Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Free Will and Poor People

As I explained yesterday, I'm currently reading Why Empathy Matters: The Science and Psychology of Better Judgment by JD Trout and I've been surprised by how relevant the book is to effective altruist issues. Today, I read Chapter 2, which debunks arguments relying on the concept of "free will" to blame the poor for their situations.

Fortunately for readers, Trout doesn't waste the chapter trying to convince us that we have or don't have free will. He seems to believe in a limited form of free will but here, he's more concerned with demonstrating that we're less free than we think we are. More often than it seems, we are affected by the environment but give it no credit. We commit the fundamental attribution error, attributing the actions of others to their personalities rather than to contextual factors. Poor people are often the victims of this bias:
"One spokesman, for example, explained that, 'The rules for escaping from poverty in America are simple: 1) finish high school; 2) get a job, and stick with it; 3) do not have children outside of marriage. Those who abide by these rules of middle-class existence will not be chronically poor in the US.' ... 
"But people whose basic needs are threatened do not have many effective options. They don't choose to live in a tenement in the way that another might choose to rent rather than buy. And to claim that impoverished people are responsible for the consequences of their choices just because they have chosen otherwise is an awfully thin wedge with which to separate our resources and others' desperate need. And sometimes, when we make poor choices, it is not because we have neglected excellent alternatives, but because poor options are all we have. 
If we are interested in improving human well-being, we should set aside dithering controversy and mystification about free will - the rhetoric of nation-builders and ideologues - and cut quickly to what we do know. For example, we know that when people have the right options, they form habits, say, to save more money through automatic-deduction plans, to eat healthier by controlling portion size, and to stay sober by shifting social settings to patient but firm supporters. But all of these habits are shaped passively, with change in people's circumstances and the crafting of institutions that enhance their well-being."

The above demonstrates Trout's preference for policy changes as a way of reducing poverty. So far, my interpretation of his position is that donating people money is nice, but that a really effective and sustainable treatment for poverty is to change the situation of the poor, for example, with policy reform.

Throughout the chapter, I was reminded of the opening words of an essay called A Behavioral-Economics View of Poverty:
Standard theorizing about poverty falls into two camps. Social scientists regard the behaviours of the economically disadvantaged either as calculated adaptations to prevailing circumstances or as emanating from a unique "culture of poverty," rife with deviant values. The first camp presumes that people are highly rational, that they hold coherent and justified beliefs and pursue their goals effectively, without mistakes, and with no need for help. The second camp attributes to the poor a variety of psychological and attitudinal short-fallings that render their views often misguided and their choices fallible, leaving them in need of paternalistic guidance. 
We propose a third view. The behavioural patterns of the poor, we argue, may be neither perfectly calculating nor especially deviant. Rather, the poor may exhibit the same basic weaknesses and biases as do people from other walks of life, except that in poverty, with its narrow margins for error, the same behaviours often manifest themselves in more pronounced ways and can lead to worst outcomes.

Like Trout, these authors don't see poor people as evil or lazy. They are like us - but poor. Previous circumstances largely dictate their current circumstances.

Earlier in the chapter, Trout expresses a disdain for empathy-based morality. The passage is another really obvious tie-in to effective altruist ideas and issues:
"We imagine that we would sympathize with a child at our dinner table who was without food or health care coverage. From this introspective cinema, we infer that we must have fellow feeling - the right degree of empathy. So, not to worry. If we don't feel the same urgency to assist those farther from our dinner table, it must be because the problems are too complicated to understand or to manage. But the problem with an empathy-based moral evaluation may be simpler to understand than we imagine. 
Because we don't actually see the starving children, we don't think about them. And so we don't empathize with them, and don't act. Another reason for inaction is uncertainty. So it is no wonder that people don't assist when it isn't exactly clear how they should. If a child is drowning in front of you, it is clear what to do. If people are starving around the globe, it may be clear that you should do something, but difficult to formulate a specific intention or craft a plan that can be implemented. Do I work in a homeless shelter? Do I give money to UNICEF? Do I get involved in electoral politics to support policies that are most likely to help the afflicted group?"

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