Saturday, November 28, 2009

dignity vs. upward mobility

At a recent conference on language and power, David Laitin pointed out that there is often a conflict between dignity and upward mobility.

In this case, the conflict was one concerning language use. It often contributes to the upward mobility of a group to abandon the language of their heritage in favor of a more dominant tongue (this behavior is often witnessed in immigrants and oppressed peoples). Yet preservation of the mother tongue contributes to cultural identity and personal dignity.

In the case of language use, the conflict is at least threefold. In the case of the language user himself, the concrete decision of what language to speak around his children (for example) can turn upon this conflict. In the case of the field linguist, or outsider, it is impossible for him to separate his nostalgia and academic concerns from the value judgments made by a speaker of an endangered language.

We must be wary of arguments based on political considerations. Of course I am no more in favor of genocide or repression of minorities than I am of people dying of tuberculosis or starving through ignorance. We should always be sensitive to the concerns of the people whose language we are studying. But we should not assume that we know what is best for them.

~ Peter Ladefoged

The third facet of conflict is the educator. On the one hand, his altruistic desire to encourage dignity motivates him to encourage the speaker's mother tongue and the tendency to take it seriously. On the other hand, his altruistic desire to better the status of his students drives him to encourage use of the majority language. Unlike the linguist, there is no possibility of choosing not to intervene here; the educator is inherently an interventionist.

An example here is the case of AAVE. On the one hand, the sensitive educator is driven to encourage the (correct) perspective that african-american english is not "wrong" it is simply different from, but equally expressive and subtle as, "standard" english. Nevertheless, cultural prejudices continue to ensure that an inability to construct written and spoken sentences that conform to standard textbook grammar will dramatically diminish one's upward mobility. Here is a case where political correctness carries the potential danger to paralyze a researcher into effective inactivity.

However, there is another interesting case in which dignity and upward mobility might come apart. Consider, for example, the tension between classical and modern liberals on a topic like the welfare state. Here, interestingly, arguments seem to fall on both side for each value.

"Handouts diminish dignity because they make the poor reliant on the state."

"Subsidies increase dignity because they ensure health and home, obviating any need for begging."

"Handouts diminish chances for upward mobility because they reduce the motivation of recipients."

"Subsidies increase the chances for upward mobility because they offer capital to those who otherwise could not acquire it."

[Surely the correct answer to the former debate is known only to the recipient—as for the latter, surely empirical data is easily available!]

An especially interesting case it the post-Hayekian socialism of Theodore Burczak. Burczak sees both foundational and policy failings in Hayek's thought. The foundational failing is the lack of a uniform (more importantly, objective) moral framework. Setting aside the policy failings for future discussion, the theoretical failing depends partly upon what Burczak calls the "ethical knowledge problem." Basically, value judgments are inherently subjective, preventing organizers from any access to an objective value system, defeating the attempt to achieve a "common good" a la socialist concerns. Burczak proposes amending the theoretical gap in Hayek by appending the "capability theory" of Sen and Nussbaum to Hayek's economic views. Capability theory, according to Burczak, offers a form of objective value system that is responsive to Hayek's worries and can thus provide the theoretical foundation for the centralized assurance that baseline values are achieved in a (even free market) society.

Now given the possibility of a trade-off between dignity and upward-mobility, some tensions in capability theory emerge. In particular, suppose our main goal is to ensure that citizens are capable to achieve certain practical goals (e.g. longevity, health, upward mobility) by providing them with certain resources (e.g. health care, baseline economic resources, political privileges). But suppose there is an inherent inconsistency between the goals and the provision of resources. A paradigmatic example of such inconsistency would be the dignity vs. upward mobility tension (if it in fact existed).

The interesting point here is the role of a kind of meta-value judgment. As an individual, if I recognize there is a trade-off between dignity and upward mobility, I can choose to prioritize one goal or the other. If the value judgment upon which the society I live in is predicated does not recognize such a trade-off, however, it runs this risk of aggressively enforcing the one value to the detriment of the other.

So, the attempt to conflate concern with dignity and with upward mobility into a single project is inherently confused (even if the two are thrown under the banner of a single concept, like capability). This follows from the conceptual (and empirical!) possibility that the two goals are inherently in conflict. Furthermore, if we acknowledge the tension between these two values as a legitimate possibility, we have undone the efforts of Burczak and returned to a Hayekian skepticism. Capability theory, at least, is not powerful enough to overcome the challenges of the "ethical knowledge problem."

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