What Caplan’s “Missing Mood” Heuristic Is Really For

Bryan Caplan wrote and quoted the idea of a “proper reaction,” the “specific package of moods” that a “reasonable person” holding an intellectual position would have. If this mood is missing, it is grounds for suspicion, and we can “learn a lot” from it. It’s a “valuable clue.” The appropriate mood suggests credibility and truth. He claims that the missing mood heuristic is “fallible… but we all use it and we’re wise to do so.”

He then gave examples of three moods missing from his political opponents, and two missing moods among his fellow pacifists and libertarians.

In the spirit of Paul Graham’s disagreement hierarchy, let’s identify the central point in Caplan’s argument, and see if we can refute it.

Caplan’s examples revolve around political and economic policy questions, so let’s stay in that territory.

Let’s start with an analogy that a proponent of war, immigration restriction, or regulation might hold. What if we compared these policies to chemotherapy? Although such treatments come with serious side effects, proponents believe that the benefits outweigh them.

We might accuse a flippant oncologist of a “missing mood,” but this is as much because of the gravity of cancer as the side effects of chemotherapy. And there is a space of feistiness and humor that might be contextually appropriate.

My sense is that Caplan thinks that the chemotherapy analogy doesn’t capture his central point, and I think I know why. With chemotherapy, the biomedical side effects and therapeutic benefits exclusively affect the patient.

By contrast, with war, regulation, and immigration restrictions, and with political policies in general, the costs and benefits of such policies are usually suffered or enjoyed by different groups of people. Furthermore, those people may have little or no say in whether or not those policies are enacted. Often, it is the people with the least political power who are made to suffer. These policies might be net good, but still unfair.

Therefore, I think that Caplan’s “missing mood” probably most relevant when a policy proponent focuses entirely on the net benefit of the policy, and does not express any sense of empathy for those who the policy treats unfairly.

A reason to be worried about policy activists with a “missing mood” is that the beneficiaries of an unfair policy have selfish reason to ignore the costs of even net-negative policies. If such costs are being intellectually and emotionally ignored, then we should be suspicious that we’re being presented with some misleading information about the utilitarian calculus. If the activist is hoping we’ll see the benefits of their policy to ourselves and won’t look too hard for any possible costs to others, or for risks that it won’t work out, then we might also be worried that we’re being duped as well. Maybe even the benefits aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

A wisdom-promoting policy activist should put us in a sober mood to consider the total package of costs and benefits, and on whose heads they will fall. They should trust that such sober considerations will convince us. They don’t need to hide anything.

In summary, a “missing mood” is a widespread tendency of policy activists to ignore collateral damage and risk, both intellectually and emotionally.

Now, Caplan safely describes this not as an infallible rule, but as a “fallible heuristic” that we are “wise” to use. To refute (this version of) Caplan’s central point, we would have to refute the idea that this is a wise heuristic.

An activist might ignore collateral damage because they’ve precommitted to supporting a particular set of values and a particular set of people. When they have a goal aligned with those values and the interests of those people, the first logical step is to frame the issue in those terms. This necessarily entails downplaying or ignoring values that are relevant in somebody else’s value/​social scheme, but not in their own. Likewise, it means being supicious of epistemic claims by their opponents, which may seem like propaganda rather than the truth.

Detecting a “missing mood” most clearly seems to mean that you have detected your political opposition: a group of people with a different set of values, interests, and trust networks than your own.

While there might be a single epistemic and even moral truth to be found in the matter, this will not be easy to prove. The first step in such a process might be understanding the perspective of your opposition. Get out of your own soldier mindset, and into scout mindset. How does your opponent think about their values, and why does it make instrumental sense, given their goals, for them to ignore the collateral damage that seems so grave to you?

The “missing mood” heuristic seems to interfere with that process. Caplan’s own writing uses his own political opposition as the primary examples people with “missing moods,” and even the “missing moods” examples on his own side (pacifists and libertarians) are missing from other people, not from him. He seems to be using this concept to explain and spread his distaste for his political opposition, as a justification not to engage with their thinking on a deeper level than he already has.

The “presence” of a “missing mood” might not only reflect that the other person is operating under a different set of values and interests, but serve a function of signaling those values and interests. Far from undermining credibility, the missing mood is intended to enhance credibility with the target audience.

In the case of Ted Cruz’s jingoistic 2016 comment in support of a war against ISIL, ““I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out,” he is intending to enhance his credibility as a hawk both with his political base and with ISIL. Convincing your enemy that you can’t be dissuaded by hostage-taking and collateral damage is one way of motivating your enemy not to bother taking hostages. Convincing them of your belligerence is one way of making them back down.

These objections should be apparent to a savvy economist like Caplan. As such, I can interpret this concept of his in one of three ways, in increasing levels of conflict theory:

  1. A way of illustrating what it would feel like to hold Caplan’s own values.

  2. A piece of evidence that Caplan either lacks the capacity or has made the active commitment not to imagine any other set of values than his own.

  3. An activist tool that Caplan is using to establish or solidify his own values in his readership by making his political opponents appear thoughtless or lacking in empathy.

Identifying a “missing mood” is a great heuristic for identifying a difference in values between oneself and another person. It’s also a good way to put down your political opponents and solidify the support of your own side.

It’s not a great rule of thumb for deciding who is epistemically correct or morally superior, as Caplan seems to want to do.