Bryan Caplan

Blame Everyone

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The Folly of Fools... Dinner with Tim Congdon...
Scott Sumner says much I agree with about nature, nurture, and behavior.  When Ronald Green argues that obesity is caused by genes rather than laziness and lack of self-discipline, Scott retorts:
Do you see the problem with Green's assertion?  He asks us to believe that just because obesity is 80% genetic, it can't also be 80% due to laziness.  But why?  What are those two hypotheses viewed as mutually exclusive?  Is it because genetic characteristics are viewed as "not one's fault," whereas laziness is viewed as a character flaw?
But then Scott draws precisely the opposite of the inference I would draw (and, indeed, have drawn):
[I]f society insists on continuing to probe ever more deeply into human genetics, I think we need a whole new language for discussing ethical issues.  My suggestion is that scientists give up on all the comforting notions of "just deserts."  Yes, proof that X% of behavior in genetic still allows for 100-x% to be environment.  But environment is also not the villain's fault. In my view the right way to handle all this is to ignore the question of whether anything is really a person's fault, and consider the related question of whether certain behavior is changed by external incentives (including telling them that it is their fault.)
My position: The mere fact that external incentives could change behavior implies moral culpability.  The premises:

1. If it is possible for you do morally right action A, but you do morally wrong action B instead, your choice is blameworthy.  This remains true even if it is entirely predictable that you will in fact do morally wrong action B.

2. If both A and B are in your budget set, then it is possible for you to do either A or B.

3. External incentives can only make you do A rather than B if both A and B are in your budget set.

How the pieces snap together:

If an external incentive would suffice to change your choice from B to A, that proves that A was in your budget set all along. (Premise #3)  If A was in your budget all along, it was possible for you to choose A.  (Premise #2) And if it is possible for you to choose right action A, but you choose wrong action B instead, doing B is morally blameworthy - no matter how predictably you do B. (Premise #1)

Example: Suppose an alcoholic would stop drinking if the penalty for drinking were 100 years in jail.  The mere fact that he would stop given this punishment shows that stopping is in his budget set.  This in turn shows that stopping is possible.  So if sobriety is morally right, and drunkenness is morally wrong, the alcoholic's drinking is morally blameworthy.

Predictability of behavior is a red herring.  You know with high confidence that a Nazi guard in a prison camp will not spare your life.  That's no excuse for murder.  Murdering you is wrong if it is possible to refrain from doing so. And we know that refraining is possible because if the Nazi knew that murdering you would result in massive punishment, he would refrain.  Incentives don't give people new powers; they elicit powers that people had all along.

The upshot: Instead of saying, "We are no more morally blameworthy than [extreme case X]" we should be saying, "[Extreme case X] is just as morally blameworthy as we are."  Blame everyone for their misdeeds, great and small.  Blame Nazis and drunks, adulterers and shoplifters, immigrant-haters and plagiarists.  Tailor the blame for the severity of the wrong-doing.  Think long and hard about what's right and what's wrong.  Consider extenuating circumstances.  But when someone does what's wrong instead of what's right, they are blameworthy and you should blame them.  And when you do what is wrong instead of what's right, you are blameworthy and you should blame yourself.


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COMMENTS (23 to date)
Matt writes:

Sumner forgets that genetics can cause both the susceptibility to obesity and the tendency to be lazy. Obesity in a person could be caused by both, but the ultimate cause for the proximal causes would be genetics.

Kevin Dick writes:

Bryan, I think your budget set analysis is wrong because you focus on a single act, without looking at tradeoffs in the overall budget.

We know that certain people are more susceptible to ego depletion than others--their total budget of self control is more limited.

So your analysis of the alcoholic may be wrong. Refraining from drinking may not in fact be in his budget set even if he could refrain under severe penalty. The penalty just forces him to give up some other form self-control, which could possibly be more harmful.

Alex Godofsky writes:

1. If it is possible for you do morally right action A, but you do morally wrong action B instead, your choice is blameworthy. This remains true even if it is entirely predictable that you will in fact do morally wrong action B.

This is not sufficient.

I'm driving my car at night. For some reason (you got REALLY drunk earlier) you're lying in the middle of the road, and I can't see you and run you over. Sucks, but I can't be blamed because I didn't know.

Except, it was totally POSSIBLE for me to swerve around you. The only reason I did it was my mental state. So, my actions are now blameworthy?

In general I think you need to describe which mental states don't accrue blame and which ones do, and justify how they differ.

johnw writes:

Alex:

No, you missed the "morally right" and "morally wrong" part. It is NOT morally wrong to accidently (without negligence) run someone over.

Brian writes:
I'm driving my car at night. For some reason (you got REALLY drunk earlier) you're lying in the middle of the road, and I can't see you and run you over. Sucks, but I can't be blamed because I didn't know.

Car drivers are always claiming that running somebody over is a victimless crime and nobody's fault. If you can't keep from running people over, you shouldn't be driving.

Pedestrians are sick and tired of the American concept that drivers can't be held morally responsible for anything whatsoever.

Alex Godofsky writes:

johnw: I agree. But under the standard I quoted, it would be wrong, because it was possible for him to do otherwise.

Vlad writes:

"The mere fact that he would stop given this punishment shows that stopping is in his budget set. This in turn shows that stopping is possible."

It does not show that stopping is possible in the original context.

Suppose that if someone gives you a million dollars you'll buy a Ferrari. According to the analysis above this means that the Ferrari "was in your budget set all along". Obviously not true.

gregorylent writes:

"genetics" is completely superficial, as any mystic knows.

the relationship between consciousness and individuality is not amenable to western methods of "scientific" investigation, because science is rooted in mechanistic viewpoints of cause and effect. life is whole, non-linear, and most important is multi-dimensional. science cannot grasp that reality, at all.

this blog post is nicely done., but pointless, in that it argues fine points of a reality that does not exist.

Norman writes:

If I'm remembering my microeconomics 101 rightly, external incentives are precisely what determine your budget set, and a change in relevant external incentives changes your budget set by definition. In this sense, Vlad is exactly right.

So I'm not sure the logic is explained in quite the right way. Perhaps it would be better to say "If an external incentive [which unambiguously restricts your budget set along at least one dimension without expanding it along any dimension] would suffice to change your choice from B to A, that proves that A was in your budget set all along." Bryan's logic is valid if we assume he means a specific type of change in external incentives.

James writes:

Vlad,
Your example here is flawed in that the choice in question is whether you will buy the Ferrari or not. The million dollars is preexisting the choice, therefore the budget set is the same for either choice.

Chris writes:

I agree with some of the other commenters that the potential punishment does affect the budget set. Perhaps what the alcoholic needs is to choose point A', which is a combination of not drinking and a (credible) large punishment if he does drink. A' is not in everyone's budget set because not everyone can contract for a sufficiently large punishment.

ajb writes:

Bryan is strongly causing me to rethink my positions on morality. With moralists like him, perhaps there really is no morality worth defending.

Scott Sumner writes:

Bryan, I agree that people who behave badly should be blamed. (And hinted at that in my post.) I justify that on incentive grounds, not that they are getting what they deserve. Maybe that's a distinction without a difference. What I'm really saying is that society shouldn't agonize over whether people are to blame for certain acts, but rather the issue of whether they can be deterred. Thus the law shouldn't worry about whether criminals are mentally ill, but rather whether they can be deterred by punishment. The evidence in your paper on Szasz suggests that most crazy people can be deterred by the threat of punishment.

It's not obvious to me that there are any practical distinctions between what you are saying and what I am saying. We might be using the same terms in different ways. Or it may reflect a different philosophical position on "free will."

Matt, You said;

"Sumner forgets that genetics can cause both the susceptibility to obesity and the tendency to be lazy. Obesity in a person could be caused by both, but the ultimate cause for the proximal causes would be genetics."

No I didn't forget that--nothing I said contradicts your assertion. Indeed you are merely restating what I said.

Dan writes:

Bryan, it seems you just tried to prove your position by making it one of the premises. Your "position" and "premise 1" are the same thing.

If all behavior is a result of the combination between genetic wiring (which you're not responsible for) and external environmental inputs (which you're not responsible for), how is person X any more morally responsible than a hurricane? It's in a hurricane's "budget set" - it's POSSIBLE - to go over the populated area or take another less destructive route. The combination of the "nature of the storm" and external pressure systems effect the direction of the hurricane.

Unless you're assuming some form of magical free will, it seems Scott Sumner is on firmer ground... not that I blame you for being wrong.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Bryan, you are talking about the morality of behavior and who can be blamed for what behavior. If that is all you refer to, then I agree that if one would change one's behavior with a particular incentive, then it is reasonable to blame the person for his behavior.

But often when one is talking about the bad behavior of others, it is to figure out how to change the behavior, not to assign blame. And in fact assigning blame may well be counter-productive in changing behavior, because it may simply create defensiveness.

If I have an alcoholic friend who I want to become sober, it is important to think of incentives and not blame. For some people, blame and assigning guilt will be an effective incentive for change, but for others it will have the opposite effect. I will do my best to determine which type of person the alcoholic is before I start assigning blame. Your discussion above is then irrelevant, unless it is useful for assigning blame to someone for whom guilt is effective.

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Bryan and Scott:

I think there is a difference in what you said and that is that Scott can probably live a much happier life. Externally, Bryan and Scott can act in identical manners. But internally, Scott is not required to expend any energy on blaming someone. He simply sees behavior he wishes to change and takes action to deter it. Bryan on the other hand is required by his philosophy to feel negatively about the people who carry out this action. I cannot quote, but I am fairly certain I have seen studies which suggest this will make Bryan less happy.

Of course, I don't doubt Scott gets pretty upset like everyone else when someone cuts him off on the highway or steals his wallet. But at least theoretically, it is possible for Scott to simply take it as an unfortunate event to which he must respond with a deterrent without having to spend the extra time and energy disliking the fellow who is responsible for that.

Evan writes:

I'm not quite clear by what Bryan means by "blame" and "moral culpability." To me saying someone has "moral culpability" means "it is possible to use social tools like praise, threats, and condemnation to alter the person's behavior." So when Bryan says:

The mere fact that external incentives could change behavior implies moral culpability.
What I hear is "The mere fact that external incentives could change behavior implies it is possible to use social tools like praise, threats, and condemnation to alter the person's behavior." That seems a tad redundant.

I think the problem with the reasoning exhibited by the people Sumner is criticizing is that those people view your brain as a seperate entity from you, and therefore regard anything caused by a physical problem with your brain as "not your fault." However, you are your brain, so saying "my brain structure made me do it" is pretty much the same as saying "I did it." Whether incentives can affect your brain is really all that matters.

Incidentally, there's an excellent discussion of genetic disease and moral blame here.

James Wilson writes:

This post is most helpful in the sense of showing why some people are not "entitled" to help, particularly tax-funded help. There is very little utility in "blaming" people for being addicts, lazy, or fat. They should be free to be who they want to be. But the rest of us could say that they are not entitled to tax-funded medical care or financial support because it is THEIR fault they are that way, not the taxpayers.'

another James writes:

Bryan: Every argument you make is built on a foundationalist view (moral + epistemic realism) that Sumner denies. The specific disagreement that you identify here is only a symptom.

Scott: So if crackheads are violent and don't typically respond to any incentives to behave peacefully, then the solution is to punish their victims for being in brawling distance in hopes that they might respond to incentives and avoid getting beat up?

Michael Wiebe writes:

My question:

Suppose Bob is strongly genetically determined to be an alcoholic, and Joe is weakly genetically determined to be an alcoholic. If both Bob and Joe become alcoholics, is Bob less morally blameworthy than Joe? That is, given that staying sober is much more costly for Bob than for Joe, should we treat Bob and Joe differently based on their genetic endowments?

PrometheeFeu writes:

@another James:

"So if crackheads are violent and don't typically respond to any incentives to behave peacefully, then the solution is to punish their victims for being in brawling distance in hopes that they might respond to incentives and avoid getting beat up?"

I'm not sure how you got that from what Scott was saying. The goal is not to have crackheads beat up fewer people. It is to have people be able to choose to not get beat up by crackheads. In that case, there are several options. One option is to punish crackheads who beat up people severely. Sure, it might not induce them to not beat up people once they are on crack. But it might induce them to not become crackheads in the first place in order to avoid the chance of punishment.

Matthew C. writes:

Obesity is caused by excess fructose consumption, via HFCS and plain old sugar. People vary in their response to eating this vast quantity of fructose, but it isn't good for anyone, even those who do not become obese from eating it. If you graph the fattening of America with fructose consumption, it's just about a perfect match. And there is a very good explanatory pathway -- fructose is processed in the liver (like alcohol, very similar pathways in fact), large amounts of it cause fatty liver, insulin resistance, excessive insulin levels and fat storage (insuling promotes fat storage and prevents the burning of fat).

All the stupidity about "lazy" people who "deserve the blame" for being obese is just utter and complete garbage. Obese people simply need to cut out all sugar and reduce carbohydrate consumption which will get the fat off their liver and repair their metabolism and appetite regulation. Obesity is not a moral issue, it is an illness caused by the inability of people to handle the enormous increase in dietary fructose loading without damaging their health (whether through obesity or many other conditions linked to excess fructose consumption).

broncobilly writes:

Hello, I’ m an italian boy. I’ m catholic, Pope told us there are no-tradeble values. then, no incentive change my beheviour in this specific subjet. I wonder if i’ m moral responsable for my behavior in that case.

On the other hand external incentives change behavior of my dog. Is he moral culprit?

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