Tuesday 29 December 2009

Fundamental rights

Kanazawa today hits on a very Hansonian point: why do we care about some kinds of inequalities but not others? Bottom line from an ev bio perspective is the "right" to have kids. But some folks are stuck without a willing partner.
In the United States, millions of people – mostly, young, poor men, the same people who don’t have health insurance or choose not to take advantage of the available health care – are left mateless, sexless, and childless, and are destined to die as total reproductive losers. In every human society, there are more childless men than childless women.

How come nobody cares that millions of people in the United States fail to achieve the ultimate goal of all biological existence, the meaning of life itself? Why isn’t it the government’s job to make sure that every American has sex regularly and frequently and produces children? Why doesn’t the government import surplus women from Russia and Ukraine and distribute them at taxpayers’ expense to millions of young, poor men who can’t otherwise get laid?
Back in September, Hanson wrote:
Yet other “insensitive” categories are associated with huge inequalities, which few folks seem interested in talking about, much less considering how policy might influence. There is no social pressure whatsoever against maligning these groups. Especially striking are inequalities in attractiveness as a friend, lover, etc. not mediated by sensitive categories. These factors include physical appearance, vigor, charisma, personality, height, etc. Folks are well aware such inequalities exist, but have little concern about them, and no interest in policies to reduce them.

An especially striking example is inequality among men in their ability to attract women as lovers. If you don’t like “alpha/beta” labels, then call it what you will, but there are consistent correlations among men in this regard, which are consistently correlated with insensitive categories. While this inequality has large consequences for utility and happiness, there is no interest in reducing it, and people feel quite comfortable insulting these type of “losers”.
The second welfare theorem works for money endowment, but I have a hard time seeing how it could work for these other kinds of inequalities, or at least how it could work without insanely high deadweight costs.


  1. If people are aware that the second welfare theorem is likely to have a hard time working with these kind of inequalities (people intuitively recognize that you can redistribute incomes but not faces or height or sexual partners, at least not easily), and that the only way to address them is likely to involve large inefficiencies, could this be the source of their reluctance to consider them? That is, given the obviuousness of an efficiency-equity tradeoff when it comes to certain inequalities, people simply aren't willing to consider rectifying them. Perhaps the equity-efficiency tradeoffs involved in attending to standard inequalities (income, eductaion etc) are simply not as obvious or large as they are in these cases, and people aren't willing to make them.

  2. But if they're really expensive to rectify, that indicates that they're the most unjust, no?

    You can't redistribute attractiveness, but money is a substitute...Keith Richards...but it does take several million dollars to bridge that gap....

  3. I'm not sure. It might seem very unjust for the person as unfortunate-looking but not as rich as Keith Richards in that achieving equality of attractiveness for them is very expensive (possibly unattainable). But it won't seem unjust to the rest of us if achieving attractiveness equality costs society, say, $5 million for each unattractive person.

    Anyway, I'm not sure that utilitarianism is in a place to talk about justice. I'm under the impression that the moral apparatus it possesses is limited to better than/worse than/best/worst outcome judgements. Inequality of attractiveness, for example, might only be relevant if we're wearing our utilitarian's hat (because of the inequality of utility issues): perhaps people simply don't see it as important because they're not always wearing that hat.

  4. I hadn't meant to invoke utilitarianism so much as to give a money metric for comparisons: if it takes a cash transfer of several million dollars to make someone as well off as someone else, that's a big amount.

    If we had a pluralistic view of justice that included utilitarian concerns and cared directly about inequalities of all sorts, then we might expect that the welfare system would tax more heavily the beautiful to transfer resources to the less aesthetically well off. I would not advocate such a system, but it does seem odd that social justice campaigners seem so focused on money as compared to other inequalities.

  5. I understand that the monetary metric describes the degree of inequality (attractiveness in this case) in an easy to understand way, but my concern is that this inequality may only be relevant to utilitarians. It's possible that utilitarianism casts its morality net too far. Sometimes - though not always or even often - our moral intuitions are more on track than utilitarianism (e.g. utilitarianism seems to get it wrong in feeding-Christians-to-the-lions-type scenarios) and given that so many people show an indifference of concern for such inequalities as this, it might be that inequality of attractiveness simply isn't of moral concern.
    Hence, if we had a pluralistic view of justice, as you suggest, we might find a conflict between the utilitarian and non-utilitarian components on this issue.

    My general point being: just because utilitarianism suggests some issue is morally relevant, it doesn't mean it is (though it may be, and it may certainly be interesting).