Shaw on Inequality

From George Bernard Shaw's The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism:

Between persons of equal income there is no social distinction except the distinction of merit. Money is nothing: character, conduct, and capacity are everything…. There would be great people and ordinary people and little people, but the great would always be those who had done great things, and never the idiots whose mothers had spoiled them and whose fathers had left them a hundred thousand a year; and the little would be persons of small minds and mean characters, and not poor persons who had never had a chance. That is why idiots are always in favour of inequality of income (their only chance of eminence), and the really great in favour of equality.

This analysis is … flawed.  For example, Shaw ignores the countless forms of social distinction based on neither income nor merit. Physical attractiveness, for example. Also, capacity may not itself be merited. Also, he overlooks the role of money in motivating greatness. The concluding inference could have gone the other way, perhaps with greater psychological plausibility: idiots favor equality as their best chance of effacing invidious distinctions. This strikes me as a completely sophistical passage. Perhaps Shaw didn't really think all that highly of women's intelligence.

  • That is really a remarkable passage. And just 30 years after Origin was published. Wow.

  • Civilization is not artificial; the development of human conventions is as much a part of our nature as building an ant hill is a part of the ant’s nature.

    • Grrr… And aspartame is not an “artificial sweetener” because it’s made of naturally occurring elements?

      All human societies have conventions, yes. Historically, most human societies have not has conventions that support an amazingly liberal order of astonishingly extended, complex, and peaceful cooperation.

      So Yo Yo Ma is a cello virtuoso. So what!? Everybody can hum. Come on people.

      • And aspartame is not an “artificial sweetener” because it’s made of naturally occurring elements?

        Yes, just as I wouldn’t say that a beaver dam is unnatural because it is put together in a way that would not have occurred had the beaver not intervened.

        Historically, most human societies have not has conventions that support an amazingly liberal order of astonishingly extended, complex, and peaceful cooperation.

        This is a blanket statement that I challenge you to support. There has always been extended, complex order and peaceful cooperation–as well as extended, complex order with coercive underpinnings. The Roman empire created a amazingly open hub of trade in goods and ideas; but it was also an empire that ruled by force.

        The level of wealth and the sheer number of people involved are unprecedented–I’m not arguing with that. But the idea that human convention is ever better than nature is naive as those who, as you say, have a stupid view of nature.

        So Yo Yo Ma is a cello virtuoso. So what!? Everybody can hum. Come on people.

        Either I’m a poor communicator or you just felt like snarking without even pretending to base it on what I was saying. Yo Yo Ma is a virtuoso, and part of the way we are able to tell that is because he operates within a set of musical conventions with standards that his peers can judge him by. Frankly I have no idea why you brought this up, as I cannot see its relevance to the present discussion.

        • Sorry, I am feeling a bit unduly snarky. I’ve read the Extended Phenotype. It is a good book. And, obviously, Manhattan is the outcome of a natural process. But it is not useful to refuse to distinguish Manhattan from a hunter gather band, since both flow from human capacities. I don’t think I need to support that the “amazingly liberal order of astonishingly extended, complex, and peaceful cooperation” is a new development in the career of homo sapiens. The Roman Empire, like today’s world, is completely aberrant relative to the norm of human existence and happened approximately 2 seconds ago. “Civilization” is exactly the right word. Our impulses have to be shaped by culture in a very specific ways in order to make it possible to live together in the way that produces long, happy, healthy, wealthy, lives. The result of that is not supernatural of course. But it is unnatural or artificial in a pretty obvious sense. It’s a lot like psychological foot-binding. Things just wouldn’t develop that way without a lot of concerted intervention.

          • Things just wouldn’t develop that way without a lot of concerted intervention.

            Whoa…you had me until this point. Especially when you said this:

            Our impulses have to be shaped by culture in a very specific ways in order to make it possible to live together in the way that produces long, happy, healthy, wealthy, lives.

            But the idea that this wouldn’t happen without a lot of concerted intervention is not an obvious conclusion to reach–at least, it is not obvious to me.

            Let me put it this way: human language is part of our extended phenotype. However, there is a lot of variation among languages across regions and across history.

            English has the most words of any language today–I know this for a fact. And while I don’t know whether it also has the most words of any language in history, it wouldn’t surprise me.

            The manner in which English developed into its present state required some very specific steps along the way, but I would not say that it required “a lot of concerted intervention”. If anything, I think it happened incrementally without any concerted intervention of any sort, with a result that was no part of anyone’s intentions.

            In fact, hesitate to elaborate my position any further before I am certain I understand what you meant: what exactly did you mean when you stated that Civilization would not have been possible without concerted intervention? What form did this intervention take?

          • By intervention, I don’t think he meant planning. I think he meant social forces that alter the “natural” behavior of individuals.

          • And at the risk of getting semantic, what I was saying was that those social forces are themselves natural

          • Too late. 🙂

            Ultimately, everything is natural (I believe).

            I think the sense Will, and Huxley, are using it is a useful one, though. The arrival of these forces is relatively very recent, and radically modifies how people have previously behaved, and would behave in their absence.

          • I think what we believe is very similar, though not quite the same.

            I think that those forces modify human behavior in exactly the same manner that language does. I view variation on both levels as identical; and it is not so much that our behavior is “altered” so much as that human beings largely depends upon traditions and language to provide us with the context we need before we can make any decision or take any action.

            I understand that it’s different from being “natural” in the sense of a person’s skin cells, but I think that that difference is analytically more trivial than I think Will and Huxley here make it out to be.

  • forkthis

    From a guy who’s clearly not as learned on these matters — why is “survival of the fittest” somehow antithetical to collective effort (or as Huxley put it, the cosmic process antithetical to that which is ethical)? I could be using these terms incorrectly, but I mean to say that one wolf will lose in a fight to a pack of wolves. The members of the pack know this. The strongest among the pack may acknowledge that maintenance of the pack will require certain concessions, but that the benefits of the collective effort outweigh the cost of being a lone wolf. How is this not “survival of the fittest”?

    Or is the same outcome somehow “unethical” if it’s done in the spirit of self-preservation rather than self-immolation?

    • forkthis

      Man, as I read through the other comments on this blog, I’m embarrassed by my own first entry (above). I do hope to participate more (and learn more about these issues). I didn’t know that I could find this kind of high level discourse on political philosophy online. As a young lawyer, and a kid with opinions on political issues (a Republican leaning Libertarian), it’s depressing to discover that many of my political positions are supported by little more than gut instinct (and maybe cultural upbringing?).

      I guess my point in the preceding comment was only that helping the poor and disadvantaged is sometimes a function of self-preservation (the Bourgeoisie placating the Proletariat out of fear of rebellion) rather than altruism or some notion that humans are entitled to a certain standard of living. It could be that some form of social safety net benefits even the strongest wolf. The question, I guess, is one of starting points. I don’t think I owe some form of safety net. I think I benefit by providing one. I maintain that I’m the Titan (just smarter than other Titans).

      This could all be for me (nobody seems to read comments to old posts — though I get a lot out of them), but I thought I might add a little to my prior comment in the hope that I might be allowed to participate going forward.