poverty, willpower, and virtue ethics

Recently, philosopher Michael Cholbi tweeted this story: “Why Can’ More Poor People Escape Poverty?“, along with the suggestion that the findings described therein could have implications for virtue theory. To make a long story short:

“In the 1990s, social psychologists developed a theory of “depletable” self-control. The idea was that an individual’s capacity for exerting willpower was finite—that exerting willpower in one area makes us less able to exert it in other areas.”

Relevant experiments have been extensively replicated, and the depletable self-control hypothesis seems reasonably well-confirmed. The implication for poverty is this: the less money you have, the more situations you will encounter in which you must restrain yourself and make difficult purchasing tradeoffs, and this means you’ll have less willpower leftover later to deal with other situations in which you might need it. In other words, of two individuals who have the same baseline level of natural and/or cultivated willpower (assuming there is such a thing), the richer one will make better choices, ceteris paribus, than the poorer one, where those choices require willpower and self-control.

In light of these findings, and to put some words in Dr. Cholbi’s mouth, we might wonder whether it is reasonable to maintain a commonsense view that willpower and self-control are virtues: stable states of character with rational, affective, and behavioral components, and which agents cultivate over time. Instead, the depletable self-control hypothesis suggests that the behaviors of individuals are largely subject to the circumstances in which they find themselves, financially and choices-wise. The fact of the psychological matter may be that willpower is less of a trait that one develops and more of a force to which one is susceptible.

However, I think it makes better sense to think about the depletable willpower hypothesis not as evidence that willpower isn’t a virtue, but as supporting the view that developing the virtues requires a sufficient amount of certain external goods (such as money, health, being born into a good family, etc). At first blush, the external goods requirement may seem as somewhat elitist, entailing as it does that privileged people are more likely to become virtuous. But really this is a reasonable alternative to the Socratic-ish view that only morally bad acts can truly harm us, and therefore that virtue can be developed essentially independently of one’s circumstances. Tragic as it is, our life possibilities are in fact constrained by the situations in which we find ourselves, situations that may not be entirely or even partially under our control, and this includes our prospects for flourishing or not. If you are poor, the moral deck may be stacked against you when it comes to willpower (and becoming well educated, and reserving time for contemplation, and having aesthetic experiences, and so on).

But, even assuming that the external goods requirement is correct, we can and should take up the further question of the extent to which an individual bears responsibility for her continued lack (or possession) of some external good or other. A clear example is to what kind of family  you’re born, an external good potentially contributing to human flourishing for which no one ever bears responsibility. People will be responsible for their financial situations (and, relatedly, the extent to which their willpower is continually taxed) to varying degrees.

This picture pretty much comports with standard Aristotelian virtue ethics, and with commonsense morality too, I think. Its most important implication for the depletable willpower hypothesis is actually not related to understanding how virtue theory applies to impoverished individuals themselves, but for correcting how we morally appraise those individuals. If the hypothesis is true, and a person is impoverished for reasons substantially beyond her control, compassion and wisdom require that we refrain from labeling her as merely lacking in willpower, or as having anemic self-control. This may cause us to treat impoverished people better (policy-wise or on an individual level) than we would if we were thinking of them instead as weak, depraved, akratic, etc.

Finally, notice that there are still rich people facing few willpower-taxing situations who still make bad choices. The external good of financial security supports willpower, self-control, and temperance, but it doesn’t guarantee them. These qualities may indeed be virtues, but virtues that are more dependent upon the having the external good of wealth than some other virtues.


  • I always enjoy your blog posts. You’re a very good writer and I’m a little envious.

  • Good stuff. I’ve read quite a bit on willpower depletion as well as virtue ethics. I like to think of willpower (and therefore, to some extent, virtue in general) as a scarce resource. And you might be right that we might want to hold back on judging harshly for lacking a certain quantity of it. However, there might be another dimension on which we can judge someone for their willpower, namely on how efficiently/rationally/economically they allocate whatever willpower they do have. This might even make for a (perhaps limited and qualified) defense of local traits/virtues: one might only be able to act with willpower (virtue) to a limited degree, but at least it will have some focus or purpose, instead of just being hodge-podge life of occasional willpower (virtue) with no rhyme or reason. I was even thinking of pursuing something along these lines for a possible dissertation. Alas, I’ve dropped out of grad school. So, the idea is yours, if you want it.

  • Pam, this is an interesting study and I’ve heard of it before. Before I offer an opinion, however, I want to a.) apologize in advance for the size of the comment I’m preparing to dump here (I’m on a roll this morning) and b.) emphasize that I have not read the original research results of the study or any subsequent work on the topic. So, this may be a somewhat uneducated position. Having said that, I confess that I wonder whether the issue is much more complex than presented here and if it wouldn’t serve us well to pull it apart. Sam Wang, a neuroscientist a Princeton gave a lecture (which, sadly, is no longer available online) about this very thing and his conclusion was that the decision making centers of the brain, including those functional centers that responsible for our self-control, are highly plastic and can be built up, or exercised over time as we confront difficult situations or complex problems. The result is that over time, we are better able to handle practical problems involving self-control that have higher levels of complexity, something that doesn’t require time for contemplation or self-reflection (in the way we philosophers tend to do it). Having grown up very poor, I can attest to the fact that you do develop a sort of discipline out of sheer necessity that you tend to carry with you well into adulthood. If what Wang says is true, then one might also conclude that persons in deprived circumstances have greater opportunity to develop certain types of mental discipline than persons in more favorable circumstances.

    Two curiosities: first, if one were to perform a physically taxing task and then be tested on strength after having performed that task, the “baseline” strength is going to be less than it would have been before the task. I find myself wondering if there isn’t a similar phenomenon happening neurologically and whether the conclusion of the study is what it appears to be. Second, I am curious as to whether any of the studies have looked at what specific psychological features are at play in the decreased level of will power. Having been in some rather dire circumstances in life, I find myself reflecting on my own experiences and wonder if the root of the issue isn’t something akin to a belief about oneself and one’s ability/inability to escape the difficult circumstances. Having the sense that one can eventually surmount the difficulty and having hope of improved circumstances seems to influence how aggressively people persist in their endeavors. Margaret did considerable research on this topic and concluded that oppressed persons are impoverished in hope and that the lack of hope has devastating results, and I tend to agree with her (I am taking chronic poverty to be a type of oppression). For this, and many other reasons, I think hope is welfare relevant and plays a critical role in morality…and maybe someday I’ll have enough will power to actually get my thesis on the topic finished. ;-) But, in spite of my consequentialist leanings, I think there may still be something for Virtue Ethics here…

    I am suspicious that emotions play a significant role in will power (and, being the cognitivist that I am, I believe that beliefs about oneself are often constitutive of emotions and affective attitudes). There is also good research being done on how emotion influences what we pay attention to (see the laboratory for emotion and cognition at Indiana U, specifically with work of Luiz Pessoa). We tend to give more attention to situations that are affectively charged. There has also been research done on children and will power (delayed gratification — see the Stanford Marshmellow Experiment) and the result was, consistently, that the children who displayed the greatest will power were those who were able to distract themselves from the treat. Not surprisingly, the corresponding longitudinal study revealed that children with the most will-power early on were much more successful as young adults. Since emotions play a significant role in what we focus on, I’ve often wondered if hope (an affectively charged attitude about future circumstances) doesn’t also play a big role in will-power by helping us distract ourselves from “tastier” alternatives that promise immediate gratification.

  • Under the assumption that willpower is connected to virtue:

    There’s another (more cynical?) response to the problem you’re trying to address. It goes something like this:

    So it turns out that poor people tend to “run out of” self-control. This doesn’t tell against the idea that self-control is a virtue. This tells against the claim that they were virtuous to begin with. This just shows us how rare virtue is. Aristotle remarks both that virtue is rare and that most people are somewhere between continent and incontinent. Perhaps he’s right.

    This doesn’t require saying that the rich people who don’t “run out of” self-control actually are virtuous. Perhaps they’d “run out” too under the circumstances. Maybe they haven’t actually developed any more virtue than the poor, but have just been better sheltered from things that would bring to light the limits of their character. They might possess what Aristotle calls “natural virtue”-habits that they’ve been born in to that aren’t really their own and haven’t been properly connected with the development of practical wisdom.

    So perhaps it’s true that most poor people aren’t virtuous, but it’s just because most people aren’t virtuous.

    Also, it’s worth noting that you to seem at times to conflate flourishing and virtue. It is one thing to say, as Aristotle does, that a good life requires, in addition to virtues, external goods. It is another to say that moral virtues themselves require external goods. The latter seems more contentious. Think of it this way:

    Aristotle’s claim: you can be moral without external goods*, but you can’t flourish without them

    Your claim: you can’t be moral without external goods (followed by fudging about appropriate reactive attitudes under the circumstances, which I worry calls into question the extent to which you’re actually suggesting that the self-control in question has any moral import)

    Questioning your assumption that will power has anything to do with virtues:

    The virtuous man has the right desires, so he does not need to have self-control. Self-control is necessary for continence, not virtue. If this is the right way to think about the matter, there still seem to be all the same puzzles as you raise about virtue, and without thinking about it too hard, I’m guessing both of our accounts would apply in the same way to the puzzles raised about continence.

    *This may not be quite right. At least one virtue on Aristotle’s view, namely magnificience (see NE IV.2), requires external goods, but I suspect most of us either find this virtue elitist or think it easily assimilated into a general notion of generosity, a virtue which does not seem to be dependent on external goods (you can be generous with your time, even your words). There is also the problem of intellectual virtues (which of course is distinct from the matter of moral virtues). Aristotle seems to suggest that we cannot possess intellectual virtues without external goods (you can’t contemplate without significant leisure time). I think Aristotle is wrong here, but I’ve got an unusually egalitarian, so to speak, conception of what contemplation is (a conception that I owe largely to the work of Josef Pieper). Even so, your claim that we can’t be moral without external goods still seems to me more worrisome than Aristotle’s that we can’t contemplate without external goods.

  • @Jenni –

    Lot going on there! Couple things.

    First, and obviously, I was assuming that the depletable willpower hypothesis is true, or at least mostly/somehow true. I’m not really qualified to assess the experimental findings. That being said…

    Wang has an article here – http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/02/opinion/02aamodt.html – that I like, and also a TED talk – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05vitpSY1vU – but I haven’t watched it yet. Anyways, he definitely seems to accept the depletable willpower hypothesis, but goes on to offer some practical advice in light of it. In particular, there may be more possibility for strengthening one’s willpower in the long run than in the short run, i.e. it is better just to plan ahead not to be in many willpower-depleting situations in a row than try to exert superhumanly amounts of it, but for instance by focusing on successes we can increase willpower or help it to deplete less quickly in the future. If it’s true that we can improve our willpower over time, that may make appropriate placing an increased amount of moral responsibility for continuous poverty with its sufferers, but the process may very well be mediated by emotions like hope and individuals’ construals of their situations and prospects over which we have some control. And this would be good news because, as the Mischel marshmallow test (with which I’m well acquainted) shows, self-control seems correlated with markers of life success and there is reason to believe that that relationship is a causal one.

    Whatever the details of the depletable willpower story turn out to be, I still think its basics comport with virtue ethics, rather than fundamentally challenging it. We will just need to shift our moral appraisals/blame attributions/resultant actions to reflect what the facts of the matter really are as to an individual’s own level of control over her developing and exercising willpower.

  • pamela wrote:

    Hi Ben,

    Thanks a bunch for these super productive comments. Couple disjointed responses –

    You are definitely definitely right to point out that this may be the case: The vast majority of people may simply lack the virtue of willpower proper (assuming it is a virtue), whether they happen to be poor people running out of it or rich people not running out of it. The latter may have the mere natural virtue of willpower, but it’s not something for which they bear responsibility or earn praise, just as the former might not deserve blame for their lack of willpower (debatable, depending on the facts about the prospects for deliberately strengthening willpower over time).

    You are very astute to pick up my conflation between the good life/flourishing, and morality, such that I appear to believe that *moral virtues* require external goods, when Aristotle holds that the *good life* requires external goods. And you’re surely right that my apparent position is more contentious than Aristotle’s. Trouble is, I might actually believe the contentious thing… need to think it over.

    Finally, I’m really glad you pointed out that willpower/self-control would really only be required for continence, and not for true virtue, because a virtuous person has right desires such that willpower is not required. Here, I suppose I depart from Aristotelian virtue ethics considerably in a way I ought to have mentioned, owing to my deep pessimism about our prospects for training appropriate emotional responses into ourselves over time. It seems to me that this is such a difficult task for people (perhaps even an impossible one) that it is not a proper requirement of full virtue, or at least a very imperfect one.

    Thanks again!

  • […] poverty deplete willpower? At This Field is Required, Pamela Stubbart muses over a recent article in the New […]

  • I think I had a reaction somewhat similar to Jenni. But my theoretical orientation is more couched in cognitive (rather than neuro) psych. So I don’t know Wang’s work because my level of analysis is not the brain but rather the mind, but I am reasonably familiar with the work in this domain done but social cognition and cognitive researchers (essentially, the theoretical base I assume Wang means to test). Anyway, “dominant responses” are cognitively cheap (I mean dominant as in dominant hand, as in most regularly employed, not as in behaving in a dominant fashion). In other words, they are not very depleting. So to the extent that broke individuals undergo “training” in self-restraint (as Jenni describes — and certainly SOME of them do) it will change their dominant response and restraint will get easier and easier. We might think about and discuss means to such training. Also, Roy Baumeister says self-control is like a muscle — yes it gets tired and can’t be exerted after depletion, but also it can be strengthened with training. So basically this does not invalidate your essay or anything, it’s simply this: Very wealthy people do not have to bother with this training, all else being equal, because consequences are not severe if they waste a bit of money along the way. Of course if they do, they will be well served and their wealth can grow even more. Poor people either learn and practice this restraint training until it’s second nature, or they continue to suffer. And of course there is lots of other noise in the world which push people in one direction or another, and lots of individual difference variability (risk-seeking orientations, etc.) But at the end of the day, like most healthy social cognitive theories, it is Person X Situation: An individual’s dominant response interacts with the circumstances (s)he is in. You might find it interesting to consider the implications of ‘self-control as a muscle’ for parenting and/or education…

  • Virtue ethics without virtue? Fascinating. So you think we need to have dispositions act well, but not dispositions to enjoy acting well? A few questions:

    Do you think that virtue (as Aristotle understood it, i.e. a disposition to act well and enjoy it) is better than continence (as Aristotle understood it, i.e. a disposition to act well, but without enjoying it) and is just unattainable or do you think we have no reason to prefer virtue to continence anyway?

    (relatedly) Is someone really living well if he does the things he should do but does not enjoy doing them? Is this eudemonia? Surely the good life is not one of mere duty. Most of us may never live the best life or anything like it, but why be surprised or by this obvious (if unpleasant) fact? And why change the standard of goodness in light of the fact that most if not all of us will never really achieve it? In fact, shouldn’t unattainability be a rather unsurprising if not necessary feature of an adequately ideal conception of the good life?

    (I’m not sure I’m buying the line of argument I’m about to employ here. I’ve been puzzling over precisely what I think as I try to figure out what Aristotle thinks about this, as I’m working on a paper on continence in Aristotle. I’m curious whether this way of thinking about the role of desire and pleasure in virtue ethics seems as plausible to anyone else as it is beginning to seem to me.) Is it really possible to have a stable disposition to act well without also taking pleasure in doing it? Isn’t this an important implication (if one he might not see) of Aristotle’s claim that virtue concerns pleasures and pains: that pleasures and pains are so central to our motivation that we will only reliably act well to the degree that we have appropriate desires? In other words: is a reliable continent person even possible? Can someone for whom doing the right thing is painful actually be expected to do so reliably? The continent man will, of course, take pleasure in the fact that he is doing the right thing (this is not in Aristotle, but others have made such a claim and it seems right to me). This is, I suspect, why he is reliable to any degree at all. But I wonder if it’s even possible for a merely continent person to move past a certain threshold of consistency* in his behavior without beginning to take some pleasure in the right actions themselves and not merely in the fact that he is performing actions that he knows to be right but by which he is pained or at least not pleased. Any thoughts?

    The short version of this last question: you say that it’s unreasonable to expect people to have the right desires. I say that it’s unreasonable to think that people can pass some threshold of consistency in their actions without having right desires. What do you say to that?

    Sorry for deluging you with questions. This is what happens when I’m working on something and someone says something that raises the questions that have been puzzling me: I vomit the puzzle all over the place.

    *[threshold of consistency in his behavior] – a bit vague. I’m not sure if it’s good vague or bad vague (isn’t good vague what virtue ethics is all about?).

  • Hi Ben –

    Here are some answers to your questions:

    1. Is virtue better than continence but just unattainable? Or is there no reason to prefer virtue to continence anyway?

    -I do think there is something theoretically better about virtue, although I am also tempted to say that the reason to prefer virtue to continence is merely prudential and not moral (i.e., we should try for virtue bc people have a general although overridable goal to experience pleasant rather than unpleasant emotions).

    2. Is someone really living well if he does things he should but does not enjoy doing them? Is this eudaimonia?

    -Because virtue is in some sense better than continence, a continent person is not living *maximally* well (although living maximally well may be literally impossible for most people due to lack of external goods and/or constraints of psychology, such that continence may be living maximally well within the realm of the possible). In any case, even though the continent person’s life would be better if she also enjoyed doing good, she still lives better than someone who doesn’t do good, either enjoying it or akratically.

    3. Is it really possible to have a stable disposition to act well without actually taking pleasure in doing it? Is reliable continence even possible?

    You may be onto something here; reliable continence may require more willpower than we even have. This would be a further reason to shoot for virtue: in addition to being more pleasant, it may actually be more realistic and attainable. (But there would be something a bit strange if it empirically turned out for virtue to be easier to attain than reliable continence. Maybe this is related to why Kant privileges the life of duty).

    Please feel free to call me out on anything ridiculous…

  • Nothing ridiculous here, but you do seem to be inclined toward a kind of fusion of virtue ethics with certain Kantian impulses. You seem attuned to the context-dependence of goodness that is central to virtue ethics, but it sounds to me like you’ve got sort of Kantian intuitions about moral praiseworthiness. You seem to have at least a vague sympathy with what Carol Gould has called “the labor theory of moral value.” This helps make sense of the appropriateness moral praise and blame: praise seems appropriate for hard work. If virtue isn’t hard work, you may wonder, is it really praiseworthy?

    Virtue is, in different senses, both effortless and more difficult to achieve than continence. While the virtuous man himself has no contrary desires to battle, achieving such a state would doubtless require far more effort than continence. While the virtuous man acts effortlessly, getting to a place where he can do so would require great effort. On the other hand, it may be the case, as I’ve suggested, that reliable continence is not psychologically possible (though I’m not entirely sure what to think about that). If that’s so, it’s not entirely clear what someone with the impulse to praise effort should think.

    That said, I’m not inclined to be especially concerned about praise or blame tracking effort. I’m concerned about goodness. On the Aristotelian-Thomistic view, what is good for anything is for it to actualize the potentials appropriate to its nature. To put it in Thomistic terms, goodness is being as an object of admiration. Being is actuality. To understand something as good is to understand it as some actuality worthy of admiration. What is good for human beings is a matter of actualizing the potentials of human nature, as Henry Veatch often puts it, “being and becoming more truly human.” Because the human mode of flourishing is rational, which means it involves, among other things, deliberation and choice, it is moral. That is, we are rightly subject to praise insofar as we are responsible for being and becoming truly human and rightly subject to blame when we are responsible for failing to be and become more truly human.

    This view, of course, depends on an unpopular and rather thick metaphysical view, a view I’ve done little even to abbreviate here, not to mention explain and defend. The point of sketching this, however, is only to suggest that grounding moral philosophy in a Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics of goodness leads to a different way of thinking about the appropriateness of praise and blame than the vaguely Kantian-flavored (and certainly much less controversial and easier to get away with in the current philosophical climate) view you seem to have.

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