The Morally Fraught Incentive

I came up with a lot of theories when I was a kid, and some of the were wrong, especially the ones about math. But some of them were pretty close to the mark. For example, I’d noticed that teachers often emphasized the importance of effort, saying something like: “It’s not your fault if you’re just naturally bad at art class (or gym; or math; etc.), so I grade based on how hard you try.” I objected to these statements, pointing out that a student could just as plausibly be “naturally bad at” trying hard as at art; I didn’t see why effort should be a sui generis skill that one is uniquely responsible for. So I came up with a theory: Teachers emphasize effort, not because effort is actually the only skill that counts, but rather because effort is the only skill you can make someone better at by yelling at him. Yell all you want, and if Johnny can’t read Johnny still can’t read; but by gum if you yell enough he will try.

Because teachers like to yell at their students, I reasoned, they try to establish rules that let them yell at more students.

Look, I’m aware this theory is overly cynical. To be fair, I came up with it at a time in my life when I was more or less continually being yelled at by teachers. But it has a kernel of truth in it, perverted by the fact that I perhaps overestimated how much teachers like screaming at their charges.

What do teachers want? It’s a pretty crummy job, getting crummier every day (according to teachers’ accounts), but teachers are buoyed somewhat by the thought that they might be making a difference in their students’ lives. If skill at various subjects is inherent and immutable (as they probably partially are), then teachers are merely shoveling facts into students’ ears like a glorified filmstrip. How demoralizing, to see your students change from being bad at lower-level math, to being bad at intermediate-level math.

So teachers emphasize the part of their jobs that they most clearly have an impact on. Whether by yelling, by wheedling, or by mere persuasion, teachers can, at least in the short term, goad a slacker into trying hard. Whether this skill is actually important to any student’s education is unclear; but it gives Miss Grundy a chance to prove, if only to herself, that she has had an impact in her students’ lives.

I can assure you my theory was not popular with the teachers I had.

If a focus on effort actually helps students learn, excel, or whatever they’re supposed to do in school, then the fact that teachers emphasize effort is a good incentive. If focusing on effort is unhelpful, then you can add its emphasis to the long list (teaching to the test; kicking out low performers; graduating the illiterate) of perverse incentives that is choking our education system. I don’t actually know if it’s good or bad. I just know where the incentive lies.

I’m not saying all incentives are perverse; there’s a danger in so assuming. Case in point: During King Louis’s Crusade (1248–1254), outside the city of Mansourah, the Knights Templar warned the Count of Artois not to pursue fleeing Turks; the Count replied that the Knights Templar were deliberately giving him bad advice, because they wanted the Crusade to fail; too much success would bring the Holy Land safely into the Crusaders’ grasp, nullifying the Templars’ reason for existence, so the Templars had an incentive to keep successes to a minimum. It turned out that the Count was wrong,  the Templars’ advice was sound, and so perished the Count of Artois.* But people were wrong about a lot of things in the thirteenth century.

I want to talk about a particular perverse incentive people have. I want to do this without being as cynical as I was as a schoolboy, so I will leave out, for the moment, our well-documented desire to hurt others; for now I’ll speak only of a desire to get free stuff, which I assume we agree everyone has.

Now, most of us are not thieves. Ha ha! just kidding, you’re probably streaming anime right now. I mean that most of us are not the kind of person who would physically steal stuff. If we did, in a moment of weakness, we probably would not brag about it. So let’s look at someone who does brag about it. “Needless to say, I left (without paying)” is the relevant clause here.

What made this blogger steal drinks from a bar? The bartender was a Trump supporter (“needless to say”). The bar chose to keep employed a Trump supporter, and therefore stealing from that bar is the moral thing to do. Needless to say.

I believe in fictional characters more than I believe in real people, so let’s see what fictional characters would do when they want free stuff.

How does Ruth manage to steal a uniform for Billie? The owner of the uniform was a “bigot” on Facebook. Therefore, stealing from her is permitted. It’s unclear whether it is morally necessary to steal from bigots, but it is clearly permitted. (Although the nagging killjoy alt-text asks that people stop stealing things.)

There are all sorts of justifications for stealing (here’s an interesting one) and if Joe Goon started beating you up, and you managed to pick his pocket during the assault—who’s going to blame you? Joe Goon had it coming.

Not all of us are master pickpockets, and it’s no fun to get beaten up. But what if you can steal from bad people generally? There are plenty of bad people around! There are murderers walking the streets!

Murderers are definitely bad people; murderers are hard to find, though, and stealing from a murderer might be the most dangerous form of stealing anyway.

Always remember: The easiest way to change the world is to change a definition. If your definition of a bad person in “a murderer,” you’re never going to get any free stuff. But you can always change the definition of what a bad person is. Is a bad person someone who “posts slurs”? Probably, right? Is a bad person someone who voted for a candidate you don’t like?

If the answer is yes than roughly 1 in 5 people in America is fair game.

And if people who don’t vote are also bad (enablers!), then—assuming ineligible voters aren’t bad for not voting—it’s 3 out of 4 people. Imagine the bonanza if you were morally entitled to take whatever you wanted from 75% of the population! That’s a lot of free stuff!

But most of us are not thieves; perhaps out of fear of punishment, we don’t steal from the vast majority of people that we are perfectly in our rights to steal from. You may agree that thieves have an incentive to label most people “bad,” but we, as non-thieves, have no such incentive.

Unless there was something else we could do to bad people…

Look, I hope I’m not coming across as defending bad people. I think they’re bad, too! But I want to identify a trend I see, and then explain why this trend is happening.

There are two kinds of disagreements we can have. We can disagree about pineapple on pizza and everyone laughs and is still friends: an innocent controversy, I’ll call it. Or we can disagree about whether it’s okay to arrest and torture gay people for being gay ala Chechnya, and it’s going to be hard to look someone on the opposite side of that issue in the eye. I’ll call this a morally fraught controversy. I assume everyone reading this is furious and mourning over Chechnya; I assume everyone who’s reading this may enjoy pineapple pizza posturing but actually thinks that pizza can be eaten as the eater wishes. In other words, I assume we all agree that violence is justified for stopping homophobic torture and violence is not justified to enforce pizza topping rules. You may be a pacifist, and wish never to will violence; but even a pacifist, I assume, would affirm that we are permitted to kick down a door (property damage) to free someone who’s being tortured; but not to interfere with pizza toppings.

Morally fraught controversy permits violence, if you’re into that; we love punching nazis! It also permits theft, if you’re into stealing things, as we already saw. My guess, though, is that you’re probably neither going to punch anyone today, nor are you going to steal from them. Many people manage to make it through the day, even a day where they encounter bad people! without resorting to violence.

And yet, it’s pretty clear that the last several years have seen a trend of controversies migrating from innocent to morally fraught. You may think that a debate on minimum wage should be a civil discussion between economists, but this piece calls people who oppose minimum wage hikes “neanderthals,” this one attributes an opposition to minimum wage to a mental defect, while, here, for the opposition is a guy who thinks minimum wage is a hate crime akin to slavery.

I’m not going to burden you with a bunch of examples, as I’m sure you can think of others, such as whether or not “garbage comedienne” Amy Schumer should listen to Lemonade, or, well, okay one more. One more, let’s talk about comics. Because this Bookriot article is a typical example of the way we react to things that you might think are innocent—in this case, current Marvel comics plotlines.

The basic theory—that we should be offended retroactively for Jack Kirby even though he explicitly wasn’t offended when alive, and is now dead—is easily disposed of. Why would anyone harp on the same string a full year later? The answer, for the Bookriot link, comes in the fifth and fourth paragraphs from the end, when writer Jessica Plummer  starts presenting her list of demands. The first thing Marvel must do is apologize. Then Marvel must follow a series of steps effectively undermining their current marketing plans.

Look, I’ve been tempted to demand an apology from Marvel in the past: after the release of Secret Wars II, for example, or Spider-Man: One More Day. But as much of a blunder as Secret Wars II was, and as much as it galls me to say it, Secret Wars II was an innocent blunder. I can whine and writhe and gouge my eyes out, but at no point could I seize the moral high ground and demand Marvel apologize. Secret Wars II did not give me power.

Only morally fraught blunders give me power. Oo, Marvel’s VP has slipped up, and suddenly the power flows into me. Now I get to tell Marvel what to do!

This is the free thing we all want. We want power over another. We want to make Amy Schumer crawl in the dirt in front of us, begging to be forgiven.

As Freddie deBoer puts it: “People are alienated and worn down and hopeless, and so they see their opportunity to finally be the one pulling over somebody else’s car, lazily tapping the glass with their flashlights. ‘I’m the one in charge now,’ he thinks, as he sends an email to somebody’s boss over a Facebook status he doesn’t like.”

But it’s not just any Facebook status that’ll give you that rush. It has to be a morally fraught Facebook status. And the more morally fraught Facebook statuses you see, the more rushes you’re going to get.

It doesn’t always work, of course: Amy Schumer is just as rich as she was the day before she revealed the shameful secret that she liked Beyonce, and probably too drunk to care. But even when you’re not successfully grinding someone’s face into the mud, you’re bathed in the warm glow of moral superiority, of knowing you should be able to. All Trump supporters! 75% of America! As Eric Trump or Salon would say, they’re not even people.

“If anyone disagrees,” we cackle with self-righteousness as we type, “unfriend me now.”


*A counterpoint: According to Jean de Joinville, the Count of Artois was actually just deaf, and so did not hear the Templars’ warning; he doesn’t mention the whole incentive part of it, which I read here.


  1. >“It’s not your fault if you’re just naturally bad at art class (or gym; or math; etc.), so I grade based on how hard you try.”

    The joke with this is that it is exactly the wrong lesson for life. Nobody cares about effort, outcomes are the only things people care about. Let’s say you have to buy furniture, do you buy the table from the guy who worked really hard to make it even though it doesn’t look great and will fall apart in a few years? Or do you buy the nice looking, sturdy table from the guy who built it without much effort? Who do you think has more friends, the guy who tries really hard to make jokes but isn’t very funny or the guy who is naturally funny and charming? Much of life, and the education of children in particular, is people striving to pretend to believe lies that they think are virtuous.

    Amongst the stupid articles you link to, is one from a site called Afropunk. Punk was a white movement. This is cultural appropriation. We should start an indignant campaign on social media. Also, white people invented hypertext transfer protocol, so black people probably shouldn’t use the internet either.

    I think you chose a poor example for you morally fraught and innocent controversies. The minimum wage is currently law. People who don’t agree with it simply can’t agree to disagree, because if they ignore the law, they will be locked up in a prison. Whether or not to put pineapples on pizza is an innocent controversy, whether or not putting pineapples on pizza should be compulsory under threat of death is not an innocent controversy. Making something a law is making it into a morally fraught controversy (and this in my view, is a reason to have fewer laws).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was trying to find a political stance that had once seemed like something people could disagree on and remain friends, but now had fonger pointers calling hate crime.

      On lies and exucation obviously I agree with you. Cultural appropriation I don’t attempt to parody because I try to eschew redundancy.


      1. I think once something becomes a political stance, it exits the realm of agree to disagree, since one of the sides, by virtue of wanting their opinion to be law, is willing to put someone in prison over it. I recognize that people can disagree and still be civil, although I’m not sure that it is a good thing, as it helps to conceal the fact that the debate is really about whether or not violence or the threat of violence should be used to enforce one group’s will upon another.

        Imagine person A thinks gay sex should be illegal. Person B thinks it should be legal, but is still capable of having friendly conversations with person A and enjoying his company. Person C thinks gay sex should be legal and moreover would like to go have himself some gay sex. Person C also does not want to associate with person A and occasionally calls him bad names. Is person C the one who escalated the argument and made it personal? If person A wanted this to be the kind of argument that doesn’t come between friends, perhaps he should not be arguing for using coercion to force people to do as he wishes.

        Some other examples of personal opinions become political stances and thus exiting the realm of friendly debate:
        -Perhaps you think submerging a crucifix into a vat of urine makes good art or perhaps you think it is insulting and tasteless. People can agree to disagree. Unless one side wants to make it illegal to do so. Or unless the other side wants to force everyone to pay for a a crucifix submerged in a vat or urine.
        -Perhaps you have moral issues with birth control or perhaps you think birth control pills are the bee’s knees. This stops being a friendly disagreement once one side wants to make birth control pills illegal or when the other side wants to make it mandatory to buy health insurance covering birth control (effectively forcing everyone to purchase it indirectly through their insurer).

        If you really want differing opinions to not become morally fraught controversies, do not let them become political stances. Even your pineapple pizza example would be a lot less friendly if I were looking to forbid you from putting pineapples on pizza or forcing you to subsidize my pineapple pizzas.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think you’re partially right, in an “All Actions Are Propaganda” sense, but clearly we can sometimes disagree over laws without it being “war to the knife, and knife to the hilt.” There are all sorts of crazy laws that oppress all of us, but people have an easier time civilly debating the length of time of the school year (which equals the length of time that jackbooted thugs will imprison you if your children do not comply with their demands) than debating who other than children should be placed in camps.

        “Let’s put all Muslims in camps” is a “defriendable” offense; “expand leash laws” generally is not. Leash laws are not, as you point out innocuous: they are like all laws a proposition of whom to bring the power of the state to bear against. But even now we treat them as innocent disagreements, as innocent as any conflict over policy can be.

        But the wave is moving, and more conflicts are “knife” conflicts (perhaps with your endorsement? Honest question).


      3. >But the wave is moving, and more conflicts are “knife” conflicts (perhaps with your endorsement? Honest question).

        Kind of. If not with my endorsement, then certainly without my disapproval. You presumably think that people having a civilized disagreement about putting Muslims in camps would not actually be a sign of more civilization. That is roughly how I feel about most laws and even the laws I do approve of, I’m not going to be upset by others disagreeing with in a rude or aggressive manner, since after all, somebody is getting locked up over it. It’s only easy to discuss in a dispassionate manner when you aren’t the one getting locked up.

        But while I am in favor of striping away the veneer of civilization from state sanctioned violence, I’m generally not in favor of the narrowing of debate and I’m obviously not in favor of people wanting to use the law to settle what should be live and let live disagreements. Additionally, while to the hilt disagreements over laws may seem perfectly justified to me, it doesn’t follow that they are an effective way to change people’s minds.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. It’s a pickle because for any given issue I would of course prefer to preserve my current take on whether it is morally fraught or not; but for the system as a whole I would prefer fewer morally fraught issues. I’m enough of a big boy to be aware that I may have to give up some of my darlings in order to get the world I will.

        Actually, wouldn’t it be best if we were able to discuss everything civilly? “Prepare to die, Mr. Bond.” “Well, can we go over the pros and cons of that proposition?”

        But actually actually best is if I remove the “should” from the equation. I’m just a humble recorder of trends. I note that we want to fight over everything because it lets us steal from people. Some cultures sacrifice virgins to the sun god, we make ourselves miserable so we have more opportunities to hurt others. I should present without comment.


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