More Perspective

I realized that my previous post may have left the impression that I thought that every decision should be determined by whether the benefits outweigh the costs of each individual act.

I don’t.

For example, it’s possible that a policy against appeasing extortionists will lead to better outcomes in the long run, even if it imposes greater costs than benefits in individual instances of its application. Likewise, I think we all benefit if many people are willing to impose costs on others (bigots, liars, etc.) who are guilty of despicable behavior even though they (the imposers) may absorb some extra costs themselves while doing so. It’s good that people choose not to associate or do business with people or companies that have horrible behaviors and policies, because that tends to deter those sorts of behaviors and policies. I don’t want coercive legislation against non-coercive bad behavior, but I’m happy that many people peacefully enforce standards of decency through social pressure. Sometimes this enforcement has immediate costs that exceed immediate benefits.

And, I’m sure that people who support the San Jose State University ban on blood drives (while the restriction against gay men donating is in effect) believe that they are engaging in just such a worthy endeavor. They think that the principle of opposing the irrational discrimination against homosexuals is so important that it should be fought whenever possible, irrespective (or almost irrespective) of the immediate costs.

But, of course, I don’t agree with that last part.

For one thing, the degree of the costs imposed does matter, and that’s where the sense of perspective comes in. If all that you can reasonably expect from your protest is that some people will say “right on,” some people will die, and a tiny chance that the pressure of the publicity and effects of the protest (and potential copycat protests) will trickle up to those in a position to change the offending policy and will cause them to actually change the policy, then I don’t think that this particular protest is worthwhile. The expected costs are too much higher than the expected benefits.

There are a few other relevant points in this case.

One is that the offending ban doesn’t impose serious costs on homosexuals. It denies them the opportunity to donate blood (something that many others would consider a cost worth paying to avoid). It doesn’t deny them blood. I’m sure it feels bad to have your generosity refused in this way, but it’s not as if the policy is intended to harm homosexuals, or to deny them a basic right. It’s a bureaucracy being overly cautious, and there are better ways to criticize it.

Another important aspect of this case is that the people actually harmed by the protest are not those who are guilty of the perceived offense, but people in need of a blood transfusion (who may be homosexuals) but can’t get one because some university students, teachers, and administrators wanted to make a symbolic point about discrimination. The pressure on those who are in a position to revise the blood screening regulations is extremely indirect. I think this makes the protest much less virtuous. It targets innocents in order to affect the policies of others.

So, I don’t think each act must have benefits that outweigh costs in order to be praisworthy. Sometimes costly acts are part of a larger campaign or policy that has aggregate benefits that justify the individual costs. My point is that wanting to be part of such campaigns doesn’t mean that each attempt is immune from criticism. It may be that the campaign organizers are mistaken about whether this is a worthwhile contribution to a justified project.

In this case, and many others, I think this sort of mistake has been made.


Eugene Volokh has a nice post criticizing San Jose State University’s policy of suspending campus blood drives, because they oppose the FDA’s ban on donation by men who have had sex with men since 1977.

I don’t know enough about the economics of blood screening to judge whether the policy makes sense with respect to reasonable tradeoffs of cost, safety, inclusiveness, etc. It’s possible that it makes sense, but it’s quite likely that it doesn’t.

But, either way, I agree with Eugene that this type of protest shows a tremendous lack of perspective. In order to express their displeasure, they are quite likely causing much more harm than good. I think it’s worth something to express your displeasure at what you think is an unfair or immoral practice, but the costs (to everyone) shouldn’t be completely out of proportion to the expected benefits.

I see the same problem with many environmentalists who insist on practices that impose more costs than expected benefits (most kinds of recycling, for example), but leave the practitioner feeling more virtuous. They value that feeling, and the opportunity to signal commitment, more than they seem to actually care about the likely effects of their actions.

I also find it somewhat ironic that many of the same people who would support this protest actually endorse the type of hyper-cautious  precautionary principle-inspired sorts of policies, like this one by the FDA,  when it comes to things that may impinge on the environment.

Make up your mind!