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May 20, 2010


photo ex machina

People aren't slaves to norms and attitudes learned in childhood, there is still always an element of choice - although perhaps harder to make. This is where character is revealed.

Tom P

On a related point, Jack of Kent had an interesting post on why he switched from Right to Left. short snippet below, but the whole thing is worth a read.

"I also realised that my own personal story of self-reliance, of getting "on my bike" to one of the world's greatest universities for an undergraduate degree, and then gaining various legal qualifications, was not a solid basis for a wider social policy. It became less significant to me that I had done any of that, and more significant that many with whom I went to school, and were no less intelligent, had not even thought about university and the professions, let alone tried and failed. I was an exception to a disappointing rule."


Luis Enrique

we can't do an experiment to decide what we mean by the concept / word "deserve"


One of Gladwell's books (Outliers) says something similar in a later chapter, about how the hard work ethic in Chinese cultures arises from the rice paddy. There were two features to this: first, the rice yield increased depending on how much effort the farmer put into tending the crop, and second, the farmer paid a fixed amount of rent for the land, so the surplus was his.

What you said, in other words.

The Welsh Jacobite

people are bearers of social relations

A very Tory sentiment (using the word in its proper pre-Peel, Johnsonian sense, not a mere synonym for "Conservative").

Enoch Powell once remarked that a Tory is someone who thinks that there is no such thing as an individual who exists without Society.

Luis Enrique

not an experiment as such, but one avenue is to do things like try to match individuals on observable characteristics (like Andy and Ben) then look for an episode like a recession where (exogenously) some of their parents lost their jobs, and then see what difference it made to how they fare in later life.

something like, say, this:


but while that might shed some light on the illustrative mechanism you use in this post, it doesn't tell us much about the bigger question of how much weight we ought to place upon circumstances versus character.

If you did a really thorough wage regression, putting information about parents, neighbourhood, schooling etc. would the R2 give you an idea of the extent to which circumstances explain outcomes (could you call character an unobservable characterstic)? I think not, because you don't know how much basic randomness you ought to expect, even you were able to do the impossible and fully observe both 'circumstances' and 'character'.


You could, I think, abstract this back to the question of whether free will exists or not.

The left would say not - every effect has a cause. The right would say it does - we are responsible agents capable of 'deserving'.

Personally, I tend to think that one has to believe the latter to some extent, and perhaps against reason. The more rational one is, the more left wing one should be, but the less one's conciousness is integrated into one's society (this supporting TWJ's point, above)?

Tim Worstall

"What sort of experiment or evidence would be decisive?"

Identical twins raised in different families of course. Just like every other experiment trying to sift through the differences between heredity and environment.

Tim Worstall

In fact, there are huge numbers of those twins studies out there. How many have been looked at in terms of economics I don't know....if not very many then there's a great series of research studies that could be done.


In the example you give, is it not rather that Andy made the wrong deduction, generalising from a sample of one (hard work didn't do much for my father, so I won't work) whereas he should have looked more widely (many people in this society have prospered through hard work, even if some haven't, so I'll try that myself). And his mistake was his responsibility.

Bloc d

Coming from the opposite direction two recent news items got me wondering on the correlation between wealth and Character.

Lawyers for Sir Allen Stanford, currently in a Houston prision awaiting trial on fraud claims, say he should be released immediately because jail has turned him into a nervous wreck.

In Russia, imprisioned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky ended his hunger strike after one day. Khodorkovsky was protesting against improper court proceedings and appears happy to have made his point after one day on hunger strike.

Luke R

One problem is that 'character' is defined primarily in moral terms, not causal ones. And things get sticky when we try to make it a causal item.

So Tim seems to just assume that character vs. circumstances is equivalent to heredity vs. environment. But that suggests that I'm primarily responsible for my genome, which seems wrong.

Whereas Tom assumes that the issue is free will vs. any causal factor at all. Which has familiar problems - if free will is separate from every measurable regularity or causal mechanism, it shrinks to an apparently random, undetectable non-factor, a metaphysical coin toss.

So maybe one way to resolve who's right is to ask whether one side's conceptual scheme is actually incoherent or intractably ambiguous, and then reject that side.

Stephen says
"[Andy's] mistake was his responsibility"
That's a quite different notion of character though - industriousness vs. epistemic responsibility. If he lived in a society where, as a matter of fact, hard work didn't pay, then he would be epistemically responsible but still lazy and anti-social, while Ben is epistemically irresponsible but still decent and hard-working.


Luke R: yes, you're quite right. And we then have to ask, what was it in Andy's upbringing that led to his epistemic irresponsibility, which seems to be part of his character ... or was he just naturally that way?

Haiti may, for all I know, be a place where hard work doesn't pay. Question is, are there parts of the UK where it really is epistemically irresponsible to be decent and hard-working? If so, what if anything can be done?


All societies have developed from stone age poverty. How did some break the vicious circle?

Miguel Madeira

"Identical twins raised in different families of course."

I think the beste experience is with identical twins raised *in the same* family - if they usually have different outcomes, this is an evidence that individual character matters; if they have the similar outcomes, nothing can be concludeded.

Fred Kapoor

I agree with @Luke_R with the comment
" character' is defined primarily in moral terms, not causal ones"
Besides, even when this is a common problem or big question regarding business matters, it is also one of the most important questions philosphy has been analyzing for centuries. The nature of the human being, the way in which the enviroment, the situations, the conditions, the social status, etc, influence the moral norms that will be respected by each one of us.
Great post, it would lead to an infinite discussion!!!

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