Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Inequality vs. Disutility

Enduring mantras defending or agitating against inequality seldom engage with the parsing of egalitarian ethics. The internet being what it is, a teensy oversight spirals into wasted communicational energy and dialectic brick walls. As it turns out, polarized takes on equality/inequality are not immune to this. Shocker. To bypass the pratfalls of factionalist-styled demagoguery and sanctimony, I’ll point to crucial segmentations within numerous schools of egalitarianism:

Numerical Egalitarianism:

Treats all moral patients as indistinguishable, apportioning the same quantity of a good per capita.

Proportional Egalitarianism:

Treats all moral patients in accordance to their distinct needs.

It’s hard to overstate how useful it would be to have interlocutors who actually pay attention to “numerical vs. proportional” parameters instead of carrying on as if everyone holds same idea of what is meant whenever “equality” is cavalierly uttered. During political discussions, it would be doubly useful to qualify one’s views in this way. Failure to do so enables this type of irritable backwardness to turn up as the top result for “equality vs. equity” keyword searches.

At the same time, our political aims don’t seamlessly transition into our ethical aims. Politics has to do with civilizational strategy, which may ultimately (indirectly) lend a helping hand to ethical strategy. As such, every policy comes with teleological constraints, provided that politics ought to complement ethics when all is said and done, which I believe should be the case.

The features of proportional egalitarianism, once actually implemented as a direct set of distributive policies, are bound to make for political/civilizational disarray. This is gatherable based on the amount of hoop-jumping it takes to strengthen the already wobbly safety-nets in a centrist country like America (whose poverty-curbing initiatives are neither 100% numerical nor 100% proportional, but hybrids of the two). Overactive imaginations aren't necessary to predict how dismally a thoroughgoing proportional approach would fare in a center-right country, much less a far-right country.

Drawbacks of full-scale proportional egalitarianism wouldn't be felt in all regions, of course. It'd be a stretch to assume pandemonium-level fallout in states and municipalities where liberals heftily outnumber conservatives, or in Nations where leftists outnumber rightists. We’d still see considerable political tensions, but a few notches below civil unrest or 'dismay' levels. Elsewhere –– notably the regions populated by rightists –– enforcement of proportionally egalitarian policies would foster mutiny, which is counterproductive. This is a truism in my book, given the psychological complexion of the human animal. Hell, I'd join in on the protests if you caught me on a bad week after having been overworked. Accepting the realities of determinism and incompatibilism does little to alleviate my motivational set in everyday scenarios. And I'm one of the disciplined ones.

Thecarrot/sticktruism has been contested but only through laughably rosy takes on human psychology, none of which will be entertained in this post. To quibble over whether the prevailing motivational set applies to the average human or just to the average 21st century westerner is to imply that erosion in development or innovation is tolerable if it culminates in the discontinuation of economic competition. This alternative will also not be humored in this post.

If proportional egalitarianism is to have its place, it will be in the arena of ethics (indirect or farsighted distributions) rather than politics (direct or nearsighted distributions). Just so we're on the same page, I hold that a functional farsighted strategy is marked by a political system whose electorate is educated and satisfied enough to not be on the brink of violent overthrows as a means to any end.

Now of course, responsible civilians wouldn’t have to concoct intergenerational allotment schemes had it not been for reproducers foisting needfulness onto the future. We’d also not have to worry about long-range schemes had the parasitism of the ecosystem been a short-term ordeal. Since neither of those ills is going away, making the best of a bad situation entails devising long-term, indirect strategies for the maintenance of human civility.

In apolitical discussions –– mainly on animal ethics –– direct proportional egalitarianism is indeed a suitable template. Animals with minimalistic needs lack the mental intricacy to feel slighted by the distributive inequity of proportional (need-apt) metrics towering over fixed arithmetical ones. Thus humancentric considerations aren't requisites for establishing idealized practice regarding animal welfare. To grant this but still object on the grounds of distributive fairness (need-blindness) is to believe that elephants ought to receive the same quantity of a good that mice ought to receive, per numerical virtue. An elephant and a mouse are both individual organisms, after all. Quite the extreme example, sure, but it does hammer home the inanity of numerical stringency applied in apolitical domains (while preserving the integrity of its political tactfulness; catering to human psychology to be fruitful).

Once the “numerical vs. proportional” delineations are drawn, it can be argued that proportional-to-need distributions are in no intelligible way “egalitarian” and more closely resemble the goals of inegalitarian priority, alien to any vested concern over equality per se. Prioritarianism is objectively inegalitarian, and that's okay. I'll never understand why so many liberals and leftists insist on shying away from this fact, twisting telic inequality into injustice.

Once again I stress direct vs. indirect methods, noting that proportional egalitarianism bills itself as 'direct'. On the surface it seems a straightforwardly need-apt policy would be conducive to the aims of priority, as different humans have dissimilar magnitudes of need, all the way down to the most vulnerable. A steady look into defunct attempts suggests that proportional-heavy legislation would be misguided if adopted across the board. Robustly undermining equitable (or even meritocratic) standards can prove disastrous for the attainment of priority or utility in the long haul. Meanwhile, in systems where inborn talent isn’t robustly undermined, competent or employable humans will fare much better than incompetent or unemployable humans. This is not a morally condemnable fact.

In that sense, we can thread egalitarianisms further:

Moral Egalitarianism: Favors equality of wellbeing. Filed under: Moral theory.

Political Egalitarianism: Favors equality under the law. Filed under: Moral strategy.

From there we get:

Intrinsic Egalitarianism: Favors equality as a monistic or first-level value.

Constitutive Egalitarianism: Favors equality as a pluralistic or second-level value.

There’s also:

Telic Egalitarianism: Favors equality of outcomes.

Quasi-Egalitarianism: Favors equality of opportunity.

A less charitable line in the sand, per my own conclusions:

Actual Egalitarianism: Favors equality of wellbeing and outcomes.

Pseudo Egalitarianism: Favors equality of opportunity and equality under the law. 

This post will scrutinize the intrinsic / telic / moral / actual dimensions of egalitarianism, such that relationally minded evaluations are what I’ll be pouncing on. If you fail to keep this in mind, my input will not register with you. Everything I’m targeting is also framed as pure egalitarianism in uppity circles. Some pure egalitarians distance themselves from their reformist (or armchair activist) brethren by further identifying as Substantive Egalitarian or Radical Egalitarian. This strikes me as being influenced by the far-left's condemnatory attitude regarding the center-left's unwillingness to embrace the same robust understanding of egality. For clarity’s sake, I’ll refer to all such folk as robust egalitarians.

One way of conveying the unreasonableness of this robustness is to swap the word equality with evenness and the word inequality with unevenness. Evenness/unevenness make for decent replacements as neither carries the psychological or emotional clout that equality/inequality continue to have. I fear that historical connotations around “equality” or “inequality” will always be embroiled with slavery, nobility, gulags, apartheid, Jim Crow and other forms of structural maleficence. The equity-minded critic of non-constitutive egalitarianism needn’t tiptoe around these past wrongdoings to dish out biting counterpunches and invalidate evenness/unevenness as ethical criteria in all cases.

Under consequentialism, robust egalitarianism identifies intrinsic or first-level value as that which rests on the range of evenness in wellbeing, with intrinsic disvalue as that which rests on the range of unevenness in wellbeing. Using materialistic measures as an example, this is understood as; the greater the opulence-to-poverty ratio in a given society, the more objectionable the state of affairs in that society. The inegalitarian understands that, for an informed verdict, ethical criteria must be more comprehensive and multifaceted.

Counterintuitive as it may be to political junkies, apolitical moral benchmarks cannot rely on equality-to-inequality ratios first and foremost (or, perhaps, at all). I’m presently agnostic as to just how many telic egalitarians operate under multi-dimensional consequentialism (equality plus other criteria) in place of one-dimensional consequentialism (equality only). I've yet to come across a scholarly work which delves into the raw numbers on this, and my anecdotal summaries differ based on online versus offline conversations. Whatever the percentages turn out to be, they aren’t germane to the substance of this post, as even multi-dimensional egalitarians treat equality as at least quasi-intrinsic. I'm of the view that criteria should never hinge on equality-to-inequality ratios, as those ratios in and of themselves cannot tell us anything of interest. Every now and again I'd briefly consider detailing why, but would always decide against it as it seemed too obvious to necessitate a separate post. This changed a few months ago once it dawned on me that my views are still controversial in the gamut of left-leaning and far-left edifices.

Should inegalitarian conclusions still be controversial, apolitically speaking?

If one out of every ten individuals is born handicapped, does the disvalue emanate from the individual's physical disadvantages relative to the other nine individuals' absence of physical disadvantages, or the fact that one disadvantaged person is stuck in a handicapped state and would prefer not to be? The answer should be clear, once we control for the rancorous element of envy. Hopefully the reader can grant that envy should be dismissed. In no uncertain terms, envy isn't an undesirable consequence weighing negatively on fortuitous citizens; often the objects of it. Construing the predicament under a comparative lens leaves open the possibility of a last-resort measure that sees the nine fortunate individuals deliberately disadvantaged to attain physical equality, should the task of advantaging the one unfortunate paraplegic prove impossible.

Pure egalitarians’ denial of this as a realistic last-resort solution only sheds light on how the procurement of telic equality cannot intelligibly be an intrinsic goal, even for them. Flip the advantaged-to-disadvantaged nine-to-one ratio into the opposite one-to-nine ratio, and the equality-minded verdict is correspondingly preposterous. Just as it would do no good to disadvantage a fortunate majority of nine whenever an unfortunate minority of one cannot be benefited, it would be as unavailing to disadvantage one fortunate able-bodied person in order to achieve physical equality with nine handicapped persons. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who’d object to either verdict within these two ratios, yet otherwise rational people continue to portray inequality as an intrinsic disvalue in other areas of life. In fairness, substantial differences between physical and non-physical inequalities can make these inconsistencies understandable. One such difference is the possibility of transferability. On this angle, the analogy to physical inequalities might appear all too uncharitable. Still, does it discredit my underlying point?

Transferability is doable in economic affairs, but how often is it desirable? The answer according to robust egalitarianism is whenever inequalities persist. As mentioned near the top, rewarding efforts and accomplishments violates proportional aptness, but this is no departure from consequentialism in the sense that teleological-friendly policies uncontroversially levy punishments for wrongdoings, and are a mirror-image of teleological-friendly policies rewarding dessert. There is no categorical difference between imprisoning murderers above jaywalkers and rewarding producers above non-producers. Both policies are need-blind; seeking to incentivize productiveness along with socially beneficial behavior, and to disincentivize the converse.

Monetary transferability is a worthwhile difference-maker inasmuch that, to borrow from the ideal example above, it stands to be mildly disadvantageous to a minority of one while being immensely advantageous to a majority of nine. In those beneficent cases, equality-to-inequality ratios can be indicative of tactful redistribution, provided no transfer ends up hindering other ethical criteria. Robust egalitarians beg to differ with the emboldened bit. Their verdict misguidedly justifies interference with societal augmentation wherein everyone would’ve benefited but disproportionately; some far more than others based on standards of equity, or even those of tepid meritocracy. Nevertheless, if innovation and development are truly optimal, and a reliable political system is in place, everyone is guaranteed to benefit at least marginally.

Scopal benefits are the important part. They must never be sacrificed for the securement of egality per se. For the ideal egalitarian, this is highly disputable. For the constitutive egalitarian, prioritizing equality-to-inequality ratios above scopal benefits is ethically incautious, at best. For the ideal inegalitarian, it’s downright irresponsible in all cases. And yet, once its relational features are revoked, the notion that telic egalitarianism has anything unique to contribute to moral discourse becomes glaringly dubious. Without comparative injunctions guiding it, it ceases to actually strive for equality and collapses into a distinctly contrastive consequentialism.

Think along the lines of demographical population axiology with the Ideal Observer on stand-by; If the only information available about a set of global outcomes is –– in financial terms –– the evenness or unevenness of those outcomes, robust egalitarianism holds that the unbiased spectator is supplied with enough informational input to rank one of those as inexorably more desirable. So if global Outcome_A contains 25% inequality stemming from the top marginal income earners gaining more, with everyone below earning the same (i.e. the rich are 25% richer than everyone else combined), whereas global Outcome_B contains 35% inequality at the top while everyone below earns the same (the rich are 35% richer than everyone else combined), robust egalitarians will unequivocally favor Outcome_A over Outcome_B irrespective of the remaining sets of (unknown) data –– information that might turn out to be non-trivial form a non-relational sentiocentric overview.

As robust egalitarianism would have it, the inequality-generating status of 25% in A is a lesser-evil when weighed against the inequality-generating status of 35% in B, end of. An ethicist who champions the political, constitutive, quasi or impure iterations of egalitarianism is not vulnerable to the absurdity of this verdict, but this doesn’t let the ethicist off the hook entirely. Even here, relational measures tend to raise daunting questions; If the remaining sets of unknown data can matter –– inasmuch as they have the potential to overhaul the aims of non-instrumental equality –– wouldn’t identifying as an ‘egalitarian’ of any sort just needlessly complicate things? If we grant all instrumental equality or parity is maintainable by invoking utility or priority or sufficiency into the fold, keeping an ‘equality’ label on one’s sleeve is pure redundancy.

On the odd chance that instrumental equality (i.e. equality under the law) might in outlier cases be as counterproductive to other consequentialisms as telic egalitarianism is, how many political, constitutive, quasi or impure egalitarians would cling to their so-called egalitarian convictions at the expense of seeing other aims torn asunder? I’d venture not many, going by my offline conversations. To borrow from a hot-button issue on airport security; if devoting extra attention to anyone who looks Arabic actually prevented an additional hijacking, ceteris paribus, it would be indefensible to prioritize one non-hijacked plane averting disaster below equality under the law as pertains to national security.

I’ve yet to encounter a political, constitutive, quasi or impure egalitarian who remained unswayed by the non-relational/inegalitarian benefits I’ve presented (applied to profiling in actuality if the items cited here or here turn out to be rock-solid beyond methodological doubt). That’s just my offline social circle though. Online, persuading discussants that unevenness shouldn’t be thought of as an intrinsic a terminal negative is increasingly difficult. What non-egalitarians consider a healthily passive take on inequality of wellbeing is reflexively met with skepticism. That's putting it mildly. Many socialists, social democrats, populists and nonspecific exponents of welfarism now employ a (knee-jerk?) vilification approach to inegalitarianism, going beyond skepticism and ascribing ulterior motives to the inegalitarian. So Harris’ arguments in defense of profiling (or anti-profiling, whatever) brand him a mean ole bigot out to disenfranchise anyone who looks Arabic, as opposed to someone who prioritizes Equality Under The Law below taking every preventative measure to foil terrorist plots and stonewall airplane hijackings in all cases.

Here egalitarians misfire much in the way natural rights theorists habitually do; failing to see how a society filled with citizens whose rights are haphazardly violated day to day, yet no citizen suffers for it nor sees her interests thwarted by it, is intrinsically terminally better compared to a state of affairs that sees no one's rights get violated while everyone endures a hellish existence due to the natural flow of things. Once you acknowledge the "fortunate former > unfortunate latter" desirability-setup, you'll glean how rights (or equality) are decidedly instrumental.

Given that many of the larger gaps in material gains are marked by inherited legacy wealth, hostility in the face of monetary inequality is hitherto warranted. A random inequality spike can definitely be an indicator that something is off. This is demonstrably the case in America where, on top of being born to wealth and the accompanying head-starts, the ultra-rich have obscene influence over gov’t representatives compared to the average constituent. The “system is rigged” spiel is a cliché that happens to hit the mark. Even so, fixating on comparative evaluations of wellbeing or income is a mistake because the ethicist just comes away viewing disparity in gains as the prima facie marker of unethicality. We can grant the heinous, propagandous nature of conservative or voluntarist arguments rationalizing the current inequality in America, and still take zero issue with massively disproportionate gains when they’re actually earned (non-inherited) in an equitable environment fostering psychological carrots/sticks. Colossally uneven gains by inheritance are provisional concerns stemming from structural flaws in the here and now, not necessarily flawed ethical codes.

So while political and structural considerations play a role in the weariness surrounding inegalitarianism, the politically involved shouldn’t let these inequities becloud reasoned priorities in the apolitical arena of ethics. Too often the overriding motive of any inegalitarian is suspected to be vulgar selfishness, ego, or the hilariously over-diagnosed “hate”. But can any of these apply if the inegalitarian is a negative consequentialist of some sort? The motives make sense should the inegalitarian be an out-and-out ethical egoist, but I’ve ruled this out by default as I don’t regard ethical egoism to be a form of consequentialism. I’m swimming upstream with this ruling, and frankly I don’t care. Ethical egoism is really just Randian Objectivism before Rand was around to christen it “Randian Objectivism”. Remove the property norms and the two are largely interchangeable; vulgar and contradictory to boot. If ethical egoism is a form of consequentialism, so is Randian Objectivism.

Had normative ethics been as entrenched in the broader culture as politics, I’m confident we’d see the same “ulterior motive” claptrap ascribed in comment sections where far-left amicable consequentialist theories (like Moral Egalitarianism) clash with far-right amicable non-consequentialist theories (like Deontological Propertarianism). With online political debates, things are bound to turn inflammatory sooner or later. Egalitarians would accuse Propertarians of running on sociopathy and Propertarians would accuse Egalitarians of running on envy. I don't know, nor do I care, whether there's any truth to either charge. Barring reasonable doubt, we should try our best to refrain from ascribing ulterior motives to anyone. It’s conversationally beneficial to stray from it, keeping in mind that messengers' identities aren't wed to their ideas.

What's needed is for negative consequentialists duke it out amongst themselves over attempts to identify the outcomes most worthy of avoidance. By doing away with all positive consequentialisms, the debate can center on ultimatums urging theorists to decide between minimizing negative consequences versus satisficing alternatives. Prioritarianism and Sufficientarianism are examples of satisficing consequentialisms, and they suit one another well.

On that note, let’s revisit Outcome_A vs. Outcome_B and counter in the component of disutility, in addition to the established equality-to-inequality ratios. We already know that A has a bit more going for it in terms of overall equality, with everyone sans the top margin of income earners enjoying total evenness. We also know that B lags A by having fewer individuals enjoying the same evenness as a result of 10% more unevenness stemming from the top. I’ll be charitable and credit that 10% differential to inequity, not just inequality. A bonus point against inegalitarianism.

Now suppose that A is found to contain 50% more disutility than B. By this I mean, there is twice as much overall destitution, harms and dispreference actualizations in A than in B. Would it make sense to side with A, following this revelation? Perhaps it would, as the 50% differential still leaves us wondering how the two outcomes line up with sufficientarian concerns (i.e. whether no one falls below a minimally acceptable standard of wellbeing).

The 50% boost B has on A gives us a rough indication that B is more likely than A to meet the criterion of sufficiency. If A carries 50% more disutility than B, it's highly unlikely that A stands to have more individuals who fall short of the threshold (i.e. those who fall victim to non-trivial harm or live well below the poverty line). Even so, once we consider the possibility of the populations in A and B being highly disproportionate in size, it would be wise for egalitarians sympathetic to sufficientarianism to worry that B could end up with a worse-case-scenario for a tiny minority of individuals despite the 50% boost in the society those individuals inhabit. I share this concern, and maintain that my staunch inegalitarianism isn't a hindrance to it.

The pressing question to pose is; in what meaningful way do the established equality-to-inequality ratios in A or B enhance our insight as it relates to a minimally acceptable threshold? The sufficiency view is non-utilitarian in some cases, very well, but is it therefore egalitarian by default? Or is it even egalitarian-friendly in many cases? It's arguably utility-friendly more often than not, because utility never draws upon relational evaluations in the same way that sufficiency doesn't. Equality is the odd man out in that regard.

I see no way of fusing pure egalitarianism with sufficiency, because equality is equality is equality regardless of whether the society enjoying total evenness happens to be above or below the minimally acceptable threshold. To gather information regarding a minority potentially falling below minimalism for the purposes of the 50% boost for a supermajority, we'd instead look to prioritarianism, which is more discordant with egalitarianism than it is with utilitarianism.

Prioritarianism resembles Negative Average Utilitarianism since it's more negative (minimization minded) than positive (maximization minded) in character and more average (per capita minded) than total (net minded) in measurement. But prioritarianism differs from all flavours of utilitarianism in that it eventually attributes more moral weight (overriding maximization or minimization) to a single moral patient the worse off that patient happens to be. So even if the priority formula revealed that the 50% boost in B had been accompanied by a hellish state for a tiny minority –– without which the supermajority’s 50% boost must be vacated –– one can still object to B’s state of affairs on inegalitarian grounds and non-utilitarian grounds, citing prioritarianism in conjunction with sufficientarianism. Any way you slice it, the relational metrics of egalitarianism contribute minimally (if at all) by comparison.

For me to be mistaken, the critic would have to show how it follows that disutility –– or inequity, or insufficiency –– are necessarily inequality’s accompaniers. There’s potential for overlap, but until it can be shown that disutility or insufficiency unavoidably follow form inequality, robust redistributionists have no leg to stand on.

Inequality itself –– whether determined by per capita income or by earned (non-inherited) social status –– simply doesn’t surpass instrumental levels of concern without abandoning reason. Passivity or hostility to the idea of evenness as an intrinsic terminal goal is perfectly warranted.


The farsighted calculus sees highly competent humans who need encouragement and highly incompetent humans who require the bare minimums. Concerns over equity go by the wayside the moment distribution of essential goods is adjusted to particular individualistic needs in lieu of static units. Exceptions in favour of proportionality should be made in areas of healthcare, nourishment and basic shelter. Other than that, a system incorporating standards of equity –– perhaps even lukewarm meritocracy –– allows for a strategy more attuned to the psychological needs of the average worker. This doesn’t bode well for strict egalitarianism, regardless of the type of economic system one finds oneself in. Underscoring equality-to-inequality ratios fudges equity and can only distract ethicists, statisticians and political analysts from factors shedding light on non-instrumental moral weight. No institution (ethical, political, economic) should be designed with comparative metrics as a component, much less as the barometer.

If you’re an egalitarian who accepts a tightly equitable system’s ensuing inequality as not being superglued to insufficiency or disutility, where’s the conceivable fuss? Even cutthroat capitalism can control against insufficiency by having the minimally acceptable threshold met through UBI. Nordic Capitalism is the closest thing to this right now, and it's been a resounding success compared to any alternatives. It's also not contradictory, unless you're of the nonsensical belief that Keynesianism is anti-capitalistic.

This brand of capitalism, rough as it may be on those who actually enjoy the grinding challenge of a hierarchical work structure (as they are competitive by nature and, perhaps, masochistic) would still be preferable to meritocratic market socialism which wouldn't offer its incompetent citizens anything in the way of UBI (2015-06-03: Or EBT). North Americans who think shows like 'Real Time' qualify as "thinking outside the box" may be nonplussed by the mere mention of a socialism that's inattentive to the needs of the unemployable. Maher's idea of socialism (or his writers' idea, whichever) basically boils down to hooray for nifty social programs. This is aggravating, because socialism as an economic model rejects (1) the subjective theory of value, (2) overly possessive entitlement theories on private property, (3) hierarchical work environments. That’s it.

Nothing in the blueprints of socialism leads to a discarding of desertitarianism, because “just desserts” are not a placeholder for capitalism. The desertitarian can shoehorn her agenda into any economic model, since rewarding deservingness hones in on normative (not economic) concerns. One could even argue that socialism is more dessert-oriented than capitalism due to its disallowance of inheritance/legacy wealth.

Who would deny the superiority of an inegalitarian capitalist model with sufficientarian underpinnings compared to a socialist model enamored with desertitarianism? Aside from pure egalitarians and LTV diehards, I'd imagine just about no one.

Granted, the ultimatum is more captivating once capitalism with sufficientarian underpinnings is squared against socialism with sufficientarian underpinnings. If anything, whatever dissimilarities remain would be felt by the employable, not the unemployable. If both systems put a leash on "just desserts" to a grounded degree –– securing minimalist livelihoods –– the gripes over pecking-orders at the workplace would be trivial.

Whenever inequality thwarts disutility or insufficiency on a teleological basis, it's worth the price of admission.