Sunday, July 03, 2011

Neglected Interests

For all that people give lip service to ideals of moral equality, it's pretty clear that contemporary public discourse systematically discounts the interests of some people compared to others. Some examples off the top of my head:

(1) Prisoners:
The U.S. Department of Justice recently released its first-ever estimate of the number of inmates who are sexually abused in America each year... at least 216,600 inmates were victimized in 2008 alone. Contrary to popular belief, most of the perpetrators were not other prisoners but staff members—corrections officials whose job it is to keep inmates safe. On average, each victim was abused between three and five times over the course of the year. The vast majority were too fearful of reprisals to seek help or file a formal complaint.

(2) Poor (esp. black or hispanic) communities which are apt to experience police harassment, brutality, and lethal "wrong door" raids.

(3) Foreigners. (Probably the most egregious, and certainly the most wide-ranging, case.) Consider:

- Politicians are obsessed with preventing jobs from being "shipped overseas" to people who are in much greater need than unemployed Americans.

- Debates over immigration similarly focus on the negligibly-impacted interests of white Americans, neglecting the immensely higher stakes for wannabe immigrant workers (and their families / home communities that would benefit from remittances).

- Neglect of civilian deaths directly caused by American military escapades:
the US generally pays no more than $2,500 in compensation for the loss of an Afghan life. In contrast, after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the US government set up a Victim Compensation Fund. The average payment it made to families of victims was $1.8m. Adjusting for purchasing power at a 5:1 ratio suggest that the US regards the life of an American as equivalent to the lives of 144 Afghans.

- Neglect of death and suffering from "natural causes": We spend far more on "humanitarian" wars of questionable benefit than we do on proven health interventions (deworming, anti-malarials, tuberculosis vaccines, etc.) that would almost certainly do orders of magnitude more good.

I'm sure there are plenty more examples I've missed. What would you add?


  1. Just to play devil's advocate on the last point, I don't think a politician worrying about his own nation's citizens before internationals is engaging in inequality any more than is, say, a doctgor tending to his own patients rather than their worse-off neighbors. The American politician has a sort of contractual obligation to advocate for his constituency, which necessarily precludes foreigners. What is troubling is when they (and we) just ignore other peoples' suffering. A good example is the body counts for wars. When was the last time you saw an Iraqi or Afghani death count anywhere but on an anti-war website?

  2. I don't mean to blame politicians so much as the voters whom they represent. After all, if voters cared more about others' well-being then presumably they would elect politicians who promised to advance policies that would do more global good. And if elected on such a platform, then such a politician would presumably be obliged to follow through on these promises (rather than overriding voters' wishes by acting to benefit only Americans).

    But alas, it seems the median voter is a jerk.

  3. I would add non-human animals to the list. Sentience doesn't start and end with homo sapiens, yet many non-humans are systematically slaughtered and de facto tortured their entire lives in factory farms and science experiments (many of which don't require animal testing).

  4. What has equality got to do with it? Would it be OK (or at least, better) if police harassment, brutality, and lethal "wrong door" raids occurred in all communities? It looks like the problem here is not that some people are being treated with less justice than others, but that they're being treated unjustly in an absolute sense.

  5. Rucha - yes, that's a big one!

    Dan - I agree that what really matters is absolute rather than comparative harms/injustice. But when talking about what people give "lip service" to, I think these norms are most commonly couched, however misleadingly, in terms of 'equality'. ("All men are created equal", etc., is not generally taken to mean that leveling down would be an acceptable solution.)

  6. This paper found that, based on the level of U.S. foreign aid, Americans value the lives of a citizens of one of the world's poorest nations at about 1/2000 the life of an American.

    The U.S. has refused to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions unless poor nations are also forced to do so, even though the cumulative amount of emissions from the U.S. is far greater than those of any developing nation. A fair treaty would involve large transfers of wealth from the U.S. and E.U. to the developing world in exchange for emissions reductions, but developed-world citizens would probably see that as unfair.

    People are also unconcerned about existential risk, which suggests they place little value on future generations. Politicians seem to invoke the welfare of future generations only when it bolsters their position on issues that they already made of their minds up about. So liberals worry about nuclear waste and global warming, and conservatives worry about the national debt. But few worry about nanotech, biotech, asteroids, or artificial intelligence, even though at least one of these probably has a greater chance of wiping out humankind than global warming (or too much debt).

  7. Our standard discounting rates imply that we care exceptionally little about future people, though their interests are as important as ours.

  8. The Economist covered unjust and ineffective laws against sex offenders. Sex offenders are often lumped into one class, and even once they have finished serving the sentence for their crimes they are often treated as a separate class of citizens:

  9. I would consider adding youth in general and minors in particular to the list. For one thing, recent years have seen what amounts to a generational transfer of wealth. Future generations will need to pay for the money we have borrowed to fund our wars and tax cuts. For another thing, the rights of minors do not always seem to be as zealously defended as the rights of adults.

  10. Paul,

    I wonder whether borrowing money that future generations (or current minors) will have to pay interest on doesn't promote equality. As long as GDP keeps growing at that rates it has, future generations will be much wealthier than we, and thus in a better position to pay. So burdening future generations with debt might be an egalitarian policy, similar to taxing the rich more than the poor.


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