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Ethics | Philosophy | April 20, 2013

The Straight Path

A Conversation with Ronald A. Howard

straight

(Photo by PhillipC)

As I wrote in the introduction to Lying, Ronald A. Howard was one of my favorite professors in college, and his courses on ethics, social systems, and decision making did much to shape my views on these topics. Last week, he was kind enough to speak with me at length about the ethics of lying. The following post is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Ronald A. Howard directs teaching and research in the Decision Analysis Program of the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University.  He is also the Director of the Department’s Decisions and Ethics Center, which examines the efficacy and ethics of social arrangements.  He defined the profession of decision analysis in 1964 and has since supervised several doctoral theses in decision analysis every year.  His experience includes dozens of decision analysis projects that range over virtually all fields of application, from investment planning to research strategy, and from hurricane seeding to nuclear waste isolation.  He was a founding Director and Chairman of Strategic Decisions Group and is President of the Decision Education Foundation, an organization dedicated to bringing decision skills to youth.  He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a Fellow of INFORMS and IEEE, and the 1986 Ramsey medalist of the Decision Analysis Society.  He is the author, with Clint Korver, of Ethics for the Real World: Creating a Personal Code to Guide Decisions in Work and Life.


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Harris: First, let me say that I greatly appreciate your taking the time to do this interview. As you may or may not know, your courses on ethics at Stanford were pivotal in my moral and intellectual development—as they have surely been for many others. So it’s an honor to be able to bring your voice to my readers.

Howard: My pleasure.

Harris: Let’s talk about lying. I think we might as well start with the hardest case for the truth-teller: The Nazis are at the door, and you’ve got Anne Frank hiding in the attic. How do you think about situations in which honesty seems to open the door—in this case literally—to moral catastrophe?

Howard: As you point out, these are very difficult situations to think through, and one hopes that one would be able to transform them. In other words, if you were the Buddha or some other remarkable person, perhaps some version of the truth could still save the day. You probably remember the story of the Buddha encountering a murderer who had killed 1,000 people. Instead of avoiding him, he said, “I know you’re going to kill me, but would you first cut off the large branch on that tree?” The murderer does so, and then the Buddha says, “Thank you.  Now would you put it back on?”  And—the story goes—the murderer suddenly realized that he was playing the wrong game in life, became enlightened, and a monk.

It’s not inconceivable that one could transform even a terribly dire situation—and I think that doing so would constitute a kind of moral perfection. Of course, that’s pretty hard to imagine for most of us when confronted by Nazis at the door. But there are extreme cases in which, depending on the participants, it’s not clear that telling the truth will always lead to a bad outcome.

Harris: I agree. But it’s probably setting the bar too high for most of us, most of the time—and, more important, it is surely setting it too high for any randomly selected group of Nazis. It seems that there are situations in which one must admit at the outset that one is not in the presence of an ethical intelligence that can be reasoned with.

I take your point, however, that if one makes this determination—i.e. these are not Nazis I’m going to be able to enlighten—one has closed the door to certain kinds of moral breakthroughs. For instance, I remember hearing about a rabbi who was receiving threatening calls from a white supremacist. Rather than hang up or call the police, the rabbi patiently heard the man out, every time he called, whatever the hour. Eventually they started having a real conversation, and ultimately the rabbi broke through, and the white supremacist started telling him about all the troubles in his life. They even met and became friends. One certainly likes to believe that such breakthroughs are possible.

Nevertheless, in some situations the threat is so obvious, and the time in which one has to make a judgment so brief, that one must err on the side of treating an avowed enemy as a real enemy.

Howard: Of course. And some people deal with this by thinking in a kind of a hierarchy. They might say, “Well, I don’t want to kill people, but I’ll kill in self-defense. I don’t want to steal but I’d steal to keep someone alive. I wouldn’t ordinarily lie, but I’ll do it to save someone’s property or to save a life, and so forth. That’s another way to handle it.

Harris: That is the way I handled it in my book. Essentially, I view lying in these cases as an extension of the continuum of force one would use against a person who no longer appears to be capable of a rational conversation. If you would be willing to defensively shoot a person who had come to harm you or someone in your care, or you would be willing to punch him in the jaw, it seems ethical to use even less force—that is, mere speech—to deflect his bad intentions.

Howard: I think that’s a very practical kind of engineering solution. We are beginning to speak here about the part of one’s ethical code that one is willing to impose on other people, which I refer to by the maxim “Peaceful, honest people have the right to be left alone.” It simplifies things to ask, “What if someone violates this maxim and, therefore, is not behaving in ways that I would like people to behave, leaving innocent people alone, and so forth?” Then, I reserve the right of self-defense. If someone is trying to kill me, I’m going to use the minimum effective force necessary to stop him. I read your article on this, and I agree with you completely.

The next level is stealing: Needless to say, if I could steal a weapon from someone who was about to kill me, that would be fine. And if I couldn’t transform the situation as some more enlightened person might—into a real circumstance of teaching—then I would lie. I would use the minimum distortion necessary to get the problem to go away.

At one end of the spectrum, you can be super-optimistic about people. But let’s face it, there are people who are up to no good in all kinds of ways. I’m not going to abet them in violating other people’s right to be left alone, and I’ll do whatever is necessary to avoid that.

Harris: Obviously, the Anne Frank case doesn’t often arise in the ordinary course of life, but there are many other troubling situations in which people find it tempting to lie. When I asked for feedback from readers on the first edition of Lying, I received many accounts in which people found themselves lying for reasons that they thought entirely noble. One case I’d like you to reflect on relates to a terminally ill child.

Your child doesn’t have long to live. Naturally, he has questions about when he will die and about what happens after death. Let’s say that, based on what your doctor has said, you think that your child has about two months to live. You also believe that everyone gets a dial tone after death and that you’ll never see each other again. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that giving a false but consoling response to his questions could make your child’s last two months of life happier than they would otherwise be. 

Howard: Well, that’s a case where I would take a much stronger position. I’ve had people in my classes who regularly deal with the dying, and their advice is always the same: You should tell the truth as you believe it to be. The important thing to determine is, what is the truth?  So you ask the doctor, “Doctor, how long has he got?” and the truthful answer might be, “Well, you know some people surprise us, some people go quicker. We really can’t tell you exactly how long. Most people have two months but a few live longer, and so on.” Now, that’s the truth. If you say, “Oh, no, you’re going to recover,” when he’s probably going to die in a few months, you would deprive the person of the opportunity to do all those things that he or she might want to do in this limited time. In most cases, they know they’re dying. Let them go peacefully.

Once, a man in a group meeting shared that his young son was terminally ill. He said, “You know, it’s really sad: When he colors pictures, he uses only the black crayons.” Then, after one week, he spoke to the group again. He said, “You know what? I realized that I was holding myself back from my son because I was going to miss him so much after he dies.” He shared that truth with his son, telling him, “I love you so much, and I’m going to miss you.” And guess what?  He reported that the boy was now using all the colors. 

My understanding from people who deal with kids who are dying is that they know. The parents are really grieving for all the experiences that they’re not going to have with their child. The child isn’t thinking, “I’m not going to get married.” That’s not in his knowing at that point, unless you dump it on him. He may not see his dog again, but that’s not the same thing as the parents’ grief over all that they’re anticipating losing over a lifetime.

Harris: So, the truth that exists to be told to the child is not the same as the parents’ anticipated loss, or their ideas about what the child himself will be losing.

Howard: Right. Telling the kid, “It’s really sad you’re dying because you’re not going to get married” misses the point. You might as well say, “You’re also not going to serve in the Army. You’re not going to kill people. You’re not going to experience the death of other people that you love.” You see? That’s life. It doesn’t all have a Hollywood ending. There are lots of pluses and minuses. Ultimately, we all die, and the only question is, what have you done between the time you’re born and the time you die? Did you make the most of this unique opportunity?

Harris: I agree with all that. But cases of this kind seem to suggest certain caveats to scrupulous truth-telling. There still seems to be a tension between honesty and our responsibility to protect children and other people whom we might judge to be not entirely competent to deal with the truth as we see it. So, let’s say you take all the time required to figure out what the truth really is, and yet you are in the presence of someone, whether a child or an adult, who you think needs to be spared certain truths. Other examples of this have come to me from people who are caring for parents with dementia. Your mother wakes up every morning wondering where your father is, but your father has been dead for fifteen years. Every time you explain this, your mother has to relive the bereavement process all over again, only to wake up the next morning looking for her husband. Let’s assume that when you lie, saying something like “Oh, he’s away on a business trip,” your mother very quickly forgets about your father’s absence and her grief doesn’t get reactivated.

Howard: That’s an interesting one. I would be tempted to say something more like “Well, he’s where he usually is at this time of day.” Like, he is someplace, and it’s where he usually is. The fact that he’s buried in the ground somewhere doesn’t add anything to this person’s knowledge of what’s going on. As you point out, you would just be putting her through pain all over again. As you stated the case, why would you want to do that?

Harris: What you seem to be acknowledging here, however, is that it is okay to be somewhat evasive in situations of this kind. At the very least, it can take some skill to thread the needle and find a truth that is appropriate to the other person’s situation.

Howard: I’d call it “skillful truth-telling” as opposed to “evasion,” in the sense that if this person had looked at the whole conversation—let’s say they magically get better again and could say, “Oh, I had Alzheimer’s. How did you deal with me when I kept asking about Dad?” They would look at the transcript and say, “You know, that’s right. In my mind, he was someplace, and I just didn’t know where he was. What you said allowed me to get out of that loop.” That’s fine.

Harris: I’m just going to keep throwing difficult cases at you, Ron.

Howard: You go right ahead.

Harris: Let’s again invoke a deathbed scene, where the dying person asks, “Did you ever cheat on me in our marriage?” Let’s say it’s a wife asking her husband. The truthful answer is that he did cheat on her. However, the truth of their relationship—now—is that this is completely irrelevant. And yet it is also true that he took great pains to conceal this betrayal from her at one point, and he has kept quiet about it ever since. What good could come from telling the truth in that situation?

Howard: Well, this is really a two-part problem, and the first part is, why would this husband want to live a lie all his life?

Harris: I agree. But we have to put a frame around the relevant facts of the present, and if a person hasn’t been perfectly ethical up until yesterday, he has to figure out how to live with the legacy of his misbehavior. This thing is buried in the past. He hasn’t thought about it in forever, but the truth is that he did cheat on his wife, and now she’s asking about it. In his mind, he seems to have a choice between lying and having a perfectly loving last few days or weeks of his marriage, and breaking his wife’s heart for no good reason.

Howard: Well, this is one of those textbook situations that we sometimes get into in ethics class. The terrorists get aboard the plane and try to make you kill a little old lady, threatening that they’re going to shoot everybody else if you don’t. Life doesn’t really work like that. I know of very few marriages, for example, where the husband has cheated and the wife didn’t suspect it.

Harris: I can’t let you off that easily. I think there’s something realistic about a case like this. We can even grant that she did suspect it all those years, and she buried her suspicion. Now she’s on her deathbed, and she finally wants the truth, for whatever reason.

Howard: Then they’ve had a silent conspiracy to not talk about this thing their whole life. Now what? In other words, she bears the responsibility as much as he does. The question is, are they going to start living an open life now and be truthful to each other, or not? They could do it. He could say, “We’ve never talked about this. Is this something you really want to talk about today?” This may be the time, whatever their beliefs about what happens after death. Or he could say, “Look, we’ve got a very short time together, and whatever we’ve done in the past, if it doesn’t bring us joy now, let’s leave it behind.”

Harris: It’s interesting—there seems to be an odd intuition working in cases like this, which I only just noticed in myself: If we shorten the time horizon down to a few days, or a few weeks, or even a few months, it seems to put pressure on the rationale for living truthfully.  Many people seem to feel that if we only have two weeks left together, it’s probably better to live a consoling lie, but if we have 20 years left, then we might want to put our house in order and live truthfully. 

Howard: I look at it another way: No matter how much time I’ve got left, I want to live a life that I have no regrets about.

Harris: I agree. But I think that there might be a moral illusion creeping in here. When you dial the remainder of one’s life down to a very short span, people begin to wonder, what good could possibly come from telling the truth? In my view, one might as well apply that thinking to the whole of life.

Howard: Absolutely. This gets to the very foundation of what we’re talking about here, which is how you want to live your life and care for the people in it. My father used to talk about someone being a man of his word, and I guess maybe it’s sexist these days, but I never hear that anymore. Clint Korver, my doctoral student who has helped me teach my course and write our ethics book, was once introduced at a conference, quite correctly, as “the guy who always tells the truth.” I find it absolutely shocking that anyone would need to mention that. It’s like saying he doesn’t steal or murder people. Why not say, “and he breathes, too”? “He’s lived for many years, and he’s been breathing all this time.” Great. Glad to hear it.

Harris: It just indicates how commonplace lying is. It’s ubiquitous, and most people don’t even consider what life would be like without it.

Another difficult case comes to mind, also from a reader: You’re having sex with your wife or husband and fantasizing about someone else. Later, your spouse has the temerity to ask what you were thinking about when you were having sex. The honest answer is that you were thinking about someone else. But let’s say that you know your spouse will not do well with this information. He or she will view it as a real breach of trust, rather than just a natural consequence of having a human imagination.

Howard: Well, that’s another case in which, when you first suspect this, it’s probably time to have a conversation. Just what is okay? Is it “whatever turns you on”?—you know, “I could be the pirate and you could be the helpless maiden…” and so forth. Is that okay? Or is it “Oh, my god, you’re not seeing me as I really am.” People will obviously differ in this area, but couples just need to have an honest conversation about it. I think honesty really is all that matters. It just transforms the situation.

Why would you want to live a lie in your sex life? It just seems silly to live a life of pretense, and it’s okay to have fantasies. Why not say, “Look, if it turns you on to think that I’m Brad Pitt, it’s going to be more fun for me when you’re turned on, so go for it. Because that’s why I’m here in the first place, right? I love you, and I want to have the best life with you that we can have.”

Harris: I can feel our readers abandoning us in droves, but I agree with you. Let’s return to the case in which you are in the presence of someone who seems likely to act unethically. Can you say more about honesty in those situations?

Howard: Well, I’d make a distinction between the maxim-breakers—in other words, a person who is harming others or stealing—and those who are merely lying or otherwise speaking unethically. Lying is not a crime unless it’s part of a fraud. If someone asks for directions to Wal-Mart, and you know the way but you send them walking in the opposite direction—it’s not a nice thing to do, but it’s not a crime. Imagine if they came back with a policeman and said, “That’s the man who misdirected me.” You could say, “Yeah, I did. It just so happens that I like to watch people wandering in the wrong direction.” That’s not a crime.  It’s not nice behavior. It might be reason for someone to boycott your business, or to exclude you from certain groups, but it’s not going to land you in jail.

I make a careful distinction between what I call “maxim violations”—interfering with peaceful, honest people—and everything else.

Harris: Yes, I see. It breaks ethics into two different categories—one of which gets promoted to the legal system to protect people from various harms.

Howard: In fact, there are also two categories in the domain of lying. The first is where people acknowledge the problem—people obviously get hurt by lies—and then the other cases where more or less everyone tends to lie and feels good about it, or sees no alternative to it. That’s why your book is so important—because people think it’s a good thing to tell so-called “white” lies. Saying “Oh, you look terrific in that dress,” even when you believe it is unattractive, is a “white” lie justified by not hurting the person’s feelings.

The example that came up in class yesterday was, do you want that mirror-mirror-on-the-wall-who’s-the-fairest-of-them-all device, or do you want a mirror that shows you what you really look like? Or imagine buying a car that came with a special option that gave you information that you might prefer to the truth: When you wanted to go fast, it would indicate that you were going even faster than you were. When you passed a gas station, it would tell you that you didn’t need any gas. Of course, nobody wants that. Well, then, why would you want it in your life in general?

Harris: However, there are some arguments, from both an evolutionary and a psychological perspective, that suggest that having one’s beliefs ever-so-slightly out of register with reality can be adaptive and psychologically helpful. I’m sure you’re familiar with the research that shows that if you bring a person into a room full of strangers and have him give a brief speech, a depressed person will tend to accurately judge what sort of impression he has made, while a normal person will tend to overestimate how positively others saw him. It’s hard to know which is cause and which is effect here—but it does seem like an optimism bias could be psychologically advantageous.

Howard: It might have allowed people to survive a lot better in the past.

Harris: Yes. In fact, self-deception could have paid evolutionary dividends in other ways. Robert Trivers argues, for instance, that people who can believe their own lies turn out to be the best liars of all—and an ability to deceive rivals has obvious advantages in the state of nature. Now, obviously there are many things that may have been adaptive for our ancestors—such as tribal warfare, rape, xenophobia, etc.—that we now deem unethical and would never want to defend. But I’m wondering if you see any possibility that a social system that maximizes truth-telling could be one in which the wellbeing of all participants fails to be maximized. Is it possible that some measure of deception is good for us?

Howard: This gets back to distinctions I make between prudential, ethical, and legal principles. Is the statement “Honesty is the best policy” a prudential statement? In other words, is it merely in your interest to be honest? That’s different from saying, “I am ethically committed to being honest,” because you could probably find individual circumstances where dishonesty gives you an advantage.

I think that growth is encouraged by accurate feedback. Telling children they are always accomplishing wonderful things regardless of their actual accomplishments is not going to serve them when they face the world. Having a positive mental attitude toward life is prudential, but being overconfident in your abilities is not.

A student yesterday said that he had recently bid for something, and he told the guy that he didn’t have enough money to pay the full price. But this was a lie. He really had the money, but he said, “I only have X,” and the seller said, “Okay. I’ll give it to you for X, if that’s all the money you have.” So my student was feeling pretty good about this negotiation because, from his point of view, he saved money by telling an untruth. But it’s also possible the seller could have said, “Sorry. I’ve got other offers at the price X+1,” in which case my student would have been exposed in his lie if he really wanted the item and said, “Okay, I’ll pay X+1 too.” This all gets to the question of whether you have repeated relationships. Do you view your life in terms of relationships or transactions?

If you’re bidding on eBay, truth isn’t an issue. This is a completely transactional situation. If I’m dealing with my mechanic on an ongoing basis, it’s not a transaction. It’s a relationship, and he will make judgments about me and about my reliability as a person. And I will make these judgments about him, and these judgments will have long-term effects for both of us. This alters the prisoner’s dilemma: If you have a relationship with a person, you’re going to have different beliefs about the prospect of him selling you out than you would if he were just some guy the experimenters grabbed and put in the situation with you.

I don’t think you can get from “is” to “ought” in the coarse sense of saying that ethical people make more money, are always happier, etc. That would be to prove that it is always prudential to be ethical. Now, I personally believe it generally is, but I can’t prove that.

Harris: I agree. But you seem to have a very strong intuition, which I share, that we should consider honesty to be a nearly ironclad principle, because it is to everyone’s advantage so much of the time, and it allows us to live the kinds of lives and maintain the kinds of relationships we want to have.

Howard: And I believe it also extends to truths about oneself. Self-deception isn’t of any value either. For instance, I was never going to be a professional singer. If I didn’t understand this fact about myself, people could have said, “Oh, you’re a great singer. You ought to quit your job and start recording.” But that’s just bullshit. You’ve got to be honest about who you are—about what you know and don’t know and about what you can and can’t do—and still be willing to try things and experiment. To me, it’s pretty simple.

Harris: And, needless to say, it makes sense to want to be in touch with reality. Given that your every move in life will be constrained by whatever the facts are, both out in the world and in the minds of others, being guided by anything less than these facts will leave you perpetually vulnerable to embarrassment and disappointment. When your model of yourself in the world is at odds with how you actually are in the world, you are going to keep bumping into things. 

I think where people get confused, psychologically and ethically, is when they consider that part of reality that exists in other people’s minds. The question is, do you really want to know what other people think about you—about your talents and prospects—or do you want to be deceived about all that? 

Many people imagine that they want to be protected from the knowledge of what is really going on in the heads of other people, because they think their own performance in the world will be best served by this ignorance. I think they’re mistaken, but it’s interesting to consider cases where they might be right.

Howard: It is—and that gets down to the question of what your view is towards life as a whole. I tend to go back to something like the Buddha’s eightfold path. I remember hearing a Buddhist speaker once give a talk, and at question time a woman said, “I was raised as a Christian, where the idea of charity is built in, and yet you haven’t mentioned charity at all. So I’m having trouble understanding your ethics.” 

And he said to her, “Well, when you were doing all these charitable things”—which she said she regularly did at church, helping people all over the world, sending them baskets and stuff—“did you really care about these people you were doing these things for?” The woman was silent for a moment and then she said, “No. I hadn’t really thought about that.” And the teacher said, “Well, when you care, you’ll know what to do.” 

That’s so different from saying, “You’ve got to be charitable.” When you actually care about the experience of other people, you tend to know what to do. The conversation you and I are having now is kind of like writing a manual for unenlightened people like ourselves, so we all won’t make too many mistakes along the way.

I sometimes use a metaphor of the guy who never knew he had to put oil in his new car, because no one ever told him. He never read the manual, and now after three years the engine is burned out. He takes the car into the shop and the mechanic says, “Hey, you have to put oil in these things. Now your engine is ruined.” And the man says, “Oh, if only I’d known!” You see, he had no intention of creating this problem that he now has to solve. Well, in speaking about ethics, you and I are trying to raise everyone’s sensitivities, so that we all can live in a preemptive way, as opposed to saying, “Oh my god, what was I thinking?” later on.

Harris: That’s what I felt when I first took your course at Stanford. It was as if I had been given part of the user’s manual to a good life, and by following the simple principle of always telling the truth, I could bypass most of the needless misery I read about in literature and witnessed in the lives of other people. I remember leaving your course feeling that I had discovered a bomb at the very center of my life and had defused it before it could do any damage. It was a tremendous relief.

I’ve begun to wonder, however, at what level the ethical problems we see in the world can be best addressed. The level we tend to speak about, as we have here, is that of a person’s personal ethical code and his individual approach to life, moment to moment. But I suspect that the biggest returns come at the level of changing social norms and institutions—that is, in creating systems that align people’s priorities so that it becomes much easier for ordinary people to behave more ethically than they do when they are surrounded by perverse incentives. For instance, a person usually has to be a hero to be a whistle-blower, given that he will likely lose his job for telling the truth. But in a culture of honesty, it becomes much easier to be truthful. I’m interested in those changes we can make that will cause all boats to rise with the same tide.

Howard: Right. And in my own life I know that I don’t want to do business with people that I’m not on the same ethical wavelength with, so to speak. No matter how attractive the deal looks, if I don’t trust these people—in the sense that you and I are talking about—I don’t want to do business with them, no matter how profitable it might be.

But the problem is that a lot of our life today is transactional. I just bought something from Amazon.com, and there was nobody there, so to speak. It was just credit cards and button clicks.  If you go to the supermarket today,the laser system tells you what the price is and the checker bags it for you. In the old days it might be, “Oh you bought a lot of spaghetti. Do you have sauce for that?” There’s no feeling that the checker is a partner in this experience of buying something.

I have this example of what I call the hardware store hammer: A woman is in a hardware store and picks up a hammer. When she is checking out, the shop owner says, “What are you going to use this hammer for?” And she says, “My husband told me to buy a hammer. We’re putting up some pictures in the kitchen.” The owner might say, “Okay. But this is a professional carpenter’s hammer. For your purpose, that one over there would do just fine, and it’s a third the price.”  That’s the difference between a relationship and a transaction. If you have a concern for other people doing well for themselves, then I think you want this level of honesty. But our society might be losing that. 

We have a great technological advantage, but it’s not like when my father ran a grocery store. If the kids didn’t arrive with enough money, he knew who was who, and it was not a problem.  They could just bring the money next time. You don’t see much of that today. Now, you’ve got your credit card, and the idea of extending that kind of trust and courtesy just doesn’t come up anymore. So certain kinds of relationships seem less possible.

Harris: Yes, a system-wide change can either facilitate our ethical connections to other people, or erode them. This brings me to a related question: Are there some things that are important to do—that is, ultimately ethical to do—but which require that the person doing them sacrifice his ethics? I brought this up briefly in my book where I talk about spying. The position I take in the book is that there are certain jobs that I know I would not want to do, and I suspect that they are intrinsically toxic for the person who has to do them, but I can’t say that I think these jobs are unnecessary. I’m thinking of things like espionage, or research on animals. I know that I don’t want to be the guy who saws the scalps off rats all day, but I’d be hard-pressed to say we shouldn’t be using rats in medical research. So, assuming you are going to grant that espionage is occasionally necessary, what do you think about the lifetime of lying entailed by working at the CIA?

Howard: You could also consider what it’s like to be an undercover police officer.

Harris: Yes, that might be an even simpler case. Assuming the laws he is working to enforce are good ones. I know you and I agree on how harmful the war on drugs has been. If an undercover cop were deceiving people to enforce drug laws, I think we would both question the ethics of that line of work.

Howard: Exactly. I’d want to first make sure the cop is enforcing good laws. If it’s a serial rapist found, that’s fine. I’m happy to have police who are out there finding those people and bringing them to justice. We all pay a huge price for living in a world with people who are maxim-breakers. I wish we could live in a world where no one had to use passwords, for instance. But we have passwords and burglar alarms and keys… If you go out in the country, people say, “You mean you don’t leave your key in the car? And you lock your house?” 

That’s why I want a very strong system to deter maxim-breakers that is based on restitution. In other words, some of these things that you do are imposing costs on everyone else. I’ve never been burglarized, but I’m paying the price for people who commit burglary, through insurance and other costs. If you engage in that sort of behavior, you ought to pay the criminal overhead for it. But that’s a longer story.

Harris: I completely agree with that as well.

Howard: The trouble is that we can’t separate these things when we get into the kind of discussion we’re having now—What kind of crimes are there in society, and how do you find the people who are perpetrating them? What kind of judgment do they get, and what are the penalties for having done these things? etc. This is a book all in itself, but it’s extremely important. 

Harris: No doubt. Well, Ron, this has been great, and I think that readers will find your thoughts on all these topics very useful. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. And let me say again, in case I never fully expressed it, that the courses you taught at Stanford were probably the most important I ever took. It’s rare that one sees wisdom being directly imparted in an academic setting. But that is what you did, and have continued to do for decades. So I just want to say, “Thank you.”

Howard: You are very welcome. And it was great to have this conversation.

 

 
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