Morality, inequality, and charity

If Tim is correct that he has a higher IQ than Polly Toynbee, then this is unfair. Dissembling nature has blighted Polly with lesser abilities to perform certain kinds of cognitive acts, abilities that Tim has in such abundance that he is able to demolish my feeble arguments in less than a paragraph.

Polly and I both have powers of reasoning inferior to that of Tim Worstall. These are brute facts of reality. We are each born with a different set of endowments, and this places limits on what we can achieve. Life is unfair. And Tim is right that calling these brute natural inequalities “immoral” is a misuse of words, and I concede the point.

Something can be unfair without necessarily being immoral. We speak of something being “immoral” when it falls within the realm of human choice. It is unfair that Tim is cleverer than Polly Toynbee (as he assures us he is), but it wasn’t Tim’s decision (or anyone’s decision) that this should be so.

But sometimes things are both unfair and immoral. Society, being the product of human choice, is a realm in which we can say that because something is unfair it is immoral. Society is the way it is because people have chosen that it should be that way. Our society is riddled with inequalities of power and wealth that are not the result of nature. And this is unfair and immoral.


Readers will be familiar with the arguments of the philosopher John Rawls, whose big idea was that justice is fairness. There are arguments along Rawlsian lines that a certain degree of inequality is justifiable, because it is necessary to reward those gifted individuals who can improve the collective human condition to such an extent that even the very poorest are made better off than they would be in a more equal situation. But these arguments only enter into consideration after we have established the idea that the first and fairest way of distributing humanity’s finite resources is equally. Equality of resources should be the baseline, and any deviation from that equality should be determined on a case-by-case basis.


Put it like this: if, at some point in the future, humanity develops technologies that enable us to improve our cognitive capacities in various ways, including perhaps elevating poor old Polly Toynbee to the intellectual heights of the likes of Tim Worstall, then it would be fairest to distribute that technology as equally as possible. It would, I think, be immoral to restrict such a technology to only those with enormous wealth and power. At this point one’s IQ would cease to be a brute fact of nature, and would become a question of fairness. We – that is, humanity – would have  to choose how to distribute the gifts of intelligence, just as we now choose how to distribute the gifts of material wealth.

And this brings us back to charity. If you accept that chosen inequalities are morally objectionable, then any situation where one person has surplus wealth that they can choose to give to someone in need of that wealth, in turn becomes morally objectionable. Charity becomes an issue of private virtue and public vice. On an individual basis, charity is laudable, but when politicians start praising charity or calling for a ‘big society’, we should be more condemnatory. Politicians should be in the business of making a better society, not in perpetuating the inequalities of existing society. The better society is one with robust and non-voluntary social supports, not soup kitchens.


Anyway, Merry Christmas.



The dearth of *monetisable* investment opportunities

Isn’t the problem here that there is a lack of monetisable investment opportunities, rather than a lack of investment opportunities per se?

I mean, the Internet is a great invention, but a lot of the benefits it brings people’s lives aren’t directly exploitable by capitalists. The blogosphere has been a huge benefit to my personal education and self-actualisation, but none of those benefits have resulted in profit going to capitalists. People write blog posts for free and I read them for free (modulo the cost of an Internet connection and PC). Both bloggers and readers get something beneficial out of the exchange, but no actual money changes hands.

This highlights one of the big problems with capitalism: investment isn’t directed towards things that are actually useful or beautiful, but towards things out of which capitalists believe they can make money. A classic example of this problem is the development of new antibiotics. Because of the development of drug-resistant bacteria, we need new antibiotics, and we need new ways of combating bacterial infection.  But these new ways aren’t being developed because there isn’t any obvious way for private businesses to profit. “Antibiotics are a one-and-done treatment, and are far less profitable for Big Pharma than drugs taken daily to treat chronic conditions and, preferably, have no competition to keep costs down.”

Another acute technological problem lies in transport. This guy has a good explanation as to why private-sector companies won’t invest in Elon Musk’s Hyperloop concept, but he can’t seem to recognise that the obvious solution is to simply have government pay for it. Investing in uncertain, expensive, and speculative technologies is one of the things that government is for.

One of the most frustrating things about the privatisation vs. nationalisation debate is how irrelevant it is. Ultimately, you’ll still have scientists and engineers in labs and workshops trying to solve the problem. It is not clear to me that there is any systematic difference between private and public enterprise in this regard. Great innovations have come out of both publicly and privately-funded initiatives (although it should be noted that most of the really big, important innovations have been paid for by the government; aerospace, the development of the electricity grid, the Internet, the World Wide Web, GSM, most of the early work in computers…).

The solution to both anti-bacterial resistance and the transport problem and global warming is to “just get on with it”. If the private sector won’t pay for it then democratically-accountable governments should. Ultimately someone needs to pay for and manage the research and technological investment programmes necessary to solve our problems. Rather than dicking about playing at shops, we (i.e. humanity) should just get on with it.