Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Kids, The Kids!

Henry says
Stripping the issue down to its basics, liberals think that most of a person's well-being is determined by luck, conservatives think that most of a person's well-being is determined by choice[...]But this is just an empirical argument. You could design a study to see who was correct[...] The normative arguments are essentially correct, it's just the positive, empirical arguments that are called into question.
The conservative position is, to put it mildly, insane. This is because of childhood. A person's well-being is conditional on many things that happened when they were children: a child doesn't choose the values of the family in which they grow up, the exposure to culture, the exposure to discipline and etc. Any skill or value that a person has at 18 came about because of their childhood experiences -- experiences for which they are not responsible. They are responsible neither for nature nor for nurture. Others made and shaped them to be the person they are at 18.

At some point individual choice enters, but you reach that age with inputs entirely external to your will. I'm not going to go all determinist on you: certainly people can and do decide to be different than the person they were "raised to be." But any political theory which says that people are who they are solely by choice, that people are responsible for the abilities and talents they have at age 18, that luck in your up-bringing and genes doesn't place a significant role, is misguided.

If we as a society are committed to the idea that each person should have the possibility of succeeding or failing on their own merits, then policies that go to ensuring equal opportunity -- universal access to quality education, in particular -- seem so very defensible. David Schraub argues that the recognition of the importance of childhood to life outcome may not convince people that luck matters:
I've seen a lot of studies which show how a parent's income correlates to their child's future income, which would indicate that being born poorer has some effect on one's future life chances. But one can easily imagine the conservative responses: that if it is bad habits which make someone poor, then it is likely that they will transmit these negative values to their children, thus insuring they'll be poor. Or perhaps they'll make a genetic argument--successful people tend to marry other successful people, and are more likely to conceive successful children. Both of these explanations would absolve society of its accountability and shift the blame back on to the poor and their families.
He is right that it may not convince conservatives that society is to blame. But it doesn't really matter who we blame. What matters is that we recognize that a person's position and skills at a crucial life moment were determined largely externally to them. Luck played a role. Which the conservative position recognizes. Liberals and conservatives are in agreement that luck matters in childhood. So we should do something about this recognition. I don't really know what it would require, but certainly far more than we currently do.

If I were a better person, this post would be in the context of a deep knowledge of the writings of Harry Brighouse (who blogs at Crooked Timber). But I was raised poorly and have bad genes, and hence do not have sufficient discipline to read (a lot of) political philosophy for fun.

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