Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The vice of equality

This post a while back talked about a certain impasse you're at when one or more of your moral values or assumptions lead you to conclusions that are at odds with the real world -- that is, in conflict with reality as you know it. At that point, as I said, your options are either to condemn or at least lament reality as not being good enough for you, or, as in reductio ad absurdam arguments, to begin to re-examine and question some of those moral values and assumptions that lead you into this impasse in the first place. I ended the post by singling out the assumption that I think is the one real culprit here, and the source as well of a great deal of moral and political confusion and worse in society generally -- this is the notion of equality.

First, let's try to be clear about the term. The equality contained in a phrase like "all men are created equal" is not a vice -- on the contrary, it's a great moral truth. But what does it mean? It clearly doesn't mean that all people are created equal in intelligence or looks or athletic ability or circumstances of birth or any other quality that may enable one to do better than another -- since that is manifestly false. It means, simply, that all people are created equal in status. Which means, among other things, what Anatole France famously mocked in his witticism about the law, in its majestic equality, forbidding the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, etc. He was right, certainly, about the limitations of such equality, but wrong to disdain its majesty -- because until the great bourgeois/capitalist transformations, such equality was virtually unknown, and the great mass of people everywhere lived permanently as inherently lower or lesser beings within an explicitly hierarchical structure of class or caste.

So, I'm referring here to substantive equality, not status equality, and when I use the term "equality" hereafter, it should be understand in the former sense as opposed to the latter. Nor do I mean that equality just as such is evil -- in itself, whatever equality or inequality occurs naturally or unforced is morally neutral. So the title of this post should really have been "The vice of forced substantive equality", but I thought the gain in technical accuracy wasn't worth the loss in impact.

"Forced substantive equality" means simply taking something away from one to give to another in order to make them more equal in whatever that "something" is -- typically money, of course. And it that sense it seems wrong just on the face of it -- not only because such taking ignores questions of desert or merit, not to mention simply differential desires or objectives, but also and primarily because it simply skips over the issue of "right". Who or what does this taking, and what gives them the right to do it -- i.e., how can you assume that the person from whom the money (say) is taken doesn't have a right to it in the first place?

At this point, philosophical egalitarians typically try to move into some variety of either consequentialism or contractarianism, and in either case the arguments can go, and have gone, on for a very long time. Both arguments, however, suffer from the technocratic delusion of grandeur -- the notion that some one or group is able to oversee the whole of society and judge who deserves what, or who has "agreed" to what, or what are the consequences of what. I've dealt with this to some extent in this post on "'Social justice' vs. 'just society'", and I don't want to get any more involved in that very basic error here. For now, it's enough to point out how forced equality violates our ordinary moral instincts, and how, as a result, what we might call "populist" egalitarians (to distinguish them from the more philosophical variety) typically try to attach the goal of substantive equality to other goals or issues that do have moral standing, such as helping the less fortunate.

But helping people who need help is obviously not the same as trying to make them more equal, even if, as a side-effect, it ends up doing so. In fact, one of the more effective ways of helping people is to provide them with a job, an action that might well have the equally irrelevant  side-effect of increasing inequality.

Another source of confusion is mixing equality up with issues of merit, as in denying (a presumption of) merit to those with more -- presuming, instead, that luck or nefarious practices accounts for their greater wealth, and assuming, therefore, that it's all right to take away such wealth. But merely presuming that someone's wealth is ill-gotten is obviously prejudiced and wrong. And just as wrong is the desire to take away the good fortune of others. Certainly we question the good luck of bad people or the bad luck of good people, but fortune per se, whether good or ill, can't tell us whether a person is good or bad. Luck itself, in other words, is morally neutral, but the wish to deny it to others is morally flawed.

So, once we strip away the confusions and irrelevancies surrounding the notion of forced substantive equality -- that it's not the same as equality of status, not the same as simply helping people who need it, and not required by some notion of merit -- then we're left with a core that has a distinctly unappealing aspect. Or, rather, a core the appeal of which is only to the darker impulses of human nature -- impulses such as common envy, or an embittered animus at the achievements of others, or a desire to pull down the successful. Here lies the real reason that the urge for this sort of equality persists in human societies -- not because it's a noble aspiration, like freedom or justice, or a virtue, like compassion, but simply because it's a vice, like greed or gluttony. In fact, while other vices seem driven by a more natural desire for mere creature comforts, this one appears to be one of the nastier, more neurotic, and more malicious, driven by its resentful comparison with others. It may well be responsible for more real harm in human society than all the other vices put together, and in any case it is the erroneous assumption at the root of a number of moral absurdities, of which Cohen's notion of socialism is just an example.


  1. Why, yes, since Paris Hilton has a few billion shekels (given to her, not earned) she must have like.....double or triple or ten times the IQ of say my neighbor the high school math teacher, right, who makes only 40 grand a year...maybe we have Paris and Miss Math teacher ...and a few UCLA students sit down for a test on definite integrals--or even spanish grammar, which even Math gal knows-- and then, whoever scores highest , gets Paris's inheritance

    You don't appear to quite understand those old Rawls/Nozick/marxist battles too well, morf.

  2. And you don't appear to have passed basic reading comprehension, J. See post above, re: luck.

  3. Ah here it is: "Luck itself, in other words, is morally neutral, but the wish to deny it to others is morally flawed"

    So, first off a materialist-atheist proclaiming that moral values hold is rather weird. But you are mistaken anyway given any standard definition of morality. Many people object to lottos or legalized gambling precisely because people with no substantial merit (at least measurable) can via a lucky hand, or ticket, become millionaires. The moral position implies opposing the Lotto winner, mobster gamblers, or Paris Hilton, or Walton family, or someone who finds a wallet on the street full of $100 bills who decides to keep it.

    Both Cohen and Rawls would oppose the Paris Hilton sort of heiress who merely obtains her wealth via fortunate family connections. Rawls discusses this issue in numerous places in ToJ--not just a sentence or two relating to "luck."

  4. Rawls is probably the classic example of the delusional liberal who thinks that imaginary "contracts" solve all problems of state power -- but such contracts don't exist, and they don't do what he thinks they do.

    Apart from your fixation on Rawls, J, I also notice that you seem wedded to the idea that we can't be good without god -- i.e., without a parent figure in the sky telling us what we must obey. Others have a more grown-up understanding of morality.

    And that many people object to something doesn't tell us much -- many people object to sex outside of marriage, technology, procreation, and a host of other nutty fixations. At least those other obsessions do little harm -- what makes those who object to the good fortune of others particularly unpleasant, however, is just what makes this kind of equality such a nasty vice -- that it's founded on nothing more than envy and resentment. Luckily (!), most people at least understand that the good fortune of others is either not their business, at worst, or is something to be celebrated rather than resented, at best.

  5. Your usual non-sequiturs. You don't address the point on inheritance as injust; instead rail against Rawls the person. As far as contracts go, perhaps you recall the Constitution. Jefferson and Madison, et al were rather fond of imaginary contracts too, and well aware of social contract tradition (as Jeff said, the ideas of the Amer. Rev. followed from "Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, and Sidney...").

    Rawls' model is not perfect--tho certainly in some situations something like a prisoners' dilemma arises, and Rawlsville seems quite spot on. "Nutty" is not the right term anyway. Hayek, Von Mises, and Ayn Rand, Reaganomics are nutty.

  6. You don't address the point on inheritance as injust;

    I addressed it first here: "Luck itself [e.g., as in inheritances], in other words, is morally neutral, but the wish to deny it to others is morally flawed." And then here: "... most people at least understand that the good fortune of others [e.g., inheritances] is either not their business, at worst, or is something to be celebrated rather than resented, at best." I don't think saying it a third time is going to help.

  7. --There's no "fixation on Rawls" whatsoever. For one, I don't think the ToJ provides a necessary argument for ethical objectivity. However the ToJ model of cooperation-- between rational agents, at least--does apply in many situations. Perhaps you should know something about it---Original position, difference principle, the prisoner's dilemma, etc-- before dismissing it. That's how real argumentation works. Maybe the Rawls-wiki for starters.

    Many conservatives agree to something like Rawlsian contracts in business situations. Deals are made with the old win-win in mind (tho Rawls was a liberal, even socialist in ways, and not supportive of the businessman's trivial "win-win" handshake--that's not the social contract, but just a business contract).

    --You are mistaken that I insist on theistic morality. Some people can be good without god -- i.e., without a parent figure in the sky. Though, not all can. As I wrote here a few weeks ago, I am an agnostic. I don't necessarily agree that "atheists are always right." Hitchens for example began to support Bush/GOP and the war in 2003 or so. That he's an atheist doesn't excuse that--in fact some atheists are like Hitchens. Since they assume there is no God, anything goes--the Realpolitik model. Pope JP II, on the other hand, objected to the war, and Bush, and even American capitalism. JP II was correct in regard to Iraqi war, regardless of his faith. That one's religious doesn't mean one's incapable of reason.

    -- most people at least understand that the good fortune of others [e.g., inheritances] is either not their business...

    We are discussing political/economic models, and ethics, not "what most people think." It should be recalled that the Founders from the earliest days supported estate taxes and were against dynasties of all types--a point lost on Tea party types. The Amer. Rev was directed against tory-aristocrats. The Rush Limbaughs and Becks never read the fine print of the history of that Rev. ( Jefferson and Paine, however quaint and hypocritical they seem now to both left and fundamentalist right, were occasional supporters of the Jacobins, at least until the reign of Terror)

  8. First of all, J, Rawls is an old and familiar story now for many people -- I've been through it before and I'm not going to waste more time rehashing it. Maybe spend your own time in the Rawls wiki.

    Second, the American Revolution occurred at a time of transition from feudalism to capitalism -- times have changed, and the aristocracy of that time is gone. We do have estate taxes, but we also have Paris Hilton et al -- because, while inheriting money is certainly good fortune, nobody but some very bitter nuts, as I said, consider good fortune to be morally bad.

    Third, you're quite right that being religious doesn't mean abandoning reason -- unfortunately, you associate that with opposition to the invasion of Iraq, an action that was not just morally justified, but needed. But I've said that before and that's all I'm going to say about it here.

  9. ToJ features a rather involved argument--not just a suggestion, or matter of policy. I suspect some conservative told you it was bad for business, so you dismiss it. But that's not it. It's more like a game, or even simulation--and Rawls quite well read in game theory. Nozick himself spent quite a few pages dealing with Rawls (...and most say, he lost the chessmatch).

    Many online political hacks engage in this sort of reductionism and hasty summations these days. They assume they know what real scholars and academics mean when they refer to various points of Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Madison, Mill, Marx, Keynes etc. Usually they can barely remember the Declaration of Independence.

    Moreover you're conflating political policies and principles with ...something--your own odd libertarian code. It's not about Paris Hilton in particular, nor does your psychologism apply ("bitterness" heh. Aynnie Rand tactics again). she's merely an example. It's about the politics of inheritance, the need for higher estate taxes, controlling dynasties and so forth--"the arbitrariness of fortune,” as JR put it. Thoreau wrote on the theme at times as well.

  10. Okay, J -- so you imagine you're one of those "real scholars and academics", do you? At least you can at least list some names, I'll give you that. And I'll admit I've never memorized the American Declaration of Independence. Someday, though, you could try actually making an argument, as opposed to name-calling.

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  12. Whatever. I'm making an argument. My first response on this thread sets it up--and also referring to Rawls' similar ideas re "the arbitrariness of fortune” .. But it's not something you want to hear.

    Im about finished here (also a bit tired of being insulted).

    Ill leave you to your crowd of regulars for now.

  13. It's just a combox, J, but that's why you need to focus -- you're not writing a thesis, so you need to pick a point and make a coherent argument, rather than just blurt out a stream of consciousness.

    Why, for example, should good fortune be forbidden, if that's what you're actually arguing? Or who gets to be the Merit Czar who determines what everyone actually merits, and why, and how would such a person actually assign merit -- on the basis of IQ or GPA ratios? Really? What about differences in character -- drive, determination, focus, work ethic, intuition, etc.? What about differences in goals or wants? What about luck? Who has the right to deny anyone their good luck? Etc., etc.

  14. Okay -- my response above was to your original post.

    I'm sure we're both tired of being insulted, but we seem to have fallen into a pattern where that's too often what's said, unfortunately. But, from my perspective, at least, you seem to just overlook the substance of any particular post in order to get in some irrelevant name-calling, and you first response above illustrated that -- you seemed to miss the point about luck altogether, and then merely name-dropped Rawls/Nozick/Marx without making any actual argument. Too bad, because there certainly are arguments to be made....

  15. No. you're mistaken. The points regarding IQ or GPA ratios, measurable skills, technical ability are all directly related to MERIT. One doesn't get a PhD based on character, initiative or the rest of your Zig Ziglar hype, but due to hard work, quantitative/analytical skills, etc. Really, Merit tends to bother both rightist-libertarian types, and union goons (at least unskilled). Americans don't care too much for Bertrand Russells or Einsteins, or even the neighborhood schoolteachers. They want Clint Eastwoods or ...Michael Jordans.

  16. Merit's great -- it not only doesn't bother rightest-libertarians, it's embraced by them, or at least by me, for the very reason that it's anathema to egalitarians and teachers unions. What is wrong, however, is the idea that anyone or group, whether politicians, bureaucrats, "experts" or what have you, have either the ability or the right to determine who possesses merit, how much, how it's to be determined, or how it's to be compared. And just as wrong is the idea that anyone, etc. has either the ability or the right to determine how much good fortune anyone is to be allowed.

  17. Were we living on the frontier, Lewis and Clark days, I might agree with you, to some extent. But this isn't the Wild West, regardless of what your vegass-libertarian pals insist. Resources are finite; scarcity is an issue--rational humans would not allow one mega-corporation buy up all the property and parcel it out. Or oil. Or water. Distribution matters.

    Anyway. Perhaps you noted some of your libertarian gurus--including, surprisingly Volokh-- are lending their support to Yes on Prop. 19 (in California). Whoa. Now, maybe Miss Althouse or H-mac in some sexxay blouse toking up, and we're on our way.

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  19. -- "it not only doesn't bother rightest-libertarians, it's embraced by them, or at least by me, for the very reason that it's anathema to egalitarians and teachers unions"

    Clever, but...erroroneous. There may be a few conservatives who value merit (rather than mere fortunate wealth, or pseudo-aristocratic heritage of whatever sort--) but the usual yokel conservative doesn't. A Hucklebee, or Ted Nugent type, or Beck doesn't care about Hillary or Obama's intellectual achievements (such as they are...). They're ...lib-rawls! Observing the daily right-winger ignis fatuus one perceives that--the right doesn't respond to say a Chomsky's assertions (not that NC's always correct..)--they fulminate, they bark the usual slogans, they ad hom, and generalize.

    Some leftists do this as well. It's an unfortunate backlash. Limbaugh & Co. created the sort of loudmouth emotional liberals of d-Kos, DU, etc. But in principle, classical liberalism valued reason, proceduralism, fact-checking, fair play, due process, etc.

    --Merit does present a problem for egalitarian theories (including Rawls' first version of ToJ), but not in your sense. Rawls did require rationality of prospective agents--a bit different criteria than what marxists ask (or fundamentalist rightists for that matter). Tho read as moderate, that's classical liberalism. Democracy demands a certain intelligence--even Jefferson said as much re "public reason." That's what distinguishes it from mere mob rule (which marxism may become .....or nazis for that matter). And any semi-intelligent educator would realize that.

  20. erroneous, that is. Sp. check in boxes would be sort of handy, morf, given the high traffic on this site.

  21. I see spell-checking on my browser, J -- red line under the bad word.

    Re: your last comment, about all I can make out is that you think because conservatives see little merit in lefty-liberals they don't value merit as such at all -- I'd leave it as an exercise for the reader to point out the logical flaw in that.

  22. Read it again. The logical flaw is yours (then do you know modus ponens from...Pat Buchanan? I I don't think so). Moreover if you don't understand how the merit issue relates to Rawls' theory, you don't understand it whatsoever (and I doubt youve even read the Rawls wiki, much less intro to ToJ)

    When do you hear a Limbaugh or Beck address merit-related issues? Or really any substantial discussion of ANY political topic. There isn't any. Instead the rightist pundits have a little check-off list: any policy that raises taxes or increases govt. spending is bad. Doesn't matter what it is.

    Paraphrasing Bierce, conservatives favor existing evils, as opposed to liberals who want to replace them with others

  23. ... any policy that raises taxes or increases govt. spending is bad. Doesn't matter what it is.

    Ohh, so close. It does matter what it is only to the degree that the security of the nation as a whole is at stake -- otherwise, you finally got something right! Well, the Bierce paraphrase wasn't bad either.


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