Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Welcome to the discussion board for the book How to Make Opportunity Equal. By adding a comment to this discussion board, you start a discussion of the ideas in the book. So when you have started to read the book, please comment. To see all comments on this page, click on the link to the left that says, "Welcome to the blog..."


Dave Conklin said...

Usually prefaces are pretty dull, but yours made me chuckle and I read it aloud to my wife. We especially liked your observation that

"...some things I wrote are wrong or confused. If I knew which these were, I would not have written them..."

I'll see what I can do to help you find the wrong or confused parts.

(disclosure: I'm Paul's brother-in-law)

Paul Gomberg said...

I have already found some things that I think are "wrong or confused." But I will wait until later to disclose them.

Paul G.

Anonymous said...

The author has described his vision of a society which freely provides the basic needs of all its members, expects them all to share the essential routine labor, makes it possible for each of them to attempt to master a demanding vocation, and affords each and every one the opportunity to contribute to the society using his or her own particular complex mastery and the opportunity to be esteemed for doing so. If you substitute the word "family" for the word "society" in his description, the vision becomes non-controversial: good families take care of all their members, expect every member to pitch in with the chores, encourage their members to develop their abilities, and value the contributions of each.

On this reading of the book, the question then becomes whether it is possible for the metaphorical "family of man" to be realized in an actual society. Gomberg challenged me to wonder "why not?". Why is it necessary to exchange the nurturing environment of our families of origin for the dog-eat-dog world of grownups?

What makes the book so interesting to me is that the author explains how our market society, in which our position is largely determined by our possessions, works to create the dog-eat-dog world, with its attendant pervasive, persistent, and pernicious injustices. He inspires me to imagine a society organized in a different, more humane way, and makes a plausible case that it could actually work.

Anonymous said...

It struck me the other day as I was having lunch at the pizza place next to campus that our little campus community is in some ways like Gomberg's vision. The workers doing the essential routine labor - the staff at the pizza place and other campustown establishments - are largely students, often well-educated, and their self-esteem is not derived from their hourly wage. It's accepted and commonplace, if not universal, for smart people to be doing dumb part-time jobs. The respect afforded the students within the campus community is more in proportion to their scholarly achievements than to their income. We oldtimers commiserate with them; when we were students we paid our dues in the same way. And when we ourselves were young, we felt a camaraderie with other student workers, knowing that the job was not the measure of the person.

Anonymous said...

(first part is review for Amazon, but continues with some comments/questions)

This is an original and compelling book which questions the basic assumptions of our society that lead to inequality. Though a philosophy book, it speaks to everyone, especially teachers. Using deceptively simple language and everyday examples, Gomberg builds a structurally sound argument for radically changing the contemporary division of labor. Our market-driven world provides engaging, complex work to a few but dumps demeaning, mind-numbing jobs on most. The book challenges the rationale for these arrangements. Among them are the belief that we live in a zero-sum world where one person's gain is another's loss, and that some are born smarter than others. The book argues that the division of labor feeds racism and wrecks education. An interesting choice is the author's focus on schools. Because there aren't enough exciting jobs (or jobs of any kind!) to go around, it is "necessary" to turn bright, curious youngsters into demoralized, bored adults who resist learning. The dumbing down of education is deliberate. Gomberg thinks that the difference between complex and routine work is recognized and resented by everyone. His egalitarian vision is that we should agree to share routine tasks, common practice in traditional societies and some present-day families. Sharing work would enable everyone to develop creative skills with the rest of their time and would allow true equality of opportunity to emerge. (Gomberg seems to regard being a philosophy professor as the ideal job, a view not universally shared).

The tradition of "utopian" philosophy is to cast the familiar in a new, unflattering light, and to make the unfamiliar look worthwhile and tangible. Human slavery once seemed natural to privileged thinkers like Thomas Jefferson; maybe someday we will look back on present-day social organization as profoundly unnatural and dehumanizing.
(end of review)

I continued thinking about this book long after reading it. The author wisely doesn't presume to offer a road map on how to get to a more just world, or what the details would look like. But soon after I read it, the news appeared of 3200 South Africans being trapped in a mine (who were later fortunately rescued). It led me to wonder: in an egalitarian society, how would exacting and dangerous work like mining get done? (Interestingly, more people would volunteer to enter a mine as as part of a rescue attempt than would do it as a job). Mining can be made safer, but can't be done part-time like dishwashing. Presumably it's necessary, though greener energy sources or robots might change that. Would unpleasant jobs requiring extensive training like mining be done in a "year of service" by young people? Once a month, like National Guard duty? Would an egalitarian society have apprenticeships, or are skill divisions by age also unfair?

marijke said...

I enjoyed How to Make Opportunity Equal, and it strikes me that it's worth thinking about a society in which routine labor is shared and opportunity to contribute is unconstrained. How would this work? How would you know that the routine labor is being shared equally (or not)? How would you even define equal? How does washing an Alzheimer’s patient measure against assembling a car or collecting the trash or picking Brussels sprouts?

Paul Gomberg said...

I would like to thank those who have written comments and apologize, particularly to 'anonymous' (the last anonymous) for not responding sooner.

I think both of the last two comments raise important tne difficult issues. 'Anonymous' raises the example of mining, proposing that it cannot be done part-time. I am not sure. It does not have to be done five days per week, but couldn't it be done only two? The reason it cannot be part-time is that it requires much skill and experience to be done safely. I am not sure about being done at a stage of life. Some arduous tasks are necessarily confined to those who are younger, fitter, and stronger, and this suggests being done at a stage of life. But I think it is important to insist on the sharing of routine work throughout one's life.

Are skill divisions by age unfair? I suppose that would depend on what we mean. Clearly some skills require extensive training and apprenticeship. Hence there would be limits to how young a master of these would be likely to be.

Marijke questions the idea that we can meaningfully determine whether labor is being share equally. I think she is right, and since the book went to the printers I have become increasingly dissatisfied with my failure to question the notion of equality itself. (In an earlier comment I said there were things I was now dissatisfied with; this is one.) To use the word equal is to suggest that things can be meaningfully measured and judged equal or unequal. But this is rarely the case.

The proposal is to share labor and especially to share routine labor so that all have opportunity to develop and contribute more complex abilities. It is unfair if some people's lives are necessarily confined to routine labor. Beyond that, I think it is impossible to say in advance what a 'fair' organization of labor would be. That is something that must be worked out by folks who are building a contributively just society. Sorry I can't be more helpful, but perhaps someone else will have a better idea.

Londonsocialist said...

Review of book in December issue of SOCIALIST STANDARD from London, England:

Routine and complex labour

How to make opportunity equal. By Paul Gomberg. Blackwell, 2007.

The author of this slimmish book is a black American philosophy professor. He discusses race or racism on nearly every page, at one point making the extreme claim that "Race is class made visible and vicious." But race is arguably not the main theme of the book. Gomberg believes that "we need to share labor, including the boring work most of us like to avoid, if everyone is to have an opportunity to develop all of their abilities."

The good news is that the author knows something about socialism and appears to like the prospect: "Imagine a society without markets and their insistence on productive efficiency. Production may be oriented toward meeting needs, not producing whatever can be sold profitably to those with money." And "We each benefit from the production of needed things because we each receive from the common stock."

But the bad news is that other passages in the book reveal his confusion about what socialism means: “Market socialism does not abolish this norm [that each advances economically by their own efforts] but shifts the locus of responsibility from the individual to the worker-run firm." And Gomberg writes about "large working-class socialist and communist parties" in Europe, parties that may be given those labels but actually support some form of capitalism.

Gomberg writes much about what he sees as the division between routine and complex labour, but leaves us unclear about what this distinction is and how it affects society. At one point he says the "division between the organization of labor tasks and the execution of those tasks is the division of society into a class society of laborers and those for whom they labor." - in short, a society divided into workers and capitalists. But elsewhere he claims that "the division between complex and routine labor is primarily a division within the working class."

This contradiction can be resolved only if we accept that within capitalism there are two kinds of distinction: between the owners and non-owners of capital and a distinction (perhaps better described as a gradation) between those who supply routine or complex labour, unskilled or skilled, at lower or higher rates of pay, giving orders to other workers or not doing so.

Gomberg's front cover features a black worker sweeping the stairs. Socialists living in the capitalist world often have to do unpleasant work in oppressive conditions to get money to live. When work is done to meet the needs of people not capital there may be some horse-trading about who does what and for how long. But sociable volunteering, not monetary compulsion, will be the name of the game.

Paul Gomberg said...

Thanks to Stan Parker for his review.

Here are some comments in reply.

On p. 101 I note that I am socially perceived as a "white male professor" (I was explaining why I am often treated differently from my students). So, no, I am not usually thought to be "black."

The review is a bit condescending, which invites a similar tone, but I will try not to adopt it.

We certainly disagree about the promise of market socialism, but I don't believe that makes me confused. I agree with Parker about the European paries which I referred to as "socialist and communist;" my point was just that when these parties were aggressively pursuing reform (and when the Soviet Union was thought to be an alternative--whether it in fact was or not), capitalist oppression was not as brutal as it is likely to be in the period ahead.

I think that two divisions of labor overlap but are not identical: the division between those who organize production (in this period, the capitalists) and those who labor under their command (the workers) and the division between complex labor which requires much training to be mastered and relatively simple and routine labor more easily mastered, which is primarily a division within the working class. The partial but not complete overlap between these two divisions is discussed on pp. 77-79. I agree with Parker that there is a continuum of more routine and more complex labor, and I say so on p. 76.

Much of what Parker writes is in agreement with my argument, but it is written as if it is in disagreement.

Anonymous said...

This is a major contribution to thinking about socio-economic justice. It changes, or should change, how we think about such matters. In retrospect it seems blindingly obvious. There is no way a democratically-run household or commune would allow a minority of members to hog all the nice, interesting jobs, leaving all the dull and unpleasant ones to others. The distinction between divisions among tasks and divisions among jobs is vital. The fact that tasks vary in their qualities does not mean that work can only be organised by segregating interesting, demanding, pleasant work out from work with all the opposite qualities and bundling them up into separate jobs, which then shape how people develop and how they are valued in society. Political philosophy, with its narrow focus on distributive justice, has been in a boring rut for decades. This just might be the book to jolt it out onto a more fruitful course.

That is not to say the book lacks faults, but these don't affect the central argument. The main faults, it seems to me, are of two kinds. First, the emphasis on race is understandable in the U.S. context, but the kinds of inequality and oppression which Gomberg identifies as arising from the lack of contributive justice would arise and have arisen in societies without racialised divisions. All they need is class divisions, and the divisions of labour that Gomberg focuses on, along with property relations, are in turn itself partly constitutive of class. Racialised divisions are invariably class divisions, but not all class divisions are racialised or need to be to exist. You could end racist discrimination of all kinds, so that formerly racialised identities were no longer concentrated disproportionately within particular parts of class divisions or particular occupations, without undermining class divisions. The relationship between class and race is asymmetric.

The second problem concerns alternatives and Gomberg's hostility to markets, even regulated markets: specifically, how could one coordinate an advanced economy without recourse to markets? Here Hayek's critique of what he terms 'constructivism' (epistomised in the dream of centralised, comprehensive economic planning) are crucial. It is hard to see how an advanced economy can function without at least some markets (though not necessarily capitalism - worker-owned enterprises can produce for markets). That's not just an academic question - it's a practical, political question. Any ideas?

Andrew Sayer, Lancaster University, UK

Paul Gomberg said...

I am grateful to Andrew Sayer for his encouraging general comments and for the issues he raised. I hope to reply to his disagreements.

Our “disagreement” about race is a matter of emphasis. I agree (and in fact argue) that “[r]acialized divisions are invariably class divisions.” I emphasize race because much of the success of current capitalist societies is due to the increasing use of “race” or something similar to organize inequality within the working class and thus to defeat the development of class consciousness. Workers divided by race are more easily controlled. We must emphasize how race is used to organize inequality; we must show how racial and other inequalities in contributive opportunities can be overcome. By emphasizing the use of race to organize inequality we can show what a better society, without racism or other class oppression, would look like; in this way we can encourage the development of working class consciousness. So, as a practical matter, I disagree that we “could end racist discrimination of all kinds…without undermining class divisions.” I believe that, in the current period, capitalists need racism to keep workers divided, to defeat class consciousness, and hence maintain a secure hold on power.

I do not believe that race is important primarily in the U.S. While the U.S. is the “mother country” of race and racism, race—or something very much like it, grounded in religion, language, nationality, or immigration status—has become increasingly important to the organization of inequality within the working class in Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan. So race is increasingly central to the stability of capitalism; the defeat of racism is increasingly important to the organization of working class unity.

Our disagreement about markets is deeper and more difficult. In chapter 12 I argue that markets entail a moral outlook, a conception of justice and injustice and of what people deserve for their efforts. These ideals implicit in market relations are individualist and incompatible with justice. Moreover, markets require employers to emphasize efficiency in production and provision of services. Productive efficiency is a different goal from contributive justice and is practically incompatible with it. Specifically, it is more efficient to educate only a minority to think critically and independently; it is more efficient to use educational resources required to develop difficult complex abilities on only a few people. Market societies in competition with other market societies will expend their resources efficiently and will not develop these abilities in all children.

If we accept these arguments, must we then choose between contributive justice and an “advanced economy?” I agree that “[i]t is hard to see how an advanced economy can function without at least some markets;” this difficulty is a challenge I could not address adequately in the book.

I can only sketch a reply. Our world is becoming polluted with the trash of discarded commodities and with the poisons created in producing them; out climate is changing from the energy expended in the production of more and more trash. Not satisfied with our work, we seek satisfaction in consumption, but it doesn’t make our lives better. And our marriages and friendships suffer from these consumerist values.

What would a good society produce, and what services would it provide? I argue in the last chapter that it would produce what we need in order to contribute, but what is that? It would provide all with a healthy diet, something that we know a lot about; with housing that is not only decent and clean but nurturing; with opportunities for rest and recreation, particularly social recreational activities but time to be alone as well; with transportation that treats us with dignity and takes us where we need to go efficiently; with poetry, art, music, literature, mathematics, science, and philosophy; with outdoor and public spaces that uplift and nurture us; with health care needed to restore us to health or to make it possible for us to contribute despite physical or mental limitations; and with educational opportunities that would enable us to contribute in the provision of these other goods.

Are markets an advantage in creating these goods? If these are what makes life good, I don’t see how markets help. The appeal of Hayek’s argument comes from acceptance of the idea that what makes life good is being able to get the commodities we want. But orienting our lives toward commodities is part of the problem, not the solution.

I believe that a contributive economy could be an advanced economy in the sense of incorporating science-based technologies. It would have to coordinate the activities of large numbers, but could do so through centralized participatory planning: involving as many as possible in providing information as to what things and services are needed and centralizing and coordinating this information. How would this work? Now we really are beyond my competence.

kendra martin said...

In chapter 13 under " Justice is about contribution" Smith argrues that value cannot be measured by a commodity because it is itself continually varying in it's own value. Labor, by contrast, can be a measure of value, for equal quantities of labour are always of equal value to the labourer because he must always lay down the same portion of his ease, his liberty, and his happiness" in class you stated that a " bluecollar worker is not happy nor content with the position that he holds and that he is in but this statement in your book says the opposite, so pulling from this section out your book my question is, Can a blue collar worker be happy at the level of work he is in never progresing only staying a blue collar worker?

kendra martin said...

In chapter 2 of your book you talk about "autonomously chosen" and "circumstances". moving over a couple chapters you state that " What harms black people harms most others- though often not as much" wouldn't you agree that black people are in more ways than one "Circumstantial" were as others or more so " autonomously chosen" ? not to say that there are not other races that are " Circumstantial" but the comparison to blks to others are a little different wouldn't you say?

Paul Gomberg said...

I wish to thank Kendra Martin for her comments. On the Chapter 13 passage: I believe your argument is this: I reject Smith's statement that labor is a burden, a laying down of ease, liberty and happiness, instead agreeing with Marx that labor can be an important good in our lives. But in class, Kendra says, I said that workers doing routine, simple labor usually hate what they do. So. the question is, which is it? Is labor good or is it bad?

I would reply, like Marx, that labor can be either good or bad. It depends on the conditions under which we labor: does our labor involve some variety? Do we have control over what we do? Does our labor challenge us mentally? All of these are relevant to whether labor will be a good for us or a negative for us. The more labor is self-directed and involves variety and exercise of complex abilities, the better it is.

Kendra's other comment in about the distinction that Roemer draws (and I summarize in Chapter 2) between the circumstances in which a child grows up (over which she has no control) and her autonomous choices. Kendra asks whether black people's life situations are more commonly the product of their circumstances while for others their autonomous choices are more responsible for what they become (at least that is how I will interpret her remark).

In reply: I think your point is more accurately stated as being that black people are, in general, more hampered by disadvantaged circumstances, and I certainly agree with that. But I also argue that the whole use of the idea of "autonomous choice" as Roemer does makes little sense. I argue that the distinction between things for which people should be held repsonsible (presumably their autnomous choices) and things for which they should not (their circumstances) makes more sense in moral contexts where we are trying to modify the behavior of others for the better and hence have to figure out what of their actions are due to choices which, if criticized, they might make differently. To apply the concept of autonomous choice as Roemer does to questions of social policy and social philosophy is to commit what I call "the fallacy of moralizing politics."

Mankea said...

Can a persons autonomous choices be independent of his or her circumstances?

Paul Gomberg said...

Thanks, Mankea, for the question. You ask, "Can a persons autonomous choices be independent of his or her circumstances?"

Roemer would say "yes," by the very definition he gives of autonomous choices. The distinction between circumstances and autonomous choices is introduced by Roemer to distinguish what people should be held accountable for from things that they should not be accountable for. His point is that childrens' choices of how much time to spend studying is influenced by their circumstances so it is unfair, in his view, to compare the number of hours a suburban kid from a family of college educated parents studies with the numbers of hours a kid from an inner city single parent, high school dropout, poor family studies. That is what he calls different levels of effort, and he says children should not be held accountable for their choices here, to the extent that they are influenced by circumstances. Hence, he argues, we should only compare their degree of effort--how many hours they spend studying relative to other children of the same type. The degree of effort represents their autonomous choice *independent of circumstances* and that is the choice they can be held accountable for. So Roemer, by--he supposes--subtracting the influence of circumstances from the choices people make (how much to study, relative to children of their type--the type is supposed to include all the relevant circumstances), leaves our autonomous choices independent of circumstances.

But is Roemer right that the variation in choice of how much to study among children of the same type is the part of their choice that is autonomous and independent of circumstances? I argue that circumstances always influenced how we develop at the end of Chapter 2, pp. 25-7. So our choices--if we want to call them autonomous is a further question--always depend on the circumstances in which we develop in subtle and unpredictable ways.

So, the point of my argument at the end of Chapter 2 is that the answer to your question is "no," depending, of course, on what you mean by "autonomous choices." So what do you mean?

Beth Lung said...

I’m hoping this is the correct place to be posting this. I am a student in Mahesh Ananth’s Introduction to Ethics class at Indiana University, South Bend. We met and spoke briefly after your evening lecture at IUSB on March 31. Mahesh spoke with you concerning my disagreement to your argument that success creates problems for friendships and passed along your request that I present my argument to you.

In the section entitled, “Social comparison and self-esteem in Franz Kafka’s “The Judgment”” of Chapter 8, you state, “Societies where positions of prestige are attained through competitive success and where people derive much of their social (and self-) esteem from conventional prestige can create problems for friendships. One person’s success can threaten a friend’s sense of self-worth, particularly when comparison is unavoidable. Friends find themselves competing for social and self-esteem, a competition which can harm the friendship.” (p. 95). I disagree.

I am about to give an example from my own personal experience. I realize that this can be seen as one exception to a general ‘rule’, and therefore can be discounted, however, please be patient as I will get to a more generalized point. Several years ago, one of my closest friends and I worked together as computer consultants. When there was a reorganization of the structure of our department, both of us applied for a limited number of supervisory positions, therefore competing against each other. We helped each other to make sure we were both not just up to speed, but were expert users with the software we were to support so we would be a better resource for those we may one day supervise. I was hired for the position to which we both applied. She was hired for a supervisory position higher up the ladder than I, in which, she became my boss. Both of us were very excited for ourselves as well as each other for different reasons. I had never had a supervisory position, so I was excited to have gotten one. She was happy for me to have achieved that goal. She was excited because her new position moved her more in the direction she wished to take her career. I was happy for her to have achieved that goal. We worked well together for two years. At that point, I realized I was not working in a field I wanted as a career. I took a chance, quit my job with no job prospects lined up, and made a complete change in direction for career choice. I was eventually able to find employment at the hospital as a nurse tech and began working toward getting my EMT certification so I could work for the ambulance service. My friend was shocked at my audacity and then inspired by my success. She confided to me that she thought if I could just quit my job out of the blue and change careers, she could go back to school and finish her bachelor’s degree. She did, and in doing so, became more successful in her career. Her success, in turn, inspired me. I thought if she could return to school and earn her degree at age 38, that I, now at 40, could do the same. Hence, I am now in school working toward becoming an RN. Instead of finding one another’s success a threat to our own self-worth, we found it inspirational and used it as fuel to reach toward higher goals for ourselves. Thus, we improved our own prestige and self-esteem.

As I stated previously, it could be just a personal exception to the general, usual outcome. However, consider the possibility that the argument may be splitting hairs on the basis of the definition of a relationship. Were my friend and I both working toward a degree in nursing, we would combine forces and work together so we would both make the grade, so to speak, so we would both get into nursing school. Our competition would be our peers who were also trying to get into nursing school. Because of our relationship, we would form an “Us against Them” mentality. “They” aren’t our friends; therefore “they” don’t deserve our support. The splitting hairs aspect is that she and I are friends and our peers are acquaintances. Success among friends binds the relationship closer. Success among acquaintances pushes the relationship apart.

Granted, this argument ends up aligning itself with the following section, “Group identities, racism, and the struggle for a sense of self-worth”; however, here I am only addressing the argument concerning friendship.
Thank you for your time,
Beth Lung

Paul Gomberg said...

Thank you, Beth, for a very thoughtful comment. It pushes me to think much harder about the conditions under which I believe that competition can harm a friendship.

I would like to start with praise for your description of your experience with your friend. I understand your point generally to be that competition, striving for success, can strengthen a friendship and can help friends to become better. You offer your story as a criticism of the following words that I wrote: “Societies where positions of prestige are attained through competitive success and where people derive much of their social (and self-) esteem from conventional prestige can create problems for friendships. One person’s success can threaten a friend’s sense of self-worth, particularly when comparison is unavoidable. Friends find themselves competing for social and self-esteem, a competition which can harm the friendship.” (p. 95). You then write that you disagree and tell the story of your friendship. But I don't think we disagree, unless you are saying that competition never harms a friendship. Are you saying that? All I wrote is that competition can harm a friendship, not that it always does. Your story reminds us that it does not always do that.

But this reply so far takes an easy way with your comment, and I think your comment does force us to think harder about why competition may or may not harm a friendship. So let me try to draw some lessons.

In the first place, both you and your friend have been successful in achieving your aspirations. While there have been differences in how well you have done, the differences are not great. You both sustain lots of optimism about your continued success. In the Kavka story Georg's friend in St. Petersburg had resigned himself to permanent bachelorhood, while Georg himself was about to marry into a wealthy family. The great divergence of their fortunes (in two senses) seemed to threaten the friendship.

Let me tell a story from my parent's lives which is closer to the Kavka story. My parents, as a young couple in the 1930s, formed a friendship with another young couple much like themselves. As time passed my father became increasingly successful as a member of the California wine industry. His friend worked as a real estate agent but then lost his vision; it became increasingly difficult for him to work and support himself. At one point he approached my father to ask for financial help. I think the divergence of their fortunes put a strain on the friendship. When they got together, the differences in how they had fared since the time of their initial equality as young couples was very apparent to all of them. I think the contrast was painful and made it hard to sustain the friendship. Arisotle said that friendship is equality, and inequality, it then seems, threatens friendship.

Of course, this story may be independent of issues of competition; it may just involve issues of the difficulty of friendship across social inequality. But I think part of the problem is that they started off as equals and became very unequal. But even if this is true, it still may be that the issue has more to do with great social inequality than competition.

The other issue, more directly related to competition, is insecurity versus confidence. Both you and your friend seem quite confident. When I was young, as I became aware of how many people who aspired to teach philosophy were unable to make a career doing so, I became very insecure about my own ambition, not at all sure that I could succeed. It is in that context that the successes of others seem so threatening. That does not seem to be a problem between you and your friend. When people are not as sure of themselves (and the insecurity can arise from the scarcity of positions for which we are competing), unequal success is more likely to threaten the friendship.

Thanks for your comments. Sorry for the long reply.

Beth Lung said...


Sorry about taking so long to reply. Life got a little busy and I wanted to digest your reply and think through mine before responding.

In your reply, you stated, "But I don't think we disagree, unless you are saying that competition never harms a friendship. Are you saying that? All I wrote is that competition can harm a friendship, not that it always does. Your story reminds us that it does not always do that."

In rereading what my disagreement was as well as you're reply, you are correct, we don't really disagree. I do not think that competition can never harm a friendship, I think it is a rare occasion when it does harm a friendship. My belief lies in my definition of friendship.

My friend in my example is someone with whom I am very close. We spent a good deal of time together (as I no longer live in the same town that time is now in frequent visits, emails and phone calls). She is more like a sister than a friend. Perhaps that is the reason competition has not harmed our friendship.

On the other hand, I have classmates whom I call friend, but they are more like acquaintances. We spend time together in class or studying outside of class, but there isn't a close bond between us. When I think of competing with them to get into the School of Nursing, it makes me happy to have beat out one of them by getting a better grade on an exam, but frustrated when one of them gets a better grade than I do. Sure, I congratulate them on the good grade, but, secretly, I wish they hadn't done so well.

Looking at the story of your parents' experience, the arm-chair sociologist in me also wonders if the difference could be, in part, generational. I have friends that, when they were first engaged and moved back to the area, found themselves kicked out of the place in which they were living. Down on their luck, my husband (at the time) and I had them move in with us for a month while they saved money for deposit on an apartment and waited for that apartment to become available. Now, they have been married for nearly 15 years, have a beautiful daughter and are financially stable. On the other hand, I have been divorced for 10 years and have a tight financial situation because I am going back to school. I didn't have a cell phone because it didn't fit within my budget. However, a month ago, they offered to put me on the family plan of their cell phone service so I could have a cell phone. Last year, when gas prices were over $4/gal., they sent me gas money so I could drive down to visit them when I otherwise wouldn't be able to afford to do so.

The reason why I wonder if it is a generational aspect is when I think of opportunities for women of my mother's generation versus my generation versus the current generation. When my mom was growing up (she is a baby boomer), she was told she could become a teacher, nurse or secretary. When I was growing up (I was born in 1969), I was told that I could be anything I wanted to be, but was encouraged to become a teacher, nurse or secretary. Currently, young women are told they can be anything they want to be and are encouraged to be anything they want to be.

Basically, as time passes, beliefs and relationship expectations of society changes. But, that may or may not relate to philosophy. I cannot make a strong statement that it does or does not, as my only exposure to actually thinking about philosophy is the class I am currently taking.

Paul Gomberg said...

Thanks again, Beth, for such a thoughtful comment. Your stories about both your original friend and of the couple with whom you have exchanged assistance in times of need both show the meaning of friendship in terms of helping out our friends and encouraging them to achieve their goals.

Nevertheless, I still think you fail to appreciate a point that was present in the story of my parents and the couple with whom they were friends and of Georg and his friend (and his father) in Kafka's story. In all three cases fortune had created much larger inequalities than the inequalities which you describe (at least I suspect that this is true). In our culture most folks do not socialize with others far from their status position in the larger society, and such socializing can create problems. Sometimes I ask my students to imagine that they have achieved their dreams--let us suppose it is to be a neurosurgeon at an important research hospital--and then return to their neighborhoods to see old friends who are working as hair stylists, car wash attendants, grocery store clerks, and certified nursing assistants at a nursing home caring for indigent old people. Such large gaps in people's social outcomes, especially when people started in similar places, can be very painful to people, regardless of how close they used to be. Your examples, at least as I hear them, are about people who are not very far apart in their social status.

The book is about division between routine and complex labor. But you and the people you decribe are firmly (it seems to me) located there in the middle, doing neither the most routine nor the most complex, self-directed labor. Problems arise, I suggest, when the status gap becomes wider (as it eventually did for my parents and the other couple and did for Georg and both his father and his friend--for the last comparison imagine two people getting together, one with a corner women's boutique in a suburban strip mall and the other running the anchor department store at the mega-mall). Wide status gaps make social comparisons more painful. The organization of labor makes wide status gaps common.

Still, your comments make me think that much of the early part of the chapter needs to be rewritten, in the spirit of my reply to you. Two things seem to create problems for friendships: very wide gaps (as in the Kafka story) and very insecure status (as I felt as a young philosopher and is suggested by Rousseau's discussion of amour propre).

Beth Lung said...

I'd like to say first that I am greatly enjoying this exchange, Paul. While I am not diligent with replying in a timely manner, and the exchange has thus far been small, it, as well as the book as a whole, is getting me to look at things in a different manner.

You are correct in that the economic gap between myself and my friends is within the ‘middle class.’ In considering things further, I’ll share the following.

My grandfather is a wealthy man. He also believes that women are second class citizens. In light of this, there was a good deal of competition between myself and my male cousin when we were growing up. I was on the honor role through out high school. My reward was a pat on the back and a hardy handshake. My cousin’s grades were poor. He was told that he would get a car for graduation if he could get on the honor role. When he failed to do so, he was told he could get a car if he would get an A in a class. When he failed to do so, the bar was lowered to getting a B. When he graduated, without getting a grade above a C, and no college prospects, he was given a car and an apartment with 3 months rent paid and a job in my grandfather‘s company. When I graduated with nearly a 3.0 gpa and a letter of acceptance to college, I, once again, received a pat on the back and a hardy handshake. I didn’t hate my cousin, or my grandfather for that matter, but I did not go out of my way to spend time with either of them. Nor did I rejoice in my cousin’s accomplishments, but I did think ‘boy did he ever deserve that’ when it came to his failures.

So, yes, I would have to agree, when there is a large gap, it can harm relationships.

Beth Lung said...

New topic so new message.

(I think this is more anecdotal than an actual point.)

In chapter 12, at the end of the chapter you are arguing against Joseph Caren’s utopian vision. In that counter argument you state, “Second, if we base esteem on comparing earnings with earnings potential, we demean people with compliments comparable to, “That’s good - for a girl.” We say to people that they are contributing a lot in comparison to their capabilities, but it demeans us to be told that we are not capable of much […].” (p 147).

I have a good deal of experience with this and not just from part of my family (as noted previously). My first career (and a continued hobby) was in computers and computer support. At the time (late 1980’s early 1990’s) it was a field dominated by men. I also worked as an EMT for 6 years, again a predominately male field where not only were most of my partners men, but most police officers and firefighters who we often worked with on scene were men. I often got that “That’s good - for a girl” ‘compliment’.

I have learned to turn the tables on it. I play an online MMORPG called World of Warcraft as one of my hobbies. It is predominately played by men. There are often occasions of ‘friendly arguments’ as to who is better at doing something. It is based out of ego and often leads to someone commenting “Just whip ‘m out on the table and measure them.” One evening I countered with, “I don’t need to put my dick on the table and measure it. I know I’m good. I’m a girl.” The response was a long silence followed by thunderous laughter.

However, it takes a person with a good deal of self-esteem to slap a back-handed compliment back at the person giving the compliment. The only other woman in the group responded with, “I cannot believe you said that.” She had always been quiet and kept to the background. With the passing of time, she finally came around to once commenting something along the lines of ‘the boys aren’t good enough to join our group,’ (referring to she and I being in a group together) however, it came off more as something a girl in grade-school would say than a woman establishing herself or her worth.

Therefore, in this case, including when applying it to areas outside of comparing earnings with earnings potential, I whole heartedly agree with you.

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