Level confusion is an incredible challenge, and one that I grapple with all the time. I am never quite sure when to pin something on personal responsibility and when to pin something on structural factors. It is not just vices and negative aspects of an individual I often struggle to attribute to either personal or structural factors. I often cannot tell whether I should praise someone for the good that they do, or praise the structures and systems which allow the individual to do such good. My challenges with thinking about personal level versus societal level responsibility are an example of level confusion and why it can be an important factor to be aware of when we think about the world. According to Quassim Cassam in his book Vices of the Mind, I am not alone in this dilemma.
“Vices themselves,” writes Cassam, “have a deeper explanation in the social circumstances of their possessors. … It could still be true … that some doctors are overconfident but to explain what is actually a systemic or structural phenomenon – medical error – in such personal terms is to be guilty of what might be called a level confusion.”
Vices are in many ways personal. We are often to blame for vices and often have control over whether we acquire a vice or whether we improve our behavior and eliminate vices. But how often we can pin a particular harm or bad outcome on our individual vice is hard to say. Certainly any of us who are called out for our vices could come up with numerous structural factors which enabled our vice or compelled us toward such a vice. Cassam’s quote shows that this can be done within medicine. How much can an individual medical error be pinned on a doctor? Arrogant doctors can probably be expected to make more errors than humble doctors, but how often can an individual error be pinned on a doctor’s arrogance rather than another factor that allowed the error to take place?
Cassam continues, “this discussion brings out just how difficult it can be to decide whether a particular outcome is best explained in personal or structural terms. Having said that, it is also true that the personal and the structural are often intertwined, and that one and the same phenomenon can sometimes be explained at both levels.”
Level confusion is going to always be unavoidable given how complex and intertwined our world is. Ultimately, what I think is important is that we step back from our preferred view, either the personal or the structural, and think more deeply about the alternative role in the outcomes we see. If we typically blame people for their outcomes, then we must step back and recognize the structural and systemic forces that make some decisions and outcomes easier for some and harder for others. If we typically adopt a structural view, then we must step back and recognize the importance of personal responsibility and the necessity of personal responsibility in decision-making. With such level confusion we may never be able to agree on how much personal or structural factors matter, but we can accept the complexity and at least begin to address those factors which allow people to take more personal responsibility, initiating the changes we want to see within the larger structures.