How Deserving Are the Poor? Debate Wrap-Up
By Bryan Caplan
The resource page for last week’s Caplan-Smith debate is now up, complete with full video. Here’s Karl’s post-debate statement. It’s basically a more detailed version of his original statement. But he does introduce two new points I want to answer:
1. Genetic determinism. Here’s Karl:
As it happened I was also debating Bryan Caplan, who I thought and still
think, would admit that one’s actual level of conscientiousness is
probably genetically determined. And, further that this personality
attribute underlies most of what the normal world would call “laziness.”
Actually, I’ve explicitly disavowed genetic determinism for any interesting behavioral trait. So does every behavioral geneticist. The proof is simple: if genetic determinism were true for any trait X, identical twins would have exactly the same value of X. They almost never do. Conscientiousness is a case in point; heritability estimates are typically 40-60%. None approaches 100%.
In any case, genetic determinism is a red herring. You could just switch to a “genetic + environmental determinism” hybrid view, then reiterate Karl’s fundamental position. Which brings us to:
2. Free will. Karl:
[I]f one is sympathetic towards those born blind does it not follow that one should be sympathetic towards those born lazy?
Now, that having been said I recognize that there will be a huge
visceral aversion to this line of reasoning. And, so I want to do what I
can to calm that aversion.
My point was that the reason we feel so differently about
disabilities like blindness as opposed to disabilities like laziness, is
that its really difficult to fake being blind. Thus there is much less
concern that the blind person is taking advantage of you by lying about
Its much more difficult to confirm laziness. So much so that people
are hesitant to think of it as not a innate property of the person at
all. However, our psychological research strongly suggests that this is
But laziness is totally different from blindness: laziness is a choice, and blindness isn’t. Karl ably explained my reasoning during the debate: Laziness, unlike blindness, responds to sufficiently extreme incentives, and something can only respond to incentives if you are able to do otherwise.
Consequentialists naturally tend to misinterpret this statement as saying, “We should punish laziness in order to reduce laziness.” But my point is about philosophy of mind, not policy. The responsiveness of laziness to incentives shows that being lazy is a choice.
Of course, you could just bite the bullet and insist that what appear to be choices are never “really” choices. But that goes against all mental experience, and should be dismissed as absurd.
One last point: Many people (Scott Sumner among them, I fear) would be tempted to complain that I stubbornly cling to whatever moral intuitions I deem to be “obvious,” while Karl actually tries to prove his moral conclusions. My reply: Karl rests all of his moral conclusions on a single utilitarian premise. And what is that premise? If you say, “Just another intuition,” you’re being generous. The utilitarian intuition is a paper tiger, subject to a long-standing list of devastating counter-examples. Utilitarians’ standard replies are to (a) change the subject by denying the empirical importance of the counter-examples, and (b) dogmatically accept every absurd implication of their view while criticizing the “dogmatism” of everyone who demurs. If this isn’t ridiculous enough, utilitarians proceed to continuously violate their own ethic by failing to spend all their spare resources on desperate strangers.
I’m not saying that human happiness isn’t morally important. I’m saying that human happiness is one morally important thing on a long list of morally important things: desert, justice, honesty, achievement, truth, beauty, and liberty are merely the beginning. The only way to weigh them against each other is with clarifying examples and reflection. Morality would be a lot simpler if utilitarianism were true. But it’s better to be broadly right than simply wrong.