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Culture and Responsibility

February 19th, 2012 · 14 Comments

Ross Douthat and David Brooks both hit the same point in recent columns on Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart. Here’s Brooks:

[Murray’s] left-wing critics in the blogosphere have reverted to crude 1970s economic determinism: It’s all the fault of lost jobs. People who talk about behavior are blaming the victim. Anybody who talks about social norms is really saying that the poor are lazy.

And Douthat:

Murray’s critics accuse him of essentially blaming the victim: the social breakdown he described may be real enough, they allow, but it’s an inevitable consequence of an economic system that Republicans have rigged to benefit the rich. In the liberal view, there’s nothing wrong with America’s working class that can’t be solved by taxing the wealthy and using the revenue to weave a stronger safety net.

Putting aside the question of who’s right, I think it’s accurate that folks who identify with the left tend to be skeptical of cultural or behavioral explanations for social problems, typically regarding them as a form of victim blaming. And given that conservatives often seem particularly concerned with cultivating a “culture of personal responsibility,” it’s not particularly surprising that such explanations are interpreted as entailing the view that the badly-off are, well, “personally responsible” for their plight. But this is, I think, a mistake.

When you’re talking about variations in outcomes within a socioeconomic group—about why some individuals seem to have done exceptionally better or worse than others similarly situated—it may make sense to talk about individual choice and responsibility. But when you’re talking about population level trends, this won’t do: If you want to know why an entire group of people are choosing to behave in a certain way, and especially why they’re collectively behaving conspicuously differently than they used to, the explanation is necessarily going to be something exogenous to any individual’s idiosyncratic choice. Whatever you think of 21st century American bourgeois mores, there aren’t many reports of Aztec royalty or !Kung bushmen spontaneously adopting them; people read from the locally available scripts. At the group level, “choice” isn’t an adequate explanation for anything, because it’s the pattern of choices that stands in need of explanation.

One hypothesis may be that certain macro-level changes are partially explained by a cultural shift away from norms of strong individual responsibility. But this is not at all the same as saying that we’re individually responsible for the cultural norms we absorb. Sometimes we arguably are—as when we opt to seek out and join a particular subculture—but more often we’re not. I didn’t decide to grow up speaking English. If you and your peers acquired cultural norms conducive to health, prosperity, stable families, law-abidingness, and so on, odds are you had the good fortune to grow up in an environment where those norms were both espoused and modeled—and you can scarcely claim responsibility for that. It is at least possible, however, that an important component of this salutary body of norms involves talking and acting as though individuals are responsible for how they fare on these various dimensions, whether or not this is true.  It is false that economic success is a sign of predestined salvation, but if you believe Max Weber, it was economically advantageous for Calvinists to hold this false belief.

Fear of “victim blaming,” then, is not a particularly good reason to steer clear of cultural or behavioral accounts of social pathology. As far as any particular individual is concerned, cultural context is as much an immutable given as economic context. But there’s another motive that Douthat and Brooks both hint at: If you assume culture is not wholly determined by the economic and political facts, then there’s not a whole lot politics can do to remedy social problems rooted in culture, without resorting to some pretty grossly illiberal interventions. Invoking culture, then, can look like an excuse for not doing anything.  And here, again, one can imagine the collectively advantageous belief being the false one.  That is, it may be that serious social problems are primarily a function of culture, and therefore resistant to political or economic remedy, but that we will not be politically motivated to get the modest improvement achievable by economic means unless we falsely believe that economics are paramount and culture insignificant or epiphenomenal. I’m not convinced this is true, mind you, but it’s a possibility with a neat symmetry.

Tags: Moral Philosophy · Sociology



14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jim Henley // Feb 19, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    If you and your peers acquired cultural norms conducive to health, prosperity, stable families, law-abidingness, and so on, odds are you had the good fortune to grow up in an environment where those norms were both espoused and modeled—and you can scarcely claim responsibility for that.

    I’d probably add “and rewarded” to “espoused and modeled.”

  • 2 MFarmer // Feb 19, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    I don’t know how likely the transformation is, but I do know it’s possible to grow up influenced by certain social norms and be limited by these norms, until, by use of reason and re-evaluation, a person begins choosing a certain world-view and behaviors based on what the person chooses to study and learn. I know it’s possible, because I grew up in poverty in an uneducated, racist, immoral environment, mostly. Around 22 I re-evaluated, although from age 15 I knew that I could think and act differently than those in my environment. From that time on, I’ve chosen my path. I don’t know how much an anomaly I may be, but I’ve also witnessed this same change and re-evaluation with ma

  • 3 MFarmer // Feb 19, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    whoops — it posted before I was through.

    I was saying — many others who’ve stopped and looked inward. I’ll finish later after I edit the previous post

  • 4 MFarmer // Feb 19, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    as I was saying. I don’t how much is the responsibility of the individual (very much, I suspect) and how much is the responsibility of society to inspire individuals to re-evaluate what they’ve learned in the environment in which they grew up — whether it’s a privileged environment or a challenged environment. Perhaps the best solution is a societal importance placed on education and re-evaluation of previously learned norms and behaviors. The only way I see government playing an important role is through leaders using the bully pulpit to encourage re-evaluation and learning, individuality and free-thinking. I don’t see this encouraged by government by though.

  • 5 askew // Feb 20, 2012 at 5:56 am

    This is a dissection of the causation of economic outcomes that doesn’t get enough press: Billy may be personally responsible for doing better or worse than his brother Bobby, but the fact that the income relationship between the top .1% and the median worker has changed substantially in the last 40 years is well-nigh impossible to attribute to personal responsibility.

    But Julian, when you say “But this, I think, is a mistake,” you seem to be going for some kind of Slate-esque contrarianism by misdirection. Certainly the sort of personal blame you’re talking about is not implied by the “cultural causation” argument, for the reasons I’ve just agreed with, but *in fact* most of the people publicly making this argument, including the ones you’ve just quoted, do exactly that, often using cultural causation as a stepping stone.

    And I admit the possibility of your second-to-last sentence, but remember that even from what you’ve quoted, the point of Murray’s critics has been that the cultural causes are *not* “resistant to political or economic remedy” but that the root economic causes may be addressable with better economic policies. Surely attempting to solve problems by attacking the primary causes using true beliefs about the world should have a higher payoff than attacking secondary causes by disseminating a false package of beliefs. But then philosophers always seem to like the bank shots.

  • 6 Driving Drunk in Fishtown « Gucci Little Piggy // Feb 20, 2012 at 6:07 am

    […] Likewise, the existence of horny men and women is not an excuse for single motherhood.  Births happen, but that they happen doesn’t mean that we have to adopt a defeatist attitude towards the happening.  If we’ve come to understand the drawbacks to drunk driving – and if we’ve adopted laws to curtail it – perhaps we need to have a similar conversation about single motherhood without the stigma against victim blaming. […]

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Feb 20, 2012 at 10:10 am

    Yes, right, when I say “this is a mistake,” I mean on both sides. But the notion that somehow the “primary” causes have to be economic, and culture a mere side-effect bubbling up from the more fundamental economic drivers, seems underargued. And to the extent economic factors are driving cultural change, the most plausible stories often involve intrinsically highly desirable economic changes. It would be nice if bad cultural effects were exclusively the result of bad economic facts, but it doesn’t look like that’s actually the case.

  • 8 Doug // Feb 20, 2012 at 10:55 am

    What confuses me about Murray is that you choose any kind of determinism to explain a fading culture of personal responsibility. I don’t see why Hollywood and the academy are any different from market speculators and corrupt senators to a person making up their own mind and accepting the consequences of their choices.

  • 9 Tybalt // Feb 20, 2012 at 11:18 am

    “Putting aside the question of who’s right”

    Then, yes, anything is possible!

    I don’t think “the left” actually does think the primary causes have to be economic. As far as I can tell, there aren’t very many materialists like me out there. Materialism is a lonely place to occupy these days.

    But in the case of the current set of social problems that people actually discuss and seek solutions to, I think “the left” concentrate more on material and economic issues because the evidence is simply overwhelming that the problems are material and economic in nature.

    And by “in nature” I mean the actual problems; they are caused by a (often relative) lack of money. In fact I think people don’t concentrate on this point nearly enough. The things that, politically, we seek to cure or aid are basically the result of people not having enough money.

    Whether there are underlying cultural problems as well, I would say certainly there are, extremely significant ones, but they are not the ones that we ever really address or seek to ameliorate.

  • 10 Julian Sanchez // Feb 21, 2012 at 2:22 am

    “[The] evidence is simply overwhelming that the problems are material and economic in nature…. things that, politically, we seek to cure or aid are basically the result of people not having enough money.”

    I’m not sure whether you mean this in a sense that is trivially true (and therefore not very interesting), or so obviously false that, as you suggest, almost nobody on the left seriously believes it either. If you kind of squint at both senses, you can get the blurry mirage of a thesis that’s both plausible and interesting hovering between them, which I think may be what you’re doing…

  • 11 Brian // Feb 21, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    Tybalt, social problems of the underclasses are not just the result of them not having enough material things. There is empirical evidence (the war on poverty) that simply increasing the material well-being of the underclass doesn’t solve there problems.

    Now, one could argue that the root cause of their problems is not having enough money, but that now that they are where they are in terms of socio-economic status that giving them more money alone can’t solve their problems given that social and cultural problems have taken a life of their own.

    However, you seemed to be making a much simpler point, in which case, all I have to say is that the idea that everybody would be a hard-working BoBo if only they had enough money is absurd.

  • 12 Brian // Feb 21, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    Actually, upon rereading Tybalt’s post, I’m not so sure his point was that simple.

  • 13 An Afterthought on “Responsibility” // Feb 24, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    […] occurs to me that some of the confusion I mentioned in the previous post has to do with a certain ambiguity around the terms “responsible” and […]

  • 14 van Rooinek // Feb 29, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Rather interesting thesis.

    So it’s okay for the left to tell people to stop smoking, exercise, eat more vegetables and less sugar — that’s not victim blaming, that’s just good common-sense health advice.

    But it’s not okay for the right to tell people to stay in school, get jobs, stop sleeping around, stop taking drugs — that’s not good common-sense economic advice, that’s victim blaming.

    I see. I get it now.