Israel and The Moral Condemnation Of The Left

Not Anti-Semetic But The Left Can't Say That

So there is a long-standing inclination on the left to morally condemn Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. In response many jews allege this reflects anti-semetic prejudice which in turn is criticized by more moderate elements who argue that criticism of Israel should be seen as legitimate, e.g., this piece. Ultimately, I agree that the criticism of Israel isn’t a result of anti-semitism in that it doesn’t reflect a personal animosity towards jews or those of jewish descent but I think it’s important to point out that this isn’t a position the left-leaning groups responsible for the strident moral criticism can themselves adopt.

It very much is true that Israel is subject to strong moral condemnation disproportionate to it’s moral culpability and that the same people who call Israel (and often jews who support Israel) monstrous won’t even admit that much worse behavior by other nations is just as wrong much less call them out on it. The reason Israel is subjected to this kind of special criticism is easily explained by factors besides animosity towards jews. Unlike many muslim countries Israel is seen as part of the liberal western world and thus evaluated against higher standards (same way people go crazy on twitter about seeing anti-gay prejudice in the US even while Russia and Uganda have enshrined such prejudice into law). Also, the widespread awareness and outrage about the issue among Muslims worldwide (substantially facilitated by authoritarian regimes in Arab world for self-serving and anti-Semitic reasons) combined with the left-wing view of Muslims as a victimized minority (largely true in west even while Muslims are the oppressors of non-Muslim minorities through much of the world) explains why this issue is salient to many people on the left in a way that other kinds of bad behavior are not. So the individuals making the criticisms aren’t driven by any animosity of their own to Jews. Indeed, part of the reason Israel comes in for so much criticism is partly the fact that many people on the US left implicitly regard Jews as just another type of white person (while opinions are split on whether semites are white the stereotypical Jew looks like Seinfeld for most Americans).

So it is true that Jews and Israel come in for a degree of criticism similarly situated non-Jews and non-Jewish countries do not. Some of that is purely accidental (other western countries don’t live next to people committed to killing them and willing to resort to terrorism, existence of a US Muslim community), some is a result of arguably positive stereotypes of Jews as just another white person rather than a vulnerable minority and some is downstream of genuinely anti-Semitic attitudes prevalent in Arab countries and pushed by their governments. I personally don’t think that this makes those criticisms anti-Semitic simply because those offering them lack the animosity towards Jews that would make them particularly morally blameworthy.

However, I think it very much does matter that by the standards publicly accepted by the left this does render this criticism of Israel anti-semetic.. The left isn’t willing to accept a similar explanation of motives as exculpatory in other contexts, e.g., spouting (even accurate) critiques of black culture that you don’t apply to similar situated behavior by whites isn’t excused by pointing to the fact that it’s just the criticisms that were made salient to you growing up or being a teacher who gives Asian students lower effort grades because you assume they are inherently smarter even though it’s a positive stereotype. So at the very least those making the accusations of anti-semitism are on solid ground relative to the norms that are apparently endorsed in the contexts they usually live and work in.

I agree this, if accepted, has the unacceptable consequence of insulating Israel from deserved criticism. That’s why we need to abandon this absurd moral standard and just expect people to update without bias. That’s a world in which you aren’t anti-Semitic for not realizing many of the properties you critique Israel for are far more widely shared or for not being aware of the role the Arab states (or the UK and other WWII allies) played in the current quagmire nor even for focusing criticism where you think it will be most effective. However, you are expected to agree that other countries are equally morally culpable (and other people) when you discover they are similarly situated.

For instance, if you argue that the Israeli state is deeply unjust because the right of return applies only to Jews or because Hebrew is given a special status in Israel (though until 2018 Arabic was also an official language) then you should be expected to condemn countries like Japan or Latvia when you find out about the special status they give to either ethnic status or native language and how they treat their minorities. Similarly, when you hear about Egypt’s role in keeping trade out of Gaza or other Arab states interests in perpetuating, not solving, the conflict you should be furious with them. Reasonable people can disagree about where criticism would be more effectively directed or argue about the total level of suffering inflicted by each such policy. Unreasonable people can confuse the total degree of suffering the Palestinians are subject to with the degree of moral culpability without being anti-semitic (e.g. Japan’s treatment of people who aren’t ethnically Japanese is far more morally outrageous than Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians because it doesn’t even plausibly motivated by a desire to save lives even though the Palestinians surely endure much more unpleasant circumstances) but there is something at least pernicious about refusing to update on such information. It might not be anti-Semitic if your refusal is motivated just by a desire to culturally conform (then again I’m sure many German nazis weren’t anti-Semitic in this sense either…though I don’t mean this as a criticism merely a remark on the limitations of racist as a proxy for dangerous or harmful).

My basic view is that treating different races or ethnic groups differently is far more common than we want to believe and we should calibrate our level of disapproval more appropriately but there is something really disturbing about applying the rules to one group that’s been treated really badly in the past and not another.

College As Education

Shouldn't Harvard Believe In Educating Misbehaving Children?

Harvard’s recent decision to rescind it’s offer of admission to Kyle Kashuv really bothers me for a number of reasons. The fact that adolescent boys will egg each other on to do stupid shit shouldn’t surprise anyone. Indeed, any guy who tells you that they are sure they wouldn’t have done something equally offensive (though perhaps not online) at that age in the right circumstances (deliberately being extreme in what was foolishly assumed to be a private context) isn’t telling the truth. The admissions department at Harvard knows this and deliberately chose to put headlines over their supposed goal of educating admitted students. There isn’t any actual evidence this student is racist. Just someone who showed bad judgement like other adolescents. Harvard is willing to admit confessed violent criminals so the idea that this conduct was just too extreme is absurd.

No, he isn’t being sent to prison and his life is surely not ruined because he has to go to state school but it is a serious consequence and even if it wasn’t that just changes the extent of the damage and isn’t a justification for Harvard’s actions. Though, I’ll grant that if Harvard came back around after the controversy died down and offered to let him into the next year’s class that might make for an overall sound response. But I doubt they will do that.

Second, this further contributes to the troubling social narrative that not getting caught using bad words and otherwise signalling a certain kind of social virtue is more important than actually being good to other people. Yes, racist words can be quite hurtful but compare using the n-word in this context to making fun of a socially awkward classmate or even cheating on your significant other. If Harvard wants to condition admission on being a good person how about they start by kicking out students who were mean to their fellow classmates or their significant others. If the worst that kids do in highschool is use racist/sexist/whatever language in a context they believe won’t be seen by anyone likely to be offended that would be an infinitely better world than the one we live in now.

Third, one can reasonably infer that this past conduct surfaced as a result of Kyle’s public political positions. Using someone’s own words to counter their public arguments is certainly justified but the net effect of punishing kids for engaging in political advocacy. The exact opposite of the position that Harvard seemingly advocates. Moreover, one has to wonder if these documents would have come out (and if Harvard would have reacted as it did) if he wasn’t publicly known as the Parkland survivor with a conservative viewpoint. Moreover, the absence of any similar stories about the other contributors to that google doc having their admission to college rescinded suggests that either other schools don’t see things the same way Harvard does or raises questions of selective enforcement based on public visibility.

Fourth, it suggests that Harvard really does see it’s own admissions system as a kind of prize to be doled out for good behavior rather than a scarce resource that is allocated based on perceived benefit. If Harvard was interested in taking the best, brightest and likely future influencers and molding them for the benefit of the country this is the last thing they should do. Yes, make it clear this behavior is bad but then admit the student and mold him into a better person. Rescinding the admission just engenders bitterness and the kind of ugly emotions that led to Trump’s election.

Gay Cakes And Conservative Hens

No, It's Not Ok Because It's Partisan Identity

So in all the discussion about denying Sara Huckabee Sanders service at the Red Hen I’ve seen several places argue that it wasn’t a big deal to deny her service because they were very polite about the incident. While it’s surely better to be asked to leave politely this fails to grasp what’s upsetting about it and is completely inconsistent with our attitude about the harm in Masterpiece Cakeshop where the customers were denied service because they were gay1. Whether or not you think it’s warranted any honest analysis should admit that it is still likely very upsetting and, should it spread, has the potential to be a very big deal.

Don’t get me wrong. The long history of discrimination against homosexuals and their status as a vulnerable minority in much of the country makes it much worse to deny someone service based on sexual orientation. Also, I firmly believe it should be legal to deny someone service because of their partisan affiliation2. However, just because it’s less bad doesn’t mean it isn’t still plenty unpleasant. Note that I also think Sara Huckabee Sanders is a pretty awful person and spokespeople are surely different than random Trump supporters but I’ve seen many people defend such partisan denials of service generally not just for high ranking officials and that is what I feel deserves comment.

Humans are acutely sensitive to exclusion. It’s bad enough not to be invited to a party or know that you aren’t attractive or cool enough to be waived into a club. It’s much worse to be overtly told you don’t belong and asked to leave. This is especially true when you are asked to leave a place of public accommodation such as a restaurant and doubly true when one is there with family (especially children who might not understand).

Of course there isn’t the same history of discrimination as with race, sexual orientation or religion but surely the immediate emotional response of feeling hurt, confused and angry will share a fair bit in common. If you are skeptical imagine a Bedouin who has lived his entire life out of the reach of modern technology or history on his first visit to the United States who is politely asked to leave a restaurant because of his race or his religion. Do you doubt the very real pain and humiliation that will cause — even though that diner’s lack of contextual knowledge means that our fraught racial and religious history can’t play a causal factor?

At this point I’m sure that many liberals are marshaling reasons why it’s not at all similar. Partisan affiliation is a belief not an immutable characteristic, they aren’t a minority almost half the country is on their side, it doesn’t have the same potential to normalize harmful discrimination.

But religion is every bit as much a belief people choose (in both cases many people simply believe what their peers do) and people do identify very strongly with their partisan affiliation. Whether or not it is objectively different in some sense being excluded for partisan affiliation feels like being excluded for who you are to many people.

It’s certainly true that Trump supporters are hardly a minority in America but they are very much a minority in many areas (including large parts of DC). It’s also true that there are large swaths of the country where there is strong, vocal support for homosexual equality but we don’t feel that merely knowing that this would never happen in San Francisco obviates the harm to the couple denied service in Masterpiece Cakeshop. Nor would this intuition change if 40 of the 50 states were strong and vocal defenders of homosexual equality. Besides, you don’t really think the question turns on the fact that Trump supporters are 40 some percent of the population rather than 15% (the percentage of African-Americans in the US) and you’d surely never accept the response in the racial case.

Moreover, in terms of normalizing harmful discrimination, it is surely far more likely that (as many people openly suggested following the incident) people wearing MAGA hats will be denied service in a wide range of establishments in blue parts of the country sometime in the near future than homosexuals will face similar widespread denial of service (if for no other reason than the stronger norm against such discrimination). Note that if you want to argue this isn’t truly harmful discrimination you need to challenge one of the points above about this being a very painful and unpleasant experience.

Again, it’s not as bad as discrimination based on sexual orientation but we’re being hypocrites if we don’t recognize that it’s still a pretty intense and humiliating experience which we should avoid inflicting on people unless we have a very good reason.


  1. Ok, technically because they planned to use the cake at a gay wedding. 
  2. I’m unsure about legal protections based on gender identity since that turns on tough questions about how fast norms are changing versus the long term harms from such legislation but this uncertainty doesn’t stem from any doubt about the degree of pain imparted by such denials of service but merely from concern about the long term costs of such legislation and the hopeful belief that such denials of service will quickly become the kind of silly extremism (like refusing to sell to people with bare knees in the US) that is so rare as to no longer be seen as a threat. 

Ambiguity, Silence and Complicity

How Good People Make It Impossible To Discuss Race, Gender and Religion

Listening to the Klein-Harris discussion about the Charles Murray controversy affected me pretty intensely. I was struck by how charitable, compassionate and reasonable Klein was in his interaction with Harris. Klein honestly didn’t think Harris was a bad guy or anything just someone who was incorrect on a factual issue and, because of the same kind of everyday biases we all have, insufficiently responsive to the broader context. Indeed, it seemed that Klein even saw Murray himself as merely misguided and perhaps inappropriately fixated not fundamentally evil. How then to square this with the fact that Klein’s articles (both the ones he wrote and served as editor for) unquestionably played a huge role in many people concluding that Harris was beyond the pale and the kind of racist scum that right thinking people shouldn’t even listen to?

Unlike Harris I don’t think Klein was being two-faced or deliberately malicious in what he wrote about Harris. Indeed, what Klein did is unfortunately all too common among well-intentioned individuals on the left and academics in particular (and something I myself have been guilty of). Klein spoke up to voice his view about a view he felt was wrong or mistaken about race but then simply choose to keep silent rather than explicitly standing up to disclaim the views of those who would moralize the discussion. This can seem harmless because in other contexts one can simply demure from voicing an opinion about controversial points which might get one in trouble but key ambiguities in how we understand notions like racist/sexist/etc and accusations of bias or insufficient awareness of/concern for the plight of underprivileged groups has the effect of turning silence into complicity.

The danger is that someone in Klein’s position faces strong pressure from certain factions on the left not to defend Murray’s views and those of his supporters as being within the realm of appropriate discussion and debate. Indeed, as Klein thinks that not only is Murray wrong but wrong in a dangerous and potentially harmful way it’s understandable that he would see no reason to throw himself in front of the extremists who don’t merely want to say Harris is mistaken but believe he should be subject to the same ostracism that we apply to members of the KKK. So Klein simply presents his criticisms of Harris and Murray and calls attention to the ways in which he thinks their views are not only wrong but actively harmful in a way that resonates with past racial injustices but doesn’t feel the need to step forward and affirmatively state his belief that Harris is probably just making a mistake for understandable human reasons not engaging in some kind of thought crime.

In other contexts one could probably just stand aside and not engage this issue but when it comes to race and racism there is a strong underlying ambiguity as to whether one is saying a claim is racist in the sense of being harmful to racial minorities or in the sense that believing it deserves moral condemnation. Similarly, there is a strong ambiguity between claiming that someone is biased in the sense of having the universal human failing of being more sympathetic to situations they can relate to or is biased in the sense of disliking minorities. These tend to run together since once everyone agrees something is racist, e.g., our punitive drug laws, then only those who don’t mind being labeled racists tend to support them even though there are plenty of well-intentioned reasons to have those beliefs, e.g., many black pastors were initially supportive of the harsh drug laws.

Unfortunately, the resulting effect is that failing to stand up and actively deny that one is calling for moral condemnation for having the wrong views on questions of race (or gender or…) one ends up implicitly encouraging such condemnation.

Harris and Klein

Double Charity Failure

I’m generally a defender of Harris and I believe Vox (under Klein) was uncharitable to Murray and Harris. Even in this interview I think he (probably unintentionally) suggests that we should take Murray’s arguments less seriously because of his political aims and implied motivations.

However, Klein is dead on the nose when he accuses Harris of not being willing to extend the same charity to others he wants extended to him. Disagreements are hard and understanding other people is very difficult and Harris (like all of us) does have trouble extending charity when it feels near something that’s a personal attack on him or understanding how other people’s errors may be motivated by similar emotional response to prior unfairness.

My sense is the Klein’s real position is a reasonable view that Murray is very wrong on the science in a way that is harmful and that Harris gets it wrong because of the issue above. However, I think Harris is absolutely right in criticizing Klein for speaking in ways he should know are likely to lead to extreme moral condemnation.

Klein should know that the way his articles (and the articles in Vox while he was editor) will be interpreted by the public as going far beyond a mild criticism that Harris makes the same kind of unremarkable mistake we all do talking about tough political issues. I don’t think Klein is being malicious here and Harris is uncharitable in assuming this but I think he should be faulted for not being much more clear to his readers that he isn’t suggesting Harris is beyond the realm of reasonable disagreement…merely that he thinks he is well-intentioned, but wrong, in a way that happens to be harmful.

In short Harris and Klein both fall short of the ideal of charity and they both could do a great deal more to communicate that well-intentioned good people can disagree intensely and even think another person’s views are harmful without having to think they are a bad person.

Waking Up Podcast #123 – Identity & Honesty | Sam Harris

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Ezra Klein, Editor-at-Large for Vox Media, about racism, identity politics, intellectual honesty, and the controversy over his podcast with Charles Murray (Waking Up #73).

A Norm Against Partisan Smearing?

Reading Reich’s book (Who We Are And How We Got Here) really drives home to me just how tempting it is to collapse into tribal based cheering (e.g. cheering on your genes/genetic history/etc as the best) and how important our norms against racism are in limiting this.

It makes me wonder if we couldn’t develop similarly strong norms about not cheering on your political/social tribe in the same manner. It’s a more delicate situation since we need to preserve the ability to disagree and offer useful criticism. However, it still seems to me that we might be able to cultivate a norm which strongly disapproved of trying to make the other side look bad or implying they are improperly motivated/biased.

I mean, of course, we won’t actually get rid of hypocrisy or self-serving beliefs but if it required the same kind of extreme caution to allege bad faith to the other ideologies that we require to make claims about racial differences it might make a big difference.

AI Bias and Subtle Discrimination

Don't Incentivize Discrimination To Feel Better

This is an important point not just about AI software but discussions about race and gender more generally. Accurately reporting (or predicting) facts that, all too often, are the unfortunate result of a long history of oppression or simple random variation isn’t bias.

Personally, I feel that the social norm which regards accurate observation of facts such as (as mentioned in the article) racial differences in loan repayment rate conditional on wealth to be a reflection of bias is just a way of pretending society’s social warts don’t exist. Only by accurately reporting such effects can we hope to identify and rectify the causes, e.g., perhaps differences in treatment make employment less stable for certain racial groups or whether or not the bank officer looks like you affects likelihood of repayment. Our unwillingness to confront these issues places our personal interest in avoiding the risk of seeming racist/sexist over the social good of working out and addressing the causes of these differences.

Ultimately, the society I want isn’t the wink and a nod cultural in which people all mouth platitudes but we implicitly reward people for denying underrepresented groups loans or spots in colleges or whatever. I think we end up with a better society (not the best, see below) when the bank’s loan evaluation software spits out a number which bakes in all available correlations (even the racial ones) and rewards the loan officer for making good judgements of character independent of race rather than the system where the software can’t consider that factor and we reward the loan officers who evaluate the character of applications of color more negatively to compensate or the bank executives who choose not to place branches in communities of color and so on. Not only does this encourage a kind of wink and nod racism but when banks optimize profits via subtle discrimination rather than explicit consideration of the numbers one ends up creating a far higher barrier to minorities getting loans than a slight tick up in predicted default rate. If we don’t want to use features like the applicant race in decisions like loan offers, college acceptance etc.. we need to affirmatively acknowledge these correlations exist and ensure we don’t implement incentives to be subtly racist, e.g., evaluate loan officer’s performance relative to the (all factors included) default rate so we don’t implicitly reward loan officers and bank managers with biases against people of color (which itself imposes a barrier to minority loan officers).

In short, don’t let the shareholders and executives get away with passing the moral buck by saying ‘Ohh no, we don’t want to consider factors like race when offering loans’ but then turning around and using total profits as the incentive to ensure their employees do the discrimination for them. It may feel uncomfortable openly acknowledging such correlates but not only is it necessary to trace out the social causes of these ills but the other option is continued incentives for covert racism especially the use of subtle social cues of being the ‘right sort’ to identify likely success and that is what perpetuates the cycle.

 

A.I. ‘Bias’ Doesn’t Mean What Journalists Say it Means

In Florida, a criminal sentencing algorithm called COMPAS looks at many pieces of data about a criminal and computes the probability that they will commit new crimes. Judges use these risk scores in criminal sentencing and parole hearings to determine whether the offender should be kept in jail or released.

We’re Damn Lucky The HBD Folks Aren’t Right About Race

Some Relieving News About Third World IQs

Here is a bit of hard data to respond to the claims that observed performance on IQ tests by those in third world countries reflect genetic deficits. Its a good thing too (even if this was hardly the first piece of evidence on the point) since its easy to imagine that the world could have turned out in a way in which (despite race not being a scientifically useful category) third world populations also suffered from genetic intelligence disadvantages. There is a decent case to be made that the Ashkenazi Jews have genetic differences given them higher average IQs. Notably that case doesn’t merely depend on differences in performance on some tests but, likely all compelling scientific arguments, weaves together an explanation of a number of different phenomena with an appealing theoretical account1. Whether or not this ultimately turns out to be true it could have been true and other undisputed cases of recent evolutionary pressure like adult tolerance for lactose make it abundantly clear that we got very lucky that there aren’t major differences in genetic predisposition to IQ across people of different descent and seeing studies like this reassures me that we really did get lucky and its not just that we are laboring under a desirable fiction.

Even though our racial categories don’t correspond to any principled scientific division at the genetic level it is a classification that correlates with ones ancestry. Given that people still tend to choose mates relatively close to themselves genetically (whether or not race is salient to them or merely geographic proximity) that means it could easily have been the case that, even supposing all developmental and social effects are controlled for, that some races would average much, much worse on IQ tests and other measures of intelligence than others. It wouldn’t really matter that race wasn’t the best scientific category to explain the effect if it turned out that 80% of people we classified as black had genes which cost them 20 IQ points while only 20% of Caucasians and 30% of Semites had this genetic combination. Such a fact would have amplified existing prejudices and resentments making it much more difficult to roll back racist attitudes and laws. In such a world I doubt one of the 20% of blacks without those genes would have had much luck explaining to the white racists around them that no, no, black isn’t the appropriate scientific concept with which to analyze this effect its really this other grouping they should be using, e.g., one which is purely defined via heredity and doesn’t exactly track our racial divisions but just happens to correlate with them.

One might try and argue that there is too much human genetic mixing for substantial genetic differences in IQ to have arisen. While it is true that for the most part humans haven’t partitioned themselves into non-interbreeding (or at least rarely) sub-populations that only holds for the most part and is itself purely a lucky accident. Australian aborigines appear to have been genetically isolated for almost 50,000 years with that isolation only ending quite recently2. There is evidence that the San people in Africa may split off from the rest of the human lineage at around the time modern homo sapiens first arrived on the scene and were then genetically isolated for nearly 100,000 years until only 40,000 years ago. There is no scientific law that ensured there weren’t major genetically isolated branches of the human species with substantially different intellectual abilities which remained separated until the end of the middle ages. It didn’t have to be the case that America was populated by genetically modern humans3 and for less extreme cases one doesn’t even need genetic isolation at all. One can imagine a scenario in which the black death is even worse and attacks the neural system creating strong selective pressure in Europe for a mutation which protects against it despite its detrimental effects on IQ. I suppose one could argue that people are just too rapacious and generally willing to fuck each other for differences to have persisted during the historical era but that is only true if all populations were subject to the same selective pressures and one could certainly imagine a scenario in which only farmers and not hunter gatherers (or vice versa) experience selection for the kind of mixed blessing genes postulated to be more prevalent in the Ashkenazi.

Of course, if we learn enough about genetics and perform sufficiently high powered studies we will probably come across some minor statistical difference in IQ between racial groups. If we assumed that humans were all otherwise genetically identical the small IQ advantage observed in Ashkenazi Jews would be enough to ensure that sufficiently powerful studies would find some average difference. Of course we aren’t all otherwise genetically identical and surely the beneficial and detrimental mutations won’t perfectly cancel out on average. But the fact that we haven’t already found substantial differences and don’t even know who will come out on top if average differences are ever found already means that we got incredibly lucky. It didn’t have to be that the HBD people were wrong, it didn’t even half to be that our racial categories didn’t track scientifically important genetic fault lines. Even though many of the HBD proponents seem so desperately motivated to believe their theories (and not all for racist reasons…some just want to be contrarian) their views certainly describe a way the world could have been and we got quite lucky that human capacities ended up sufficiently close together and interbreeding smeared us out enough that we can’t obviously pick out the more and less capable major ethnic groups.

The Wonder of International Adoption: Adult IQ in Sweden | EconLog | Library of Economics and Liberty

In Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, I showed that nurture effects are small within the First World. But I also freely conceded that the nurture effects of growing up outside the First World are probably large:The most important weakness…


  1. In this case the theoretical account suggests that certain mutations which both increase intelligence but also increase susceptibility to certain congenital disorders were selected for in Jews living in medieval Europe and laboring under systematic discrimination which kept them out of most occupations while concentrating them in a few occupations for which IQ was particularly important. 
  2. Though one could, I suppose, argue that had the aboriginal Australians, contrary to fact, been intellectually impaired relative to other humans then relatively nearby populations would have noticed and used their superior intelligence to supplant them. 
  3. For a truly extreme scenario, one could imagine an “out of America” theory of human evolution in which 200,000 years ago proto-humans leave America over the land bridge which subsequently closes (and weather/sea conditions prevent coast hopping) it is only in 1492, after modern humans evolve in the rest of the world, that we rediscover the lost American branch of the human tree. 

Legally Requiring Cross-Racial Adoptions And Sperm Donations

Is Dented Cultural Pride And Growing Pains Too High A Price To Fix Racism?

Based on their statements and revealed preferences it seems that many members of the public, and virtually all liberals, would judge some relatively minor restrictions on personal liberty (and a smidge of dented cultural pride and discomfort) to be a small price to pay to make serious inroads against the current level of racism in the United States. There is broad support for the non-trivial infringement on freedoms (despite the substantial economic costs of compliance, lawsuits and enforcement) imposed by anti-discrimination laws in hiring and public accommodations. Furthermore, the public rhetoric of most liberals and a decent chunk of conservatives suggests they would regard a mandatory two year term of military service (even if only in humanitarian/non-combat units) for American youth an acceptable price to pay in exchange for serious progress against racism in the US1. Provided we aren’t mistaken by multiple orders of magnitude about how bad the current level of US racism is it seems like we should be willing to consider relatively modest legal restrictions requiring all non-familial infant adoptions by white Americans to be of black children (and vice versa2) as well as requiring that sperm/egg banks only offer black individual’s sperm/eggs to whites and vice versa. Let me be clear I’m not at all sure I think this is even close to a good ideas but I think asking whether it is or isn’t and why raises some interesting questions.

Based on some quick googling it looks like something like 2% of all children in the US are adopted and about half of those are non-familial. Determining the rate of donor conceived children is harder given the lack of reporting but my eyeballing of the numbers from wikipedia (remembering that both total US population and use of donors is rising) page suggests that we are looking at another 2% or more donor conceived children. Putting these together it seems like such laws could ensure that something like 3% of children were raised by parents of a different skin color.

Of course, not everyone is either white or black but, according to the 2010 census about 73% of Americans are white and another 13% are black with relatively small percentages of other races. Given that whites are pretty strongly overrepresented among adopting parents as well as consumers of donor eggs/sperm and that black children are quite strongly overrepresented among children put up for adoption it seems plausible that such laws would ensure that something on the order of 1% of US children would be black children raised by whites provided we overcome the limiting factor of insufficiently many black children to be adopted by importing infants from abroad3 (and perhaps also incentivize black women to do more egg donation).

I suspect that such a policy would reduce black/white racism to a small fraction of what it once was within at most 25 years and within 40 teens will start doubting it was ever really a thing. Not only does the integration of a non-trivial percentage of blacks into white society undermine stereotypes but the close bonds of parental affection, childhood friendship and, inevitably , romantic relationships between the races ensures that both sides get an all-but first person perspective on the other, come to common understandings and leverage those relationships (as well as money and power and understanding of the system) to stamp out police bias and other kinds of institutional racism thousands of times more effectively than any social justice movement could.

Ultimately, I’m not really sure whether I see this as more of an argument that we are crazily overestimating the harmfulness of racism, hugely underestimate the harm from regulatory impositions on freedom or if its really something we should pursue.

I’m sure most people will think this is ridiculous to think about even as a thought experiment. Maybe its stupid and a bad idea. However, the space of social interventions to change attitudes is huge and people who care more about fixing the problems of racism than signalling how strong an ally they are should spend more time considering them.

Interracial Adoption Considered Harmful

Now there are any number of criticisms of interracial adoption so I expect a certain amount of resistance to the idea that it would be good to have so many black kids raised by whites.

However, these criticisms seem to break down into a few basic kinds of concerns.

  1. White parents aren’t culturally/socially prepared to deal with the discrimination, stereotypes and other bad treatment that their adopted black children face and won’t know how to effectively advocate for their child, understand what they are going through or teach them how to live through police stops.
  2. There are differences in hair care and other vaguely specified physical attributes and stuff that white parents will somehow have difficulty managing. Yes, I really found pieces suggesting this but it’s sufficiently absurd in the age of google not to be worth mentioning again.
  3. The supposedly endemic microaggressions, racist language and assumptions and other supposedly racially hurtful things white people are doing all the time will make things uncomfortable.
  4. Blacks adopted by whites are culturally and socially isolated from other blacks but aren’t really accepted by whites leaving them out in the cold.
  5. Suggestions that the practice undermines Black cultural identity or of some kind of intrinsic badness when black children don’t know ‘their’ culture and only white culture.

Point 1 is certainly serious, but it is no longer so much of a big deal when blacks being raised by whites are 1% of the population. Not only will the frequent presence of kids with black skin who are otherwise WASPs in schools, sports teams and camps reduce the barriers and stereotypes these kids face but there will be a large network of other white parents of black kids to network, exchange tips and fight for their children. White parents may struggle when they are on their own but coming together in groups with likeminded mothers to drink wine and strategize about making the lives of recalcitrant officials/teachers/etc difficult is preciscely what Caucasian moms are culturally prepared to do.

As far as point 3 goes, I think these worries take insufficient account of the fact that children don’t enter this world with any conception of what things are racial subtext and it usually takes until well into adulthood to look back on one’s parents as real people with the usual package of strengths and weaknesses. Rather than seeing the normal behavior of their parents as microaggressions and glimpses of racism infants raised by whites from birth won’t even see (when they are there) these supposed microaggressions until they learn to do so as young adults and even then it will be that embarrassing, backwards, way mom talks not threatening racial animus.

Point 4 becomes largely a non-issue. As they would no longer be a rare sight white raised black kids would be more welcome in white circles and the large cohort of other white raised black kids provides a readily available set of people who share the same experience. Finally, point 5 is nothing but the type of attitude we should be eliminating. Having a certain skin color doesn’t make one heritage yours and another not yours. The whole point of the game is to build a world in which no one even distinguishes between BASPS and WASPS and we all assign cultural heritage based on your culture not skin color.

I’m not claiming there won’t be any difficulties. It will be hard and uncomfortable for many people. Even if I’m wrong on virtually every count here as parents matter far less to children’s future welfare than peer groups I’d be shocked if the effect of neighborhood these kids grow up in and school they attend doesn’t swamp any effect based on the color of their parents skin.


  1. That is I think a majority of US voters would be willing to support the candidate pushing the mandatory military service, even knowing congress would give him the votes to pass it, if they believed that the candidates personal characteristics or policies meant having him in the whitehouse would result in real social progress regarding race. 
  2. One could implement such a policy by making it illegal for any white family to adopt a non-black infant provided any healthy black infants are still unadopted and vice-versa. This ensures that no babies go unadopted if there are willing parents just because of numerical mismatch. 
  3. International adoption my be hard now but if the US government made facilitating it a diplomatic and bureaucratic priority and imported those babies themselves it wouldn’t be. 

The Troubling Issue Of Masterpiece Cakes

Masterpiece Cakeshop Is In The Wrong But Anti-Discrimination Laws Based On Orientation May Be The Long Run Danger

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission is the Supreme Court case about the religious baker who refused to sell any wedding cake for a gay wedding and is now challenging the Colorado anti-discrimination laws that bar him from doing this on both free speech grounds and religious liberty grounds.

Legal Considerations

The religious liberty challenge is pretty weak (both as a moral and legal matter). Essentially, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop is arguing that he shouldn’t have to comply with the same laws that everyone else does just because his religion disagrees. It used to be the case that in some situations the Supreme Court recognized a first amendment right to an exception to generally applicable laws when they conflicted with religious belief. However, in Employment Division v. Smith Scalia got rid of this nonsense. As long as a law is generally applicable and isn’t motivated by religious animus the fact that it requires you violate your religious beliefs is immaterial1. As a result Masterpiece Cakeshop really doesn’t have a leg to stand on as far as the free exercise claim goes.

The free speech arguments are a bit more hefty. There is a long ling of cases that hold the first amendment bars the government from compelling you to express views you disagree with. For instance, in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, & Bisexual Group of Boston the Supreme Court held that the first amendment protected the right of march organizers to exclude groups from their demonstration (despite contrary anti-discrimination law) when it would compromise their message, e.g., you can’t force a march against homosexuality to allow gay groups to join or a white supremacist march to include blacks. In other cases the court has held that the government can’t force students to pledge allegiance, newspapers to carry political responses for balance or PG&E to include environmental fliers in its bills.

As such, if Masterpiece Cakeshop was about the baker refusing to decorate the cake with a message they disagreed with I’m inclined to think there is a plausible argument to be made. If Masterpiece Cakeshop was willing to sell blank or generic wedding cakes to gay couples getting married there would be a strong case that requiring them to distribute messages on the cakes that they find objectionable is analogous to requiring PG&E to distribute environmental fliers it disagrees with. However, that’s not the fact patter in this case. Masterpiece Cakeshop is refusing to sell any wedding cake for a homosexual wedding.

Now there have been some heroic attempts to argue that merely providing any wedding cake at all conveys a celebratory message. However, this argument just isn’t very plausible. Certainly, wedding cakes are used as part of an event which, as a whole, sends a celebratory message but so too are the plates, silverware and chairs used at such functions. Surely no one thinks that a vendor who rents chairs for events is somehow being compelled to speak (in the way the Supreme Court has deemed unacceptable) when the law requires they deliver chairs to both gay and straight weddings. Indeed, if we accept the argument that merely because a good sold by a business will be used for an expressive purpose the sale of that good is itself expressive and thus protected from compulsion we would have to conclude that a white supremacist who owned an art supply shop had a first amendment right to refuse to sell pens to blacks as they will be used in an expressive manner (and quite likely to disapprove of white supremacy).

More broadly, there is an expressive component to all business transactions. In some sense serving black customers at a dinner expresses approval of their presence in the same dinner as whites. However, this isn’t the kind of incidental compelled expression the supreme court has identified as deserving of special protection nor should it be. When the government mandates that newspapers carry articles they disagree with the newspaper’s ability to express its desired message is seriously burdened. In contrast, when the government requires business owners to serve customers at a dinner regardless of race or sexual orientation there isn’t the same burden place on the ability of the diner owner to clearly convey his bigotry (modulo certain issues about signs2). If these brief remarks haven’t convinced you on this point I urge you to read this piece.

Policy Considerations

Alright, so Masterpiece Cakeshop deserves to lose (and almost surely will lose) at the Supreme Court. Indeed, if SCOTUS found for Masterpiece Cakeshop it would raise serious issues about the continued practical applicability of anti-discrimination laws more broadly. Many of which still address compelling needs.

However, I’m far less convinced there is any similarly compelling need for protecting homosexuals access to public accomodations like bakeries. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that individuals like the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop are deeply misguided and probably bigots3. However, such individuals are being overwhelmed by the remarkably rapid march towards greater acceptance of homosexuality.

Certainly, there are still pockets of homophobia in the country but by the time laws barring anti-homosexual discrimination in public accommodations can be enacted and have an effect in less progressive states than Colorado there will be more homosexuals than people who support discrimination against homosexuals. I don’t mean to in any way diminish just how hurtful it can be to be discriminated against but we need to balance that hurt against the burden such laws place on our freedoms. The judgement we’ve made in almost all cases is that just because something is hurtful or offensive isn’t a good enough reason to abridge people’s rights to choose whom to sell to. After all, its also quite hurtful to refuse to sell to someone because they are dumb, support abortion, or because their hipster beard looks stupid (though that may be more understandable). Those may not be quite at the same level but refusing to serve any ex-cons is closer as is any number of personal reasons for discrimination one sees in small towns.

The argument that there is a special need for public accommodation laws (as opposed to other instances of hurtful but appropriately legal behavior) stems, in the case of racial discrimination, from the claim that such discrimination is systematic, pervasive and makes it particularly difficult to dissolve bigoted attitudes. These all were, and perhaps would be again absent such laws, in the case of racial discrimination. It wasn’t just that blacks were excluded from a few venues run by marginalized bigots but systematically barred from whole classes of establishments — particularly high status establishments were power and influence get traded. The systematic exclusion of blacks from these establishments created a particularly formidable barrier to racial understanding and acceptance.

In contrast, homosexuals are only rarely discriminated against in public accommodations (I’m not suggesting that many people don’t remain closeted because of likely bigoted responses from friends and family but this is beyond governmental intervention) and usually have ample alternative venues. Those public accommodations which do discriminate against homosexuals tend to be low status enterprises run by socially marginalized assholes. The penetration of chain stores into virtually all parts of America provides high quality cheap products in a non-discriminatory fashion even in some of the most backwards regions. The opinion poll trend lines prove that even without such laws the cultural shift towards homosexual acceptance is both rapid and unstoppable. In short, virtually all the reasons for thinking that anti-discrimination laws serve a special need whose exceptional importance warrants prioritizing it over the individual freedoms of the business owner don’t seem to apply. Certainly, its awful and morally unacceptable but it doesn’t seem to be different in kind from the other awful morally unacceptable behaviors we don’t outlaw.

I certainly recognize that reasonable people can disagree on the relative value of the freedoms given to business owners as well as the substantial compliance costs, unintended harms and regulatory burdens imposed by anti-discrimination laws. However, the lack of any serious attempt to weigh the costs and benefits of such anti-discrimination laws makes me suspect that people support laws barring discrimination against homosexuals merely to signal their moral disapproval of such discrimination not based on any policy analysis.

Currently, many states as well as the federal government lack laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodation (hiring is a harder question IMO) so given the fact that once an anti-discrimination law is passed it is virtually impossible to ever repeal (for fear of sending the message that discrimination is acceptable) now is the time to sit down and ask whether we really want the kind of laws that lead to Masterpiece Cakeshop. If I could choose to enact such laws for a ten year period I’d probably support them but when I balance 50 or 100 years of reduced freedoms, compliance costs and unintended harms against the rapidly fading benefits I find leaning against such laws.

In short, while Masterpiece Cakeshop is clearly in the wrong from both a moral and legal perspective in the long run I fear that the well-intentioned laws that lead to this case are what we should really fear. If only there was a good way to signal our moral disapproval with sufficient strength without actually creating expensive and invasive new torts and enforcement agencies.


  1. Of course, in some circumstances we do feel that religious groups deserve a special break on a generally applicable law such as when the law is merely a matter of enforcing some uniform standard and the costs of allowing sincere religious objection is small. For instance, the purpose of a law stipulating that city employees are barred from wearing any visible clothing besides their uniform isn’t substantially impeded by allowing Jewish employees to wear a kippah (aka yamaka) and the benefit to religious individuals pretty clearly outweighs the additional hassle of having to make individual determinations of appropriateness. Congress and state legislatures have adopted RFRA laws in a (deeply flawed) attempt to ensure that, in those cases where the societal cost is small and the individual benefit large, we make exceptions. Personally, I would prefer a legal regime that was religiously neutral and simply focused on strongly held views and applied a balancing test but that’s another conversation. 
  2. As Eugene Volokh has pointed out there is a serious tension between free speech rights and anti-discrimination laws which bar vendors from expressing bigoted/sexist messages in their workplace. While being forced to serve blacks doesn’t seriously burden the owner’s freedom of expression being barred from decorating the diner with news clippings praising white supremacy, denigrating blacks and arguing for the racial inferiority of minorities does. However, this is an issue for another time. 
  3. From afar animus is hard to distinguish from compassionate belief someone is making mistaken life choices combined with a desire not to encourage further mistakes. I honestly believe some very devout catholics who truly treat homosexuality as a mistake just like adultery or premarital sex fall into the second category but such people are rare. Animus is far more common.