13 December 2018 09:36:24 GMT

The Third Rock Forum - Politics

Article Title
Egalitarian hypocrisy
Author
Nick
Topic Section(s)
Society
Ethics
Politics
Submitted : 06-11-2014 09:50
Amended : 11-11-2014 00:01
Status : Approved:  
Likes : 3
Dislikes : 0

In our enthusiastically egalitarian and democratic world, elitism has become a dirty word.  It smacks of discrimination (another once neutral but now generally negative word) and it reeks of exclusivity.   The received wisdom today is that everyone is of equal worth; almost everyone can do almost anything; everyone is entitled to their fifteen minutes of fame.

Let’s take a look at these three propositions in some detail.

 Everyone is of equal worth.  While this is undoubtedly a foundation stone of an egalitarian society, on examination it is quickly revealed to be either meaningless or manifestly untrue.  We have to begin by defining worth.  We quickly find that the concept of ‘worth’ entails a value judgement made by an individual or group of individuals; and, perhaps more importantly, ‘worth’ necessarily involves the concept of ‘not worth’ or worthlessness.  ‘Worth’ means we have compared something against a criterion of value.  So when I need a doctor, I want a good doctor.  That means I don’t want an average doctor or a bad doctor.  The good doctor is ‘worth’ more to me (and no doubt to everyone else) than an average doctor, and is of course ‘worth’ much more than a bad doctor.  This type of discrimination is applied by everyone in every aspect of life.   We want good products, not bad ones.  The good ones are ‘worth’ more than the bad ones which is why, in general, we pay more for them.  We want good cars, good mechanics, good pilots, good comedians, good singers, good athletes, good teachers, good nurses, good plumbers, good lawyers, good electricians, good friends and good partners – not bad ones.  OK, I’ve made the point.

 But, you say, that doesn’t mean some people are worth more than others. One person might be a bad doctor but that doesn’t mean that, as a person, they are of less worth than a good doctor.  Fair enough.  So in what sense is everyone of equal worth?  In what sense is a lazy, unemployed wastrel living on benefits worth as much as a dedicated doctor or nurse?   To whom is the wastrel of equal worth?  Well, you might say he has counter-balancing virtues.  He might have, for example, a good sense of humour (which may well be true in that our wastrel is having a laugh at society’s expense) but that doesn’t really elevate his worth to that of a good doctor, much less a Mother Teresa or an Albert Einstein, does it?

 So it’s pretty obvious that we, as individuals and society as a whole, are making judgements about the different worth of individuals all the time.  In some cases, the variation in worth is overt and formally recognised (as in team sports and athletics and pay scales); in other cases, it is implicit but none the less pervasive.

 So why do we insist on promoting the mantra that everyone is of equal worth?  Well, we probably mean simply that everyone should have equal rights.  I wouldn’t argue with that.  If society decides to give everyone equal rights, that is a political decision but it is a decision that tells us about the values of society not the value of individuals.   We give everyone over 18 the vote.  That does not mean everyone over 18 is equally qualified to vote.  The drunken dropout may well have no idea about any issues other than the price of cheap alcohol and yet his vote has as much weight as someone who has given their life to studying political, economic and social issues. Universal suffrage simply means that society has decided to give everyone the vote, not that everyone deserves one or is worthy of one.

 So could we be honest and admit that by any and every criteria, neither the aforementioned wastrel nor the dropout is worth as much as the average hard-working citizen, much less the medical researcher who finds a cure for a lethal disease, or the inventor whose products make life easier, or the entrepreneur who helps to build the economy and provide employment?  We can and should treat them equally before the law; we can and should give them equal rights; but let’s not lie and say they are of equal worth.

 Almost anyone can do almost everything.

 Society has put a great deal of effort into trying to support this proposition, despite the fact that it is manifestly untrue.  From aiming to send half the population to university all the way through to employing assistants to enable deaf telephonists to answer telephone calls at Ealing Council, enormous effort and resources have been devoted to enable those who can’t do a thing to be able to do the thing.  Let me say at once that the motives of those who have tried to enable their fellow citizens in this way are wholly laudable.  Let me also say that, in some cases, for example the supply of increasingly sophisticated prosthetics, remarkable and wholly beneficial outcomes have been achieved.

 But there has also been a downside.  Universities have dumbed down their teaching and their courses to accommodate those of only average ability. If half the population are to undertake university course, it follows that many courses must be tailored to those of average intelligence and ability.  I am in favour of many young people pursuing their studies beyond the age of seventeen.  I am simply making the point that pretending everyone has the ability (or indeed the inclination) to pursue a rigorous academic syllabus does not make it so.  And the pretence has serious implications for the quality of teaching and the calibre of graduates who emerge with their degrees after three years study.  Amongst these serious implications is the common practice nowadays of staffing jobs that require literacy, numeracy and the ability to reason with people, all of them graduates, who are manifestly deficient in one or more of these skills.

 Broadcasters, in their eagerness to demonstrate their egalitarian principles, have employed staff who are simply not up to the task they have been given.  Interviewers are easily outmanoeuvred by politicians because they lack the incisive intellect that will nail inconsistences and expose prevarication.  Many presenters, if not scripted, are neither articulate nor fluent and often conduct maddeningly banal conversations with members of the public.  Many seem to have been employed, not despite their inarticulacy but because of it, especially if they can sport a regional accent, thus proving the broadcasters' regional as well as intellectual inclusivity.

 Everyone is entitled to their fifteen minutes of fame

 There is of course a paradox at the heart of this particular mantra.  Fame used to mean “widespread and enduring acknowledgement of an individual’s achievements”.  The definition of fame today dispenses with ‘enduring’ and ‘achievements’.  We are left with “widespread acknowledgement of an individual”; i.e. celebrity.  

 The cult of celebrity is the direct result of the first two propositions examined above.  If everyone is of equal worth and almost anyone can do almost anything, there is no reason to deny anyone their 15 minutes of fame.  So long as we remain unjudgemental, so long as we abandon any sense of worth, no one should be refused a few minutes of exposure.   Only a few minutes, mind you, because we haven’t really been unjudgemental, we haven’t really abandon any sense of worth, so fifteen minutes is about all we can stand of each of the mediocrities paraded before us for our attention and their brief and entirely spurious few moments of glory.

 So what am I suggesting? 

 Well, it boils down to honesty.  We all know that the men and women who work hard, support their family, help to educate their children and instil in their offspring values of good citizenship are worth a lot more than the idle, drunken layabout who doesn’t know who his children are.  So let’s say it.   Why bother?  Well, if we start to be honest, we can begin to put some real values back into society.  We will then realise that, under the current non-judgmental system, we are actually motivating people to behave badly.  We reward those who behave irresponsibly and fine those who behave well to finance the reward system for the miscreants.

 There is such a thing as merit.  There are good people and there are bad people.  Of course, anyone can be redeemed but redemption comes by putting in the effort to move along the moral spectrum from bad to good, not by being told that being bad is not your fault and then taxing socially responsible citizens in order to subsidise a life-style that is destructive of both the individual and society.

 You could say that this is just an appeal for a return to the old judgemental society of previous periods – but it isn’t.   We don’t need to return to being judgemental; it is inherent in our genes.  We are all judgemental.  It’s just that, for reasons I should like to explore elsewhere, the establishment has decided to invest enormous amount of tax-payers money into stripping any moral content from its way of dealing with social problems.  It’s deeply ironic (although not entirely unpredictable) that a social policy which seems to be wholly benign (in that it shows understanding for and attempts to alleviate every form of human weakness, folly and irresponsibility) has created an extraordinarily superficial, self-centred and materialistic society.  In my judgement, it’s a particularly bitter example of the law of unintended consequences.

Replies

Status: Approved
Reply Date : 07-11-2014 20:38
Author : georgebundle
Egalitarian cloud cou-cou land!
Nick, as always, produces a fascinating analysis of one or another mental aberration of humanity. His latest paper, Egalitarian Hypocrisy is a very good example.
The basic premise, everyone is of equal worth, cannot be asked in the abstract as it makes no sense. Worth in relation to what? Worth is a value concept and the only way it can possibly make sense in reality is if you apply it to new born babies at the point of birth. Then, worth can be related to human potential. The rest is virtual reality created by deluded people.
Georgebundle
Status: Approved
Reply Date : 10-11-2014 10:45
Author : Paul G
Benign hypocrisy

As I think Nick almost acknowledges, hypocrisy in this instance can be a force for good.  It may not be true that all people are of equal worth. Indeed, as Nick argues and Georgebundle agrees, it is obviously not true, but that doesn't mean that society shouldn't insist, and we as individauls shouldn't accept, that all people are of equal worth. Or, to put it positively, it's a good thing that society should insist and we accept that all people are of equal worth.

There are two reasons for this.  First, while accepting that the concept of worth has to be based on criteria of value, which criteria are we to apply.  What I value may be considered worthless or irrelevant by someone else.  I may consider the Greek phlosophers of 5h century BC of inestimable worth, while someone who may well not have heard of them may favour the X Factor One Direction.  OK, a bit extremen but the point is we don't have an agreed set of crietira for worth.

Secondly and more importantly, hypocrisy can serve a wholly benign purpose.  There is some evidence that the Japanese have an average IQ higherthat Europeans.  It would not do any good to promote the idea that the Japanese are smarter than Europeans.  There is considerable evidence that, on balance, black people are pysically stronger than white people.   As Lenny Henry quipped on the subject of athletics: "Let's see the brothers gather at the start of the 100 metres".  Both of these distinction between races may be invalid; but even if obejctively true, there could well be other explanations (Japaness study harder; blacks train harder).  And even if the distinctions can be taken at face value (which is possible since small variations in development amongst separate communties is perfectly possible), it is best to pretend they don't exist.  After all, Hitler provided an excellent example of why the two reasons given above  in favour of benign hypocrisy should hold sway.   His attempts to intstitue a racist ideology were based on extreme and idiotic values and did enormous harm to society and to science.  In this instance, let's go with hypocrisy.