Archive for the 'equality' Category


Is Morality about Persons or States?

I’ve recently found out that there are several people reading this blog whose judgment and opinions I greatly respect. This isn’t to say that I didn’t respect the qualities of  those who have been my readers up until this point, but I’m quickly finding that given who’s reading this blog, I need to be more careful about what I’m saying.

I’ve been thinking about equality again lately, which is kind of funny, because it’s the topic that I started this blog writing about.

But here’s the issue. People who believe that equality is intrinsically valuable must believe that LEVELING DOWN is in some sense good.

Pretend there are two civilizations living on far remote planets. They can communicate with each other, but cannot reach each other with any technology that they possess. Pretend also that 0ne civilization is much better off than the other. The person who think equality is intrinsically valuable must say that it would be in ONE RESPECT good if the better off civilization destroyed some of its buildings/capital/wealth and made some of its citizens worse off. This would make the gap between the better off civilization and the worse off civilization SMALLER and so alleviate inequality.

Now I emphasize “one respect” because of course someone defending equality could say that OVERALL, the cost of making its own citizens worse off would outweigh the benefits to equality from making them that way. So, all things considered, the civilization should not level itself down.

Still though, I can’t understand why it is better IN ANY RESPECT to level down.

The reason it seems so wrong is that it challenges the notion that morality is about PEOPLE. It says that we should desire situation A rather than B, even though the people in B are just as good off as they were in A or BETTER!

If morality is for people and their welfare, then it seems that the leveling down objection is not decisive.

But AHA! says the defend of equality. There are other moral values that seem to work in the same way — namely, to be insensitive to the welfare of people.

Take justice. Pretend that there are two situations. One in which criminals are put in jail and one in which criminals are actually, unbeknownst to the populace,  put in very well guarded tropical paradises. In the second case more people are better off, and so, if morality is only about people, should be desirable. But that seems hard to accept. It seems that criminals, at the very least, should not be made BETTER OFF than their victims. Again though, if morality is only about people and how well off they are, then there should be no problem preferring tropical paradise world to normal punishment world.

Also take promises. Pretend you promise something to someone on her deathbed. The person says “don’t cremate me,” and you say “I promise.” After she dies, you find out that cremating her would save you a lot of money and no one would be made worse off. So you cremate her. That seems wrong, but if morality is only about people, then of course, you should cremate her or at least there would be nothing objectionable about doing so.

So, a tentative conclusion I have is that morality is about more than people and their welfare, but about states of affairs.

But then it seems that EQUALITY, which I originally said didn’t seem like a value, could be.

But wait, there is a further argument, and I think it has to do with human WILL. In the justice and promise case, the state matters because a human will took action. Criminals, presumably, decided to do something wrong. The promiser, likewise, decided to make a promise.

Equality does not involve human action. I could find myself on a planet doing much better off than another planet purely by chance — not due to anything I DID. Therefore, I think we can say that morality is state regarding when actions are at stake, but welfare regarding otherwise.

This lets me cling to my belief that the two planet example is fatal to egalitarianism as a value.


Lacrosse, Frats, and Women

Don’t have a good song for this one… maybe some generic frat rock song?

I read this article on the exploits of Karen Owen, who wrote a slide show dedicated to chronicling her encounter with various Duke athletes. I then read the slide show and have subsequently thought more about it. I’ve also talked with friends who went to Duke, friends who were in fraternities at dukes, and friends who were just in fraternities (though to be honest this article doesn’t really talk about fraternities that much). In this post, I want to try and show how the obvious things to think and the obvious judgments to make are all pretty unsatisfactory. In short, I just want to bring out the complexity and seriousness of this issue.

In the article, the writer makes a few points. That duke is turning into an especially sexist or predatory campus, that Karen Owen is a pathetic victim, and that our large campus culture is preparing kids to practice repressive and exclusionary social roles out in the real world.

The truth on all these issues is more complex.

First, on the Duke score, I confess that I’m sympathetic to the point that there’s something seriously wrong going on there, but when I look harder, and when I listen to the protestations of my buddies, I admit its hard to pin down. I mean, the lacrosse scandal turned out to be a total nothing, but as this writer points out, it was a nothing in a pretty disturbing way. A lot of abusive and racist incidents were documented during the course of showing that the most egregious acts were not committed. Then there’s this Karen Owen thing, and I hear anecdotal stories about an atmosphere that makes me cringe.

It’s probably not profitable though to make this about Duke, because I wonder how special its problems would look when contrasted with a detailed map of college campuses nation-wide. I didn’t find an easy way to get reported statistics from various colleges, probably for the obvious reason that they don’t want instances of abuse floating out in the public domain for people to pick their colleges. Kind of shameful behavior actually…

So looking at things from a national level, you hear that one in four college women are raped, but this gets qualified in a variety of ways and there are huge arguments about over and underreporting. Both sides in this shrill contest make me pretty sick. There are those that the claim that women throw rape accusations around like they didn’t have consequences, and to me this is a short-sighted way to approach the issue, but I try to avoid ad hominem attacks.

Then you have women advocacy groups who are trying to accomplish the noble goal of reducing abuse and rapes, but end up claiming that 80% of girls are raped (exaggeration). Trying to boost the statistics is silly to me because first, if its wrong then its just deceptive, and second, it doesn’t really do that much good. If 10% of college girls are raped, THAT’S A BIG PROBLEM and we should be caring about solutions. If that number is 50%, I’m not sure that anyone who wasn’t concerned before will now become concerned. The reason is that rapes aren’t like budget deficits. If a state government is a little in debt, people might be concerned, but many more people will be concerned as the deficit increases. With sexual abuse, a very low number should be sufficient to get members of a moral community at least concerned.

And of course, let’s be clear. Karen Owen was never the victim of a rape, or was she? I mean, she clearly had sex while extremely drunk which qualifies her for being raped. Many people think this is unfair and that it puts a lot an unfair burden on men. I don’t really agree because laws are meant to deter and regulate paradigm cases and to match up with known trends and expectations.

Think of statutory rape, which is a legal category that was created with idea that its very had to determine consent when someone is very young, therefore, the baseline should be that sex between someone old and someone young should cast aspersions on the old person. It’s not that there couldn’t be loving, honest sex between a 16 year old and a 32 year old, but it is the case that the risk for abuse in that situation is high, so that the burden required for legal sex is put higher.

Same thing with rape among people of the same age. Men are, for better or worse, sexual aggressors, and they are also physically stronger than women. Also, as rampant cultural beliefs about deceptive female rape victims prove, women are often treated as being less credible than men. So, the burden is placed on men to engage in sex under conditions favorable to the choice and welfare of those they engage in it with. This rules out sex with drunk girls.

Still though, things are very tricky though because some girls want to have sex while sober but feel self-conscious or discourage. As sexual roles equalize (and that’s in its early stages) then women, just like men do already, may want liquid courage to help them make advances and to abandon inhibitions. Also, though male culture forbids thinking about certain sexual situations as examples of rape (and so using that word), there have been undoubtedly men who have, under the influence of alcohol, slept with girls that they would not have slept with sober. Why is the man here not “taken advantage of” in the same way that drunk girls are?

The answer of course, as everyone knows on one level, but always refuses to acknowledge, is that men and women are treated different in our society. I’m not yet saying that one is treated better than the other, but just making the point that if you are honest with yourself, you can create all sorts of situations where something is ok for women and not for men, and then you start to wonder, where do these invisible chains of custom and social regulation come from? It’s not hard, from that realization, to see how things could be unequal.

Back to Karen though. She had sex while drunk with many men, but was she raped? As I said, if you think that because someone had sex while drunk, they were raped, then she was raped, but I think most people have abandoned this is doctrine (judging from anecdotes I know about, not a single person believes in the equivalence between having drunken sex and being raped.)

But that’s why her case is so interesting, because it raises the issue of a place and a culture and an ideal, and the invisible regulators of behavior that philosophers, sociologists, and social psychologists make it their business to study. Did alcohol mix with an authoritarian social environment, did it mix with scheming and conniving men who used threats or status to exploitatively win sex from unthinking Karen Owen?

I don’t really think so, but again, I’m very open to new thoughts on this.

The reason I don’t think so is that if you read her powerpoint, she really did seem to know what she was doing, and the men, quite frankly, didn’t really seem very coercive or tricky (or even capable of much trickery). I mean, I think in one case, one of the guys just asked her to go back to his place, and she said yes because she really liked the sex with him. You get the sense she was “on a mission” to experience sex with the supposed “gods” of the Duke undergraduate scene.

I guess one could be suspicious about whether she genuinely wanted to have sex with these people or if an aura of power and control that the campus bestowed on them led her to them like moths to a flame, but as I often caution on this blog, that sort of analysis is very cynical and very hard to substantiate. I think what is more likely is that she wanted to see what it was all about (“it” being athlete-frat world), and why think that’s so weird? Lots of athletes and frat guys are cool, smart, honest, and all sorts positive things. We can’t forget that, no matter if you’re a frat skeptic or what.

In the process of finding out about these men, she revealed some truths about this world, and I think dispelled part of the mystique surrounding this group of people (e.g., the guy with the weird domination fantasy…I forget the ridiculous details), or the guy who plays mario kart. I get the sense, in reading her powerpoint, that she took some satisfaction in demystifying the male-athlete world, and perhaps that’s the reason she shared it to some good friends.

Some think it was naivete for her to expect it not to be shared everywhere, but perhaps she wasn’t being naive at all, but knew all along where her experiences would go.




Sex selection

Still reading through Becker and Posner’s book Uncommon Sense, which is really just their blog. Never have I come across so many interesting arguments for positions that I find very unpalatable. This book is very provocative in that way.

Here’s a post in which Becker argues in favor of allowing sex selection of offspring (for the purposes of this post, imagine we can select sexes before impregnation rather than just by aborting girls, which happens in China. This separates the issues of sex selection from those of abortion, which is a separate debate). His test case for this argument is the preference for boys to girls in China.

His argument has many parts, but his basic point is that sex selection is welfare enhancing because parents will take better care of the type of offspring that they want to have. Also, its better to have a boy than to have a girl and give her away to an orphanage (which happens fairly regularly). He also argues that having less women in society is better for women because they are rarer and so more desirable (yea, they’re talking about people, not bushels of wheat, but you wouldn’t really know it by the rhetoric in this post).

Anyway, I think there are several ways to get at this argument. The first is that some preferences are adaptive, meaning they change after experience. In fact, many goods are advertised with this in mind. So-called experience goods often grow in value after they have been sampled. People who sell fast cars try to get people to test drive them because after you’ve experienced the car, you’re more likely to appreciate it. Many other things are experience goods in this way. (this is my post elaborating this point).

So, you see where this is going: girls might be experience goods in that once you have a baby girl of your own, you my re-think your preference. You just need to get hooked first by seeing the smiling face of your young daughter. This is extremely plausible I think given the way biology makes us attached to our offspring. You may decide to you don’t want a girl when you see the ultrasound screen (although that seems hard too) but once you actually see a daughter staring at you, you may become more attached to her needs.

And this has consequences that go beyond a mother and father caring for a girl versus neglecting her. There are studies that show that people who have daughters of their own are much more progressive about women issues such as access to contraception, rape laws, and other health issues. A nice paper about this is here. In other words, people with girls defend the interests of girls in public institutions. This is the democratic flipside to the economic reasoning of Becker. Sure, less girls = economic value of girls goes up, but the reverse is true from a democratic perspective. When there are less women and fewer families with women, the chance of public change defending women is less (of course China isn’t even a democracy really…but my guess is that the effect here doesn’t rely on voting and that families with girls might defend their interests in a variety of ways rather than just simply at the ballot box).

Lastly though, what is the principle behind Becker’s argument? If we cater to people who don’t like girls, then girls will be better off. Ok, maybe, but think of the analogy to something like civil rights. Maybe blacks would be better off if civil rights protesters didn’t agitate for change, but maybe the long term battle for equality outweighs short term utility losses due to backlash from racists (in fact, it seems very certain it does). So maybe, it’s worth not condoning a discriminatory practice and conforming public institutions with the value of non-discrimination, even if some women end up being raised in households that didn’t want them. Not a slam-dunk point, but one worth considering.


what is desert?

Some people really chafe at the notion, favored by utilitarianism, that there is no such thing as desert, at least in any robust sense. Sure, you are entitled to your property, but only because it’s in general good for people to have some rights to property. Sure, you are entitled to a fair trial and not to be thrown in jail for no reason, but only as long as a rampaging mob wouldn’t make a mock trial resulting in your execution expedient. Under utilitarianism, people just deserve whatever will make the most good. Nothing more and nothing less.

For those who don’t like this picture (like me), it’s worth seeing how powerful the argument actually is. Of course we are upset when we find out about someone who is punished unfairly, even when the punishment was for the better. We say something like “you can’t just do that to someone!”

But is our notion of desert symmetrical? We don’t like it when an innocent person is made worse off for no reason, but do we protest when someone is made better off for no reason? Not really. We think to ourselves “lucky them.”

But is that right? I’m going to reveal a seemingly angry part of my psychology to make a point (I not really this bitter). Sometimes, and maybe you think this too but don’t like to admit it, we see some really obnoxious people living the high life without any justification. This happens very often with the children of rich people. They’re out, dressed to the nines with every conceivable amenity at their fingertips, just generally being snobby and pretentious. Is there not some part of us that recoils and whispers silently “you don’t deserve that happiness.” Then, we often tell ourselves a long and detailed story about how such people aren’t TRULY happy, because, say, their psychology is burdensome. But this is just a lie we tell ourselves. There are genuinely obnoxious and malicious people who are happy, and who have every advantage. Should we wish ill on them; a pox on their kingdom?

Maybe we should. I’m not sure. This is certainly what egalitarians believe. They believe that equality is intrinsically valuable, and so advocate raising the poor because they don’t deserve their poverty. However, they also believe in lowering the rich, because they don’t deserve their wealth (see this post).

So there is at least this similarity, but maybe this just shows that equality trades on our notion of desert unfairly. With a real theory of desert in hand, we might be able to say which people should be leveled down and which should get to enjoy their talents/wealth/beauty/whatever.


Hobbes’ state of nature

Hobbes argument for the state of nature goes likes this.

P1. Humans are a certain way (suspicious, rapacious, etc. etc.)

P2. If humans are a certain way, then the state of nature will be awful.

Therefore:  the state of nature will be awful.

Does this argument succeed?

Now, many think Hobbes claims that the state of nature will involve constant violence, but his real point is about cooperation. Surely there will be violence in the state of nature, but what is supposed to be really awful about it is that there is no way to guarantee the stability of cooperation. Some people make this point with a standard prisoner’s dilemma type argument. If there is no government over us, then we won’t cooperate, because if you try to cooperate with me, I will just  run off with your stuff (pretend we have a contract dictating a quid pro quo, but I don’t deliver the quo but run off with the quid), or worse: kill you and take your stuff.  So in sum, the state of nature involves some violence but a lot of noncooperation, making everyone really poor since they have to do everything themself.

Now, one of Hobbes assumptions about the human race (part of P1 above) is that we are all mostly equal in power and intelligence, but I think his argument goes wrong whether this is true or not.

First assume Hobbes is right. If we are all roughly equal in power, it seems that there won’t really be any violence at all in the state of nature. After all, with no cooperation, everyone doesn’t really have a lot to steal, and so by coming to kill you, I would be exposing myself to a roughly equal opponent for very little gain. Better to just stay in my hovel and try to keep the fire burning. So, if we are roughly equal, then the state of nature won’t really be that scary (I won’t fear a nasty death at the hand’s of some vegabond), but things will still be bad, cause I’ll be really poor.

But really, Hobbes is wrong. People are not equal in strength or intelligence. For example, the very young and very old would make easy targets, not to mention young men who happened to be weak or clumsy. If there are differences in power, there would probably be a lot of violence. Biff the bully could take Poindexter’s corn every year (these days, Biff’s ancestors take Poindexter’s lunch money every day) without much risk to himself. But notice that as the calculus swings in favor of violence, the incentive to cooperate increases as well. If Poindexter and Eggbert are routinely taken advantage of by Biff, then they might team up. Neither has an incentive to double cross the other, because without cooperation, they both lose out due to Biff’s superior strength. So, they can count on one another.

Now, if Poindexter and Eggbert (and maybe Norville, Gilbert, and Ned too after a while) cooperate successfully, what is to make this endeavor sustainable? After Biff the bully gives up (or maybe gets killed by their makeshift militia), the payoffs change again, and each one could do better by pretending to cooperate and then making off with a bunch of the group’s hard work.

One answer might be sociological: the group might have learned to trust each other and maybe even develop a camaraderie. Another explanation might be an incentive based on. Stealing from the community would impact everyone, the malefactor could expect reprisals. Remember, in the one on one case, if we are of equal strength, then it’s not worth it for me to come after you if you double cross me; I’m just as likely as not to win in a fight. But Eggbert probably stands little chance of standing up to Poindexter, Ned, Gilbert, and Norville. c


egalitarianism as a value

I’ve shied away from serious ethics posts lately, but it takes me a long time to think about ethics problems, and so this post is again more of a survey of a problem than a good solution.

In this post, I argued on behalf of egalitarianism claiming that the fact that a situation is not worse for anyone compared to another situation does not make the situation incapble of being worse in any respect. For example, a situation in which criminals are punished is not better for anyone in terms of welfare, but the situation  still seems better than one in which criminals go free.

So, why is egalitarianism not the same way? Just because a situation in which the better off are made much better off (thereby exacerbating inequality), is not worse for anyone, it could still be worse in one respect.

I think the reason that equality is different than other impersonal values such as autonomy or retributive justice is that equality is not about any one person, but rather about the distribution of welfare in the society. For example, I may have the same welfare whether I am autonomous or not (pretend someone controls my mind), but whether I am autonomous is a fact about me. By the same token, if I’m a criminal and I’m punished, it has to do with my actions. Where equality concerns a relationship between me and another person. If my friend and I live unequal lives, its not a fact about me that makes the outcome bad, it’s a fact about someone else’s welfare compared to me.

This isn’t really an argument, because I have not given a reason for the significance of this difference, if this even is a difference, but I’m tempted to think along those lines.


give all your money to impoverished countries

One common argument against utilitarianism is that it demands too much. Maximizing utility would often require extreme sacrifices. For example, almost everyone in western countries would have to give up a huge amount of their wealth so that those in more impoverished countries could live better lives.

One common response from utilitarians is that while morality does require such colossal sacrifices, it may not be utility optimizing to blame people for failing to meet them. In other words, one need not feel especially bad for not giving all their money to charity, even though that is what morality requires. The idea is that overall consequences are better if people in the west didn’t stew in their moral inadequacy. But this is an argument from consequences, and I think it’s just as plausible to think that we could drastically increase utility by inflicting crippling guilt on those who didn’t give all their money to charity.

Another, maybe better response by utilitarians, is to point out that non-utilitarianism is also very demanding in what it requires. Imagine that you put most of your wealth into a nice house. A train is traveling toward a young child and will hit it unless you hit a switch to move the train onto a track that leads to your house (I know ethics examples get ridiculous, but their ridiculousness is part of what clarifies our intuitions). This is supposed to represent the current situation of westerners, who could part with a large amount of their money to save a  child who will soon die of disease or malnutrition in another country. The idea is that we would of course throw the switch in the case I just gave, so why don’t we give much more of our money to international charities?

Notice also that this not a utilitarian position. One could say “the only reason we would flip the switch is if we believed in utilitarianism” but this isn’t true. We would flip the switch even if we were under the sway of various other moralities. For example, I could imagine someone believing that he should rescue the child even if the utility loss were greater by destroying his house because losses that leave someone above some minimal threshold of well being are discounted. Since me without my house would still have a minimal threshold of well being (I would still be healthy and able to feed myself etc) and since kids in impoverished countries are below this threshold, I should give large amounts of my money to them. This is a version of Rawls’ position (any amount of sacrifice is justified to help the very worst-off).

We might also say that we have a duty, not to maximize utility, but rescue people from immediate death. Once the children in poor countries are not in danger of death due to starvation, then our duty to them ends, even if they are still very undernourished and living bad lives overall.

Or finally, we might have to give all of our money to poorer people, not on utility grounds, but on equality grounds.

Under a range of theories, our duties to the world are pretty demanding.