By Daniel Tarade
In a capitalist society, people are paid according to what they can provide and produce. (Theoretically). Yet, if our ability to provide and produce is constrained by our genetic and environmental conditions, any system that provides not only rewards but basic necessities on such a basis is inherently unjust. The only fair societal system is one in which everyone receives sufficient material (food, water, clothing, shelter, education, transportation, health care, free time, etc) for a satisfied life. Not just enough material in order for survival to be possible but for thriving to be probable. It is fantastically unfair when disabled individuals are penalized for not contributing to a capitalist society when capitalist systems are not designed to be accommodate their modes of being. Further, I contend that even laziness and stupidity, dispositions that have been lamented as vice, are unfairly discriminated against in a capitalist society. We are who we are because of what has preceded. Simple. Yet, even in the absence of any determinist argument, withholding the materials required for a healthy and satisfying life is at odds with any utilitarian philosophy. So for a society to provide more to an individual who is compatible with an arbitrary economic system is an untenable position with only difference in degree, but not kind, to racism, sexism, and other isms.
In Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, a sprawling text that traces the collision of humanity and genetics over the centuries, they discuss the concept of derivatives. Now, this term is considerably more familiar in a maths lecture than in a discussion of genetics. A mathematical derivative describes a rate of change. Whereas velocity gives you an instantaneous description of what is happening, its derivative, acceleration, let’s you map out a trajectory of what will happen. A truck barreling towards a person one hundred meters away at a speed of 50 km/h does not necessarily result in tragedy; it depends on the rate of the (hopefully) negative acceleration. Mukherjee applies this concept to genetic (i.e. heritable) traits. People do not inherit a job or hobbies or success in a genetic sense. However, people can inherit their underlying disposition, which is described as the first derivative. Two identical twins, one wealthy and one impoverished, may both react in a similar manner to the death of their mother, winning the lottery, or stubbing their toe. If someone is rudely interrupted during a presentation, it is difficult to predict what their reaction will be unless you had information about their first derivative, their disposition. It is these dispositions, along with environmental factors and chance, that dictate the outcomes of a person’s life.
Although socialist policies are not unpopular in many countries, the rationale I presented (i.e. that our abilities and dispositions are determined) is controversial. Does a person chose to be lazy? Most would say that such a trait is malleable. However, I would hazard that underlying our first derivatives is an ability to change and modulate our dispositions, a second derivative, that also varies among people on the basis of genetics and environment, nature and nurture. A friend recently relayed an anecdote about hearing their father’s admonishing voice everytime they feel like lazing; this is a unique familial relationship that not everyone has had. Our ability to change is a part of who we are. This argument is an important counter to the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality that is often offered in lieu of social reform. In debates, I have heard people appeal to the stochastic ability of individuals to overcome poverty, racism, sexism, abuse, mental health struggles, etc. Their point being that if it is possible for someone to succeed despite all odds, than any “affirmative action” is unfair, a case of reverse “ism”. But if one’s ability to cultivate discipline, ambition, and dedication are restrained by factors beyond one’s control, the facade of the so-called american dream is de-constructed. Further so when one considers the role of chance, of luck. The systems that maintain economic inequality are revealed.
So much of the inequality and injustice of our current economic system, tasked with distributing materials necessary for human life, satisfaction, and creativity, is maintained by the belief that certain people are unworthy of such materials. The deserving poor. Unworthy individuals are those who are less able to perform the jobs commonly found in our society. Yet, there is strong evidence that our dispositions, which influence our ability to labour, are highly heritable. The gold standard for measuring if a trait is heritable is to evaluate its concordance among a set of twins. When studying the big five personality traits (neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness), identical twins have a concordance ranging from 20 to 60% for any given trait, considerably higher than non-identical twins.[i, ii] Although less striking, concordance for personality traits ranges from 15 to 40% in identical twins that were raised separately.[iii] And of course, these studies also reveal a role for environment in shaping personality. However, surprisingly, the greatest source of environmental influence came not from what is shared (i.e. location of home, parental beliefs, wealth of family) but what is not (i.e. teachers, injuries, friends, experiences, etc). Regardless of what the actual breakdown is between genetics, environment, and chance, these are all factors beyond your control, yet, greatly influence personality traits like achievement striving, dutifulness, and assertiveness. These personality traits in turn influence success in career and relationship and, by extension, those materials so necessary for life and contentment. When the cognitive dissonance dissipates, we are left with the discomfort of living in a system where the lottery of birth decides who suffers and who prospers.
Throughout history, people have fought for their inalienable rights that have instead been meted out on the basis of genetic traits (colour of skin, biological sex, etc). I have a friend who is nearing completion of a Masters in philosophy specializing in disability studies. They pointed out recently that discrimination against people living with disabilities has endured long after women’s suffrage and civil rights movements came and went. In fact, they point out that one mantra common to women, blacks, and immigrants fighting for civil liberties was their insistence that they were just as able as whites, as men, as nationals or rather, that they were not disabled in some physical or cognitive sense. A corollary, then, is that discrimination against those living with disabilities is acceptable. Quoting Douglas C. Baynton;[iv]
Furthermore, disability figured prominently not just in argument for the inequality of women and minorities but also in arguments against those inequalities. Such arguments took the form of vigorous denials that the groups in question actually had these disabilities; they were not disabled, the argument went, and therefore were not proper subjects for discrimination. Rarely have oppressed groups denied that disability is an adequate justification for social and political inequality.
A similar strategy is also used to justify economic discrimination. A recent example from south of the border is John Kelly, former White House Chief of Staff, calling (illegal) immigrants lazy and the immediate counter by advocacy groups instead describing them as hardworking. Laziness is often used to justify economic discrimination towards migrants, towards the homeless, towards the young. However, the response thus far has focused on dispelling with the myth that entire swaths of the population are uniformly dumb or lazy rather than attacking the central tenet that those who do not work hard or are unintelligent are deserving of destitution.
A further discussion on (what is recognized as) disability may be useful. It is only necessary to remind that the genetics of a number of disabilities, such as Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, or ADHD, are well-established. For people living with certain disabilities, we are collectively comfortable with a social system that provides certain materials (although disabled peoples and their allies are constantly fighting for the complete allotment of their civil liberties). As an example, disabled people living in Canada can apply for a tax credit. The justification for the program is that “[p]eople with disabilities (as well as their caregivers) experience higher costs and more economic barriers than people without disabilities.” Although well-meaning, the program is not without its flaws, including a bias towards physical disabilities (away from those with neurodevelopment disabilities) and a focus on arbitrary and rigid thresholds. One group of disabled people include those whose use of life-sustaining therapy interferes with the basic activities of day-to-day life. However, to be recognized as a disabled person, it is required that it take 14 hours a week to administer life-sustaining therapy. If the government is willing to admit that those individuals who require 14 hours or more a week to administer life-sustaining therapy are at an economic disadvantage, it is not equitable to withhold tax benefits from those with a disability that requires ten hours of life-sustaining treatment a week. A similar line of reasoning can be followed for other disabilities. We all lie on a spectrum. A person with Down Syndrome often has a severe mental impairment and thus are eligible for certain benefits to try and rectify economic discrimination. However, if you instead struggle with certain types of reasoning, you may very well be disparaged as an idiot. Despite a disposition moulded by genetics and environment and chance, you find yourself at odds with an economic system that provides goods not on the basis of need but on the basis of “productivity.” And we call it fair.
Any system that demands the lazy and the unintelligent not suffer for lack of material goods will be derided as unfair to those who “contribute to society.” I will set aside the question of what the accountant or lawyer or even CEO contributes to society. I am not asking for everyone to be treated equally. I can tolerate a certain degree of inequality in material wealth. What I cannot tolerate is that certain people suffer poor health and malnourishment and exposure due to a piling up of arbitrary factors; our very dispositions and the world in which we found ourselves living. In practice, what this means is adopting a universal basic income system that covers cost of living. It means expanding our social systems. It means making our societies more inclusive to people living with disabilities and to those with dispositions that deviate from the ideal labourer. It means looking at ourselves and accepting that the same uncertain, stochastic principles that underly our own nature, our own lives, are at work in the distant and shallow pasts of every person you encounter. An overview effect of sorts, we can marvel at the simple fact that we are all in this together.
[i] Jang, K. L., Livesley, W. J., & Vemon, P. A. (1996). Heritability of the big five personality dimensions and their facets: a twin study. Journal of personality, 64(3), 577-592.
[ii] Eaves, L., Heath, A., Martin, N., Maes, H., Neale, M., Kendler, K., ... & Corey, L. (1999). Comparing the biological and cultural inheritance of personality and social attitudes in the Virginia 30 000 study of twins and their relatives. Twin Research and Human Genetics, 2(2), 62-80.
[iii] Bergeman, C. S., Chlpuer, H. M., Plomin, R., Pedersen, N. L., McClearn, G. E., Nesselroade, J. R., ... & McCrae, R. R. (1993). Genetic and environmental effects on openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness: An adoption/twin study. Journal of personality, 61(2), 159-179.
[iv] Baynton, D. C. (2013). Disability and the justification of inequality in American history. The disability studies reader, 17(33), 57-5.