Bryan Caplan  

The One Blameworthy Lifestyle

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People are often taken aback when I argue that the First World's poor are usually undeserving.  In modern political discussion, we're supposed to "propose solutions," not point fingers.  Even when we're talking about politically connected banks, we usually discuss alternate policies rather than denouncing particular banks or bankers.

Yet there's one notable exception to this rule: our political opponents.  When liberals discuss conservatives, or conservatives discuss liberals, the language of blame prevails.  Invective is abundant.  "Solutions" are in short supply.  It's almost as if people think that opposing their political view is the only blameworthy lifestyle.

Paul Krugman is far from the only offender, but he's a great example.  When Krugman discusses banking regulation, fiscal policy, poverty, or the Iraq War, he's got a blueprint for reform.  He may be mildly peeved at some of the factions named in his blueprints.  But the only people that outrage him are his blueprints' conscious political opponents.  

I understand why I blame my political opponents.  I blame people very freely.  I blame people for being impulsive, lazy, conformist, stubborn, hot-tempered, hostile, and naive.  I blame people for being too dogmatic.  I blame them for being so open-minded their brains fall out of their heads.  I blame people for being bad spouses.  I blame people for selecting bad spouses.  It's hardly surprising, then, that I blame my political opponents for being irrational, for being statists, for being war-mongers, for failing to recognize the rights of strangers.  

I can understand why someone would reject my whole perspective.  Most obviously, if determinism were true, then moral blame would never be justified.*  What I can't understand, though, is why people single out their political opponents as uniquely blameworthy.  If it's OK to blame Republicans for being bigoted apologists for plutocracy, why is it wrong to blame people for credulously accepting the religion their parents teach them to believe?  If it's OK to blame Democrats for being envious crypto-socialists, why is it wrong to blame alcoholics for drinking irresponsibly?

Inquiring minds want to know.  I promise to hold all answers blameless.

* Indeed, if determinism were true, it would be unjustified to morally blame me for morally blaming others!  Of course, a utilitarian determinist could affirm a duty to feign moral blame for its deterrent effect; what determinism rules out is epistemically justified moral blame.



COMMENTS (22 to date)
Roger writes:

I think you've really made a good point here, Bryan.

I wonder if I might sidetrack a little and propose an argument about blame and poverty.

Have you ever considered the idea that maybe it's good thing the poor have above average impulsiveness and below average work ethic?

Imagine a world in which everyone had a really strong work ethic and desire to achieve big things. What would such a world be like? It would be horrible. The amount of competition would increase our stress levels 10 fold. The amount of disappointment from failure would wreak havoc on our mental well-being. Depression and suicide would sky-rocket. That's what happens when you want to be CEO of a multi-billion dollar company more than anything but can't rise above a cashier in fast food. There will still have to be cashiers, garbage men, ect.

In this world you would say that the poor are not blameworthy because they tried. But they've only made the world worse. Yes, we would be more productive and materially richer, but that wouldn't make us any happier, on net.

So, it seems to me that there's a possibility that the poor deserve welfare for not making the world a more competitive, and therefore depressing and stressful place.

I'll end by saying that I don't think the relationship between competition, and stress/depression is linear and positive. There's an optimal amount of competition that will create the most happiness, go below that and you get too much reduction in happiness from depletion of wealth, go above it and you get to much reduction in happiness from stress/not meeting expectations. There's a sweet spot.

Greg G writes:

Yes, if determinism is true (and it might be) nothing really follows.

People often take actions that are at odds with their beliefs. They believe that overeating causes obesity and continue to overeat despite a sincere desire to lose weight. They believe smoking causes cancer and continue to smoke despite a sincere desire not to get cancer.

You certainly can't demand a determinist show good faith by performing an act of free will and changing his behavior because of his "choice" of beliefs.

Our desire to hold people responsible for their actions is just as determined as those actions that we want to hold them responsible for.

Phil writes:

Maybe present vs. past? Having "wrong" beliefs is something that you're doing wrong RIGHT NOW. Being a bad spouse is something that you've done in the past.

It seems to me that people would be more likely to blame someone on his way to spend his welfare money on lottery tickets right now, than to blame someone who spent his welfare money on lottery tickets last week. Just my gut.

And most of the other characteristics you mention -- "impulsive, lazy, conformist, stubborn, hot-tempered, hostile, and naive" -- aren't things that any given individual is exhibiting right this moment. People may not blame someone for being "lazy" in general, but may blame them for littering at this moment.

Haven't thought this through ... just an idea.

Philemon writes:

Determinism need not be part of this picture at all. Charitably, the least needed to explain the situation would simply be for Krugman & Co. to hold to these two claims:

1. Our opponent pundits are culpable for expressing their nefarious views, because, being pundits and therefore agents with such and such social background (education, leisure, etc.), they should have known better, and it is not all that costly for them to be other than they are.

2. The poor are not culpable for their being poor, because, having such and such social background (education, leisure, etc.), they couldn't have known better, and even when they do, their circumstances make it extremely costly for them to do any better.

In other words, there may be a genuine issue and whether a particular class of people might be absolved of their responsibility, without thereby raising the specter of determinism--here standing in for any sort of thesis capable of busting all responsibility from everyone.

By the way, I'm not saying that the above is what K & Co. are explicitly saying but that it would be the easiest way for them to proceed. The way is then open for people to debate whether the poor are culpable for their condition, all of them, some of them, none of them, in what circumstances, etc., etc.--the areas exactly where Bryan's disagreement with his opponents lie (and I'll confess that I'm somewhat sympathetic to Bryan's position). Determinism or anything like that need not be part of this picture at all.

John Fast writes:

I will go with Occam's razor: people blame their political / ideological opponents more than they blame anyone else, because they are more upset by political / ideological opposition than by anything else.

This is because -- at least to someone who is emotionally invested in their ideological position, as most of us are -- such opposition is emotionally perceived as a threat to our self, or self-image, or ego, or whatever you want to call it.

Now a question for you: how do you decide which things are blameworthy, and which things are not?

FWIW I'm an "Enneagram Type One" so I instinctively go to blame-and-shame mode, whether it's appropriate or not. I have done a lot of work and managed to overcome most of it, though not all, yet.

Roger: There is a difference between "a really strong work ethic and desire to achieve big things" and being competitive. It depends on whether one cares about *who* does the big things (or gets credit for them), versus caring about whether the big things get done.

Thank you Bryan for your great arguments.

For another libertarian analysis of who deserves charity, I offer my Circles of Support.

Wallace Forman writes:

"Most obviously, if determinism were true, then moral blame would never be justified.*

... Of course, a utilitarian determinist could affirm a duty to feign moral blame for its deterrent effect; what determinism rules out is epistemically justified moral blame."

Moral blame is an emotional response, shaped by evolutionary pressures, designed to create incentives. Moral blame need not be "feigned" by determinists because it does not, in the first place, depend on a philosophical belief in free will.

solarjetman writes:

This may be related to a pattern I've perceived, but don't have a name for:

Suppose George supports political position A, because he believes in principle P. Suppose Jerry opposes political position A. George will assume that Jerry, even if he says otherwise, opposes A because he believes in principle [NOT P].

So for example, perhaps George supports marijuana prohibition because he believes marijuana is a very harmful substance; he will tend to assume Jerry instead believes weed is harmless or beneficial. Or, perhaps George opposes a tax increase because he believes it is harmful to small businesses; he will assume Jerry supports a tax increase because he hates small businesses and believes they don't deserve to keep the money they've earned. Jerry, for his part, supports the tax increase because he believes it is necessary to preserve Medicare, and thus has a tendency to assume that George opposes the tax increase because he wants to destroy Medicare.

People form their political positions based on deeply held principles, and condemn their opponents for opposing those principles, when in reality their opponents simply weight other principles more highly.

Paul Crowley writes:

I'll swallow that bullet: I don't think it is useful to attribute blame to the class of people who disagree with you politically.

roystgnr writes:

Compatibilists can also be determinists yet still express morally justifiable blame. "Free will" and "determinism" do not need to be antonyms any more than "Free will" and "randomness" need to.

PeterI writes:

Politics always creates neative externalities. Individual irresponsibility also often does but not to the same extent.

john hare writes:

Roger------Imagine a world in which everyone had a really strong work ethic and desire to achieve big things. What would such a world be like? It would be horrible. The amount of competition would increase our stress levels 10 fold. The amount of disappointment from failure would wreak havoc on our mental well-being. Depression and suicide would sky-rocket. That's what happens when you want to be CEO of a multi-billion dollar company more than anything but can't rise above a cashier in fast food. There will still have to be cashiers, garbage men, ect. -------

I disagree Roger. Whether I am competing against the 10% that are motivated or the 100% that are motivated is not relevant. Either way, there will be positions unattainable to me that I am less qualified to do than others. The presence of unqualified and unmotivated people does nothing to ease any frustrations that I might have.

On the other hand, people that are motivated and qualified in many fields make my life richer and more productive. People that are neither are mostly the opposite, especially when they vote for a share of my productivity.

Brandon Berg writes:

Isn't this mostly a left-wing thing? Conservatives don't seem to be particularly reluctant to blame people for their bad choices.

John T. Kennedy writes:

Bryan, Good article. Do you blame people for being rationally irrational?

liberty writes:

I agree with Roger (first comment) completely - hear, hear!

I would only add that, in addition to reducing the overworked/competition life there are so many other things that people can offer, and it is extremely subjective what of these would be called "worthy" ... things which are priceless and may only emerge when one is assured of an income without doing "regular" work - things like artist/writer, caring for/spending time with elderly/disabled, craft/handyman/home-making, full-time parent, monk, stoner/festival-head, etc - and I am not so much talking about this "production" or work, but the person who is allowed to develop and affect others.

People who value monks pay so that monasteries exist (often tho only in hopes of a good afterlife or prestige in the now) but we may similarly affect society by encouraging low work ethic, when we introduce a calm, non-materialistic, non-work-oriented lifestyle, which is only possible with a sustainable welfare/minimum income: think jamaica or spain.

Bryan Caplan writes:

@John - Yes, I do indeed blame people for being rationally irrational. Their behavior is understandable but not excusable.

secret asian man writes:

The thing is, liberals are not entirely determinists.

They do not believe that people can be held accountable for outcomes from making rational choices. They believe that the ability to make rational decisions is low and the circumstances under which these decisions are made are random.

Thus, from their perspective you cannot blame someone for having a cigarette problem and repeatedly becoming impregnated by men of no work ethic or paternal inclination.

But this isn't entirely determinism.

Liberals will be very angry at those who choose to not be emotionally congruent with them. That's what they see as evil, and that's how they cast their insults (not "caring" or "helping" is the most common one)

To them, you cannot be blamed for a failure to reason - but you can be blamed for a failure to emote.

Vipul Naik writes:

I am skeptical if "blame" is really the right word for the poor. At least to me, blame connotes that the person has harmed *other* people and deserves some punishment. I think Bryan is using it in the more limited sense of "being responsible for making bad decisions that led to bad conclusions, so don't expect others to support you" not "need to be punished for their bad decisions." If a poor person won a lottery ticket and happened to win, would that person still be "blame"worthy? If the person lost and wasted his little savings on it, the person deserves "blame" in Bryan's book. Does this mean that the person should receive extra punishment? I think not. If we consider "moral opprobrium" as a form of extra punishment, then throwing moral opprobrium on the poor is wrong. They're already suffering the consequences of the bad decisions, why impose further hardship on them? And what if the person has made a conscious trade-off to live a poor lifestyle? Does that person still deserve "blame" for consciously and deliberately choosing a poor lifestyle that doesn't harm anybody else? [Of course, if you think of moral opprobrium not as punishment but simply as providing indirect wisdom and advice and social incentives, the critique doesn't apply]

The case of politicians is different. Their irresponsible behavior doesn't just affect them personally -- it affects the large numbers of people who are the beneficiaries or victims of the laws and regulations they help create. Given these social costs and benefits, the concept of "blame" -- with punishment (moral opprobrium or otherwise) seems appropriate.

Matt C writes:

Yeah, I was thinking this too, during the previous discussion. It is very silly to say that shoplifters are merely products of their environment, but people who vote Republican are wicked and hateful monsters.

I don't think it can be defended reasonably. Philemon comes closest to a plausible rationalization.

That said, the general claim that humans do not have unconstrained free will, that their choices are constrained by nature and environment, is hard to deny. (You might deny it--but I don't recall ever seeing you do so with more than assertion.) If there is such a thing as free will, it's certainly limited in scope.

MingoV writes:

I believe that solarjetman nailed it. We'd be much better off if most people understood how to parse arguments and political discussions using logic and Bayes Theorem.

philemon writes:

It is very silly to say that shoplifters are merely products of their environment, but people who vote Republican are wicked and hateful monsters.

Perhaps, but it's not incoherent. Even granting that nothing like some sort of all-responsibility-busting-determinism is true of the world (I don't believe that such a thesis is true)--that is, assuming that the very practice of attributing responsibility is a rationally justifiable one--there will still be issues regarding whether and to what extent specific agents should or should not be blamed for their actions. All this is part and parcel of the practice.

Generally, there are three ways by which responsibility and thus blameworthiness may be blocked.

1. Agent does something permissible, right, not blameworthy (the trivial case).

2. Agent does something that is prima facie not permissible, wrong, and is thus prima facie blameworthy, but he has an excuse or justification.

3. The perpetrator is not the right sort of subject for attributing responsibility, e.g., someone of diminished mental capacity, a young child, a wild animal, etc.

Possibility 2 itself can split into two:

2a. Agent does something that is prima facie not permissible, wrong, and is thus prima facie blameworthy, but there are extenuating circumstances, e.g., he was made 'an offer he couldn't refuse', the circumstances in which he found himself was extraordinarily testing of normal human endurance and in a moment of weakness he gave in to temptation, etc.

2b. Agent does something that is prima facie not permissible, wrong, and is thus prima facie blameworthy, but in fact, the action is the right thing to do in the circumstances, e.g., the only way for me to prevent you from pushing the button which would have blown up the place is for me to push you out of the way--and which led to you being injured.

There is nothing incoherent about to believing both that (1) condition 2a is true of many agents who live in dire poverty--on account to their being in dire poverty, and (2) none of the blocking conditions apply to the opponent political pundit (i.e., from the point of view of Krugman & Co.). (Whether (1) is true will require empirical evidence though.)

By the way, granting (1) also makes sense of why we might think that the poor person who escapes his unfavorable condition through hard work is *more praiseworthy* than another one who reached equal success from a more favorable starting line.

Again, I'm not saying that I think Krugman & Co are right, only that their position is not incoherent. Whether they are ultimately right depends on whether and to what extent the empirical evidence work out in support of (1).

By the way, even if it is true that blocking condition 2a applies to the poor qua poor, it could still be the case that their actions are morally problematic, self-destructive, etc.. The best that that citing 2a gets us is that they deserve pity and compassion rather than blame, not an endorsement of what they are doing. ("Ok, so I can see that being in the circumstances that you are in makes it harder for you to resist the temptation to do such and such; so I won't blame you--but what you did is still a bad thing and you really shouldn't do it...")

Lemmy Caution writes:

Krugman has specific policy goals and blames people, like republican leaders, as a tool to gain support for those policy goals. I don't see the problem with this.

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