Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Group Welfare

Statistics highlight various disparities between racial groups, e.g. white people tend to be richer and better educated than blacks. One could say that, as a whole, whites are "better off" in modern society than other races. My question is: does this matter? Should we care if some racial group happens to be badly off? We should, of course, care about the individuals - we should try to provide everyone with the resources and skills necessary for a flourishing life. We have reason to help each person that is badly off. But if there is a group inequality on top of this, is that a further problem? In short, do we have intrinsic reason to care about group welfare?

My answer is 'no', staunch individualist that I am. As I wrote last year:
It's philosophically suspect to personify a race and then attach moral attributes such as victimhood to this fictional entity. This point may well be controversial, but I don't think the category "Maori" (or "Pakeha" for that matter) actually refers to a meaningful entity. Persons can be harmed, groups cannot. The sentence "Maori were wronged" is only meaningful (and true) if it's understood as a rough translation of something like "Some Maori individuals were wronged". The corporate individual "Maori" does not itself exist. As such, trying to compensate this fictional entity does not make any sense. Nor does it make sense to compensate those Maori individuals who were not wronged.

None of this denies that we should be concerned about discrimination. If someone can't get a job just because of the colour of their skin, then that's obviously harmful to that individual (and terribly unjust). So if the group inequalities are caused by widespread discrimination, then that's a serious problem, as many individuals are being harmed.

But suppose (for the sake of argument) that no individuals are being harmed in this way. Suppose it's just a brute historical fact that black people tend to be disproportionately lower-class, and as such they face the exact same problems as everyone else in that economic class. If this were the case, would the racial inequality actually matter at all? If no individual is being treated unfairly (at least not on the basis of race; perhaps our economic system is inherently unfair to those in the lower classes) then where is the harm? So what if a poor individual is statistically more likely to be of a particular racial group? What's the significance of that?

Besides, why does that particular group matter? Why not group people according to their names, and worry when it turns out that Adams are worse off than Bobs? Isn't it obvious that we have no reason to care about the Adams group (as opposed to the individuals that compose it)?

Now, in practice it might happen that group inequalities reliably signal discrimination. So we could have instrumental reasons to care about it - I'm not denying that. But it seems to me that some leftists go further than this, and have an intrinsic concern about the welfare of minority groups (rather than just the welfare of individuals who happen to belong to those groups). That doesn't make much sense to me, so I'd be very interested to hear an explanation, if anyone cares to offer one.

I'd add that, in general, clumping people into arbitrary groups is awfully restricting and even counterproductive. You know, that whole multiplicity thing. Besides, it gets things backwards. I'm not a mere instance of the group "whites", I'm an individual who happens to have that race as one of my (many) properties. Characteristics are properties of individuals, not the other way around. So help people, not groups - only the former really matter. Further, people should be valued in themselves, not merely because of the groups they belong to. Anything less (i.e. 'tokenism') is insulting to their dignity as a person.

Update: A concrete example would probably make the point of this post clearer. Consider two scenarios, each of which contain 100 people, 50 of whom are well-off, and the other 50 are poorly off. Here are the two options:

1) Racial inequality: All the well-off people are white, and all the poorly off people are black.
2) No racial inequality: i.e. of the 50 black people, 25 are well-off and the other 25 are poorly off. Same goes for the 50 whites.

My question is: is scenario #2 any better than #1? (And if so, why?)

Or, suppose #1 was currently the case, but you could institute reforms that would bring about #2 instead. Would you approve those reforms? If you did, wouldn't that be tokenizing people, i.e. locating their value as a person within their racial/group affiliations, rather than in themselves as an individual?


  1. The Adam and Bob analogy doesn't work that well, because race does correlate to some extent with needs and preferences, in education and health for example.

    If the government is going to provide those services, and do so completely without regard to race, then the resulting services will inevitably be biased towards what the majority race wants.

    That's one of the reasons I think government should fund services but not provide them. It lets people have what they want even if they can't afford to pay out of their own pocket, without involving the government in racial discrimination.

    As far as poverty vs wealth is concerned, the link with race doesn't have much to do with discrimination any more, it's mostly just that bad parents have bad kids who then go on to become bad parents.

    The best thing the government can do here is help people become better parents and reduce burdens such as welfare and tax that make it harder for poor people to become rich.

  2. "The Adam and Bob analogy doesn't work that well, because race does correlate to some extent with needs and preferences"

    Sure, I agreed that we might have instrumental reasons to take race into account, if that would be the best way to help some individuals.

    My question is whether we should care intrinsically about the welfare of minority groups (qua group). If it happens that black individuals are disproportionately poor, do we have more reason to help a black poor person than any other poor person? Should we explicitly aim at relieving inequalities between group statistics, or should we only care about each individual person and help each as best we can (which may include taking their characteristics, e.g. race, into account)?

    Those are the questions I'm trying to get at here. Most people assume that if the stats show a minority group to be disadvantaged, that's an intrinsically bad thing. I'm questioning whether that assumption is justified.

  3. race is related pretty damn weakly with educational needs. Tell me the educational need of maori lets say that is so significantly different that it dwarfs IQ or exam marks or artistic/mathmatical inclination or learning style etc or any of a number of very easy teastable things.

    racism is what happens when you dont stop to do the easy thing of looking at the individual and instead just group by colour.

    Why not just make the system accomidate whatever the actual needs are?


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