Are Personal Aims Acceptable?

Nagel: Equality And Partiality

Chapter Nine

Generously, our personal aims are to be left free to have some `influence’ on how we live our lives. Any claims made by those with natural advantages that they should be free to use them are to be `neutralized’ such that they go no further than they would in the strongly egalitarian system Nagel favors.

It is agreed that there are more agent-relative reasons to want something than agent-neutral ones [ — but why is this not the wrong way round since there are so many more people we are not than ones we are — or is Nagel in fact wrong that the impersonal standpoint has meaning and efficacy? And what about the relative importance of both? Surely that cannot be quantified by counting.] The best solution would be for the system we all agree on to cope with the agent-neutral reasons, leaving us free [though disqualified from using any natural advantages] to look after our own agent-relative reasons.

It is questioned what would produce general acceptance that a social system is legitimate [ — could anything? What does `legitimate’ mean? Does it mean anything beyond `generally accepted’ — if not, then we have a vacuous entailment here.] The impersonal standpoint is to provide the acceptance of the system. [This could work, if it is understood to mean something akin to `I accept the costs imposed on me by the system in order to provide insurance should my position become much less advantaged’. Of course, the resource-rich, taking that term to be of wider application than simply financially strong, would still on that line have no interest in accepting the system.]

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Unfortunately this division of labor cannot work, as Nagel admits. The amount of legal interference in the economy needed to maintain socio-economic equality would also stifle efficiency and creativity and enough space for personal life. A constitutional approach would be too broad and also would fail to command allegiance by virtue of becoming inevitably mired in the controversies of the day. Nevertheless, the constitution could mandate medical care, housing and a slew of other benefits.

[It is interesting to note that something similar is causing immense problems in the US at present. It is necessary to cut spending or continue to borrow — i.e. spending the money of others being future taxpayers — at unsustainable rates. Since the great bulk of spending is on `entitlements’ such as Medicare, cuts fall at a disproportionate rate on the 12% of discretionary spending. The entitlements are politically untouchable even though are created merely by legislation; how much more severe would the problem be were they constitutionally enshrined. One error undergraduate philosophers are warned against is `changing your mind half way through the essay’; Nagel seems by the end of the paragraph to be advocating a system he described as impossible at the beginning.]

But this Utopia is merely one step towards a yet more comprehensive equality. And an inadequate one. To go further, legislation is needed. And in addition, the impersonal standpoint must play a much larger role. Nagel notes that democracy does not work in favor of the poor unless they are in a majority [ — that forgets the prudential reasons one might have for a safety net one never uses, but also the system that he advocates would share one feature with the status quo: the median person would be a net drain on public resources. Thus he could relax in the expectation that there will be a democratic majority of benefit claimants to back his system. But what happened to unanimity?]

Again, Nagel acknowledges that human nature just will not back such a system though, and that ethnic diversity is one of the reasons for that. The argument against such pessimism is held to be that the world has progressed away from social inequality. [Indeed it has. But why? Is it because governments have imposed frameworks or is it because the deference culture ended and people got ahead on their own? Would you rather be in the US or North Korea?] Examples of such progress are the abolition of slavery, enfranchisement of women and prohibition of child labor [ — none of which has actually occurred, with the possible exception of the middle item. But to what extent do women exercise political power in modern Saudi Arabia? Nevertheless, we may concede to Nagel that general conditions are much better today than in the middle ages while disputing his description of the cure.]

Perhaps progress towards apparently Utopian goals can be made only in steps, such that the Utopian impossibility gradually disappears. [How does someone become gradually less enslaved, or how do women become partly enfranchised?] Perhaps we can make apparently impossible progress in such steps, and maybe the dominance of the impersonal standpoint in politics over personal motives is one such piece of impossible progress. But even then, the operation of personal motives in the economy will frustrate egalitarianism. The private sector is essential to productivity, and the advantages are created by individuals acting in their own interests. [Thus we all benefit if everyone abandons the mythical impersonal standpoint.]

Competition is what drives efficiency, but this is against the grain of socialism because there are winners and losers. The efficiency of capitalism is `wonderful’ but the inequality created by the necessary incentives remains a concern for Nagel. [Though he understates to the largest possible extent the benefits of capitalist production by characterizing it as extra ice cream flavors or different shoe colors. It is of course much more to do with entirely new products and for example labor saving devices, not to mention the commercialized products of scientific endeavor such as the computer or the internet.]

Nagel makes the point that the desire for consumer goods is a result of advertising brainwashing but then dismisses it. [Is this perhaps a little quick? Why do people want things they don’t need? Are these the same people who are going to abandon the personal standpoint at about the same time they abandon their favorite brand of soap?]

The problem is more difficult here because economic equality is not an absolute requirement, `as it is with voting’. [This is not argued for. The logic of the situation is surely that we should dispense with both. Why should not some people have more votes than others? Would not literate people make better decision at the ballot box? Why are we trying to maintain the opposite fiction? Why is the UK government going to great lengths at present to attempt to maintain its ban on prisoners voting?]

Chapter Ten

This chapter will seek to progress beyond the impasse outlined by considering `transformations of motive’. Nagel wishes to do this because of the paradox between what he sees as the `inextinguishable appeal’ of egalitarianism [ — why is there this appeal and why is it not contradicted by the general lack of adoption of the impersonal standpoint?] and its failures. The institutions that will impose equality must reflect what `enough’ people feel [ — again, were we not looking for institutions that no-one could reasonably reject?]

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Progress in sex and race equality reflects not just assertiveness by the victims, but acknowledgment by the beneficiaries that any advantages so gained are illegitimate. Personal views have followed legal changes. Bad consciences preceded these changes. But this is not the case in respect of economics: the successful consider themselves lucky or deserving. The difference in income between the skilled and unskilled is not regarded as problematic. [Nagel might be able to make this point out more in the direction he wants in modern post credit crunch times, though that of course would only be because few people understand economics.] These attitudes would have to change in Nagel’s system [ — thus advantages could not be legitimate even when they flowed from superior skills.]

An egalitarian system would have to abandon claims that inequality is the result of exploitation, because it would sever the link between economic contribution and receipts entirely. Some people would receive much more than they contribute [ — are we still calling this egalitarian? What will the justification be for a differently slanted playing field?]

A further distinction to be dispensed with will be that between what the state does and what it permits: the state will be responsible for everything including income, health etc. and that must be clear to everyone. And thus they will be responsible for how things are. They will have to understand that the current position is that we have made a positive choice to allow rewards to flow to the most productive. [Interestingly, the current spate of `banker bashing’ does not say that rewards should not follow productivity — but that the bankers were not productive and now, in the recovery, they are not productive enough to justify their rewards.]

A laissez-faire system such as this should not be regarded as the natural position, because it results from the state enforcing only some subset of rights smaller than a maximal set. Contract rights are enforced; rights to equal income are not. [How do we know there are any rights? Does not this show that there are none? From that perspective, a smaller set of `rights’ would be more `natural’ than a larger one. But is not all of that simply the naturalistic fallacy in any case? And if we cannot avoid that trap, we should do nothing.] So the state is responsible for not imposing equality.

Nagel mentions that arrangements which favor the productive also favor their heirs, under the current system. [This does indeed seem questionable. While the genetic lottery problem can be mitigated by saying that I have to work to monetize my skills, this does not wash. I do nothing to receive my inheritance. But that would be an argument for, say, setting inheritance tax to 100% rather than for egalitarianism.]

The negative responsibilities of the state mean that any system must be justified; all distributions are questionable. [Again, does this not mean that in the absence of a justification for any system, we should do as little as possible? That means the Nozickian minimal state.] Nagel notes that his views contrast with those of Locke, for whom the state steps in only when individuals fail to work together.

There are three major sources of inequality: prejudice (e.g. racial), inherited advantage, variation in natural advantages. These are for short termed Discrimination, Class and Talent. To these may be added Effort. There are also random factors. Nagel believes people should to a large extent get on with their luck. [Why? Why is that factor allowed to win? Why does not the full egalitarian system eliminate the effects of luck as well? If you win the lottery, so should I.]

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The four factors can be independent, but often are correlated. Effort will always help [ — unless you are trying to construct a Utopian political ideal.] A social structure is to be evaluated by how it allows these four sources of inequality to operate. Only effort is really a responsibility of the individual. Egalitarianism as Nagel wishes to see it will only seek to eliminate advantages for which the individual is not responsible. [To which no-one can object, but we need to see how we can disentangle the four factors and how we can avoid being dramatically harmed by a system in which the talent of ourselves and everyone else is unrewarded. That means no better chances of playing for England for good football players — though this could be a blessing in disguise…]

[Are we sure that one is responsible even for effort made? Could not the lack of propensity to akrasia not be an inherited characteristic? Nagel cannot afford this to be the case of course, for then he would be committed to eliminating rewards for effort, thus preventing him from discriminating between the brain surgeon who performs three operations in a day and the one who stays home watching TV.]

Naturally healthy people are allowed to be so. [But why is this consistent with the negative duties of the state? Remember, it is responsible for everything and cannot rely on not taking any action as a justification of a staus quo. Thus, it must intervene to weaken the health of the robust. On average, people are relatively unhealthy since some of them are old and many are not young. So the young will suffer quite a lot. We must all limp because some cannot walk. This will apply across dozens of parameters and will require significant expenditure of resource and on an ongoing basis also. If I get a cold, they may have to cease making me short-sighted.]

Nagel’s most clear divorce from utilitarianism comes with his rejection of some Pareto-superior switches. Thus, he objects to a change which benefits the well off at no expense to the poor because it increases inequality.

[Is it not the case that we would have to be insulated from all the effects of our decisions for good or ill in order to maintain equality?]

Although only effort is the only parameter for which we are responsible, on Nagel’s view, there seems to be a hierarchy of unfairness with the others. Very few people are in favor of discrimination, people have less developed views on class in general, and they are happy about talented people making progress. [Why do we care what people think?]

Class differences result in the special favor people show their children, and `no sane person’ would wish to abolish this. [We must pause to note that Nagel has just committed Plato to the asylum. And we are about to see that the thrust of his position will demand just this insanity.] We can lean against it with, for example, anti-nepotism rules. But there is an interesting contrast in that giving your child a job is wrong whereas private education is fine.

Religious discrimination is on a par with sexual and racial discrimination for Nagel. [This is inconsistent with his views. People are responsible for their religious views as they are not for their sex or their race. Since there is no evidence for any religions, religious people can be seen to be cognitively deficient in ways relating to evidence assessment that would disqualify them for some careers involving just that, such as for example scientific ones. Thus failing to select them would be a reasonable choice rather than an example of discrimination.]

It would be a gross change but not unthinkable for people to no longer see a good reason for someone’s being rich that his parents were. But that would not be enough to eliminate class because the advantages of growing up in a wealthy household would be so significant. [Hence The Republic…This cannot be fixed without eliminating `natural’ family feeling. Again — it may be natural, but does it have to be right therefore? And if we are allowed to take that line, why not our natural resistance to egalitarianism?]

Talent drives income inequality, and we somehow, laments Nagel, fail to grasp that talent is undeserved and thus should not drive rewards. Nagel thinks this is because we could imagine being a different class more easily than we could imagine having different talents. [Why do we care about what we can imagine? How does that attain to any force in the actual world? What are we going to say about supermodels, who are born so beautiful that people pay them vast sums just to show up?] Nagel admits that solving this is impossible unless we abolish competition. In fact we should promote the gaining of advantage of talent just as we eliminate the gaining of advantage due to class.

Nagel notes that incentives that generate inequalities are essential to economies. [He does not observe that it could be the very fact that these inequalities are what people seek. After all — he was right when asked whether we needed 27 ice cream flavors. I only need that if you cannot afford it. There is plenty of research to show that absolute income is less important to self-esteem than relative income.]

The circle will be squared by trying to reconcile the two opposed positions that rewards for talent are simultaneously necessary and `tainted’. [This is the latest incarnation of the personality conflict to which we are invited. And what does tainted mean? Tainted by what? Inequality?]

The conclusion is that it will not be possible to limit inequality to that for which the individual is responsible.

Next Section: Can Individual Choices Produce Unacceptable Inequality?

By Tim Short

I am a former investment banking and securitisation specialist, having spent nearly a decade on the trading floor of several international investment banks. Throughout my career, I worked closely with syndicate/traders in order to establish the types of paper which would trade well and gained significant and broad experience in financial markets.
Many people have trading experience similar to the above. What marks me out is what I did next. I decided to pursue my interest in philosophy at Doctoral level, specialising in the psychology of how we predict and explain the behaviour of others, and in particular, the errors or biases we are prone to in that process. I have used my experience to write The Psychology of Successful Trading. In this book, I combine the above experience and knowledge to show how biases can lead to inaccurate predictions of the behaviour of other market participants, and how remedying those biases can lead to better predictions and major profits. Learn more on the About Me page.

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