And Yet ...: Essays
As an admissions essay consultant for the company that facilitated the scheme, a college counseling service called The Key, I spent my days driving from home to home in the tonier precincts of the San Francisco Peninsula, where I helped the children of Silicon Valley plutocrats get into the colleges of their choice. If my travels through this gilded realm taught me anything, it is that the case has little to do with privilege, a concept that should not be confounded with inequality.
For more and more we are coming to understand that personality and intelligence are heritable phenomena. In the great human drama of who succeeds in life, and who fails, and why, there may well be a place for heroic self-invention, for an individual through unilateral effort to rise above the others; but it appears, overall, that character and thus destiny are to some extent pre-ordained. And the progressive critique of privilege is necessarily invalidated in any case. For if privilege is traceable to autonomously undertaken hard work, then how can it not be in some sense earned, and therefore deserved?
If, on the other hand, privilege is a kind of accidental inheritance—that is to say, the product of a fundamentally contingent interplay of genes and environmental influences—then a critique of the concept reveals it to be but an index of barely concealed ressentiment , one that regresses into infinity.
And so on. Could it be said of, say, an oncologist—like the head of one of the families I worked with—that his family was in any way privileged? The problem with charges of privilege is that they presume guilt while ignoring the crucial circumstances by which human differences emerge; they also ignore the value of those differences.
Any critique of privilege, then, must address itself to the ends of life, and to the purpose of work and enterprise. Would people work half so hard if they could not expect to provide a better life for their children? Does it not redound to the betterment of society to raise children who are what an admissions committee would call well-rounded, with all of the advanced placement courses and extracurricular activities which that entails? And how might privilege be eliminated, or moderated, in order to promote more-egalitarian outcomes?
Perhaps the most definitive study of equality of opportunity in education, the Coleman Report demonstrated that the home environment is the primary determinant of educational outcomes. And yet, the domestic sphere is also the realm of life that is least amenable to the manipulations of enlightened administrators. Even under the best of sociopolitical dispensations—namely, one which combines economic nationalism with a robustly enforced system of bourgeois values—considerable variation would continue to exist between individual households and groups alike.
Plus, redistribution schemes and other forms of social engineering have shown themselves to be futile, because they incentivize the making of poor parental decisions—and punish the making of good ones. Why bother to work hard, and move to a better neighborhood, when you will be penalized for it?
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A political weapon wielded by the resentful, the war on privilege is profoundly wrongheaded, producing problems rather than solutions. It is a sign as well as a symptom of the contradictions that exist at the heart of liberalism itself, riven as it is by the yearning for freedom on the one hand and the desire for equality on the other. The success of some arouses the impulse to level not the playing field but the scoresheet. Therefore, those who have managed to scurry ahead in the rat race have to be forced back from the finish line. This is the effect of two fundamentally incompatible, yet under the liberal paradigm equally necessary, moral imperatives—one which seeks to promote equality, and another which seeks at the same time to deny it to others.
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If, through equality of opportunity, some people are able to rise in the world, then the opportunities their children enjoy will not be equal to those of the children of people who have failed to ascend to similar heights. In my dealings with the families of the elite, these contradictions led not just to cognitive dissonance, but to outright schizophrenia. At times, the warring ideological dictates they sought to obey could produce a kind of negative symbiosis that manifested as parasitism. In a perverse irony, we borrowed from the vocabulary of progressive egalitarianism in order to achieve the most inegalitarian of ends.
In the perpetration of affirmative action fraud, in the fabrication of hard-luck biographies, and in the dreaming-up of all manner of humanitarian adventures, the only question was whether our deceptions would have the intended effect: namely, that of gaining the student admission to the school of her choice. In another telling episode, I wrote an essay with a student in which we discussed her experience as an intern with a community organization whose purpose was to provide assistance to victims of trauma, violence, and family instability in disadvantaged communities.
Indeed, this parasitic relationship was embedded in the financial-accounting structure of the scheme itself: A number of parents charged in the case are alleged to have funneled bribes through the Key Worldwide Foundation, a nonprofit connected to The Key. These oracular utterances were proffered as evidence of continents roamed and wisdom acquired, and of a quasi-mystical openness to the more-esoteric forms of knowing that are said to be present among the oppressed.
A common sentimental refrain in the essays we wrote was how relaxed and happy and stress-free such people were, in their villages, in their slums; and how we in the meritocratic enclaves of the West, overworked and anhedonic, would do well to emulate their more-laid-back approach to life. The schools will claim that it is too expensive and time consuming to properly vet the applications of those to whom they are prepared to make an offer of admission. On another occasion, in a palatial mansion whose style and opulence would not have been out of place in Havana circa the s, a student and I crafted an essay about his Native American heritage, which in fractional terms approximated that of Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Nevertheless, he managed to turn the intersectional totem pole on its head. He was an intelligent student, and together we did what I thought was an admirable job. Yes, he had the grades, the test scores, the leadership positions, the cognitively demanding internships, and the varsity jacket. And it was not clear, to me, that he did. Wordsworth, W. Yeats, W. Roosevelt, T. Stein, G. Stevenson, R. Wells, H. Francis Bacon. Essays, Civil and Moral. The Harvard Classics. V IRTUE is like a rich stone, best plain set; and surely virtue is best in a body that is comely, though not of delicate features; and that hath rather dignity of presence than beauty of aspect.
The existence of multiple means of communication is important, because syntax could be encoded in modulation across channels. That is, varying states in one channel trunk vibrations could introduce general but systematically related changes to the meanings of signals in another channel say, trunk touches. A database of elephant recordings is now starting to accumulate in the research community. It attempts to capture acoustic, visual and tactile signals, matched to behavioural observations.
But the problem of interpreting these data is vastly more formidable than decoding encrypted human text or vocal messages. Elephants inhabit deeply different lifeworlds from humans, have different hierarchies of motivation, and make different perceptual discriminations. New machine-learning techniques, which can identify otherwise hidden patterns in data, could yield breakthroughs. But before we get this decoding mission off the ground, we have no empirical basis to reject the hypothesis that elephants use language. Might elephants regulate their emotional and behavioural reactions by reference to norms that they themselves see as such?
Consider again the Pilanesberg rhino-killers, who were ultimately reformed by the older males. Perhaps they were simply emotionally inhibited from demonstrating violence by the perception of angry feelings, or just signs of dangerous hormonal arousal, in the dominant bulls. Something closer to effective norm-recognition must have been involved, however, if the youngsters inferred that they were expected to take steps to calm themselves down.
But humans take normative responses a step further. We not only conform to norms, we innovate upon them. We do this collectively, not individually; and innovation of norms is clearly essential both to coordinating collective exploration and to stabilising the new institutions that maintaining novel niches requires. By contrast, although elephants inhabited a range of climates before our ancestors drove them back into their African and South Asian redoubts, they all sustain themselves in roughly the same way, and in the same way that all their ancestors have done.
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Humans are prone to flattering ourselves by interpreting our extraordinary adaptability as simply a reflection of innately unique intelligence. Elephants can learn to participate in lotteries: the prizes are turnips, pumpkins and other delicious squashes. The motivations and risk-appetite of elephants can be investigated empirically.
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They are the basis of experiments that I and another economist colleague, Glenn Harrison of Georgia State University, are preparing to run with a small group of elephants in South Africa. For several years Harrison and I, along with other colleagues and students, have been estimating the structure and magnitude of risk aversion in various human populations.
We do this by giving human subjects sequences of pairs of lotteries and asking them to choose one from each pair. We design the sequences of choices in such a way that we can estimate how our subjects respond to different kinds of risks. Elephants can also learn to participate in lotteries. In our experimental design, the prizes are turnips, pumpkins and other delicious squashes. Food lotteries will simply be put into their foraging space, along with visual cues that convey information about the lotteries.
In this way, the elephants can learn how to predict both the magnitudes of possibly concealed prizes, and the probabilities that a prize of the relevant magnitude will be found if the elephant chooses to investigate. In each case, choosing one option will close off another that could have been checked out instead. The conditions involve no stress or direct conditioning by humans, or indeed any structured interaction between elephants and people beyond relaxed acquaintance.
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S uppose it turns out that the reason elephants everywhere behave in similar ways boils down to conservatism, rather than a lack of intelligence or norms. This needs brief explanation. It is not obvious that preliterate people normatively regulate their societies by reference to reasons, any more than elephants do.
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The psychologist Jonathan Haidt at New York University has accumulated a range of experimental and observational evidence that he argues shows that natural human normative life is mainly a matter of using culturally evolved social traditions to regulate emotional responses. This view of the role of reason in human social life might seem to fly in the face of obvious facts. Our contemporary environments teem with institutions and customs that have clear, often announced, and often debated, rationales.
But this objection drives home the key point instead of refuting it. As a gathering wave of philosophers argue — including, most prominently, Andy Clark of the University of Edinburgh and Kim Sterelny of the Australian National University — the most important structures for human norms were literally built by us and reside outside of our individual brains.
Consider a domain in which many people go to unusual lengths to use sound general reasons: financial planning for retirement. They rely instead on a simple heuristic: do what has evidently worked for other people comparable to themselves. They can apply this heuristic only because there are well-established, easily accessible and trusted institutions around, such as stockbrokers, interactive websites and pension-fund managers. So, to whatever extent someone doubts that elephants truly respond to explicit reasons, remember that the same is true of human behaviour too.
There is, however, one major distinction that could make all the difference.