Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Re: Richwine, Millman, et al.

I’ve been on the road the last week and haven’t had much time for blogging, but I have been clued in enough to notice the friendly challenge in Ajay’s recent post and will do my best to respond.  Some preliminaries though: first, let me say I am flattered by Ajay’s faith in my historical literacy on these subjects, which may be misplaced.  In the absence of any further research, I’m not sure I really know much more than he does about the legitimating ideologies of traditional elites, but I can at least try.  Second, I thank him for the eloquent restatement of my position in our debate, which I can assure you sounds better in his post than it did coming out of my mouth.

In seems the first question to answer is: how much do Ajay and I actually disagree?  Most people in debates never ask themselves this question and if they did, it might save us all a lot of time (nothing would deflate our cable news blowhards more quickly than realizing how insubstantial their disagreements actually are in most cases).  So then: do we disagree?  Yes, but within clear limits.  We are in total agreement over the content of Millman’s argument and its plausibility as an analysis of the Richwine affair and the emotions it has triggered in people.  We also both think that genetic determinism (especially in its racialized form) is a pernicious idea—dangerous in its consequences and factually inaccurate.  We both think the same is true for “meritocracy” as a legitimating ideology for liberal capitalist elites, and for the following reason: by making the inequalities of our society into a matter of “choice” rather than chance or circumstance, it undermines the sense of obligation and sympathy people would normally feel toward the less fortunate (even referring to the poor as “less fortunate” would of course have to fall by the wayside if we were really good meritocrats).

I’m not sure about the extent to which Ajay and I disagree about what sort of theory of social inequality should govern our public discourse.  My sense is that we would both reject any reductionist account, if only because any totally reductionist theory requires only a single exceptional anomaly to be refuted (to the delight of generations of PhD students in the social sciences seeking to find that elusive “original contribution”).  With regard to inequality, it seems probable to me that genes play some role in producing individual outcomes, but in such endlessly specific ways that it seems implausible their role would map in any traceable way onto those mega-categories by which our "mind-forged manacles" are made, like class and race.  So the theory of social inequality I would like to see governing our public discourse would, I suppose, run something like this: the causes of inequality are various, and no one can be totally excluded.  However, they interact with one another in such profoundly complex ways that we should be suspicious of any attempt to excuse existing social inequality on the basis of one cause or another.  Given how hard it is to disentangle the “individual” causes from the “social,” in other words, we should begin by assuming that any existing inequalities are unjust and remediable.  Like I said, I’m not sure if Ajay would disagree with any of this, but I suspect he would not, or not much.

So it seems then that the only really significant disagreement between us does not concern any theory of social inequality to which we are consciously committed, but rather with how we compare and evaluate the various alternative theories of which we disapprove.  Ajay seems more sympathetic than I am to some version of a traditional and paternalistic theory of social inequality, even if he does not commit himself to it: a theory, as I understand it, something like Burke’s idea of the “natural aristocracy,” which would not be genetically or racially deterministic, but which places a strong emphasis on differences of innate capacities (while also acknowledging luck, social circumstance, differences in available opportunities to develop one’s innate capacities, etc.) in accounting for (and legitimating) traditional inequalities.  I will call this “Burkean determinism” to distinguish it from its modern racialized and pseudo-Mendelian permutations.

I don’t disagree with Ajay about whether or not this view (as opposed to a more thoroughgoing determinism) was the prevalent view among traditional elites for most of history, but I suspect I do disagree with him about how sympathetic we should find it and whether or not it is preferable to meritocracy.  I will devote the rest of this post to trying to explain why I find it uniquely pernicious, even bearing in mind the serious problems we both find in meritocracy.  This does not mean I disagree with Ajay in the slightest when he says “while meritocracy may not be more corrupting of elites on the whole than genetic determinism, a meritocratic elite will be prone to a specific form of corruption which will not afflict an elite that subscribes to genetic determinism.”  That’s probably true, although I think its implications are more limited than Ajay seems to be implying.  Most liberal institutions and ideologies are prone to dangers which their (in my view worse) illiberal alternatives avoid.  The trains ran on time under Mussolini, etc. etc. but that doesn't mean we should prefer dictatorship to democracy.  It seems that meritocracy, while posing unique problems, is similarly preferable to those alternatives which are even less egalitarian in orientation.

Ok, so having boiled the argument down to this point, it seems the real difference between us in one of sensibility rather than expressed convictions.  I want to look at one passage in particular to show what I mean.  Ajay writes: “It seems to me that even if genetic determinism gives rise to all of the problems Josh mentions (as seems plausible), it doesn't provide the same sort of support to [some of the most corrupting implications of meritocratic ideology]; this is even apparent in his claim that elites in genetically determinist societies tend to argue that the poor enjoy their squalor, which while obviously awful is concerned with their well-being in a way that meritocrats often are not. This point doesn't necessarily imply that genetic determinism will lead to a better society than meritocracy on balance (and in any case I think we should reject it because it's unsupported by the best available evidence), but it does suggest that we have something to learn from genetically determinist elites.”

Where I would disagree with Ajay most in this passage is when he seems to imply that the concern shown for the poor by the Burkean determinist in the claim that they enjoy their squalor is a point in that ideology's favor.  I think this gets at a deeper difference of sensibility between liberals and Burkeans which is worth examining in detail.  It seems clear to me, though I invite argument on the point, that there is nothing better about contempt dressed up in the guise of morality or religion or pity.  In fact, I would argue that it is quite a bit worse when packaged in this way, and that the victims of injustice don’t tend to experience gratitude for any “concern” shown by the man with the boot on their necks, but view his moralistic pity as an added humiliation.  This sort of thing is counterintuitive, but I suspect we all have experiences of shame from our own past we can tap into in which a “there, there” from our tormenter only made the defeat more galling.  It is infinitely better to be shoved up against the wall by someone who wants to steal your lunch money than by someone who is searching you for contraband and who robs you, when he finds it, of even the thin consolation of holding the moral high ground.  This is what I understand Judith Shklar to have been referring to when she discussed “moral cruelty,” and I think she is right to find in liberalism a unique distrust of this category of ignominious behavior.  Montaigne, one of those great pre-liberal liberals, wrote the original critique of “moral cruelty” in his famous essay on the cannibals, where he argued that if men are to commit appalling acts of cruelty against one another, they should at least be straightforward about it, as the Cannibals are, and not double the crime by heaping moral obloquy on their victims.  What made Montaigne prefer the Cannibals to the Europeans was that, though both made wars and killed, the Cannibals treated their victims precisely as they themselves knew they would be treated if they were caught in their turn, rather than trying to argue that their enemies somehow uniquely “deserved it.”

By all of this I’m not trying to make some pseudo-Marxist defense of meritocratic ideology.  I am not suggesting that by legitimating an even more direct indifference to the poor it “unmasks” the “true face” of capitalism and thus paves the way for the revolution, whereas a kinder, gentler paternalism on the part of elites only ensures the system’s longevity, etc.  The Marxists are right that it is a form of sadism to keep a sick patient alive with palliatives when a cure is ready to hand, but they have yet to demonstrate that they have found that cure or know how to use it.  In the meantime, if an ideology leads elites to act with greater kindness I would consider it preferable to it’s alternatives.

On the other hand, if an ideology does not lead to any appreciable improvement in the behavior or elites, or even worsens it, while also insisting to its victims that their fate is “for their own good,” there is something uniquely grotesque about that ideology.  The spurious “concern” it shows, at any rate, doesn’t do it much credit. 

So what remains then is the historical question: did Burkean determinism in its various forms actually function to make elites more caring toward their subordinates?  Was it a “haven in a heartless world”—or was it a mere caricature of sympathy on the part of bullies and tyrants.  Ajay appears to be agnostic on this question, and so am I.  Some version of the Whig version of history we all carry around in our subconscious, even if we’ve tried to purge ourselves of it, assures us it was the latter, but we should obviously be skeptical of anything in history which presents itself to us with such certainty.

If we restrict our historical examples to one country—Great Britain—it is certainly true that in our liberal meritocratic societies today, non-elite individuals enjoy formal rights which they were not guaranteed in the days of the eighteenth-century “Bloody Code,” when men were hanged for filching pocket handkerchiefs, etc., or in the great age of enclosures in the early modern period, when poor farmers were expelled en masse from the commons of the medieval villages to make room for grazing —events which led Thomas More to remark that in England, the sheep had become eaters of men rather than the other way around. 

However, the traditionalist could always insist that such examples only strengthen her claim, as they reflect the disruptions visited upon a harmonious medieval society by modern innovations and the growth of liberal individualism.  After all, it was Locke’s theory of individual property rights that justified the theft of the traditional rights of the small farmers in England.  Some historians have argued that the human rights guarantees of our day, far from reflecting some unbending trajectory toward moral progress, came into being precisely because the disruptions of modernity were so painful and catastrophic that they required some more formal guarantee to depend upon.

However, I am skeptical of this traditionalist argument, mostly because it doesn’t seem falsifiable.  Confronted with evidence of how little traditional elites cared to respect the rights and dignity of the poor, the traditionalist can always push back the horizon of modernity and insist that the example you gave only proves that it occurred "after all the trouble started."  And I suspect that if you play this game long enough, you will discover that the trouble started when the first homo sapien beaned the first Neanderthal on the head with a stone mallet or some time in that vicinity.  The whole thing reminds me of the libertarian who, confronted with evidence of the deep inequalities and injustices prevailing in some roughly laissez-faire society insists that that society simply wasn’t libertarian enough—the government must have been in there somewhere mucking things up.

The more relevant point here is that the examples we tend to think of as representative of the ideology “Burkean determinism” all date from well after humanity left the traditionalist Eden, however one chooses to date that mysterious fall.  It was the same British school boys at Eton who read Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics as their “second Bible” and learned from it that some people in the world are “natural slaves” who grew up to enact the Bloody Code and the Enclosure laws.  And then there’s the case of Burke himself, who, for all his paternalistic rhetoric, was a Smithian classical liberal with respect to the traditional rights of the poor and laboring classes.  As E.P. Thompson puts it: “It is, perhaps, appropriate that it was the ideologist who synthesized an hysteric anti-jacobinism with the new political economy who signed the death-warrant of that paternalism of which, in his more specious passages of rhetoric, he was the celebrant. ‘[To] The Labouring Poor’, exclaimed Burke: ‘Let compassion be shewn in action, ... but let there be no lamentation of their condition. It is no relief to their miserable circumstances; it is only an insult to their miserable under- standings .... Patience, labour, sobriety, frugality, and religion, should be recommended to them; all the rest is downright fraud'.”

It would seem, and it causes me no surprise, that Burke’s belief that he belonged to a “natural aristocracy” did not lead him to show paternal concern for the less fortunate, but to regard them rather as something akin to beasts—a different sort of being from aristocratic man altogether.  Meritocracy, for all its grave moral deficiencies, does not encourage this particular superstition.  It does not tell anyone that she is less than human.  This is a limited point in its favor, perhaps, but an important one.

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