I cannot think of a question more important for the way we react to our own behavior or to that of others. Similarly, answers to the question shape our reaction to public policy dilemmas. Of course, I may not want there to be a large tax on estates, if I believe that individuals aare responsible for their own conditions. “Hey, that wealthy person made self-conscious decisions, and those were made with consequences in mind. She or he deserves to have the fruits of those consequences. What audacity to seize those fruits when that wealthy person DESERVES the wealth.”
The same logic applies to those who are vulnerable or miserable. “Look, they control their life. They made choices, the logical consequences of which are that their life is going to be miserable. But in that we did not shape their world, it follows that we do not have caring obligtions. In fact, were we to assist them, we would be enabling them and creating disincentives for people to take responsibility for what is so clearly their own making.”
We all know thee question in the title of this post is not “either/or.” But, we do need to and do make assumptions that one of those options is primary. On the basis of that assumption, compassion and empathy levels will be enlarged or reduced.
The Boston Review just published a small suggested reading list of articles that address this question. I found them very useful to my thinking about the question. I believe you will as well.