When Equality Is Cruel

Older generations like to act like they knew their place. They put their head down, worked hard, and were thankful for what they got. Younger generations were told they were special. They were told they could become anything. Presidents, astronauts, inventors. Instead of staying in their lane, they were told to spread their wings.

You could backfit a superficially appealing defense for the helicoptered approach without much effort.  We have fewer kids these days and they are more expensive to raise. If you have fewer kids, seatbelts and bike helmets start looking less like amenities and more like insurance policies. Shrug. Who knows? Intergenerational arguments are fun which should make you skeptical of their sway.

In the coming years, my parenting role will gradually evolve from simply ensuring survival to preparing my kids for the complications of adolescence and eventually adulthood. That means more prospective conversations. Discussion about paths in life and the nature of reality. By nature of reality, I mean its temperature. Is it cold and brutal or is it warm and fuzzy? What should I tell my children to expect? Which generation will I tilt towards?

The Dangerous Expectations of Snowflakism

Nobody really wants to put a lid on their children’s ambitions. We puff them up. We know self-confidence is self-fulfilling. And when they do well, they get positive feedback, and [especially in sports] get more attention which speeds their progression. A virtuous loop. Confidence mimics the recycled exhaust in a turbocharged engine.

This is not without risk. If the sky’s the limit, everything short is a failure. Is it possible our best intentions are actually a trap that will spring on our children once they are on their own? Did our cheerleading actually shield them?

Or us?

The Parable of the Talents

It’s an essay I wish I read when I was much younger. At this point, it just articulates what I already believe better than I could ever write. And as I learned from the personal stories in it, there’s good reasons I could never write that well. And there’s better reasons for why I’m ok with that. (Link) (Link with my highlights)

Some ideas:

1) When it comes to obesity, mental illness, and wealth:

the compassionate/sympathetic/progressive side of the debate is that depression is something like biological, and cannot easily be overcome with willpower and hard work. That success is due to accidents of birth, and the less compassionate side is that success depends on hard work and perseverance and grit and willpower.


And the weird thing, the thing I’ve never understood, is that intellectual achievement is the one domain that breaks this pattern. Here it’s would-be hard-headed conservatives arguing that intellectual greatness comes from genetics and the accidents of birth and demanding we “accept” this “unpleasant truth”.

2) How trying to be egalitarian about ability is counterproductive.

And it’s would-be compassionate progressives who are insisting that no, it depends on who works harder, claiming anybody can be brilliant if they really try, warning us not to “stigmatize” the less intelligent as “genetically inferior”.
3) Genius is a gift.

It should be weighted accordingly in the moral calculus.

When we discuss being born on third base we focus so much on wealth. Yet, luck in athleticism, artistic ability, height, looks, brains and temperament are under-attributed. We only seem to give them their due when they’re freakish. That’s ignoring a lot of causation that has little to do with merit.

4) Should we get medals for things we find easy?

We are graded on peer curves. But the ideal is to grade on a curve to yourself. One of my closest friend’s father didn’t motivate him with rewards or punishments. By simply conveying disappointment, “you’re better than this”, my friend understood. The real benchmark is not external.

It’s not just honest to grade our children on their own curves, it’s compassionate. Compassionate doesn’t mean soft. It penalizes sandbagging. It rewards grit. And it calibrates expectations. If happiness is the gap between reality and expectations then mercy demands we narrow it.

5) Humility and self-forgiveness

The deal I came up with was that I wasn’t going to beat myself up over the areas I was bad at, but I also didn’t get to become too cocky about the areas I was good at. It was all genetic luck of the draw either way. In the meantime, I would try to press as hard as I could to exploit my strengths and cover up my deficiencies.

6) Dignity
The moral seems to be that if you take what God gives you and use it wisely, you’re fine. The modern word “talent” comes from this parable. It implies “a thing God has given you which you can invest and give back”. So if I were a ditch-digger, I think I would dig ditches, donate a portion of the small amount I made, and trust that I had done what I could with the talents I was given…

If everyone is legitimately a different person with a different brain and different talents and abilities, then all God gets to ask me is whether or not I was Scott Alexander.

This seems like a gratifyingly low bar.

To think everyone has similar ability is not just wrong, it’s evil.

Echoing much of the same lessons, here’s what Jordan Peterson told Tyler Cowen:

I don’t think that people want to understand the rule of raw general cognitive ability because it’s such a determining factor, and it’s hard for people on the right and the left to accept it. People on the right think there’s a job for everyone if they just get off their lazy ass and do it, and people on the left think anybody can be trained to do anything.

Both of those things are seriously wrong. One example that I often use is that the American military decided a couple of decades ago that it was illegal to induct anybody into the armed forces who had an IQ of less than 83. That’s an unbelievably important thing to know because that’s about 10 percent of the population.

You’ve got to understand what this means. It means that a very large organization that’s desperately hungry for manpower, especially under circumstances of extreme crisis, is unwilling to accept 10 percent of the population because they have determined — after 100 years of doing absolutely everything they possibly could to the contrary — that there isn’t a single thing that they can train someone like that to do that’s not counterproductive.

It’s perfectly reasonable to think every person is created equal without thinking they have equal economic value. Admitting this is compassionate. Admitting this concedes the limits of capitalistic idealogy. It’s ironic that the progressive viewpoint misses that. I wonder if they will notice the own-goal.

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