Category: Thought and Opinion

John Stuart Mill’s Philosophy of Equality

Sometimes in the debates about how to improve equality in our society, the reason why we should desire equality gets lost. In his classic text The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill explains why equality is critical for solving the world’s problems—because it allows everyone to decide how they can best contribute to society.

“The loss to the world, by refusing to make use of one-half of the whole quantity of talent it possesses, is extremely serious.”

The Subjection of Women was released in 1869, a time when, in most of the world, women were considered the legal property—objects, not subjects—of men, specifically their fathers and husbands. John Stuart Mill, a nineteenth-century British philosopher who not only wrote political philosophy but also served in Parliament and advocated for many liberal reforms, challenged the status quo by pointing out the incredible cost to society of maintaining inequality between the sexes.

Mill was specifically addressing the equality of women in relation to men, but his reasoning as to why equality is desirable transcends that one case. Because his argument rests on the social cost of inequality, a modern reading of his text is easily reframed as “the subjection of people.” Even if that was not his initial intent, we can use our current understanding to adapt his ideas.

He argued that we need to give people a choice as to how they will best contribute to society. If we don’t, we prevent ourselves from accessing the best ideas and contributions. Humans face enough natural challenges, Mill thought, that to cut ourselves off from any part of the available pool of brainpower costs society timely and insightful solutions to our problems—solutions that may be better than the existing ones. People need to have equal freedom to choose the paths that they want to pursue.

***

Equality of opportunity

Mill was not delusional about equality and did not assume that everyone is equally capable of doing everything. His was more an equality of opportunity as opposed to equality of outcomes. That is, all people should be in a position to determine how they can best contribute to society. “It is not that all processes are supposed to be equally good, or all persons to be equally qualified for everything;” he explains, “but that freedom of individual choice is now known to be the only thing which procures the adoption of the best processes, and throws each operation into the hands of those who are best qualified for it.

In his time and place, he observed that women were not allowed to decide on how they would or could contribute to society. But, more importantly, their opinions and feelings on the subject of their lives were not even solicited.

He observed that the lack of testimony and perspective of women in both history and contemporary society, as well as the lack of access to education to enable them to contribute, meant that men’s general understanding of them was weak at best. Most men derived their opinion of women based on their feelings about the women with whom they had direct contact and the opinions of other men. “Accordingly, one can, to an almost laughable degree,” Mill wrote, “infer what a man’s wife is like from his opinions about women in general.

The cultural conditioning of the time rendered women obscure. Mill notes that men often criticized women for possessing the qualities that men insisted they have:

When we put together three things—first, the natural attraction between opposite sexes; secondly, the wife’s entire dependence on the husband, every privilege or pleasure she has being either his gift, or depending entirely on his will; and lastly, that the principal object of human pursuit, consideration, and all objects of social ambition, can in general be sought or obtained by her only through him, it would be a miracle if the object of being attractive to men had not become the polar star of feminine education and formation of character.”

For women, it is a catch-22. You must be what you are expected to be in order to be seen, but then you are seen only for what has been culturally prescribed.

The lack of access to women’s perspective often means that cultural stereotypes continue. Mill asks, “Who can tell how many of the most original thoughts put forth by male writers belong to a woman by suggestion?” To give just two of many examples, Zelda Fitzgerald probably contributed a fair amount of ideas to the books attributed only to her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald. And William Wordsworth reputedly used passages from his sister Dorothy’s writing journal in his own works. Not to mention the many male writers whose wives were their editors, typists, and critics. The question Mill asked is still relevant today. The history of the Nobel Prize alone demonstrates how often men are given credit for the ideas of women. Aside from being an annoying injustice, the problem is that it obscures the contributions of women and reinforces antiquated notions of women’s capabilities.

***

For most of history, Anonymous was a woman

Mill was fully aware of the reinforcing feedback loop that made it hard for women to challenge the status quo. He supposed that women did not write more about their true feelings and perspectives because the power difference made it almost impossible. “As yet very few of them dare tell anything,” he writes, “which men, on whom their literary success depends, are unwilling to hear.” Thus, the feedback loop is that women could only express those opinions that men would support in order to achieve literary success, but then that success simply reinforced those opinions.

But in history, as in travelling, men usually see only what they already had in their own minds.”

The fact of cultural bias, and how it perpetuates itself, is easily extrapolated from the specific case Mill was arguing against to many similar power dynamics throughout history. One group has power. They justify that power as being natural in order to keep it. That idea of naturalness becomes part of the cultural rhetoric and becomes the lens through which the powerless are viewed. The powerless struggle to change because before they can attain rights they have to change the cultural narrative.

When we take away someone’s freedom to choose where they can best contribute based on cultural biases, it does not benefit society as a whole. It does us no good “to ordain that to be born a girl instead of a boy, any more than to be born black instead of white, or a commoner instead of a nobleman, shall decide the person’s position through all of life.

When we don’t organize society on the premise of equality, we miss opportunities for improvement and development. We hold everyone back.

***

No one wants to be at the bottom

Mill was aware that to promote equality one had to deal with overcoming the influence of legalized power, which can be understood as one group having the power to direct the lives of another powerless group. His conclusions about the role and expression of power are applicable to any instance of systemic inequality.

For everyone who desires power, desires it most over those who are nearest to him, with whom his life is passed, with whom he has most concerns in common, and in whom any independence of his authority is oftenest likely to interfere with his individual preferences.

It is an argument we have all heard time and time again: because the inequality is assumed to be just the way things are, the power difference must be normal as well. Mill exposes the fallacy in this type of thinking when he asks, “But was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?” The exercise of power by one group over another certainly does not feel natural to those who are being dominated, even if they may have internalized the same oppressive beliefs about themselves.

In the case of women in Mill’s society, the power to dictate their choices and options in life was not given to select men, but all men. In many cultures, the legal subjection of women to men is still the norm. In both cases, there is no evaluation of any man’s ability to exercise their power. As Mill pointed out, no one verified if a husband would be any good at being a husband.

In systems in which women have no power, there are fewer incentives for men to treat them well. He explains the backwardness of, for example, requiring marriage to a man to be the sole role for women when he says, “Those who attempt to force women into marriage by closing all other doors against them lay themselves open to a similar retort. If they mean what they say, their opinion must evidently be that men do not render the married condition so desirable to women as to induce them to accept it for its own recommendations.” When something is desirable, people want it for themselves. If the choice is between some degree of liberty or total subjugation, people will choose the former. Thus, for the power to enforce the latter to exist, it has to be mandated and justified as “natural.”

Mill argued that “it is perfectly obvious that the abuse of the power cannot be very much checked while the power remains.” It is very unlikely that people who have power are inclined to give it up. In order to justify power accorded solely because of who you happen to be born as, the power must be conceived of as earned.

It’s often a case of making up arguments in order to justify the status quo, rather than deciding on a status quo based on objective observation and evidence.

For the same reasons that the way we justify our actions on an individual level makes it hard for us to admit we are wrong and change our minds, the justifications that a society produces to maintain a power structure are very hard to dislodge. Mill observed, “So long as the right of the strong to power over the weak rules in the very heart of society, the attempt to make the equal right of the weak the principle of its outward actions will always be an uphill struggle.

Why bother to try to change power structures? For Mill, when power is concentrated in the hands of a section of the population, the people in the society with that power imbalance cannot exercise freedom. “The love of power and the love of liberty are in eternal antagonism,” Mill writes. “Where there is least liberty, the passion for power is the most ardent and unscrupulous.

According to Mill, liberty is the goal. His idea of liberty is incompatible with systemic inequality. To legislate inequality, to make it part of the social fabric, has two problematic effects. First, those who are considered “less than” cannot have liberty. But those who run the show do not have liberty either, because of the effort required to maintain inequality.

***

An accident of birth

The real problem is not that inequality works as the best state of affairs for everyone, but that there is fear of what an equal society might look like because we have yet to experience one. Essentially, there exists a fear of the unknown. Because an equal society would necessarily function differently, there is, of course, a hesitation regarding what one might be giving up.

Mill argued against the idea that the various states of inequality that he saw around him, the ownership by one group of people over another, were the result of careful decisions. “Experience cannot possibly have decided between two courses, so long as there has only been experience of one.

Inequality is often explained by some version of “that’s just the way things are.” Certain groups of people are assumed to have certain intrinsic, unchangeable qualities and thus must be treated accordingly. Mill, however, felt that a lot of what we attribute to biology was actually a product of cultural conditioning. We inaccurately assume that what is common practice represents objective truths about the world, as opposed to being deliberately created and perpetuated because it benefits certain groups. Mill writes, “So true is it that unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and that everything which is usual appears natural.

The dishonesty of conflating the privileges you happened to be born to with your right to have those privileges was observed by Mill. He saw all around him evidence of those who were unable to acknowledge the extent to which their achievements were a result of the accident of birth. “Those whom privileges not acquired by their merit, and which they feel to be disproportioned to it, inspire with additional humility are always the few, and the best few,” he wrote. “The rest are only inspired with pride, and the worst sort of pride, that which values itself upon accidental advantages not of its own achieving.” It’s like congratulating yourself for winning a race without acknowledging, or even being aware, that you started closer to the finish line than all the other participants.

Mill suggests that maintaining inequality distracts us from addressing more pressing challenges:“One feels that among all the lessons which men require for carrying on the struggle against the inevitable imperfections of their lot on earth,” Mill explains, “there is no lesson which they more need, than not to add to the evils which nature inflicts, by their jealous and prejudiced restrictions on one another.” There are struggles that we have to face together because they affect all of us.

In Mill’s time, he might have been thinking of the vulnerability of humans to disease, or the environmental and social effects of the Industrial Revolution. These same struggles frame the challenges we face today. We conquer one disease only to become vulnerable to another, and we are now trying to figure out how to not destroy our environment so much that we cause our own extinction. Reading his polemic suggests that expending any effort to maintain “prejudiced restrictions on one another” is a waste of energy that could be more effectively spent dealing with the very real threats we face as a species.

***

The greater good

Although Mill was writing about the specific case of the subjection of women in the society in which he lived, his arguments about the detriment of inequality to society are more broadly applicable. Thus, when he observes: “Is it not a mere truism to say that such functions are often filled by men far less fit for them than numbers of women, and who would be beaten by women in any fair field of competition?” we can say we agree that fitness for a position matters far more than the cultural attributes of the person filling it.

And when he questions: “Is there so great a superfluity of men fit for high duties that society can afford to reject the service of any competent person?” we can easily answer no.

When we limit people’s access to society based on assumptions about broad categories of attributes, we hurt everyone. Mill writes:

To ordain that any kind of persons shall not be physicians, or shall not be advocates, or shall not be member of Parliament, is to injure not them only, but all who employ physicians or advocates, or elect members of Parliament, and who are deprived of the stimulating effect of greater competition on the exertions of the competitors, as well as restricted to a narrower range of individual choice.

Just as monopolies on goods distort the value and availability of a commodity, a monopoly on choice by one social group distorts competency and achievement.

Mill suggests that “the legal subordination of one sex to the other is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement.” Regardless of how we go about promoting equality, it’s important to always remember why equality is desirable. The more equal we are in our freedom to choose how we can contribute to society makes it more likely that the best contributions will be realized.

What You Truly Value

Our devotion to our values gets tested in the face of a true crisis. But it’s also an opportunity to reconnect, recommit, and sometimes, bake some bread.

***

The recent outbreak of the coronavirus is impacting people all over the world — not just in terms of physical health, but financially, emotionally, and even socially. As we struggle to adapt to our new circumstances, it can be tempting to bury our head and wait for it all to blow over so we can just get back to normal. Or we can see this as an incredible opportunity to figure out who we are.

What many of us are discovering right now is that the things we valued a few months ago don’t actually matter: our cars, the titles on our business cards, our privileged neighborhoods. Rather, what is coming to the forefront is a shift to figuring out what we find intrinsically rewarding

When everything is easy, it can seem like you have life figured out. When things change and you’re called to put it into practice, it’s a different level. It’s one thing to say you are stoic when your coffee spills and another entirely when you’re watching your community collapse. When life changes and gets hard, you realize you’ve never had to put into practice what you thought you knew about coping with disaster.

But when a crisis hits, everything is put to the real test.

The challenge then becomes wrapping our struggles into our values, because what we value only has meaning if it’s important when life is hard. To know if they have worth, your values need to help you move forward when you can barely crawl and the obstacles in your way seem insurmountable.

In the face of a crisis, what is important to us becomes evident when we give ourselves the space to reflect on what is going to get us through the hard times. And so we find renewed commitment to get back to core priorities. What seemed important before falls apart to reveal what really matters: family, love, community, health.

“I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate.” 

— Julia Child

One unexpected activity that many people are turning to now that they have time and are more introspective is baking. In fact, this week Google searches for bread recipes hit a noticeable high.


Baking is a very physical experience: kneading dough, tasting batter, smelling the results of the ingredients coming together. It’s an activity that requires patience. Bread has to rise. Pies have to cook. Cakes have to cool before they can be covered with icing. And, as prescriptive as baking seems on its surface, it’s something that facilitates creativity as we improvise our ingredients based on what we have in the cupboard. We discover new flavors, and we comfort ourselves and others with the results. Baked goods are often something we share, and in doing so we are providing for those we care about.

Why might baking be useful in times of stress? In Overcoming Anxiety, Dennis Tirch explains “research has demonstrated that when people engage more fully in behaviors that give them a sense of pleasure and mastery, they can begin to overcome negative emotions.”

At home with their loved ones people can reconsider what they value one muffin at a time. Creating with the people we love instead of consuming on our own allows us to focus on what we value as the world changes around us. With more time, slow, seemingly unproductive pursuits have new appeal because they help us reorient to the qualities in life that matter most.

Giving yourself the space to tune in to your values doesn’t have to come through baking. What’s important is that you find an activity that lets you move past fear and panic, to reconnect with what gives your life meaning. When you engage with an activity that gives you pleasure and releases negative emotions, it allows you to rediscover what is important to you.

Change is stressful. But neither stress nor change have to be scary. If you think about it, you undergo moments of change every day because nothing in life is ever static. Our lives are a constant adaptation to a world that is always in motion.

All change brings opportunity. Some change gives us the opportunity to pause and ask what we can do better. How can we better connect to what has proven to be important? Connection is not an abstract intellectual exercise, but an experience that orients us to the values that provide us direction. If you look for opportunities in line with your values, you will be able to see a path through the fear and uncertainty guided by the light that is hope.

The Gift of Hope

It can be daunting, wondering what to give people, especially at this time of year. What gift properly communicates the feelings you have for someone? One idea is to give yourself. Another is to give the gift of hope.

In Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett writes about hope, and how transformative it can be.

“In a century of staggering open questions, hope becomes a calling for those of us who can hold it, for the sake of the world. Hope is distinct, in my mind, from optimism or idealism. It has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. It lives open eyed and wholehearted with the darkness that is woven ineluctably into the light of life and sometimes seems to overcome it. Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

Hope makes us resilient and courageous. We can share our hope with others, engaging in a reciprocal exchange that makes us all stronger. Tippett writes:

“We want to be called to our best selves. We long to figure out what that would look like. And we are figuring out that we need each other to do so.”

and

“Hope is an orientation, and insistence on wresting wisdom and joy from the endlessly fickle fabric of space and time.”

So how might we give hope? Tippett shares this insight:

“There are millions of people at any given moment, young and old, giving themselves over to service, risking hope, and all the while ennobling us all. To take such goodness in and let it matter-to let it define our take on reality as much as headlines of violence-is a choice we can make to live by the light in the darkness, to be brave and free.”

And thus hope, as explained by Tippett, is a resource we can grow, give, and share together.

“It is a relief to claim our love of each other and take that on as an adventure, a calling. It is a pleasure to wonder at the mystery we are and find delight in the vastness of reality that is embedded in our beings. It is a privilege to hold something robust and resilient called hope, which has the power to shift the world on its axis.”

The Danger of Comparing Yourself to Others

The most important things in life are internal not external.

“The big question about how people behave,” says Warren Buffett, “is whether they’ve got an inner scorecard or an outer scorecard. It helps if you can be satisfied with an inner scorecard.” To make his point, Buffett often asks a simple question: Would you rather be the world’s greatest lover, but have everyone think you’re the world’s worst lover? Or would you rather be the world’s worst lover but have everyone think you’re the world’s greatest lover?

Comparing ourselves to others allows them to drive our behavior. This type of comparison is between you and someone else. Sometimes it’s about something genetic, like wishing to be taller, but more often it’s about something the other person is capable of doing that we wish we could do as well. Maybe Sally writes better reports than you, and maybe Bob has a happier relationship with his spouse than you do. Sometimes this comparison is motivating and sometimes it’s destructive.

You can be anything but you can’t be everything. When we compare ourselves to others, we’re often comparing their best features against our average ones. It’s like being right-handed and trying to play an instrument with your left hand. Not only do we naturally want to be better than them, the unconscious realization that we are not often becomes self-destructive.

Comparisons between people are a recipe for unhappiness unless you are the best in the world. Which, let’s be honest, only one person is. Not only are we unhappy but the other people are as well. They are probably comparing themselves to you—maybe you’re better at networking than they are and they’re jealous. At worst, when we compare ourselves to others we end up focusing our energy on bringing them down instead of raising ourselves up.

There is one thing that you’re better at than other people: being you. This is the only game you can really win.

When you start with this mindset the world starts to look better again. No longer are you focused on where you stand relative to others. Instead, your focus and energy is placed on what you’re capable of now and how you can improve yourself.

Life becomes about being a better version of yourself. And when that happens, your effort and energy go toward upgrading your personal operating system every day, not worrying about what your coworkers are doing. You become happier, free from the shackles of false comparisons and focused on the present moment.

When what you do doesn’t meet the expectations of others, too bad. The way they look at you is the same way you were looking at them, though a distorted lens shaped by experiences and expectations. What really matters is what you think about what you do, what your standards are, what you can learn today.

That’s not an excuse to ignore thoughtful opinions—other people might give you a picture of how you fall short of being your best self. Instead, it’s a reminder to compare yourself to who you were this morning. Are you better than you were when you woke up? If not, you’ve wasted a day. It’s less about others and more about how you improve relative to who you were.

When you stop comparing between people and focus internally, you start being better at what really matters: being you. It’s simple but not easy.

The most important things in life are measured internally. Thinking about what matters to you is hard. Playing to someone else’s scoreboard is easy, that’s why a lot of people do it. But winning the wrong game is pointless and empty. You get one life. Play your own game.

Article Summary

  • The most important things in life come from the inside, not the outside.
  • Comparing yourself to others is a recipe for unhappiness.
  • You can be anything but you can’t be everything.
  • There is one thing that you’re better at than other people: being you. This is the only game you can really win.
  • Compare yourself to who you were yesterday.

Jeff Bezos: Big Things Start Small

An interview with Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos touches on the timeless lessons he’s learned for business success. The three big ideas are (1) thinking on a different timescale, (2) putting the customer first, and (3) inventing.

What we’re really focused on is thinking long-term, putting the customer at the center of our universe and inventing. Those are the three big ideas to think long-term because a lot of invention doesn’t work. If you’re going to invent, it means you’re going to experiment, you have to think long-term. These three ideas, customer-centricity, long-term thinking and a passion for invention, those go together. That’s how we do it and by the way, we have a lot of fun doing it that way.

Ballet or Rock Concert?

When asked about the pressures of running a public company and meeting quarterly earnings expectations he said:

Well, I think that if you’re straight forward and clear about the way that you’re going to operate, then you can operate in whatever way you choose. We don’t even take a position on whether our way is the right way, we just claim it’s our way, but Warren Buffet has a great saying along these lines. He says, “You can hold a ballet and that can be successful and you can hold a rock concert and that can be successful. Just don’t hold a ballet and advertise it as a rock concert. You need to be clear with all of your stakeholders, with are you holding a ballet or are you holding a rock concert and then people get to self-select in.”

Big Things Start Small

While there is no one recipe that fits all, there are elements of what Amazon does that help.

[I]nside our culture, we understand that even though we have some big businesses, new businesses start out small. It would be very easy for say the person who runs a US books category to say, “Why are we doing these experiments with things? I mean that generated a tiny bit of revenue last year. Why don’t we instead, focus those resources and all that brain power on the books category, which is a big business for us?” Instead, that would be a natural thing to have happen, but instead inside Amazon, when a new business reaches some small milestone of sales, email messages go around and everybody’s giving virtual high fives for reaching that milestone. I think it’s because we know from our past experiences that big things start small. The biggest oak starts from an acorn and if you want to do anything new, you’ve got to be willing to let that acorn grow into a little sapling and then finally into a small tree and maybe one day it will be a big business on its own.

Step By Step Ferociously

The Latin phrase gradatim ferociter Is a Bezos favorite. What does it mean?

Well it means step by step ferociously and it’s the motto for Blue Origin. Basically you can’t skip steps, you have to put one foot in front of the other, things take time, there are no shortcuts but you want to do those steps with passion and ferocity.

Loving What You Do

Not every day is going to be fun and easy. That’s why they call it work.

I have a lot of passions and interests but one of them is at Amazon, the rate of change is so high and I love that. I love the pace of change. I love the fact that I get to work with these big, smart teams. The people I work with are so smart and they’re self-selected for loving to invent on behalf of customers.

It’s not, do I love every moment of every day? No, that’s why they call it work. There are things that I don’t enjoy, but if I’m really objective about it and I look at it, I’m so lucky to be working alongside all these passionate people and I love it. Why would I go sit on a beach?

 

Footnotes
  • 1

    Source of interview: https://twitter.com/producthunt/status/1125038440372932608?s=11

Renaissance Paragone: An Ancient Tactic for Getting the Most From People

One of the engines behind the Italian Renaissance was the concept of paragonepitting creative efforts against one another in the belief that only with this you could come to see art’s real significance.

At first, the concept drove debates in salons. Eventually, however, it shifted into discussions of art, often among the very people who selected and funded it. In the Medici palaces, for example, rooms were arranged so that paintings would face each other. The idea was that people would directly compare the works, forming and expressing opinions. These competitions shifted the focus from the art to the artist. If one painting was better than another, you needed to know who the artist was so that you could hire them again.

Artists benefited from this arrangement, even if they didn’t win. They learned where they stood in comparison to others, both artistically and socially. Not only did they understand the gap, they learned how to close it, or change the point of comparison.

Da Vinci believed artists thrived under such competition. He once wrote:

You will be ashamed to be counted among draughtsmen if your work is inadequate, and this disgrace must motivate you to profitable study. Second, a healthy envy will stimulate you to become one of those who are praised more than yourself, for the praises of others will spur you on.

Many people want to know where they stand in relation to not only the external competition but to the people they work with every day. A lot of organizations make such comparisons difficult by hiding what matters. While you might know there is a gap between you and your coworker, you don’t know what the chasm looks like. And if you don’t know what it looks like, you don’t know where you are in relation. And if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know how to close the gap. It’s a weird sort of sabotage.

Not everyone responds to competition the same way. Pitting people directly against one another for a promotion might cause people to withdraw. That doesn’t mean they can’t handle it. It doesn’t mean they’re not amazing. Michelangelo once abandoned a competition with Da Vinci to flee to Rome—and we have only to look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to know how he fared.

But a lack of competition can breed laziness in a lot of people. Worse still, that laziness gets rewarded. It’s not intentional. We just stop working as hard as we could. We coast.

Consider the proverbial office worker who sends out a sloppy first draft of a presentation to 15 people for them to “comment” on. What that person really wants is the work done for them. And because of the subtle messages organizations send, coworkers will often comply because they’re team players.

Consider the competition to make a sports team. The people on the bench (people who don’t start) make the starters better because the starters know they can’t get complacent or someone will take their job. Furthermore, the right to be on a team, once granted, isn’t assured. Someone is always vying to take any spot that opens up. That’s the nature of the world.

I’m not suggesting that all organizations promote a professional sport-like mentality. I’m suggesting you think about how you can harness competition to give people the information they need to get better. If they don’t want to get better after they know where they stand, you now know something about them you didn’t know before. I’m not also blindly advocating using competition. It has limitations and drawbacks you need to consider (such as the effects it has on self-preservation and psychological safety).

Footnotes
  • 1

    Image source: Max Pixel