Respectable Resentment

Assume for the purpose of this post that used car sales folks are exploitive and socially unproductive – they mainly trick buyers into spending more than they need. I don’t actually believe this, but I don’t want this post to be distracted by the issue of which professions are or are not socially productive.

So, imagine that you are competing to be a successful used car salesperson. But you find that you face real biases. Buyers are unfairly less willing to buy from you because you are female, or young, or the wrong ethnicity, or the wrong personality type. Or perhaps it is managers at used car sales firms who are biased against hiring your people. In any case, you have a legitimate complaint of bias, and you can legitimately resent that bias.

Even so, I don’t feel very sympathetic to your cause. Oh, on the margin I’d prefer that you win your battle against such biases. Its just that I don’t see it is as a high priority. Why? Because your cause is mostly selfish. Oh sure, the used car sales industry might be slightly more efficient if they weren’t unfairly biased against your sort. But by assumption what they’d get more efficient at is mostly exploiting ignorant buyers. Not a cause I can get behind.

Now imagine that you run a charity, and that while your charity is especially effective at its cause, e.g., reducing African poverty, it suffers from the bias that donors care more about using their donations to seem to help, than to actually help. You resent the fact that your charity doesn’t do so well because it isn’t as good at helping donors look caring. This time, I’m a huge supporter of your cause. Why? Because the bias you oppose is hurting us all, a lot.

So if you face gender bias getting hired as a cancer doctor, but for a type of cancer where doctors actually do little to help patients live longer, then I’m only mildly sympathetic. But If you suffer as a doctor because patients are biased to “do something,” and dislike your correctly telling them they are better off doing nothing, then I’m a huge fan and supporter.

If you suffer bias in academia because you are religious, but your chosen research area is mostly a pointless exercise in showing off math skills, I’m not going to get too worked up for you. But if your academic career suffers because your research is focused on a way to actually making important intellectual progress, which doesn’t happen to be a good way to show off math skills, I’ll shout your cause from the rooftops.

If you suffer from a bias based on the kind of person you are, you have a legitimate complaint. But it may not be an especially noble cause. However, if you suffer because of a common bias against doing a sort of thing that is especially useful, you may have a very noble cause. I can much more respect your resentment of a bias against doing good, than a bias against who you are.

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  • Ely Spears

    It seems like you are saying: “If you face a bias based on personal characteristics and it prevents you from doing something you personally care about, but which is not compelling to the rest of us, then tough luck. Just do something else in which you’re not discriminated against. However, if you are trying to do something that we all feel is efficacious, and you’re running up against a broad bias that prevents progress, then we will support you and hope for some reform.”

    The only interesting cases are the boundaries, though. At one time, civil rights would have fallen in category one. Mostly by appeals to compassion and fairness, and lots of effort to force people to confront the realities of the bias, civil rights became a category two kind of issue. I don’t see much evidence that people were first broadly convinced of tangible/progress-style benefits of civil rights, and only then did they champion the cause. Rather it was appeals to egalitarian instincts and fairness, regardless of the application or it’s tangible results, that led to momentum building and eventual victories in civil rights. Women’s suffrage and gay marriage strike me as similar issues.

    I think many of the most important anti-bias policies have come about precisely the reverse of how you describe it, and only after the fact were they later viewed as wise decisions from a productivity standpoint or a population utility standpoint.

    It seems connected to Deutsch’s idea of a rational society: one that, while it may not generate optimal policies, it is highly efficient at noticing and removing bad policies.

    • RobinHanson

      I wasn’t proposing a theory of which biases political systems get most bothered about. I was saying what *I* care most about.

      • srdiamond

        I was saying what *I* care most about.

        What’s not clear is why anyone else should care. I’d guess it follows (roughly) from your utilitarianism. Then, why not argue it that way?

        There are potentially glaring contradictions with utilitarianism, and (despite my being a moral antirealist (, I think I might find utilitarianism more compelling than your personal values. What if the persecuted group is large and suffers intensely but its misfortune doesn’t harm anyone else? Here, a bit of deontology seems to creep into your utilitarianism.

      • Ely Spears

        So you are saying that for any discrimination-type, endeavor-type pair, you have only a fixed amount of sympathy to give and you apportion it according to the broad utility of the endeavor-type, ignoring the discrimination-type.

        I still think boundary cases are important. I also want you to address the issue of a large number of people suffering, but where suffering is totally located only to that group without spillover effects. Also, what if discrimination-type issues can be contagious from one endeavor-type to another, more impactful endeavor-types? For example, if you assume you are working in a legal framework that heavily uses precedents as a means to decide important new debates, then getting discrimination-type issues right is hugely important regardless of their immediate endeavor-type impacts, because later discrimination situations will be judge by precedent rather than by how much the discrimination holds up progress.

  • Michael Wengler

    It is interesting to see an economist so roundly ignoring the pricing theory of value, that a car salesman, a cancer doctor, and a math professor all, more or less, have their value to society proportional to what they are making doing those things.  Perhaps this is a statement of how your micro valuation differs from the weighted-average valuation which is presumably the markets, but I would love to see you remark on systematic ways the market gets wages wrong, or if not that, than the extent to which private valuations can deviate from market valuations, is it orders of magnitude typically, or is it likely for most of us to be far less?

    • KPres

      Couple of points..

      First, I think Robert made clear in the first sentence that he was dealing with a hypothetical that he didn’t necessarily agree with.  Second, doesn’t the “pricing theory of value” assume that you’re dealing with an unencumbered price mechanism?  One could certainly, then, have distorted prices in a mixed economy.

    • Michael Vassar

      The whole point of economics is to show what rational agents would do.  Once we’re talking about biases, it’s not economics proper.  Instead, it’s ‘behavioral economics’, a field in psychology that some  economists like.

      • srdiamond

        The whole point of economics is to show what rational agents would do.

        No, the “whole point” of economics is to model the economic system to predict economic phenomena. It’s supposed to be an empirical science, not a branch of game theory. Economists, it turns out, tend to believe that the assumption of rationality works, even when it doesn’t.

      • Lonanshedow

        Take this with a salt cellar, since I am no expert, but:
        Isn’t empirical science about predicting REAL behaviors of objects, rather than how they “should” work?
        Therefore, if people usually do not make rational choices when dealing with resources, labor, and etc, why should an economist waste time acting like what they do is rational? A model based on rationality of people disagrees with reality, and therefore, cannot predict anything useful about the economy or its workings.

    • RobinHanson

      You might have noticed that I talk a lot about signaling on this blog. Signaling creates a predictable understandable difference between the private value of doing something and its social value. 

    • Eliezer Yudkowsky

      What?  That sounds like total economic nonsense to me.  The amount of value you capture doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the amount of value you create.  The amount of value-to-you that Google creates is the maximum amount you’d pay for Google searches if they had no competitors and were charging you money.  Since Google does have competitors, they have low negotiating power and are only able to capture a tiny fraction of the value they create for you.  Craigslist creates huge amounts of economic value – causes many trades to take place that wouldn’t take place otherwise – and captures almost none of it.

      A used car seller *might theoretically* have almost no social value, if they pay prices for cars so low that nobody buys a car who otherwise wouldn’t on grounds of being able to sell it used, charge prices high enough that almost nobody buys a car who wouldn’t have gotten one otherwise, capture almost all of the value of the trade for themselves, and so basically generate no surplus for others while removing labor from the economy that might otherwise be productive.  The fact that they were making money would not contradict this.
      (Robin, standard economists know about this, right?  I ask because your own reply doesn’t refer to it.)

      • RobinHanson

        In the standard supply & demand theory, the *marginal* value of each good equals the marginal cost. Most actual values will be higher, and most actual costs will be lower. But since it is the marginal values and costs that says if there are too many or too few of each thing, they are the focus of policy. But when there are market failures, such as is caused by signaling effects, the marginal private value (or cost) can differ a lot from the marginal social value (or cost).

      • srdiamond

        The amount of value-to-you that Google creates is the maximum amount you’d pay for Google searches if they had no competitors and were charging you money.

        That’s just ridiculous, Yudkowsky. Google doesn’t add  $10 of value for you for every $10 you pay; you’re not considering the value you parted with. That value corresponds to the value of what you would otherwise spend $10 on.

      • Strange7person

        If google charged $10 per search and you were using it anyway (and sane), that would mean each search was worth at least $10 to you. If the marginal cost to them of providing the service was negligibly low, they would be adding at least $10 of value to the economy as a whole for every such transaction.

      • dmytryl


        So when a heir billionaire uses Google to look up something pointless, Google adds more value to the economy as whole than when a poor student uses Google to study?

        Value to you personally is not value to ‘economy as whole’. I’m not sure latter even means anything.

  • ssh

    What about a bias against you that does not actually hurt the efficiency of the (good) cause? Are you indifferent? 

    • RobinHanson

      I’m quite capable of being selfish. I just don’t expect altruistic others to get too worked up about my selfish complaints.

      • ssh

        Sorry, I used “you” incorrectly in the first sentence. should read ‘bias against someone else’. Just curious if bias in and of itself bugs you, or only if ‘correcting’ it raises efficiency. Thx

  • AmagicalFishy

    If a car salesman is facing bias because he’s a car salesman—I might be less inclined to think well of his quest to dissolve that bias. This inclination would accord with how much I think people being biased towards believing “car salesmen are scandalous” reflects the reality of being a car salesman (which, at some reality:bias ratio, stops the belief from being a “bias”).

    On the other hand, if a car salesman is facing some type of gender bias, race bias, attractiveness bias, w/e—I see no reason why I should care less of said bias because of his profession. Consider it a, “I might not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it,” type philosophy. My beliefs in the detriments of gender bias are independent of my beliefs of a car salesman.

    This seems very much related to the idea of ad hominem. In regards to my sympathy towards a situation, I don’t see any justification in relating someone’s profession to what irrational beliefs they’re the target of. In fact, I actively think that accepting biases based on who they’re directed towards is a bad, bad process of thought.

    Don’t get me wrong. I understand *why* people think like this—and I understand that it’s a common thing that clicks off in the mind without second thought (i.e. – Any of the many situation where some injustice is ok because of who it was directed towards.) Though I think anyone who knows they think this way should work to not think this way. 

    The more I think about it, the more I feel I may be misunderstanding the post—I think it strange you don’t look to be discouraging this type of mindset (assuming my interpretation is correct).

  • ByTimeAsunder

    It goes without saying that I could be wrong, but I think some people are misreading Robin’s original post.

  • ByTimeAsunder

    Crap! his the post button instead of the keyboard. Damn tablet!

    Anyway, Robin doesn’t appear to say that his intangible concern for biased discrimination is a limited quantity. Rather it seems he’s fairly clear that he apportions his time, efforts and other finite resources according to his utilitarian principles.

    I, for my part, would like to know how he integrates that with pursuits that may not have any immediate payoff, but which could be tremendously beneficial to society as a whole in the long run. For example, as a physicist, I’m keenly aware of how much of the mathematics underpinning my discipline was discovered long before its practical utility was even remotely apparent. Had mathematicians not devised those tools, they may not have been laying around ready when it was their time to advance other disciplines. More to the point, many are obscure enough that they may not have been apparent to physicists and other scientists if there weren’t mathematicians just down the hall to help them find the antique maths they needed. More broadly, so much of our tool-designing civilization is built on chains of discoveries that are themselves not nearly as useful for any brass tacks applications, that I wonder at the wisdom of apportioning resources on a strict calculus of immediate benefits.

  • Gzhelev

    In a sense you R.H. are following the ends justify the means principle. If you have a nouble cause we should all rally behind you. As opposed to never lie or never discriminate no matter what.