Circumstances, Agency, and Just Deserts

What is a fair distribution of aid and reward? Although any actual distribution may be driven by pragmatic realities, their underlying justification and general direction rest on an answer to a question: what is a fair measure of individual accomplishment? There are ultimately no nice answers to this question although there are nice-sounding ones. Every answer necessarily exonerates or praises someone. And every exoneration or praise necessary insults someone else.

At the heart of the evaluation is another question: what is a fair weighing of contributions from circumstances and agency to outcomes? Although sophisticated philosophical positions exist denying influence of circumstances or existence of agency, they rarely cohere with everyday actions of even their proponents. The de facto reality is that both matter, but how much each contributed to any specific outcome is up for debate.

Disagreements hang on the difficulty of measurement. Circumstances and agency interact with enough recursion that influence of either can be claimed all the way to debates on free will. Furthermore, circumstances come bundled in complex, interacting packages. Some ease accomplishment while others complicate it. Often, their impact can be interpreted either way: overabundance of helpful circumstances encourages detrimental entitlement, complacency, or false confidence while challenging circumstances foster useful insights, abilities, or motivations.

Nature, Nurture, Luck, and Effort

Circumstances vs agency debates closely mirror – and are intertwined with – nature vs nurture ones. In both cases, any simple answer – whether one, the other, or a fixed mixture of the two – will be simple, elegant, and wrong.

I believe reality is closer to nature setting potentials and nurture enabling their achievement. Natural potentials influence simple capabilities rather than complicated real-world skills. These capabilities bundle, conflict, and pressure in ways that are complex and rarely ubiquitously helpful for real-world expertise. Nature does favor some paths towards competence, but nurture needs to find and develop them or their potential erodes exposing newly optimal alternatives.

It may seem that nature and environment are equally responsible for outcomes, but this isn’t true because potentials offer a range, not a switch. Except where nature-granted potentials are unusually low or where performance goals are extreme, reaching full potential isn’t necessary for achievement. Adequacy rarely requires a disproportionate allotment of natural potential.

Furthermore, because potentials interact and conflict, there are many combinations that permit competence in specific skills and a combinatorially greater number that offer a path to basic life success. Nature’s optimal route is rarely, if ever, found anyway. It seems that nature sets the limits at extremes of abilities and goals while nurture retains control over more typical situations and outcomes.

Circumstances and agency have a similar interplay between opportunity and effort through interacting, conflicting potentials. Nature and nurture are both circumstances, along with other forms of luck. Together, they map a multitude of possible paths, including an optimal one that is unlikely to be found, but pursuing any of them entails risks and costs; choosing among them employs agency; approaching their potential requires effort and sacrifice.

Although abilities to apply effort and endure costs themselves have circumstantial components, they also have agency ones – with interaction between both going back to earliest stages of development. One could take the extreme position of denying the possibility of agency completely, but such a claim would invalidate the original question: if actions flow inexorably from circumstances this includes actions that grant rewards or cast blame. Either the agent bears some responsibility for their outcomes or the rest of us bear none for our treatment of the agent.

A fair evaluation of individual accomplishment measures how closely they approached potential provided by their circumstances. Regardless of how fortuitous the circumstances, the only way to get closer to potential provided by them is to better exert agency. Fairest rewards honor best agency, not success itself. Fairest aid compensates for unbalanced circumstances, not for failure itself. But since we have limited visibility into both individual circumstances and individual application of agency, we come back to the difficulty of measurement.

Sympathizers can spurn any limitation on circumstances’ impact and any doubt of effort’s completeness with “How would you know?” Skeptics can rebuff any claim of doing one’s best with “How can I believe you?”

Causes, Reasons, Excuses, and Responsibility

We need to compare the reasonableness of claims despite imperfect information and suspect incentives. To do this, we first need to understand how unreasonableness sneaks in.

I will stick to the best-case scenario of good-faith claims. They leave plenty of paths to unfairness, which bad faith can manipulate or stack upon. A good-faith actor genuinely believes that their actions were justifiable and would accept responsibility for them otherwise. Acceptance of responsibility entails not being deserving of reward or aid despite positive outcomes or difficult circumstances. Reward or aid may, of course, be provided nevertheless, but would be an error or a gift rather than just deserts.

The essence of evaluation is in assessment of justifications. There are two main types of justifications: reasons and excuses. Reasons claim that the action was correct while excuses claim that the actor is not responsible for the action.1Marcia Baron’s “Justifications and Excuses” article from the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law helped me develop the concepts in this section. Note that justification and excuse are legal terms of art while my usage is closer to everyday meanings. My use of reason aligns with legal use of justification while I use justification more generally. Reasons are proud, excuses are meek. Reasons demand recognition, excuses seek sympathy. Reasons embrace agency, excuses welcome circumstances.

There are two broad categories of reasons. One claims an exception to the standard action in specific circumstances: “I was late because I stopped to rescue a drowning child.” The other questions desirability of the standard action in general: “I don’t think we should extol punctuality because it stifles creativity.”

There are also two broad categories of excuses. One blames unavoidable misfortune for making the desirable outcome impossible to reach or unusual stress for making the proper action too difficult to choose or perform: “I was late because of traffic” or “The appointment slipped my mind because of everything that went wrong this week.” The other claims a general inability to perform the proper action due to individual characteristics: “I am forgetful.”

General excuses are counterbalanced by unfairness of free-riding. If the general excuse is legitimate, then it is fair to hold the actor blameless. However, as it is unfair to have freedom without responsibility for its use, the actor cannot fairly retain agency that depends on abilities they do not possess. They must either relinquish future exercise of those abilities to a conservator or they must accept responsibility despite having a valid excuse.

General reasons are counterbalanced similarly. No matter how superior the proposed alternative is, it always carries costs. Some of these costs are bound to be different from the standard costs, just as some of the benefits are different. Such costs are often at the core of the condemnation and one cannot deny responsibility for them simply by extolling benefits. If greater punctuality indeed makes one less creative, then the price of additional creativity is partially in the consequences of being less punctual – and the price of increased punctuality is partially in the consequences of lesser creativity. The consequences cannot be lightened without unfairly trivializing the sacrifices of the alternative.

It could be argued that the status quo brings unfair benefits to those who follow it and exerts unfair costs on those who do not simply by the virtue of being the status quo. But it also furnishes an environment that unfairly lowers costs and increases benefits of the alternate arrangement: the creative maverick free-rides on the punctuality of the status quo world and gains from its lower standards of creativity. And altering norms unfairly breaks agreements and punishes preparation.

If the general reason is motivated more by changing the world than by justifying individual preferences, then costs and benefits of the action become secondary to those of being a pioneer, a revolutionary, a critic. While such costs can be severe, the benefits of success are also disproportionately grand. And lowering these costs unfairly snubs uprightness and conventional excellence.

Specific reasons and excuses are more particular and nuanced, but one-sided attempts to free-ride are as prevalent as with general categories. They must be detected to approach a fair evaluation. There are two broad types: treating influences as causes and discounting countervailing influences.

Truth and Legitimacy of Justifications

It is not enough for specific reasons or excuses to be true: to be legitimate they also need to be the primary cause of the outcome or be combined with other reasons and excuses to add up to a primary cause. Traffic is not the primary cause of lateness if it delayed arrival by less than the lateness; or if traffic was likely for the trip; or if discoverable, alternate routes were available; or if a substandard cushion was allotted for contingencies and the delay was below the standard allowance. Traffic could still be consequential by making timely arrival more difficult and magnifying the consequences of lateness. It can fairly be called a disadvantage, but it is not by itself a cause and hence is not a legitimate justification.

An interacting mess of circumstances and abilities envelops all action. Each has some potential to disadvantage us. Each has some room for exercise of agency. Facing a disadvantage shows little by itself: disadvantages are everywhere.

How close to a cause a set of disadvantages comes depends on how close to inevitability is the chance that they produce the outcome blamed on them. How much room there is for agency depends on how much disadvantages could be prevented or managed with optimal decisions. How capably the agent acted depends on how fully they utilized their abilities. And how responsible they are is influenced by how well they directed agency over time to develop the potential of relevant abilities.

A similar calculus applies to measuring the impact of advantages. The influence of agency over what potentials materialize into cannot be downplayed.

Furthermore, appeals to disadvantages (and advantages) tend to disregard existence of the other: while the disadvantage of traffic is presented, the advantage of barely catching a long light is ignored. The mess of circumstances creates both potential advantages and potential disadvantages. Although they don’t have to equalize, they do balance somewhat; disregarding one of them generates unfairness.

Such one-sidedness corrupts not only evaluation of responsibility, but determination of aid or reward. Even if circumstances bear legitimate responsibility for a specific unfair outcome, full compensation is not necessarily fair. One cannot fairly demand to be made whole after losing their wallet while ignoring the wad of cash found on the street a month earlier. Unfair outcomes occur frequently. Some unfairly benefit us, some unfairly hurt us. A fair demand for compensation must subtract unfairly received benefits, especially when the two are connected. This often saps the appeal of its potency.

A similar calculus again applies to reductively counting advantages. Fair amount of reward or aid rests on balancing positive and negative circumstances.

The Choice

Accurate estimation of contributions from circumstances and agency to an outcome requires information that isn’t typically known reliably and careful calculation that isn’t typically performed. Yet we feel confidence in our assessments and a compulsion to share them. Arguments spread beyond the immediately affected to engulf outsiders within shouting distance. Technological amplification of this distance empowers participation to rapidly approach massive scale.

I think that, in a nutshell, we feel confident because we substitute sympathy for informational reliability and plausibility for calculation. And we feel compelled because our sympathies tie to the way we measure ourselves.

Most everyone defines goodness with some combination of competence, integrity, and kindness; claims earned successes and justified failures; validates with a mixture of effort and explanation; corroborates through external recognition; and sympathizes with stories compatible with one’s definitions, justifications, efforts, outlooks – with one’s identity.

The multitude of causes and circumstances permit many plausible narratives. Inaccessibility of individual experiences enables both uncharitable assumptions and heartfelt exaggerations. It may seem a justifiable and inexpensive kindness to give the benefit of the doubt, to side with the sympathy-arousing, to accept outcomes as evidence for plausible causes.

Yet, every such kindness necessarily insults someone else. Yes, implications that one did not do their best generate defensiveness and resentment. And being blamed beyond one’s fault is maddening. But implications that one’s best wasn’t theirs also generate defensiveness and resentment. Not being given one’s due for effort is also maddening. And having one’s best striving interpreted as inappropriate, insignificant, or iniquitous is even worse: it is infuriating and demoralizing to be scolded for something one expects to be lauded for.

But you can’t have one without the other. To give the benefit of the doubt to justifications is to dismiss, devalue, or denounce accomplishments of those who pushed past making them. Uncertainty allows us to assuage natural compassion by giving circumstances a greater power to excuse failure or dismiss success. But it also allows us to assuage natural admiration by giving agency a greater role. An objectively correct assessment may exist, but is rarely accessible.

The choice of whom to give the benefit of the doubt, of whether to bias towards circumstances or agency under uncertainty cannot be neutral or objective – although it can be more or less so. It ties to the way we perceive the world and the direction we want to move it. Underneath all interpretations is a key choice of framing: to view the situation through a lens of disadvantages or possibilities. And underneath all action is a similar choice of where to put weight and effort: on gathering justifications or on overcoming obstacles.

At extreme applications of this choice we get the archetypes of Victims – who consistently reject responsibility – and Heroes – who consistently reject the power of circumstances. While few uphold such extremes, the heroic ideal of taking maximal responsibility and striving to reach the potential of each situation is commonly exemplified. And the more relaxed ideal of taking sufficient responsibility to justify comfortable happiness is commonly applied.


Actor’s position on this continuum in the situation under investigation is among the more objective measures available for assessing the extent of their exertion. We do not need to know the potential made possible by their circumstances to believe that maximum application of effort is necessary to reach it. And we can reasonably ascertain that seeking justifications and being content with lower standards is incompatible with such maximum application. The only way to do your true best, and to know it, is to always act Heroically: to exhaustively seek mistakes before considering excuses.

This doesn’t mean that doing your best is always necessary or even possible. There are inherent tensions in judging performance: both condemnation of adequacy and insufficiently praised striving are troublesome. There are inherent trade-offs between development of different abilities: it isn’t possible to approach full potential in all areas. There are inherent risks to any action: failures of even the best probabilistic decisions can expose alternatives with better effects on something.2Consider how intense workload risks mistakes and burnout while forced stops endanger flow and necessary progress; how gaining relaxation to enhance performance in one area may entail laxity in another.

Many justifications thus remain available to the actor, but all are limited by countervailing free-riding constraints. One is free to appeal to general excuses, but must accept the price of losing freedoms contingent on not making them. One is free to make trade-offs, take risks, and choose their level of effort, but cannot treat undesirable natural consequences of such choices as unfair punishments. One is free to place reasonable borders around their definition of doing one’s best, but cannot expect it to carry the excusing power of the unbounded definition.

And because choices have cumulative effects on circumstances and abilities, there is no fair statute of limitations on responsibility for them. One can legitimately connect decisions made long ago with present outcomes, be proud of them, and feel cheated when old mistakes of others are exonerated. If statutes of limitations make practical sense nevertheless, their fair adoption must at least commensurably demote applicability of ancient circumstances.

But regardless of artificial prohibitions, agent’s abilities and circumstances do recursively depend on earlier circumstances and choices with no indisputable end. If the actuality of these isn’t accessible, how close to an objective assessment can we get?

Actors have the most information so we have to consider their self-assessment. Of course, they also have the greatest tendency and incentive to self-justify and see information selectively. If given primary authority to decide whether they’ve done their best, few will use the power against their own interests – or even develop the ability and awareness to be able to – so we cannot rely on self-assessment alone. The quality of our assessment depends on how well we can ascertain the accuracy of agent’s claims and on how much objective information we can gather to integrate with them.

In any specific situation we can evaluate options available to agency; compare outcomes and justification frequencies with others in similar circumstances; attempt to disentangle the influence of individual limitations and preferences from situational context. We can then recursively apply a similar analysis to causes of limitations, preferences, and circumstances to untwine earlier choices from earlier contexts and approach an estimation of actor’s responsibility and trustworthiness.

This process depends on situational domain knowledge and contextual understanding; on perceptions and competence of those who know the agent; on access to the history of actor’s past assessments and attempts at improvement. The quantity and quality of this information depends on length and intensity of agent’s participation in communities, on meticulousness of record keeping, on communal norms. Of course, these come with their own questions of trustworthiness and incentive so we cannot rely on them alone either.

Agent’s self-evaluations; expert and statistical estimations of accessible options; analysis of agent’s action history; and judgements of those familiar with the agent must all be integrated with care and skepticism to approach a reasonable assessment. Inaccessibility, or biased weighing, of any of them severely affects accuracy.

The Conflict

Choices of assessors incentivize choices of actors. These choices influence development of abilities and values. The process of development shapes locus of control, need for achievement, and understanding of competence. Since abilities, understandings, and values influence objectivity and tendency to self-justify, they affect the quality of actors’ self-assessments. Since actors also observe and assess others, their competence and integrity affects the quality of external assessments. And since visible acceptance of choices creates a sense of normalcy around them, the process shifts expectation thresholds. These exert a pull on individuals and institutions; transform sympathies, standards, and statistics; strengthen the feedback loop.

The choice of bias not only picks winners in specific circumstances, but encourages one set of norms and behaviors while discouraging another. It alters the standard for acceptable excuses, affects whether justification or effort are viewed as superior, and influences the moral perception of excuse making. It threatens to shift sympathies and assessment capabilities towards reinforcement of itself.

It is how the conflict between Two Paths Towards Happiness plays out.

By leaning towards circumstances and explanations, by shifting expectations towards defensibility and sufficiency we devalue competence, encourage comfort, and enable victimhood. We also reduce undeserved suffering and the power of fortunate individuals. Conversely, by leaning towards agency and effort, by shifting expectations towards responsibility and excellence we devalue contentment, encourage perfectionism, and enable victim blaming. We also reduce undeveloped potential and the power of mobs united by accessible excuses.

Evaluations of individual accomplishment are partially battles over recognition. They are not limited to directly affected participants because they validate or shun standards by which individuals measure themselves. These standards are giants tied not only to individual identity, but to the perceived future of society. An attack on them is deeply personal, disorienting, and disturbing. Yet, they are encompassing enough that every statement risks being an assessment and attack. Every praise insults and every insult praises. This makes expression of opinions ubiquitous and the fight between cultures of honor, dignity, and victimhood full of incomprehension and rage.

References   [ + ]

1. Marcia Baron’s “Justifications and Excuses” article from the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law helped me develop the concepts in this section. Note that justification and excuse are legal terms of art while my usage is closer to everyday meanings. My use of reason aligns with legal use of justification while I use justification more generally.
2. Consider how intense workload risks mistakes and burnout while forced stops endanger flow and necessary progress; how gaining relaxation to enhance performance in one area may entail laxity in another.

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