Friedman opened another post, titled Frightening Ideas, with the following two paragraphs:
“Discussing with my daughter the flap over Steve Landsburg's recent post, I commented that the people who were angry about it, mostly online, struck me as either stupid or evil. Either they were too stupid to see that he was actually raising an interesting puzzle or they saw that he was doing so but pretended not to, in order to have an excuse to attack someone they disliked or disagreed with.
Her response was that I was wrong, that my mistake was not realizing the degree to which many other people were different from me. To me, ideas are real, important, and sufficiently interesting that my reaction to an argument that appears to prove some frightening or ugly conclusion is to be neither frightened or angry but intrigued. Lots of people don't react that way—and if you see the conclusion of an argument as frightening or ugly, it isn't surprising if you skip over the fact that it raises an interesting puzzle or are too willing to assume that whoever offered the argument must agree with its conclusion.”
I certainly believe his daughter was right in one regard: I’d like to think I’m neither stupid nor evil. Even if were, it was pretty presumptuous of Friedman to accuse so many people he does not know of those traits. It would have been fairer to simply say he found their arguments unintellectual, or that Landsburg’s post was over their head. He may have been right to say that. I concede these debates have been a challenge for me. Articulating the reasons Steven Landsburg’s argument is wrong is not easy, and perhaps many who reacted negatively to his post could not do it. But that doesn’t make them stupid or evil.
Most people are not philosophers, so we shouldn’t give what they say on philosophic debates much weight. But they’re still allowed to have opinions. It is okay to make moral claims you don’t know how to logically prove. In fact, very little in philosophy is provable even for philosophers. Perhaps the majority of Americans couldn’t articulate a philosophical framework proving why murder is immoral. Brilliant people like David Friedman could probably nitpick their answers, getting them confused and tongue-tied. But they’d still be right – murder is wrong. And they’d still be neither evil nor, for the most part, stupid.
Nevertheless, in my own case, I do not feel Friedman’s daughter’s observation explains why Friedman and I reacted differently. Unlike some people, I do not become frightened when confronted with challenging hypotheticals. Like Friedman, I too am intrigued by arguments that appear to contradict common wisdom. I too am willing to engage those arguments, and able to separate their underlying logic from the emotions their conclusions provoke. My first reaction when I read Landsburg’s blog was not “that idea makes me uncomfortable, and I don’t know how to refute it, so let me insult whoever floated the idea to hide from my cognitive dissonance.” Rather, my reaction was to roll my eyes and wince at the press coverage his “libertarian” ideas received.
It is true that Landsburg’s post peeved me a bit, but it was not because somebody dared wonder what he wondered. My qualms were twofold. First, he failed to adequately distinguish between posing a thought experiment and asserting the conclusion of that experiment as true. But that’s forgivable for a philosopher writing to a target audience (at least, assuming he does not actually believe raping unconscious victims is okay). More importantly, what frustrated me was that his conclusion was the opposite from what most libertarians believed, but yet was being associated with libertarianism nonetheless. That’s why I titled my post as I did; not “Steven Landsburg is an Idiot”, but “Steven Landsburg is No Libertarian.”
Perhaps this is a better explanation of why Friedman and I reacted differently. As a politically active libertarian, I understand public perception of our movement is critical to electoral success. Since politics are important to me, I’m irritated by anything which inaccurately defames or mischaracterizes my belief system, especially when it gets lots of press coverage. I’m not sure how much Friedman cares about public opinion, but I do know he wrote he was Landsburg’s personal friend. Surely this is not the only reason he defended him, but I can understand the natural impulse to defend our friends when they’re under attack. Maybe that came into play in the moment Friedman formed his initial reaction to the negative backlash.
If there is a deeper difference between us, it’s probably ideological. Unlike Friedman, I genuinely don’t find Landsburg’s hypothetical to be an interesting puzzle, because I find the utilitarian framework it relies on to be simplistic and wrong. If Landsburg proved anything in his argument, it was not that the mental trauma of rape victims can be disregarded in moral philosophy. It was that any moral philosophy which does disregard it is wrong. So wrong, I would say, that people are justified in getting a little impatient with its proponents.