Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Determining The Limits of Responsibility

I mostly agree with Gavin that Mark Hemingway's recent "New Frosts/Old Frosts" article is full of The Stoopid. Buried under all the crust, however, is a nugget worth pursuing. Quoth Mark:

On the conference call, Dara admitted to me that she and Brian had been talking about having children since before they were married. She further admitted that after they were married she voluntarily left a job at a country club that had good health insurance, because the situation was "unmanageable." From there she took a job at a restaurant with no health insurance, and the couple went on to have a baby anyway, presuming that others would pay for it and certainly long before they knew their daughter would have a heart defect that probably cost the gross national product of Burkina Faso to fix.
This isn't a post about the old Frosts or the new Frosts (or any other Frosts for that matter) per se, so I'm not particularly concerned with whether the quote above accurately represents the reality of the situation. Rather, I'd like to use it as a jumping-off point for a discussion about the boundaries of personal responsibility.

Construed narrowly this is a question about jobs and associated benefits1. Mark says that its Dara's fault that she doesn't have health insurance while Dara says that the job was "unmanageable". This reveals a disagreement over the level of effort/discomfort needed to obtain and maintain insurance.

Construed more broadly this is a question about the level of responsibility a person bears when it comes to taking care of themselves and their dependents. Who's right, and who gets to set the norm for what "right" is in this situation?

Mark seems to think that such questions can be answered by referring to the standard practices of some larger community. To wit:

Are you reading this at your computer at work, in a job that you don't particularly care for or even downright detest because you have a spouse and child that depend on you? You wouldn't be the first or last person to make that choice.
This approach is no doubt favored by many people but, as Mark amply demonstrates, suffers from the following serious flaws:
  • Characterization of the community
  • Membership in the community
  • Applicability of community norms

Characterization of the Community

Mark's statement is really just a variation of argumentum ad populum: he makes a vague claim that some section of society holds a particular norm and then seeks to bolster the respectability of said section by associating it with the reader. If this approach is to have any bearing at all it behooves us to adequately characterize the community from which the convention derives: who are they, exactly, and do they really believe the things that people claim they believe? To do otherwise would run the risk of being led astray by people who are just making shit up.

Membership in the Community

Once a particular community has been adequately characterized it's still necessary to demonstrate community membership. It makes no sense to hold a person accountable to a particular group's norms if the person isn't a member of the group to begin with. The alternative is to say that one group's norms trump another. There might be special circumstances where that's a supportable proposition, but as a general rule that seems to be a non-starter.

Applicability of Community Norms

Finally, since when did "everyone else is doing it" become any kind of moral justification? Folks like Mark are very quick to invoke "everyone", as long as everyone includes them. Find a different "everyone" and, all of a sudden, they start making comparisons to the Roman Empire. Try to judge someone's behavior with reference exclusively to community norms is an enterprise that's doomed from the start.

So that's Mark's position; he doesn't really have a leg to stand on. What about the pro-Dara camp, how do they see things? Sara Robinson, who I generally find to be a thoughtful individual, responds as follows:

Dara Wilkerson left a job with insurance -- we're not clear about whether it was before or after she got pregnant -- because it was "unmanageable." Hemingway argues that this was basically candy-assed of her. It doesn't matter to him what the situation was -- but if she was already pregnant, it may very well matter to us. Because there are a lot of reasons that jobs end before pregnancies do. The need to get off your feet, or get extra rest. A doctor worried about pre-eclampsia, or premature labor. Bosses who won't cooperate with changing physical needs. There are a lot of ways a job at a country club could become genuinely "unmanageable," particularly in the back half of a pregnancy. And even if she wasn't pregnant, you can bet nobody leaves a job with decent insurance unless there's a damned good reason -- and most of the best reasons are not the kind of thing most of us would be willing to share with a nosy parker like Mark Hemingway.
What I find most enlightening about this response is that Sara finds it necessary to defend Dara's decision to leave her job. I want to put that aside for one moment, however, and respond to this particular part of her statement: "you can bet nobody leaves a job with decent insurance unless there's a damned good reason".

With all due respect to Sara, she's just wrong. People are dumb. People are shortsighted. People do things which seem right in the heat of the moment but turn out to be bad decisions in the long run. While I have no idea about the specifics of Dara's case (and neither, by her own admission, neither does Sara) it's easy to imagine someone in a similar situation quitting their job without good reason.

Back to Sara's response: Sara, by insisting that Dara must have had a good reason for leaving her job, legitimizes Mark's criticisms to a large degree. Dara's behavior was acceptable, but only because she had (by definition) a good reason for quitting. It follows from there that, if Dara didn't have a good reason for quitting her job then her behavior was irresponsible. When you look at it this way you find that the "pro" and "anti" camps are actually arguing over a fairly narrow distinction: the antis say "you've an obligation to keep your job regardless of circumstances" while the pros say "you've a duty to keep your job barring exigent circumstances". So, even though I just got through demonstrating that Mark's point of view is full of holes it looks like Sara is, to a large part, buying into it. Which means that her reasoning suffers from the same shortcomings.

There are better ways to look at this problem. An isolated individual is free to quit their job, regardless of circumstances, but should recognize that society's obligation to them is limited. The matter becomes more complicated, however, when that person's decisions will affect their (possibly unborn) dependents. In that case it seems to me that the individual has an obligation to ensure the best possible outcome for their dependents, even if it means enduring present discomfort. The alternative, permitting individuals to reduce their present discomfort at a future cost to the their dependents, appears to be in conflict with the whole notion of guardianship and dependency.

To be more concrete let's consider someone in Dara's situation. If this person has no dependents and was not/did not intend to become pregnant/father a child then I fully support eir right to quit eir job regardless of the consequences. Ey might end up getting screwed on healthcare in the long run, but as ey're the only one affected by eir decision its eir choice one way or the other. If ey have depdents, are pregnant/the father of a child, or intend to become pregnant/father a child, however, from a moral standpoint ey have no choice but to keep eir job. If ey were to do otherwise it would (most likely) jeopordize the long-term well-being of their dependents. I take it as a given (and will explain why at length, if people are interested) that the primary duty of guardianship is to maximize the long-term well-being of your dependents. As such the individual has no choice but to stick with the job.

Note that I reach a more-or-less identical conclusion to Mark, but I do so without recourse to ill-supported notions of group norms. Rather, I base my entire analysis on a guardian's obligations to eir dependents. This, I believe, makes it easier to both analyze the situation and defend my conclusion. As such I believe such an approach is preferable for dealing with these types of problems.


1 Its unfortunate that health insurance is usually tied to employment, but that's a discussion for a different day.

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