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03/30/2014

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Pierre

To continue the conversation: I agree with all your points about Kekes’s short piece (I read it myself some months ago, and found it was beyond “awful”). I am more interested in his properly philosophical arguments, and believe that at least the most relevant of them should be addressed. Even an argument grounded on a misunderstanding may point to an important issue, and although I disagree with Kekes’s contentions and conclusions, I take it that we should usually be attentive to first-hand objections and not only to what we assume a conservative would object.

To this extent I believe that Kekes, however erroneous his contentions, is a decent representative of philosophical conservatism.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Pierre: Fair enough. I hope to check out some of Kekes' work this summer (though, for what it is worth, it is hard to believe that someone who could write a piece like the City Journal piece could be a very good philosopher! The mistakes, again, are pretty elementary).

In any case, what are the arguments/objections you think are worth taking seriously? Perhaps, if you present some of them here, we could discuss them...You could either present them here in the comments section--or perhaps, better yet, submit them to me as new, separate posts (individual posts on the specific ideas/arguments you think are worth taking seriously).

Pierre

Well, when I began some research on the opposition to equality/egalitarianism, I had hard times finding relevant or serious arguments. Beyond the debate within egalitarianism, there seemed to be nothing but gross misunderstanding and straw-man-objections. So when I read a piece of Kekes’s for the first time (“A Question for Egalitarians”, https://philpapers.org/rec/KEKAQF -- see also Linda Barclay’s response, https://philpapers.org/rec/BARTAT), I was quite happy: his objection was severely flawed, but at least he did not claim at the outset “Egalitarians are dummies”. Only then I found his short piece: back to Quixote bravely attacking a windmill. But I thought for myself: “Hey, he *is* able to act as a responsible philosopher, don’t mind what he says to his jolly conservative fellows.” (Moreover it would be neither entirely fair to him, nor philosophically rigorous to hold that, because in one occurrence he pressed ridiculous objections based on a gross misreading of Rawls and Dworkin, *all* his work should be discarded.)

As regards his serious work: I didn’t read all his books/papers (there are plenty of them and time is a scarce resource). I read large excerpts from his *Illusions of Egalitarianism* and *Against Liberalism*, which at least meet minimal standards of intellectual rigor -- not to say that they succeed in their overall rejection of liberalism/egalitarianism, but they do not fail out of treating egalitarians like dummies. I do not have the books with me now, but to sum up, he systematically restates “classical” contentions, directly addressing actual arguments (which he has the honesty to quote at length). So for example (the most recent in my mind), he restates the common objections “We are different in so many respects -- How could we be said to be equal?” and “We are not of equal moral worth --- What could ground moral equality, if not an empty logical subject, and why would this extend to humans only, given that this empty logical subject is so devoid of content (i.e. the actual differences between us, including moral differences)?” In the end, it turns out that both objections are misguided, but he states them cleverly enough not to bring ridicule upon himself.

His following argument is not stupid either: he considers the thesis that we are morally unequal, and aptly acknowledges that it has been used to support “great evils” (racism, sexism, etc.), and yet claims that we should accept it (e.g. a criminal and a saint are not of equal moral worth). In the end it turns out that he is simply restating a very weak egalitarian idea, namely, that we should not be treated unequally on the basis of irrelevant traits of ours.

The point is that, when he is acting as a responsible philosopher, what he writes is interesting (not always so), and perhaps even helpful, because it sheds light on some difficulties or issues on which a greater clarity is required.

Marcus Arvan

Pierre: I'll have to trust you for now that when he acts as a "responsible philosopher", what he writes is interesting. I do look forward to reading his "A Question for Egalitarians" and Barclay's response (both of which I just downloaded).

Fwiw, the arguments you mention here don't seem very interesting to *me*, at least offhand. The first main classical objection you mention, "How could we be said to be equal given our many differences?", seems to me plainly misguided (as you yourself note). So, what's so interesting about it?

And what's interesting about the other argument (about criminals)? As you note, the idea that we shouldn't treat saints and criminals the same way is about the *weakest* egalitarian claim I can imagine -- one that there no really interesting questions about.

Anyway, I know this sounds closed-minded, but I *will* take a look at his and Barclay's articles, as well as at a book or two of his this summer, and try to read with an open mind.

Pierre

Marcus, I perfectly understand your doubts: my interest is, to a large extent, intuition-laden, and we know how difficult it may be to share an intuition. At the start, I was working on the opposition to equality (see below), but found few relevant material beyond what egalitarians themselves have assumed could be objections to their theses (e.g. Parfit assuming that an opponent would press the leveling down objection). Most, if not all of what I found was so grossly flawed that I couldn’t honestly cite it. It would have been necessary to *improve* the opponents’ arguments before I could examine their strength.

To the contrary, Kekes provides a clever (yet unsuccessful) and surprisingly systematic statement of otherwise common objections. So the basic ideas are not new, but at least they are cleverly articulated. Even better, except for his short piece, he does not take egalitarianism to be whatever ridiculous thesis he wants it to be (his “A Question...” is quite weak in this respect, but to me it was useful, since it eventually helped me to clarify my own position). So I’ve come to think that, if we are to address objections to egalitarianism, it’s not such a bad thing to address (inter alia) Kekes’s objections.

On why I work on the opposition to equality: there are two main reasons. One is mere philosophical curiosity. The other, more important one, is that I believe (rightly I hope) that we should make our positions both robust enough to resist conservative/libertarian criticism, and mild enough to accommodate the most insightful (if any) elements they bring to the debate. If, in the course of doing so, it turns out that conservative objections fail or that conservatism is not really consistent, I won’t say I’m unhappy with this. My thesis (I am (re-)drafting a paper on this) is that we should adopt a variant of democratic egalitarianism, because (a) it is the most robust position with respect to conservative/libertarian objections (they cannot seriously reject at least its weakest form), and (b) it is basic enough as to require no trade-off against other values: thus the fear that pluralist egalitarianism could give up equality for the sake of pluralism is avoided.

Marcus Arvan

Pierre: your project sounds very interesting, and I think I understand your interest in the topic better now. That being said, I just read Kekes' "A Question for Egalitarians" and thought it was one of the worst philosophy articles I've ever read (I think it's an embarrassment that Ethics published it). Barclay's response, on the other hand, is entirely on point. Kekes' question fundamentally misunderstands Rawls (to an almost unbelievable extent), and egalitarianism more broadly.

Pierre

Marcus, I may be more charitable than you are, but our divergence on this point most likely depends on our experience (mainly reading and discussing). I’ve read many really crappy pieces (Rand, Rothbard) before I “encountered” Kekes, and had many discussions with people unbelievably not thoughtful, so that even a slightly more thoughtful argumentation then looked like philosophical heaven :)

Marcus Arvan

Pierre: maybe. Or maybe you just have a bad comparison class? I guess I could understand why Kekes might look good...compared to Rand and Rothbard. But isn't this like saying that Burger King looks healthy compared to McDonalds?

I mean, Barclay is *absolutely* right in her response to Kekes. She is right when she writes on p. 85, "Kekes’s subsequent argument against Rawlsian egalitarianism relies
upon collapsing these two quite distinct senses of what counts as a serious inequality and thus misconstrues how egalitarianism should be applied."

She is also plainly right when she writes in her concluding paragraph: "Kekes’s argument consistently relies upon misconstruing egalitarianism in all its versions. Egalitarianism properly construed does not commit us to the absurd policy of directing resources away from women to compensate men for their shorter life spans. To the contrary, it is egalitarianism which seems to explain our intuitions that such policies would be absurd. Kekes’s arguments inadvertently strengthen the plausibility of egalitarianism rather than undermine it."

By my lights, Kekes' piece in Ethics is no better than his piece in the City Journal (which you accept as awful). They both plainly attack straw men, and are based upon very basic misunderstandings of what egalitarian theories of justice claim.

Pierre

Marcus, I wouldn’t say that Kekes looks really “good”. I’m really being charitable (maybe excessively so): to go on with your analogy, if the most healthy conservative food today is Kekes, I’ll eat the Greek salad rather than the double-decker-burger-with-bacon. Given what “ordinary” conservatives seemingly praise these days, this looks better than nothing. (PhilPapers’s “Political Conservatism” category is surprisingly undernourished, and a quick look at what gets a 5-star rating on Amazon suggests that thoughtful conservatism is a scarce resource.) I prefer *treating* Kekes’s argument as an unfortunate misunderstanding rather than as a straw man. I do not deny that, in the end, the difference between the two is thin. Obviously no one would assert the claim Kekes attributes to egalitarians (and obviously neither Rawls nor Dworkin asserted it), but, out of charity (and out of necessity to rescue conservatism from its own weaknesses when it is sensible to do so), I read Kekes’s argument *as if* he did not claim any actual egalitarian had asserted the thesis to which he (Kekes) objects.

So to be sure this is wrong in one sense, for Kekes *does* claim egalitarians cannot avoid being committed to that thesis. And anyway his argument turns out to be poor (and of course Barclay is right on it), but it does shed light on what a conservative may “fear” and what misunderstandings we should repeatedly make clear are to be avoided/averted.

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