It’s moral fiber all the way down

Here’s the most recent thing I’ve been thinking myself into circles about. I’ve tried to write this post three times because it’s something I keep realizing for a split second then forgetting my reasoning, and I’m too upside-down to figure out if this post actually even conveys that reasoning. Also, I think this is truly entry-level ethics, the Death Cab for Cutie of ethics, and don’t want to present it as if I’m making a revelation. But perhaps it will be an interesting thing to chew on for others who have only a vague idea of the body of work behind the phrase “determinism.”

Suppose Annie and Benny are both struggling in school. They have bad grades and keep disrupting class by talking loudly to each other or arguing. They’re taken into the principal’s office one day and he tells them they have to shape up or they run the risk of having to go to that one sullen building in every hometown which tidy middle-class kids like me learned surprisingly late was for kids with vague behavioral problems and probably poverty, because tidy middle-class families never talk about it, and we never encountered any kids who had gone there and come back out.

Benny puts his nose to the grindstone and improves quickly. Annie doesn’t. She continues to get easily distracted or whatever and ends up being sent into the cursed building and Benny loses track of her and goes to a local university to get a GIS degree.

Here’s the question: Why didn’t Annie improve? Under what circumstances could we possibly say, “Annie could have done better than she did, but she didn’t try hard enough like Benny, so she failed?” In other words, under what circumstances could we say that Benny deserved his outcome and Annie deserved her outcome, and therefore justify, as a society, why Annie’s quality of life lowers?

Scenario 1: Annie just found it a lot harder. She has undiagnosed ADHD and a bad home life or something, and so she wasn’t able to apply the same focus to the problem as Benny. I think most people in my circles agree that this is sad and wouldn’t blame Annie for her outcome. The solution is to, say, get Annie on Ritalin and let her move to her nice aunt’s house and finish high school in the next town over, and the assumption is that if Annie and Benny were on an equal playing field, Annie would do just as well as Benny or even better.

Scenario 2: Annie straight-up cared less and didn’t try as hard. Annie has a fine home life and no underlying impairments, she just doesn’t care about school and decided she wanted to play Call of Duty instead. To make the problem clear, let’s say that Scenario 2 Benny has lots against him, which is why he was having trouble at school–he often goes to school hungry and has to work a part-time job–yet when he applied himself, he succeeded where Annie failed.

This is the scenario where I think everyday assignment of blame starts to break down. I think lots of people would attribute good qualities to Benny, let’s call them moral fiber, and bad qualities to Annie.

It seems to me like the sort of “folk model” of good and bad outcomes is that everyone has the same amount of moral fiber (you can also think of it as motivation). (I should note, too, that the folk model of where I live, a very liberal urban area in Canada, is likely quite different from the folk model others may draw.) Some people have bad circumstances which understandably affect how they draw on their moral fiber. I think most people find this generally sympathetic, even if they don’t judge situations as we would expect them to judge them based on the model. For instance, most people in Scenario 1 have sympathy for Annie who has bad circumstances, and are happy to see her enter better circumstances so she has greater capacity to utilize her moral fiber. But Scenario 2 Annie is very unsympathetic. She had no excuse–she just decided not to draw on her moral fiber.

But if Scenario 2 Annie has the same amount of moral fiber as Benny, why doesn’t she use it? What causes her to make a decision to be “bad” and Benny to make a decision to be “good”? It has to be some internal factor that differs between them, right? A factor whose presence causes them to care about school? A factor whose presence permits them to decide whether to do unfun things like studying instead of fun things like playing Call of Duty so they can have better outcomes in the long term?

Isn’t that just…moral fiber again? (Moral fiber2, maybe?) So if it’s moral fiber2 you use to decide to use your moral fiber, and Annie and Benny have the same amount of moral fiber2, why on earth did Annie not do the same thing as Benny? Or if they don’t have the same amount, does moral fiber2 vary between people, and if so, does that variance come from genetics or environment, and if either, isn’t it also not fair to expect Annie to magically accumulate more of it? Or is it also supposed to come from some internal virtue, and if so, how far down do I have to go before it becomes clear that moral fiber3, moral fiber4, and moral fiber5 all have the same logical problem?

So you begin to see why there doesn’t seem to be a point in assigning moral blame to Annie. It’s logically much more consistent to say that the decision to not study was itself instilled by genetics or environment, neither of which Annie could control.

I obviously recognize that not everyone thinks society has a duty to ensure everyone under its aegis lives a life reasonably free of avoidable suffering. But even many of those people would agree, I think,  that this folk model comes packaged with the idea that society does have a responsibility to protect two types of people: people who work according to its expectations to produce value (it would be “unfair” if after Benny’s work his teachers failed him just because they dislike him) and people whose environments and genetics are judged to have prevented them from working according to its expectations (for an extreme example that I don’t think will cause any object-level quibbling, it would be “unfair” if Cala, who has Down Syndrome, had her family killed in a car crash and died of preventable injuries in the hospital because she couldn’t figure out how to handle health insurance and nobody would help her). But for the third group of people, who don’t work according to society’s expectations but don’t visibly have genetics or environment to prevent them from doing so, society relies on moral fiber to justify withdrawing its support, and it doesn’t seem like moral fiber is a very solid foundation. If you become convinced there’s no such thing, as I have, everybody falls into the second category and society has a duty to care for them. Right?

I have no idea how to solve this problem except with highfalutin long-term ideas like UBI. If Annie and Benny can both live reasonably happy lives even if Annie, by genetics or environment, has much less moral fiber than Benny and doesn’t study or show up for work on time, then we don’t have to assign her bad outcomes based on something she can’t control. Benny might get a slightly better outcome even then, but trying to regulate how good an outcome Benny gets is a bit sour even for me. But then, can we even morally justify being okay with Benny getting extra just because of his genetics or environment?

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