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June 12, 2008


Bob B

"each of us could have been Tomohiro Kato, who killed seven people in Tokyo at the weekend"

As we sadly know, extraordinary homicidal eventualities are inclined to happen in Japan from time to time, judging by the case of the sarin nerve gas attack by the Aum Shinrikyo (now called: Aleph) cult on the Tokyo subway in 1995:

Possibly, a more pertinent and timely example for Britain is what recently transpired in a Sainsbury's supermarket in a neighbouring London borough:

Mind you, having been held up in the queues in a Sainbury's nearby, I can almost comprehend the ensuing feelings of mounting desperation . . .

Mr Art

"The other circumstance is peer effects. If we are brought up in an area where our friends and neighbours are criminals, we will be much more likely to commit crime, as this seems the normal thing to do."

True, but being moved to a different (more affluent) area doesn't make an enormous difference: http://www.nber.org/~kling/mto/482.pdf

"For me personally, introspection corroborates all this."

Sorry to snark, but introspection is usually not a great source of corroborating evidence.


Compared to what is often passed off as evidence in Social Science, introspection can be rather decent evidence, though it does rather depend on the character of the introspector. Are you feelin' lucky, punk?

Bob B

Never mind introspection, the persistence of gangs and knives in crime in Glasgow, going back to the inter-war depression years, supports the claim made:

"Knives are are used in six out of 10 violent crimes in glasgow. 7500 people are the victims of knife crime every year. And the figures are rising."

Witness the career progression of Sir Percy Sillitoe KBE (1888–1962), who went from being Chief Constable of Sheffield to Chief Constable of Glasgow and from there to MI5 (Britain's internal security service) during WW2 and after:

Sir Percy established an awesome reputation in the 1930s for cracking down on the Razor Gangs in Glasgow. A bit of google digging should reveal that one especially effective police tactic was to seek out and hire heavyweight ex-troopers who had survived the trenches in WW1. They were tasked to go out and about in pairs or groups and provide a little harassment for gang members. It worked, especially since the typical Glaswegian of the depression years tended to be relatively small in stature because of childhood poverty. Of course, Sir Percy's effective methods are now regarded as politically incorrect and quite unacceptable.


There is lots of evidence that character is approximately 50% genetic and 50% due to environmental circumstances, see Judith Rich Harris's The Nature Assumption. This is based on literally hundreds of different studies, including twin studies. So we don't really need to debate whether different influences would have created a different character. But I don't think we can conclude from this that we shouldn't hold people responsible for their actions, in fact it strengthens the argument that people should be given as great incentives as possible to modify their influences towards positive ones.

a very public sociologist

Sir, a lot of the reasoning behind the Nuture Assumption is a load of twaddle. It is based on the same kind of thinking that tries to tie political belief to genetic predisposition. See one of my old rants here: http://tinyurl.com/3v3uc5

And also this from a review of the book:

"However, Ms. Harris makes some of the same mistakes as the developmental psychologists she criticizes--mistaking correlation for causality, interpreting questionable data according to preconceived "truths," and overestimating the significance of some studies."


I wasn't trying to rehash the old nature/nurture debate here. My point was rather to ask how far individuals can control or channel their own impulses, wherever these come from.
If I understand aright, genes only set potential; they can give you the potential to be (say) a top musician, but it's a matter of circumstance how far that potential is realized or not.
Another point: if we assume character is genetically determined, doesn't this strengthen the moral arguments for egalitarianism, as individuals aren't responsible for their fate?

Bob B

"A mugger is a mugger for the same reason I am an economist - because it is the most attractive alternative available to him."

I'm not convinced that David Friedman is making sense with his comparison between professional economists and muggers.

My guess is that's it's likely to be much easier to switch from being an economist to some other profession - say, a consultant, a banker, a teacher, a media pundit or a journalist - than to switch from being a mugger to most other professions apart from other criminal activities. In economists' jargon the exit hurdles from the economics profession and criminality are unlikely to be symmetrical.

The implication of differentially high exit hurdles is that criminals are very likely to remain engaged in criminality, with persistent reoffending, even when the perceived prospective rewards are less than the likely personal costs, including fines, forgone earnings from periods in prison and the pain of wrecked relationships.


If all our actions are predetermined (either by genetics, or random environmental effects) then there is no morality*. So your argument the if character is genetically determined doesn't strengthen the moral argument for egalitarism, because then there are no morals.

*what I mean by this is that "morality" or ethics requires decisions, if no decisions are made then there is no moral consequences to anyone. If you can't help acting bad, then you are not bad. Morality is a human construct and requires the existence of free will

Andrew Duffin

When I see someone successful and respected, I see ... merely the beneficiary of lucky circumstances.

Just a little, touch of sour grapes in there, perchance?


"Another point: if we assume character is genetically determined, doesn't this strengthen the moral arguments for egalitarianism, as individuals aren't responsible for their fate?"

Or the moral argument for eugenics and imperialism. After all, if all is genetically determined then the "determining your own fate" argument and "individual rights" is just a bunch of hogwash.

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