Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Success and Inequalities: Impact on Freedom, Health, and Happiness

Success is often conceived in terms of hierarchies: there are those who are at the top, and get big rewards from being at the top, and those who are the bottom, and get little or nothing. It is also often conceived in terms of domination: those further up the hierarchy directly or indirectly have power/impact over or at least constrain the actions and lives of those who are below them. My plan for the project would be to develop a philosophical reflection on hierarchies and domination and on how the widespread striving for power, domination, wealth and fame can negatively affect the thriving of individuals and communities, including their physical and mental health. This reflection will have two starting points: the existing empirical literature and the classic ideas developed on this issues by some past philosophers.

Social epidemiologists have accumulated evidence on the harm on individuals and societies generated by inequalities in wealth and in socio-economic and occupational status. Inequality has negative effects on the life expectancy, the physical health and the mental health of individuals. Social epidemiologist Michael Marmot and other social epidemiologists have uncovered evidence strongly indicating that the lower one’s socio-economic and occupational status, the worse one’s health (as measured for example in terms of life expectancy and risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease). One important causal pathway according to Marmot has to do with the level of control that people have other their lives: the lower one’s SES status is, the lower one’s level of control, and thereby the higher one’s levels of chronic stress, with all the negative implications for health that this means. Psychological studies have confirmed that lower social class is linked to a reduced sense of personal control.

These data and hypotheses are philosophically interesting. For example, philosopher Philip Pettit has developed a notion of domination according to which one is free from domination to the extent that one is able to interact with others without reason for fear or reference. One could argue that the lower one SES status is, the more one’s interactions with other human beings are characterised by fear and deference.

According to philosopher John Rawls, self-esteem or, as he calls it, self-respect is the most important primary good in ethical terms: “Without it nothing may seem worth doing, or if something has value for us, we lack the will to strive for them. All desire and activity becomes empty and vain, and we sink into apathy and cynicism”. It can be argued that various inequalities that are pervasive in contemporary societies have a negative impact on the self-esteem of those who are not at the very top of the social hierarchy. This is morally troublesome. It is also of interest to those who study the links between self-esteem, depression and anxiety disorders.

Machiavelli claimed that understanding people’s drive to dominate and their strong dislike of being dominated is crucial for understanding human societies. Some recent studies seem to suggest that understanding such phenomena is also very important in order to understand a variety of psychiatric conditions. Psychologist Sheri Johnson and her colleagues have argued that what the call the Dominance Behavioral System (DBS) provides a useful trans-diagnostic framework for personality, mood and externalizing psychopathologies. The DBS is the set of psychological mechanisms underpinning the way people deal with domination and power (including their own perceived power). Johnson and colleagues argue for example that an excessively high dominance motivation is involved in narcissistic personality disorder, mania, and antisocial personality disorder, and that a strong desire to avoid inferiority and subordination is involved in depression and anxiety disorder. As suggested by the quote from Machiavelli, research of this kind has profound philosophical implication. This sub-project aims at identifying these implications.

Rousseau argued that amor propre – people’s craving for socially recognised success – explains why inequalities are so pervasive in human societies, and is thereby the root cause of the many societal ills due to pervasive inequalities. In the last few years, psychologist Paul Piff has produced a series of studies indicating that one’s economic and social success affect one’s self-conception and behavioural tendencies. For example, one study shows that higher social class is associated with narcissistic personality tendencies, lower reliance on community values and community bonds, lower levels of generosity, and higher levels of unethical behaviour.

In their book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have argued strongly that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive and that as a result inequality negatively affects not only the worst-off but also the best-off. This applies also to the mental and physical health of the best-off. In very unequal societies, the best-off look for ways to isolate themselves from those below them and from the all the problems that inequality causes in society. But despite this, their lives are negatively affected by the inequality from which they benefit. Inequalities as such, negatively affect people’s capabilities (in the sense of economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum) and the structure and stability of the cooperative scheme (in the sense of philosopher Allan Buchanan).

David Owen (Lord Owen) has argued for the existence of what he calls the Hubris Syndrome, an acquired personality disorder triggered by the exercise of power that leads people in positions of power to impulsive decisions as a result of excessive self-confidence, narcissism, and contempt for other and for their opinions. According to Owen, hubris is a problem of public concern, as the decisions of those who acquire this personality disorder (politicians and corporate executives in particular) can cause – and often do cause – harm on large numbers of ordinary people. Owen has argued that, for example, the Iraq war and the financial crisis of 2008 were caused by hubris.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London
Data from anthropological, archeological and primatological research suggest that our ancestors lived in simple egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies for at least a million year during the Pleistocene. Before that time, our ancestors lived in hierarchically structured societies (with a structure probably similar to that of chimpanzee groups) and hierarchy emerged again in our lineage with the domestication of plant and animals. Anthropologist Christopher Boehm (starting also from Frans De Waal’s research on chimpanzee politics) has argued that the deep-rooted drive to dominate of some individuals and the aversion to being dominated that is present in virtually everyone have played an important role in these transitions (in interaction with changing ecological conditions). I have argued in some of my work that such transitions and the psychological mechanisms underpinning them played an important role in the emergence of human morality. But obviously the structure of human cooperation changes over time.

What role does success understood in terms of the drive for power, wealth and fame play nowadays in people’s lives and in human societies? What can societies do in relation to this drive and to the harm it causes? And what should they do? Inequalities in power, wealth and fame play an important role in structuring complex human cooperation. Some economists and philosophers argue that inequalities of this kind – or more precisely, the unequal distribution of societal rewards – are both inevitable in and necessary for human complex cooperation. But is this really true? Or is it possible to invent ways of living and cooperating that make room for differential rewards and interactions among equals, “without reason for fear or deference”? The aim of the project is to develop an empirically-grounded philosophical reflection on these issues.

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