Egoism and equality

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.

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14 Responses to Egoism and equality

  1. Ken Parish says:

    Leaving aside the fascinating developing Arthur versus Frijters contest of egos, luck egalitarianism has of course been around for quite a while. I stumbled across it five or six years ago while teaching Jurisprudence, because it is heavily associated with American legal theory guru Ronald Dworkin. Dworkin’s version is more sophisticated than most but still susceptible to the sorts of criticism made by Anderson.

    However, it seems to me that a potentially more fundamental criticism is this: what if willpower itself is at least in part hard-wired/innate/heritable (as I suspect is the case)? Then the entire distinction between personal characteristics that are compensable because they result from blind bad luck, and those that signify moral merit and result in an award of the Red Badge of Courage, completely collapses. I’m not suggesting willpower or self-discipline is entirely nature rather than nurture. Clearly it is capable of being learned and cultivated as well as neglected. But it is likely that some have innately more of those qualities than others. To the extent that is the case, what does it mean for luck egalitarianism?

    We are probably then forced back on notions of tolerance and mutual recognition and respect instead of trying to conceptualise bizarre and artificial constructs for monetising individual characteristics and behaviour. However, reaching the conclusion that luck egalitarianism is bullshit isn’t necessarily all that helpful in a free market capitalist society. People will almost by definition cash in on and benefit from personal characteristics that society admires or values, irrespective of whether they are the result of dumb luck. Would it be desirable to devise a system that compensated people who lost out in the genetic lottery? Is it even possible? Do we care?

    However, although I think Paul Frijters overstates his case, I think you can see a real and disturbing example of rent-seeking in categorising more and more examples of personal behaviour as illnesses worthy of compensation in the most recent version of the psychiatric bible DSM 5. Classifying almost every example of even slightly unusual behaviour as an illness does strike me as a tad problematic. It’s ambulance chasing for psychiatrists, with the lawyers following closely behind. I don’t think obese people should be slagged or stigmatised as lacking in willpower or moral merit, but I also have a problem with categorising obesity as an illness per se worthy of compensation and support by the State.

    OTOH The actual illnesses that these behaviours cause are supported by the state via Medicare and free public hospitalisation and putting people on sickness benefits or invalid pensions. Similarly with people who make themselves sick through smoking, drinking or other drug abuse. I would hate to live in a society where we did not provide those supports to our less fortunate citizens, even if to varying extents they have brought their misfortune on themselves and may bear moral responsibility for it to varying extents. I don’t think it’s particularly useful to look at it as a binary opposition. We can perfectly reasonably adopt the position that some or most obese people, smokers and drug or alcohol abusers bear varying degrees of moral responsibility for their plight and could/should have made different choices, while also accepting that in a civilised society we should provide them with medical and social security support when their stupid choices make them sick. Do we convene the Court of Morals every time a fatty, junkie, smoker or drinker goes to the doctor or applies for social security benefits?

    Moreover, almost certainly most illnesses that most people over 40 develop are in part a result of earlier poor choices about diet, lack of exercise, drugs, alcohol, smoking etc. If we take Paul’s position to its logical conclusion, we should not have any Medicare or social security system at all because it is just propping up/rewarding piss weak losers who are sponging on the morally upright supermen who lead blameless lives and never make mistakes or dumb choices.

    • john r walker says:

      Feel that there is a lot of straw man about this ‘ego’ vs ‘community’ punch and judy show. (hows that for a meta soup).

      Truth is creativity needs both a ruthlessly focused streak ( its hard long term work) and a imaginative streak, and imagination is, another word for empathy.

      • Gummo Trotsky says:

        imagination is another word for empathy

        Sadly that’s not true of the literary imagination. Ayn Rand might be credited with having a degree of literary imagination but in her personal life she showed a distinct lack of empathy for others. And there are plenty of other examples of great novelists who demonstrated a lot of callousness and even outright cruelty in their personal and family lives (Tolstoy for instance).

        • john r walker says:

          Being able to imagine what others feel is pretty essential to empathy, but sadly, imagination is in itself, no guarantee of kind actions. ( its something of a two edged sword, imagination, being able to understand how your enemy feels/thinks is use full for other purposes,no?)

          As for Tolstoy things like War and Peace require an ability to block out every thing else for long periods of time, not so good for those close bye.

  2. Paul Frijters says:

    Hi Don,

    I think we are far less apart than you seem to think. I certainly would describe myself as an egalitarian and a utilitarian, which really puts us on the same side in terms of what we want for society. Most of the content of your arguments were already championed by my fictitious Pangloss character, whose arguments I have a lot of sympathy for: how can one as a utilitarian not see that openly ignoring sensitivities by saying X, even if one truly believes this X, is indeed a form of indulgence, even an act of violence in some sense? Without a good reason to keep saying X, one might say, it is childish and egotistical to do so, even if it is an act of free speech. You can hence rightfully ask ‘what goal is being served here’? There are several and I have explained in them in previous comment threads (start here).

    In stead of going over the same ground though, I am more interested in your attempt at creating a societal story of large groups, ie your dichotomy of ‘communitarian’ and ‘egoism’. You quite explicitly seem to think some part of our past was communitarian and that we are currently in a more egoistic era. I encourage you to explore that thinking:
    1. When was that communitarian past? Was it really true that people then were more respectful? Was there ever a time people did not chase more power and influence by whatever means available, and if so, how was that achieved?
    2. What really is the difference between those two arcehtypical societies you have in mind? Is the egoistical age in which people have learned to chase money indeed something new and in some sense ‘avoidable’? What is the actual mechanism via which one got from one type of society to the other?
    3. How useful is this dichotomy? Can one press other societies in this world meaningfully into this mould or is it a very time and context-specific dichotomy that just captures a set of loose observations from the last 40 years in our own society? What about further back in history and going forward, would you still think in terms of that dichotomy and how would you envision the dynamics?
    4. Who or what has agency to change from society to society within this dichotomy? Is there such a thing as a group of thinkers open to pursuasion who have independent powers outside of these societies to choose to go another way? Or would you see this as a fairly autonomous process in which debate is ultimately futile?

    Etc. The main thing I thus take from your post, Don, is that you are trying to come up with your own conception of societies, their dynamics and their possibilities.

    Our supposed disagreement seems very small to me, mainly a matter of style really. The only meaty difference is that you seem to think choice is inherently moral and hence want to absolve particular people from the label of ‘making their own choices’ because you find that hurtful per se, whereas I, following the consequentialist utilitarian tradition, try to judge ultimate outcomes without judging choices per se: ‘responsibility’ for me is just a particular utilitarian strategy, nothing more. As to style, well, Gummo was right about his ‘tin ear for tone’ though he failed (and fails) to see how necessary such a trait is at times.

    It is a point conrad has already come up with in your previous post on this, but it is perhaps also important to bear in mind that the ‘its all genetics’ approach to obesity, IQ, crime, poverty, etc., ultimately leads to a very dark place indeed. I hope you will see if you reflect on it that we should both hope that the ‘its all genetics’ angle is entirely nonsense. I happen to believe its almost complete nonsense for all these traits (yes, even IQ, though that’s a complicated story and there may be some bits of IQ that unfortunately might indeed turn out to be genetic), you seem to want a convenient exception for obesity but you should realise who the crowd is you are truly in when doing that.

    • Don Arthur says:

      Hi Paul

      There are several issues in your comment. I’m not sure where to start.

      You say:

      The only meaty difference is that you seem to think choice is inherently moral and hence want to absolve particular people from the label of ‘making their own choices’ because you find that hurtful per se

      That’s not exactly what I want to say.

      When we try to explain and predict people’s behaviour in everyday contexts, we usually appeal to commonsense concepts like beliefs and desires.

      We draw distinctions between voluntary and involuntary behaviour. For example, between a voluntary wink and an involuntary tic.

      When we see a person act in a particular way, we’ll draw inferences about the mental states behind the behaviour.

      This is also the frame most of us use for moral evaluations of people’s behaviour.

      If someone chooses to do something knowing that it will harm themselves or others, we hold them morally responsible for the consequences.

      Most people in countries like Australia believe it’s fair to compensate individuals for disadvantages that they did not knowingly bring upon themselves. But there’s a lot less support for compensating individuals for disadvantages that are the foreseeable result of their own choices.

      As a result, a person who is born with a profound disability is seen as more deserving of support than someone who chooses to drop out of school early, makes no effort to look for work and refuses to take advantage of free vocational training.

      Many people will believe it’s fair fir a person with a disability to demand help on own terms but will insist that the community has the right to dictate the terms of any support whose disadvantage is the result of their own choices.

      Economic explanation is a simplified and systematized version of folk psychology. Desires are called ‘preferences’ and beliefs become ‘information’.

      In the case of obesity, the puzzle is to explain why people continue to overeat and underexercise when they have a strong preference for lower body weight and readily available information indicates that they need to change their diet and exercise habits to achieve this.

      If you’re using the economic frame, it seems obvious that the answer must be either:

      1. Hyperbolic discounting: the individual places an unusually high value on rewards in the present (eg the satisfaction of palatable food now) and heavily discounts those in the future (eg being thin).

      2. Mental illness: which is really just another way of saying that explanatory framework doesn’t work in this case (which means this isn’t really an explanation).

      In commonsense discourse, the hyperbolic discounting translates as ‘lack of willpower’ or ‘lack of self control’. And mapped onto the commonsense moral responsibility frame, both 1 and 2 justify paternalistic approaches to the problem (cases of 1 attract moral blame and cases of 2 attract pity).

      It seems to me that neither folk psychology or its economic offshoot do a very good job of explaining why some people become obese while others do not.

      It’s pretty clear that obesity isn’t the result of general lack of willpower or self-control. And interventions based on this assumption seem to have been mostly unsuccessful.

      But worse than being unsuccessful, interventions based on the economic frame trigger the moral evaluation frame. This results in stigma.

      I suspect that as we learn more about the mechanisms that underlie appetite and eating, we’ll come up with better ways of explaining and predicting obesity. I hope this will lead to greater acceptance of differences and more effective public health policies and treatments.

      So I’m suggesting a pragmatic approach to the discourse we use to frame public problems. If a personal responsibility frame leads to policies that are effective, then it’s a good frame to use. But if all it does is shame and stigmatize people who are disadvantaged, then it’s time to try something else.

      • Fyodor says:

        It seems to me that neither folk psychology or its economic offshoot do a very good job of explaining why some people become obese while others do not.

        Why not?

        “Folk psychology”? HEH. Like wot Dr Troppo got his degree in?

  3. Fyodor says:

    Wow. Frijters pokes the termite mound and provokes such a frenzied response! Don Argue went straight for the Randian Response*. Must’ve hit a nerve there, Paul.

    For some people, straw-men are only ever a means to an end. The source of their self-esteem is their ability to proselytise their own personal ideology. They see themselves as powerful thinkers and believe ideas like truth, logic, evidence and objectivity are just tricks the strong use to enslave the weak. As they see it, only those who have power or privilege would allow themselves to support the dominant paradigm.

    The trick modern academia uses to tame egoists is to get them to see moral superiority as a natural way of measuring success. The idea that sanctimony is both a measure of personal worth and a source of power, convinces egoists to use their talents to confuse others rather than dominate them. Because today’s more ineffectual intellectual societies are able to hide from public scrutiny, they have a higher tolerance of egoism than the more rigorous universities of the past.

    * Never go full Roark.

    • john r walker says:

      “The idea that sanctimony is both a measure of personal worth and a source of power, convinces egoists to use their talents to confuse others rather than dominate them”
      Ian Millis calls them the “loose morals” :-)

  4. desipis says:

    For some people, other human beings are only ever a means to an end.

    Are you using the term “egoist” as some sort of euphemism for sociopath?

    • Fyodor says:

      Are you using the term “egoist” as some sort of euphemism for sociopath?

      Not explicitly, natch. Do Randroids dream of electric sheep read dog-whistling subtext?

  5. Mike Pepperday says:

    “It’s pretty clear that obesity isn’t the result of general lack of willpower or self-control. And interventions based on this assumption seem to have been mostly unsuccessful.”

    I expect they would be unsuccessful for will-power misses the mark. Obesity is associated with a different generality: low socio-economics. And that is associated with a general feeling of lack of control, a feeling that one has little influence over what happens in the world. Maybe the middle classes are fatter than they used to be but the bottom of the heap (working class?) is much fatter.

    A statistic saying people between the ages of this and this are x kilos heavier than they were ten years ago is pretty useless. It is important to recognise which SORT of people are heavier. To convince the middle classes to curb their eating (or smoking) the authorities can point out the logic of self-harm to provide an incentive and impose a monetary cost as an added incentive. That is, they give the will-power a nudge.

    How to get the great unwashed to curb their self-harming practices? To those who know (those whose life experience is) that one’s actions do not influence outcomes, alleging that eating or smoking is harmful has no impact. And financial disincentives merely punish the children of such smokers and gluttons.

    Will-power is an irrelevant middle class luxury in the short-term world of grab what you can while it’s going. To incentivise this class it would be necessary to persuade them they do have control over the things that matter to them. One way to do that would be for them to gain genuine control. Otherwise—boot camp.

    • Don Arthur says:

      Obesity is associated with a different generality: low socio-economics

      I think the effect of SES is more complicated than that and differs for men and women.

      Many experts argue that the social environment is the most important factor. For example Youfa Wang and May Beydoun write:

      Social environmental factors might have a more profound effect in influencing individuals’ body weight status than do individuals’ characteristics such as SES. A growing consensus is that environmental factors have played a pivotal role in influencing people’s lifestyles and fueling the obesity epidemic in the United States and worldwide

  6. john r walker says:

    New Scientists this week reports that the US has ,largely, reversed the obesity trend. This is put down to subsidies to the costs of real food for the poor, in much of the US.
    It is a core problem – Coke is cheaper than petrol and gravy beef is about $10-12 a kilo.

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