The Politics of Advantage

Many political controversies that separate the left from the right can be summed up by the answer to a fundamental question: How should we regard and respond to people who suffer a meaningful disadvantage in their life circumstances?

Most of us agree, progressive and conservative, that if a person can independently overcome a disadvantage without help from others, then that person has the responsibility to do so. We disagree on the scope of power that individuals have in overcoming certain disadvantages, and the role that those around them might play in ameliorating or perpetuating disadvantage.

My terms are deliberately generalized, because this applies to a wide range of differences in individual circumstance that may produce differences of political or economic power.

To see the problem in relief, as a species we have an innate tendency to treat the advantaged as superior to the disadvantaged.  If someone has "done well" in life, it is a mark of "good character," so long as their was nothing "dishonorable" about the manner in which they attained their advantage. On the other hand, while we might like to think that "cheaters never prosper," we know that it happens all the time. The right and left share this sentiment and are similarly outraged, but may also disagree about what is "cheating" and what is "playing according to the rules." Rules determine fairness.

At the other extreme, what kinds of disadvantage are a mark of "bad character?" What circumstances are wholly or mainly within an individual's control, and what circumstances are not? What moral judgments can we make about individuals who are powerless to change their circumstances? Do the advantaged have any responsibility to them? Consider these individual characteristics, whether or not they may be determinants of advantage, and to what extent an individual may or may not have control over them:

  • religion

  • gender

  • sexual orientation

  • inherited wealth

  • beauty/attractiveness/weight

  • physical health/strength

  • education/scientific understanding/technical knowledge

  • mental health and intelligence

  • race/ethnicity/culture

  • country of origin

There are many ways that right and left differ about how to regard and respond to these dimensions of difference.

  • The extent to which some of these characteristics are within an individual's control are in dispute — politically, foremost (e.g., religion), but also scientifically (e.g., sexual orientation.) In the view of some, both religion and sexual orientation are matters of personal choice, and if an individual chooses "wrongly," one has only oneself to blame for any negative fallout.

  • If, theoretically or in fact, an individual has control over one of these circumstances (e.g., espoused religion), should such choices be made for the central purpose of producing an advantage of wealth or power? To avoid the disapproval of others? Are there other moral considerations?

  • What is the moral implication of advantage conferred by birth — economic, genetic, country of origin, etc. — as compared to advantage gained in spite of these things? How does our politics reflect these implications?

  • There is only one of these characteristics that by law disqualifies a person from becoming the President of the United States, and that is country of birth.  Is it within the rules of fairness to attempt to sway opinion about this, to gain political advantage, regardless of whether or not the accepted means of factual and legal determination have been exhausted?

  • Do those who are advantaged have any responsibility to those who are not, and does government have any role to play in encoding this responsibility into law?

  • To apply rules of fairness, we must make judgments about what is true. What roles should religion and scientific knowledge play in making those judgments, and how should these roles affect our politics and our form of government?

The real question, from the perspective of civil politics, is whether or not we can discuss these things, and whether or not we can find ways to accommodate our differences. These are the questions that, day by day, unfold the data that determine the validity of the premises of American democracy.