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.