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Aristocracy Of Virtue & Sorry Sapsuckers

Reader Political Atheist makes an excellent Evans-Manning comment: Rod draws a very illuminating distinction between an aristocracy of intelligence versus an aristocracy of virtue. I think many of our current problems, and the rancorous and fruitless debates they engender, arise from the fact that we are trying to achieve economic equality and social justice while […]

Reader Political Atheist makes an excellent Evans-Manning comment:

Rod draws a very illuminating distinction between an aristocracy of intelligence versus an aristocracy of virtue. I think many of our current problems, and the rancorous and fruitless debates they engender, arise from the fact that we are trying to achieve economic equality and social justice while remaining an aristocracy of intelligence. It is the objective of the Obama administration to eliminate the so-called “achievement gap” between different racial and ethnic groups. A common criticism runs that the attempt to achieve equal outcomes on test scores is a chimerical goal. The SAT and the ACT are modified versions of IQ tests, and are effective in predicting whether a student will or will not graduate from college. The underlying fallacy, or legitimating falsehood, of an aristocracy of intelligence is that anyone can with proper instruction, good nutrition, positive home environment, encouragement from authority figures, etc. can become successful in a society that values intelligence as the most important quality (this still being a democracy of sorts). But aristocracies of intelligence overvalue and misconceive intelligence, and may in the end not be so intelligent after all. For not everyone has an equal shot at being intelligent, regardless of how encouraging and optimal their social environment might be.

On the other hand, it is far easier for people to be virtuous and good than it is for them to excel in quantitative and scientific disciplines for which IQ can serve as a critical measure. Indeed, one does not need to have outstanding test scores to be kind, decent, humane, sober, moral, or to have profound insights into the lives of others. I would even say that practicing the virtues can make a person of a lesser IQ more intelligent and more wise than a self-flattering member of the cultural elite. Aristocracies of intelligence are prone to succumb to self-aggrandizing fantasies which cause them to overestimate their abilities. There is a more natural and logical connection between the liberal and leftist ideals of social justice and equality and a society that elevates virtue over the intelligence. I fear that it’s too late to go back to the kind of social order in which modesty, humility, and self-restraint strengthen social bonds while deterring the status-striving that has become troublingly ubiquitous in the mainstream media, in which young adults from flyover country are derided for not knowing the difference between quinoa and couscous.

I don’t think that the elite is necessarily behaving dishonestly in setting so many people up to fail. It’s just that there is a combustible mix of toxic self-regard, blind altruism, and crippling guilt that stems from the determination not to adopt the virtues, to bring about equality on one’s own terms, rather than on the terms in which it might actually be possible.

This is quite good. For some reason, our American egalitarianism cannot accept that there is a natural hierarchy of ability within our population, and that the equality we rightly prize is both moral and legal (that is, all are equal before the law). In The Divine Comedy, the community of heaven is one in which all recognize that God has distributed gifts differently within the community — His glory shines more in some than in others — but all are considered morally equal, and live together harmoniously, without envy (the lower wants equality with the higher) or pride (the higher think themselves better than the lower). This is heaven, of course, not earth, but it is, I think, the model of society most suited to human nature. It is an aristocracy of blessedness, you might say.

Back in the real world, I would say the ideal society is one in which people have opportunity to rise according to their natural gifts, but one in which even those who are not as intellectually capable as others are looked after, not in the sense of becoming a permanent welfare class, but in the sense of public policy staying focused on the good of all, not just those in the aristocracy of intelligence. It really is true that intelligent people in our meritocracy — liberals and conservatives both — have a default bias towards intelligence and intellectual ability as a measure of moral worth. This, I think, is the unstated impulse behind No Child Left Behind, which was a program of the Bush Administration, supported by liberals like Sen. Ted Kennedy: that all children are capable of performing equally in school, if only we provide them with the right teachers and pedagogical formula. It simply isn’t true, but we can’t seem to admit that, and allocate our resources in ways that make more sense.

I’ll give an example from my own family. My two sons have very different gifts and temperaments. The older one is highly intellectual, sometimes to a fault (he’s the classic absent-minded professor). There’s no question that he’s going to be a scientist, or at least an academic. The younger one is intelligent, but his intelligence is far more practical. It’s the intelligence of someone who knows how to put together engines, or other mechanical equipment. He is like his grandfather in that he cannot stand to be desk-bound, and loves being outside, making things and doing things. The older son is contemplative; the younger son is active. This is their natures. I think it’s quite possible that the younger son will not go to college, because it will not be suited to his nature. He will have to receive some kind of advanced technical training, naturally, but his mother and I aren’t going to make him miserable and work against his nature by compelling him to get a university degree when his gifts and his intelligence are not well suited to it. My father is 79 years old, and is one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever known. To this day will tell you that one of his biggest regrets in life is allowing his family to browbeat him into going to college, when what he really wanted to do was get technical training and go into the construction business, or something more hands-on.

My father, an old country boy, raised my sister and me to believe in an aristocracy of virtue. He was often angry at his Great Aunt Hilda, who was basically the Dowager Countess of the aristocracy of intelligence. She thought intelligence was the right measure of one’s moral worth, and, my father feared, was influencing young me to believe that falsehood. In Daddy’s world, the worth of a man was to be determined by his conduct. In his world, neither poverty nor wealth conveyed virtue on a man; a man should be judged by his conduct alone. About the worst thing you could be to my dad was a “sorry sapsucker” — his term for someone who was lazy, trifling, shifty, manipulative, or in some other way morally faulty. I’ve heard him apply that term to poor people in our community as well as rich people, to the brilliant as well as the stupid, though he tends to apply it more forcefully to the rich and the educated, because in his (correct) view, they have less of an excuse for morally deficient conduct than the poor.

If you read nothing else today, read Jeremy Beer’s 2009 essay making a case against meritocracy, from a culturally conservative point of view. There’s far more in it than I can excerpt here. But I will post this:

One consequence of meritocracy, [Christopher] Lasch [a man of the left] argues, is that the elites in such a system become “dangerously isolated” from their neighbors. Because meritocracy requires that populations-and especially elites-be exceptionally mobile, loyalty to community, region, and nation become severely attenuated.

It is no surprise, then, that what Lasch calls the “new aristocracy of brains,” more mobile than ever and indeed committed to a “migratory way of life” as “the price of getting ahead,” has little use for Middle America, which they imagine to be “technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy.” America’s meritocratic elites, Lasch claims, “are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort. Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world-not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.”

The fact that our meritocracy rewards most those at home in the world of “abstractions and images” has further isolated our new elites from the rest of society by their insulation from manual labor. “The thinking classes are fatally removed from the physical side of life,” and indeed, only under such circumstances could such academic theories as “the social construction of reality” gain any purchase on the mind, concludes Lasch.


Another serious disadvantage to rule by the “best and brightest” is that, unlike the older, premeritocratic elite, with its codes of chivalry and concern for honor and family, the new elite, thinking that it owes its power to intelligence alone, has “little sense of ancestral gratitude or of an obligation to live up to responsibilities inherited from the past.” It “thinks of itself as a self-made elite owing its privileges exclusively to its own efforts.”

In sum, social mobility, far from being the sine qua non of democracy, actually “helps to solidify [elites’] influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit.”

Once again, Wendell Berry agrees. He notes that in order for social mobility to be marketed as essential to personal “liberation,” it must deny the existence of “authentic differences and distinctions” among people. If such were recognized, the implication would be that upward mobility served fundamentally as a way of justifying an exploitative, “original-discovery” mentality that served the needs of industrial economies but not those of actual communities. Berry arraigns the dynamism of our meritocracy as fundamentally opposed to the “living integrity of creatures, places, communities, cultures, and human souls.” Indeed, with regard to higher education, we might think of meritocracy as the equivalent of the practice of strip-mining. For the meritocratic system is a method that uses impersonal technology (e.g., the SAT) to help us identify valuable natural resources (bright kids), and then pitilessly removes them from their ecological contexts (local communities), never to return them, thus creating cultural landscapes just as ravaged as the denuded mountainsides of Kentucky coal country.

Now, there are several alternatives to this argument. One is to argue that the critics of meritocracy — including Berry — are wrong in their accounting for individual human differences. Nature, or so goes this criticism, doesn’t matter nearly as much as they say — in fact, very little — and it can be overcome through further and more drastic environmental modifications.

Maybe. The weight of the evidence is, on my reading and that of many sober, serious scholars of all political inclinations, very much against the conclusion that our biological make-ups matter very little in accounting for individual “outcome” differences. But grant that the influence of nature, or genes, has been overstated.  It still does not follow that there is any perfect environment that if offered to all humans would completely obscure their innate differences (although, of course, sufficiently bad environments can do this). I do not even think that most of those who take issue with the basic reading of the research know that they are arguing this. But they are, and it is highly implausible.

In other words, in an irony not often enough noted, modernity, whose distinctive political philosophies have stressed equality, has led to greater inequality than ever, precisely because it has equalized opportunity — that is, because it has unleashed talent either to sink or swim — more than had ever previously been done. To put it yet another way, modernity has created many more opportunities for the expression of inequality than ever. And it has made inherent inequality more important than ever in determining social and economic distinctions.

Read the whole thing. This is what Douthat is talking about in this post, in which he accused social liberals (whose number, for purposes of his argument, includes libertarians) of waging class warfare against those lower than they are. Responding to a Randy Waldman post about class conflict, Douthat writes:

But if we’re inclined, with Waldman, to see our elite as fundamentally self-interested, then we should ask ourselves whether the combination of personal restraint and cultural-political permissiveness might not itself be part of how this elite maintains its privileges. Waldman, for instance, makes the (completely valid) point that just telling a single mother to go get married to whomever she happens to be dating isn’t likely to lead to happy outcomes for anyone involved. But is that really just because of wage stagnation and the truncation of the potential-mates bell curve? Or could it also be that the decision to marry only delivers benefits when it’s part of a larger life script, a way of pursuing love and happiness that shapes people’s life choices – men as well as women — from the moment they come of age sexually, and that exerts its influence not through the power of a singular event (ring, cake, toasts) but through that event’s place in a larger mix of cues, signals, expectations, and beliefs?

If it’s the latter — and if you’re not an economic or genetic determinist, I really think it has to be — then it’s worth recognizing that much of what the (elite-driven) social revolutions of the 1970s did, in law and culture, was to strip away the most explicit cues and rules linking sex, marriage, and childrearing, and nudging people toward the two-parent bourgeois path. No longer would the law make any significant effort to enforce marriage vows. No longer would an unplanned pregnancy impose clear obligations on the father. No longer would the culture industry uphold the “marriage-then-childbearing” script as normative, or endorse any moral script around sexuality save the rule of consenting adults.

What Douthat means, I think, is this: in the past, the son of an upper-middle-class lawyer would be more likely to marry the daughter of a millworker because whatever their class differences, they both would have been socialized by the same script. That’s no longer true. The lawyer’s son in 2014 probably has far more liberal social values than his grandfather did, but chances are he still believes in The Script, as Douthat defines it. The working-class girl may not have had a father in the house, because the culture’s repeal of The Script as normative for all of society meant that her mother grew up the child of divorce, and had her out of wedlock, because that was starting to become normative for people of the working class. Therefore, the working-class girl likely grew up with a Script of her own that did not include bourgeois elements that the upper middle class boy would have inherited, even if he isn’t particularly religious (N.B., that includes the importance of churchgoing, which has become something that working class and poor people in America are far less inclined to do than the uppers). Not only are the lawyer’s son and the millworker’s daughter less likely ever to meet each other than in generations past, they are less likely to have common ground on which to found a relationship, even a marriage. Let’s say we have a virtuous, Evangelical Christian upper-class boy who rejects the social snobbery of his class, and who is therefore open to marrying someone from the working class, or even the poor. He still will have certain expectations from a potential bride, which include a shared religious faith, and shared bourgeois ideas about the right way to live morally, with regard to the meaning of marriage, raising children, educating children, and so forth. If he is increasingly likely to meet a woman who shares those values within his own class rather than among the lower classes, then he is decreasingly likely ever to marry, or to consider marrying, someone from a lower class. Nor is he likely to live around people who don’t adhere to those bourgeois norms, because of the disorder within those families and communities. This is how the fluidity that used to exist between classes within a community dries up. This is how the well-off maintain their privilege.

There is no such thing as a true aristocracy of virtue this side of Paradise. But it’s a more humane and achievable ideal than an aristocracy of intelligence, which is what we have today.

(I know this is a typical long, rambling Dreher post. This is why you should read this blog more as my notebook than a place where I post polished essays. If I polished everything I wrote here, I’d only put up one or two posts a day.)



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