Your friend Amal is struggling. She’s unmotivated to make positive changes in her life and is stuck in a job that pays too little and works her too hard. How do we explain what is going on with her?
Well, we have three basic options and the choice between them will determine how we evaluate Amal: is she a victim of circumstance? Is she maladjusted and in need of medical intervention? Or is she simply making bad choices?
The three levels of evaluation, as I like to call them are the different lenses through which we can view Amal’s situation.
At the material level of evaluation, we look at what sorts of resources Amal has access to and how Amal is put together as an organism. Is Amal’s hypothalamus being impinged on by a benign tumor? If so, then the tumor is the best explanation for her lack of motivation—there’s something materially wrong with her. Is she chronically malnourished? Does she lack the financial resources necessary to make the changes she’d otherwise make? If so, she’s got a material deficit—not having enough resources of one kind or another is getting in the way of her doing what she’d like to do.
- “He’s missing some capacity that the rest of us have”
- “If she had a little bit more resources, she could do great things.”
- “He’s got good genes, comes from a long line of distance runners.”
- “It wasn’t her saying all those things, that was the brain tumor.”
- “They weren’t ignoring you because they were mad at you, they were doing it because their brain was low on serotonin and so they were catatonic.”
- “He was malnourished as a child, so now he has trouble with impulse control.”
- “I’m sorry, I’m just really tired/in a bad mood/really hangry.”
- “She didn’t mean to do it, it was just a reflex!”
At the agential level of evaluation, we treat people like rational agents, who are responding to reasons for acting and making a more or less free choice. Agents are in charge of their actions, they have responsibility for the outcomes of those actions, and they are acting so as to express their values or reasons. Their own convictions and commitments determine what they end up doing rather than any material deficits or deficiencies. We spend a lot of time at this level of evaluation, especially when it comes to our negative evaluations of the actions and situations of other people and our positive evaluations of our own situations and actions.
- “She meant to do that”
- “They always go out of their way to make me feel welcome.”
- “A lot of hard work and good choices got me where I am today.”
- “You were ignoring me on purpose!”
- “What reason would someone have to do such a thing? What were they thinking?”
- “He knew what he was doing and he should take responsibility for his actions.”
At the structural level of evaluation, we are interested in the contexts or structures in which people are embedded in evaluating their situations or choices. Why doesn’t she eat healthier? Well, she lives in a food desert where the only food to buy for miles is at quickee marts and fast food restaurants. We’re pointing to facts about the way society is ordered or the roles or situations people find themselves in to explain their behavior or situation. Why doesn’t he study harder for his math exams? Well, his father left a few years ago, so he has to take care of his siblings after school and then work after dinner until midnight each night. It’s a particular role that this character plays and all of the responsibilities that go along with it that explain why he does what he does.
Notice how we haven’t talked at all about choices here. We’re not interested necessarily in why people make the choices they do, because sometimes when we talk about the structures in which they’re embedded, it becomes clear that they don’t really have a choice. Other times structures merely make it so that someone’s apparently irrational or imprudent choices are actually the best choice available. Here’s an example: Sam works hard at their job, often picking up overtime and working extra shifts. Sam still, though, doesn’t have any hope of saving for retirement or saving to buy a house, etc. They are stuck. So when Sam finally is able to save $200 in the bank after six months of skimping and saving, they face the choice of either a) keeping it in the bank so that in 30 years of scraping they can finally afford to get a more solid financial footing under their feet, or b) spend it on something nice for theirself now, so that they can do more than simply survive for the next 30 years. We could talk about personal responsibility here, but we could also recognize that the structures within society sometimes make a bad choice—buying a new phone or video game instead of saving for the future—the best available choice—living life while you have it so that you don’t suffer your whole life waiting for a financially stable future that may never come. If a person’s seemingly irresponsible choice is actually the best choice available to them, then we have good reason to think that a structural evaluation of their circumstances will be helpful in understanding their actions and life situation.
So when we engage in structural evaluation, we’re evaluating a person’s actions and circumstances insofar as they were caused by or constrained by the structures, contexts, systems, etc. in which that person is embedded and therefore also by reference to the roles that that person plays in those structures.
- “Of course they ended up doing that, they didn’t have a choice!”
- “She never has time for brunch anymore because she’s a mother.”
- “Anyone in those circumstances would have done the same thing.”
- “How can we hold someone responsible for doing what society has forced them to do?”
- “Growing up, we only had two options available to us: work at a fast food joint or deal drugs.”
- “They live deep in rural California and so don’t always have the easiest of access to fast internet.”
- “She suffers from depression because she is constantly faced with hurtles that keep her from advancing at work and threats of violence and harassment when she’s not at work.”
When we’re thinking at either the material or structural level, we’re thinking about someone in a way that brackets or temporarily disregards their role in their life as responsible actors. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, gave the analogy of a head of lettuce growing in the ground. If it starts to shrivel or wither, we will think “it needs more water” rather than “it needs to make better decisions.” If it is too small, we’ll think “oh its genes code for less growth” or “maybe it didn’t get enough sunlight.” We won’t think “that head of lettuce is at fault for being so small. If only it would’ve tried harder.” Get it? By treating other people like heads of lettuce we ignore something important about them: that they have reasons for their actions and are often deliberately making the decisions they make. But we also open up a whole way of understanding their behavior that doesn’t necessitate that they be at fault for everything bad that happens in their life.
A few upshots
First, we should note that we often think of ourselves as victims of circumstance or as people struggling to do our best with the resources at our disposal. We often, though, see other people as agents—as acting on purpose and for reasons. This is a pretty problematic way to go about our lives. We make excuses for ourselves while refusing to do so for others. Instead, I believe we should reverse this dynamic: we should see ourselves as agents and always hold ourselves accountable for our actions (except maybe give ourselves a break when we need it) and see other people as victims of circumstance or people determined to do what they do by habits, reflexes, and sometimes by the fact that they lack material resources.
A related point is that we’re, empirically speaking, not good at this. We suffer from a cognitive bias called fundamental attribution error, where we tend to think of the actions of ourselves and of people in our “in groups” as excusable by appeal to circumstances or material resources/makeup; but we tend to think of the actions of people who aren’t like us or are from an outgroup (even fans of a rival sports team, for instance) as agents who make bad choices and/or have bad intentions.
Our goal should be to reverse fundamental attribution error and instead be harder on those around us and strive to understand those who are not like us with as much empathy, understanding, and patience as we can muster. Try to see everyone else the way you see your best friend: if they screw up, you’ll make an excuse for them or give them a break. Everyone messes up sometimes.
A different upshot is somewhat political: it’s tempting to think that it is only our choices and hard work that determine our lot in life (where we end up in the social hierarchy), but if we take the material and structural perspectives seriously, it becomes harder to hold onto this absolutist view. We must admit, it seems like everyone would agree upon reflection, that sometimes circumstances or material resources determine how things go for someone. Some people are fantastically successful because their parents had a lot of connections (structural/relational perspective) and/or because they were given a large inheritance (material perspective) or maybe because their brains just naturally work well or their bodies are naturally fit and shapely or their hand-eye coordination is naturally fantastic without any training (still in the material perspective). The same goes for those who are unsuccessful. Life isn’t only about the choices we make, but obviously our choices play a large role in shaping who we become and where we end up.
Finally, we have to be careful in choosing when to apply moral reasoning, or moralizing about a situation. A person may be simply making the best decision offered them by the circumstances or acting out an impulse brought on by the material structure of their brain. If that’s the case, then moralizing or judging them on moral grounds might be inappropriate. We aren’t always rational actors making rational decisions or acting for reasons; and furthermore what sorts of things a rational person would do changes dramatically with circumstances and context. Don’t be too quick to judge other folks on moral grounds!