Article on John Kekes’s “Illusions of Egalitarianism” interview on Philosophy News

I recently wrote an editorial on Philosophy News, responding to an interview with John Kekes entitled “The Illusion of Egalitarianism” (paralleling his book by the same title). The editorial was posted today, and although it’s not my best piece of writing ever, I felt that Kekes’s attack on modern liberalism (via perceived flaws in philosophical egalitarianism) deserved a response.

I may post additional thoughts on the topic here, but not in the very short term — I’m in the middle of a larger writing project which is taking up my scant time away from work. Hopefully by Thanksgiving I’ll have a draft of that article completed and then I can get back to some political philosophy, particularly in the wake of the election.

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  22. Mark,

    I’m neither wishing nor hoping. Your statement, “egalitarianism has not worked anywhere in the past and does not work now” is completely untrue. I would invite you to look at the anthropological literature on egalitarian societies for a wealth of studies of fully functional societies which practice egalitarian economics in some form or another.

    An excellent and fairly recent article is Wiessner’s 2002 article in Current Anthropology titled “The Vines of Complexity: Egalitarian Structures and the Institutionalization of Inequality among the Enga.” The article is significant in that Wiessner rejects the ancient consensus among anthropologists that egalitarianism is a “primitive” condition, only found in our distant ancestors and some modern holdovers.

    Instead, Wiessner shows that egalitarian structures within the Enga, a small-scale society in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, face a shifting balance of material inequality in their society, exacerbated by modern exposure to market economies. Egalitarian structures wax and wane in importance depending upon the degree of perceived inequality, and appear to function to reduce transaction costs and retain social cohesion. These egalitarian norms require significant “work” to maintain against the well-known free-rider problems and those who would seek to use egalitarian practices themselves to aggrandize their position within the groups, but are seen as “worth the effort” by the Enga.

    There is an extensive literature on inequality and egalitarian practices among historically documented peoples; the Wiessner reference is relevant only because it’s recent and probably fairly accessible.

    None of that literature was included in my brief reply to Kekes because the editor of PN asked for an informal, conversational style of reply. Neither Kekes in his informal interview nor me in my “first impression” reply were writing an expository essay.

    But I completely understand how you can read my informal reply and be unsatisfied with the leaps in logic and lack of documentation. So here’s an idea — if you’ll be so kind as to check back occasionally, within the next week or two I’ll attempt a posting which is more thoroughly argued.

  23. Martin Peter,

    No, Mr. Madsen, you should be taken to task!

    You start with a conclusion that “Egalitarianism is a just and justifiable pursuit” and then proceed to NOT justify it. Your justification is to make grand leaps to other unjustified conclusions as support – 1) “He should understand the idea of egalitarianism, or the possibility of it, empowers and enfranchises individuals”; 2) “A society that feels empowered and franchised in what ever way it can function better and is more individually responsible” (do you mean “functions”).

    Where is the logic for these conclusions, which you use as support for the first conclusion? Why should John Kekes have to “understand” anything? Prove it to John and the rest of us. And, from where did you come up with the grand leap of connecting “Individually responsible” with egalitarianism? It is clear to me that you will connect any two dots in the universe! I understand the holistic approach of the universe’s energy and matter but this is absurd.

    Then you leap to the Civil Rights movement! From a government financial support perspective, every program of LBJ’s “Great Society” initiative starting in the mid-60s has been a failure. An infusion of 3+ Trillion dollars (yes, Trillion with a “T”) into “black America” has led to higher crime rates, higher unwed birth rates (from less than 30% to 70%), not enough increase in college graduation rates, greater dependency (not less), higher drug use, etc, etc, etc. By the way, the “Head Start” program, of which we hear so much, has been a failure. Maybe it has been a “noble cause” but it has been a failure. Period!

    Egalitarianism has not worked anywhere in the past and does not work now. If it has, please “show me” in real terms with supporting data.

    The logic of your article is silly! You are just wishing and hoping.

    Regards,
    Martin Peter

  24. Mark,

    Thanks for your comments…you make a very good point: it is indeed in the pursuit and not necessarily in the attainment that we gain the benefits of egalitarianism.

    Put another way, our goals matter as much or more than attaining them, because of the benefits we gain along the way. The Civil Rights movement is a case in point — we’ve hardly wiped out racism or unequal opportunity from this country; the gains we’ve made have been in the attempt, not the attainment of some end goal.

    I want to think more about the ways in which the illusion informs and sustains us, but you’re absolutely right. Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting.

  25. David Airth,

    Kekes should be taken to task.

    Egalitarianism is a just and justifiable pursuit. We know deep down it is for the most part an illusion but most of our society has been constructed and transformed by such illusions, like the one “all men are created equal” Both are theories. But without such theories there isn’t a hope in hell of developing and sustaining a democracy. Also, it is in the pursuit and not in the attainment of this theory or illusion of egalitarianism that we do have democracy.

    Kekes is not a progressive thinker. He should understand the idea of egalitarianism, or the possibility of it, empowers and enfranchises individuals. It one of democracy’s tools for being all inclusive. Again, its and illusion but it seems to work. A society that feels empowered and franchised in what ever way it can function better and is more individually responsible.