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Praise and Blame: Meritocracy and Utilitarianism

Summary:
David Levey directed me to an excellent essay by Agnes Callard, which reviews several books that are critical of meritocracy. While I share many of her criticisms, I’m not persuaded by her recommendations: The question of who we praise and who we blame is not a scientific question, but an ethical one; there is no way to answer it except by deliberating seriously about the kind of society we want to live in. In that spirit, I want to propose a new candidate for what the “the compassionate, sympathetic, progressive position” should look like. First, we should incline toward crediting people for their achievements as being genuinely their own, the justly earned fruits of hard work and diligence, deserving of pride and a sense of accomplishment. Second, we should

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David Levey directed me to an excellent essay by Agnes Callard, which reviews several books that are critical of meritocracy. While I share many of her criticisms, I’m not persuaded by her recommendations:

The question of who we praise and who we blame is not a scientific question, but an ethical one; there is no way to answer it except by deliberating seriously about the kind of society we want to live in. In that spirit, I want to propose a new candidate for what the “the compassionate, sympathetic, progressive position” should look like. First, we should incline toward crediting people for their achievements as being genuinely their own, the justly earned fruits of hard work and diligence, deserving of pride and a sense of accomplishment. Second, we should incline toward explaining away failures on the basis of genes, socioeconomic obstacles, bad luck, and so on—things beyond their control—in such a way to make clear that the attitude called for in response to failure is sympathy and readiness to assist. The successful should be proud of themselves, and when they see others fail, they should think: there but for the grace of God go I.

I fully accept the philosophical position that we don’t get to choose which person we become.  Nonetheless, I wonder if she is too hasty in dismissing the value of “blame”.

Most economic models have a certain degree of symmetry.  Thus while it’s not impossible that praise for good behavior makes sense and blame for bad behavior is unwise, a priori I find that claim to be rather unlikely—if only because in that world the withholding of praise becomes a sort of blame.

As a utilitarian, I see two arguments for blaming people.  Blame can be justified when bad behavior causes external harm.  Thus you might yell at someone in a park who throws trash on the ground instead of putting it into a bin.  Fear of being blamed makes people behave better.  Second, people might not be fully mature, and thus might not understand that certain behavior is not in their long run interest.  This is especially true of children, which is why they get criticized more often than adults.  It’s “for their own good.”  This is what people mean by “tough love”.

While adults are in many ways (not all) more mature than children, I’m not sure anyone ever fully grows up and becomes 100% mature.  Even adults often engage in behavior that we think of as child-like, such as shirking an unpleasant duty or eating a big sweet dessert when we are on a diet.

Most counterproductive behavior, that is behavior that causes external harm or internal harm, is caused by a mixture of genes and environment.  This includes behavior that leads to poor outcomes in academics, health, wealth, interpersonal relations, and the violation of laws.  Genetics makes some people more predisposed to drop out of school, get diabetes, become poor, cheat on their wife, and rob banks.  But behavior is also affected by environment.

The easiest way to see this distinction is to compare a problem cross sectionally and over time.  At a point in time, genetics largely determines who is obese and who is not.  And yet the rise in obesity in recent decades probably reflects a change in our environment.  Ditto for changes in the crime rate, the poverty rate, and other variables.

So far I’ve been arguing that there is a case for engaging in both praise and blame.  Nonetheless, I suspect our society engages in too much blaming.  For example, while I suspect that “fat shaming” would “work” in the limited sense of slightly reducing obesity, I also believe that it would do more harm than good.  Blame imposes psychic costs, which would likely outweigh the small reduction in obesity that would result from fat shaming.  For similar reasons, I don’t believe it is wise to criticize others for having “affairs”, unless we are personally affected.

On the other hand, there are lots of cases where blame is appropriate.  Crime is the most obvious case, as we are all negatively affected when others engage in stealing and killing.  The trickiest case is behavior that reduces productivity in a welfare state.  You can argue that we should blame people for not studying, or being lazy, or abandoning their wife, or using illegal drugs that reduce their productivity.  It all comes down to the question of whether the direct psychic harm of blaming people for bad behavior is greater or less than the gain from improved behavior that would result as people try to avoid future criticism.

Praise is sort of like eating a healthy food that also tastes great.  It has directly positive impact on utility, and an indirectly positive effect as well.  Blame is like a medication with nasty side effects.  The threshold for engaging in blame is much higher than praise.  If that’s what Callard is saying, then she’s right.

To conclude, while I’m not persuaded by the specific argument made by Callard, I end up in roughly the same place—for utilitarian reasons.  Our society is probably a happier place if adults don’t frequently blame other people for not meeting their standards of self-control and hard work.  But some level of criticism may be appropriate, particular from those with close interpersonal relations, that is, those who might be especially negatively affected by someone’s behavior.

Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment". In May 2012, Chicago Fed President Charles L. Evans became the first sitting member of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to endorse the idea.

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