Social construction is not fact—and it is not fiction

July 30, JDN 2457965

With the possible exception of politically-charged issues (especially lately in the US), most people are fairly good at distinguishing between true and false, fact and fiction. But there are certain types of ideas that can’t be neatly categorized into fact versus fiction.

First, there are subjective feelings. You can feel angry, or afraid, or sad—and really, truly feel that way—despite having no objective basis for the emotion coming from the external world. Such emotions are usually irrational, but even knowing that doesn’t make them automatically disappear. Distinguishing subjective feelings from objective facts is simple in principle, but often difficult in practice: A great many things simply “feel true” despite being utterly false. (Ask an average American which is more likely to kill them, a terrorist or the car in their garage; I bet quite a few will get the wrong answer. Indeed, if you ask them whether they’re more likely to be shot by someone else or to shoot themselves, almost literally every gun owner is going to get that answer wrong—or they wouldn’t be gun owners.)

The one I really want to focus on today is social constructions. This is a term that has been so thoroughly overused and abused by postmodernist academics (“science is a social construction”, “love is a social construction”, “math is a social construction”, “sex is a social construction”, etc.) that it has almost lost its meaning. Indeed, many people now react with automatic aversion to the term; upon hearing it, they immediately assume—understandably—that whatever is about to follow is nonsense.

But there is actually a very important core meaning to the term “social construction” that we stand to lose if we throw it away entirely. A social construction is something that exists only because we all believe in it.

Every part of that definition is important:

First, a social construction is something that exists: It’s really there, objectively. If you think it doesn’t exist, you’re wrong. It even has objective properties; you can be right or wrong in your beliefs about it, even once you agree that it exists.

Second, a social construction only exists because we all believe in it: If everyone in the world suddenly stopped believing in it, like Tinker Bell it would wink out of existence. The “we all” is important as well; a social construction doesn’t exist simply because one person, or a few people, believe in it—it requires a certain critical mass of society to believe in it. Of course, almost nothing is literally believed by everyone, so it’s more that a social construction exists insofar as people believe in it—and thus can attain a weaker or stronger kind of existence as beliefs change.

The combination of these two features makes social constructions a very weird sort of entity. They aren’t merely subjective beliefs; you can’t be wrong about what you are feeling right now (though you can certainly lie about it), but you can definitely be wrong about the social constructions of your society. But we can’t all be wrong about the social constructions of our society; once enough of our society stops believing in them, they will no longer exist. And when we have conflict over a social construction, its existence can become weaker or stronger—indeed, it can exist to some of us but not to others.

If all this sounds very bizarre and reminds you of postmodernist nonsense that might come from the Wisdom of Chopra randomizer, allow me to provide a concrete and indisputable example of a social construction that is vitally important to economics: Money.

The US dollar is a social construction. It has all sorts of well-defined objective properties, from its purchasing power in the market to its exchange rate with other currencies (also all social constructions). The markets in which it is spent are social constructions. The laws which regulate those markets are social constructions. The government which makes those laws is a social construction.

But it is not social constructions all the way down. The paper upon which the dollar was printed is a physical object with objective factual existence. It is an artifact—it was made by humans, and wouldn’t exist if we didn’t—but now that we’ve made it, it exists and would continue to exist regardless of whether we believe in it or even whether we continue to exist. The cotton from which it was made is also partly artificial, bred over centuries from a lifeform that evolved over millions of years. But the carbon atoms inside that cotton were made in a star, and that star existed and fused its carbon billions of years before any life on Earth existed, much less humans in particular. This is why the statements “math is a social construction” and “science is a social construction” are so ridiculous. Okay, sure, the institutions of science and mathematics are social constructions, but that’s trivial; nobody would dispute that, and it’s not terribly interesting. (What, you mean if everyone stopped going to MIT, there would be no MIT!?) The truths of science and mathematics were true long before we were even here—indeed, the fundamental truths of mathematics could not have failed to be true in any possible universe.

But the US dollar did not exist before human beings created it, and unlike the physical paper, the purchasing power of that dollar (which is, after all, mainly what we care about) is entirely socially constructed. If everyone in the world suddenly stopped accepting US dollars as money, the US dollar would cease to be money. If even a few million people in the US suddenly stopped accepting dollars, its value would become much more precarious, and inflation would be sure to follow.

Nor is this simply because the US dollar is a fiat currency. That makes it more obvious, to be sure; a fiat currency attains its value solely through social construction, as its physical object has negligible value. But even when we were on the gold standard, our currency was representative; the paper itself was still equally worthless. If you wanted gold, you’d have to exchange for it; and that process of exchange is entirely social construction.

And what about gold coins, one of the oldest form of money? There now the physical object might actually be useful for something, but not all that much. It’s shiny, you can make jewelry out of it, it doesn’t corrode, it can be used to replace lost teeth, it has anti-inflammatory properties—and millennia later we found out that its dense nucleus is useful for particle accelerator experiments and it is a very reliable electrical conductor useful for making microchips. But all in all, gold is really not that useful. If gold were priced based on its true usefulness, it would be extraordinarily cheap; cheaper than water, for sure, as it’s much less useful than water. Yet very few cultures have ever used water as currency (though some have used salt). Thus, most of the value of gold is itself socially constructed; you value gold not to use it, but to impress other people with the fact that you own it (or indeed to sell it to them). Stranded alone on a desert island, you’d do anything for fresh water, but gold means nothing to you. And a gold coin actually takes on additional socially-constructed value; gold coins almost always had seignorage, additional value the government received from minting them over and above the market price of the gold itself.

Economics, in fact, is largely about social constructions; or rather I should say it’s about the process of producing and distributing artifacts by means of social constructions. Artifacts like houses, cars, computers, and toasters; social constructions like money, bonds, deeds, policies, rights, corporations, and governments. Of course, there are also services, which are not quite artifacts since they stop existing when we stop doing them—though, crucially, not when we stop believing in them; your waiter still delivered your lunch even if you persist in the delusion that the lunch is not there. And there are natural resources, which existed before us (and may or may not exist after us). But these are corner cases; mostly economics is about using laws and money to distribute goods, which means using social constructions to distribute artifacts.

Other very important social constructions include race and gender. Not melanin and sex, mind you; human beings have real, biological variation in skin tone and body shape. But the concept of a race—especially the race categories we ordinarily use—is socially constructed. Nothing biological forced us to regard Kenyan and Burkinabe as the same “race” while Ainu and Navajo are different “races”; indeed, the genetic data is screaming at us in the opposite direction. Humans are sexually dimorphic, with some rare exceptions (only about 0.02% of people are intersex; about 0.3% are transgender; and no more than 5% have sex chromosome abnormalities). But the much thicker concept of gender that comes with a whole system of norms and attitudes is all socially constructed.

It’s one thing to say that perhaps males are, on average, more genetically predisposed to be systematizers than females, and thus men are more attracted to engineering and women to nursing. That could, in fact, be true, though the evidence remains quite weak. It’s quite another to say that women must not be engineers, even if they want to be, and men must not be nurses—yet the latter was, until very recently, the quite explicit and enforced norm. Standards of clothing are even more obviously socially-constructed; in Western cultures (except the Celts, for some reason), flared garments are “dresses” and hence “feminine”; in East Asian cultures, flared garments such as kimono are gender-neutral, and gender is instead expressed through clothing by subtler aspects such as being fastened on the left instead of the right. In a thousand different ways, we mark our gender by what we wear, how we speak, even how we walk—and what’s more, we enforce those gender markings. It’s not simply that males typically speak in lower pitches (which does actually have a biological basis); it’s that males who speak in higher pitches are seen as less of a man, and that is a bad thing. We have a very strict hierarchy, which is imposed in almost every culture: It is best to be a man, worse to be a woman who acts like a woman, worse still to be a woman who acts like a man, and worst of all to be a man who acts like a woman. What it means to “act like a man” or “act like a woman” varies substantially; but the core hierarchy persists.

Social constructions like these ones are in fact some of the most important things in our lives. Human beings are uniquely social animals, and we define our meaning and purpose in life largely through social constructions.

It can be tempting, therefore, to be cynical about this, and say that our lives are built around what is not real—that is, fiction. But while this may be true for religious fanatics who honestly believe that some supernatural being will reward them for their acts of devotion, it is not a fair or accurate description of someone who makes comparable sacrifices for “the United States” or “free speech” or “liberty”. These are social constructions, not fictions. They really do exist. Indeed, it is only because we are willing to make sacrifices to maintain them that they continue to exist. Free speech isn’t maintained by us saying things we want to say; it is maintained by us allowing other people to say things we don’t want to hear. Liberty is not protected by us doing whatever we feel like, but by not doing things we would be tempted to do that impose upon other people’s freedom. If in our cynicism we act as though these things are fictions, they may soon become so.

But it would be a lot easier to get this across to people, I think, if folks would stop saying idiotic things like “science is a social construction”.

Unpaid work and the double burden

Apr 16, JDN 2457860

When we say the word “work”, what leaps to mind is usually paid work in the formal sector—the work people do for employers. When you “go to work” each morning, you are going to do your paid work in the formal sector.

But a large quantity of the world’s labor does not take this form. First, there is the informal sectorwork done for cash “under the table”, where there is no formal employment structure and often no reporting or payment of taxes. Many economists estimate that the majority of the world’s workers are employed in the informal sector. The ILO found that informal employment comprises as much as 70% of employment in some countries. However, it depends how you count: A lot of self-employment could be considered either formal or informal. If you base it on whether you do any work outside an employer-employee relationship, informal sector work is highly prevalent around the world. If you base it on not reporting to the government to avoid taxes, informal sector work is less common. If it must be your primary source of income, whether or not you pay taxes, informal sector work is uncommon. And if you only include informal sector work when it is your primary income source and not reported to the government, informal sector work is relatively rare and largely restricted to underdeveloped countries.

But that’s not really my focus for today, because you at least get paid in the informal sector. Nor am I talking about forced laborthat is, slavery, essentially—which is a serious human rights violation that sadly still goes on in many countries.

No, the unpaid work I want to talk about today is work that people willingly do for free.

I’m also excluding internships and student work, where (at least in theory) the idea is that instead of getting paid you are doing the work in order to acquire skills and experience that will be valuable to you later on. I’m talking about work that you do for its own sake.

Such work can be divided into three major categories.
First there is vocation—the artist who would paint even if she never sold a single canvas; the author who is compelled to write day and night and would give the books away for free. Vocation is work that you do for fun, or because it is fulfilling. It doesn’t even feel like “work” in quite the same sense. For me, writing and research are vocation, at least in part; even if I had $5 million in stocks I would still do at least some writing and research as part of what gives my life meaning.

Second there is volunteering—the soup kitchen, the animal shelter, the protest march. Volunteering is work done out of altruism, to help other people or work toward some greater public goal. You don’t do it for yourself, you do it for others.

Third, and really my main focus for this post, is domestic labor—vacuuming the rug, mopping the floor, washing the dishes, fixing the broken faucet, changing the baby’s diapers. This is generally not work that anyone finds particularly meaningful or fulfilling, nor is it done out of any great sense of altruism (perhaps toward your own family, but that’s about the extent of it). But you also don’t get paid to do it. You do it because it must be done.

There is also considerable overlap, of course: Many people find meaning in their activism or charitable work, and part of what motivates artists and authors is a desire to change the world.

Vocation is ultimately what I would like to see the world move towards. One of the great promises of a basic income is that it might finally free us from the grind of conventional employment that has gripped us ever since we first managed to escape the limitations of subsistence farming—which in turn gripped us ever since we escaped the desperation of hunter-gatherer survival. The fourth great stage in human prosperity might finally be a world where we can work not for food or for pay, but for meaning. A world of musicians and painters, of authors and playwrights, of sculptors and woodcutters, yes; but also a world of cinematographers and video remixers, of 3D modelers and holographers, of VR designers and video game modders. If you ever fret that no work would be done without the constant pressure of the wage incentive, spend some time on Stack Overflow or the Steam Workshop. People will spend hundreds of person-hours at extremely high-skill tasks—I’m talking AI programming and 3D modeling here—not for money but for fun.

Volunteering is frankly kind of overrated; as the Effective Altruism community will eagerly explain to you any chance they get, it’s usually more efficient for you to give money rather than time, because money is fungible while giving your time only makes sense if your skills are actually the ones that the project needs. If this criticism of so much well-intentioned work sounds petty, note that literally thousands of lives would be saved each year if instead of volunteering people donated an equivalent amount of money so that charities could hire qualified workers instead. Unskilled volunteers and donations of useless goods after a disaster typically cause what aid professionals call the “second disaster”. Still, people do find meaning in volunteering, and there is value in that; and also there are times when you really are the best one to do it, particularly when it comes to local politics.

But what should we do with domestic labor?

Some of it can and will be automated away—the Parable of the Dishwasher with literal dishwashers. But it will be awhile before it all can, and right now it’s still a bit expensive. Maybe instead of vacuuming I should buy a Roomba—but $500 feels like a lot of money right now.

Much domestic labor we could hire out to someone else, but we simply choose not to. I could always hire someone to fix my computer, unclog my bathtub, or even mop my floors; I just don’t because it seems too expensive.
From the perspective of an economist, it’s actually a bit odd that it seems too expensive. I might have a comparative advantage in fixing my computer—it’s mine, after all, so I know its ins and outs, and while I’m no hotshot Google admin I am a reasonably competent programmer and debugger in my own right. And while for many people auto repair is a household chore, I do actually hire auto mechanics; I don’t even change my own oil, though partly that’s because my little Smart has an extremely compact design that makes it hard to work on. But I surely have no such comparative advantage in cleaning my floors or unclogging my pipes; so why doesn’t it seem worth it to hire someone else to do that?

Maybe I’m being irrational; hiring a cleaning service isn’t that expensive after all. I could hire a cleaning service to do my whole apartment for something like $80, and if I scheduled a regular maid it would probably be something like that per month. That’s what I would charge for two hours of tutoring, so maybe it would behoove me to hire a maid and spend that extra time tutoring or studying.

Or maybe it’s this grad student budget of mine; money is pretty tight at the moment, as I go through this strange societal ritual where young adults go through a period of near-poverty, overwhelming workload and constant anxiety not in spite but because we are so intelligent and hard-working. Perhaps if and when I get that $70,000 job as a professional economist my marginal utility of wealth will decrease and I will feel more inclined to hire maid services.

There are also transaction costs I save on by doing the work myself. A maid would have to commute here, first of all, reducing the efficiency gains from their comparative advantage in the work; but more than that, there’s a lot of effort I’d have to put in just to prepare for the maid and deal with any problems that might arise. There are scheduling issues, and the work probably wouldn’t get done as quickly unless I were to spend enough to hire a maid on a regular basis. There’s also a psychological cost in comfort and privacy to dealing with a stranger in one’s home, and a small but nontrivial risk that the maid might damage or steal something important.

But honestly it might be as simple as social norms (remember: to a first approximation, all human behavior is social norms). Regardless of whether or not it is affordable, it feels strange to hire a maid. That’s the sort of thing only rich, decadent people do. A responsible middle-class adult is supposed to mop their own floors and do their own laundry. Indeed, while hiring a plumber or an auto mechanic feels like paying for a service, hiring a maid crosses a line and feels like hiring a servant. (I honestly always feel a little awkward around the gardeners hired by our housing development for that reason. I’m only paying them indirectly, but there’s still this vague sense that they are somehow subservient—and surely, we are of quite distinct socioeconomic classes. Maybe it would help if I brushed up on my Spanish and got to know them better?)

And then there’s the gender factor. Being in a same-sex couple household changes the domestic labor dynamic quite a bit relative to the conventional opposite-sex couple household. Even in ostensibly liberal, feminist, egalitarian households, and even when both partners are employed full-time, it usually ends up being the woman who does most of the housework. This is true in the US; it is true in the UK; it is true in Europe; indeed it’s true in most if not all countries around the world, and, unsurprisingly, it is worst in India, where women spend a whopping five hours per day more on housework than men. (I was not surprised by the fact that Japan and China also do poorly, given their overall gender norms; but I’m a bit shocked at how badly Ireland and Italy do on this front.) And yes, while #ScandinaviaIsBetter, still in Sweden and Norway women spend half an hour to an hour more on housework on an average day than men.

Which, of course, supports the social norm theory. Any time you see both an overwhelming global trend against women and considerable cross-country variation within that trend, your first hypothesis should be sexism. Without the cross-country variation, maybe it could be biology—the sex differences in height and upper-body strength, for example, are pretty constant across countries. But women doing half an hour more in Norway but five hours more in India looks an awful lot like sexism.

This is called the double burden: To meet the social norms of being responsible middle-class adults, men are merely expected to work full-time at a high-paying job, but women are expected to do both the full effort of maintaining a household and the full effort of working at a full-time job. This is surely an improvement over the time when women were excluded from the formal workforce, not least because of the financial freedom that full-time work affords many women; but it would be very nice if we could also find a way to share some of that domestic burden as well. There has been some trend toward a less unequal share of housework as more women enter the workforce, but it still has a long way to go, even in highly-developed countries.

So, we can start by trying to shift the social norm that housework is gendered: Women clean the floors and change the diapers, while men fix the car and paint the walls. Childcare in particular is something that should be done equally by all parents, and while it’s plausible that one person may be better or worse at mopping or painting, it strains credulity to think that it’s always the woman who is better at mopping and the man who is better at painting.

Yet perhaps this is a good reason to try to shift away from another social norm as well, the one where only rich people hire maids and maids are servants. Unfortunately, it’s likely that most maids will continue to be women for the foreseeable future—cleaning services are gendered in much the same way that nursing and childcare are gendered. But at least by getting paid to clean, one can fulfill the “job” norm and the “housekeeping” norm in one fell swoop; and then women who are in other professions can carry only one burden instead of two. And if we can begin to think of cleaning services as more like plumbing and auto repair—buying a service, not hiring a servant—this is likely to improve the condition and social status of a great many maids. I doubt we’d ever get to the point where mopping floors is as prestigious as performing neurosurgery, but maybe we can at least get to the point where being a maid is as respectable as being a plumber. Cleaning needs done; it shouldn’t be shameful to be someone who is very good at doing it and gets paid to do so. (That is perhaps the most pernicious aspect of socioeconomic class, this idea that some jobs are “shameful” because they are done by workers with less education or involve more physical labor.)
This also makes good sense in terms of economic efficiency: Your comparative advantage is probably not in cleaning services, or if it is then perhaps you should do that as a career. So by selling your labor at whatever you are good at and then buying the services of someone who is especially good at cleaning, you should, at least in theory, be able to get the same cleaning done and maintain the same standard of living for yourself while also accomplishing more at whatever it is you do in your profession and providing income for whomever you hire to do the cleaning.

So, should I go hire a cleaning service after all? I don’t know, that still sounds pretty expensive.

Moral responsibility does not inherit across generations

JDN 2457548

In last week’s post I made a sharp distinction between believing in human progress and believing that colonialism was justified. To make this argument, I relied upon a moral assumption that seems to me perfectly obvious, and probably would to most ethicists as well: Moral responsibility does not inherit across generations, and people are only responsible for their individual actions.

But is in fact this principle is not uncontroversial in many circles. When I read utterly nonsensical arguments like this one from the aptly-named Race Baitr saying that White people have no role to play in the liberation of Black people apparently because our blood is somehow tainted by the crimes our ancestors, it becomes apparent to me that this principle is not obvious to everyone, and therefore is worth defending. Indeed, many applications of the concept of “White Privilege” seem to ignore this principle, speaking as though racism is not something one does or participates in, but something that one is simply by being born with less melanin. Here’s a Salon interview specifically rejecting the proposition that racism is something one does:

For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing.”

If racism isn’t something one does, then what in the world is it? It’s all well and good to talk about systems and social institutions, but ultimately systems and social institutions are made of human behaviors. If you think most White people aren’t doing enough to combat racism (which sounds about right to me!), say that—don’t make some bizarre accusation that simply by existing we are inherently racist. (Also: We? I’m only 75% White, so am I only 75% inherently racist?) And please, stop redefining the word “racism” to mean something other than what everyone uses it to mean; “White people are snakes” is in fact a racist sentiment (and yes, one I’ve actually heard–indeed, here is the late Muhammad Ali comparing all White people to rattlesnakes, and Huffington Post fawning over him for it).

Racism is clearly more common and typically worse when performed by White people against Black people—but contrary to the claims of some social justice activists the White perpetrator and Black victim are not part of the definition of racism. Similarly, sexism is more common and more severe committed by men against women, but that doesn’t mean that “men are pigs” is not a sexist statement (and don’t tell me you haven’t heard that one). I don’t have a good word for bigotry by gay people against straight people (“heterophobia”?) but it clearly does happen on occasion, and similarly cannot be defined out of existence.

I wouldn’t care so much that you make this distinction between “racism” and “racial prejudice”, except that it’s not the normal usage of the word “racism” and therefore confuses people, and also this redefinition clearly is meant to serve a political purpose that is quite insidious, namely making excuses for the most extreme and hateful prejudice as long as it’s committed by people of the appropriate color. If “White people are snakes” is not racism, then the word has no meaning.

Not all discussions of “White Privilege” are like this, of course; this article from Occupy Wall Street actually does a fairly good job of making “White Privilege” into a sensible concept, albeit still not a terribly useful one in my opinion. I think the useful concept is oppression—the problem here is not how we are treating White people, but how we are treating everyone else. What privilege gives you is the freedom to be who you are.”? Shouldn’t everyone have that?

Almost all the so-called “benefits” or “perks” associated with privilege” are actually forgone harms—they are not good things done to you, but bad things not done to you. But benefitting from racist systems doesn’t mean that everything is magically easy for us. It just means that as hard as things are, they could always be worse.” No, that is not what the word “benefit” means. The word “benefit” means you would be worse off without it—and in most cases that simply isn’t true. Many White people obviously think that it is true—which is probably a big reason why so many White people fight so hard to defend racism, you know; you’ve convinced them it is in their self-interest. But, with rare exceptions, it is not; most racial discrimination has literally zero long-run benefit. It’s just bad. Maybe if we helped people appreciate that more, they would be less resistant to fighting racism!

The only features of “privilege” that really make sense as benefits are those that occur in a state of competition—like being more likely to be hired for a job or get a loan—but one of the most important insights of economics is that competition is nonzero-sum, and fairer competition ultimately means a more efficient economy and thus more prosperity for everyone.

But okay, let’s set that aside and talk about this core question of what sort of responsibility we bear for the acts of our ancestors. Many White people clearly do feel deep shame about what their ancestors (or people the same color as their ancestors!) did hundreds of years ago. The psychological reactance to that shame may actually be what makes so many White people deny that racism even exists (or exists anymore)—though a majority of Americans of all races do believe that racism is still widespread.

We also apply some sense of moral responsibility applied to whole races quite frequently. We speak of a policy “benefiting White people” or “harming Black people” and quickly elide the distinction between harming specific people who are Black, and somehow harming “Black people” as a group. The former happens all the time—the latter is utterly nonsensical. Similarly, we speak of a “debt owed by White people to Black people” (which might actually make sense in the very narrow sense of economic reparations, because people do inherit money! They probably shouldn’t, that is literally feudalist, but in the existing system they in fact do), which makes about as much sense as a debt owed by tall people to short people. As Walter Michaels pointed out in The Trouble with Diversity (which I highly recommend), because of this bizarre sense of responsibility we are often in the habit of “apologizing for something you didn’t do to people to whom you didn’t do it (indeed to whom it wasn’t done)”. It is my responsibility to condemn colonialism (which I indeed do), to fight to ensure that it never happens again; it is not my responsibility to apologize for colonialism.

This makes some sense in evolutionary terms; it’s part of the all-encompassing tribal paradigm, wherein human beings come to identify themselves with groups and treat those groups as the meaningful moral agents. It’s much easier to maintain the cohesion of a tribe against the slings and arrows (sometimes quite literal) of outrageous fortune if everyone believes that the tribe is one moral agent worthy of ultimate concern.

This concept of racial responsibility is clearly deeply ingrained in human minds, for it appears in some of our oldest texts, including the Bible: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,” (Exodus 20:5)

Why is inheritance of moral responsibility across generations nonsensical? Any number of reasons, take your pick. The economist in me leaps to “Ancestry cannot be incentivized.” There’s no point in holding people responsible for things they can’t control, because in doing so you will not in any way alter behavior. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on moral responsibility takes it as so obvious that people are only responsible for actions they themselves did that they don’t even bother to mention it as an assumption. (Their big question is how to reconcile moral responsibility with determinism, which turns out to be not all that difficult.)

An interesting counter-argument might be that descent can be incentivized: You could use rewards and punishments applied to future generations to motivate current actions. But this is actually one of the ways that incentives clearly depart from moral responsibilities; you could incentivize me to do something by threatening to murder 1,000 children in China if I don’t, but even if it was in fact something I ought to do, it wouldn’t be those children’s fault if I didn’t do it. They wouldn’t deserve punishment for my inaction—I might, and you certainly would for using such a cruel incentive.

Moreover, there’s a problem with dynamic consistency here: Once the action is already done, what’s the sense in carrying out the punishment? This is why a moral theory of punishment can’t merely be based on deterrence—the fact that you could deter a bad action by some other less-bad action doesn’t make the less-bad action necessarily a deserved punishment, particularly if it is applied to someone who wasn’t responsible for the action you sought to deter. In any case, people aren’t thinking that we should threaten to punish future generations if people are racist today; they are feeling guilty that their ancestors were racist generations ago. That doesn’t make any sense even on this deterrence theory.

There’s another problem with trying to inherit moral responsibility: People have lots of ancestors. Some of my ancestors were most likely rapists and murderers; most were ordinary folk; a few may have been great heroes—and this is true of just about anyone anywhere. We all have bad ancestors, great ancestors, and, mostly, pretty good ancestors. 75% of my ancestors are European, but 25% are Native American; so if I am to apologize for colonialism, should I be apologizing to myself? (Only 75%, perhaps?) If you go back enough generations, literally everyone is related—and you may only have to go back about 4,000 years. That’s historical time.

Of course, we wouldn’t be different colors in the first place if there weren’t some differences in ancestry, but there is a huge amount of gene flow between different human populations. The US is a particularly mixed place; because most Black Americans are quite genetically mixed, it is about as likely that any randomly-selected Black person in the US is descended from a slaveowner as it is that any randomly-selected White person is. (Especially since there were a large number of Black slaveowners in Africa and even some in the United States.) What moral significance does this have? Basically none! That’s the whole point; your ancestors don’t define who you are.

If these facts do have any moral significance, it is to undermine the sense most people seem to have that there are well-defined groups called “races” that exist in reality, to which culture responds. No; races were created by culture. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: The “races” we hold most dear in the US, White and Black, are in fact the most nonsensical. “Asian” and “Native American” at least almost make sense as categories, though Chippewa are more closely related to Ainu than Ainu are to Papuans. “Latino” isn’t utterly incoherent, though it includes as much Aztec as it does Iberian. But “White” is a club one can join or be kicked out of, while “Black” is the majority of genetic diversity.

Sex is a real thing—while there are intermediate cases of course, broadly speaking humans, like most metazoa, are sexually dimorphic and come in “male” and “female” varieties. So sexism took a real phenomenon and applied cultural dynamics to it; but that’s not what happened with racism. Insofar as there was a real phenomenon, it was extremely superficial—quite literally skin deep. In that respect, race is more like class—a categorization that is itself the result of social institutions.

To be clear: Does the fact that we don’t inherit moral responsibility from our ancestors absolve us from doing anything to rectify the inequities of racism? Absolutely not. Not only is there plenty of present discrimination going on we should be fighting, there are also inherited inequities due to the way that assets and skills are passed on from one generation to the next. If my grandfather stole a painting from your grandfather and both our grandfathers are dead but I am now hanging that painting in my den, I don’t owe you an apology—but I damn well owe you a painting.

The further we become from the past discrimination the harder it gets to make reparations, but all hope is not lost; we still have the option of trying to reset everyone’s status to the same at birth and maintaining equality of opportunity from there. Of course we’ll never achieve total equality of opportunity—but we can get much closer than we presently are.

We could start by establishing an extremely high estate tax—on the order of 99%—because no one has a right to be born rich. Free public education is another good way of equalizing the distribution of “human capital” that would otherwise be concentrated in particular families, and expanding it to higher education would make it that much better. It even makes sense, at least in the short run, to establish some affirmative action policies that are race-conscious and sex-conscious, because there are so many biases in the opposite direction that sometimes you must fight bias with bias.

Actually what I think we should do in hiring, for example, is assemble a pool of applicants based on demographic quotas to ensure a representative sample, and then anonymize the applications and assess them on merit. This way we do ensure representation and reduce bias, but don’t ever end up hiring anyone other than the most qualified candidate. But nowhere should we think that this is something that White men “owe” to women or Black people; it’s something that people should do in order to correct the biases that otherwise exist in our society. Similarly with regard to sexism: Women exhibit just as much unconscious bias against other women as men do. This is not “men” hurting “women”—this is a set of unconscious biases found in almost everywhere and social structures almost everywhere that systematically discriminate against people because they are women.

Perhaps by understanding that this is not about which “team” you’re on (which tribe you’re in), but what policy we should have, we can finally make these biases disappear, or at least fade so small that they are negligible.