Thursday, August 04, 2016

Are the Social Elite Moral Experts?

Michael Huemer has just published an ambitious and interesting article defending the idea that global moral progress toward "liberal" values is best explained as a result of the gradual discovery of the truth of those values. By "liberal", Huemer means views that recognize the equal dignity and worth of diverse people and oppose gratuitous coercion and violence. (Published version here; free preprint here.)

I'm inclined to accept Huemer's big-picture view (with some hesitations and modifications). But I want to highlight one passage for discussion. It concerns "reformers" -- the people who see past the prevailing norms of their day and push toward moral progress (e.g., early anti-slavery activists, early advocates of women's right to vote).

... reformers tend to be disproportionately influential members of society. They are more likely, for example, to be authors, professors, other intellectuals, or business or political leaders, as opposed to members of less influential professions. This is because the ability to see through errors in prevailing social norms will be strongly correlated with one’s degree of intelligence and reflectiveness, which itself is correlated with belonging to relatively socially influential professions.

In the manuscript preprint, but not in the final published version, the passage continues:

For example, a talented writer who wants to promote greater tolerance for homosexuality will have more influence on society than a steel worker who wants attitudes toward homosexuality to stay the same. That is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point that people who desire social reform tend to have much more influential social positions than the average member of society.

So: Is it true that intellectuals and business leaders are more likely to see beyond the moral errors of their culture and more likely to desire social reform?

This is partly an empirical question. It would be interesting to see some empirical data on this. My hunch, though, is that the situation is more complicated than Huemer suggests.

Here's what strikes me as likely to be right about Huemer's claim in the quoted passages:

The social and intellectual elite will, on average, have traveled and read more widely than others. As a result, (1.) they will, on average, have been exposed to a greater variety of social norms, including some that conflict with the local cultural norms of their childhood, and this is a plausible source of social and moral insight; and (2.) they will, on average, tend to have more cosmopolitan worldviews in general, seeing less of a divide between themselves and the social elite in other societies to which they have been exposed.

The social and intellectual elite might also, on average, have more social opportunity to advance reforms that they care about, especially if pushing for reform can advance their career goals (e.g., giving them opportunities to write attention-grabbing articles).

However, I hesitate to draw the conclusion that members of socially elite professions have more accurate moral views in general or are more likely to desire social reform.

Here are some of my reasons for hesitation:

* The view comes across as a little bit elitist and self-congratulatory, at least on the surface. I say this not as a personal critique of Huemer, but just as a thought about how these statements read at first glance. These are reasons not to accept the view quickly or casually, without careful examination of alternative possibilities.

* Members of socially elite professions tend to be people who are benefiting from the status quo, so it would be surprising if they were disproportionately dissatisfied with the system that has put them in their positions of power.

* Huemer is emphasizing certain sorts of moral norms on which, I agree, there has been a lot of progress in the past couple of centuries, and for which there is at least some superficially plausible reason to think intellectuals might tend to be opinion leaders -- what he calls the "liberal" norms of non-violence and equal rights. But of course there are many other arguably ethical norms on which it's not clear we have made progress, and on which it's harder to build a case that intellectuals and businesspeople exhibit leadership, such as norms of kindness and thoughtfulness to those around us (not being a jerk) and norms of modesty, restraint, and humility. It seems to me at least possible that whatever cosmopolitan liberal insights the social elite may tend to have are approximately counterbalanced by a tendency toward lack of insight on some of these other issues.

* Suppose we grant that intellectuals are more likely to develop radical new moral insights at variance with their culture. One possible explanation is greater moral intelligence. But another possibility might be something like a random walk view: Intellectuals might tend to to reject culturally prevailing norms in all directions, good, bad, and sideways, just because part of being an intellectual means questioning existing norms. We might then disproportionately remember the ones who endorsed views that we now favor and disproportionately forget the ones who advocated breaking cultural norms in ways that we don't favor -- e.g., calling for eugenics, increased colonization, nudist communes, forcible religious conversion, unrealistic utopian social planning, etc. This disproportionate forgetting might lead to the impression in retrospect that intellectuals tend to be insightfully ahead of their time.


HT: Helen De Cruz, "Who Needs Moral Experts, Anyway?"


Related posts:

Steven Pinker: "Wow, How Awesome We Liberal Intellectuals Are!" (Apr 13, 2012)

On Whether the Rich are Jerks (Mar 31, 2012)

[image source]


Arnold said...

Can philosophical elitism provide for the objective of morality, the necessity of Suffering...

Today, can liberal values interact with our world's diverse psychological states; affirming denying reconciling them to progress-sustain life on earth...

Anonymous said...

Couldn't it be that, since some would-be reformers are less visible than the social elite (due to their class, gender, etc.), the reformers we remember only get to be influential by virtue of their social position? Maybe I'm stating this really strongly, but it seems like there's a difference between (a) seeing past the moral errors of one's contemporaries AND getting recognized for it, and (b) seeing past the moral errors of one's contemporaries, but being in no position to make those insights public. If it turns out to be true that many reformers are among the elite, that might have less to do with the conditioning that comes with being elite, and more to do with having opportunities to be a reformer.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, that sounds plausible to me. I think this is closely related to one point that Huemer and I agree on, which is that the social elite probably, on average, have more opportunity to advance reforms that they care about. What you say seems consistent (would you agree?) with the view that the social elite are neither more likely than the nonelite to see beyond the errors of their culture or to desire social reform. It could partly explain, among other things, why the people we remember as visible advocates of reform tend to have been among the social elite.

Marco Devillers said...

As a counterargument I would suppose the social elite live in their own bubble best described as an upper class cocktail party. They don't meet whores, drug addicts, social outcasts, or even the severely ill; so I would assume that the elite neither learns to understand or sympathize with them. It's a setup for moral outrage founded in inanity.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ouch! I agree that there's some truth in that, Marco. I might rephrase slightly in terms of their *perspective* on prostitution and drugs (as consumers of the expensive versions), and if journalism counts as an "elite" profession in the relevant sense, most journalists aren't especially wealthy and insulated. Still, the general point about what parts of life the intellectual elite are exposed to, and how that can be a source of ignorance, seems quite right to me.

Callan S. said...

Somewhat like Marco's comment, why do they think they are 'socially influential professions'?

What steel workers are listening to them?

Kallan Greybe said...

I'd probably second Marco and anonymous in that privilege has a lot to say in this context, but if you'll forgive me going political, an interesting puzzle comes from the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour party in the UK. If you actually read his policies, Corbyn is a pretty middle of the road social democrat and he was elected the leader of an historically social democratic party (with union roots, so yes, wrinkles). We're basically in "bears shit in the woods" territory here... or at least we should be. The actual backlash however has been horrendous, and it's come at all levels. We've had it from established interests within the party, where you can kind of get where they're coming from even if you think they're being venal wankers about it, to large tracts of the mainstream press where it's almost impossible to see why these people care.

My point is that this whole thing hints at what seems like a very weird ideological cross-pollination between the media and the political elites in the UK. I don't *think* we're at the level of Manufacturing Consent, but the sense that the political and media backlash against him isn't simply self-serving, but strongly ideological, is palpable and suggests to me that something is deeply wrong with the institutions.

At the very least it suggests that ideology is a real problem for elites.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Callan: Good point. Interesting to think about what measures are of social influence that don't presuppose an elitist perspective, by which journalists and professors are members of influential professions. I do think it is probably so, just in terms of the average number of people who hear their opinions, compared to the number who hear the opinions of the average steel worker. But maybe that's not totally straightforward or exactly the right measure, since "hearing opinions" is not the same as social influence.

Kallan: I can't comment on Corbyn in particular, but certainly the dynamic between politicians and the press can be strange and insular!

Callan S. said...

Hundreds of other steelworkers would hear the opinion of the average steelworker. And that's just in one workplace. Over all the workplaces, millions will hear that steelworker, as the things said are pretty much the same amongst them all.

Arguably these journalists and professors aren't in influential professions at all. How often, on average, do they share their opinion with anyone who doesn't already hold much the same opinion?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan, I'm not sure how you're understanding influence here? Two people can of course have the same opinion without one influencing the other. But it also seems right to point out that to the extent a journalist fails to move readers, that's a lack of influence.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Backing up, I'm not really interested in arguing that the average journalist is more socially influential than the average steel worker. So let's just put "influential" in scare quotes. Does that work for present purposes.

Arnold said...

Working with influence, as scary, then could 'mean' it is useful in the progression of liberal values...the values in facing and Understanding one's fears...

Flannery Wilson said...

"Members of socially elite professions tend to be people who are benefiting from the status quo, so it would be surprising if they were disproportionately dissatisfied with the system that has put them in their positions of power."

This is a classification error, in my view. Here's why: there are 1) members of a "social elite" and 2) members of a "social elite" who are currently in positions of power. The difference between the two is crucial. Some people (especially younger people on the whole) grew up with wealthy parents, a good education, and everything else. When the economic crisis hit, those same people were unable to find gainful employment and have struggled ever since. We are the people who see the trouble with the status quo, and have felt powerless to change it. But this needn't be so. Because this group of dissatisfied millennials is so large, and the will to succeed so strong, I see changes to the system coming. Or at least. I hope so.

Great blog, Eric!
Here's mine, FYI -- "Speaking for Myself."