non suffering short lived human existence is more favorable than non existing at all, even if that human is destined to be killed for food”

        And I don’t claim to have all the answers here, but it sure seems to me that the situations are at least morally similar, even if not identical.

      • Pwno

        Simply put, we empathize more with humans than animals. Their subjective experience is more complex and relatable. I still care about animals a non-trivial amount, but value their lives less.

    • Douglas Knight

      vegan vs vegetarian

      This is a great illustration of a point of this post (or background?). The original focus of veganism was concern for animals, but the term has come to refer largely to diet, not other animal products and definitely not to the explanation. Without saying anything about the motivations of vegans*, I think society encourages fragmentation along easily policed rituals, not along philosophy.

      * “the beginning and the end of vegetarian”

  • Garrett Schmitt

    How about…

    …people who oppose drug legalization, because it makes their sacrifices while overcoming addiction seem less potent;

    …people who oppose ending a given war short of victory, because they’ve lost a loved one to the conflict.

    How seperate is this phenomena from a general case of the Sunk Costs Fallacy?

  • Robin,

    With your (usually spot on) analysis of issues from a sub-surface level, I think you have again hit an excellent point.

    The strongest example is the AGWers’ opposition to climate engineering, and the general environmentalist opposition to tech solutions to cheap, clean energy.

    You might be over-specifying the problem though. I’d suggest that once a problem is identified, and a solution is committed to, then the solution becomes emotionally wrapped up with the problem. If you can solve the problem by bypassing the proposed solution, you hit the early solver emotionally.

    Perhaps this is a specific case of the extent to which individuals commit to specific solutions, and stop listening to alternative proposals to solve the same problems?

  • George

    I also saw that documentary about cochlear implants that Andrew was referring to. To me, it really demonstrated how powerful our desire is to have a (or many) group identity(ies).

    But that’s not inconsistent with what Katja and Robin say. After all, the visible sacrifices we made a strong signals of our loyalty to our group. So, opposing these “improvements” is just another signal of loyalty.

  • Josh

    Not necessarily from the right, but religious – tensions in Judaism over whether new technologies which obviate prohibited work should be allowed if they accomplish the aims of said work. Or, in kashrut, what should be done with sequenced bacon that has been generated by chemistry in a laboratory, is indistinguishable from real bacon, yet has never been part of a pig? (But let’s be fair and give the rabbi’s a little more credit than simple opposition to someone in the future not having to make a sacrifice that someone in the past did).

    The example that immediately came to mind re the cited post is in “green building” and in particular about which building methods get labeled “greenwashing”, Many green building activists explicitly accuse green building products and methods of “greenwashing” if they already existed or were in use, rather than being invented solely for “green” purposes. Making an environmental claim for wood, for example, after demonstrating through life cycle analysis that it is environmentally far superior to concrete or steel, is seen as somehow a swindle. The differing philosophies of LEED and the NAHB’s Green Building Standard (an ANSI program) are informative. To continue with the example, in this way products which may be more environmentally harmful than existing ones – say, using bamboo vs. domestic trees – gain traction when they perhaps ought not, on the merits.

  • jonathan

    There is a conception in religion that fulfilling certain obligations is part of being holy. That is explicit but limited in Judaism; with 600+ rules the Orthodox follow plus generalized mitzvot (commandments) for ethical behavior. It’s certainly true of some Buddhist sects and the concept of “good works” is found in much of Christianity – though in an uncomfortable relationship with grace. That means people somehow believe that what one labels as sacrifice is meaningful and foregoing that is sloth or some other bad act. And that then leads to imposing moral codes on others.

    Examples of this from the “right” abound. Try to buy a drink in Utah – and look at “blue laws” all over. In all those cases, “my” sacrifice is protected by making it difficult or impossible for drinking or shopping or other violations of “my” Sabbath. My choice of sacrifice is turned into the choice for all.

    I’m not sure I’d say contraception makes chastity moot but it makes sex more available and that makes the choice of sex easier for others. I may still practice chastity without contraception so my choice remains and what has changed is the sharing of my choice across society.

  • Josh

    I would like to add that I suspect you will find more examples on the liberal side than on the conservative side, barring religion, because the notion that something is wrong with the world that requires people to radically change the way they do everything seems to fit more readily into the liberal script these days.

    I don’t think it’s only because of sacrifices, I think it’s because the values are held to be even more important than the outcomes, and it’s only by being conscious participants in sorting our own trash etc. that we can demonstrate the values (then there’s the race to be most mindful, most politically correct, etc.). I suspect that is why the proponants of these programs often push so hard to get them taught to schoolchildren, whose actual choices as minors can have little relative effect on the sought outcomes.

  • Redbud

    How about this one: stopping war would dishonor all who died so far. Killing the first soldier means endless war.

  • Psychohistorian

    Conservative examples:

    Health care. Some people oppose giving health care away for free simply on the grounds that they worked hard to be able to have theirs. This opposition is independent of which system of health care will cost them more, personally.

    Social services. Even if one could show that welfare was cost effective (e.g. the reduction in crime exceeded all costs imposed, or something like that) many people would still oppose handouts because they see themselves as hard-working and self-made, even if those handouts would cost them less than not giving them.

    Prison terms. This is inverted: people have no problem giving criminals massive prison terms for relatively minor offenses (drug possession, some “sex crimes”). People may even agree that the sentences are excessively harsh given the damage done, but they also don’t care about the plight of such prisoners. This feels like an inverse of the sacrifice effect: I made the sacrifice and stayed sober/obeyed the law, therefore, I have no sympathy of any kind for those who broke the law, even if the law is completely unjust.

    Gay marriage: there are certainly closeted conservatives. Legitimizing homosexuality would make their closeting a mark of cowardice rather than a mark of virtue.

    Chastity: this has been mentioned, but I’d just like to point out that a general social acceptance of sexual activity turns chastity from a virtue to a defect, particularly in the case of men. This is significantly worse than just negating their sacrifice; this would be like if you sorted your recycling, only to find out not only that the recycling got machine sorted at the plant, but that pre-sorting it actually causes substantial pollution.

    Oh, also birth control/abortion would make a lot of shotgun marriages look profoundly stupid rather than honorable.

    Divorce: People who have lived in long, miserable marriages may oppose no-fault divorce for others, since they believe the sacrifice they made by enduring their marriage was a positive good. If most people in the same situation divorced, they’d just look stupid.

    Nonstandard marriage: Substantial opposition to nonstandard marriage arrangements, like open marriage, likely stems (in part) from sacrifice-enforcement. If marriage meant you gave up a lot of things, then you may oppose people who get married without giving up those things.

    Lazy kids: A lot of objections to kids being inactive by, say, playing video games is more of an objection to them not having a childhood like their parent’s childhood. Come to think of it, a lot of objections to what kids are doing these days probably stem from the fact that it seems like more fun than what their parents were doing at the same age. (This is not the whole objection, since there are actual health concerns, but it’s certainly part of the objection.)

    New Technology: This is not necessarily politically aligned, but I think it tends to be conservative more often than not. Opposition to the effect of “Because of X, people don’t really appreciate the effort involved in Y/ don’t really do Y anymore.” I hear this type of objection quite frequently from people my parent’s age about things like social networking. Similar arguments could also apply to pornography and, if it is ever developed, effective simulation technology.

    Some of these are a bit indirect, I admit, but ones in the examples in the original post were either really unusual (never heard the recycling one) or conveniently oversimplified (food sources).

    • Michael Bishop

      great examples!

  • Peter

    Those who chose vegetarianism on moral grounds amuse me to no end.

    Modern agricultural techniques kill about 300 million animals a year during crop harvest. Small rodents, birds, snakes and so on all die by the truckload every year, regardless of type and quality of the vegetables on your dinner plate.

  • Yvain

    I’ve seen this a lot in some doctors I know. When discussing the latest surgery or medicine or whatever that’s supposed to prevent weight gain without diet or exercise, they get upset that people are taking the “easy way out” and lament a “culture of popping pills to solve every problem.”

    The same is true, though in a vaguer and less obvious way, about mental health; there are a lot of people, though thankfully few in the psych profession, who think there’s something wrong with taking pills to cure depression or alcoholism.

    I can think of one charitable way in which this kind of behavior could be logical. I heard once that communists used to oppose pro-worker labor reforms, on the grounds that this would “let off pressure” that they were hoping would build up to a revolution. If communists believed both that a revolution would be much better than simple reforms, and that reforms would prevent revolution, they’d be acting logically in opposing the reforms.

    Similarly, if vegetarians thought that getting rid of animal pain would prevent the whole world from converting to vegetarianism (yeah, right) and thus no animals having to die at all, or environmentalists thought a quick fix for global warming would prevent people from solving some other important problem like deforestation, and they were *sufficiently* confident that without the quick fix to global warming, global warming would be solved in a way that also solved deforestation, then they’d be justified in opposing it. Sort of. Although I think in reality it would be really tough to have that level of confidence that global warming would, indeed, get solved without the quick fix.

  • Edward Gaffney

    In Europe, one of the most prevalent examples is: we can’t have markets in organs because that would cheapen the gift given by current donors.

  • Brink Lindsey fell into this trap while criticizing liberals on global warming.

    • TGGP wrote:

      Brink Lindsey fell into this trap while criticizing liberals on global warming.

      Are you expecting people to watch the entire 57-minute video in hopes of figuring out which trap you think he fell into, or could you perhaps summarize the point and say where in the video (how many minutes in) we should look to find it?

        Commenter bjkeefe sums it up:
        Shorter Brink Lindsey:

        I am not one of those who believes that climate change will mean any sort of apocalyptic disaster. Therefore, President Obama is a failure for not terrifying the American people about climate change.

  • Err

    An exercise pill. Many a gymrat would foam at the mouth because they put 10-20 hours a week into their regimen, only to have it obviated by a once-a-day pill. Twice as much foam when we come up with “body sculpting” pills that would allow you to choose your look (slim, slightly cut, beefy, Ahnuld, etc.)

  • Ian Maxwell

    I can think of two conservative examples offhand that may be relevant:

    The HPV vaccine. I distinctly remember complaints that it “sends girls the message that sex is not dangerous” or something. If it actually isn’t dangerous, that might be the correct message to send, though! (HPV had previously been the darling of Christian conservatism, because it’s actually a skin infection and isn’t really protected against with condoms.)
    Distaste for “the new new math” in public schools. There are legitimate complaints to be made about this (programs like TERC in particular require an outstanding teacher, and those are in short supply in public schools), but unfortunately none of them are the ones brought up by parents. The principal objection is that what kids do in math classes now looks like fun, instead of serious work.

    • Kenny Evitt

      This was going to be my example too; and I read all the comments only to be frustrated. Stop stealing my examples for Robin!

  • gwern

    > # A downside to recreating extinct species with cloning is that it will let people bother even less about stopping extinctions.

    Does this one look like a terrible example to anyone else? For every charismatic mammal or plant we clone, there’s going to be hundreds of species that we haven’t studied beyond a few quick notes, much less have preserved enough material to even think about creating a viable population.