The cold equations; or, suppose I were a selfish jerk…

Zuska has chimed in on Chad’s pipeline problem post, about which I had my say below. Once again, I’m not going to address the substance of the post, except to say: I already said what I thought Chad got wrong, and to that extent I agree with Zuska; however, I also think Zuska should lay off Chad some, as much by way of realpolitik as anything else (see Rob Knop in Zuska’s comments).
Instead, I want to take up something that Lab Lemming said in comments:

At the risk of becoming an advocate for the white, male devil, what is the incentive for those of us who are white male repressors to change our wicked ways? More competition? Removal from our comfort zones? Fulfillment of somebody else’s abstract cause? Obviously disadvantaged people have an incentive to level the playing field, but why should we traditionally privileged Americans make it easier for them?

It’s an interesting point: why should I, a straight white male, actively try to undermine my many privileges? I have, and will have, no children, nor do I believe in any kind of life after death. My interest in this world stretches, at most, another hundred years or so.
Even if a level playing field meant maximally efficient use of “human capital”, such that a world without prejudice would be better even for straight white men than the world we have now, we won’t have a world without prejudice in a hundred years. Whatever steps we might make towards that goal in my lifetime will probably serve only to decrease my advantage.
Even if I had children, it might be argued that I could best provide for them not by working for a more level playing field but by making sure they got a damn good head start (which I could most easily do by maximizing my own advantage). The same could be said of my wife, for whom I could perhaps best provide by taking full advantage of the slope of the playing field, and whose own best bet might even be to work towards her material ends through me.
The same could not be said, however, for all of my female relatives and friends. These are people about whose welfare I care (for my own selfish reasons!), but for whom I cannot plausibly “provide” — even if I were filthy rich, they’re not going to want my charity. If I want them to prosper, I should do what I can to eliminate sexist obstacles in their way.
Further, even supposing I were to provide for the material wants of any female I favor, not all of most people’s goals are necessarily material. If what my wife wants is a scientific career, for instance, I cannot buy that for her; nor will she be satisfied with a position obtained through my influence. I will do best by her if I work towards a culture of science which does not disadvantage women.
(One might argue for a completely selfish viewpoint whereby I need not bother with the interests of anyone but myself. That way lies an empty, materialistic pyschopathology that I am not going to bother rebutting. My interests necessarily include those of at least a small circle of other people.)
There are at least two further objections to the idea that my best interest lies with the status quo. To the extent that a rising tide lifts all boats, I stand to benefit from social improvements that come about from a level playing field. Advocates of a free market should find this idea congenial, that having the best person in any given position regardless of sex (or race, or whatever else) will maximize the efficiency with which society utilizes the available talent. Thus the idea I put forward above, that movement towards equality will only disadvantage me, is not true: I stand to lose my unfair advantage but also to gain from improved social conditions.
Finally, and this is an idea that seems to escape the sociopathic weaselpack currently in charge of this country, there’s no guarantee that we Straight White Men can keep the upper hand we have currently got. As Rob Knop puts it in Zuska’s comments, what happens if the tables turn? You better believe we will be squealing our heads off for equal opportunity then.
So, even on the most selfish view that seems plausible to me — narrowing down my social and family circles, excluding children or any kind of afterlife and not even accounting for any value I might place on doing good or living according to principle — it is at least defensible on rational grounds for me to work against those prejudices which currently favour me. If nothing else, when the revolution comes my cries of “Comrade! We are victorious!” won’t ring quite so hollow.

(Update: apologies to Rob Knop for misspelling his name.)

3 thoughts on “The cold equations; or, suppose I were a selfish jerk…

  1. Bill, I adore you!
    Wonderful post. I’ll be wanting to refer to this in a later post of mine, hopefully sometime soon. Migraine right now – must rest. But – wonderful post, I’ve never seen this argument for the white male advantage to combatting sexism laid out quite like this.

  2. There is a whole spectrum of people out there. It may take some people longer to come around to your point of view, but it does happen. Princeton University, where I attended undergrad, celebrated 20 years of coeducation while I was there. Although there were the thick-skulled diehards who would write to the alumni magazine talking about how much better it was when it was all-male, I remember reading an anecdote about how many of the alumni who initially opposed coeducation when it was first proposed and enforced came around when they realized that they had daughters who might like to attend Princeton, too. It takes a real-life personal example for what unequal opportunity really means to hit home for some people.

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