Nagel: Equality And Partiality I
January 18, 2011 Leave a comment
The title `Equality And Partiality’ is highly ambiguous, though not for the reasons commonly thought. We are initially invited to consider whether lack of impartiality is the cause of inequality. That assumes that inequality is a bad outcome, an error Nagel will compound in the introduction: this question is exactly the one at issue and should not be prejudged.
There is no positive reading of `partiality’. It is a synonym for `bias’ and prejudice’. When making some type of decision, perhaps as an umpire or an interviewer, impartiality is a prerequisite. That means that there should be a linear function mapping input data (e.g. relevant characteristics in the job applicant) to the output (e.g. a decision as to which candidate should get the job). Any lack of impartiality will mean that non-relevant characteristics such as sex or race have figured in the decision.
People fail to understand this because they think that partiality means the same as making a selection. This is false. They claim that sentences like `perhaps it is acceptable to be partial to your family members’ make sense. They may be being confused by the secondary meaning of `partial’, i.e. to like something. In the primary meaning, we would need an argument to show that bias in favor of one’s family members was acceptable. Of course, that happens all the time. But not in job selection processes. That type of partiality would be nepotism which would be frowned upon.
Perhaps we are intended to think that we are partial to equality. Nagel suggests this indeed — see later. But that of course could be a problem.
The figure on the cover is also highly ambiguous. It is a sketch by Goya, ostensibly of a beggar. But is it a beggar or a brigand? The stick looks very sturdy and more appropriate for attacking someone than as an aid for walking. The hat is equally well poised for suggesting indigence and lack of threat but equally well could be thrown over the eyes of a victim who comes in range of the stick. The suspicious looking gaze of the `beggar’ is directed downwards and to the left. This is, either way, not a figure to be approached or pitied.
In discussion in the Introduction of current political systems, they are described as failing to reach `an ideal that we should all recognize as correct’. Really? Is not an argument required for this? Calling it an ideal prejudges the question at issue. It is not possible to support the status quo already in Nagel’s system. And what is the scope of his view? His point would be more plausible when looked at globally, perhaps. But cannot it be claimed that in the US and the UK, perhaps, it is possible for anyone who has the ability to work hard and take risks can become wealthy and no-one starves? Is that so unacceptable?
Nagel’s view is that the source of political conflict and his dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs is the existence of two viewpoints within each person. These are the personal and impersonal standpoints. Again he assumes without argument that working together is automatically the right answer. (Perhaps we will see such argument later in the book.)
But the weak always favor federal systems. Those who can survive alone prefer not to be dragged down by those who cannot swim, or cannot be bothered to. UCL is no longer part of the University of London, because no particular reason can be given for an institution which is always strong to support the weak. And failing to eliminate weaker institutions means that the average quality is held down also. Why is this good? Moreover, level playing fields harm those who can score uphill.
Why is there a value in equality? And what is meant? No one supports equality of outcome anymore, because of what the Australians call `tall poppy syndrome’. No poppies will grow tall if those are the ones that stick out and get harvested. So people retreat, weakly, to `equality of opportunity’. This of course is unfeasible. What would it cost to give someone with an IQ of 70 an equal chance of entry to UCL with someone with a score of double that? How much partiality would we need to provide that equality? And on what grounds would we take the necessary resources and the place from the second person? Why are some groups to be favored and why should they be the weak rather than the strong? Do we have no interest in overall quality of the cohort?
Apparently, we live `in a world of spiritually sickening economic and social inequality’. This is either meaningless or false. The insertion of the world `spiritual’ suggests only that Nagel has been informed of this ultimate truth by supernatural beings, perhaps fairies at the bottom of his garden. Ignoring that element, we are still left with the unfounded claim that inequality is sickening. It doesn’t sicken me. If it is justified, then isn’t it just the appropriate reward? The argument for this is that `most people feel it’. So what? Most people are wrong about most things most of the time. Even if that’s right.
Nagel is writing around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For a time then it appeared that a New World Order was at hand. The US would spread its benign influence unopposed by communism. Fukuyama could write about the end of history. Unfortunately, since then, al Qaeda have restarted history. Also a global financial crisis has strengthened the appeal of directed economic systems. China is one of Goldman Sach’s celebrated BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) from whence all growth will henceforth come. And yet, very recent events in Tunisia —
— in which an authoritarian government was forced from power by the people in a new continent provide some hope for the future.
We learn that the fundamental problem is how to do justice to the`equal importance of all persons’ — again, just asserted as a desirable objective — is that it cannot be done without making `unacceptable demands on individuals’. It is moreover not explained why any demands at all on individuals are acceptable even were this aim to be a good one.
On p. 6, we see the remark indicating that Nagel thinks we are partial to equality: `communism owes its existence in part to an ideal of equality that remains appealing however great the crimes committed […] in its name’. Just so. Of course, because partiality is wrong, we are mistaken in this attachment to equality. And communism exists either nowhere or in very few places today.
Nagel later claims that we can trust our moral intuitions even when we cannot state underlying principles. This is not argued for, which is just as well since it is completely implausible. Hard-nosed realism is castigated as well; presumably a does of irrationality or dream-like immersion in the unreal will be of more assistance. The argument that moral intuitions needs not be corrupt or self-interested because sometimes they are not is remarkable.
The aim of having everyone agree with the system of state power on a unanimous basis is laid out. This is clearly impossible. If it is a system with highly equal outcomes, those who would have done much better had they not been punished for their abilities will not consent. In an unequal system, those at the bottom will claim that their treatment has nothing to do with their abilities or efforts.
It is assumed that we can take the view from nowhere by abstracting away from our beliefs, desires and characteristics and look out from behind the Rawlsian veil. But how do we know this is possible? And why would we have any motivations left in the original position?
`No one is more important than anyone else’ — what about Einstein and an imprisoned rapist costing the state significant resources in prison maintenance?
Weighting improvements in the position of the worst off above other improvements means in practice that all resources arrogated from the better off will be expended on the worst off. Globally also there is a `Singer and Pogge’ problem in that if this is true, almost all surplus economic product from the developed world must be shipped to Africa, where there is enormous deprivation. This is a consistent argument and the two responses to it are to agree that such transfers should be made or to deny the equal value of all persons. Few people have the intellectual courage to affirm the second, even though it is correct.
It is argued that from the impersonal standpoint, everyone’s life matters as much as mine. Even if that is so, it does not say anything about the personal standpoint, from which my life is more important. At least Nagel acknowledges that the personal standpoint is not to be ignored but must feature in his political theory. But the idea that we are to discuss how we should live given that some of our motives are not impersonal does not allow for the entirely coherent and in fact plausible possibility that some people may have only personal standpoints. How do we know they are wrong? Why can’t they look out for themselves? And all the more so if they are one of those who is short of resources. the very group that Nagel wishes to assist.
Nagel acknowledges the severe internal conflict likely to arise by attempting to combine personal and impersonal standpoints. Is not this prima facie cause to avoid the attempt altogether?
There is a claimed symmetry between the difficulties of resolving the conflict between the two standpoints for those at different ends of the resource spectrum. The well-off are concerned about how much is to be taken from them. But equally, apparently, the poor are worried by the extent to which they can legitimately make claims on the better off. Is this plausible? Why would they care?
Nagel also believes in something Rawls terms `the social basis of self-esteem’. It seems remarkable that someone so weak as to require validation from others should need any consideration. And what are we supposed to do for such people in any case? The claim that we would have to move a considerable distance in harming the rich before their resistance becomes legitimate needs scope setting. If the scope is global, there is another version of the Singer and Pogge problem.
But why is it legitimate to take resources legally acquired from anyone in any case? There seems to be an underlying idea that wealth is created by governments and then distributed unfairly. Were this to be the case, then we would presumably seek to arrange that it should be arranged equally. But that view is completely false. Some individuals create wealth and the state removes part of it from them for various ends, which may or may not be legitimate. In fact, they probably are not.
The idea that nothing matters from the impersonal standpoint is dismissed as an extreme skeptical viewpoint which presumably no-one reasonable could hold. This seems to be a bad case of impartiality however.
The final paragraph of chapter two includes Nagel’s acknowledgment that impartiality is the goal; this of course is a confirmation that partiality is always wrong. It also notes that we are all suppressing our sense of the impartial standpoint. Nagel thinks this is a bad thing and a denial of our humanity. But that is just the naturalistic fallacy, even if it is true. Which it isn’t.