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?