Equalising consumption => lowering vulnerability

By Lorenzo

A comment on a previous post expresses a common set of views among conservatives:

Darwin has the final word on sillyness. If same sex marriage was a useful thing in society, then the vast range of human societies would show us a successful society with same sex marriage as normal.

This confuses natural selection with social selection, which are very different processes. Nevertheless, this view that historical selection (either in general or in some specific set of societies) selects for what works, so gives what we inherit presumptive legitimacy, is a common view within conservative and prudential liberal circles. (Western conservatives, especially in the Anglosphere, are generally mostly prudential liberal in outlook.) The general argument goes at least as far back as Edmund Burke, but was revitalisatised by Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott.

Limitations versus limiting
As a point about the limitations of human knowledge against Adam Smith‘s “men of system” (such as, for example, the disastrous official advocates of dogmatic laissez faire during an Gorta Mór, the Great Irish Famine), the argument has real power. The failure of the command economies–including the revolutionary socialist contempt for millennia of struggling with how to make political responsive to the interests of governed–provide an even more dramatic example.

But the power of the “product of historical selection” argument is easy to exaggerate. After all, every single form of oppression you might care to mention was the result of some social selection process. Mere persistence does not stop oppressive arrangements from being oppressive. It just makes them well-entrenched. The notion that, if people like you lost out in the past, you lose out forever–that history never selects for entrenched wrongs–puts enormous moral weight on the processes of historical evolution, which are morally a very mixed bag. The above argument could be (and was) used against democracy, for example, providing another case of the “eternal now” that conservative arguments often seem to live in.

The problem comes when the argument is used, not to highlight the limits of human knowledge, but to ignore or block knowledge; to actively limit knowledge. Specifically, the experience and aspirations of those who suffer from said oppression. It was precisely to convey understanding of that sort that the famous Wedgeword anti-slavery medallion and plate had a kneeling black slave with the words “am I not a man and a brother?”.

Raising possibilities
Which is why the equalising of consumption in Western societies since the onset of the Industrial Revolution has seen a series of longstanding oppressions lose their purchase on public policy.

Part of what is going on is simply that the lowering of Adam Smith’s “immediate necessity“:

A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, a merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.

has seen the ability to organise politically spread throughout society. The rise of the union/labour movement was quite directly based on this, but so were all the emancipation movements, starting with the anti-slavery movement. (Which was more a product of the Commercial Revolution than the Industrial Revolution, as that did not get underway seriously until the 1820s.)

This ability rests on several aspects, starting with having a buffer against immediate need which gave both time and resources to organise. But it also rests on broadening access to all the things one needs to politically organised–including the ability to compose and disseminate one’s case. To spread the experience of oppression and social restriction more widely in politically effective ways. The more one’s experience can be ignored, the more socially vulnerable you are. And vice versa.

This change in the capacity of the hard-done-by to organise against the social restrictions and exclusions imposed on them by historical processes may also have been aided by a change in social outlooks; though disentangling the two effects is a somewhat analytically fraught exercise. Stephen Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature grapples with this question, though as part of a wider question over a much wider historical ambit. Equalising consumption may also have a role here: both in the sense of making lives more alike and more accessible–so easier to empathise with–and also being associated with more potential positive-sum interactions.

Note, I am not peddling some form of historical inevitability. As uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan intimates, that is condescending to the opponents and belittling to the supporting activists of the various emancipations. What the rising equalising of consumption did was create historical possibilities; activists for the various emancipations then struggled to make the possibility of equal protection of the law real.

Which brings us back to the problem with using the “result of historical selection” argument to actively block knowledge. We cannot understand the nature of social arrangements unless we are willing to consider all aspects of those arrangements, including the experience of those oppressed by them. Hence the importance of the “your experience does not count” premise–or, even more simply, “your experience is invisible to me” or “your experience is unconsidered by me”–in upholding traditional oppressions. It is a weaker form of the crippled epistemology (pdf) that Russell Hardin argued was a feature of political extremism.

As an aside, that is precisely the problem with “moral arguments against homosexuality”: even considering such treats millions of people as if their existence as “proper” form of the human is a matter for consideration and debate. Moral arguments against homosexuality extend the morality of acts so as to strip actual people of moral (and legal) protection. Given the centrality of love and companionship to human lives, arguments against homosexual acts are always also arguments placing huge burden on, and against, homosexual people. Hence the “sexuality is a choice” nonsense (really?, tell us all about when you chose to be heterosexual)–it is a way of pretending that such is not happening, of discounting experience and the burdens being imposed.

It is one thing to caution against over-confidence in our knowledge, in our understanding. It is quite another to use that injunction against over-confidence to block knowledge, to block understanding. To buttress an impoverished epistemology which denies inconvenient human experience and aspirations status or standing. A great thing about living in a society with expanding mass consumption possibilities is precisely the expanding ability to connect to each other; to both the like-minded and to the possibly persuaded.

 

9 Comments

  1. Herding cats
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    “inherit presumptive legitimacy”” ooer, long discussion, i guess.

  2. HetroJim
    Posted July 25, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    As an aside, that is precisely the problem with “moral arguments against homosexuality”: even considering such treats millions of people as if their existence as “proper” form of the human is a matter for consideration and debate. Moral arguments against homosexuality extend the morality of acts so as to strip actual people of moral (and legal) protection. Given the centrality of love and companionship to human lives, arguments against homosexual acts are always also arguments placing huge burden on, and against, homosexual people.

    Some people, such as myself, don’t care what people choose to do in privacy. However lets not pretend that most people don’t find sexual acts between homosexuals repulsive.

    As for love etc., that you attempt to portray about homosexuals, let me remind you that in late 2013 the WHO came out advising all active homosexuals should be on anti-vitals. In other words even the WHO considers it dangerous. That would obviously have a lot to do with the fact that most, though not all, have numerous sexual partners. Don’t they refer to it as having notches? Perhaps you could elaborate more on “notches”.

    You can sugar coat it all you want, but it is what it is.

  3. Posted July 29, 2014 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Well, yes. Such as conservative writings in general.

    [email protected] I take it you mean male-male homosexual acts, since girl-on-girl action is such a popular porn trope. And given the popularity of male-male romances and “slash” fiction, particularly among women, what you are actually talking about is the reaction of some men to male-male sex. A reaction which has no standing. Lots of folk find lots of things repellant; nothing much flows from that. Particularly as, on the evidence from other cultures, it is a somewhat culture/religiously specific reaction.

    The WHO advisory was for “men who have sex with men” and also applied to various other high risk groups.

    Indeed, one of the arguments for same-sex marriage is precisely to help stability of same-sex relationships. Which a recent study suggests such recognition has that effect (pdf).

  4. conrad
    Posted July 30, 2014 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    The obvious example of why these arguments are wrong is that it is too easy to find counter evidence from the 20th century that new social things were often really good things — basically countries that moved to treating women more equally (pretty uncommon for most of human history) and hence getting them into their workforce were successful, and most of the countries that did not are still hopeless places for more or less everyone in them. This is no surprise because a country with a dependency ratio of 2:1 (like any number of crappy countries) will clearly lose to one with a dependency ratio of 1:2 (like most of the Western world) on almost everything apart from more of its citizens having crappy lives .

    I must say that all of these arguments about what people happen to *think* is icky or not are just rubbish. How about old people, obese, people, ugly people, …etc? There are any number of groups you can think of that wouldn’t pass this test for some people that get married. Even worse for the argument is that cousin marriage (and even closer in some societies), which is probably one of the most common and most enduring types of human civilization doesn’t do many people much good thinking about it in places with strong taboos against it. So a lot of our “icky” constructions are really just social constructions.

  5. HetroJim
    Posted July 31, 2014 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    [email protected] I take it you mean male-male homosexual acts, since girl-on-girl action is such a popular porn trope.

    Yes, homosexuality normally refers to males.
    How do you know lesbian sex is popular, as I couldn’t imagine you liking it? When did porn become the standard by which we measure human taste and culture?

    And given the popularity of male-male romances what you are actually talking about is the reaction of some men to male-male sex.

    I don’t understand what ‘the popularity of male-male romances’is. Explain

    and “slash” fiction, particularly among women,

    Women are very peculiar and dishonest about their tastes. Bu then women are the lesser gender and you’d expect peculiarity with their behavior, so they have to be watched over carefully in case they stray. I’m all for removing their voting rights.

    Lots of folk find lots of things repellant; nothing much flows from that. Particularly as, on the evidence from other cultures, it is a somewhat culture/religiously specific reaction.

    Not really. I don’t think religion has to come into it.

    The WHO advisory was for “men who have sex with men” and also applied to various other high risk groups.
    Indeed, one of the arguments for same-sex marriage is precisely to help stability of same-sex relationships. Which a recent study suggests such recognition has that effect (pdf).

    You really think SSM would put a brake on men having 1000 partners a year/ boasting about it. I’m not so surely I don’t see the connection.

  6. HetroJim
    Posted July 31, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Mr Conrad.

    Penises and vaginas and what they are used for -just a social construct, is it? I assume you’re a male of some type. Try inserting your penis into a beer bottle and getting it pregnant. Let us know how successful that is

  7. Posted July 31, 2014 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] On social changes not going to the “it will be a disaster” script, apparently same-sex parenting Dads have similar brain reactions as to opposite-sex parents, but as a mixture of “Dad” and “Mom” responses in opposite sex parents. That would fit with other data, which suggests that same-sex oriented folk tend to be cognitively cross-matched (i.e. have a mixture of typical “male” and “female” cognitive traits).

  8. conrad
    Posted August 1, 2014 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    “Penises and vaginas and what they are used for -just a social construct, is it? I assume you’re a male of some type. Try inserting your penis into a beer bottle and getting it pregnant. Let us know how successful that is”

    No I think that what people think is “icky” is basically learnt. If you grew up seeing guys having it off all the time, I doubt it would worry you. The same goes for your parents and any number of other groups people don’t like to think about.

  9. conrad
    Posted August 1, 2014 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    “That would fit with other data, which suggests that same-sex oriented folk tend to be cognitively cross-matched (i.e. have a mixture of typical “male” and “female” cognitive traits)”.

    That might be true, although even if it wasn’t I really can’t see why it would make much difference in terms of childhood outcomes. People spend so much time thinking about what amounts to tiny and arguable aspects of behavior (which are massively variable cross-culturally, like, what is Dad behavior and how does affect childhood outcomes in important ways anyway?), but the reality is the two biggest environmental factors likely to affect you growing up in Aus are (1) how rich your parents are; and (2) whether you have one parent or two, which is highly correlated with (1).

    Both of these factors have a larger predictive power on childhood outcomes in places like Aus than any of these “are you parents matched well” etc. factors that these other factors are basically non-arguments in terms of whom we should allow to be parents. Thusm if you’re worried about childhood outcomes, worry about (a) poverty; (b) parental separation; and (c) associated factors like schooling. Everything else is so far down the scale, it’s hardly worth worrying about.

    So to me, these arguments are basically brought up to divert attention (generally in a politically motivated way) from the real issues, which we know about only too well.

    Even for other things apart from parenting, I still don’t the see the relevance of these difference to most things, including social change. Let’s say my girlfriend, apart from the physical, has more blokey characteristics than me. This would be atypical for partners, but I don’t see why this should happen to exclude us from anything. So even if gay relationships happen to differ in terms of the the distributions typically found on some characteristic, this is no argument against change and is certainly trumped by more general principles like fairness and equity.

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