Equality and Morality

I appreciate Eric Gans’s detailed response to my blog post (In)equality and (Im)morality, and am glad to respond to at least most of the issues he raises there. Part of the problem here is that, as pretty much everyone knows by now, “equality” is used in so many different ways that it would be futile to define it in a single, agreed upon way. Maybe it’s even useless, or should only be used in very restricted and precisely defined contexts (like “economic inequality,” by which we mean the highest salary is x times larger than the smallest, or whatever). That, of course, would remove it from moral discourse altogether, or at least make it subordinate to a moral discussion conducted on different grounds (high levels of economic inequality might indicate, but not demonstrate, some underlying moral issue). Would moral discourse suffer from this excision or derogation? Let’s look at one of Eric’s examples:

In spontaneously formed groups up to a certain size and in a context that makes the sheer exercise of force impossible (in contrast to the “savage” groups favored in apocalyptic disaster films), people tend to cooperate democratically, profiting when necessary from the specific skills of individuals but not choosing a “king,” and the same is true in juries, where the foreman is an officer of the group rather than its leader. Democracy in this sense doesn’t deny that some people may have better judgment than others, but it permits unanimous cooperation, and I venture to say, corresponds to “natural” human interaction since the originary scene.

The point here is to affirm the originary nature of equality, here defined in the sense of the voluntary and spontaneous quality of the cooperation and the fluidity of leadership changes. I think we can easily find other examples of small group formation, especially under more urgent conditions, where hierarchies are firmly established and preserved, without the application of physical force. Indeed, that is what takes place in most of the disaster films I’ve seen—you couldn’t really force someone to follow you out of a burning building, or find the part of the ship that will sink last, or keep one step ahead of the aliens. In such cases, people follow whoever proves he (is it sexist that it is still usually a “he”?) is capable of overcoming obstacles, keeping cool, anticipating problems, calming the others, fending off challenges without undermining group cohesion, etc. In the case of a jury, we have one very clearly designed and protected institution (and hardly spontaneously formed)—but why, exactly, is the foreman necessary? Why do we take it for granted that the jury can’t simply spontaneously run itself, with a democratic vote over which piece of evidence to discuss next, then a democratic vote to decide whether to take a preliminary vote, but first a vote to decide whether the other votes should be by secret ballot, etc.? It seems pretty obvious that the process will work better, and lead to a more just result, if someone sets the agenda—but why is it obvious? An even broader point here is that we have no way of determining, on empirical grounds, whether the cooperation involved is “spontaneous,” “voluntary” and “unanimous.” These are ontological questions, which enter into the selection of a model. In any case that Eric could describe as people as organizing themselves spontaneously I could describe them as following someone who has taken the initiative. The question, then, is which provides the better description? I think that the absolutist ontology I propose does, because to describe any group as organizing itself spontaneously collapses into incoherence. They can’t all act simultaneously, can they? If not, one is in the lead at any moment, and the others are following, in some order that we could identify. (If they don’t follow, we don’t have a group, and the question is moot.)

Does talk of equality and inequality help us here? I don’t see how. Let’s say a particular member of jury feels that his or her contributions to the discussion have been neglected, and he or she resents that. There are two possibilities—one, the contributions have been less useful than those of others, meaning the neglect was justified; two, the contributions have been unjustly neglected. In the first case the moral thing to do (a good foreman would take the lead here) is to explain to the individual juror what has been lacking in his contributions, and suggest ways to improve them as the deliberations proceed. In the second case, the moral thing to do is to realize that the foreman has marginalized contributions that would have enhanced the deliberative process, and, in the interest of improving that process, she should acknowledge the value of those contributions, try to understand why they went unappreciated, and be more attentive to the distinctive nature of those contributions in the future. The juror’s resentment, in either case, is framed in terms of a resentment on behalf of the process itself or, to put it in originary terms, on behalf of the center. The assumption is that all want the same thing—a just verdict. Once the resentment is framed in terms of unequal treatment, to be addressed by the application of the norm of equal treatment (everyone’s opinion must be given equal weight? Everyone must speak for the same amount of time?), the deliberative process is impaired, and if that framing is encouraged, it will impair the process beyond repair. The moral thing to do, then, is to resist such a framing. Now, it may very well be that the juror has been marginalized for reasons such as racial prejudice (it’s also possible that the juror is complaining for that reason), in which case the deliberative process should be corrected to account for that. The point, though is always to improve that process, not to eliminate that form of prejudice (and all of its effects) within the jury room. Even if the juror in question is trying to reduce the conflict to one of some difference extrinsic to the process, the foreman should reframe it in this way—that is the moral thing to do.

I think this ontological question, which turns into a question of framing, can be situated on the originary scene itself. What matters on the originary scene is that everyone defer appropriation, and offer a sign to the others affirming this. Everyone does something—should we call that “equality”? We can, I suppose, but why? There are plenty of cases where “everyone” plays their individual part in “doing something,” while those parts are widely disparate in terms of difficulty and significance to the project. It’s just as easy to imagine a differentiated originary scene, where, for example, some sign only after others have already set the terms, so to speak, as it is to imagine a scene in which everyone signs simultaneously and with equal efficacy. Easier, in fact, I think. What matters is that everyone is on the scene. The same is the case when it comes to dividing the meal—there’s no need to assume that everyone eats exactly the same amount, all we have to assume is that everyone eats together (unlike the animal pecking order, where each has to wait until the higher ranking animal has finished). This is what I think the moral model requires: everyone affirms the scene, and their relations to all others on the scene; and everyone is at the “table” and receives a “piece.” What this will mean in any given social order can’t be determined in advance and therefore will be something we can always argue over (and any ruler will want to receive feedback on), but that what makes it a basis for criticizing the existing order. If the individual juror’s contribution never does get recognized and this was in fact to the detriment of the deliberations, then we could say she has done her part in affirming the scene but has not gotten her “piece,” or has been kept away from the “table,” thereby weakening the scene as a whole. Again, I don’t see any point along the way here where the concept of “equality” clarifies anything.

Now, I do believe that primitive (let’s say, stateless and marketless) communities are highly egalitarian. Equality does mean something here—this is their interpretation of the originary scene, and they certainly have very good reasons for it. What equality means might be that no goods of any kind are saved, that no family is allowed a larger dwelling than any other, that anyone who gets too good at something be punished in some way, that no one speak to another member of the community in such a way as to imply a relation of indebtedness, and so on. Such an understanding of equality still prevails at times, even in much more advanced and complex societies—we see it in children, among colleagues in the workplace, family members, and so on. We are all at least a little bit communist. But there’s nothing inherently moral about this “communism.” Sometimes it might be moral, sometimes not. It’s immoral to destroy a common project because you’re afraid someone else will show you up; it might very well be moral for children to “enforce” (within bounds) equal treatment by the parents of all the siblings, because this insistence might help correct for favoritism of which the parents might not be aware, and therefore might help the family to flourish. Again, though, the question of morality comes down to whether you are contributing to the preservation and enhancement of an institution.

I do agree that “telling the truth about human difference” is a marginal issue, and not a moral position in itself. My only point in this regard is that, in this case, telling the truth is more moral than lying, and the victimary forces poisoning public life today give us no choice but to do one or the other. I think we could get along fine without dwelling on tables showing the relative IQs of all the ethnic and racial groups in in the world, but we need such a reference point if we refuse to concede that the only explanation for disparate outcomes is racism/sexism/homophobia, etc. And, really, if the more moral thing, in this instance, is to tell the truth, then it’s hard to fault those who do so with a bit of gusto. Those flinging accusations of racism are not exactly restrained in their “debating” tactics, after all. A bit of tit for tat can be moral as well, although whether it involves “equality” is also a matter of framing. If there’s a more moral way of responding to those who, by now, are claiming that we want to kill millions of people and openly celebrate violence in the streets, I’d be very glad to hear it. In fact, as some of those most viciously accused of “white supremacy” among other thought crimes have pointed out quite cogently, if, in fact, it turns out that some groups are on average smarter than others (and some groups are better than others in other ways, and some groups are better in math and other in verbal skills, etc.), there is absolutely no reason why we still can’t all get along perfectly well. After all, more and less intelligent and capable people get along within the same institution all the time, so the only thing that would prevent this from being the case throughout society is persistent equality-mongering. That’s why I think the best way forward in terms of using the originary scene as a moral model is to focus on common participation in, contribution to, and recognition by social institutions. And if we are to direct our attention to the preservation, enhancement and creation of institutions (if we want to be good teachers and students within functioning schools and universities rather than affirmatively acted upon experts in group resentment, if we want to be good husbands, wives and parents within a flourishing system of monogamy rather than feminists, etc.) then we want those institutions to be well run and considerately run. And if we want them run in these ways, we want to bring the power of those running them as closely in line with their accountability as we can. In other words, we want cooperation to be directed (to go back to those opening examples, no one is going to propose allowing a university to be run “spontaneously,” I assume) by those with initiative, experience, and responsibility, and we want them to be appointed and assessed in a like manner, by others competent to do so. And that, I think, would bring us to a much higher level of morality.

It seems to me that the problem Eric is trying to solve here is the following: in any minimally civilized or developed order, “inequality” has developed to the point that the moral model must be “translated” in some way so as to minimize the resentments generated by that inequality. The way he thinks the historical process has enabled this is through the emergence of the market and liberal democratic political processes. The “actual” inequality (the existence of both billionaires and those who sleep under bridges) is mitigated by the “formal” equality of the market (my dollar is worth as much as anyone else’s), the vote, various “rights,” and so on. How can we tell whether this “works”? We can point out that the US is still richer and more powerful than Russia or China, I suppose, but, leaving aside how certain we can be about the causes (and continuance) of this Western predominance, we certainly can’t see this as a moral argument. (There’s nothing particularly moral about bribing the lower classes to remain quiescent.) I think there is an unjustified leap of faith here. It may be true that these forms of formal (pretend?) equality have been granted for the purposes Eric suggests, but that doesn’t prove they have actually served that purpose—it might mean exactly the opposite, that the progress of “equality” has been a means of ensuring that the real inequalities (or structures of power) remain untouched.

I would push this further—there is no reason to assume that whatever we can call “inequalities” are themselves the source of any resentment that might threaten the social order. We could say, for example, that the 19th century European working class resented having its labor exploited, being underpaid, being subjected to unsafe conditions, and so on. Or, we could say they resented having their communities undermined, the network of relations in which they were embedded torn apart, and being driven off the land and into packed cities where they were stripped on any system of moral reciprocities. Interestingly, both the capitalist and the revolutionary have good grounds for preferring the first explanation—it presents the capitalist with a problem he can solve politically (labor unions, welfare, minimum wage, public housing, etc.) and the communist with leverage (in case the capitalist palliatives don’t work). Neither wants to confront the implications of the second explanation, which would require preserving or reconstructing a moral order. This too is a question of ontology and framing. Maybe real reciprocity rather than formal equality is called for. One could now say “but these changes were inevitable,” but that’s what one says in abandoning responsibility. One could say, “still, overall, modernity is preferable,” but can one make that argument on terms other than those of modernity itself? Has anyone actually made the argument that increasing wealth, developing technology and improving living conditions requires liberal democracy and ever expanding forms of formal equality? Once we step outside of the frame forcing us to see “modernity” as a single, inevitable, beneficial package, the connection is not obvious at all. (It’s interesting that there’s never been much of a push to democratize or liberalize the structure of corporations. The continued existence of such a creature as a CEO doesn’t seem to trouble our moral model. Even the left has learned to love the CEO.) Every form of cooperation has an end and a logic to it, an end and logic that we can always surface from the language we find ourselves using in discussing that form. Schools are for learning, commerce is for mutually beneficial exchange, militaries are for fighting other militaries, families are for channeling sexual desire into the raising of new generations, conversations are for creating solidarities, exchanging information, trying out new roles, etc. We can frame all resentments as indicating possible infirmities in these forms of cooperation, and then address those resentments by repairing those forms where necessary. And by “we,” I mean whoever has the most responsibility within those forms. This would involve far more moral seriousness than robotically translating each complaint into an accusation of inequality. In this way the moral model would be just as real now as it was on the originary scene (it is still being used to sustain the scene), rather than an abstraction uncomfortably fit onto what we have decided to see as a qualitatively different set of relations.

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