Suicidal Externalities

Co-blogger Scott writes:

...it occurred to me that laws against suicide may be economically efficient, in that an individual’s suicide often imposes massive negative externalities on friends and family.

But is this really an externality? Suicide does impose externalities – or more approprietly our current method of funding certain services causes suicide and many other activities to impose negative externalities on others that would otherwise be internalized.

I take exception to the description of suicide being an externality to friends and family. When we willingly associate with other people we accept as part of the deal that there will be both costs and benefits. By having friends we accept that we gain someone to borrow from, as well as someone who might borrow from us. We accept that we’ll have to go to their wedding, give them gifts at holidays, provide a shoulder to cry on. We should also expect that at some point we may have to attend a funeral.

Also, we might wish to differentiate between the loss of opportunity and loss of goods. The death of a loved one is not the loss of property. You do not own your friends or family. When we lose a loved one, we lose further opportunities for trade in new shared experiences, happiness, and love. We do not lose what has already been gained. In some ways the loss of a loved one is similar to the loss of a favored store. We lose the convenience and opportunity to make our lives better, but who would say the storeowner can not go out of business? Shall he continue to take a loss?

Suicide is not an imposition of negative externalities on loved ones. The costs and benefits are internalized, and further they are not property to be lost. But I did say earlier that in current society suicide imposes negative externalities. The externality is to the taxpayer. Because we have publicly funded emergency medical services, a suicide attempt imposes costs on the emergency response system and thus imposes costs on the taxpayer. Legislation making suicide a crime becomes economically efficient. Who gains from the successful prosecution of crime? The government body having jurisdiction over the crime does. In most cases this means additional funds via fines on those who attempted suicide. Thus the costs imposed by suicide attempts are (partially) made up for by fines from those who attempt but fail.

With a more complete analysis we see that a law against suicide is only necesary because society has caused the externalities through public provision of economic goods. In other words, it's like Tonya Harding giving out crutches.

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"X causes externalities" at

"X causes externalities" at some point became the default critique of libertarian notions. I think it's because of the focus many libertarians used to put (and indeed some still do put) on the lack of externalities of an activity indicating that it should be free of government regulation. It isn't much of a stretch for some robust defender of the state to reason that if no externalities -> no regulation, then externalities -> regulation.

The problem of course is that the one product the state is hugely successful at manufacturing is externalities. In effect, the externalities argument for libertarianism is arguing against the state on the least favorable ground imaginable. It is as if one decided that the best place to go fishing was knee-deep in a piranha-infested stream.

Suicide is a perfect example of why the externalities-based arguements are doomed to be fundamentally anti-liberty. Because if even reasonably liberty-inclined people can find externalities in suicide, you can expect they will find them in other forms of death as well (death after all is not unique to suicide). If death has externalities, so does life. If life and death are both within the sphere of governmental regulation, what space under this argument is left to liberty?

Externalities, free rides, commons tragedies, and other such economic hand-wringing have been a part of daily life since the dawn of time, and ordinary people have been resolving their differences over them without recourse to the state for as long. That they are hard theoretical problems with fascinating math does not make them relevant to the fundamentally moral questions of the state and the organization of society; rather, it makes them stalking horses whereby the state and society can tempt their enemies into untenable positions.

Grant Gould makes a great

Grant Gould makes a great tactical point. Nevertheless, I want to respond to David Masten's assertion that punishing suicide attempts via fines recoups some of the costs to the taxpayer. I suspect that the costs of prosecuting such cases would greatly outweigh any proceeds collected by fines. And certainly the threat of a fine will do nothing to prevent either the first or any subsequent suicide attempt. For whatever reason, the suicide considers death the best solution to his problems.

John, you may very well be

John, you may very well be right about costing more to prosecute than receiving from fines. I don't have actual data. The point that the state should desire to do something about it still stands.

"We lose the convenience and

"We lose the convenience and opportunity to make our lives better, but who would say the storeowner can not go out of business?"

A utilitarian.

"Shall he continue to take a loss?"

As long as it's efficient.

JTK, can you give me an

JTK, can you give me an example of a good utilitarian argument for keeping an unprofitable store open?

As long as it’s efficient.
Which it cannot be, just like you can't fly by waving your hands around.

JTK, I'm curious about your

JTK,

I'm curious about your conception of utilitarianism. Clearly you've a rather strong beef with utilitarian moral philosophy, but from what I can gather from your posts here and at your blog, you seem to have a conception of utilitarianism that is rather anemic. That is, it strikes me that your idea of utilitarianism is something more like Dickens' parody of utilitarians (e.g., Scrooge or Gradgrind) than it is like the moral theory that actual philosophers and economists hold.

I say this because there are lots of good utilitarian arguments for something that looks rather like libertarianism. At the very least, there are pretty strong arguments for a rather robust protection of individual liberty. A Bentham (or in modern versions, Peter Singer or Shelly Kagan) might well argue for the sorts of strong interpersonal comparisons that you blast. And someone like Richard Brandt or R.M. Hare might end up with a secret cabal of consequentialists determining ultimate right and wrong for the masses (though I think such interpretations of Brandt or Hare pretty uncharitable).

That aside, though, at least a couple of people have found this to be a little bit compelling. At the very least, it provides an account of utilitarianism that is considerably richer than the one that you seem to have operating in the background. Your objections to Scott, Patri, Micha and the rest of the Catallarchs might well stem from your different understandings of utilitarianism itself.

David, Why can't it be

David,

Why can't it be efficient? Slavery costs the slaves but benefits the masters. Why can't those benefits outweigh the costs?

A clarifying example:

Imagine that each of five patients in a hospital will die without an organ transplant. The patient in Room 1 needs a heart, the patient in Room 2 needs a liver, the patient in Room 3 needs a kidney, and so on. The person in Room 6 is in the hospital for routine tests. Luckily (!), his tissue is compatible with the other five patients, and a specialist is available to transplant his organs into the other five. This operation would save their lives, while killing the "donor". There is no other way to save any of the other five patients (Foot 1966, Thomson 1976; compare related cases in Carritt 1947 and McCloskey 1965).

We need to add that the organ recipients will emerge healthy, the source of the organs will remain secret, the doctor won't be caught or punished for cutting up the "donor", and the doctor knows all of this to a high degree of probability (despite the fact that many others will help in the operation). Still, with the right details filled in, it looks as if cutting up the "donor" will maximize utility, since five lives have more utility than one life. If so, then classical utilitarianism implies that it would not be morally wrong for the doctor to perform the transplant and even that it would be morally wrong for the doctor not to perform the transplant.

JTK, I'm afraid that

JTK,

I'm afraid that shop-worn example, along with most like it, obscures more than it clarifies. The problem with these kinds of contrived moral dilemmas is that they're presented completely free of context, and neglect the obvious fact that here in the real world, ethics is applied recursively -- the outcome at iteration t is fed back into iteration t+1. (I might add that this is also where many economists go off the rails.) The organ-harvesting algorithm may maximize utility for an iteration or two, but after several it would obviously start to become degenerate.

The organ-harvesting

The organ-harvesting algorithm may maximize utility for an iteration or two, but after several it would obviously start to become degenerate.

Maybe that means the "moral" thing to do is cut up the donor but put out lots of propaganda to convince the public at large that donors are never cut up.

Charlton Heston learned that

Charlton Heston learned that lesson the hard way, Stefan.

JTK, Matt's right. Round

JTK,

Matt's right. Round n+1, no one is available to harvest from, in fact no one goes to the hospital for anything. Health care is no longer demanded, lots of people die of treatable conditions. Utility is minimized in your example, not maximized.

Stefan, Or maybe you're not

Stefan,

Or maybe you're not thinking hard enough. I'm not going to get into a pissing match where we trade arid, ceontext-free hypotheticals back and forth, because my entire point is that that sort of approach is isn't particularly fruitful. It simply doesn't capture the rich complexity of ethical decisions in the real world, where the future is murky and probability paths branch out beyond our ability to consider them all.

The problem with both deontology and with what I'll call "equilibrium consequentialism" for lack of a better term is that both presume a frozen and dumbed-down ethical universe where everything ethically relevant is known and actions happen in a vacuum. Meanwhile back on ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, ethics is hard and requires that we take uncertainty and recursiveness into account -- which means that rather than figuring out that doing X would be right or wrong in some universe far far away, you have to use that expensive energy burner between your ears to figure out what rules we ought to follow based on the fact that we aren't very good at anticipating the 2nd or 3rd-order consequences of our actions.

As I hinted at above with my comment about economists going off the rails, this is similar to Hayek's famous point about the "datum trap":

"...there is something fundamentally wrong with an approach which habitually disregards an essential part of the phenomena with which we have to deal: the unavoidable imperfection of man's knowledge and the consequent need for a process by which knowledge is constantly communicated and acquired. Any approach, such as that of much of mathematical economics with its simultaneous equations, which in effect starts from the assumption that people's knowledge corresponds with the objective facts of the situation, systematically leaves out what is our main task to explain. I am far from denying that in our system equilibrium analysis has a useful function to perform. But when it comes to the point where it misleads some of our leading thinkers into believing that the situation which it describes has direct relevance to the solution of practical problems, it is high time that we remember that it does not deal with the social process at all and that it is no more than a useful preliminary to the study of the main problem."

Just as in economics, ethical equilibrium analysis has its place as a way of priming the pump of our intuitions, but we have to avoid becoming entranced by the model.

Or maybe you’re not

Or maybe you’re not thinking hard enough.

Or maybe you're not thinking hard enough?

I’m not going to get into a pissing match where we trade arid, ceontext-free hypotheticals back and forth, because my entire point is that that sort of approach is isn’t particularly fruitful.

If you're referring to one of the recent IP debates we had, rest assured I'm tired of arguing against IP around here; most of you guys (with the exception of Rainbough) are dead-set in favor of IP, and not much I can say will change your minds. My only comfort in that regard is that IP is impractical to enforce, so even if everyone believed in IP there wouldn't be much difficulty, unlike the other evils freedom-lovers face from government.

you have to use that expensive energy burner between your ears to figure out what rules we ought to follow based on the fact that we aren’t very good at anticipating the 2nd or 3rd-order consequences of our actions.

Western democracies in the 20th century seemed to have produced the best consequences so far. I guess that makes their welfare states and social security programs and everything the best thing rules to follow.

The problem with both deontology and with what I’ll call “equilibrium consequentialism” for lack of a better term is that both presume a frozen and dumbed-down ethical universe where everything ethically relevant is known and actions happen in a vacuum.

I always thought of these hypothetical situations (guy falling from a roof has to violate property to survive, consequentialism implies it's ok to kill one person to save 5 others) as useful thought experiments to help determine the soundness of a moral theory. If these gedankens represent flawed analysis, then what in your opinion is a good analysis?

Stefan, I always thought of

Stefan,

I always thought of these hypothetical situations (guy falling from a roof has to violate property to survive, consequentialism implies it’s ok to kill one person to save 5 others) as useful thought experiments to help determine the soundness of a moral theory. If these gedankens represent flawed analysis, then what in your opinion is a good analysis?

The claims isn't that these sorts of thought experiments aren't useful. They are useful in sorting out our intuitions and in determining the accuracy of our moral theories. The issue, then, is not whether thought experiments are useful. The issue is whether _certain_ thought experiments really do undermine sophisticated versions of a moral theory. The killing-one-to-save-five thought experiment shows that crude, overly-simplified consequentialism doesn't work. But that same example doesn't undermine _all_ versions of consequentialism. Indeed, many versions of the theory exist precisely to respond to such counter-examples. Matt's point is not to say that thought experiments are never useful. Rather, it's that the sorts of thought experiments typically offered are too simple to confirm or reject sophisticated moral theories.

"Or maybe you’re not

"Or maybe you’re not thinking hard enough?"

The fact that you aren't is evidenced by the response in question. Okay, here, I'll throw you a bone: propaganda is only successful when it tells people things they want to hear anyway. You'll have to think out the rest yourself. You can add whatever epicycles you want to the organ harvesting example, but you're never going to get anything other than garbage out of it. Organ harvesting might be an optimal strategy in some intruiging little universe far away, but it isn't here, which is why we find it morally repugnant.

"most of you guys (with the exception of Rainbough) are dead-set in favor of IP, and not much I can say will change your minds."

I wasn't even thinking of IP at all, but that's a chuckle given that most of the people here are about as non-dogmatic about that as they come. Please don't confuse finding your arguments unpersuasive with being "dead-set." I'm quite willing to consider all kinds of experiments in IP reform, including removing it altogether, but unlike you I'm also willing to consider the opposite position.

"Western democracies in the 20th century seemed to have produced the best consequences so far. I guess that makes their welfare states and social security programs and everything the best thing rules to follow."

This has to win the award for most obviously bogus argument I've read all week. The fact that a strategy has worked pretty well so far doesn't imply there's no room for improvement. Duh. The Hayekian view I'm pushing here only implies that institutional changes should be undertaken piecemeal in order to see what their results are before we get too confident, and if anything leans against large-scale social programs and invasive government because such institutions tend to be very bad at course-correcting when their decisions turn out to be bad ones. This should be comforting to an anarchist.

"I always thought of these hypothetical situations (guy falling from a roof has to violate property to survive, consequentialism implies it’s ok to kill one person to save 5 others) as useful thought experiments to help determine the soundness of a moral theory. If these gedankens represent flawed analysis, then what in your opinion is a good analysis?"

How about reading what's actually in my comment? Here's Uncle Fritz again, in bold this time just so you don't miss it:

"I am far from denying that in our system equilibrium analysis has a useful function to perform. But when it comes to the point where it misleads some of our leading thinkers into believing that the situation which it describes has direct relevance to the solution of practical problems, it is high time that we remember that it does not deal with the social process at all and that it is no more than a useful preliminary to the study of the main problem."

Ethical intuition pumps have approximately the same value as equilibrium models in economics. They can be quite useful, but it's important to recognize their inherent limitations. Getting some morally repugnant result from a contrived model doesn't constitute an argument against consequentialism any more than similar modeling in economics "proves" that socialism can work. Our moral sense was shaped by natural selection just like other parts of our brains, so the fact that we find certain things morally repugnant (like organ harvesting) is exactly what you would expect given that these strategies don't actually have good consequences if followed.

To answer your question directly: the kind of analysis I find more fruitful doesn't start in a vacuum. It asks questions like "given the kind of environment we find ourselves in, what would be likely to happen if we followed this rule?", rather than "what is absolutely right and wrong always and everywhere?" because frankly the world doesn't work that way.

I always thought of these

I always thought of these hypothetical situations (guy falling from a roof has to violate property to survive, consequentialism implies it’s ok to kill one person to save 5 others) as useful thought experiments to help determine the soundness of a moral theory. If these gedankens represent flawed analysis, then what in your opinion is a good analysis?

This is why it's good to know what a policy prescription is. It's why "buggering practicality" is a bad idea. Libertarians' lack of the ability to use basic semantics to communicate with others results in analytical shortcomings too. These hypotheticals of killing 1 to save 5 or cutting up someone for life saving organs to many are starting points. But morality doesn't exist in a vacuum. When hypotheticals become rules, the consequential analysis changes drastically. An enforceable legal rule - a policy prescription - that allowed people to cut up one person's organs to save 5 would have disastrous consequences.

Efficiency analysis allows one method of analysis legal rules beyond the immediate intuitions that result from these starting point hypotheticals. It's not some sort of cosmic coincidence that rules favoring libertarian natural rights are also generally economically efficient.

"Matt’s right. Round n+1,

"Matt’s right. Round n+1, no one is available to harvest from,..."

Who says you have to do iterations? We can add to the conditions of the example that there will be no more iterations.

You just have one decision ito make, so why won't sacrificing the healthy man maximize utility?

Jonathan, "But morality

Jonathan,

"But morality doesn’t exist in a vacuum."

Does it exist at all?

About a year and a half ago you said your would get around to giving your own answer to your question: Why respect rights?

I'd still be interested in hearing your answer. If you posted it I missed it.

The fact that you aren’t

The fact that you aren’t is evidenced by the response in question.

Actually it's rather more evidence that I find your ad hominems funny enough to repeat them back at you and watch you sputter.

unlike you I’m also willing to consider the opposite position.

I did consider the opposite position, and after a great deal of thought I concluded it was destructive, wrong, and blatantly self-contradictory. I've argued extensively aginst IP on here just recently, and given plenty of references to libertarians who have also argued against it. You might disagree with me of course, but continuing the insults doesn't really help you out of your confusion about whether ideas can constitute property.

institutional changes should be undertaken piecemeal in order to see what their results are before we get too confident, and if anything leans against large-scale social programs and invasive government because such institutions tend to be very bad at course-correcting when their decisions turn out to be bad ones.

I guess it's great you think so; I'd rather see all coercion stopped right now, myself.

To answer your question directly

That might be helpful.

the kind of analysis I find more fruitful doesn’t start in a vacuum. It asks questions like “given the kind of environment we find ourselves in, what would be likely to happen if we followed this rule?", rather than “what is absolutely right and wrong always and everywhere?” because frankly the world doesn’t work that way.

Well at least your honest about being a consequentialist. It's not clear to me that the questions you've presented are fundamentally at odds with each other though; who knows, perhaps something interesting will come out of the next Micha/JTK debate...

Joe, Matt’s point is not

Joe,

Matt’s point is not to say that thought experiments are never useful. Rather, it’s that the sorts of thought experiments typically offered are too simple to confirm or reject sophisticated moral theories.

It sounded more to me like Matt was rejecting these thought experiments as useful moral analysis period. The point you've just attributed to him, however, does make some sense. I would also guess that another significant problem might arise when people have different moral intuitions about a situation (think Peter Singer vs. George Bush); do those always represent irreconcilable differences? If not, why not?

"You just have one decision

"You just have one decision ito make, so why won’t sacrificing the healthy man maximize utility?"

Okay, sure, in this imaginary place where the world is going to end in a few months, sacrificing the man would be the utility maximizing thing, maybe. But so bloody what? Why should anyone attach any importance to this? The scenario is so restricted as to be trivial and totally uninteresting. This is like Enrico Barone "proving" that economic calculation was workable in a socialist system -- because of how the assumptions were chosen, all you're getting is garbage in, garbage out.

"Why respect rights?"

Basic tit-for-tat game theoretic logic is robust enough to drive out other strategies in many cases -- when "I respect your rights insofar as you respect mine" becomes the norm in a large population, there's no strategy that can beat it. We respect rights because it's a winner. (See The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod.) You can be a prudent predator, but once again, here in the real world it's hard to get away with that without being caught, so the least costly and risky strategy to convince people you're good is to really be good.

"You might disagree with me

"You might disagree with me of course, but continuing the insults doesn’t really help you out of your confusion about whether ideas can constitute property."

I don't think I'm the one that's confused. Of course ideas can constitute property if everyone agrees that they do -- property is a social construct. I know that'll probably set your gears grinding, but it strikes me as beign utterly obvious and trivial. But it's also a different question as to whether we should so agree.

"I’d rather see all coercion stopped right now, myself."

That would pretty likely be a disaster, except that it's impossible.

And BTW, Joe is correct about the point I was trying to make.

I don’t think I’m the

I don’t think I’m the one that’s confused.

Oh well.

Of course ideas can constitute property if everyone agrees that they do – property is a social construct

And if we all agree that Matt McIntosh is a particularly tasty and delicious kind of property, that makes it OK. Of course I probably shouldn't go there...

I know that’ll probably set your gears grinding, but it strikes me as beign utterly obvious and trivial. But it’s also a different question as to whether we should so agree.

Given your moral philosophy seems to be 180 degrees opposite of mine, I'd guess probably not.

That would pretty likely be a disaster

Not for the people being oppressed.

except that it’s impossible

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

--Sherlock Holmes

And BTW, Joe is correct about the point I was trying to make.

Ah, my mistake. Joe said that "Matt’s point is not to say that thought experiments are never useful. Rather, it’s that the sorts of thought experiments typically offered are too simple to confirm or reject sophisticated moral theories.", whereas you said that "Getting some morally repugnant result from a contrived model doesn’t constitute an argument against consequentialism any more than similar modeling in economics “proves” that socialism can work.", so forgive me for thinking it was the "contrivance" rather than the "simplicity" which was at issue. Of course the response to Joe's modified point is that you might well be able to think up a more complex example to refute a more complex theory in some cases, sort of like an ideological arms race. It would be interesting to try and come up with some examples like that for the type of consequentialism advocated here at Catallarchy, if any exist.

Who says you have to do

Who says you have to do iterations? We can add to the conditions of the example that there will be no more iterations.

The world I live in is iterative. I do not have time for philosophy that only applies to some imaginary world. This example already has enough deviation from the real world.

Secondly, I mispoke. It is wrong on consequential/utility grounds because the first time it occurs it will dissuade others from seeking checkups or routine procedures that may be life saving, hence total utility is dimished.

It will be a secret, it

It will be a secret, it won't dissuade anyone.

the first time it occurs it

the first time it occurs it will dissuade others from seeking checkups or routine procedures that may be life saving, hence total utility is dimished.

Is the stipulation that the doctor can do it in secrecy really that unrealistic? From my perspective people have opportunities all the time in the real world to secretly and prudently prey on others for their personal gain (or the gain of the five patients in this example).

Is the stipulation that the

Is the stipulation that the doctor can do it in secrecy really that unrealistic?

Yes.

"Have you seen Micha around?"
"Last I saw him he was on his way over to John's Leeching and Barber Shop for a checkup."

Oh, I know, lets posit that it is a bum (excuse me, urban outdoorsman) with no friends, family, social workers, liquor store clerks, or anyone else who knows him or cares about him.

Listen, I'm already playing along with the unrealistic assumptions of six people all having compatible chemistry, that medical science advancing to the point of certain good health from organ transplants (without any alternatives arising no less!), and that everyone involved in the operations will keep their mouths shut about the whole thing. I'll grant that there will be no consequences to the doctor, since any consequences depend on other's moral senses, and we are trying to find what is moral. There may even be a chance that 6 people with compatible organs are all in the same hospital at the same time, even if it is 1 in several trillion. Sometime in the future it will most likely be the case that transplants are pretty much guaranteed to provide excellent health. But that there are no alternative treatments, and that everyone can and will keep their mouth shut? That there will be zero information reaching outside the hospital? This does not describe any possible real world scenario.

The fact that someone who prefers a deontological approach to moral philoshophy is taking the consequential side should tell you something about the weakness of the argument.

Stefan, Of course the

Stefan,

Of course the response to Joe’s modified point is that you might well be able to think up a more complex example to refute a more complex theory in some cases, sort of like an ideological arms race. It would be interesting to try and come up with some examples like that for the type of consequentialism advocated here at Catallarchy, if any exist.

This is a good question. It turns out that actually doing something like this is pretty difficult to pull off. David's comment above pretty nicely illustrates the problem. To make an example work against a more complex account of consequentialism, one that for example recognizes that morality is iterative, then one has to include all sorts of extra built-in stipulations. But the more oddities that have to be stipulated, the less real-world the example becomes.

It might therefore be possible to finally construct an example that is logically possible and that shows that a consequentialist ought to sacrifice one person to save six. The problem, though, is that by the time all the stipulations are in place, the example has become so unlikely that it's not clear how much our intuitions ought to guide us. Our intuitions are designed to guide is in general sorts of cases. That our intuitions break down in truly extraordinary situations shouldn't be all that surprising then.

Now one might hold that _any_ logically possible scenario involving sacrificing one person for multiple others is enought to undermine consequentialism. I went to grad school with a few deontologists who held a positions pretty much like that. Personally, though, I find that sort of claim to be pretty absurd. Are there really _no_ circumstances in which really bad consequences justify violating a right. To twist Hume a bit, is it really the case that we ought to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of someone else's finger?

I tend to think that only someone caught in the grips of an ideological fever would answer in the affirmative there. Most reasonable deontologists admit that, when the body count gets high enough, it might be okay to violate rights for good consequences. (I'm thinking here of Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia or Walzer in Just and Unjust Wars.) Then the question becomes how bad the consequences have to be before rights are fungible.

"And if we all agree that

"And if we all agree that Matt McIntosh is a particularly tasty and delicious kind of property, that makes it OK. Of course I probably shouldn’t go there…"

You fail the reading comprehension test. I made a positive statement, not a normative one, and explicitly said so ("it’s also a different question as to whether we should so agree"). Go back to argument school, Stefan.

Oh and just for the record:

Oh and just for the record: Joe Miller > me.

I made a positive statement,

I made a positive statement, not a normative one, and explicitly said so

Pardon my mistake then; it sure sounded like you approved of "all of us" agreeing that ideas are property.

Oh and just for the record: Joe Miller > me

At least you're smart enough to figure that out.