#39 On moral luck

Dear Mat,

I fear this is boiling down to an ancient disagreement over how much we should care about something, rather than whether we should care about it. You agree that women are treated unfairly, but say the problem will never be solved perfectly, or even satisfactorily. So… should we not even try to solve it somewhat satisfactorily?

Social problems have been solved somewhat satisfactorily (never perfectly) in the past. At all times conservatives argued that they couldn’t or shouldn’t be solved. Thinking the status quo is there for a good reason, and benefitting by it, they have no incentive to help the causes of others. Indeed, because solving social problems is hard and generally results in less of the share of the pie for those in ascendency, they have skin in the game to actively stymie those causes.

There are different differences and it’s hard to separate them into what we should consider fair and unfair. You’re born in a time and place, with a certain genome, parents, neurochemistry, social class, sex, race and congenital conditions. It’s all luck. Sidenote that belief in libertarianism is most popular among wealthy males. Skin in the game.

I tend towards utilitarian criteria: how much the difference impinges on freedom and wellbeing; and then how much ameliorating those differences can be achieved without disproportionate cost or harm to others. That’s something like your threat to civilisation criterion, which is sane, but can be invoked to veto any reform.

I argue that civilisation didn’t work in the past, especially from the point of view of women who didn’t want to play a restricted, pre-determined role. Ditto for non-believers, dissenters, racial outsiders, queer people and slaves.

Jordan Peterson works with pathology, where pathological means unconventional. His solutions are those of a clinical psychologist who by definition never works with healthy people who buck trends. Those solutions work reasonably well for neurotic, dysfunctional people who often have to go back to basics.

Undermining the traditional role of the mother is neither pathological nor will it bring down civilisation. Indeed, doing so is the very summum bonum of contemporary civilisation. Interestingly it’s mainly the post-agricultural idea of mother that is being undermined, with alloparents being a seemingly universal feature of tribal societies. Regardless, both models are out of date. The birth-control using, daycare supplementing, non-homeschooling, maternity/paternity leave utilising parents of rich countries today live better (= freer & less suffering) lives than ever before, having successfully partially emancipated themselves from the traditional roles. Or they decide not to have kids at all, without being socially denigrated as infertile demons or failed humans.

Undermining a role doesn’t mean destroying it, but providing optionality for those who don’t want their allocated role. Again, it makes sense that people want to maintain a status quo that has “worked” for a long time. The point about a status quo is that there is always a minority for whom it doesn’t work, who want to change it because it disadvantages them and in many cases kills them for subverting it. It is extremely easy to be part of the dominant group and write them off as tampering, or shortsighted, or — in full troll mode — a tyrannical minority.

Ugh, this seems like an even older argument now: How quickly should reform happen? Not too quickly because it upsets society, but urgently because people are suffering, etc. I don’t want crazy, utopian reform, but any status quo should always be subjected to some kind of Rawlsian test to simulate skin in the game, where you could randomly be plonked down in any position in it.

Hope I answered most of your questions,


PS You can’t see a regulated capitalist system working? I assume this is a misunderstanding, I just mean basically the current system. No totally unregulated markets (without contract laws and other things I mentioned) exist because they end in monopoly, ruin and war.

Also published on Medium.