Varieties of Inequality

I can think of at least six kinds of inequality:

Clothes are seen hanging outside a bus which has been converted into a dwelling for Lu Changshan and his wife near newly-constructed residential buildings in Hefei, Anhui province in China on November 12, 2012 (Jianan Lu/Courtesy Reuters).
Hefei, Anhui province in China  (Photo by Jianan Lu.)
  1. Inequality of income: different people receive different wages, either for different jobs or for the same job, as profits from capital investments, or as government subsidies, transfer payments, or private charity.
  2. Inequality of consumption: different people consume different products (i.e. the generic widget) in differing amounts and of varying quality. Some people have cell phones, computers, and tablet computers; some have just a cell phone; some people own no electronics. Some people have two homes, some are homeless, etc.
  3. Inequality of liberty: some people are subjected to more threats and interference than others. Some people can break the law, for instance by using illegal drugs, without consequence, while others are imprisoned and subjected to the whims and demands of institutional forces and individuals with strength or authority.
  4. Inequality of security: some people live more precarious lives than others. Some people are systematically subject to more frequent risks of loss, or have less assistance or fewer resources to fall back on should things go badly.
  5. Inequality of status: some people get more respect than others. Some people are treated with disdain and denied the prerequisites of basic human dignity. Some people are ignored and invisible, while others get more attention than they want from paparazzi and news media.
  6. Inequality of capabilities: some people have more beings and doings than others. Rather than more widgets and gadgets, some people have better access to the things that make a life go well: work, play, love, health, safety, an opportunity to be heard and make a difference, etc.

Now, potentially all of these inequalities might be troublesome, but when I think about political economy, I tend to think that inequalities grow in importance (and injustice) as they move away from nominal measures like “income” and towards real measures like liberty, security, status, and ultimately capabilities. Of course, the varieties of inequality are interrelated, but not always in a clear way. For instance, some people have high incomes but low security, like military contractors, some fishermen, and oil rig roughnecks who can all make six figure salaries by taking on inordinate risk of death or crippling injury. A wealthy person suffering from crippling depression might be consumption-rich but capability-poor. And we’ve probably all met or worked with angry low-level bureaucrats whose low status is combined with high liberty and security, which allows them to act capriciously and lazily without consequences.

In the famous aphorism of the “rising tide which lifts all boats,” John F. Kennedy suggested that it was possible that as the US progresses, the rich, middle-class, and poor states might all be better off in absolute terms even if they maintained their respective places. Subsequent use of the aphorism has generally added “even if they do not improve equally.” In the “rising tide” case championed by Kennedy, “relative” inequality would increase as the gap between rich and poor increased, while “absolute” inequality (i.e. poverty) decreased, as the poor became wealthier. But this suggests a seventh kind of inequality:

7. Inequality of growth: when a company or a country grows, some people get a larger share of the growth than others, either as a share of income, consumption, status, liberty, capabilities, or security.

Americans currently confront a situation domestically where the rich have made disproportionate gains in income and consumption compared to other classes, while the very poor experience severe losses in every category due to absurdly high rates of incarceration, lost life expectancy, increaased labor contingency, loss of meaningful participation in the political process, and many other factors. Yet while this inequality grows domestically, other inequalities are shrinking: Africa is growing again, and the the number of children who die each day from easily-treated poverty-related diseases has shrunk to half what it was a decade earlier. Some of the same factors that increased relative domestic inequality have reduced absolute global poverty. So this suggests that there are (at least) three different ways to measure inequality:

  1. The scope of the inequality: there is a difference between local inequalities and global inequalities, and on some measures and inequalities (for instance, status) the local matters more than the global, while sometimes it’s the domination or colonization of one place or group  by another that creates the problematic element in inequality.
  2. Inequality over time: for most of the world, each generation has been able to boast improved lives over the generation before. But there are times and places when this is not the case, and it may well not be the case in the future.
  3. Relative Inequality v. Absolute Poverty: Another important issue is that inequalities can be measured in relative or absolute terms: the “relative” measure is based on the difference between the most-advantaged and least-advantaged, or in some metrics between the extremes and the median. The “absolute” measure focuses on the actual levels of income, consumption, security, liberty, etc. which can rise independently or orthogonally to the difference between the best and worst.

In the literature, the last kind of inequality is often just referred to as “relative v. absolute inequality” but what really ought to concern us is when folks at the bottom face profound and multiple disadvantages. So when I think in terms of absolutes, here, I think we generally share the Rawlsian maximin intuition that we should confront and work to raise whatever the lowest-level of experience is, the floor or “bottom” that has become known as the situation of the “least-advantaged group.”

Civil-rights-leaders-want-Obama-to-talk-more-about-racial-inequalityAs for temporal and spatial inequalities, these are difficult issues indeed. Certainly there are Chinese cities where the environmental degradation is so bad that previous eras of lower consumption were actually better off; much the same may be true of European and American cities during our industrial growth spurts. We can think of the the inequality of growth as a problem that is primarily measured in terms of differences over time, but we also have to confront the profound differences between the growth levels in the US, Europe, and Japan, and the growth levels in Africa, South America, and Asia. There is growing confidence that these differences must be laid at the feet of poor institutional designs (hampered by colonial meddling) and cannot simply be explained by some form of exploitative expropriation of the developing world by the developed world.

There are broad measurement and aggregation problems with the more important kinds of inequality: it’s much harder to figure out how capabilities increase and decrease over time and populations than it is to measure income and consumption, even though measuring those is a very hard problem all on its own. Still, some theme have emerged. While there are some theorists who would not be ready to agree to the hierarchy of inequalities I’ve listed above, many justifications for libertarianism and classical liberalism rest on the assumption that the policies they advocate are best-able to achieve the maximization of the most important capabilities, securities, and liberties that I mention. After the work of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, there may well be disagreements about measurements and priorities, but there really are fewer folks who doggedly hold to the view that consumption alone is the key to the good life and ought to be maximized. Strangely, even as more people pay lip service to pluralism, there is more and more agreement on matters of fundamental metaethical goals. I take that to be a good sign.

But various versions of the problem of inequality that circulate strike me as potentially mistaken. For instance, it’s true that, in terms of wealth and income, the very rich lost more in absolute terms than the very poor: individual investors lost billions of dollars. But they did not lose a corresponding amount of consumption, security, status, or capability. Those losses play an important role in suggesting that the very rich were as surprised as the middle-class and poor by the structural problems in the shadow banking system and mortgage-market, however: after all, you expect a fraud or a crook to have enriched himself, not immiserated himself. On the other hand, differential inequalities of growth and security suggest that a very rich investor might be willing to make a bet that will double or halve her income even if it will do the same thing the very poor for simply because of the way one calculates gains and losses when you are very rich. (This goes back to Charles Karelis’s work on the differential rationality of wealth and poverty.)

Naturalism and the Truth of Human Values

Peter Levine has been blogging on various aspects of truth recently: democracy in a “post-truth era,” issues in prediction, and now a piece on scientism:

if all truths were scientific truths, we would be in deep trouble. We would then reject  any claims that science cannot support. For example, do all human beings have equal value or worth? Either that makes no scientific sense (because objective or intrinsic value is not a scientific idea), or it is manifestly false, because science translates “value” into something like capacity or functioning, and then it is obvious that not all humans are equal.

I would argue that the agential view that treats us as reason-responsive free subjects is a subset of the naturalistic one, and that when naturalism and the agential view are in conflict, naturalism trumps. But I believe that values are compatible with naturalism.

Here’s how I’d put it. “Human equality” is not falsified by science’s insistence of objectivity, it is falsified by our practices and common sense observations. Simply put: we don’t treat all humans equally at present, so the claim of “human equality” is either nonsensical or aspirational. I take it that Levine’s worry is about a scientism that says that such values are nonsense, but I prefer to think of them as aspirations to extend our limited and fragile practices of equality beyond their current scope.

The real danger is not dissolving “human equality” into observable inequality (of status and capacity) but assuming “human equality” is settled while there is still work to be done in achieving the kingdom of ends. We don’t treat women equally to men, we don’t treat non-whites equally to whites, and we don’t treat foreigners equally to neighbors. But we should, and we do aspire to do better.

If equality is aspirational, we don’t need to adopt a non-naturalist metaphysics in order to justify it: we can explain the origin and practice of equality norms in our current practice naturalistically, and then explain our desire to extend those norms naturalistically as well. This is where P.F. StrawsonElinor Ostrom, Cristina Bicchieri, Karen Stohr, and Jerry Gaus can help.

What is the belief you hold that is most likely to be wrong?

Another way of putting this question is: how does your ideology and social setting blind you? One way to answer is to look at those beliefs that you have the most incentive to deceive yourself about. What are your biases? For instance, I’m probably not as smart or as caring as I think I am, because I want to be smart and caring and I’m going to be on the lookout for evidence in favor of those two beliefs and be tempted to ignore or discount evidence against them. But then, too, there is the Dunning-Kreuger effect, so who the hell knows? Whatever we think about these traits, we’re probably wrong, but in the banal way that everyone else is likely to be wrong, too.

I have something like my old prompt about books that changed your mind. Even if we’re conscious of the dangers of motivated reasoning and motivated rationality, we can still point to those beliefs that we hold that we see as the weakest, perhaps not because we hold them in an effort to signal ability or loyalty, but because we find holding those beliefs useful for orienting further inquiry. So here goes:

  1. Moral Realism: The belief I hold that is most likely to be wrong is a belief in moral judgments that track something objective or at least non-agent-relative. After all, it’s difficult to engage in normative inquiry without believing that our researches track something. Just as philosophers of religion tend to believe in God and astrologers tend to believe in the predictive power of the stars, ethical and political philosophers tend to believe in their thing, too. If we’re wrong on this (as thousands of relativist undergraduates have confided in me) then we’re unlikely to find lasting success. And there is certainly some reason to believe that we haven’t seen much in the way of progress in normative inquiry, despite recent trends like the line that runs through John Rawls, Derek Parfit, Philip Pettit, and Elizabeth Anderson.
  2. Character Skepticism: the second-most-likely-to-be-wrong belief I hold is skepticism about the existence of persistent character traits. I went to school with a generation of scholars who were significantly motivated by what they thought of as the deconstruction of the subject or the death of the author, so there’s certainly a sociological or network effect bias to my skepticism. With all the evidence accumulating that character traits like conscientiousness have a genetic component, it’s almost absurd to pretend that there aren’t some traits that persist over time and context. Still, I find that skepticism to be very important for my discussions of moral equality, status emotions, and the fallibility or person-oriented judgments, and so I persist(!) in holding it. (Even while I hold many people in great esteem for what I take to be their persistent habit of being right, wise, or good.)
  3. The Basic Income and the Value-Added Tax: I’m not sure I’m “most likely to be wrong” on BIG+VAT, but I do think it’s the policy advocacy position where my confidence in advancing it is the least-well-matched by the sensus communis. Call it the “largest gap between my estimation of the evidence and the general estimate.” This blog got its title by my mixed feelings about utopian theorizing, but with BIG+VAT I do feel a bit like a utopian. Even beyond all the naysayers, there’s even some recent evidence that consumption (which a VAT would disincentivize) is an important component in reducing poverty. This suggests one reason to prefer income redistribution over VAT, and so the whole edifice is certainly shaky if the right empirical evidence comes along.
  4. The Unimportance of the Middle-Class: I tend to worry less about the middle-class than the least-advantaged, which leads me to worry more about the unemployed than the employed, more about global workers than domestic workers, and more about those without a college degree than those who have credentials. But there are lots of good arguments in political theory for a vibrant middle-class, not the least of which is Elizabeth Warren’s claim that “A middle class where people are falling out and into poverty is a middle class that has less room to bring people up and out of poverty.” So I may very well be wrong.
  5. The Inefficacy of Charter Schools: I tend to think that charter schools are an anti-union boondoggle, that they are less effective than the public schools they replace, and that the cherry-picked evidence in their favor usually depends upon hidden selection effects or a resurgence of racial segregation. Even in the best cases, they seem to offer a model that would not scale beyond the single school which has lucked into success, and I’m heartened by the Stanford study that showed that charters were twice as likely to be worse than regular public schools than to be better than them. But of course, a charter school advocate would say that we ought simply to close failing charters, leaving us with some schools that are equal to public schools and some that are superior to them: at the margin, that’s a good deal. And, too, not all charter schools are for-profit market-oriented corporate monstrosities; there are some innovative experiments in common-pool resource management going on within the charter school movement. Perhaps it is better to let parents dissatisfied with their public school options take the risk. If we believe in pluralism, these experiments might be a better way to match differing childrens’ needs with settings where those needs will be met. I dunno: I’m glad I’m not in charge of  K-12 education policy in this country.
  6. Incarceration and Drugs: Like many progressives, I suspect that there is something deeply wrong with mass incarceration and the drug war. Most of the people I know seem to agree with all the constituent arguments against the way criminal justice is practiced in this country. We’re deeply embarrassed by the number and racial composition of prisoners here. And yet the system remains, and both engaged citizens and smart, caring politicians seem powerless to change it. Clearly, there’s some piece of this puzzle we just don’t understand.
  7. Meat Eating: I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t be eating meat, and certainly not meat produced under the inhumane conditions in US factory farms. Yet I seem to be completely akratic on this front; I believe I shouldn’t, but I do it anyway. I’m certainly wrong, one way or another, because my actions and beliefs are in contradiction. This is more of an anxiety over that inconsistency than a likely-wrong belief, though, so maybe it’s not completely fitting with the principle of the question.

What are you most likely to be wrong about?

Status Emotions and Punishment

I haven’t written much about status emotions, recently, but I came across one of my favorite Facebook memes and remembered again how central it seems. I don’t endorse the misogyny here, but it perfectly describes the way that fundamental attribution bias transforms resentment into contempt, and thus leads, in my view, to both epistemic and moral error:

Funny Confession Ecard: Once you hate someone, everything they do is offensive. 'Look at this bitch eating those crackers like she owns the place.'

I’ve also been thinking a bit about the role of status emotions in our treatment of criminals in the US. It’s important to recognize when your differing judgments are leading you away from the common sense moral community, and punishment is one place that this seems to be occurring for me. Put simply, I just don’t see any good reason to disdain or show contempt for convicted criminals. This follows quite self-evidently from my claim that status emotions are immoral and unreliable. But this puts me outside of the mainstream society’s judgments about criminals, and I wonder if I’ve missed something, am wired differently, or am simply altering my intuitions in order to bite the bullet on my idiosyncratic account of the moral emotions.

Recall that Michelle Mason just assumes that some people are better than others in her account of contempt as a reactive attitude. But the genius of Strawson’s account of the reactive attitudes was that it allowed us to sidestep tricky metaphysical questions about agency and determinism. Mason does the same thing, sidestepping tricky metaphysical questions about personal identity and the persistence of character traits over time and context. Yet she doesn’t thematize the question of persistence or identity in the same way that Strawson thematized determinism and blame.

Blame and punishing seem appropriate, but what I notice is that the prisoners I teach are thoughtful human beings who are interested in the texts we’re reading. They are polite, respectful, and in my judgment genuine. Almost every day that I come to class, someone thanks me for the lesson. At the same time, they have criminal histories. Some were simply caught up in the war on drugs, but some of them allude to having done truly bad things; this is not just a matter of a self-selected group of victim-less criminals. And yet, that doesn’t seem like it matters to me. It doesn’t seem like it should matter: to my mind, they are due the same esteem as anyone else.

Criminals could be the perfect test for status emotions, if you set aside all your concerns about the US’s problems with mass incarceration, innocence and plea bargaining, the racialization of justice, and the war on drugs. Of course, we shouldn’t set those things aside when we’re talking about policy, but at a certain point you have to admit that some people really are guilty. If the claim is simply that they wouldn’t be guilty in a radically different society, we’re back to begging the question in Strawson’s original use of the reactive attitudes: in that case, determinism actually does matter, and these crimes were [over]determined and thus deserving of neither blame nor contempt.

I think we can preserve blame while jettisoning contempt: we resent the criminal for the harm they do, and don’t worry about determinism. We can’t disdain the criminal without assuming something like: “You are the sort of person who would have done that in a different context. I am the sort of person who would not have done that in any of the proximate possible worlds.” I doubt such assumptions are warranted. Perhaps I am wrong. But the policy debate that takes all those political-economic-racial questions seriously would otherwise shift to seeking better means of distinguishing the truly innocent, those whose moral and social status has been wrongly undermined, from the truly guilt, those whose moral and social status is rightly low. My claim is that there is no fact of the matter about trans-modal character, and that this is morally relevant to status.

Contempt depends on the fiction of the doer behind the deed; it disdains the sinner in addition to hating the sin. If someone admits to having committed a bank robbery or a murder, they’re still: (a) human beings, (b) autonomous agents, (c) members of my moral community, (d) capable knowers, and (e) subject to the same moral luck as all contingent creatures. Thus, they are my moral equal and ought to be my social equal as well: an intuition that reports otherwise is simply in error, no matter how many people share the intuition.

Here’s where it’s helpful to be a contrite fallibilist, though: does anyone who has the status hierarchy intuition also have a reflective defense of it? Macalester Bell doesn’t. Mason doesn’t. But maybe somebody does.

What is “Public Philosophy”?

My department invited Sharon Meagher to do a seminar last Friday on how to redirect our energies towards “public philosophy.” Meagher has a great textbook for introducing philosophy through an exploration of urban issues that offers a situated approach to philosophical inquiry, and she’s done a lot of work trying to organize and advocate for publicly engaged philosophers.

What got us hung up was how much of what we were already doing was “public philosophy.” The term “public philosophy” can encompass things as diverse as doing any sort of philosophy in public (like anything in The Stone or The Partially Examined Life), doing any sort of political philosophy, or engaging the public in doing any sort of philosophy (Socrates Cafe, my own Free Philosophy Courses page, etc.)

In a banal sense, any time a philosopher publishes a paper, they’re doing doing philosophy in public just by making the paper openly accessible. Anyone with a philosophy blog or podcast is doing “public philosophy” by that definition. Even a classroom is public, after all, but teaching in one doesn’t seem to be enough to qualify.

Shy as we were to name the thing we didn’t want to be for fear of offence, we sometimes seemed to be using the term as a kind of corporate marketing speak, “re-envisioneering” ourselves into a new justification for the status quo. Rebranding is a great new use for the fallacy of the heap. Philosophers well know the kinds of problems that emerge from definition and typology, yet we easily fall into the same kinds of traps as non-philosophers when we’re not consciously practicing our metacognitive techniques. And so on Friday we struggled over whether we wanted to define public philosophy as “engaged” or “activist” philosophy, whether it would include politicized (African-American, feminist, queer, Africanist) engagement with the traditional philosophical canon, and whether the work done under this title could include difficult and often jargonistic analytic and textual scholarship.

Is “public philosophy” just “philosophy”?

The abstract, esoteric, and metaphysical disputes that are often defined *out* of public philosophy are just as often the ones that actually plague the public discourse. For instance, the political philosophy of John Rawls and Robert Nozick are often excluded from definitions of public philosophy for being abstract and irrelevant. Yet while some of the most politically contentious scholarship in philosophy has had little impact on public life, quite a lot of our public discourse still seems to be trapped by crude versions of Rawls and Nozick on just deserts and distributive justice. The same thing could be said for ontotheological debates about what it means to be human; the relationship between metaphysical, psychological, and political freedom; or the difficult epistemological questions about what counts as knowledge, whose testimony matters, and what should be taught as science.

To my mind, what makes us philosophers is the shared conviction that these detours into difficulty are the only way to resolve our disputes.

The major proponents of public philosophy, who have sought to create networks of solidarity and mutual aid with other public philosophers, would go even further: it seems that this new concentration on the public will entail either the creation of new forums outside of the university for the public to engage in philosophy (because engaging in philosophy is a public good) or philosophers aiding public advocacy by helping make arguments and articulate the philosophical foundations for social movements (because philosophy can be liberatory.) 

This specifically public approach to philosophy tends to involve a slightly more demanding sense of usefulness to the public: clarifying concepts relevant to public matters, helping social scientists navigate the tricky metaphysical and normative implications of their value-laden descriptions of the world, or doing philosophy in unconventionally politicized spaces (senior centers, prisons, high schools, elementary schools, or anarchist collectives.)

It also seems relevant to ask, here, why we need philosophers to do these things. Why not create new forums to do psychology or physics outside the university? Why can’t social scientists navigate their own metaphysical and normative implications? Why not let social movements articulate their own principles and foundations? Why not teach classics or economics in unconventionally politicized spaces?

Speaking of which: if you’re (a) in the DC/Baltimore area, and (b) interested in teaching a college-level course at a local prison, please get in touch with me! Non-philosophers welcome! The pay is $0, but it’s totally rewarding.