Monday, April 11, 2005

Perfectionism and Egalitarianism

I must admit that I'm somewhat disposed towards elitism. I think some pursuits are intrinsically more worthwhile than others. Philosophy outshines watching tv, for example. I think that to neglect the development of one's talents is not merely wasteful but perhaps even immoral (in a weak sense, at least). Individuals should strive for excellence, and society should cultivate it. Space exploration, scientific advances, and the 'pursuit of knowledge' in general are all intrinsically worthy endeavours which may sometimes outweigh the provision of basic needs such as feeding the poor.

These beliefs clash horribly with my espoused theoretical views. Utilitarians must surely denounce the extravagances of NASA while African children starve. And a desire fulfillment theorist has no intrinsic concern with the content of desires. Value subjectivists cannot claim that someone who prefers television to philosophy thereby exhibits an error in judgment. To misperceive the value of something requires that the value be independent of our perceptions - it cannot be a mere matter of 'taste', as subjectivists characteristically suppose.

Or do they? Perhaps subjectivists could reclaim excellence as a 'deep' value. By that I mean a value which is largely independent of our contingent ends. By its very nature, and ours, it will be of worth to almost any human. The subjectivist can happily grant that people may be ignorant of what would best fulfill their desires. But what about somehow who, though informed about philosophy, still fails to appreciate it? I think they are missing out on something; that thoughtful reflection fulfills a deep human need. But if they don't share that need, it is difficult to see on what basis a subjectivist could criticize them.

The utilitarian problem might be partially overcome by reversing the principle of diminishing marginal utility (DMU). DMU claims that subsequent increments of a good yield lesser benefits. This is especially plausible in case of material resources: $1000 would mean much more to a homeless man than to a millionaire. But in the case of excellence, perhaps the opposite (i.e. increasing marginal utility) may be true. If you give an average man slightly more intelligence, it probably wouldn't change his life. But to similarly improve someone who is already gifted could, it seems to me, have much more dramatic results.

This might at least justify educators focusing on their top students. (Not that they currently do -- in my experience, at least, school teachers all too often bow to the lowest common denominator.) At most, it suggests that peaks of excellence may be more important than similar improvements from a more modest starting point. But this is just comparing one form of excellence to another. It does nothing to suggest how we compare it to other values, such as basic biological needs. To justify space exploration, we presumably must say that such achievements can outweigh basic human needs. But I don't know how plausible this is. Such collective achievements, though rousing, seem antithetical to the claim that the individual is the locus of value. If I were starving, I'd sooner eat than land a man on Mars. Do we really want to say that the achievements of the human race are more important than the welfare of individual humans?

I'm really not sure about all this. Is there any way to reconcile perfectionism with broadly egalitarian values? If not, which should I give up?

11 comments:

  1. Do we really want to say that the achievements of the human race are more important than the welfare of individual humans?

    Of course not. (And by the way, notice that you're trying to think from a view from nowhere. Why don't you just use your own values to reason, rather than using those of someone who is nowhere? The starving guy's life is not more important to you.) We do want to say that you have a right to be happy while others starve. You have a right to amass wealth and use it to go to Mars while others starve. I presume you are not just barely above the poverty line yourself, as you enjoy a the life of a blogger and university student. On economic egalitarianism, you have no right to such a life while others starve. But you don't really believe that, do you? Of course you have a duty to help the poor in your society to a substantial degree, but full economic egalitarianism is wildly askew from the fact that you have a right to be happy while others starve. Read John Kekes, The Illusions of Egalitarianism.

    As for the corner your subjectivist is in, the way out is to show that many people have tried books, philosophy, sport, marriage, etc., instead of watching TV and, after years of such experiment, found that they had untapped innate capacities for these activities, and that, when tapped into, the exercize of these capacities provided much more satisfaction than the TV had.

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  2. I presume you are not just barely above the poverty line yourself, as you enjoy a the life of a blogger and university student.

    Er, those are mutually exclusive? Please make your case not to myself personally but to my graduate department.

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  3. What if a parent buys a book on philosophy instead of food for their starving child? Surely that's wrong.

    It's morally acceptable for you to buy a book on philosophy instead of donating the money to feed starving children in Africa, but it's not acceptable for the parents of those children to do so, no matter how gifted the parent is.

    As long as you're sticking to some form of utilitarianism, you need a more selfish approach where you attach more value to the interests of people close to you, than to the interests of people far away from you.

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  4. The problem is one that has long been a problem in my eyes for utilitarianism. That is the question of what the timeframe is for the utilitarian calculus.

    Perhaps buying philosophy books is, for the short term, an improper use of resources. However the study of philosophy increases the ethics of people both directly and indirectly as well as contributes to the general knowledge and production of that culture. This is turn improves technology making life better for all as well as leading rich countries in the future to improve the lot of Africa.

    Now, is that bad or good? (Especially given that with increasing populations, the raw number of people helped in the future may be huge)

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  5. Clark - "The problem is one that has long been a problem in my eyes for utilitarianism. That is the question of what the timeframe is for the utilitarian calculus." I believe the easiest way of answering this is to say that we must take into account all of the consequences of an act, no matter when the consequences occur. I am not a utilitarian, but if you can accept utilitarian calculus then you can surely accept calculus of this sort. Your example is good in that it tries to do this, but you merely struggle with the calculus (possibly justifiably as well)

    Jim - "Of course you have a duty to help the poor in your society to a substantial degree" What is the ethical justification for this society? If I reject Kekes, Miller etc. and accept that I have no justification for treating anyone above anyone else, at least when dealing with basic needs, this duty becomes universal.
    If a stranger and my own mother were drowning, and I only had the ability to save one of them, since I have no more of an obligation to one over the other I would flip a coin (at least I hope I would). (though in such cases an argument for personal choice in the decision (instead of chance) could be made, it could not become an argument for an obligation to save one's mother, nor an argument which concludes that we do not have obligations to starving people overseas)

    "when tapped into, the exercize of these capacities provided much more satisfaction than the TV had." This is not a perfectionist argument, a utilitarian could accept this whilst rejecting perfectionism. You are talking about the instrumental value of such activities, Richard, in contrast, was trying to talk about the intrinsic value of such activities, "I think some pursuits are intrinsically more worthwhile than others."

    "We do want to say that you have a right to be happy while others starve. You have a right to amass wealth and use it to go to Mars while others starve." I may want to say this, though it would only be because of selfishness that I would want to say it. Should I just try to create a moral theory which would best benefit me? Even if this is true, does your view actually follow from it?

    Richard - "Perhaps subjectivists could reclaim excellence as a 'deep' value. By that I mean a value which is largely independent of our contingent ends. By its very nature, and ours, it will be of worth to almost any human." Are you saying that it is valuable by its very nature (intrinsicly valuable), and our nature (instrumentally valuable)? Or are you merely saying that it is a good for most people because of our nature (seemingly solely instrumentally valuable)?

    "I'm really not sure about all this. Is there any way to reconcile perfectionism with broadly egalitarian values? If not, which should I give up?" Are you sure that it is your perfectionist values that are in conflict with your egalitarian values? Could just be the old egalitarian versus individualism debate, or merely a difficult question of utilitarian calculus?

    "But in the case of excellence, perhaps the opposite (i.e. increasing marginal utility) may be true." Are you using utility as a measure of exellence, therefore using excellence instrumentally?

    "If you give an average man slightly more intelligence, it probably wouldn't change his life. But to similarly improve someone who is already gifted could, it seems to me, have much more dramatic results." It seems to me that the cost of increasing the gifted man's intelligence may be higher than that the cost of increasing the average man's intelligence. I am unsure whether this is a good example of increasing marginal utility, although I see no reason to state that good examples are not possible.

    Richard, I am doubtful that the article actually tries to resolve the perfectionist (intrinsic) versus egalitarian (instrumental) question, which is the question that I think you tried to put forward in the first paragraph.
    Although you seem to have questioned the possibility that the value of going to space is greater than that of feeding the poor.

    I do not believe that perfectionism is incompatible with egalitarianism. Whether perfectionism is compatible with subjectivism is another question, and I believe that the answer is no.

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  6. Of course the acheivements of the human race are just as important than the welfare of individual humans, these two objectives are one and the same!

    This is a false dichotomy, the answer is both, and many more besides. The begger you feed may in fact be the next man on the moon, etc.

    No one would ask: What is Mankind's goal(singular)?

    Rather they would ask: What are Mankind's goals(plural)?

    besides that point I do agree with you and it has been borne out by many studies that the gifted benefit exponetially more from education than the average. For most educators the operational definition of "gifted" in fact means "he who learns a hell of a lot faster than all the other kids!".

    Obviously a person absorbing say, 30 books per year from age 10 to age 60 will have read 1500 books while a person reading 1 book per year on average will have read 50 books. Worse, studies have shown that a substantial percentage of adults (as much as 10%) have actually lost the functional literacy level they had upon graduating high school simply because they have hardly read a thing since. This is referred to as secondary and tertiary illiteracy.

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  7. Elliot, I was meaning to suggest that excellence was of 'deep' value due to the interaction of its nature and ours. I don't know whether that makes sense or not. I intended it as still being solely subjective (being grounded in human ends).

    Also, note that I am taking 'excellence' as being prior to utility. To illustrate the idea of IMU with a crass example (supposing IQ to measure the excellence of one's intellect), we might say that to increase someone's IQ from 170 to 180 would be of greater value (i.e. higher utility) than increasing someone else's IQ from 100 to 110.

    As for the conflicts, perhaps I should have been more careful not to conflate elitism with perfectionism. I understand Elitism as the claim that some objects or pursuits are (intrinsically) more worthwhile/excellent than others. Rachmaninov is aesthetically superior to Rammstein, and those who think otherwise are just plain mistaken. This conflicts with value subjectivism.

    Perfectionism can be understood in many different ways:
    (P1) Excellence is an important value, which may trump welfare.
    (P2) The improvement of the highly excellent is more important than the improvement of the mediocre.
    (P3) Highly excellent people have greater moral worth, or 'count for more' (in, say, utility calculations) than the mediocre.

    P3 is quite repugnant, and I wasn't really discussing it here. Of course, it clearly conflicts with egalitarianism. But even P2 seems mildly inegalitarian (though, if IMU is correct, then not in any way which conflicts with utilitarianism).

    P1 is what I was really getting at in my post, I think. So the real conflict is between the rival values of excellence and welfare. However, it may tie in with inegalitarianism indirectly, insofar as 'excellence' is a predominantly upper/middle-class value, and the lower classes are suffering the loss of welfare.

    Jim - I agree that individuals have some leeway to pursue whatever values they see fit. But here I'm more questioning our collective/political responsibilities. It might be thought (as by utilitarians) that the government ought to focus on improving the welfare of its citizens over the excellence of the human race.

    Clark's point about excellence promoting long-term welfare is an interesting one, but for now I want to ignore it and ask whether excellence might justifiably be promoted in its own right (quite apart from any benefit to later generations).

    Jim's final paragraph is reminiscent of J.S. Mill's account of the "higher pleasures". I might come back to that tomorrow.

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  8. Richard/Elliot: Yes, Mill. I'm not sure what he meant by it. What I mean by it is an empirical reduction of intrinsically better activities to activities that are more satisfying because they make use of our capacities for good character.

    Richard, what would you take as evidence settling your question as to whether we should nix NASA and give the money to the poor? Think of it in another way. Once we have in place a decent welfare net in our own society and also give a respectable amount in foreign aid, that should be enough. After that anything goes; let freedom reign. Why think about taking the social engineer's chair and doing some more redistributive tinkering? What would you take as evidence that you should take that chair and do it?

    An illusion of egalitarianism: That it is "repugnant" to think that highly excellent people have greater moral worth. Of course they do. Think of someone you greatly admire for his character. Now think of a cut-throat thief or a slacker of some sort. Perhaps they should count the same in the utilitarian calculus; I leave it an open question. Maybe it is even repugnant that they not count equally. But to regard the italicized quote as repugnant is surely an illusion. Why do you admire the one guy but not the slacker or thief? Which of their opinions should have authority when you are in a moral quandary? Which of their deaths would be more tragic, more worthy of mourning?

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  9. "What I mean by it is an empirical reduction of intrinsically better activities to activities that are more satisfying because they make use of our capacities for good character." Why take into account that they are intrinsically better if they reduce into something more satisfying. Even if these things are more satisfying, surely, on a desire satisfaction account, they only matter if they are desired. They have to satisfy some desire, we can no longer just use hedonism.

    "Elliot, I was meaning to suggest that excellence was of 'deep' value due to the interaction of its nature and ours. I don't know whether that makes sense or not. I intended it as still being solely subjective (being grounded in human ends)."

    I am not sure that you do make sense. Grounded in human ends, the same ends that you are claiming are the things that are excellent? Or is it satisfaction of these ends that is the excellence? The satisfaction of a particular desire is better than the satisfaction of a different desire?

    Is this not inconsistent with subjectivism? Why claim that individual desires matter if we can get measure all desires objectively?

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  10. More here.

    Jim, point taken on the 'moral worth' issue. As for the question of "evidence", it's hard to say what should count as evidence in settling moral disputes. At the broadest level, i.e. selecting a moral/value theory, I suppose we have to work with intuitions. But from within my current theory, at least, it would have to come down to desire-fulfillment.

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  11. I think the obvious solution here is to consider excellence as a part of population ethics, rather than as a part of normal ethics. If you have a choice between studying philosophy and feeding the hungry you should feed the hungry. But if you have a choice between studying philosophy, or creating a bunch of hungry people and then feeding them, you should study philosophy.

    Your intuition that "higher" pleasures are better can work this way as well. When we say that higher pleasures are better, what we mean is that it is better to create people capable of experiencing higher pleasures than people who cannot. This may be true even if the person who experiences higher pleasures has a lower level of lifetime utility than the person who cannot.

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