Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Equality in the Morning

with 5 comments

So, it really is the start of the term, and at the end of the first week, I’m completely exhausted.  I’m exhausted even though I slept in this morning as much as I ever sleep in if I’m not sick.  I think I made it all the way to six o’clock before.

And maybe it was because I was tired, but when I got onto the computer this morning, instead of working, I read articles.  Just before I logged on to the computer, I finished the Roger Kimball book I was talking about last time.

Why is it that some people are almost fanatically addicted to the idea of “equality.”

I put the scare quotes around that word because we have to be very careful with it.  There are all kinds of equality, and some of them are in direct contradiction to other kinds.

There is equality before the law, which should mean that Wall Street bankers go to jail when they break it just like low level drug dealers do. 

Lately, this kind of equality seems to have been completely obliterated in this nation. 

 And there has, of course, been no time in all of history when equality before the law operated perfectly.  Human nature is what it is. 

A lot of people decrying “income inequality” today claim that they want to make people’s incomes more equal because by doing so, they will make it more likely that there will be equality before the law.

But this is not true, at least on an historical level.  Societies with enforced equality of condition (well, for most people) have in fact had far less equality before the law than societies without it.  What changes is  not the abuses of power, but the people abusing it.   It’s really not progress when “rich guy can buy better lawyer to get him off” is exchanged for “the law is what the regulator says it is, so if he doesn’t like you, you’re screwed.”

Then there is equality before God, which is in fact where our idea of equality before the law comes from–the largely Christian idea that each and every one of us is responsible morally on exactly the same terms, before a judge who doesn’t give a whit for things like rank and power, money and race.

Some of us believe in God and some of us don’t, but the fact is that those two kinds of equality are not only admirable in themselves, but actually possible in the real world. 

Given the nature of human beings, we may only be able to approximate equality before the law, but we can approximate it fairly closely–and we’ve done it, and not necessarily at times when equality of condition was anywhere evident.

As for equality before God–well, that would depend on whether God exists, and whether, if he exists, he follows a description at least similar to the Christian story.

There is then equality of condition, which seems–also from the historical record–to be largely impossible at any level of social organization above the most basically tribal.  Stone Age societies had equality of condition.  At any level of society beyond that, what we see is increasingly inequality of condition. 

Some people say, of course, that there ought to be equality of condition, that we should make it happen even if it does happen.

The underlying assumption there, of course, is that none of us “deserves” any more than anybody else, or that none of us “deserves” any more above a certain level, usually left vague, if not completely undefined.

In order to argue this, however, we must do one of two things.

Either we have to say that nothing matter but our initial born formal equality:  that what each of us “deserves” is to be defined by the fact that we are equal in the sense of being equal before the law or equal before God, and nothing else about us actually matters.

Or we must make a case that the obvious inequalities between us do not really exist.

This is the “social contruction” argument about human differences.

It’s  not true that we are born with different aptitudes, and it’s not true that our choices are actually choices. 

Rather, our aptitudes develop and our choices are determined by the environments in which we grow up, by the attitudes and prejudices of the people around us, by the opportunities we were offered and the judgments we received from the people around us.

The problem with arguing against this sort of thing is that it’s half true, and the half that is true is largely trivial except in very extreme cases. Yes, of course, environment, education and culture all have an impact on how human beings grow, behave, and choose,   but in any even relatively open society they are not definitive for most people.

And they don’t, in fact, obliterate what is born into us–an ability to sing or tone deafness, a facility at thinking abstractly or a talent for mechanics.

There’s also a purely pragmatic argument to be made for providing every child out there with the best resources available to us–we may not be able to turn every John Henry into a nuclear physicist or the next Mozart, but it surely can’t hurt him (and can only help us) to give him a shot and learning what’s out there to be learned.

What’s really interesting to me, however, is the fact that the people who clamor most for equality of condition do not in fact believe that people are equal in this sense–that they are born with the same talents and abilities and only fail to develop them because of inequality of condition.

In fact, nobody believes this.  It is so obviously untrue, it’s staggering to me that anybody ever pretends otherwise. 

But what’s even more staggering is that these same people also do not believe that talent is evenly spread across races and sexes.

If you want to find people who truly and deeply hold the idea that ability and behavior have nothing to do with race, you go to any community college classroom in the Northeast.  You don’t go to the Ivies, because there isn’t anybody there who honestly believes that race is irrelevant. 

To a man and women, they think people are born smart or not, and that’s an end to it.  A friend of mine, who teaches at an Ivy located in the New England states–there are three of them–says that feminism was a Godsend to the upper tier because it made it possible to limit the number of people who just couldn’t cut it that they would have to accommodate on campus.  “Diversity” might be an imperative, but it could be achieved by your daughter’s first class mind instead of by keeping a a smile on your face while some barely literate product of the black middle class tried to sound intellectual at the departmental Christmas party.

These are not pleasant attitudes, and these are not very pleasant–or in any sane sense moral–people, but my question is this:

Since these people obviously do not believe that ability and behavior are socially determined (no matter what they say), and since they do not believe talent is equally distributed by race and ethnicity–why do they want to say they do.

I think part of it can be attributed to an overflow of the envy factor. 

What they really resent is that other people–people they don’t respect very much, like popular writers and single-minded entrepreneurs who cater to the mass taste–make so much more than they do and (inevitably) get so much more respect from society at large.

They leveling they really want to do is not to bring up people from the bottom, but to bring down people from the top, so that their own condition is more equal to that of those now materially above them.

But the entire thing gets too hysterical for that to be the entire explanation. 

Part of it is surely a deep seated moral guilt.  On the most important moral issue of their time–the relative inborn abilities between races–they’re on the wrong side, even if they pretend not to be when they’re speaking in public.

But the phenomenon is still very confusing to me.

Written by janeh

September 8th, 2012 at 10:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Equality in the Morning'

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  1. Aptitude or attitude? I think you mis-typed one or the other about halfway through. I think aptitude definitely partly inherited, and attitude is more learned (although of course some people rebel and take up attitudes at 180 degrees from those they were exposed to in childhood.

    I don’t think that it’s necessarily true that talents and abilities are randomly scattered across all the various groups we like to divide ourselves into. There’s some evidence this isn’t true. Why are so many of the top sprinters people of, not just African ancestry, but ancestry from certain parts of Africa? Why are east Asians more likely to have true pitch than western Europeans? It doesn’t seem unlikely that characteristics other than skin colour and eye shape vary among groups.

    This doesn’t mean that everyone shouldn’t have the chance to develop what gifts they were born with, or even that MOST of all humans find their level of ability somewhere in the big bulge of the normal curve which probably represents its distribution. In other words, you can have differences in raw ability between subgroups, plus the vast majority being more or less the same, with some outliers in either direction. Reality is a lot more nuanced than ‘All A are stupider than all B.’

    But we aren’t supposed to say anything at all about differences of this kind among groups, because any hint that maybe we aren’t all the same attacks the idea of equality that underlies a lot of our beliefs, and not just mainstream ones. It pretty much destroys the one about how if we just get society right, everyone will be equal and happy.

    I don’t know if people who go much further than I have, who consider race to be of overwhelming importance in academic achievement rather than a probably fairly minor factor in some attributes,l are envious. They may be insecure. When I was a student, almost all of our professors ‘came from away’, often from the UK, sometimes from the US or the rest of Canada. Many of them were and are lovely people, and some moved on rapidly. Some used to make snide comments – one I remember was that the university students didn’t take academics seriously enough because they didn’t commit suicide over their work. Another quite common one was the comment that of course the students – many of whom came from small rural villages – were inbred, and that’s why they weren’t brilliant. At the time, I thought this was just ignorance or rudeness. Now I wonder … some of these people had presumably been unable to get a suitable job back home. Some of them were looking for a mild adventure perhaps, but others, well, they knew if no one else did that they would never reach the academic heights back home, and here, if they kept pointing at other people, maybe no one would notice their own deficiencies.


    8 Sep 12 at 5:26 pm

  2. I’d have said the great moral issue since the end of slavery was limited vs unlimited government. Mind you, our present ruling class is on the wrong side of that one, too.

    Now, let me try to phrase this very carefully to limit the inevitable hysteria. “[T]he relative inborn abilities between races” is not a moral issue. NO fact is a moral issue. A Holocaust denier is not morally wrong for saying one million rather than seven million Jews were killed in WWII if he believes this to be true, and and a Klansman or an Ivy League professor who genuinely believes one race to be inferior to another in average intellect is not morally wrong for what he believes, any more than a flat-earther or a creationist. Whether one is sincerely mistaken or correct in some matter of science or history may be very important, but it’s not a moral failing.

    It IS as morally wrong to deny a child education for which he is qualified because his cousins are not as it would be to deny a starving child food because his relations were well-fed, but that’s not directly the issue. Or it is in a different way. After all, the whole point of the present elite university system is to avoid assessing the students equally as individuals.

    I would also say–with some exceptions–that it is morally wrong to say something in public that you believe to be untrue, and it’s almost certainly morally wrong to do so for one’s advantage. I believe that to be the case here. Codevilla’s “Ruling Class” has hugely multiplied its power by insisting that a) the distribution curves of ability are exactly the same across whatever they define as a group, and b) that if salaries and promotions are not distributed in a manner they regard as “equal” they and they alone can detect and correct the problem. Simple equality of opportunity, or standardized tests applied without regard to race would never have given them the power they now wield.

    To clarify: “Whatever they define as a group”–note for example “Hispanics” “Non-Hispanic Whites” and “East Asians” are groups for admissions purposes. Japanese, Cubans and Jews are not. So the poor kid from Guatemala, first in his family to get past 8th grade competes against the grandchild of an exiled Cuban millionaire, the refugee Hmong against the long-established Japanese-American and the barefoot Applachian white–well, you get the idea.

    Also note that unless the Department of labor is falsifying results, race and sex really don’t matter in America. Wages can be predicted by degree and years of experience without regard to either one–but you won’t hear that mentioned much at Columbia.

    Is humanity “equal” intellectually, physically, emotionally, when divided into such groups? I don’t know. I have ideas, but to conduct a proper test you’d have to literally remake the world, and if you did remake the world, I doubt that equal racial opportunity would be the result. My guess would be the mean and median results across large groups would be pretty similar, but I’d be a little surprised if the extremes of the distribution curve were the same. And in a real world, with history, traditions and cultural differences would overwhelm most of the genetic differences.

    Now, if anyone can explain to me how the multi-culturalist can talk about the different strengths of each culture and still cry “bigotry!” when different cultural groups pursue different careers, I’d appreciate it.


    8 Sep 12 at 7:03 pm

  3. I agree with Robert about the extremes of distribution curves.

    I was curious about admissions to Universities so started with Harvard which eventually sent me to https://www.commonapp.org/CommonApp/DownloadForms.aspx where I downloaded the PDF form for application.

    They want to know if you are Hispanic/Latino(including Spain),American Indian or Alaskan Native (including all Original People of the Americas),Asian (including Indian Subcontinent and Philippines), Black or African American (including Africa and Caribbean), Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (Original Peoples)), White (including Middle Eastern).

    Then we get to families. Former last name of mother and father, Did mother and father graduate from college or grad school and what degree did they get?

    I thought the idea was to judge the applicant on his or her merit. Obviously I’m being naive.


    8 Sep 12 at 7:57 pm

  4. “There is equality before the law, which should mean that Wall Street bankers go to jail when they break it just like low level drug dealers do.

    Lately, this kind of equality seems to have been completely obliterated in this nation. ”

    Essentially, equality before the law simply means that, all other things being equal – as they never are – Wall Street bankers should go to jail when they are convicted of exactly the same crimes for which low-level drug dealers are sent to jail when convicted. It doesn’t follow, and shouldn’t, that Wall Street bankers should go to jail for breaching laws and losing billions when low level drug dealers go to jail for breaching quite different laws and being caught with hundreds of ill-gotten drug money.


    9 Sep 12 at 1:54 am

  5. Whether or not anyone who is not a direct physical danger to people is one debate.


    If the laws the banker break specifies jail time as a punishment for breaking a law, then regardless of which law is broken the offender should face an equal (more or less within the limits of human fallibility) likelihood of in fact going to jail.

    Now I happen to think that a perfectly appropriate punishment for the bankers is to recover any and all monies they made perpetrating their schemes – and then impose a lifetime ban on ever working anywhere in the finance industry or any position with fidicuiary responsibilities ever again.

    The drug dealer’s money – unless he robbed it from another dealer (or someone else) – is not ill-gotten. He received it as valuable consideration for a desired product in an straightforward business transaction.

    The drug business is violent not because of any particular intrinsic problems with recreational drugs – but specifically because the business has to operate outside the law and hence recourse to the courts for disputes.

    The financial sector operates like the wild-west of myth because even of such laws as exist, so many simply aren’t enforced. And since corporate culture tends to reward psychopathic personalities – which are never called to account – bad things follow.

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