The Ethics of Human Rights (70): A Human Right to Non-Existence?

Can people have a human right not to exist? This potential right has to be distinguished from the right to die or the right to end your life. In fact, what I’m talking about here is a right not to be born. Can a potential or prospective person have a right that forces her potential parents not to act in such a way that she comes into existence?

It’s common to hear people claim that, in some circumstances, it’s in a person’s interest for her parents to not act in such a way that leads to her conception and birth. And when there’s an interest there’s possibly a right as well. The specific circumstances people often refer to are, for example, the likelihood of genetic defects in the parents that would lead to a life of suffering for the potential child. Indeed, it’s uncontroversial that we can cause harm to a child by bringing about her existence, and when there is harm, there’s often also a right to be protected against such harm.

Less common these days is for people to argue that those who are “burdened” in non-genetic ways – such as the poor – should also not procreate owing to the risk that their children would find themselves leading similarly dismal lives.

So, if prospective parents are in a position to know or to be told that their potential children will lead a life not worth living because of genetic reasons, should they respect the so-called right to non-existence of these potential children? This right – if it exists – imposes a duty on prospective parents not to beget miserable children.

(A short parenthesis: suppose there is such a right not to exist, does that right not imply the existence of the “mirror-right”, namely a right of prospective children to exist when their lives will be very rewarding? In other words, do people have a duty to procreate in some circumstances? Most human rights imply their mirror-right: the right to free association implies the right to leave associations or to not associate at all; the right to free speech implies the right to remain silent; freedom of religion implies freedom from religion etc.

However, the presence of a mirror-right doesn’t always seem to be a necessary corollary of a right. The right to a free trial or the right to be free from discrimination don’t seem to imply any mirror-rights. If we assume, temporarily, that there is a right not to exist, we don’t need to assume that the mirror-right should also exist, if only because there are some serious problems with the possible right to exist, as I’ve argued elsewhere).

Back to the main point of the argument. If you want to defend the right to non-existence you have to distinguish between two cases:

  1. a right to non-existence belonging to a possible future child, and
  2. a right to non-existence belonging to a future child.

Case 1 is a right of potential children before conception, and this right would – if we agree that it exists – justify (forced) sterilization and such. Which is already one indication that such a right does not or should not exist. Case 2 is a right of a fetus not to be born, and is a right that would justify some types of abortion.

If we accept the right to non-existence in case 1, we won’t impose harm on children – because they never leave the stage of potential being – but we may impose harm on parents’ procreation rights, privacy rights, physical integrity rights etc. If we accept the right in case 2, we will impose harm on parents if we have to force them to have an abortion in order to protect the fetus’ right to non-existence.

In either case, however, we are dealing with “people” who can’t possibly claim their right to non-existence for themselves, either because they don’t (yet) exist, or because they exist in a form in which they can claim rights. Hence, when we act to realize the right to non-existence, we always act on behalf of the wellbeing of others, potential others even. Given the many problems linked to paternalism, the burden of proof must be very high before we engage in such actions. For instance, it should be abundantly clear that “a life of unbearable suffering” will indeed be unbearable: a life of poverty and illiteracy would still be valuable enough and would not trigger the right to non-existence of the potential children of the poor and illiterate. Hence it would also fail to trigger paternalistic actions such as forced sterilization or forced abortion. On the other hand, a life of constant physical pain brought about by genetic facts could perhaps be of sufficiently low value to trigger the right and the corresponding paternalistic actions, although I personally find it repugnant to consider forced abortion or forced sterilization.

Also, the fact that the bearers of the right in question can’t possibly claim it themselves – either because they’re still a fetus or because they are as yet potential human beings (some, by the way, would claim that a fetus is also no more than a potential human being) – could indicate that it’s impossible to talk about a right in this case. However, some children and comatose patients also can’t claim their rights, but that’s no reason to state that they don’t have any. Maybe it would be better to frame the issue, not in terms of rights, but in terms of the duties that parents have when considering a decision to procreate. And yes, there can be duties without corresponding rights: if I have a duty to respect my promises given to you, you don’t have a corresponding human right to have these promises respected.

Racism (25): What Do We Know About Race?

At least the following 5 things:

  1. There are no human races in the sense of biological or genetic divisions within the human species. About 94% of genetic variation between individuals lies within so-called “racial groups” – or rather “groups which are conventionally labeled as races” on spurious grounds (for example on the basis of vague and ambiguous differences in appearances). This means that two Africans may be as genetically different from one another as an African and a European. Continued interbreeding throughout history and the resulting exchange of genetic material has maintained humanity as a single species. There are no clearly divided species of humanity that are biological distinct. Humans aren’t monkeys. The concept of race has no genetic basis and genetics doesn’t provide support for those dividing humanity into different races.
  2. Even divisions based solely on appearances rather than genetic characteristics are flawed since those appearances show a continuum across individuals rather than a clear division between discrete groups of individuals. There are indeed superficial visual differences between people living in different parts of the world, but those differences are individual gradations on a continuum rather than divisions between groups. If you move towards the equator, skin color darkens because darker skin helps to avoid the cancerogenous effect of the sun entering the atmosphere at a right angle. These superficial differences are not only continuous and gradual rather than discrete; they also have no connection to other, supposed differences such as IQ or morality. Even if IQ and morality are determined by genes – and that’s a big “if” – then there is no reason to believe that the genes that determine these qualities “cooperate” with the genes that determine skin color. Hence no reason to assume a causal link between skin color and intellectual or moral faculties.
  3. So, even if you manage to divide humanity roughly into groups according to broad ranges of skin color – and provide a category called “mixed” for descendants of two individuals belonging to different groups (“Creoles” for example) or for people belonging to borderline groups (Arabs for example) – nothing useful can be concluded from such a division. There is nothing – no gene, no trait, no color, no moral or intellectual characteristic – that distinguishes all the members of one so-called race from all the members of another so-called race.
  4. As a result of this, observed inequalities between groups that are wrongfully labeled as racial groups must be the result not of biological inheritance but of differences in education, rights and treatment. Biological or genetic arguments for intellectual or moral differences between races are groundless because the denominator – race – is a fiction.
  5. The word “race” only has meaning in the sense that it is something some people believe in, talk about and act upon. “Race” is something that exists only in the minds of people. In other words, it’s a social construct. However, a social construct can have real life effects given the fact that people treat other people on the basis of their mistaken ideas about “race”. Likewise, race can be meaningful as a form of self-identification, subjective allegiance and group belonging. But also in this sense, the word race refers to nothing in biology or genetics.

More on race here. More posts in this series here.

What is Equality? (4): Equality of Opportunity

I wasn’t very pleased with my previous attempts, so here’s one more. Equality of opportunity is a type of equality that’s usually seen as a very moderate one, one that’s not too demanding – especially compared to other types of equality that focus on equal outcomes – and hence it’s supposed to be acceptable to those of us who are a bit squeamish about equality. However, I’ll try to show that this is a mistake. Real equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and difficult project. In order to show that, I’ll talk first about some of the causes of inequality of opportunity, and then about the things we can do to reduce this inequality.

Four source of inequality of opportunity

1. Unequal endowments and circumstances

Equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project, conditional on the willingness to invest an equal amount of effort. Of course, in reality, people will never have such an equal chance. The lottery of birth means that we are unable to choose to be born in a wealthy family with caring parents who can finance our education and motivate us to achieve our goals. It also means that we can’t choose which talents and genes we are born with. Talents and genetic differences are no more a matter of choice than the character and means of our parents. And genetic differences affect our talents, skills and maybe even our capacity to invest effort. (It’s not impossible that they even determine our choices of projects in which we want to be successful). So two people with the same life projects will only rarely have the same chance of success.

What can we do to equalize their chances? We can’t (yet) redistribute beneficial genes or disable harmful ones, and we don’t want to intervene in people’s families (and force parents to behave in a certain way or possibly even redistribute children). So we can’t remove the impact of genes and parents. But we can correct it, partially. For example, we can compensate people born with a genetic defect that reduces their chances of success in their life projects. We can offer people suffering from a genetic disorder that has left them paralyzed certain instruments to enhance their mobility. We can offer children born in dysfunctional or poor families free education, child benefits and encouragement. Etc.

2. Discrimination

Equality of opportunity also means correcting for lack of opportunity not resulting from the lottery of birth. If African Americans are systematically discriminated in employment, then they don’t enjoy equality of opportunity. They don’t have an equal chance of success in employment. If working for a certain company is part of an African American’s life project, and this company prefers white employees, then this African American doesn’t have an equal chance of success in his life project compared to whites with the same project.

The rule of equality of opportunity is only violated when the African American is rejected for no other reason than his race, and when this rejection diminishes that person’s opportunities (in other words, when this rejection is common and widespread rather than occasional; see here). If his skills, talents, merit and efforts are equal to those of other candidates, he should have an equal chance of employment or advancement. Equality of opportunity means that he should be allowed to compete for positions on equal terms, and that the difference between winners and losers in such competitions can only be a difference based on skills, talents, merit or efforts. However, even when he is rejected for the position because his skills, talents, merit and efforts are below the level of those of other candidates, he may not have been granted equality of opportunity. That is because the lottery of birth (point 1 above) has landed him in a discriminated group and because his lesser skills and willingness to invest effort and strive for merit may be caused by this discrimination.

Even if all are eligible to apply for a … position and applications are judged fairly on their merits, one might hold that genuine or substantive equality of opportunity requires that all have a genuine opportunity to become qualified. (source)

3. Misfortune in life

The natural lottery can reduce your equality of opportunity. Misfortune in the circumstances of your upbringing (bad parents, bad schools etc.) can also do it. And discrimination throughout your life as well. On top of that, other types of misfortune can limit your opportunities: you may get sick or have an accident. So we have to promote equality of opportunity at every step in people’s lives.

4. Neglect of abilities and talents

And there’s yet one additional cause of inequality of opportunity. Until now, I’ve assumed that equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project. But maybe people have an equal chance of success in whatever life project they choose (as long as the project is morally acceptable of course). If society recognizes, rewards and encourages only certain talents and abilities, then some people will not be able to be successful in the life projects that they choose and that are compatible with their talents and abilities. For example, it’s fair to say that someone like Elton John would not have enjoyed equality of opportunity in Sparta or Saudi Arabia.

How to promote equality of opportunity?

If we accept all that, then the promotion of equality of opportunity involves different things:

1. Social structures or traditions

At the most basic level, it means getting rid of social structures or traditions that assign people to fixed places in a social hierarchy, to occupations or to life projects on a basis that has nothing to do with skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts. Patriarchy, in which women are forced to focus on family life and raising children, is incompatible with equality of opportunity. As is a caste society, a society in which racial or other minorities (or majorities) are systematically discriminated against, or a class society in which the class of your parents, your blood line, your religion, your friends and relationships (nepotism) determine your chances of success in life. Getting rid of such social structures and traditions may simply require legislation outlawing them, or may also require affirmative action or positive discrimination and other forms of compensation for past wrongs (if some still benefit in the present from past wrongs, then equality of opportunity will not be respected simply because the wrongs have ended).

2. Equalizing skills, abilities and talents

But the promotion of equality of opportunity also means equalizing skills, abilities and talents, to the extent that this is possible (e.g. offering poor children free education of the same quality as the education and private tutoring offered to children born in wealthy families). And compensating people when this isn’t possible (e.g. give a blind man some help if we can’t cure his blindness).

3. Upgrading ambitions

And the promotion of equality of opportunity means reducing differences in merit and effort that are not the consequences of people’s voluntary choices. E.g. a child raised in a poor and dysfunctional family may have involuntarily adapted her ambitions downwards. Helping her at a young age may allow us to prevent this down-scaling of ambitions. Perhaps this down-scaling of ambitions is the result of the structures and traditions described in 1 above.

4. Other types of misfortune

The promotion of equality of opportunity also means helping people whose skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts have been limited by misfortune different from the misfortune caused by the lottery of birth. If two people have the same ambition, talents and skill to become a lawyer – perhaps after social corrections to their initial starting positions in life (e.g. free schooling for the poorest one of them) and after legislation providing equal employment access (e.g. for the black lawyer-to-be) – but an accident leaves one of them blind, maybe society should provide that person with law books in Braille and such.

5. Recognizing abilities

And, finally, it means that a broad range of talents and abilities should be recognized and rewarded in society, with the exception of those that involve limitations of other people’s talents and abilities.

Limits of equality of opportunity

So equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and far-reaching project, contrary to what people usually believe about this type of equality. Hence we have to limit it somehow. For example, it shouldn’t extend to people’s private lives. You can’t demand that the girl next door marries you even if that’s your project in life and even if you think you’re the best candidate who didn’t have his equal opportunity. And the girl can decide not to marry you simply because you’re black. A club of racists can decide not to accept your membership request. A racist restaurant owner can decide not to serve you food on his private property. None of this diminishes your equality of opportunity, at least not as long as enough of the same opportunities exist for you elsewhere.

There will be a problem of equality of opportunity if all or many restaurants, clubs etc. turn you away. But if that’s not the case, and enough of the same opportunities remain elsewhere, even businesses can discriminate on the basis of race in their employment decisions, as long as this practice is not widespread and not part of a wider system of discrimination not limited to employment. If, in a perfectly tolerant and egalitarian society, there’s one bakery insisting on being racist and refusing to hire or serve blacks, who cares? (More here).

Equality of opportunity and statistical discrimination

However, discrimination in employment doesn’t have to be taste based, as they say. It can be mere statistical discrimination. Is that a violation of equality of opportunity? I would say yes, because discrimination is discrimination and whatever the motives are – a taste for discrimination or just prudence based of statistical averages – it diminishes the opportunities of those affected by it. People who engage in statistical discrimination make no effort to assess the skills, merit and talents of individuals.

The Causes of Poverty (58): Low Average Intelligence in Poor Countries?

The claim that poverty is caused by the stupidity of the poor has an international equivalent: some people look at the fact that most wealthy countries in the world are mainly populated by white people, combine this fact with the claim that non-Western countries have lower average IQ, and conclude that they have found the reason why poor countries are poor.

This is of course a nasty piece of victim blaming on a global scale. It’s also borderline racist. Moreover, if successful, this view will make poverty reduction impossible, given the genetic determinism that is often paired with IQ analysis. If kids get their IQ from their parents, if IQ determines wealth, and if nothing else causes poverty, then why bother doing anything at all?

For example, a book by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen titled “IQ and the Wealth of Nations” suggests that the average IQ in Africa is around 70, much lower than in East Asia or the West. They also claim that lower average IQ scores are the cause of low levels of development, income, literacy, life expectancy etc.

There are many problems with this theory. First, most of their data are made up. IQ score aren’t available for many countries. At best, the scores are extrapolated on the basis of tiny samples. Second, the theory confuses cause and effect. It’s poverty that drives down IQ rates. The Flynn effect suggests that factors such as improved nutrition, health care and schooling improve IQ test performance. IQ determinism is simply wrong.

Even if the data could tell us that poor countries have indeed relatively low average IQ rates, that’s no reason to assume that low IQ causes poverty. Causation may go the other way, and it’s also possible that there’s something else, a third element that causes both poverty and low IQ, for example the experience of colonialism. The colonizers were no more interested in creating education institutions than in fostering sustainable, non-extractive economies. Don’t forget about the omitted variable bias. However, now we’re assuming that the data can tell us about IQ, and they currently can’t.

Other posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (19): Talent, Effort or Luck?

Talented people usually earn more, especially when their talents are “marketable”, highly valuable and in demand among large groups of consumers or users. Hence, it’s tempting to conclude that income inequality is the natural and necessary result of the given inequality in the distribution of marketable talents. However, that conclusion only holds up when you turn things around: rather than talented people earning more, it has to be true that people who earn more generally have more and better talents, talents moreover which are in demand. I don’t know of any study confirming this claim, but my anecdotal observations in the matter tell me that the claim isn’t true: many rich people don’t have special talents, and many talented people aren’t rich at all.

But then why are some people rich? Perhaps they have some other native endowments, such as a strong will, discipline and a natural willingness to make an effort. Or perhaps they have successfully acquired these characteristics during the course of their upbringing and education. Income inequality is then the product of the natural and/or acquired inequality of effort. But, again, it’s easy to find wealthy people who are neither talented nor strong willed, and many poor people work very hard. As someone has said: hard work is much more common than success.

Maybe luck plays a large part in the creation of wealth: some people have the good fortune of acquiring – perhaps through inheritance – certain means of production. Others are born in a place and family that provides good education, numerous wealth creating opportunities, encouragement etc. Still others find themselves in an economy where demand for their particular contributions is high, or where these contributions are highly valued. Or maybe they find themselves in a political system where discrimination and certain government policies give them an advantage.

Your personal thoughts on the relative importance of talent, effort or luck will determine what you think should be done about income inequality. Those who believe effort is the main cause tend to assume nothing should be done. If wealth distribution is the sole result of differences in effort, then redistribution is not only unfair to those who invest more effort, but also has perverse consequences: it will destroy all future wealth and therefore make all future redistribution impossible, because punishing people for their efforts means taking away their incentives to invest effort.

If you think talent or a native endowment of discipline is the main cause of wealth inequality, then you will probably be more sympathetic to redistribution. Since no one deserves his or her talents or other native endowments, no one deserves the unequal rewards that come with unequal endowments. However, since people still need to use and develop their endowments, you’re likely to reserve at least a small role for effort. Hence, you’re not likely to be a strict egalitarian. Still, you will favor education as a means to foster some people’s lingering talents and underdeveloped sense of discipline, and perhaps you’ll also favor a more equal distribution of the attention society gives to different talents.

If you think income inequality is mainly caused by luck or the lack of it, you will be a strong egalitarian. You view talent and effort, as well as the ability and willingness to use and develop talents and to invest effort, as the products of good fortune: you’re lucky to have the right genes, parents and teachers who encourage you etc. And you also view other types of good fortune as causes of wealth: being in the right place at the right time, inheriting means of production, meeting the right business partners etc. Luck is undeserved, and so are its products. Hence redistribution is morally required.

Racism (17): Racism is Ghostbusting

There’s a huge assumption underlying talk by racist and anti-racists alike, namely that there are different races. That may be an uncontroversial assumption at first sight, but once you start to think about it things get muddled. Are there races? Not in the biological sense. Most genetic variation occurs within so-called racial groups, not between them.

Races are social constructs rather than a biological reality. Centuries of interbreeding have made it impossible to distinguish different human gene pools. Differences between groups of homo sapiens sapiens are purely cultural and constructed. The apparent skin, hair or other physical differences are indeed natural and biological but they are

  • only skin deep, which means genetically irrelevant and certainly irrelevant for comparative merit or superiority,
  • and they are gradual variations rather than discrete groupings (some “black” people are more similar to “white” people than to others from their “race”).

Groups are self-identifying and other-identifying entities, and this identification is based on beliefs concerning shared culture, ancestry and history and on the removal of the gradual nature of differences in appearances. They are constructs, the product of beliefs and traditions, a particular way that some people talk about themselves and others.

Racism is a specific way people talk about themselves and others. It isn’t a descriptive exercise about factual differences between the “biologies” of different groups; it’s a normative exercise in which groups form beliefs about the merits of other groups, and these other groups are constructed through talk about them. They are not “natural” entities, and their members aren’t scientifically identifiable. Superficial characteristics that form a continuum are given extraordinary importance (skin color determines merit) and the gradual continuum is believed to be ruptured. Individual differences are grouped into discrete race differences, and individuals are reduced to a constructed entity.

An example. Some say that racial disparities in the US are caused by a specific culture or mentality that is rampant in “black America”, namely a culture of crime, family breakdown and lack of educational aspiration and achievement. Black America, it’s claimed, “should do something about this”! But once you try to imagine this “black America”, you’ll find that it’s impossible. There is no black America, let alone a black culture. There are certain individuals who are situated at a certain point in a skin color spectrum who may or may not belong to “black America” and who may or may not exhibit certain mentalities. But that is all one can say. There’s no way one can plausibly claim that all or most members of “black America” exhibit certain mentalities, first because it’s impossible to unequivocally determine a threshold value of skin color which puts a person inside or outside “black America”, and second because with each randomly determined threshold value you’ll end up with a very diverse group of people exhibiting many different mentalities.

Does that mean that all talk about race is superfluous? If so, then the same is true about all talk about racism. But that’s not the case. The absence of a factual reality about race doesn’t remove the salience of race in the minds of racists. Hence, racism can have consequences even in the absence of races.

Members of socially constructed racialized identities suffer real harms, and laws might have to distinguish individuals according to their racialized identities in order to compensate for such harms. (source)

People continue to label each other and themselves according to racial categories, and to act accordingly. If we want to address the negative consequences of those labels and actions, we have no choice but to use the same labels. If people impose disadvantages on another group, based on the random delineation and construction of that group, countermeasures can’t help but work with the same group. Also, this group may find the concept of its race useful in its efforts to mobilize against racist measures. It just has to careful that it doesn’t start to believe the essentialist claptrap of its racist foes and that it remains conscious of the ghostlike nature of the concept of race.

Measuring Equality of Opportunity

People on opposite sides of political debates often agree on very little, but they do agree on the importance of equality of opportunity. There is almost universal agreement that people should have at least a starting position that guarantees an equal chance of success in whatever life projects one chooses, for those willing to invest an equal amount of effort. More specifically, equality of opportunity is often defined as an equal likelihood of success for all at age 18 (in order to factor in possible inequalities of opportunity determined by education).

Equality of opportunity is by definition an impossible goal. The lottery of birth means more than being unable to choose to be born in a wealthy family with caring parents who can finance your education and motivate you to achieve your goals. It also means that you can’t choose which talents and genes you are born with. Genetic differences are no more a matter of choice than the character and means of your parents. And genetic differences affect people’s talents, skills and maybe even their capacity to invest effort. So, as long as we can’t redistribute beneficial genes or disable harmful ones, and as long as we don’t want to intervene in people’s families and redistribute children, we can’t remove the impact of genes and parents.

However, we can do something. Equality of opportunity may be impossible but there is less or more inequality of opportunity. Or concern should be to provide as much equality of opportunity as possible, and to expand opportunity for those who are relatively less privileged. This means removing things that hold some people back (e.g. discrimination, unemployment, bad schools etc.), and – more positively – helping people to cultivate their capabilities and expand their choices.

How doe we measure if these interventions are successful? It seems very difficult to measure equality of opportunity. All we can do is measure some of the elements of opportunity:

  • We can measure unequal income and infer unequal opportunity from this. People with low income obviously have less opportunities than other people. However, not all opportunities can be bought and maybe low income isn’t the result of a disadvantaged upbringing or bad schools, but of bad choices, or even conscious choices. Can we say that a child of a millionaire who chose to be a hermit suffered from unequal opportunity? Don’t think so.
  • We can measure unequal education and skills (educational attainment or degrees, IQ tests etc.). However, someone who comes from a very privileged family but with low or alternative aspirations may score low on educational attainment or even IQ.
  • We can deduce unequal opportunity by the absence of opportunity enhancing government policies and legislation. The Civil Rights Act was self-evidently a boost for the opportunities of African-Americans.
  • We can measure social mobility and assume, correctly I think, that very low levels of mobility indicate inequality of opportunity.
  • Etc.

Whatever actions we take to enhance opportunity, it will probably always be relatively unclear what the net outcome will be on overall equality of opportunity. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything. And when we do something, we should also distinguish clearly between things we can do and things we can’t to, or things we feel are immoral (e.g. genetic redistribution or child redistribution). We know that parental attitudes, genetics, talent, appearance, networks and luck have a huge impact on individuals’ chances of success, but those are things we can’t do anything about, either because it’s impossible or because it’s immoral. But we can teach people skills and perseverance, to a certain extent. We can help the unlucky, for example with unemployment benefits. We can regulate firms’ employment policies so as to counteract the “old boys networks” or racism in employment decisions. We can impose an inheritance tax in order to limit the effects of the lottery of family. Etc etc.

The Causes of Poverty (29): Overview

Our research shows that if you want to avoid poverty and join the middle class in the United States, you need to complete high school (at a minimum), work full time and marry before you have children. If you do all three, your chances of being poor fall from 12 percent to 2 percent, and your chances of joining the middle class or above rise from 56 to 74 percent. (We define middle class as having an income of at least $50,000 a year for a family of three). Isabel V. Sawhill and Ron Haskins (source, source)

However, that seems to be a bit reductionist. There are many other possible causes of poverty. Some more convincing than others. For example, here’s Montesquieu according to whom people in hot places are simply too lazy to become rich:

In Europe there is a kind of balance between the southern and northern nations. The first have every convenience of life, and few of its wants: the last have many wants, and few conveniences. To one nature has given much, and demands but little; to the other she has given but little, and demands a great deal. The equilibrium is maintained by the laziness of the southern nations, and by the industry and activity which she has given to those in the north. (source)

According to Thomas Malthus, poverty is caused by overpopulation. Food and other resources are limited, and a population growth that exceeds a certain pace will inevitably hit a resource ceiling, and will result in decreasing standards of living, poverty, conflict over scarce resources, famine etc.

Max Weber believed that protestant work ethic put protestant nations at an advantage compared to other nations. Certain values, such as the opinion that God will reward those who work hard and save money, or the belief in predestination—getting rich is a sign of God’s approval—make some nations rich and others, that lack these values, poor.

Jeffrey Sachs focuses on geography and weather. In the poorest parts of the world, the soil is nutrient-starved, making it difficult to produce food. Moreover, tropical climates foment disease, particularly malaria. The UK, on the other hand, the country where the Industrial Revolution started, has a fertile soil, a lot of coal, and good waterways.

Daron Acemoglu states that nations are not like children — they are not born rich or poor. Their governments make them that way.

People need incentives to invest and prosper; they need to know that if they work hard, they can make money and actually keep that money. And the key to ensuring those incentives is sound institutions — the rule of law and security and a governing system that offers opportunities to achieve and innovate. … if you wish to fix institutions, you have to fix governments. [People should be able to] enjoy law and order and dependable government services — they can go about their daily activities and jobs without fear for their life or safety or property rights. (source)

There are obviously many more explanations of poverty, both “exotic” and sensible ones. And regarding the latter, it’s extremely difficult to say which ones are more important. Poverty is surely one of the most complex and intractable problems facing humanity. However, if we look at the country that has been most successful in the reduction of poverty – China – then the last quote above seems to be the most convincing one. China still has institutional and legal weaknesses today, but it did start to develop only after it abandoned the follies of the Cultural revolution and communist rule in general, and started to protect property rights and build its government institutions. Which doesn’t mean that institutions are a “silver bullet” solution to the problem of poverty. There’s no such thing, unfortunately.

The Ethics of Human Rights (21): Social Mobility, Egalitarianism, Equality of Opportunity, and Meritocracy

In the best egalitarian society, people can change occupations, groups, associations etc. but their income, poverty level or social class will not change a lot as a result of this, since there’s not much difference between different income levels. This means that the society in question has decided that different occupations, talents and efforts should receive roughly the same financial reward. That may or may not be a good thing. Intuitively I would say that some occupations and some amounts of effort investment should receive higher financial rewards than others, in which case a somewhat inegalitarian society is what I want, notwithstanding my concerns about the problems created by inequality (see here for example). What I certainly don’t want is the worst egalitarian society, which combines the problem of equal rewards for morally diverse activities with the problem of fixed occupations and lack of social mobility, Soviet style.

In the worst inegalitarian society, there isn’t a lot of social mobility, social mobility in the sense of children ending up in adult life in a higher or lower level of income than the level of their parents.* There may be relatively many people changing occupations, but always within a limited class of occupations that yield roughly the same income levels. Such a lack of social mobility is an indication that income levels are not the result of merit, desert, reward, effort or talent, but rather the result of society’s choice not to equalize opportunities and to let people’s opportunities be determined by factors such as the family in which they happen to be born, unequal access to education etc. Genes do play a role in determining talent, and perhaps even willingness to invest effort, but only if genes were the sole force determining talent and effort could we claim that a lack of social mobility in an inegalitarian society is an inevitable characteristic of this society and not the consequence of a conscious choice of this society.

Since I don’t believe that genes have such a strong determining force, I have to conclude that the worst inegalitarian society chooses to limit social mobility and to accept (or even promote) unequal opportunities. Such a society in fact chooses to be a class society, a society that limits entry and exit into the various classes or income level groups and that forces parents and their adult children to share similar income levels (income levels are transmitted across generations).

The limited power of genes also allows me to conclude, positively now, that the best inegalitarian society can and should try to enact policies that promote social mobility. Such policies should remove obstacles that hinder people from using their talents and efforts in order to achieve a position in society that corresponds to a higher income level than the level their parents “enjoy”. These obstacles can be parental poverty, lack of access to quality education or to cultural resources, parental crime, peer pressure etc. In short, the best inegalitarian society should try to equalize opportunities. People with similar talents and willingness to develop and use these talents should have a roughly equal chance of ending up in a similar income level. If they don’t have such an equal chance, then it means that they don’t have the same opportunities and that certain obstacles hinder some of these people in the use and development of their talents. I can see no reason why the imposition of such obstacles on some people and not on others could ever be justified, but I’m open to suggestions.

Those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system. In all sectors of society there should be roughly equal prospects of culture and achievement for everyone similarly motivated and endowed. The expectations of those with the same abilities and aspirations should not be affected by their social class. Chances to acquire cultural knowledge and skills should not depend upon one’s class position, and so the school system, whether public or private, should be designed to even out class barriers. John Rawls (source)

If we assume that genes have a limited role in distributing talent, that the distribution of talent among people is therefore to some extent random and not determined by who their parents are; and if we further assume that the willingness to invest effort isn’t completely determined by parental influence or by genetics – and if, on top of that, opportunities are equalized (to some extent), then we should find a lack of correlation between the economic status of parents and their children. We should, in other words, find high levels of social mobility. If not, the influence of genes on talent and the influence of parents on the willingness to invest effort are more powerful than we think; or – more likely – the society hasn’t been successful in creating equality of opportunity (hasn’t provided equal access to quality education for instance). The levels of mobility are therefore a good indicator of the equality of opportunity in a society.

If the best inegalitarian society tries to equalize opportunities and is reasonably successful, then this doesn’t mean that it will necessarily become an egalitarian society. Equalizing opportunities doesn’t imply equalizing rewards for different activities, and neither does it mean that everyone will make equally successful use of the equal opportunities. There will be a lot of social mobility and a lack of correlation between the social position of parents and children, but the mobility can go up for some people and down for others, depending on the talents people have, the efforts they are willing to invest, and the rewards that society gives to particular talents, activities and efforts. Because of these different rewards, and because equal opportunities will be used unequally, there is no reason to expect a convergence of income levels. The best inegalitarian society will become a meritocracy, which produces, by definition, unequal income levels because it differentiates between deserving and less deserving activities, and between deserving and less deserving efforts within an activity.

This kind of society differs fundamentally from the worst inegalitarian society which is a class society and which therefore locks people in positions whatever their merits (class society can mean different things – caste society, nepotistic society etc. – but the effect is always the same). It also differs from the best egalitarian society which allows people to move between occupations but rewards all occupations equally and can’t therefore be called a meritocracy.

I mentioned before that a society can choose to be the best or the worst inegalitarian society. But how does it do that? “Society” is a vague concept. Who are the people actually making those choices? Well, it can be the politicians for instance. It’s quite clear that different policies have different effects on the equality of opportunities and on social mobility. Estate taxes or inheritance taxes play a huge role. Redistribution policies and policies aimed at education as well. But the processes leading towards and away from equality of opportunity can also be more below the surface:

It turns out that there’s a bit of a paradoxical relationship between believing your country has a lot of economic mobility and your country actually having a lot of economic mobility. If you believe that your country is extremely mobile, you’re likely to believe the results of the economic competition are relatively fair. As such, you won’t want to slap the rich with particularly high tax rates and you won’t be terribly concerned about spreading economic opportunity. After all, anyone can make it!

On the other hand, if you don’t believe your country is terribly mobile, then you’re less likely to believe economic outcomes are fair. And if you don’t believe the outcomes are fair, you’re likely to tax the winners relatively heavily and plow those profits into things like universal health care and free college. Policies, in other words, that spread opportunity more widely and thus make your society more mobile. Put like that, it sort of makes sense. If you believe your society is already economically mobile, you don’t spend a lot of time trying to solve the problem of insufficient economic mobility. if you don’t believe that, then you implement policies meant to increase mobility. Ezra Klein (source)

* “Basically social mobility refers to the likelihood that a child will grow up into adulthood and attain a higher level of economic and social wellbeing than his/her family of origin. Is there a correlation between the socioeconomic status (SES) of an adult and his/her family of origin? Do poor people tend to have poor parents? And do poor parents tend to have children who end up as poor adults later in life? Does low SES in the parents’ circumstances at a certain time in life – say, the age of 30 – serve to predict the SES of the child at the same age?” (source)