The Moral Assumptions Within Income-Inequality Arguments

Throughout all the Sturm und Drang of the politics of wealth redistribution — intensified since the 2008 financial crisis — various groups assembled to review options to moderate the gap between rich and poor. Usually, such groups issue reports filled with dismal statistics and urgent demands for sweeping economic change, couched in language that suggests, but never justifies, a moral imperative to act.
Case in point: Laura Kiesel, writing for MainStreet, quotes a recent Oxfam International report alleging that the wealthiest 1 percent of the world’s wealthy now control 48 percent of the world’s wealth, and that the 85 wealthiest people on earth control as much wealth as the 3.5 billion people on the bottom end of the scale. Let us assume, prima facie, that the Oxfam International report is accurate. Many commentators immediately jump to the assertion that such an imbalance of wealth is politically and morally objectionable.
Question: Why is wealth imbalance morally objectionable?
One common rhetorical strategy is to assert that a specific cohort of people find imbalance to be unfair. And if it’s unfair, then clearly it’s unethical. Recent polling suggests that Americans making above $70k favor redistribution methods by about 54 percent, but for households below $30k, the rate jumps to 74 percent. The less you have, the more you resent those who enjoy plenty, and the more you’re excused for your resentment. A delicious interplay of argumentum ad misericordiam and argumentum ad populum.
Resentment, though, isn’t a compelling moral justification for the confiscation of another’s assets. (Although, I suppose, it could be a perfectly valid political justification, depending on the health of the state.) We haven’t really gotten to the heart of the question, yet, so let’s come back to Oxfam. Kiesel’s article addressed the group’s “Seven Point Plan” to reduce income inequality by clamping down on tax dodging, offering free/universal health and education, shifting tax burdens from labor/consumption to wealth, moving toward so-called living wages, introducing equal-pay laws, guaranteeing a minimum basic income and agreeing to “a global goal to tackle inequality.”
The ideologically astute will no doubt observe that Oxfam’s laundry list hews astonishingly close to the default policy preferences of the Far Left and includes major policy points that aren’t central to the goal of significantly flattening the distribution curve. Either Oxfam and its coreligionists have cornered the market on the best way to make everyone’s life better, or they’re singing to the Marxist-Leninist choir from The Hymnal of the Righteous.
Righteous. A curious term. An interesting tidbit about moral philosophy: It’s the twin to aesthetics. Go to any Philosophy 101 textbook worth its salt and look at the various trees of specialization beneath philosophy as a discipline. You find theories of fact — metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, etc. — and theories of value. There are only two value theories in philosophy: ethics and aesthetics. The first addresses the question of what is right, and the second, what is beautiful. But their approaches are largely similar, and they deal with similar concerns about universality and interpretation.
Within the discipline of moral philosophy, several paradigms assert themselves. None really offers a compelling, immediately obvious justification for the assertion that income inequality is, ipso facto, a morally blameworthy scenario:

  • Divine Command: In the Christian world, the highest commandment is to “love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” In practice, this commandment preaches individual generosity to the poor and the avoidance of ostentatious consumption. Significantly, Biblical norms address an individual person’s responsibility to assist the poor, not a state’s obligation to prevent poverty. It’s a big leap to claim that Scriptural injunctions to alleviate the suffering of the least well-off requires the coercive power of government.
  • Natural Law: This approach is probably the least favorable to wealth distribution among all the main ethical paradigms.
  • Deontology: A good deontologist is a slave to duty. Although a person can assert some duty to help the poor, someone else can assert a counter-duty to maximize the efficiency of capital. Duty-based ethics is more about process and intent rather than outcome; a duty-based claim in favor of redistribution can be countered with a duty-based claim against it.
  • Consequentialism: In the mode of moral reasoning that elevates the outcome above all other considerations, the moral nod goes to the person who can make the most sound and convincing claim about what will follow if some action is or isn’t undertaken. As such, consequentialism itself — like deontology — is indifferent to the plight of the poor, except in those cases where a person advances an argument related to the poor that’s more compelling than the counter-argument.
  • Egoism: If you’re a “have not,” you want to become a “have;” if you’re a “have,” you want to avoid becoming a “have not.” Because the locus of moral reasoning is on the self, egoism does not readily admit to compromise positions for sweeping social issues.

So the point of the bullets, above, is to merely indicate that there’s no obvious, inherent moral imperative to support wealth redistribution. Many, many arguments pro and con litter the rhetorical landscape, some more convincing than others, but the fundamental point is that redistribution is a conclusion, not a premise, within the broader economic debate.
Question (again): Why is wealth imbalance morally objectionable?
Many worthy arguments both favor and oppose the significant redistribution of capital. I think, though, that the real question here isn’t moral, it’s aesthetic. People look at the juxtaposition of a wealthy person like Bill Gates or Carlos Slim or a prince of the Saudi royal family, relative to an emaciated child living in the slums of an Indian metropolis or in a camp in the East African desert, and find the comparison to be not beautiful.
It takes a callous soul to argue that it’s beautiful that some people live in palaces, dining on endangered species, while other people live in rape tents, dining on a few bugs and table scraps. Inequality, in its extremes, is ugly. And because it’s ugly, we are tempted to flip from the aesthetic to the ethical side of the philosophical coin and therefore conclude that it’s also inherently immoral. (Such a move is common: Think of how many book and movie villains aren’t just evil, they’re also deformed in some physical or psychological manner.)
The thing is, many ugly things are perfectly OK from an ethical standpoint. Controlled burns of national parks, for example. And many beautiful things are morally repugnant: Look at the formal photos of a child bride on her wedding day for a case study.
The moral dimension of wealth inequality cannot be trumped with the “ugly” card. We need reasonable debate to ensure that the self-righteousness that comes from privileging our moral positions as assumptions instead of arguments, yields to a degree of good-faith pragmatism that keeps us from demonizing the Other. Even when the Other is a guy worth billions of dollars and you’re left paying for a useless graduate degree in puppetry.
Because when your aesthetic sense tricks you into thinking that your moral preferences are normative, you won’t stop at income inequality. You will, like Oxfam International, subsume a whole list of policy preferences under the pristine banners of Progress, giving you the joy of righteousness while guaranteeing your efforts will come to naught.

Aesthetics as a Guide to the Applied Epistemology of Ideology

There is an essential piece of philosophy that seems to be missing from the broader public debate about ideology that, if properly understood, may improve the amount of intellectual charity in circulation amongst the chattering classes, and thereby decrease (even if slightly) the amount of ugliness in the naked public square.

A small but growing number of bloggers and columnists has recently made references to ideology in ways that, I think, are unfortunate. The thesis they advance is that the various bases of the electorate (the progressives, the cultural conservatives, the centrists) hold within their ideology essentially the same positions on most major issues, and the bases resort to increasingly self-referential sources of information locused primarily from within their ideology. This phenomenon — whether you call it the “echo chamber” or “epistemic closure” or simply “closed-mindedness” — is uniformly ascribed as a negative. The idea that certain people prefer, on the whole, to engage ideas with which they are already in agreement, and to avoid information sources that originate from outside their received orthodoxy, is widely condemned by political and cultural elites.

The argument that these thought leaders seem to make is thus: It is dangerous for large swathes of the electorate to seek, as their primary information sources, news or opinion content that already fundamentally agrees with their worldview. The elites argue (not unpersuasively) that engagement with “external” ideas will provide for a more nuanced understanding of one’s own opinions while cultivating a deeper and more respectful appreciation for those with whom we disagree. In short, a diversity of opinion will tend to lead to a more respectful public discourse, with more enlightened discussants.  This argument is why some criticize sources like Fox News as being an “echo chamber” of essentially the same self-reinforcing opinions.

Of course, this bare-bones argument is open to myriad attacks:

  • NPR and MSNBC are no different, in terms of having a categorical ideological perspective, from Fox!
  • Why should conservatives have to “engage” with liberal ideas but liberals are under no similar obligation?
  • Progressives have their own echo chamber (have you browsed HuffPo lately?), so why aren’t they being criticized?
  • Et cetera, ad nauseam.

But the point really isn’t to attempt to rebut or refute the underlying argument, for truthfully, I happen to agree with it.  I think it’s a wise idea to seek new ideas and explore radically different perspectives.  I sometimes read Tom Friedmann or David Corn or Eric Alterman even though I am almost always not persuaded by them.  In addition to being an occasional subscriber to National Review and First Things and The Weekly Standard, I have been a paying subscriber to The Nation and Mother Jones.  A prudent commentator knows not only the substance of his own positions, but also the substances of the positions with which he disagrees.  And while I still actively read the RSS feeds for NRO’s The Corner and RedState, inter alia, I also subscribe by RSS to FireDogLake, Reason Magazine, Salon, Slate, The Atlantic’s politics feed, The Economist and The Note from ABC News.

This is not a “hooray for Jason” moment, for I believe that any educated person needs to make a similar effort to understand the rationale behind another’s perspective. Rather, it’s a concession, from the beginning, that I am uncomfortable with people who refuse to leave their “echo chamber” of self-referential political truisms.


I do not believe that the prevailing orthodoxy is appropriately sensitive to the interplay between ideology and epistemology.

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the sources and methods of human knowledge. The questions of how we can know something, and the content of the information we believe we know, all rolls under this philosophical discipline. Within philosophy, the Queen of the Sciences herself, there is a very specific taxonomy that often surprises some people:

(a visio chart of a high-level breakdown of philosophy as an intellectual enterprise)
Simple Taxonomy of Philosophy, (c) 2010 Jason E. Gillikin.

Epistemology, that intellectual bugaboo invoked by some commentators to criticize those who are disinclined to look outside their own ideology for much of their political information, is a theory of fact. Epistemology tells us what, and how, we know things. Applied epistemology, in a political context, can quite helpfully offer a coherent theory of the impact of self-reinforcing theoretical systems to accommodate new information, for example. (N.B. — For an excellent, brief example of applied epistemology, see Michael Novak’s Another Islam in the January 2007 edition of First Things.)

That said, there is an important distinction to be drawn. For a system of knowledge to be considered properly “closed,” it must not admit to any truth that isn’t implicit from the assumptions already contained within the system. This criterion, for today’s commentators, is only partially useful, for its implications are dangerous: Reduced to first principles, there is not, nor can there be, any genuinely open system of knowledge. Even relativism — the idea that there is no universal truth — is epistemically closed, for relativism must accept the absolute premise that there is no absolute truth (i.e., relativism’s core thesis is a logical contradiction), and relativism’s first premise is merely an assertion and not an objective fact that has independent meaning in the real world. How, therefore, can there be any intellectual coherence in arguing that people should be more relativistic in their search for sources of truth?

So from a purely philosophical perspective, the idea of epistemic closure is ridiculous when referring to popular ideology. But in the world of political discourse, the idea has currency, and it is from this context that the question must be analyzed; applied epistemology is a valuable tool, but in the service of armchair theoreticians with no formal training in the breadth and depth of Western philosophy, it can be the metaphorical equivalent of Dick Cheney’s shotgun.

I believe there is a piece of the puzzle missing from these attempts at amateur applied epistemology: A coherent introduction of aesthetics into the working theory of how ideology actually functions.

A quick Bing search of “ideology and aesthetics” comes up with … well, not much.  And this is tragic, for I feel a solid dissertation subject forming.

Consider the following premises:

  1. Epistemology, as a branch of philosophy dealing with the facts about how people can know things, contains valuable resources for criticizing the processes and assumptions of knowledge bases, but not terribly much for analyzing the content of those ideas.
  2. Aesthetics, being (with ethics) a theory of value, is chiefly concerned with the question, “What is beautiful?” (Ethics, by contrast, is concerned with the question, “What is justice?”)
  3. Aesthetics contains useful tools for analyzing the content of a subject, to tease out various indicators of beauty and to provide a useful linguistic framework for discussing beauty as a concept.
  4. Many schools of thought, both philosophical and psychological, assert that most humans have an innate desire for justice and for beauty.
  5. The human pursuit for beauty and justice is often pre-rational and expresses itself in an appreciation for fairness and harmony that is a distinctive moral idea (q.v. Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments) but is often difficult to articulate in concrete language.

With me so far?

Here’s the basic deficiency in political discourse, then, that troubles me: Most commentators seem ignorant of, or at least indifferent to, the possibility that the “echo chamber” is an expression of aesthetics rather than an act of willful ignorance.

By this I mean:  The human desire for beauty and harmony and justice is often implicit in how we think. Some of the ideas and assumptions that govern the sorts of ideas we possess are, to some degree, pre-rational; we don’t think about why we are liberal or conservative, it’s just that those ideologies feel right.  We find the premises in those ideologies to be persuasive in ways that often reduce to “because I just do.”  This is why some people have a visceral, emotional reaction to injustice even if they have a hard time explaining why they’re so upset — it’s not their sociopolitical norms, but their value system, that is offended.

Different conceptions of justice undergird the progressive/conservative divide. Progressives see equality of outcome as an intrinsic good, whereas conservatives tend to favor an equality of opportunity.  Neither is “right;” each approach represents a pre-rational determination of what justice properly entails. Although we can profitably discuss these assumptions, in the end, all we really do is attempt a retroactive rationalization of an innate sensibility.

Likewise, aesthetic ideals strongly influence our shopping habits in the wide marketplace of ideas. Our inherent ideas of beauty don’t just govern our appreciation of works of art, they also govern our respect for (and acceptance of) different forms of argumentation. This is a major, if too often overlooked, reason why appeals to patriotism and individualism resonate with conservative audiences while appeals to rights and communitarianism work well with liberals. These big-picture ideological concepts are back-loaded with ideas that we accept or reject not only on the basis of their content, but with how “beautiful” they strike us in the abstract, even if we don’t consciously think in those terms.

This why the warfare between the left-base and right-base can get so ugly: We’re not just opposing each other’s ideas, but we’re reacting in a primal way to people who hold radically opposed aesthetic ideals.  Is it any wonder, then, that so few are willing to engage openly with the perspectives of their ideological inverses?  Despite the alleged superstructure of rationality, a lot of the left/right divide reduces to questions of justice and beauty that are more a matter of sentiment than reason. Much of the contemporary abortion debate, for example, features people shouting over each other’s heads, for precisely this reason: The conversation long ago turned away from the logic of statutory law, into a clash of principles that effectively defy translation into rational conclusions marked by a genuine meeting of minds.

The phenomenon of Fox News, and its alleged bias towards conservative positions, can be explained partially because its mode of coverage — even its non-ideological news sources, unrelated to opinion content — is more harmonious with certain right-of-center aesthetic norms.  It’s the little things — anchors wearing American flag pins, for example — that sets the tone. There is nothing intrinsically ideological about wearing the U.S. flag as a lapel pin, or using it as part of a network graphic, but when Fox News does it and CNN doesn’t, then there is an aesthetic connection with the audience that gains a more sympathetic following among conservatives than with liberals.  You could have the same shows with the same guests and the same topics, but if one network employs the accouterments that are more “beautiful” to one side of the political spectrum, then that side of the spectrum will pre-rationally be more attracted to that network than to its competitor, and the other side will be less attracted and could even descend (as many do) to the equivalent of yelling “Boo!” simply because it jars their aesthetic sense.

And then we must face the real question: Is there anything wrong, per se, in choosing to consume sources of news and opinion that conforms to one’s aesthetic norms? If I disdain cubism, for example, does anyone really claim I have an affirmative duty to seek out cubist art as “balance” to the neoclassicism that I currently prefer? Of course not — the idea is laughable on its face. Yet to some degree, today’s polemicists are arguing we do exactly that: We must actively and thoroughly seek out news and information originating in sources that we find aesthetically displeasing in order to be “well informed.”

It’s not clear that there is a vice in sticking with what you think is beautiful, or in avoiding that which you think is ugly, or that we are qualitiatively better informed by seeking out the ugly as a balance to the beautiful. Yes, there is a prudence in engaging the opinions of people from outside of our ideology. But one can do this from within the ideology.  I can look to The Wall Street Journal or National Review to provide in-depth analysis of the health-reform initiative without having to read Nancy Pelosi’s blog or the latest on Huffington Post. There is nothing intrinsically privileged about the origin of news analysis provided the content is thorough and fair and intellectually honest. Unless one wishes to argue that rationality itself is conditioned upon ideology, it is not immediately obvious that the source of news is as important of a consideration as the way that the source relates a broad spectrum of information on a topic in a way that sheds light on multiple perspectives on any given controversial issue.

Admittedly, there is a tendency for analysts to emphasize those factors that comport with their ideological assumption, which is why conservative publications (despite the quality of their analysis) find, for example, that Obamacare is A Very Bad Thing, and why center-left sources think it Completes a Century-Old Promise for America. But mere tendency does not imply necessity; there is no solid reason to hold that the media sources from within one ideology are by definition incapable of accurately relating a fair analysis of the opinions of a different ideology. Although it may be rare to find this in-depth honesty, its rarity is somewhat beside the point, which is that fairness (absent a compelling argument to the contrary) is certainly possible.

So those alleged rubes in Middle America who watch Fox and listen to Rush and Sean and stood in line for Sarah Palin’s book — what to make of them?  A few thoughts:

  • Red-meat polemics isn’t really news or opinion, in a journalistic sense, but rather popular entertainment with a hook in contemporary sociopoliticial debate. Hence the book tours on the left and the right are really less about news and more about social solidarity with people who share similar value systems.  Political book-publishing feels more like an American Idol tour than a genuine exercise in high-minded civic discourse.
  • If we accept the premise that news facts are independent of ideology, then there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason why objective news sources from outside of one’s ideological predispositions should be privileged against sources from within.  Does a statement of fact gain or lose meaning based on which talking head uttered it?  If it does, then the whole concept of news objectivity has been irretrievably damaged.
  • Opinion commentary is, to some degree, a function of the base serving the base. Apart from hardcore news junkies, most conservatives don’t read liberal commentators, and vice versa.  There is not, to my knowledge, a solid reason why this is a bad thing, except in terms of those commentators bitching about having a smaller audience than they’d prefer. Purely opinion work is akin to the cheer-leading squad at a football game: We all like our own cheerleaders, and they can contribute marginally to the team’s enthusiasm, but they don’t actually score the points that matter on the political playing field.
  • With regard to news analysis — absolutely, a well-informed citizen needs to be aware of the rationale behind the policy prescriptions of all the ideological players, but it seems to be more often asserted than demonstrated, that there is a definite benefit to obtaining this analysis from different ideologies, than on relying on analysis from within.

Is there a problem with the “echo chamber?”  Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t.  But without an analysis properly informed by theories of justice and beauty, and a strong affirmative argument explaining why Source A from outside of one’s ideological spectrum is intrinsically superior to Source B from within, then it remains unclear to this writer how the hoopla about how “the base” gets its news and commentary is worth the electronic ink spilt in the lamentation over an alleged epistemic closure of the conservative mind.

People are more likely to accept as true, that which they find beautiful — which is why so many different newspapers invest so much time and energy in redesigns, color harmony and typographical development. We engage with what we find beautiful, and reject what we find ugly, just like we rejoice in justice and lament obvious injustice. But this value judgement doesn’t inhere merely in artistic analysis — even in the realm of opinion, aesthetics informs our consumption of ideas.

Maybe it’s a bad thing that some conservatives (or liberals, or centrists) get the bulk of their news and commentary from sources originating from within their value system. Then again, maybe it’s not.  The prosecution has made its case but so far has failed to persuade.