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Bungling the libertarian tweet

I should start a category here, called Twitter Over-reaching or Trying to Say Too Much in a Tweet or Twitter Is Not the Place for Grand Generalizations, or something. Because I keep seeing people doing that, and it can be funny or pathetic or destructive or all those.

The latest one that I’ve noticed is by Peter Boghossian. It’s not part of a larger conversation, the previous and following tweets aren’t related, so it really is meant to stand alone and say something true.

Attempts to engineer social justice will be unfair if they target equality of outcome as opposed to equality of opportunity.

He’s a philosopher and I’m not, but that just looks silly to me. Attempts will be unfair? They’ll be unfair if they target equality of outcome? Just like that? Really? Attempts to aim for equality of outcome will be unfair, just like that, with no qualification?

I could see saying that insistence on mandating equality of outcome will be unfair. I could see it and probably even agree with it. But that’s not what he said. He said something much more limited, and thus much more realistic and un-strawmannish, and thus much more reasonable and fair to the opposition – but then he drew an unreasonable sweeping conclusion anyway.

Attempts to aim for equality of outcome can mean for instance trying hard to do away with obstacles, including non-obvious ones that take digging and research to find. Will that be unfair? If so, why?

It’s the familiar libertarian bullshit, of course, but in trying to put that in a reasonable way and doing it on Twitter, I think he ended up with obvious nonsense.

Comments

  1. R Johnston says

    Quite obvious nonsense. Targeting equality of opportunity is targeting equality of outcome as far as targeting of equality of outcome actually happens. There are few if any genuine communists amongst us these days, insisting that everyone should equally share in property. Essentially no one is claiming that all individuals should have the same outcome in life. What we do have, however, is people who would aim for historically disadvantaged groups having the same distribution of outcomes across their population as their historically advantaged counterparts have. The people who would aim for such equality of outcome also generally believe that such equality of outcome would necessarily follow from a genuine equality of opportunity and seek to bring it about precisely by equalizing opportunity.

    The real meaning of the drivel in the tweet is that we should make superficial efforts to achieve equality of opportunity and turn our backs on reality when those superficial efforts don’t actually equalize opportunity or improve anyone’s lot in life.

  2. Anthony K says

    What is this nebulous concept of ‘fair’ that they keep dry-humping, and why is it important? Or is this some Tall Poppy Syndrome Hurts Innovation and Efficiency bullshit?

    Fuck that. For real solutions to real human problems by real humans in real cultures I’ll take Eating Christmas in the Kalahari over libertarian philosowanking any day.

  3. iknklast says

    Is it all right if I say I’m getting sick and tired of libertarians? Or am I being unreasonable and biased?

  4. says

    I think he ended up with obvious nonsense.

    I see no reason to suppose that he started with anything else. That line isn’t due to the limitations of Twitter; I’ve encountered it nearly verbatim on blogs and in meatspace as well. It’s a standard part of libertarian dogma, which, combined with their devotion to the Just World fallacy, is used to argue against any efforts whatsoever to address inequality.

  5. sambarge says

    How does one test the equality of opportunity without looking at equality of outcome?

    Equality of opportunity is useless if you don’t believe that humanity, in general, is equal in ability. If you accept the concept that, personal strengths, interests and talents aside, all humans are born equal in potential, and you fight for equality of opportunity, then aren’t you actually fighting for equality of outcome?

    Surely what we’ll see is equality of outcome because obstacles are removed and all people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, etc. are created equal. There should be just as many successful people from every group, proportional to that groups’ representaion in a given society. If that hasn’t happened then you don’t have equality of opportunity. You must have systemic obstacles as yet unidentified by those gate-keepers of “opportunity”.

  6. says

    I keep hearing about all these liberals demanding that everyone be equally successful, regardless of effort or competence, but I have never actually seen them. I must therefore conclude they are working in secret and are all the more dangerous for it.

  7. says

    Dalillama, well I know, but he in fact did put the premises carefully (not overstatedly), but then drew a careless conclusion anyway. I found that kind of interesting – starting out with apparent understanding of what it’s reasonable to claim and what it’s not, and then ending up with the opposite. All in one tweet.

  8. Lee Holland says

    To me his quote simply means that we too often get wrapped up in filling quotas when trying to enable diversity in all sectors of our lives.

    It’s kinda like the difference in forcing your children to eat broccoli every night at dinner, versus simply teaching them to like broccoli.

    That’s just my interpretation. I don’t have a problem with the quote.

  9. Bjarte Foshaug says

    Why am I getting the feeling that by “equality of opportunity” he means the mere absence of any explicitly discriminating laws?

  10. says

    Essentially no one is claiming that all individuals should have the same outcome in life.

    Even Marx didn’t aim for “equality of outcome”. He said “from each according to ability, to each according to need”. If people need different things, having (not aiming for) equality of outcome *would* be unfair, even to a communist.

  11. R Johnston says

    Bjarte Foshaug @9:

    That feeling comes from a lifetime of interaction with conservatives and libertarians, for whom, at least if you believe their rhetoric is reflective of their beliefs, inequality can be oppressive only if it comes with a government stamp of approval.

    And, of course, even your formulation is too kind to libertarians. They would demand that the government pass laws to enforce the validity of explicitly discriminating contracts.

  12. says

    That feeling comes from a lifetime of interaction with conservatives and libertarians, for whom, at least if you believe their rhetoric is reflective of their beliefs, inequality can be oppressive only if it comes with a government stamp of approval.

    Some go farther, and state that inequalities which exist due to private power, only do so because the government uses its power to allow private power to do so. You’ll find this reasoning where you see libertarians arguing that monopolies can’t exist without government backing, and corporations are only evil because government, and so forth.

  13. says

    I don’t think Boghossian is a Libertarian. You’d need more evidence than this before drawing that assumption (and you know what Ally Fogg says about pigeon holing…).

    Even just going on that tweet (and I have long agreed with your general point that Twitter is the very worst pace for things like this; one of the reasons I’m not on Twitter), there are tons of things that could equalize at the opportunity level that Libertarians would have a wild sputtering fit over and dogmatically rail against.

  14. Anthony K says

    (and you know what Ally Fogg says about pigeon holing…)

    It’s an effective and efficient way to categorize people, especially when you’ve encountered a lot of them, because people for the most part aren’t really all that notably distinct as individuals and so you’ll only be occasionally wrong?

  15. R Johnston says

    Anthony K @14:

    In fact it’s a necessary tool if you’re going to have a useful understanding of anything more than a tiny fraction of the people you meet. Provisional assessments must sometimes be highly provisional, but so long as there’s any evidence to bear on a topic they must actually be assessments as well.

    People are individuals, but they’re people too. Generalizations about people can be accurate (libertarians have incoherent notions of liberty and equality and conservative people with incoherent notions of liberty and equality can generally have a wide range of their beliefs estimated accurately by assuming libertarianism) or inaccurate (blacks are lazy); they can be based on inherent differences (women have less testosterone than men) or social construct (women are more likely than men to take up knitting); they can serve as good proxies for individualized evaluation (minors are incompetent to consent to sex with people more than a couple of years older than they are) or bad proxies for individualized evaluation even if they’re generally accurate (women lack the strength to manually move 80 lb. boxes for a living).

    Whether it’s right or wrong to draw provisional assessments of a person based on generalizations about a category of people that person belongs to is a question of whether or not those generalizations are accurate and useful and of whether or not you’re really open to changing your mind in the face of individualized evidence. Claiming that no provisional assessments should ever be made based on generalizations is generally a lazy way of disagreeing with a particular generalization without bothering to explain why that generalization is wrong or problematic. It is a recipe for being so open minded that your brain falls out.

  16. says

    AFAIK bogossian is indeed libertarian, I took some classes in his department and worked with him for a number of speaking events when I was with cfi. Ophelia is pretty spot on in her reading of his usual message. Carefully thought out presentation – sweeping conclusion. The man is exhausting to deal with when he’s a speaker.

  17. chrislawson says

    Boghossian’s tweet is missing the point (even accounting for the 140-character limit). No system is “fair” in the absolute sense. The question should be about which system is *most* fair. Mandating equal outcomes in some cases is absolutely the right thing to do. It should be illegal to pay a black person less for the same work as a white person. This is mandating an outcome. Sure there will be some poor white workers who get the same pay for doing better work than a black person, but there will also be vice-versa situations — and at least the unfairness is no longer based on the worker’s skin colour.

    It’s like voting. There’s a neat mathematical proof that no voting system can be perfectly fair — but that doesn’t mean we should abandon one-person-one-vote democracy.

  18. dylan says

    The “equality of outcomes” versus “equality of opportunities” distinction is nonsensical on its face. One generation’s outcomes are the next generation’s opportunities.

  19. Gary Longsine says

    As Richard Carrier mentions above, Twitter doesn’t lend itself especially well to the sorts of discussions that would arise from these quips. Boghossian generally also posts these distilled quips to Facebook and sometimes Google Plus, where more detailed responses are possible.

    It’s difficult to critique Boghossian’s motivation when considering one of these quips in isolation. It appears to me that Boghossian is basically trying to distill certain complex topics down to a Twitter-sized bite to see what comes out, and to see if it’s possible, and to see if it’s a useful exercise. Anyone who has ever tried to simplify an idea knows the value of the exercise isn’t uniform across every attempt.

    Sam Harris tried a similar experiment a couple years back on his FaceBook page. He tried to come up with aphorisms, to see if he could generate them intentionally. He abandoned the effort after a short while, in part because his experiment seemed to show that it wasn’t worth the effort. Aphorisms would arise naturally, or they wouldn’t, in the course of his other work.

    Reading through, say, the aphorisms of Oscar Wilde, it’s easy to see that the results of such an exercise are mixed, too. Some are clever and true, some are silly, some are mere deepity or even sophistry. Wilde, however, was focused on being witty, whereas Harris sought to reveal a more consistently authentic truth. I suspect that in the end, sometimes truth requires a few more words, on average, than clever deception or raw humor, and truth might not always lend itself to witticism.

    Boghossian seems to have nixed the aphorism’s need to be witty and memorable, and instead seems to be seeking to produce statements One-Tweet concise, a dryer Tweephorism, if you will. Sometimes with greater success than other times, the experiment has lasted longer. He’s had some success on his facebook page with generating interest in the abstractions and stimulates occasionally passionate and well reasoned responses.

    It would be a challenge, in Peter Boghossian’s work, to recognize a libertarian streak of the modern Ayn Rand / Ron Paul / Rand Paul sense. Boghossian pretty clearly doesn’t fit that mold—unsupported assertions to that effect notwithstanding. He seems more aligned with the tradition of modern scientific humanism/liberalism which derives from Enlightenment Liberalism. Anyone engaged in discussions of moral philosophy is familiar with this line of attack, though. Rather than engage the idea, just try to label the person as the worst kind of some other side in the debate.

    Contemporary libertarians are dogmatic, rejecting mountains of evidence that unregulated capitalism is destructive of various social goods while asserting such ridiculous claims as corporations equivalent to people for the purposes of rights. Most of the politicians claiming to be libertarians are slightly veiled theocrats, with the Paul’s theocratic inclinations being a well documented example. They’ll consider Boghossian to be their enemy, once they realize who he is and what he’s saying about dogmatic belief formation.

  20. Dunc says

    What is this nebulous concept of ‘fair’ that they keep dry-humping, and why is it important?

    Well, I don’t know what Peter Boghossian means by it, but if you’re really interested, John Rawls is probably the man to start with. His best known work (“A Theory of Justice”) is pretty heavy going, but the core concepts are fairly well summarised on wikipedia, at Justice as Fairness and A Theory of Justice.

  21. says

    Anthony K #15:

    It’s an effective and efficient way to categorize people, especially when you’ve encountered a lot of them, because people for the most part aren’t really all that notably distinct as individuals and so you’ll only be occasionally wrong?

    Yeah seriously. Mainstream skepticism still often falls into the two main pitfalls of any political discussion:

    1) It is unfair to treat right-wingers as a cohesive group. Ever. Especially when linking establishment rightists to Unacceptable groups like neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Pay no mind to the dog-whistle behind the curtain. (On the other hand, assuming say that the Dems all support leftist causes, or in other words that all liberals are leftists and all leftists are the same [and all Dems are liberals], is perfectly fine.)

    2) Political ideology lies in a mystical, magical second part of the brain that has absolutely no effect whatsoever on right-wingers’ behaviour.

  22. Anthony K says

    Dunc, I know Rawls, though admittedly I haven’t read Nozick, whom I understand to have written Anarchy, The State, and Utopia as a refutation of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. (I bring up Nozick because he’s much more in favour of limited state than Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ would warrant, and much more favored by libertarians than Rawls.)

    Perhaps that’s what Boghossian means by fairness, but from the little context of the tweet it’s hard to say.

  23. Anthony K says

    It would be a challenge, in Peter Boghossian’s work, to recognize a libertarian streak of the modern Ayn Rand / Ron Paul / Rand Paul sense. Boghossian pretty clearly doesn’t fit that mold—unsupported assertions to that effect notwithstanding. He seems more aligned with the tradition of modern scientific humanism/liberalism which derives from Enlightenment Liberalism. Anyone engaged in discussions of moral philosophy is familiar with this line of attack, though. Rather than engage the idea, just try to label the person as the worst kind of some other side in the debate.

    Ah, a pigeon-holing fail! I really should look to see what Ally Fogg says about it.

  24. says

    I don’t think I actually said Boghossian is a libertarian. I don’t know that he is, though from the little I know about him I think he leans that way – but I think, I don’t know.

    But the tweet seems to be making a libertarian claim.

    On the other hand he replied to my tweet yesterday with what I guess is supposed to be a clarification or correction, but I can’t figure out what he means by it (mostly because it doesn’t jibe with what the tweet said).

    Tweet is abstracted from Rawls’ Theory of Justice. *Criticisms* of this idea are made by libertarians, like Nozick.

    Can you figure out what that means? The tweet is “abstracted from” ToJ? What does that even mean? And I know perfectly well that libertarians like Nozick are critical of Rawls, but what does that have to do with that tweet? And how would he expect anyone to know that was what he meant in the first place? As I mentioned, the tweet stood alone; it wasn’t part of a series, and nothing about Rawls led up to it.

    I replied that I couldn’t make sense of his reply, and he replied that Rawls is complicated and ToJ is long. Well I knew that too, but I don’t see the relevance.

    Total failure of communication.

  25. Gary Longsine says

    If the phrase, “abstracted from” in this context is mysterious or confusing, I highly recommend reading the marvelous book Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter. Boghossian is using the term in a sense employed routinely in mathematics, computer science, and philosophy, but apparently uncommon enough in general usage that it didn’t appear in a couple of the online dictionaries that I checked (to my surprise). I had to go to Wikipedia to find a good discussion of it. Wikipedia on: How Geeks Use the Word Abstract

    Albert Einstein famously once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” It seems obvious enough that the entire exercise is an effort to distill philosophical concepts down to an essence which fits in a Tweet. It may not always work, but it’s a fun exercise.

  26. says

    When I was deputy editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, one of the chief rules I operated under when sub editing was NO TERMS OF ART. None; zero; not even one. No language that will be opaque to an educated but not-necessarily-philosophically-trained readership.

    That was a whole magazine, not a tweet. A tweet seems like an especially peculiar place to use a term of art to explain an opaque tweet.

  27. says

    To me his quote simply means that we too often get wrapped up in filling quotas when trying to enable diversity in all sectors of our lives.

    In other words, it’s a reactionary racist dogwhistle that equates “attempts to engineer social justice” with “quotas” or some other form of “affirmative action.” (As for whether it’s “libertarian,” all I can say is that it’s one of many reactionary dogwhistles that Republicans routinely use, and libertarians incorporate into their sham “ideology” when they find it useful.)

  28. Gary Longsine says

    No, I meant exactly what I said. As I mentioned, I was surprised to find the meaning not included in a couple dictionaries.

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