Home > Morality > Scott Adams’ Narrow Pen

Scott Adams’ Narrow Pen

I thought I confronted the only purveyor of the view that males should be castrated because of their “natural” inclination toward violence. Well, to my surprise, Dilbert cartoonist, Scott Adams believes “that’s where we’re headed in a few generations.”

In his “men’s rights” style blog post, Adams argues “that society is organized in such a way that the natural instincts of men are shameful and criminal while the natural instincts of women are mostly legal and acceptable.” I wouldn’t normally pile on with the rest of the internet, but as the resident mass-castration opponent here I had to respond. Feel free to read Adams go at it with Salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams and Jezebel writer Irin Carmon.

Adams begins his piece by misleading his readers through a pointless and faulty analogy.

If a lion and a zebra show up at the same watering hole, and the lion kills the zebra, whose fault is that? Maybe you say the lion is at fault for doing the killing. Maybe you say the zebra should have chosen a safer watering hole. But in the end, you probably conclude that both animals acted according to their natures, so no one is to blame. However, if this is your local zoo, you might have some questions about who put the lions with the zebras in the same habitat.

This is his analogy to how human males get blamed for “tweeting, raping, cheating, and being offensive.” Adams does write that it “seems right” that the males themselves, not the victims, are to blame. In other words, they’re unlike animals that don’t possess moral responsibility. But in the next paragraph he seems to reopen the case of blame. His analogy now appears to suggest that we need to fault humanity’s equivalent to a zookeeper.

The part that interests me is that society is organized in such a way that the natural instincts of men are shameful and criminal while the natural instincts of women are mostly legal and acceptable. In other words, men are born as round pegs in a society full of square holes. Whose fault is that? Do you blame the baby who didn’t ask to be born male? Or do you blame the society that brought him into the world, all round-pegged and turgid, and said, “Here’s your square hole”?

Adams decides he can’t blame anyone in particular for setting up society as it is, so he suggests that it’s society’s fault. I don’t see how that isn’t absolving moral responsibility from individual rapists despite his earlier claim that it “seems right” to blame men for their own actions. In his defenses he accuses his critics of poor reading comprehension, but I’d ask him to clear up his own exposition and say whether blaming rapists “seems right” or is right.

His cartoon evolutionary psychology and moral philosophy fails profoundly. Certainly males, generally speaking, instinctively desire more sexual partners than women generally do. But it doesn’t follow that males instinctively want to rape women. Adams goes on to argue that,

 All I’m saying is that society has evolved to keep males in a state of continuous unfulfilled urges, more commonly known as unhappiness.

Aside from his absurd implication that men naturally desire to rape random women, he neglects men’s own internal competing desires. Men want stable homes and families. Men have urges to protect their female kin and friends. I’m not sure what culture Adams lives in, but men can also have plenty of consensual sex with women to fulfill their more explicitly sexual desires. I thought it’d be obvious, but I guess I should mention that most men think consensual sex is more desirable.

He doesn’t seem to appreciate that many of women’s desires are unfulfilled by social norms. Generally it seems women would rather they be treated with more respect and less like desirable objects. Additionally, I’m sure women have urges to mate with certain men but they can’t because he’s taken or uninterested. As long as we’re using sketchy psychology, women generally want to marry celebrities and high-status men but “society is [also] organized as a virtual prison for [women’s] natural desires.”

Adams inaccurately draws society for his audience, but even if his representation were correct, his placement of blame remains unbalanced. Society didn’t just “drift” in the direction of eroding violent and offensive urges in an amoral tide.  Society built up its moral foundations because the consequences of allowing rape and many other “criminal” activities harm society’s citizens including men. If bigger men with the urge to commit violence on whoever they desired became culturally acceptable that would be the real “zero sum game.” Men and women agreeing to consensual behavior is the definition of positive sum – Adams should refresh his understanding of game theory. The beauty of good behavior is that it appears to be generally conducive to more happiness not less.

It shouldn’t surprise you by now that Adams’ lack of imagination means he supposes that no compromise exists when men’s and women’s urges conflict. If society is restrictive of adultery, a compromise would be for consensual couples to become more permissive of open-relationships. They certainly don’t suit everyone, but in reality people have a greater range of desires and for many couples this arrangement works. For others, monogamy works. Only single life will do for the rest.

If Adams believes that society is a “virtual prison” if every fleeting impulse can’t be acted upon, he’ll continue to suffer in the solitary confinement of his own mind’s boundaries. Human consciousness competes our internal desires against one another in a constant struggle. Self-control isn’t a straight-jacket, it’s the acknowledgment of moral responsibility.

  1. Bill
    June 24, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    I often wonder if the acknowledgement of moral responsibility is universal amongst humans and if for those who may possess a degree of such, is it enough a deterrent to prevent bad behavior in those who lack self control. I personally don’t think that bad behavior is a matter of squandered moral responsibility or the acting on of natural instinct, but rather, a matter of uncontrolled anger stemming from either mental illness, substance abuse, poor coping skills, or societal stress. Whatever the etiology, if this behavior is a repeated threat to society, I am not entirely opposed to castration. Further, couldn’t we apply this to pedophilia as well? The argument for moral responsibility in preventing harm to others stands stands jaw-dropped in the face of the crimes committed by Roman Catholic priests- supposed moral standard bearers. Would you guess that their bad behavior stems from a lack of moral responsibility? The acting on of natural instincts? Or a symptom of frustration, anger, and poor coping, secondary to repressed sexuality? Not sure what the answer is, but if the solution is to castrate, then I would give it my personal blessing.

    • June 24, 2011 at 10:33 pm

      Humans behave badly for multitudes of different reasons. Trying to pin it down to one or even a few is futile – certainly the ones you list all contribute.

      Keep in mind that I was arguing against sterilizing all males not just sex offenders. That’s an entirely different argument I’m going to stay away from right now.

  2. Bill
    June 25, 2011 at 5:14 am

    Why stay away from it? It poses much more of a challenge, don’t you think?

    • June 25, 2011 at 10:20 am

      I stayed away here and in my previous post because I was challenging arguments that advocated mass-sterilization. I don’t want to tackle a different topic in the comments when something like that deserves the full post treatment.

      I may come back to it later – honestly, I haven’t thought of it enough to say anything interesting about it.

  3. Dean Moriarty
    June 25, 2011 at 6:05 am

    Dan, I am constantly amazed with the breadth of topics you find interesting enough to include in your blog, and equally if not more impressed with the depth and perspicuous treatment of said topics. Reading your blog is probably the equivalent cognitive exercise of doing the NYT crossword or playing a daily game of serious chess. Thanks for staving off the inevitable, mostly self-inflicted, atrophying of my neo-cortex. 🙂

    • June 25, 2011 at 10:21 am

      Thanks! Glad you find it valuable; it’s why I write.

  4. Dave
    June 25, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    I agree with you on a lot of points, but I think you’re taking too limited a view of what Adams is getting at- or maybe Adams isn’t doing a good enough job himself. I think too much of your analysis is focused on rape, which is the most extreme possible endpoint of the perspective Adams seems to hold. If you dial it back a little bit and consider something more mundane, the Adams position is more defensible.
    Example: Our destructively rigid societal view of monogamy. A politician sees his career and life destroyed for nothing more than crassly flirting with women over the internet. Was this in poor taste? Sure. But did he actually commit adultery? Doesn’t look like it. (Nor does it seem that the digital come-ons were unwelcome). And even if he had committed adultery, so what? In what way does that affect his ability to effectively legislate? Why should this be?

    • June 26, 2011 at 12:26 am

      Right, but he doesn’t explain why it’s exclusively male. He’s not merely claiming that monogamy is too restrictive. He’s acting like the science is completely on his side, but he’s abstracting far too liberally from the evidence. I only disagree with him where I critiqued him; if there is something you think I went too far on let me know.

  5. Dave
    June 26, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    I think you went too far only in that you focused too much on the “criminal” side of the “shameful and criminal” ledger (“natural instincts of men are shameful and criminal”). So yes, rape is bad. But beyond that there’s an entire universe of behavior considered “shameful” that is certainly in poor taste but is also rooted in base instinct and tough to control. Abstracting liberally or not, I think he’s just complaining, I don’t begrudge him that.

  6. June 27, 2011 at 12:23 am

    Fine, but I was only focusing on what I wanted to critique. Also, in general, I don’t find his men vs. women dynamic persuasive.

  7. Scott Adams
    July 1, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    I notice you have to change my opinions from what I wrote to something a little bit crazy before you can debate them.

    You cleverly change my prediction about chemical castration into a “should” that wasn’t in my writing.

    You turn my common sense observation that nature has a role in our actions into a crazy absolute: “if every fleeting impulse can’t be acted upon…”

    And so on. I just picked two.

    You should try arguing with stuff I actually said. You’ll find it more challenging.

    Scott Adams

    • July 1, 2011 at 5:45 pm

      Thanks for replying. I take truthfully conveying what you argued seriously. I’ve responded more formally in a blog post.

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