Archives for posts with tag: free will

I read two articles recently that got me thinking about when exactly it is that individuals, as viewed by society, become “responsible” for their own outcomes, and when they are still viewed as deserving of equal opportunity. When children are born into environments that don’t provide them with resources they need to develop physically, mentally, or socially, we generally see this as unfair, because it’s not the child’s “fault” that she is not succeeding. Thus, this child is deserving of opportunity. At some point, though, an adult’s unemployment, sickness, and hunger is her own “fault,” as equal outcomes are not guaranteed for all across society (though maybe a basic social protection floor should be).

When does one cross this threshold? One answer, though by no means the only one, seems to be when a student enters college. Students in their first year if college are around 18 years old, a boundary for legal liability in many states, and – if they are lucky enough to be in college – have access to opportunities to advancement and stable employment that higher education is (at least traditionally thought to be) able to provide.


Not so fast, suggests articles from both Charlotte Leslie of the Guardian and Jason DeParle of the New York Times. Leslie writes that there is a tendency to assume that the answer to a lack of social mobility is to “ensure that students from a state-educated background have as good a chance of going on to higher education as their privately educated peers.” However, she goes on to cites research that shatters this “comfortable myth,” research that showed that even when students from state school did as well as those from private ones academically, they made less money and had significantly less access to professions. Why? because of less knowledge as to how to achieve their ambition, fewer soft skills, less access to useful networks (written about earlier in this post), and less work experience from work and internships.

Of course that gap only occurs when there is equal academic achievement in groups with differential access to resources growing up. DeParle’s piece chronicles the college experience of three youth in Galveston, Texas. “Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer,” the article quotes, “the place where upward mobility gets started.” However, as the article illustrates, the economic, social, and cultural strains on these low-income youth make it significantly more difficult for them to succeed in college. Thus, the article suggests a much more bleak conclusion, namely that “It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder.”

What these findings suggest to me is that it is increasingly difficult to draw a line after which the effects of an under-resourced background will cease to be felt. If someone attended a very poor high school, then simply placing them in college will not be enough. Individuals need social, economic, and health supports throughout their lives in order to thrive. For the most privileged amongst us, we receive that from our family, friends, social and professional networks. For the less privileged, it’s a struggle to keep up not only in their childhood or teenage years, but throughout the entire course of their lives.

Photo Credit: Walt Jabsco


Yesterday I came across an interesting blog in the American Conservative with the catchy title of “Responsibility, Personal and Individual (Or, How to Do Political Theory By Watching ‘Girls’).” In it, Samuel Goldman asserts that “while progressives expect the state to take care of people, conservatives argue that people should talk care of themselves.” Although this formulation isn’t particularly sympathetic (or accurate) to the either side, the bulk of the article tries to make a more subtle point that conservatives should shift away from the ‘personal responsibility’ polemic toward one that focuses on our mutual responsibility to take care of each other.

The author contrasts the popular TV shows ‘Girls’ and ‘Friday Night Lights’ to illustrate this distinction, with the former representing narcissism and the latter a more communal spirit. Specifics aside, I think that one notable aspect of the author’s invocation of communal responsibility is that it stops at the level of community members taking care of each other, as opposed to the entire nation assuming responsibility for all citizens. This somehow parallels the argument for federalism, where each state takes care of itself and the national government (the ‘state’) is a minimal presence. What the author leaves unaddressed is why our community boundaries should stop at our township, city, or state, as opposed to the nation.


I suspect that one of the many answers is that, at least in this blog post, the author is referring to taking care of your neighbor in the interpersonal, face-to-face sense, of helping them to find work, take care of their kids, attain educational goals for them and their family, build a swingset, etc. However, what about the sense of “taking care of one’s neighbor” that only the government, or some larger citizen body, can fulfill? If I want to take care of my neighbor by building a road that reaches his house, connecting him to broadband internet, covering him with health care, or hiring high quality teachers for his children’s school, then I will have to do so via some larger structure, not through baking him cookies and helping him shovel his driveway. Yet, for whatever reason, “helping out a neighbor in need” is rarely thought of as modifying economic and social structures in order to facilitate success across a broad range of life outcomes, and I think that’s something that Goldman leaves unaddressed in his pining for communal values.

I grew up in rural America, and I’m the first to say that having a strong community was one of its greatest perks. However, as much as we all looked out for each other, what we couldn’t, as individuals, do for each other, was amass the sort of investments in our community that could radically increase the opportunities available to families throughout the region. Attending the local high school football game may help the team pull out a victory, but we need a higher notion of collective action and trust in our government to help the youth on the field get an education, health care, and a job with benefits.

Photo Credit: Kevin H.

5560644915_c4ae7ca925_bOnly 2 years late, I got around to watching “Waste Land,” a documentary about Brazilian artist Vik Muniz’s exploration and collaboration with a local community that picks recyclable materials from Jardim Gramacho, one of the world’s largest landfills.

One of the most touching parts of the movie for me was when, near to the end, Muniz says the following:

“It could be me. I mean, from the stories these people tell, a lot of them they were low middle class people that for some unfortunate event they just ended up having to go live in the garbage. I was born low middle class household in Brazil; if something had happened to my parents I could be led to a life like that…they just weren’t  very lucky.”

In a society that wants to deem itself “meritocratic,” Muniz’s message is tough to swallow. He believes that, were his life to have taken a different turn, the outcome could have been drastically different. Although I think it’s a relatively straightforward point, his is a strong counter narrative to those who want to insist that, regardless of circumstance, the talented shine and true genius is revealed.

4147238714_facaaa770c_oAnother interesting early idea that’s popped up in thinking about free will and politics is our differing views on public benefit programs for children and for adults. Many people are in favor in investing in early education and social/nutritional assistance for low-income children, often in the pursuit of ‘equal opportunity.’ Fewer, on either side of the aisle, are in favor of giving low/no-income adults the unconditional nutritional/educational/social assistance many need to survive and thrive.

A clear manifestation of this was President Clinton’s “welfare-to-work” reforms that changed the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program – which gave states generous matching funds – with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – which contained stricter time limits and work requirements. This bill, appropriately enough, was entitled the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.”

It’s politically unpalatable to argue that adults don’t need to take “personal responsibility” for their lives, but this approach conveniently ignores the social, historical, and contextual determinants of any given individual’s income level and baseline wealth. Yet this is a fight that even the most progressive hesitate to take up. For instance, in a recent report on how welfare reform’s work requirements affects on youth, authors Lisa Dodson and Randy Albelda poignantly document how low-wage jobs fail to provide the stability needed for prosperous families and given few opportunities for upward advancement. From this argument, however, they don’t conclude that the work requirement should be rolled back.

“The alternative we seek is not non-employment for low-income parents supplemented by government support,” they write, “although for some families there may be times when that is the only or best solution.” Instead, the authors insist that the solution lies in better paying jobs with better benefits.

Although the ethos of ‘bootstrapping’ and ‘making oneself’ can be seen as central to being ‘American,’ I think that the sentiment of ‘helping one’s neighbor’ and ‘taking care of the less fortunate’ also lives strong. If we were willing to concede that individuals have significant constraints on their ability to “create themselves,” then maybe we would be more generous in our social policy, both towards children and adults.

Photo credit: ErvinNoordin

1721673359_d0e85c4a71_oIn my preliminary exploration of the connection between free will, personal responsibility and politics, one of the clearest examples that emerges deals with public benefits. Roughly put, it seems that the more we believe that individual behavior is constrained, shaped and determined by historical and social structures, the more we would invest in ensuring that environments are maximally conducive to human flourishing. If, on the other hand, we felt that individual achievement was mostly a result of personal talent and hard work, we might feel less concerned about the class and context into which individuals are born.

What I say in a clunky way, Heather MacDonald says much more eloquently in a recent City Journal essay on welfare reform:

“The Left’s essential strategy when it comes to poverty is to assess need and desert only in the present moment. If someone shows up at a welfare office saying: ‘I have no means of support for myself and my children,’ the proper role of the government bureaucrat is to ask: “How big a check do you require?” rather than: ‘What did you do to put yourself into this situation?'”

Although MacDonald is clearly saying the Left is wrongheaded about public benefits, her words bring to my mind an interesting correlate with criminal justice. For instance, in a world in which we take our limitations on freedom seriously, when someone commits a crime, the primary question we might ask ourselves is how to rehabilitate the person, as opposed to how to “get even.” We may still be interested in what led the person to commit the crime, but only insofar as we could modify situations to make that crime less likely in the future.

Using a similar “constrained freedom” approach in the case of an individual seeking public benefits, I submit that we might, as MacDonald wants to caricature, focus more on how a person could be helped to have a brighter future than on giving them their “just desert” for (what MacDonald takes to be) their poor personal decisions. In general, I think that less of a focus on the individual as an isolated, all-powerful, self-creation would lead us to concern ourselves primarily with forward-looking policies to both help that individual and others avoid harm and maximize well-being.

(As a side note, it’s interesting to see that MacDonald wants us to expand our “present moment” focus only to past choices of that individual seeking support, as opposed to the generational influences on the person’s income and status, or the neighborhood and other environmental forces that shaped that person’s life. I imagine taking too broad a perspective would distract us too much from ‘personal’ responsibility.)

Photo credit: mezzoblue

3943411823_1358af45d7_oFor my first post I am thrilled to highlight commentary on Free Will from none other than the polarizing, shoot-from-the-hip political and social commentator Rush Limbaugh. On December 19, Rush received a call (transcript here) from a woman named Heather who was discussing the role of mental illness in explaining individual behavior. This was in relation to the recent horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and she was advocating for a greater attention to mental health issues, in particular to the need for both treatment and medication to be available to those in need.

Rush’s primary response was to disdainfully cite the increasing prevalence of neurological explanations for human behavior. He pointed to the proliferation of discoveries in medical science that suggest that “we really don’t have minds of our own, that we are prisoners of our own brain chemistry.” Under this view, he continues, we “really have no self-control. We have no force of will.” Rush laments that “this notion that there is no free will is a rising way for people to explain away their faults. Science is providing it, and the Democrat[ic] Party is right there advocating it.

Rush’s ultimate point, it seems, it that life is difficult for a variety of people, himself included, and some react more constructively than others. The way we respond to our environment is up to “us,” and our brain chemistry is not “an excuse” for bad behavior.

As someone who’s just delving into how the “free will” discourse is used politically and socially, I’m first and foremost excited that Rush is citing the scientific studies that are illustrating the neurological determinants of behavior. Although Rush doesn’t attempt to refute these studies or tell us what we are other than our brain chemicals, I think it’s safe to say that some belief in a human ‘soul’ or ‘I’ – independent of neurotransmitters – is at root. Also, it seems that Rush seems unwilling to entertain the idea that we can exert self-control and force of will, even if that ultimately is only within the confines of the prison which is our own brain.

Photo credit: lobstar28