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A perennial metaphysical question has reared its implicit head on this site, as it inevitably does when discussing how to strike the optimal balance between personal and social responsibility (i.e., how much do we insist that people are responsible for doing what they can with the hand they’ve been dealt, and how much should we advocate for some shared responsibility for the hand they’ve been dealt?). The question is Free Will v. Determinism: To what extent do we choose our own destiny, and to what extent is it chosen for us?

First of all, we all know that, subjectively, we have free will. I can type this now, or not. I can type the word “choose” or the word “cheese” or any other word that comes to mind. Nothing forces me to type one or the other. It may be the case that I need a keyboard on which to type, and whether I have one or not may depend on factors that are beyond my control (if I were born in a dirt poor sub-Saharan village, my lack of access to one might well be something over which I had no control). But, within the context of what is available, I clearly can choose from a wide range of actions.

On the other hand, my choices are caused by a variety of mostly invisible in-puts, past and present. Just because the causes are many and complex, and are obscured by the impossibility of tracing most of them, does not mean that they don’t exist. In what way am I ever the original force of anything? Though we experience our choices as originating within us, we know that they are affected by pushes and pulls large and small, such as the need to earn a living, to take care of the people we love, to earn respect and avoid condemnation, to satisfy expectations and to realize goals that have psychological roots that ultimately originate in some combination of the genes we inherited and the environment in which they spun out their code. In one very real sense, we are each just a very complex arrangment of dominos embedded in a forever toppling, almost infinitely complex and encompassing arrangment.

If it weren’t for Quantum Mechanics, there would be no doubt that, objectively, the universe and everything in it is entirely deterministic. A simple thought experiment demonstrates this: Imagine the entire universe at any moment in history. For the purposes of the exercise, let’s say one million B.C. Freeze that universe in your imagination and duplicate it. Now set the two identical universes to run forward through time again. How could they possibly diverge? Everything in the second was identical to everything in the first, every motion, thought, impulse, event, were identical. So the spear that the prehistoric man was about to let loose in the first, he is about to let loose in the second. It will hit the beast in the same place, with the same effect. Every particle, every current, every swirl in the suchness is identical, and so all consequences of all causes must unfurl in an identical manner, throughout time, forever. The universe is completely deterministic. 

Quantum Mechanics throws a wrench in this thought experiment, because, in reality, at the quantum level, uncertainty is an essential quality of nature. Quantum particles are not in one place and moving in one direction at one speed, but rather exist in a probalistic cloud, so that when the universe is duplicated, only the probabilistic cloud is duplicated, and slight variations will result at the quantum level. These variations will create tiny divergences in reality, that presumably will accumulate and amplify over time, until the two universes are quite distinct from one another. The universe is not objectively deterministic after all (at least not according to quantum theory).

Unfortunately for those who don’t like determinism, Quantum Mechanics has very limited relevance to the issues of personal and social responsibility. And mere free will matters less than how many choices that will has available to select from. Much in our lives is, in fact, determined prior to our existence, and independently of our choices. We are born into a family, with a given socioeconomic status, in a given location, in a given culture, at a given time, with a given social institutional context, with a given genetic make-up, and our range of available choices is dramatically constrained by all of those givens. Even to the extent that we buck the odds, we do so as the result of factors over which we had no control: A role model who encouraged us to be more confident and assertive; an opportunity, or a skill we happened to learn by a confluence of chances, or an inherent natural endowment; all or any of which are just the luck of the draw.

Recognition that the distribution of wealth and good fortune in the world and in this nation has very little to do with individual merit does not mean that personal responsibility has no role to play. No social system can function without an emphasis on personal responsibility, because unless we are motivated to be productive, and law abiding, and good citizens and parents and children and friends and neighbors and colleagues, then the failure to strive to be those things has consequences. It contracts the production of wealth and expands the production of suffering. Without an emphasis on personal responsibility, we all suffer more and benefit less. Personal responsibility is, by necessity, the cornerstone of any well-functioning society.

But there is no need to confuse functionality with fairness, or a social necessity with a moral imperative. While emphasizing personal responsibility, and leaving in place a range of costs and benefits that incentivize adherence to that value, we do not need to neglect the inconvenient truth that we are not in fact born into this world with equal opportunities, and that a commitment to both fairness and functionality demands that, particularly at the bottom, we limit the costs for failure to adhere to, and increase the benefits for success in adhering to, the demand for personal responsibility.

Fairness demands it, because if one is born into poverty and fails to either claw or excel their way out, their and their children’s and their children’s children’s ensuing suffering can hardly be blithely dismissed as just deserts. And functionality demands it, because the incentives to be predatory rather than productive increase as desperation increases, and providing increased opportunities to be productive and benefit from it is a very functional restructuring of incentives. Functionality further demands it, because destitution provides a very difficult platform from which to become productive, creating multiple obstacles (e.g., childcare while training for and looking for work, and resources to be presentable and prepared in job interviews). A public investment in the facilitation of the success of those least well positioned to achieve it serves both their interests,and society’s, for we all benefit from it.

That’s what our social responsibility is: To facilitate success; to create a context in which failure occurs less often, opportunities are more abundant, and personal responsibility is rewarded even if the circumstances themselves would not necessarily have rewarded it. Personal responsibility and social responsibility are not at odds, as ideologues on the right insist, but rather are natural partners in a society that is both more functional and more fair. We do not undermine incentives to work hard and succeed by making these public investments in providing increased opportunities, but rather augment the incentives to work hard, and reduce the burdens on society of failure to achieve due to constricted opportunities and other obstacles to success.

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