Imagine that John and Jim are both basketball stars. However, their similarities end there. John is a physical specimen who was graced from birth with both speed and athleticism. Given his innate physical skills, basketball was always easy for him. Indeed, with a 40 inch vertical leap and amazing hand-eye coordination, he easily became one of the best basketball players in his state without ever having to practice particularly hard. Jim, on the other hand, was not so blessed, physically speaking. Despite the fact that (a) he was not particularly athletic, and that (b) basketball did not come naturally to him, he had a true passion for the game as a child. As a result, he practiced night and day until his skills were so well honed that he, too, became one of the best basketball players in the state.
At the end of the day, I think many of us would give Jim more credit for his success at basketball than John. On my view, we both would and should admire Jim’s success more than John’s under these circumstances because acquiring the requisite skills required a lot more effort on Jim’s part. So, while we might be impressed with John’s freakish athleticism, we have more admiration for Jim’s hard earned success. For present purposes, I want to call this the “Effort Effect" (EE). By my lights, EE often plays an important role in how we evaluate the actions of others.
Here is what a more formalized account of EE might look like: When P has to make a much greater effort in order to x than S, then, ceteris paribus, P’s x-ing is more admirable or impressive than S’s x-ing. On the surface, this seems to me to be very uncontroversial. What I don’t quite understand, is why the following doesn’t seem as intuitive: When P has to make a much greater effort to x than S, and both P and S fail to x, P is less responsible for failing to x than S. In short, the fact that it was much harder for P than S to x ought to make P both more praiseworthy for successfully x-ing and less blameworthy for failing to x.
Now imagine that Peter and Paul are both juvenile delinquents who have grown up with abusive parents. It turns out that Peter has the low activity form of MAOA—the so-called warrior gene (see here, here, here, and here)—which recent research has shown can influence interpersonal aggression, violence, and crime. Paul, on the other hand, has the high activity form of MAOA, which makes it much easier for him to control his violent and aggressive impulses.
Based on the admittedly breezy account of EE I sketched above, if both Peter and Paul commit an assault and battery as the result of a high stakes provocation, why wouldn’t we judge that Peter is less responsible for the offense than Paul?