Poor people frequently make what appear to be stupid, self-destructive choices. For instance, there’s a distant cousin, Aaron, on my wife’s side. Aaron lacks a high school diploma and is always nearly broke. However, Aaron spends what little money he has on cigarettes and small tattoos rather than on things that would actually improve his life. Or, for instance, consider people who get pregnant because they refuse to use cheap and easily available birth control. Almost everyone either knows, or ought to know*, that if you are young, have frequent heterosexual vaginal sex, and don’t use a condom (or some other form of birth control), you will probably get pregnant.
1. Might apparently irrational behavior actually be rational, in light of people’s constrained choice sets?
2. Even if some apparently irrational behavior is rational, is all or even most of it?
3. Should we blame at least some of the poor and hold them responsible for their actions? (Take Aaron again. I haven’t given you all the details of his life. He grew up in rotten circumstances. I’m not surprised that Aaron acts in what appears to be such a short-sighted and unconscientious way. However, at least in his case, as far as I can tell, it would be easy to improve his circumstances dramatically.)
Paul Gowder responds here.
I’m not going to enter directly into this debate. Instead, I’ll just comment on what it means to judge other people.
Take me, for instance. I’m educated. I have a good job. I’m in the top few percent of income-earners. I’m married. Etc. Now, suppose tomorrow I started doing cocaine and sleeping with undergraduates. Suppose, as a result, I ended up losing my job, my family, my friends, and so on. You’d probably be inclined–unless you had evidence otherwise–to hold me responsible for my actions, to blame me, and so.
Yet most of us resist wanting to blame the poor when they make similarly self-destructive choices.
Now, it may be that in the situation above, I really would be blameworthy, while perhaps Gowder is right about the poor.
However, it’s worth noting that to judge someone as morally responsible tends to show respect. You treat that person as an agent with sufficient control over his or her life. To treat someone as not responsible tends to show a lack of respect. You treat that person as not being an agent. “It’s not your fault; you couldn’t help it” can sometimes imply “You are more like a child than an adult. You aren’t among my peers.” “You ruined your life, you idiot!” implies “You are an agent. You are my peer. I expect more from you.”
Does Caplan get his facts or his his analysis of those facts wrong? Or is the issue that Caplan–unlike most academics–respects the poor enough to point fingers at them?
On a related note, David Schmidtz and I argue that free will is not an all-or-nothing thing. And, to some degree, to have free will is a personal achievement.
*By “ought to know”, I mean would be culpable for failing to know.