For some people, other human beings are only ever a means to an end. The source of their self-esteem is their ability to realise their own personal vision. They see themselves as powerful creators and believe ideas like empathy, altruism and justice are just tricks the weak use to enslave the strong. As they see it, only those who lack power or self-respect would allow themselves to become servants to the ambitions of another.
The trick modern market societies use to tame egoists is to get them to see money as a natural way of measuring success. The idea that money is both a measure of personal worth and a source of power, convinces egoists to use their talents to serve others rather than dominate them. Because today’s more impersonal market societies are able to harness it for public benefit, they have a higher tolerance of egoism than the communitarian societies of the past.
In contrast to egoists, egalitarians believe every person is entitled to equal concern and respect simply because they are human. They reject the idea that some people are somehow less human because they lack valued attributes such as beauty, physical ability or intelligence. And they oppose institutions and cultural practices that humiliate people by using race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability or inability to compete in marketplace as reasons to treat some people as less than fully human.
Much of the politics of so-called political correctness is about creating institutions that do not humiliate or oppress people. For example, cultural practices that recognise physical attractiveness as a natural way for woman to claim status and that treat the dominant racial or ethnic group as epitomising standards of beauty.
One way to humiliate and dominate others is to single out an attribute on which people might judge them inferior and relentlessly draw attention to it. So rather than focusing on a person’s achievements and ability in a job, you might constantly draw attention to their obesity. And you might do so in a way that suggests obesity reflects a general lack of willpower or respect for self.
In many cases a person may do this while pretending to be helpful. After all, they say, the discomfort and anxiety a person feels when you draw attention to how fat they are and how their fatness increases their risk of disease may help make up for their deficient willpower and help them lose weight.
Because egoists see politics as a struggle for dominance, they can’t make sense of egalitarian claims for recognition and respect except as some kind of power struggle. They tend to see ‘political correctness’ as part of an attempt to get winners to hand over money or resources to losers. That’s why Paul Frijters’s recent post on ‘Hurt and truth‘ may appeal to egoists. According to Frijters, when people in oppressed or disadvantaged groups try to take control of the words others use to describe them, they are not looking for recognition or respect, but money and resources:
… by owning the terminology, the sufferers or their representatives basically force the audience into acknowledging them as a problem worthy of subsidy. It conforms to the logic of ‘if I can dictate the terms of our conversation on an issue, I get to talk solutions, which of course means you pay and I receive’. As such it’s a straightforward power-play and at least does not by necessity need to be untruthful or lead to dysfunctional policies.
Egoists like to think that egalitarianism’s real objective isn’t equal concern and respect but the equal distribution of income and wealth.
In a 1999 paper, ‘What Is the Point of Equality?‘ Elizabeth Anderson attacks a position she calls ‘luck egalitarianism’. According to luck egalitarianism, individuals should only be compensated for undeserved misfortune. Where a person’s disadvantage is the result of their own choices, they should have no claim on others.
Anderson argues that this approach would lead to policies that were stigmatising and humiliating. She imagines how the state might explain why people were entitled to compensation:
To the disabled: Your defective native endowments or current disabilities, alas, make your life less worth living than the lives of normal people. To compensate for this misfortune, we, the able ones, will give you extra resources, enough to make the worth of living your life good enough that at least one person out there thinks it is comparable to someone else’s life.
To the stupid and untalented: Unfortunately, other people don’t value what little you have to offer in the system of production. Your talents are too meager to command much market value. Because of the misfortune that you were born so poorly endowed with talents, we productive ones will make it up to you: we’ll let you share in the bounty of what we have produced with our vastly superior and highly valued abilities.
To the ugly and socially awkward: How sad that you are so repulsive to people around you that no one wants to be your friend or lifetime companion. We won’t make it up to you by being your friend or your marriage partner–we have our own freedom of association to exercise–but you can console yourself in your miserable loneliness by consuming these material goods that we, the beautiful and charming ones, will provide. And who knows? Maybe you won’t be such a loser in love once potential dates see how rich you are.
As Anderson says, "to require citizens to display evidence of personal inferiority in order to get aid from the state is to reduce them to groveling for support." In a liberal society it is not the government’s job to establish standards of what makes a person’s life worth living or to make an official declaration that one person’s attributes are less valuable than another’s.
To an egoist who refuses to acknowledge claims for recognition and respect, this kind of policy is simply a more honest version of the egalitarianism we have today. After all, they say, politics is really all about who gets what.
But there’s a kind of bad faith involved in this. Egoism is not only about the struggle for self-respect but also the fear of humiliation at the hands of others. The desire to dominate and control others is not just a way of achieving creative goals, it’s a way of protecting a sometimes fragile sense of self-worth.