Traits of Personhood (and Economics)

In debates over economic liberalism and conservatism I keep seeing remarks that hinge on contestable views on personhood. For example, a conservative commentator will say something like “what if somebody is just more talented than another person and makes more money because of that? Should he have to give up the money he earned fair and square?” Well, let’s look at two questions:

Is Michael Jordan lucky to be as talented as he is?

Most people will answer (off the top of their head) Yes. Now,

Was Michael Jordan’s success in the NBA a matter of luck?

Most people will instinctively answer No. In the first case, it seems to me that there’s a concept of Michael Jordan being discussed that doesn’t include his amazing talent for basketball. In the second question, though, we naturally include Michael Jordan’s basketball talent within the concept of Michael Jordan as a person.

With talent and many other traits, it seems to me that we sometimes view the trait as fundamental to the person, like whether or not they’re kind, and sometimes we view those traits as external to the person, like my ownership of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems. The question is whether there’s any philosophically best way of doing this.

On contestable issues, like economic issues, this can be pretty important. A fiscal conservative might say to a liberal like me “You just don’t wanna work!” (I don’t) and say that he deserves his extra money because he works harder. But if we can say Michael Jordan is lucky to be so talented, why couldn’t we just as well say I’m unlucky to be lazy? Why is talent external to a person, but laziness internal? Or regarding crime, why can’t we just say that people with violent tendencies are unlucky to have them? If we can say my brother deserves special treatment because he’s disabled, why can’t we say murderers deserve special treatment because they’re murderers? We could say that being disabled isn’t something you can choose, but can violent sociopaths just choose to be otherwise?

I’m not saying we should slant one way or the other. Maybe we should view all traits of a person–including their current physical location, their talents, their level of laziness, their sexual orientation–as essential features of their being. Or maybe we should be completely anti-essentialist and view even a person’s level of kindness as just another circumstance, unworthy of moralization. But how do we choose?

As a good old-fashioned Hubert Humphrey liberal, I say we celebrate diversity, applaud the gifted, the talented, and the lucky… And that we tax their success, at a moderate rate, to create a social safety net, so that the handicapped, the disabled, and the unlucky don’t have to live in back alleys and eat out of garbage cans.

We can have sports superstars and a measure of opportunity for all to live decent lives. There is no reason it has to be “all or nothing.” The absurdist “equalizer general” fantasy, or mere Soviet- style oppression, are not logical outcomes of a moderate welfare policy. We can maintain individual incentives to success and give public aid to the very needy.

Most people would be wrong. Jordan’s talent at playing basketball had more to do with the effort he put into the game than any natural talent.

Bull. I’m 6’2", but naturally uncoordinated, and I could practice from now until the cows come home and be nowhere close to Jordan. On the other hand, he probably can’t write complex programs in his head. Which by the way is something I have a natural talent for.
Plus consider if his drive to excel is just as much a natural trait as his ability to shoot baskets and coordination.

Well, given Jason Lin, one must admit that luck has quite a bit to do with it.

In terms of rewards, we can say that those who produce more for society should get more rewards, based on their contributions. So I’m not saying we should all get equal rewards. But I agree that much of what we are is either inborn or trained in from an early age, and not under our conscious control.

I don’t get drunk pretty much ever, and that isn’t because I’m a virtuous person but because I have no real taste for alcohol. I don’t play a musical instrument or sing in public, and that isn’t because I’m a lazy bum who can’t be bothered to practice but because I’m tone deaf. One of my daughters is just like me in a lot of ways and I don’t think it is because I trained her so well.

So, given that, isn’t it right that people who screw up don’t get the bounty of society, but aren’t sentenced to starvation or homelessness either? And let’s not think that the child of wealth and privilege is somehow better than anyone else and earned his advantages.

Sometimes people breeze into accomplishments that other people sweat at and fail at. Sometimes it isn’t even hard work. But people didn’t decide to be able to do it or to be able to fail to do it, and so should be humble.

What does it mean to be naturally uncoordinated? Do you suffer from some neurological disorder?

So you were born knowing how to write complex programs in your head? You made no effort to learn this skill?

Why would you consider it a natural trait? In my experience, traits of these kinds (laziness included) have to be instilled in people as they’re being raised.

“traits of these kinds (laziness included) have to be instilled in people as they’re being raised.”

Despite what parents want to believe - the way they raise their kids has little to do with how the kids turn out. One example:

What DataX said. Parents really don’t affect the personality traits of their children very much.

Insurance is better than individuals each trying to scrape by and save for disaster because the money isn’t being stuffed in a mattress for a rainy day but is out working. Just because it is social insurance rather than private doesn’t actually change that fact.

That link didn’t mention much about the study’s conclusion, but, okay. At any rate, I didn’t say anything about parents. Parents are just one part of the social environment a person is raised in. If you raise him in a social environment where going to jail is seen as normal and it’s normal for healthy men to be jobless then that child will probably see such things as normal. It doesn’t mean he was born with some innate talent to be jobless or prone to going to jail.

No, just Jewish. :slight_smile:

Nope. When I was in high school we had an ancient computer which you programmed in machine language. I immediately wrote complex programs, including an assembler from scratch. I’ve taught CS, and this is something you have or you don’t.

Do you have kids? My oldest had about a dozen bib in her crib, and could tell if one was missing. She’s always been good at math - it is a family trait. She has also been driven all her life. She was in third grade driving her teacher crazy asking for math worksheets, and she is in grad school doing more studies than the rest of the department put together. Even if I could teach her that, I wouldn’t.

I have a great memory for trivia, always win at Trivial Pursuit, and got on Jeopardy my first time without studying. My daughter took a drama class for 8 year olds, real low stress. The last day she brought home a flier from a talent manager in New York, and told us she wanted to try out. She got signed immediately. I wish I could say I had something to do with that, but she knew how to approach it better than I did. If you’ve ever been around child actors, they all have a special something which you learn to recognize even as just a parent.

Some things come easy to people. Some things come hard. Working might improve some of this, but not by all that much. Nothing to feel ashamed about or proud of.

In an environment where there are no jobs the characteristics that could make you get ahead in the workplace might be turned to crime or drug selling. It seems that during the bubble a lot of the hard core jobless got jobs. And there are people prone to violence. In better settings they may beat up their wives and kids and fly under the radar, in worse ones they might join gangs and get busted. I doubt anyone chooses to be a sociopath.

You joke, but Jews used to dominate basketball in the United States. Paul Gallico wrote that basketball "appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background [because] the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smartalecness” in the 1930s. So there seems to have been some thought in the past that Jews had an innate talent for basketball.

So you wrote an assembler without learning anything about computers.

Also, you’ve taught CS… but it’s something “You either have or don’t.”

The first claim is totally unbelievable and the second is strangely contradictory.

He’s saying, basically, that he could read about a complex programming task once and immediately do it, and some of his students are like that, while others (including others of his students) have to work extremely hard to understand how to do even the basics.

I don’t see how what Odesio is saying is even remotely plausible. Some people are naturals at drawing, others aren’t. Some people are naturals at dancing, others are not. Etc.

My youngest at 4 is incredibly graceful, despite never having had a lesson. My oldest at 6, as much as he apparently loves to dance, is a complete clutz at it–despite practicing once or twice a week for the past three years.

I have always been unduly lazy. I taught myself algebra in Elementary school, not through hard work and blood and sweat, but because I was the jerk to whom that stuff just came naturally. Meanwhile, other students, dedicated and hardworking as they were, could never pull off higher than a C. On the other hand, many of them could throw a football after just a couple of games of catch with their dads. Myself—let’s just say I put a lot of work into trying to figure it out at one point. I never did. How the fuck do you make it do that smooth straight spiral thing?

It’s not just a matter of hard work. There are natural talents. The “10,000 hour rule” is not, so far as I know, supported by any research. It’s just the speculation of this one dude.

I read an IBM 1620 manual. I didn’t invent the assembler. My old adviser at Illinois did that.
I’m not saying that the average person can’t be taught how to program. I’m saying that there is a big difference between being a great programmer and a mediocre programmer, and I doubt anyone can teach that. Barry Boehm, I believe, did a famous study showing that there is a decimal order of magnitude difference between the best programmers and the worst programmers. I saw that in my class. I don’t think that this is due to teaching.

Maybe you were lazy, but I had a boss who claimed that the really good and hard working people always thought they are lazy and could be doing more, while the mediocre people always talk about how hard they are working.

As is noted in The Black Swan, you only hear about the guy who practiced for 10,000 hours and succeeded, not all the guys who practiced for 10,000 hours and were still lousy.

I don’t think it’s possible to practice something for 10,000 hours without getting good at it. Not unless there’s something wrong with the training methods or the person practicing. Someone with 10,000 hours of practice is going to beat out someone with “natural talent” who has no practice.

Anyway, I don’t doubt that some people have natural talents. I just think it’s silly to point to someone who is at the top of their game and claim that it’s natural talent rather than effort that put them there. Being smart doesn’t mean you can earn a PhD and being a natural athlete doesn’t mean you’re going to dominate a sport.