25 February 2013

On envy and resentment, social inequality, and what to do about it (or: the conundrum of distributive justice)

- from our correspondent at the Augean Stables

I haven't yet studied the material, because I encountered statements such as the following:

"The manifestations of jealousy are determined by the normative and institutional structure of the given society. This structure defines the situations in which jealousy shows itself and regulates the form of its expression. It follows that unless jealous behaviour is observed in different cultures, unless a comparative point of view is adopted, it cannot be intelligently comprehended as a human phenomenon."

Words like 'normative and institutional structures' give me the (intellectual) creeps! So I prefer to start by making clear to myself how I understand it from my own experience, which is directly available to me. In order to read and understand what I read from that point of view, i.e. my own. To be truthful, this understanding of my own experience is definitely formed by what I have learned so far in life, including by studying natural law and Thomas Aquinas. And by Eric Voegelin, of course, which must be the reason why I find the above statement a typical and nonsensical statement out of the positivist social sciences. These people! They must be doing it on purpose! Just to keep busy 'observing in different cultures' and ask for research and travel grants.

'Envy' is at the basis the direct result of a conflict between my interest (what I want) and the world, including other people, frustrating that interest. In most cases it appears as if my interest is frustrated by other people putting themselves between my interest and its realisation, because the objects of my interest are their (exclusive) property, so that I envy them for being in the position to the object of interest I would like to occupy. E.g. I can envy them for having such a beautiful appartment in the middle of the Marais in Paris.

But on closer examination, this is never the true source of my frustration: the ultimate source of my frustration always lies with myself. E.g. I don't have the money (or the wish to sacrifice other interests to have the money available) to buy my own beautiful appartment. If I envy Prince Rogers Nelson for his talent as a pop musician, it's only because I don't have his talent.

I'm thinking hard about cases where the frustration of my interest is not ultimately related to myself. And I can't find any. As a student travelling through Europe, I constantly envied people for having the chance to live where they lived and not in drab Belgium, e.g. the Sorrentines on the Amalfi coast, or the Venitians in Venice. But that kind of envy is also ultimately related to myself, because it is related to my fate. The day I will lose my legs in a traffic accident, I will start envying all the people who had a better fate (and there are still quite some people around with all their legs, so my feeling of unjust bad luck will be enormous).

That's where resentment really comes from and is the strongest, when the frustration and envy is related to my fate, the things about myself I cannot influence at all. And in truth, ultimately it always is! In the example of the beautiful appartment in the Marais this indirect relationship goes like this: to buy my own I would have to give up other things, which I could but don't want to do. If only I had inherited such an appartment, I could have one without a need to make such a choice. But I haven't. That's fate!

Conclusion: envy and resentment are always a revolt against myself and my fate. And I only have the choice between accepting my fate (and giving up my envy and resentment) or not accepting my fate (and acting out my revolt typically by holding other people responsible for my fate). As other people are never responsible for my fate any more than I am myself, only the first choice is lawful, whereas the second choice necessarily is unlawful, i.e. it will dispose me to commit unjust acts and to invent untruthful justifications for those unjust acts.

(If other people are indeed responsible for my fate, I'm not going to envy them! I'm going to be justly angry at them, like at the drunken driver who cost me my legs, and I'll ask for restitution!)

Jealousy is either simply a synonym of envy: I'm jealous of him because he has found a way to seduce that beautiful girl whereas I failed (if only by making no attempt). Or it points to a feeling coming from unlawful proprietorship. I cannot really be jealous of my rights, I can only be jealous of my privileges. Sexual jealousy is a very interesting thing, but that's for my own book, and unlawful proprietorship is always involved, I think: nobody can own his woman, or any woman, as she is a person of her own.

So, we're back to natural law, from where we should never have left. For contemporary Western politics it means that all of it, and most obviously social-democratic promotion of social justice, is a revolt against the fate of natural inequality based on the cultivation of envy: a clear disrespect of the natural law. Inherited wealth is unjust? The inheritor didn't take it, he received it from someone else, who was free to do other things with it than leaving it to the inheritor. Go back in time? We will most certainly somewhere reach a point where unlawful appropriation played a role in getting the chain of wealth accumulation started. There will also be unlawful expropriations in that chain. Heck, there must be quite a number of virtually wealthy inheritors living today who were unjustly deprived of their lawful inheritance somewhere in the past! At any rate, the only way to correct the injustices of the past is by committing new injustices in the present and perpetuate the chain of injustice. That's not a warning. In Frédéric Bastiat's time around 1850 it may have counted as a warning. Today it's simply a description of the Western political society we're living in. Anthony de Jasay has a few funny articles where he explains the fallacies in 'equality of opportunity' thinking, using the metaphor of the moving goal posts. There simply is no end to ending inequality of opportunity, that's a logical fact.

PS: I'm probably going to read the stuff from the Greeks, but somehow don't really feel the need for it. I've got enough thoughts of my own already for my book, which is about natural law and the sexual nature of man, hence the title: "Tractatus logico-sexualis".

On inequality and what to do about it (or: the conundrum of distributive justice)

Inequality (of chances) is a fact of life: it is our fate (individually and collectively), and the meaning of the word fate is precisely that our fate amounts to undeserved luck or the lack of it.

We do not choose to play the lottery of life, but if we want to abstain from playing we can (suicide).

Whenever I encounter somebody whose fate I do not prefer, I have no reason to complain about inequality (although compassion does give me a reason to start complaining on behalf of the other's bad luck); whenever I encounter somebody whose fate I do prefer I have a reason to complain about inequality even without knowing how my fate relates to the mean or average fate (and sympathy with the other's good luck will not stop me from complaining); therefore everybody (except 1 as long as I remain within just 1 dimension of the inequality problem) in the end has a reason to complain about inequality.

End result (taking into account all forms of inequality): strictly everybody has at least one valid reason to complain about inequality.

Because everyone has a reason to complain about inequality, the obvious question seems to be: ought we to do something about inequality? The most problematic word in this obvious question is "we", the second most problematic word is "something".

If "we" is understood in the sense of "each of us", the question becomes trivial, because all that "each of us" can do about inequality is to accept it and to make the best of it.

Therefore the obvious question necessarily leads to another understanding of the word "we", namely "we together". This in turn leads to the question by which decision rule will we decide "together". Unanimity, which is the only decision rule that fully respects the will of each of us (and thereby the "natural" rule), will never lead to a decision on the "something" we ought to do about inequality, not just because there are so many "somethings" from which we can choose, but because every "something" will be vetoed by someone of us.

The tension between the obvious question (we all want to do something about inequality because we all see the potential gain) and the absence of an acceptable solution will lead to (but must it lead to?) power play on the choice of the decision rule, with each of us only having one aim in mind, namely to be among the winners of the power game and not among the losers. The name of that power game is "politics", and democratic "rules" cannot change its nature as a power game.

If we assume that compassion with other people's bad luck more than envy of other people's good luck is what drives us to the conclusion that "we ought to do something about inequality", then it should be possible to steer ourselves away from the power game implied by collective action, because abstaining from collective action doesn't exclude voluntary individual contributions out of compassion (charity).

PS: Some time ago there was a long interview with Bea Cantillon in the newspaper, director of some important research center for social policy in Belgium. The main idea she expressed in that interview was about the problem she had with the idea that the social status of a person is ultimately his own responsibility: that couldn't be true, as bad luck (or fate) obviously played a role.

Now, elementary reasoning on causality should permit her to see that the social status of a person is indeed the result of the combined effect of fate and effort, and given the complexity of the causal chain, that it is simply impossible to neatly separate the consequences of fate from the consequences of effort.

How can that be a problem for her? Only if her unavowed purpose is to create more confusion in favour of some ideologically motivated decision she's having in mind all along. And apparently newspapers think they have to offer her a platform for that unavowed purpose. Which makes you suspect a conspiracy! Or just an awful lot of stupidity in the higher echelons of our political system (institutionalised irresponsibility). 

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