Robin Hanson has wondered why folks seem concerned about inequality based on some stuff, like race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and disability, but not other stuff, like height, appearance, intelligence, sleep, conscientiousness, and perhaps most importantly, happiness.
My explanation: Race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and disability are fairly discrete ways of classifying people. Most people (though not all) can be categorized fairly neatly in to a single race, birth gender, desired gender, and sexual orientation. By contrast, looks, smarts, and happiness all vary in a continuous fashion. For some/all of these characteristics, there's a bell curve--many people in the middle and fewer people at the extremes.
Why should this matter? One of the things that comes up a lot on this blog is how irrational people tend to get when talking about politics. For a really rousing political argument, you need group identification--hence the Greens and the Blues in Eliezer's original politics essay. How would that essay be different if everyone was a different shade of turquoise, somewhere on a continuum between blue and green?
Or here's another thought experiment: Instead of height varying in a continuous fashion, everyone in society is either a Tall or a Short. Just like in the real world, taller people tend to make more money and assume more leadership roles, but instead of saying "he got the job because he's taller", people would say "he got the job because he's a Tall". How well do you think society would handle this? (BTW, looks like shorter people live longer, so height inequality may actually favor shorter folks on balance.)
Speculation on factional conflict and social distance
The hypotheses I'm advancing here is that an argument between, say, a radical feminist and a men's rights activist, is not all that different in kind from an argument between a Democrat and a Republican, an Israeli and a Palestinian, or a Hutu and a Tutsi. (Regarding gender in particular: factional conflicts may be harder to spot when almost every human is a member of one relevant faction or another. There's no big, neutral third party to say stuff like "wow, this is getting kinda out of hand".)
Why do people think about competing factions this way? Well, humans are social animals that evolved to live in tribes. Much hunter-gatherer violence was inter-tribal.
The more iterated a prisoner's dilemma is, the more it makes sense to lean towards cooperation. Dilemmas between fellow tribe members would be highly iterated; dilemmas between tribes less so. Additionally, people of different factions would likely have lower genetic similarity--note family feuds, for example.
The below XKCD comic illustrates what I suspect may be a resulting fact about human nature: we're less likely to have friendly, empathetic feelings for those who seem distant or abstract.
More evidence for this idea:
- The book Bargaining for Advantage cites studies showing that negotiations via email face an increased risk of impasse. This effect can be mitigated by giving email-based negotiators each others' photos and explicitly instructing them to "schmooze" and share information on hobbies, families, etc.
- In Randall Collins' book Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory, he writes that infantry in close combat use their weapons at a lower rate than artillery/snipers. Also, "Battle victors hate to see the eyes of the enemy they are killing... Eye-to-eye confrontations, however truncated, between holdup man and victim, appear to be unbearable for the gunman to sustain." (HT TGGP.)
- The identifiable victim effect--people are more willing to donate to charity when presented with a single, identifiable victim than casualty statistics.
Speculation on equality and fairness
Why does so much inter-factional conflict focus on issues of inequality? Robin Hanson's guess: "our distant ancestors got into the habit of complaining about inequality of transferable assets with a tribe, as a way to coordinate a veiled threat to take those assets if they were not offered freely." I'm not sure agree with this 100%. I suspect that inequality between tribes (e.g. over access to salt, as mentioned in War Before Civilization) may have been a bigger issue than within-tribe inequality. And "veiled threat" doesn't seem quite right--I suspect the feeling that things are unfair and I deserve more is just a signal for me to take stuff from others, in the same way hunger is a signal for me to eat stuff. (Yes, many of us modern humans are generally pretty good about suppressing this "things are unfair" instinct, but that doesn't mean our ancestors were.)
To replicate one's genes, it's useful to have certain things like food, water, and respect. But there's not always an unlimited supply of this stuff, and the only way to get more of it may be to get others to give it to you. You could forcefully demand all of it, but if there's more than one person doing that, you're liable to trigger an expensive fight (or lose your credibility for making forceful demands). Additionally, demanding all of a resource will trigger fiercer resistance from others, who really need at least some of it. Demanding that you get one Nth of some important resource, where N is the number of people fighting over the resource, is a strategy that won't cause you to come in to conflict with others doing the same.
Equitable distribution doesn't necessarily maximize collective utility, however. A world where the supply of disposable diapers was distributed equitably would have substantially less utility than the current world, where disposable diapers are concentrated in the hands of people who have young children.
From fairness to empathy
Pat and Jesse are roommates. Pat enjoys doing something that also happens to annoy Jesse. Consider the following two scenarios:
Scenario A: Jesse asserts a right to not be annoyed. Pat responds by accusing Jesse of being oversensitive and asserts a right to continue with the activity.
Scenario B: Jesse shares preferences. Pat shares preferences. They work together to find the solution that satisfies their collective preferences maximally. This solution could involve a behavioral change on Pat's part, a behavioral change on Jesse's part, some combination, or Jesse just learning to live with the activity. Throughout their discussion, they make it clear to each other that they respect and like one another and care about each others' preferences. They don't worry too much about who is "giving in" or "making a concession", and are careful to make requests rather than demands.
I think most people would agree that Scenario B is ideal. Unfortunately, many modern conversations about social justice look more like Scenario A. It's common, for instance, for members of different groups to argue about who has it worse. This seems like a failure mode for a number of reasons:
- Speaking for myself, I know that the problems I am experiencing myself are way more salient in my mind than the problems I hear that others have, and I tend to assume my problems are more widespread than they really are. So even if one party does have things worse, this may not be clear to the other party unless they correct internally for these effects.
- If my problems weren't salient already, complaining about them to someone else in an emotionally heated argument will ensure that they become salient. Yay, problems I'm constantly thinking about!
- When others ignore your complaints about your own problems and focus on their own, that causes you to become resentful. If they're not going to listen to you, why should you listen to them? The result is that everyone complains, getting increasingly resentful, and no one listens.
- And finally, figuring out who has it worse doesn't immediately take steps towards achieving anyone's preferences.
This dialogue may be better than nothing, just because preferences do end up getting communicated. But I think we can improve on it. In particular, listening to other peoples' preferences seems pretty key for priming cooperative, friendly behavior and getting them to consider yours. "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." (Note: This can be tough.)
To give a concrete example: Maybe women have a preference for not being objectified sexually that men don't share. Men can respect and work to achieve that preference even if they don't share it--empathy over fairness!
Of course, if priming cooperative behavior fails to work, continued loud complaining may be optimal. Sometimes cycles of defection can't be broken.
Several years ago, I was taking a political science class and the professor was discussing feminism. At one point, the (male) professor said something like "But beyond all this, women are just better than men, and I think we all know it." This offended me, and I fumed to myself internally, thinking that if he'd made the opposite claim he'd probably get in trouble with the administration of the college, etc.
You may already have an opinion on this issue, thinking that either I should not have gotten offended or the professor should not have made his statement. But lets look through this issue through the Pat and Jesse lens. I have a preference for people to respect me, and for me not to feel angry and offended. There are a few different ways for these preferences to be achieved. There's not necessarily a "right" way. Preferences about my misfiring fairness neurons are preferences like any others. (I'm living in a first-world country that's the product of thousands of years of technological development. I've got all the food I want. In theory, grabbing even more resources shouldn't be a very high priority, but my brain still wants to do it. Hence the "misfiring" allegation against my neurons.)
Unfortunately, we all have these unwanted instincts. I think it makes sense to try to avoid activating the instincts in both yourself and others. I'm glad that saying "People of Group X suck" is considered worse than saying "You suck"--Western society has developed some useful memetic antibodies to nip inter-factional conflicts in the bud.
Thanks to HughRistik for offering feedback on this post.