Can Cultural Individualists Commandeer “Feminism”?

Note the use of the phrase “cultural individualists.” This post regards people who value individualism on a cultural and/or personal level. This is in contrast to libertarianism, which is a political theory that has nothing to say on whether individuals in society should voluntarily organize along the lines of greater emphasis on the individual or on the group/community. Libertarianism only concerns the use of force in society, especially in the context of government, and is founded on individualism only in the methodological sense as it relates to politics (e.g. individuals have rights, and all rights of groups stem from the rights of the individuals composing those groups).

It is should be apparent to people who have invested a few unbiased few minutes thinking about the problem that feminism has a definitional problem disguised as a coup d’état disguised as a PR problem. Let me untangle that knot for you:

Feminism consists of two main camps:

Type 1) A vocal radicalized minority of the sort that writes tirades on Tumblr claiming all men are awful pigs and/or rapists and that everything bad in the world happens due to the (imperial/neoliberal/capitalistic/viciously white) patriarchy.


Type 2) A more silent majority that claims “hey, there are (some) cultural ways in which (some) women and (some) men are treated differently (by some people) starting as early as childhood that possibly lead to women failing to realize their full potential personally, professionally, and socially.”

The PR problem is the fact that feminism is widely consider a crazy, radical, man-hating ideology.

The reason for this is a coup d’état of the word “feminism”: Type 1 feminism is crazy and vocal, which means it monopolizes public coverage of feminism (scandal sells) – at least for people who don’t go out of way to read more broadly on feminism. Because Type 1 is very off-putting and has become the de facto face of feminism, the broad public considers it to be the standard bearer for feminism and writes off the whole movement as crazy – including the silent Type 2 majority that doesn’t want to make men suffer or beg for mercy, but simply wants people to put themselves in each other’s shoes.

The reason why this coup d’état was “allowed” [1] is that “feminism” has always been poorly defined. Not only has the word provided a home for the almost diametrically different opinions on gender that we see in Types 1 and 2, but it’s lost its own root (“femin” – woman) in order to become associated with a varied assortment of ideas dear to the cultural left, such as critical race theory, LGTBQUIA rights, animal rights [2], and so on. The possible solutions to the problems that this broadly-defined feminism identifies range from voluntary cultural shifts by engaging in open-minded discourse to forcefully smashing apart the entire global system of commerce. Besides things that are obviously anti-woman, it’s difficult to think of a concept that couldn’t be spun to be some sort of hyphenated feminism [3]. Couple this with the drastically different approaches for building up the theory behind each of these flavors of feminism (ranging from rationalist to relying on personal anecdotes to replace systematically and methodically collected data), and “feminism” quickly loses its meaning.

If someone were to choose to label themselves as feminist, the (commonly assumed) implication is that they place their support behind all the wings of this movement. It’s difficult (if not impossible) for someone to say “I’m a feminist” without this carrying the entire baggage of the feminist movement. This is one of the reasons (if not the primary reason) why I do not consider myself feminist: if I am a feminist, what does it really mean? Who am I claiming to be?

The (Failed) Solution

For feminists to be able to progress, they need to shed all of this baggage and focus entirely on the part of feminism (qua feminism) that makes sense: Type 2 feminism. That is, the leaders of Type 2 feminism have to reclaim the word feminism for themselves and reject Type 1 feminism not only as incorrect, but also as not feminism. And then, whenever a Type 1 feminist makes a statement such as “I support [Type 1 issue] because I’m a feminist,” Type 2 feminists must vocally respond “Sorry, that’s not feminism. Go do that off somewhere else away from the term ‘feminism’ and come up with a new name for it.”

There are two obvious problems with this, however:

1) Type 2 feminists are not doing this. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to start a civil war and lose face in the public discourse. Maybe it’s because they tolerate Type 1s because Type 1s still write their names down under the column “feminist,” giving the movement further strength in numbers – even if this is just adding apples and oranges.

2) Type 1 feminists want to be part of the definition of feminism, because to them it’s very useful to spread their ideas. In his regularly brilliant blog Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander describes the technique known as “motte and bailey” and how it relates to feminism. Motte and bailey involves a group that, in good times, is out in the open making strong, controversial claims that they say are supported by an ideology, but when that group comes under attack, it retreats to a fortress of claiming that their attackers are attacking the obvious and uncontroversial elements of the ideology. In the context of feminism: In good times (and when in a group of their own), Type 1s make claims like “capitalism institutionalizes oppression for all women” and “rape culture is in the fabric of our society and teaches all men to rape.” When challenged on these assertions, they retreat to the position that claims that the opponents are attacking feminism, and how could they – because all that poor little feminism wants is for men and women to be treated as equals when sitting at the table in society. Hence, Type 1s can hide behind Type 2s when they need defense, thereby claiming that their opponents are crazy misogynists who would deny women a voice. If Type 1s were banished from feminism, they’d have no way to defend their claims by accusing their opponents of being awful human beings who deny women the most basic of rights.

The (Proposed) Solution

It seems, then, that Type 2s either don’t want to engage in this purge or are unable to engage in it. This is unfortunate, since Type 2 feminists probably have something positive to bring to society.

And if (real) feminists can’t reclaim their own term for themselves, perhaps someone else should commandeer it – and in the process redefine its perspective. The obvious candidate is cultural individualists, who want to maximize the power, independence, and self-sufficiency of the individual. The reasons are clear: Type 2 feminist issues are issues of individual autonomy and individual empowerment. To give some examples:

Women aren’t encouraged as much as men to study math, engineering, and computers from an early age, which steers individual girls away from the fields they like most and toward fields that are more “socially acceptable” for them. Setting aside the question of whether men and women have naturally different aptitudes, it’s undoubtedly the case that regardless of what nature gives men and women, societal pressure and cultural norms can negatively pressure individual decisions in ways that go against the will of these individuals. The issue of gendered education, then, becomes a question of “can individuals, as wondrously varied in abilities, interests, and passions as they are, find fulfillment and maximum growth in their lives, or does society hinder this ability?” Given that cultural individualists love giving individuals free rein in deciding their own futures, they can perfectly well be standard bearers for more equal treatment of men and women in early education. And if even after removing all obstacles we see gender differences, then let it be so (they would say).

Women are often harassed on the streets with arrogant, unwanted attention. I’m not talking here about someone saying “have a good day, ma’am,” but instead the sort of pickup lines stereotypically associated with construction workers cat calling women. I can just imagine that in a piece of literature by a cultural individualist, these unwanted, repeated, and arrogant come-ons would be symbolically described as a barrier to break through, an obstacle to overcome, a sneering, twisted imp jeering at the character to be banished. Moreover, for a cultural individualist, not only are the cat callers failing to live up to their own potential, but they’re pulling the individual down.

Women are sometimes passed over for recognition in the workforce. This is related to the point about education. Cultural individualists want people to not only be recognized and glorified, but they also want them to be glorified for the right thing – not merely for external looks, but for the subjects about which individuals are passionate and in which individuals invest a lot of time to succeed.

Many women are the victims of violence (including rape). It almost goes without saying that cultural individualists, as a byproduct of seeing the individual as the most powerful symbol of humanity, also go on to see the individual’s body as a temple that must not be desecrated.

The list can go on. The pattern is that the issues on which Type 2 feminism focuses are issues that matter because they’re issues that violate individual autonomy and peaceful individual possibilities for growth. To cultural individualists, the goals of sensible feminism make sense not because there is a group of people called women and society is hurting the group. Instead, it’s because the growth of each of those individuals is impaired – the fact that they’re all women doesn’t matter much morally, only strategically: since all of these separate individuals are being held back by a characteristic they all happen to share, the issue can be addressed in a more strategically coherent way.

One interesting byproduct of making feminism be a part of cultural individualism is how this relates to the “I don’t need feminism because […]” movement, which has women writing on a piece of paper why they don’t need feminism (ostensibly because they’re strong individuals and not victims). The response of the feminism that is a subsection of cultural individualism would be “fantastic – God bless you. We want to give all other individuals the chance to be exactly like you guys, and we’d love to have you as mentors or as a person to talk to for people who aren’t like you yet. We exist as a movement so that one day we won’t have to exist. We want more people like you – more people who are powerful enough to not even need a movement (though hopefully people who also help the movement to make more people like you!).” And if one stops to think about it, this really should be the response of feminists to such campaigns. The response should be “we’re thrilled for you. It means you’ve achieved the goal we’re fighting to help every individual to achieve. We couldn’t be happier. Welcome to the team!”


So we see that everything is about framing. If feminism were framed today as an ideology of the individual and his/her power to flourish, to grow, to learn, to build, to create, to form worlds, to shape history, to destroy the old, and to epically usher in the bright, the new, and the useful for all corners of society, its reception would be quite different [4]. It would be a feminism that would ride under the banner of someone like Ayn Rand [5], a feminism that wouldn’t be founded on the despair of the oppressed, but the future of the powerful. And at that point, it wouldn’t even really be feminism – it would be individual power for everyone, because ultimately that’s what cultural individualism is about – empowering the you, the “I”, regardless of the social circumstance or the accident of birth.

Cultural individualists have the opportunity to create this feminism. And perhaps they should. Banish Type 1, and remake Type 2 in the tradition of cultural individualism [6].


[1] As with the evolution of most words, there has not been a single gatekeeper who has “allowed” the word to take on a meaning

[2] See here, for example:

[3] A Type 1 feminist might at this point respond that “see, this means the entire world is against women!”

[4] In rhetoric, sometimes Type 1 feminists also sound somewhat centered around the individual, but there always appears to exist not only a certain hostility underlying all their rhetoric, but also a sense that suppression of individual growth is bad more because it harms the group than because it harms the individual that’s directly affected.

[5] I use the word “like” because I neither know Rand in much depth nor do I support all her views and rhetoric. However, she’s typically associated with cultural individualism, so I’m relying on this stereotype of her.

[6] I’d also like to note that since many libertarians are cultural individualists, they can be part of this solution. Not as libertarians, since libertarianism has nothing to say on which voluntary cultural norms ought to prevail, but rather as cultural individualists. Moreover, they should be careful to clearly separate the two concepts (even if blending them might help them politically).

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig Demolished Libertarians. And It Was Beautiful.

The New Republic staff writer Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig recently penned a devastating critique of libertarians, where she argued that the beliefs of self-described libertarians do not square with the central tenet of “freedom” that (allegedly) underlies libertarianism. She links to a wonderful Pew Research Center study, which she uses to base her takedowns and factually demolish libertarians bit. By. Bit.

Here is a play-by-play of her critique:

1) After quoting porn-famous Belle Knox on her move toward libertarianism after a strict Catholic upbringing, Bruenig notes that “Insofar as libertarianism is opposed to almost every feature of Catholic morality, Knox has certainly picked an appropriate politics of rebellion.”

Why this demolished libertarians: Catholicism teaches us to help the poor. Libertarians hate the poor, as evidenced by their desire to almost completely dismantle the safety net. Sure, they might argue government programs are inefficient or fail to stop poverty – but they only say this to cover up their elitist distaste of poor people. The truth is that even if these programs are inefficient, it doesn’t matter, because what they do is they show our commitment – as a society – to recognize the plight of the poor. You can’t put a price on dignity – and we want to restore the dignity of our lower class!

2) Relying on her careful reading of the Pew study, Bruenig concludes that “libertarians themselves do not appear to have a good sense of what libertarianism actually means.” You want evidence? Here is the evidence.

Why this demolished libertarians: According to the Pew study, 14% of Americans identify as libertarians. Furthermore, 11% of all Americans both identify as libertarian and at the same time know what libertarianism is. That means that 11/14 = 78% of people who identify as libertarians actually know what libertarianism means. And what does that mean? It means that more than 1 in 5 self-described libertarians doesn’t understand what libertarianism means!!

People who do not foolishly choose to identify with that political label of teenage rebellion are a different matter. The study notes that 57% of all Americans know what libertarianism means. If we remove the mere 11% of the population that is both libertarian and knows what the label means, that means that 46% of the population is both non-libertarian and knows what the label means. 46/86 = 54% of non-libertarians know what libertarianism is. That is, more than 2.5 out of every 5 self-described non-libertarians know what libertarianism means. And last time I checked 2.5/5 is, well, 2.5 times more than 1/5! If you eat 2000 calories a day, 2.5 times more than that is 5000 calories a day. Can you imagine that?!

3) Bruenig points out that “libertarians polled as far more supportive of police intervention in citizens’ daily lives, showing greater support for stop-and-frisk policies than the general population” [emphasis mine].

Why this demolished libertarians: Bruenig is not afraid to cite her sources, and even shows us a diagram from the study that backs her claim (red elements mine):

Notice that libertarians are a whole 1% more likely to allow police to stop/search all who look like crime suspects. And before libertarians start crying out that 1% “is within margin of error” or some made-up excuse like that (after all, they hate statistics because reality has a strong liberal bias), let me point out that 1% of the US population is more than 3 million people. That’s a lot of people, people!! The data proves it – libertarians, while pretending to be pro-freedom, actually support intervention into our lives far, far more than the general population!

4) Continuing, we learn that “A baffling quarter of libertarians surveyed believe homosexuality should be discouraged.” Do you know what I think should be discouraged? Libertarianism! If you didn’t think they were barbarians before, how can you have any doubt now? Libertarians think that homosexuals (or whatever awful slang word libertarians probably use at home to describe them) are no better than animals.

Why this demolished libertarians: Once again, just look at the source data, and the picture becomes clear: when it comes to hating gays, libertarians are unparalleled:

Notice that 26% of libertarians (even more than Bruenig had humbly cited!) think homosexuality should be “discouraged” – as if our neighbors and family members who are homosexual just “choose” to be gay and to be ostracized by society. Let me remind you, people, 26% is an enormous number!

How do non-libertarians compare? We just need to solve the equation 0.11*26 + x*89 = 31. Solving it, x=31.6, which means 31.6% of non-libertarians favor discouraging homosexuality. That means that almost 69% of non-libertarians are against discouraging homosexuality! If you need me to do the math for you, libertAynrians, the number 69 is more than 2.5 times bigger than 26! We see that 2.5 pop up again. Weird, huh?

5) Of course, Bruenig, being a master writer, also interweaves humor into her narrative: “Knox is only 19 years old, so we can hardly fault her for these contradictions.”

Why this demolished libertarians: Don’t you get it? Only teenagers could be libertarians, because teenagers are so immature and don’t know what the real world is like! Libertarians harbor ideas so far out of touch with reality, that even though they pretend to love “economics”, no libertarian (or person supporting any libertarian ideas) could ever win any legitimate prize in economics like the Nobel Prize.

6) She just keeps going for Belle: “For Belle Knox, freedom has to do with decriminalized sex work and fair pathways for women in employment—but both of those projects imply a level of proactive government regulation in business.”

Why this demolished libertarians: Can’t libertarians get it? Decriminalization of sex work means that we will need to regulate it. It’s obvious that, therefore, libertarians support a policy that would add regulation to the market: We’d go from a laissez-faire, completely unregulated and uncontrolled ban on sex work that requires no government intervention to a legalized industry with some regulations!

7) Bruenig calls the libertarians polled “jingoistic” – and once again her source backs her. When we look at the real, objective data, only 46% of libertarians think US involvement makes world problems worse, while the corresponding number for the entire US population is significantly higher: 40%!

Why this demolished libertarians: 54% of libertarians don’t think US involvement makes world problems worse. 40% of the general population understands that US involvement makes things worse. Would you rather be with 54 warmongers or 40 peaceful people? I thought so.

8) She just keeps going: “Libertarians who oppose government aid to the poor seem to desire freedom from taxes, but have no interest in whether or not the poorest are really free to exercise their rights to human flourishing when they can barely eat.”

Why this demolished libertarians: Read my lips: If you oppose the current welfare system, you think all poor people should die. Period.

9) Bruenig finishes the article off by telling us that “for genuine, invested activists like Knox, the evasiveness of the libertarian message should be a red flag.” A wise warning indeed.

Why this demolished libertarians: Belle is a teenager, and teenagers are stupid, so we know she’s genuine and invested. But other libertarians are not excused.

Class dismissed.

Could Privilege-Checking Lead to “Conservative” Conclusions?

Here I will use “conservative” loosely to refer to the general “personal responsibility” and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” attitudes the American right might generally support.

My foray into privilege theory has led me to ask myself what some of its implications for direct action are. That is, given what we know about privilege, and assuming that we care about people who are underprivileged, what should we do about it?

We begin again with the framework of privilege I discuss in my “Formalizing Privilege” article: that privilege is the combination of genetic and environmental factors that cause one’s success/satisfaction/power in life. Using this definition, we ask ourselves what we can do to alleviate the plight of the underprivileged. This article is not meant to be the end of this conversation, but merely an observation that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

One of the central questions in this discussion is which privilege is the “most important one.” One way we can study this topic, as with everything else in science, is to vary a single variable while holding all other ones fixed. That is, we vary one privilege and we fix all others and observe the outcome. For example, if we’re interested in how important race is (on the margin), we take people who are identical in all ways except for in their race and we see how their lives turn out.

This analysis is difficult to perform because we generally do not have people who are identical except for one characteristic, and the origins of various privileges can be very difficult to notice (and are often unobservable, especially given our current data sets). Still, I wish to present one case study and discuss its implications: that of Ben Carson, as I learned about him from the book Gifted Hands. I hope that the shortcomings of extrapolating from this data set of size one are kept starkly in mind, while the important lessons are also taken to heart.

Ben Carson grew up fairly underprivileged:

– He was a black child in Detroit

– His mother raised him and his brother (sometimes on three low-paying jobs) without his father, while at times away for psychiatric treatment

– His mother had married at 13 and had no more than a third grade education.

– His school environment was not conducive to growth and self-empowerment

– He was teased by his white classmates (and sometimes his teachers) and he at one point believed he was not smart enough to do well in school

I initially had chosen the phrase “as underprivileged as they come” to describe him, though in the spirit of accuracy I decided not to use it, since it’s probably always possible to be less privileged. Still, it comes close.

We know what ended up happening to Carson: he became one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons, and he was a pioneer in new types of brain surgeries. Given all his underprivileges, what gives?

It’s possible to attribute all of this to chance – Carson just happened to be lucky and all the steps that led to his eventual success were a stroke of luck. This is theoretically possible, but I don’t find it particularly compelling.

The other explanation is that he was able to overcome the negative aspects of his environment through the positive ones – most notably, his mother’s influence. His mother instilled in him the values of hard work and determination and always pushed him to give his best. I would give a longer description of all of the values she stressed, but it would likely be variations on the main theme of hard work, so I won’t insult the reader’s intelligence by trying to influence him or her by repetition. Instead, let’s look at what conclusions we can draw.

It appears, at least in this case, that the values instilled in a person are so strong that they may very well overpower all other external underprivileges (which in Carson’s case were many – being a poor, black kid in Detroit under a single mother who had psychiatric problems and had to raise two children). Naturally, it’s unreasonable to expect that all kids who have these influences can become as successful as Ben Carson. But Carson’s story is an interesting case study where we have a mix of severe underprivileges that are counteracted by the value of hard work.

The “policy” recommendation here becomes apparent: teach kids “conservative” values that are traditionally associated with the American right: work hard, keep your course, study in school, be responsible, and pull yourself up by your bootstraps. This can be implemented either culturally (through a shift in what individuals in society choose to teach their children) or governmentally (through government edicts to emphasize hard work and personal responsibility in school and propaganda to do the same outside of school).

What I’ve done here is Type 2 privilege checking, as defined in my original article, which seeks to understand causal pathways in society that lead to people’s success. That is, I checked Dr. Carson’s privilege to see how other people could emulate him, and his story is a testament to conservative values. Do I believe that these should become government policy? No – I don’t favor social manipulation by the government of any kind, though I personally find the ethic of hard work to be empowering myself. I merely point out the conclusion from checking Dr. Carson’s privilege: if we want underprivileged people to do better, one way to achieve this is a cultural shift to the right. Do I think we should do this? Irrelevant – it’s what privilege theory suggests, and that’s all I mean to do in this article: see another conclusion of privilege theory. Of course, this doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to help underprivileged people – either governmental or voluntary. However, for people who actually care about helping the underprivileged, this is a strategy that can be put into action without relying on the power of government. As such, it might be much more realistic to implement – and increased effort on the margin would lead to greater marginal results.

Two Thirds of Nordhaus’s 1999 DICE AGW Damages Are Based on Unsubstantiated Guesswork

William Nordhaus is one of the top experts on the economics of climate change and for a long time has worked on his series of DICE models (Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy models) that examine how standard predictions of the effects of climate change on climate variables (such as global mean temperature) will impact the economy. His work is important because DICE is one of the three Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) of climate-economic interaction that the government’s Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon uses in its analysis of the impacts of climate change. In other words, DICE is one of the three models used to calculate the Social Cost of Carbon (SCC), which is meant to represent the damage caused by one additional ton of CO2 in the atmosphere. The SCC was devised so that the government could weigh different strategies to slow down COemissions and (in theory) reject any that cost society more than the damage caused by the COemissions they prevent. In this post I highlight a problem economist Robert Murphy had found in Nordhaus’s 1999 version of DICE and add an observation of my own. To be clear, Nordhaus has since updated his model, and the issue likely does not persist, though I have not yet read the 2013 DICE specifications.

A long time ago, I was reading Murphy’s 2009 article Rolling the DICE: William Nordhaus’s Dubious Case for a Carbon Tax, and I was struck by the section discussing the possible economic damages from low-risk catastrophic climate scenarios (such as the shutting down of the thermohaline circulation of heat and salt among the world’s oceans). These are, again, doomsday scenarios that scientists do not believe will happen, but to which they still assign a low probability of occurring. These numbers are needed to create the model’s damage function, which describes the loss of Gross World Product (GWP – also referred to as world GDP herein) due to increased temperatures. How did Nordhaus get his probabilities for these catastrophic scenarios? He relied on a survey of experts he published in 1994, worded as follows:

“Some people are concerned about a low-probability, high-consequence output of climate change. Assume by ‘high-consequence’ we mean a 25 percent loss of global income indefinitely, which is approximately the loss in output during the Great Depression. (a) What is the probability of such a high consequence outcome for scenario A, i.e., if the warming is 3 degrees C in 2090 as described above? (b) What is the probability of such a high consequence outcome for scenario B, i.e., if the warming is 6 degrees C in 2175 as described above? (c) What is the probability of such a high consequence outcome for scenario C, i.e., if the warming is 6 degrees in 2090 as described above?”

Yet the results from 1994 will not do in 1999, since Nordhaus claims that new research has placed increased emphasis on the possibility of these catastrophic events. What does he do, then? And this is where Murphy picks a fight with him. To cite Nordhaus,

“To reflect these growing concerns, we assume [that] the probability of a catastrophe with 2.5 C warming is double the estimated probability for a 3 C warming from the survey, that the probability associated with a 6 C warming is double the survey estimate, and that the percentage of global income lost in a catastrophe is 20 percent higher than the figure quoted in the survey.”

Murphy summarizes what has happened as follows:

“To restate the issue: Nordhaus in 1994 asked experts to estimate (among other things) the probability of global GDP loss of 25 percent in the event of 3.0 C warming […]. The surveyed experts gave him their answers, from which he computed the mean. By 1999, further research had made these scenarios seem more plausible or catastrophic. So Nordhaus and Boyer took the original average of probabilities reported by the experts, doubled it, and then assigned this new figure as the probability for a 30 percent loss of GDP rather than the 25 percent the experts had been told to consider, for a less significant warming of 2.5 C rather than the 3.0 C mentioned in the original survey. […] More recent research suggests that at least some of these catastrophic scenarios were false alarms”

Why does it matter that Nordhaus apparently arbitrarily took the results of the survey of experts, doubled their answers, and then used these as probabilities for a different change in temperature and a different economic impact? Nordhaus claims that a 2.5C temperature increase would result in a loss of 1.50 percent of world GDP. And yet, 1.02 percentage points of these 1.50 percent are due to the low-probability catastrophic scenarios discussed above. This means that 68% of all the economic damages are based on numbers that Nordhaus arbitrarily manipulated.

So far so good – this has been Murphy’s critique (which I consider strong enough of a challenge to the model’s results). Yet I decided to dig a little deeper and look at how the 1994 numbers were obtained in the first place. They come from Nordhaus’s 1994 paper “Expert Opinion on Climate Change” in the American Scientist. In this paper, Nordhaus asked 22 experts their opinions on various questions relating to the effects of climate change on the economy. Three refused to participate, and of the nineteen remaining, nine were a mixture of economists, four were other social scientists, five were natural scientists and engineers, and the last one was Nordhaus himself. Again, it must be emphasized that this is not a review of literature of studies attempting to calibrate damage functions to observed warming, or at least to come up with plausible costs for disasters whose workings are scientifically described. No – the study merely asked nineteen experts in the field what they thought of the question [1].

We need to stop and consider how difficult the scenarios posed are: For example, in scenario A, respondents are asked how likely it is to have a 25% drop in world GDP in the year 2090 if there is 3 C warming. In a simple survey, respondents are asked to tackle a problem worthy of the whole literature – they are expected to take into account immigration flows, capital accumulation, technological adaptation, and a variety of low-probability catastrophic events we know of (and even ones we have not yet even conceived of) through the year 2090. They’re expected to be able to model the complex dynamics of the global market, advancements in science, and the catastrophic events due to precisely 3 C of warming. Nordhaus mentions in several places that there is much disagreement even among these experts on the economic impacts of catastrophic events, as seen in the spread of guesses for his questions. He notes that

“[o]ne respondent suggested whimsically that it was hardly surprising, given that the economists know little about the intricate web of natural ecosystems, whereas scientists know equally little about the incredible adaptability of human economies.”

And yet this does not seem whimsical at all, but a fundamental flaw in the methodology of the study. Natural scientists know very little about modeling economies and the ability of economies to respond to shocks. Similarly, economists are not intimately aware of the details of the consequences of climate change. Let’s look at what it would take to give an answer for Scenario A. One would first need to decide on the probability of various catastrophic outcomes due to 3 C in 2090 (a difficult enough endeavor). Then, one would need to estimate the economic impact of each catastrophic outcome to see whether it makes the 25% cutoff. The ones that do are all added together and this resulting probability is given as the answer.

In this deconstruction of the problem, we can see why the “whimsical” comment of the respondent above is not so whimsical at all – the question requires one to answer two very difficult subquestions, where each is focused on an entirely different field – one on climatology, the other one on economics. Only when these two are combined can the answer given be fully informed. How can an economist accurately answer the first part of the question – on the probabilities of different known (and even unknown!) catastrophic events. How can a natural scientist adequately guess the economic damage due to a climate event? Not only this, but the respondents were asked to give their subjective probabilities to these catastrophic events without having conducted any studies on this specific question, but merely as a matter of opinion. Yes – expert, informed opinion, but no matter how much of an expert someone is, when giving a probability to a 25% reduction in GWP due to 3 C warming in the future of 2090, which has unknown adaptive technology, her best guess will still be a fairly uninformed guess. Some respondents do mention technology as the big unknown:

“What is missing most is an understanding of the role of technology, of how society will change as technology advances. If we had been concerned with global warming in the 1890s, it would have concerned transportation by horses rather than automobiles. It is impossible to contemplate what society will be like a century from now as technology changes.”

Another writes

“Technology will develop to adjust to and accommodate many of the climatic changes and even provide approaches to countering warming effects. However, projecting technological changes a century or two into the future is hazardous at best. All we can really say is that there will be technological changes and that as in the past they will probably offset adverse effects to some degree.”

I cite this not to dismiss concerns over warming, but to show just the enormity of the task the experts were asked to perform – “impossible” by the words of some of them (in the case of forecasting technological changes). A major rainstorm in the distant past would have done much more damage to the livelihood of the public than it would today, for example. Why? We have sturdier buildings. This shows that the damage by natural events depends on the technological progress of a society very strongly. Nordhous quotes one of the respondents, who shares my main concern:

“I must tell you that I marvel that economists are willing to make quantitative estimates of economic consequences of climate change where the only measures available are estimates of global surface average increases in temperature. As [one] who has spent his career worrying about the vagaries of the dynamics of the atmosphere, I marvel that they can translate a single global number, an extremely poor surrogate for a description of the climatic conditions, into quantitative estimates of impacts of global economic conditions.”

Combining this with Murphy’s point that Nordhaus simply decides to double the values acquired from the survey and use them as answers to a different question, Nordhaus’s model (and its policy implications) becomes dubious. To reiterate what has happened: Nordhaus created a model where two-thirds of the damages from climate change are estimated from a survey asking a mix of scientists and economists their subjective opinion on how likely it is for a 3 C increase in 2090 to cause a 25% drop in GWP given unforeseeable technology, unforeseeable geographical population spread, unforeseeable gradual adaptation, and unforeseeable economic conditions, averages the opinions of these people, some of whom point out the precariousness of asking experts to weigh in on issues they know little about, and then takes this average, doubles it, and uses it to represent the chance of a catastrophic event resulting in a different scenario – a 30% drop in GWP due to a 2.5 C increase. In this case, “unsubstantiated guesswork” might be putting it lightly.

Once again, Nordhaus has a 2013 DICE model out, which likely does not have the above fatal mistakes. I did not intend this post to make light of the danger of climate change (with which I am not well-acquainted, not being a climate scientist myself), but merely to show the importance of looking at assumptions in our models, especially when they have such large impacts on the results of the model – and when the world looks to you for guidance on the issue.


[1] Here’s an analysis I would consider to be an honest attempt at such an endeavor: Say we’re trying to assess the damages due to an enormous rise in sea levels. We’d begin with a map of the inundated areas and assess the current property values. This amount would then get adjusted to account for possible appreciation in the housing market. Afterwards, we might try to set up a model of housing investment, price changes, and population growth and migration to look at how much the demand for housing would increase across the entire world, and, hence, how much a reduction of usable housing area would cost the economy. We’d also need to take into account adaptive behavior that some areas might take to prevent the damages from a sea level rise (walls?). And so on. And this is just for sea level rise! In short, the survey respondents were asked to create a general equilibrium model of everything in the world and extend its predictions out to the year 2090 – a task worthy of a team of hundreds of economists and years of planning and debate (and even then, the model would still fall short).

Can Privilege-Checking be Empowering?

Yes. At the very least in my experience.

Last month I decided to play soccer for the first time in too long and so I went out to the field near the gym to join a pickup game. I played there for roughly two hours (with a superbly diverse group, I must say), and then I took a break at the university library while waiting for 10 PM to come around so I could go join some friends to play even more soccer.

After the second round of soccer, I was thoroughly worn out. I had been kicked in the shins and stepped on a few times too many, and I hadn’t had to run so quickly and dynamically in years. I got on the bus to go back to my place, feeling like a wet rag.

While I was on the bus, waiting for it to leave the bus stop, a disabled black woman rolled up to the bus in her motorized wheelchair. The bus was lowered for her, the platform extended, and she got on, went to the handicapped spot in the bus, and waited for the driver to strap her chair in place.

After I noticed her and the events surrounding her, I looked away and kept thinking my own thoughts, one of which was particularly loud and consisted of my mind screaming at me how tired I was. But then, I looked again at the disabled woman and put my experience in perspective:

– Yes, I was tired, but at least I had the pleasure of playing for so long, while she did not.

– Yes, I was in pain and would likely be sore for a very long time (my knee was in fact weak for the next few days), but no more than a week later I would surely be fine again and up for more high-speed games, while she would not.

– Yes, I felt like a wet rag, but she probably had to suffer from impaired mobility for the rest of her life and often had to rely on help for some of the most basic tasks in her life, which surely can’t be a great elixir for one’s self-esteem.

In short, I checked my privilege. And it was empowering.

Suddenly, the pain and the weariness did not seem so great. Suddenly, I focused on the positives, on the fun I had just had, and on the fun I would have in the future – and even on how I would improve my game in the future.

This led me to come up with the theme for the present article. While privilege theorists believe that privilege checking can help lead to a more just society by helping people reconsider their assumptions and positions of power as they interact with others in social spaces, it’s conceivable that the result could be the opposite. If a privileged person checks their privilege and realizes they have no reason to feel discouraged in their current position, this could prompt them to continue to enjoy their privileges over other people.

In other words, checking one’s privilege could, for some people, be translated as “hey – remember that you have all of this privilege!” This, in turn, could result in them saying “hey – I do! Thanks! I feel a lot better!”

Next time you feel down – check your privilege. You’ll feel a lot better.

A Response to Philluhp’s Video on “Formalizing Privilege” – Systemic Hierarchies

My article on formalizing privilege has received a tiny bit of attention in social media (since I sent it around to a few people) and someone graciously decided to message me with his thoughts and later went on to make a video response to my article:

I’d like to begin by thanking Philluhp for taking the time to both read my article and to make a respectful video (twice!) to voice his views on the matter, which can be summarized as follows:


– When we, as social justice warriors, talk about privilege, we are not talking merely about an individual advantage someone has

– We’re talking about an advantage that a group has due to beliefs or cultural practices that results in social stratification/hierarchies/put people in positions of power over others

– We’re also talking about psychological authority

– Systemic privileges are advantages that certain groups have over each other and over other groups

– We’re talking about ending the beliefs that create these outcomes

– We don’t care about individual/personal privilege

– If someone has genetics that make him 6 foot 8, have large hands, and like basketball, and he goes on to become a successful basketball player – we don’t care about that. By your [Michael’s] definition, he’s very privileged, but we don’t care. We don’t care that the environment he grew up in happened to value his traits.

– We are not talking about people who happened to get lucky with genetics and environment and they happened to coincide.


The above are the main (and only) points Philluhp makes, and I took careful notes to not miss any of his thoughts and build a straw man against him. Still, I do have to admit that it was sometimes difficult to parse out his intention, and so I did the best to reconstruct his argument. Here is one example of an apparent contradiction in what he was saying:

4:12 – “I’m not talking about equality of outcomes, necessarily” –

8:53 – “when I’m talking about privilege I’m giving a particular focus on the beliefs and practices that create these inequalities of outcome” –

Of course, we always give our discussion partners the benefit of the doubt in these cases and assume the best intention on their part.

Anyway, my thoughts:

Philluhp’s response doesn’t alter my analysis in any way, because it was already broad enough to encapsulate all of his points.

Philluhp’s main theme (which is likely one that any social justice warrior [1] would have brought up “against” me) is that privilege is “an advantage that a group has due to beliefs or cultural practices that results in social stratification/hierarchies/put people in positions of power over others.”

The fact that the privilege is a feature that pertains to a group instead of just an individual is not especially relevant if the outcome is the same. Not only this, but all group privilege is a type of individual privilege – each individual receives this privilege when he/she is part of a group. Furthermore, if many individuals have what Philluhp calls an “individual privilege,” then there is a group of people that has this advantage over other people, and hence it becomes a group privilege.

Does Philluhp not care about individual privilege because he does not think that these specific privileges create group advantages that are all that large (like being naturally built in a way appropriate for basketball)? If so, then he’s ignoring a mainstay in feminist theory – interlocking privileges. Simply because 10 individual features by themselves are not very influential does not mean that when put together they will not have a significant impact. But even that ignores the point that simply because the greater power these individual privileges confer is not as great as other “class” privileges it does not mean that it’s not important to discuss it.

But I digress. The most important answer to Philluhp is: my analysis already takes into account class privileges/social stratification/hierarchies/putting people in positions of power over others. As he explains, my analysis is quite broad, and even by his definition of privilege it subsumes [2] the concept of privilege. I talk about both “individual” and “class” privileges (thought I doubt the distinction is in fact existent) because I address privilege as a thing that has the features that both individual and class privilege share. None of my analysis breaks down when you replace each instance of “privilege” with “systemic privilege” in my essay (and Philluhp has failed to point out why my analysis would break down). No part of my analysis said one’s privilege (as I defined it) may not be in part due to a prevailing social attitude. Here’s an analogy: Say I am writing a paper on why it’s impossible to just lift a book and leave it to float there by itself, and in my argument I say “all items are pulled toward the earth because of gravity. Therefore, if there is no other force to hold the item suspended, it will fall.” Someone responds, saying “aha – but you are wrong, my dear Michael! We are discussing the issue of books falling – not just ‘items’!” Well, yes, we are, but since “a book” is a generic particular [3] of “all items,” what is true for “all items” is true for “a book.”

Fundamentally, I think Philluhp’s argument is inconsistent. He states “We are not talking about people who happened to get lucky with genetics and environment and they happened to coincide.” And yet this is exactly what white privilege is, for example. A person happened to get lucky with genetics (being white) and environment (a society where whiteness is valued) and they happened to coincide. Yes, his environment’s liking for his whiteness is a systemic thing – this does not change the analysis.

Try another line of argumentation: Suppose all NBA players are wealthy or at least have a fairly large yearly income (my guess is that this does not strain the imagination). Suppose an NBA player walks into a soup kitchen, sits down, turns to the homeless man to his right, and starts complaining about how he can’t afford the mortgage on his third home and how his Lamborghini just broke down, etc. etc. I think that many people would think that a good “check your privilege” would be healthy for the basketball player right at that moment No? Well, suppose that the homeless man starts complaining back about how he’s got no home, how he’s in debt, how he’s got a mental illness, and how his friends all abandoned him. The basketball player, with a look of disgust, says “well, why don’t you just become a basketball player like me and make tons of money?” In this case, a “check your privilege” would definitely be required, since the basketball player is ignoring the pathways through which he achieved his success and is failing to realize that the homeless man likely cannot do the same. Aha – so we see that “privilege” is indeed a good word for the basketball player’s characteristics.

Moreover, take beauty privilege or thin privilege. Both of these have various causal “individual privileges” (by Philluhp’s verbiage) as their roots – whether this is genetics or how health-conscious a person’s parents are or how stressful a child’s environment was.

To summarize:

– Most importantly (and again, I cannot stress this enough) – my analysis already takes into account class privilege, because nothing I said is specific to “individual privilege.” Even if all of the following points are in fact wrong, this point by itself is enough to hold up my entire thesis. My original essay remains entirely true unless someone can show my analysis does not hold for class privilege.

– There is no useful distinction between individual and class privilege in my opinion. All class privileges are characteristics of individuals [4]. And all characteristics of individuals separate people into groups and determine their success/power/hierarchical relations.

– Even Philluhp’s “class privilege” is exactly what he said it’s not –  “people who happened to get lucky with genetics and environment.” I repeat – all privilege is a mix of genetics and environment, including class privilege – to no lesser extent!


[1] In my experience, “social justice warrior” is used somewhat derisively, but since Philluhp approached me using this terminology, I figured that it is a label accepted by the community.

[2] Subsume – to consider or include (an idea, term, proposition, etc.) as part of a more comprehensive one.

[3] A “proof by generic particular” as I learned it in Discrete Mathematics is a proof where you say “we have a category Y. Take any generic item y in that category. By virtue of being in Y, it satisfies conditions a, b, and c, from which we can deduce d, e, and f.” It’s relevant to this conversation because I said “take a generic type of privilege. By virtue of being in the group of privileges, we can deduce so and so from it.” Simply because the privilege can also be a specific type of privilege, it doesn’t invalidate things that are true for all privileges.

[4] Any students of economics reading this will appreciate here a mention of methodological individualism. If this means nothing to you, no worries.

Formalizing “privilege” and exploring its logical conclusions

Recently, a friend of mine (incorrectly) told a new acquaintance of mine that I didn’t “believe in privilege.” As my new acquaintance began explaining how she couldn’t imagine how anyone could deny the existence of privilege, I decided to think more precisely on what privilege is, whether it exists, and who has it. I’ve now decided to write this post to formalize the idea of privilege and see where a consistent application of the logic behind it leads.

A good starting point for defining privilege is to describe it as a condition in your life that you did not pick but that had a benefit for you. For example, white people tend to, on average, have higher salaries than black people. White people usually did not become white of their own merit, yet they reap the benefits of this physical feature. Why? Some reasons are that they have historically been more free to accumulate capital, have not been the subject of race-based oppression by the government, and have been a majority in the US for a long time. These things often lead to higher confidence, higher income, higher levels of education, more positions of political power, etc.

One way of formalizing the idea of privilege, then, is to ask “All else being equal, does having this characteristic mean that I will be more likely to be successful?” Example: Take a person born into a middle-income family in a middle-income neighborhood. If we let the person live his entire life, then went back in a time machine and changed only his race, would this have led to a better/worse life outcome?

The next step to take is to notice that sometimes our characteristics can take on a variety of values, such as race, instead of being a binary “yes/no.” For example, a person can be white, black, Hispanic, Asian, or any number of sub-categories of these and other races, as well as a mix of various categories of races.

Therefore, we begin to see privilege as a relative concept that can be ascertained given two possible values for a specific characteristic: “All else being equal, for a given personal characteristic ci, does value cib create a more favorable outcome than value cia?”

At this point we need to add another refinement. It seems like a good idea to define privilege in relation to a specific goal that an individual has. If a person doesn’t care about total life income, having a value for a personal characteristic that only increases life income relative to alternative values for that characteristic doesn’t matter – the person doesn’t care about life income anyway. Similarly, if a person has a specific underprivilege that would only affect a goal about which he doesn’t care, then this is not a disadvantage to him, and he shouldn’t be considered to be underprivileged [1].

Given the goal-directed nature of privilege, the next step is to realize that since individuals have a variety of goals, some often polar opposites of other people’s goals, a certain value for a characteristic could be

– a privilege for one individual

– an irrelevant characteristic for another

– an underprivilege for a third

Insofar as a set of goals of individuals tends in the same direction (loosely speaking), a given value for a characteristic that is useful will tend to be a privilege for each individual, and hence can be termed a mark of privilege for the group. That is, it makes sense for two individuals in that set to look at each other and judge how privileged each is compared to the others by the values of their numerous characteristics and how they affect the achievement of the goals they all happen to share.

Let’s list some examples of privilege in the US. Each item assumes that all members of the society (the US) have identical preferences. I give some caveats in parenthesis to show examples of when an item would not be a privilege, either because there is a reasonable chance of a preference for a goal not being identical among individuals or because the specific value of the characteristic in question would not be conductive to achieving the shared goal:

– Being white (caveat: your words as a white person might hold less water when trying to convince a group of black people of something in some situations, all else being equal)

– Being male (caveat: if one of your main goals in life is to spend time with your children and you’re going through a divorce, it’s more likely your ex-wife will retain custody, your masculinity here being an underprivilege)

– Being intelligent (caveat: in some circles, intelligence might be viewed with suspicion as a sign of eliteness and superiority)

– Being physically attractive (caveat: beauty is in the eye of the beholder; being attractive to one group in society doesn’t guarantee being attractive to another)

– Higher family income (caveat: you might lead a miserable life [by your own judgment] if your parents only care about money)

This list shouldn’t be too controversial. In very many cases, having one of the above qualities will, all else being equal, make life nicer for you, and should be considered a privilege.

Now, let’s return to the definition of privilege. It’s useful to distinguish between goals you’ve achieved thanks to your privilege and goals you’ve achieved thanks to you merit. Therefore, success can roughly be modeled as a function S=f(P,M) – that is, a function of privilege and merits. The privileges are the environmental variables that made you more successful, all else being equal. Your merits are the efforts that you put in independent of your privilege. Keep these two categories in mind as we dig deeper to see whether this distinction is at all sustainable.

Let’s look again at the S function: S=f(P,M). P is some combined measure of various types of privileges a person possesses, perhaps a vector in Rn. Once again, each privilege value is defined in respect to a goal an individual wants to achieve [2]. M is some measure of how much effort a person is willing to put in to achieving success, and hence the level of merit of the person. I list M here as scalar, although it might very well be a modeled as a vector in Rm. It’s reasonable to say that this function is monotonically increasing in each variable, or that the partial derivative of S is positive with respect to either variable. That is, keeping merit constant, the more privilege you have, the more successful you will be (by the definition of privilege). Also, keeping privilege constant, the more meritorious you are, the more successful you will be as well.

We can now determine your marginal “success-productivity” of privilege (MSPP) and the marginal “success-productivity” of merit (MSPM). The MSPP tells you by how much your success will increase if you keep merit constant and increase privilege by one unit (don’t worry about what these “units” are – we’re discussing general intuition here). The MSPM tells you how much your success will increase if privilege is kept constant and merit increases by one unit.

The key idea to take away from this seemingly over-formalization is that the marginal effectiveness of being more meritorious can depend on your current total privilege. Similarly, the marginal effectiveness of being more privileged can depend on your current total merit. I will give an analogy from economics to explain what I mean:

In economics, the output of a firm is a function of its quantity of capital and its quantity of labor. For example, Q=bKaL1-a, where Q is output, a and b are some constants, K is the amount of capital, and L is the amount of labor. (Note: this specific form of the production function is called a Cobb-Douglas production function). Now, intuitively, say that a person is willing to invest 10 days into making cars. If the capital he has at his disposal is no more advanced than that available in the mid-19th century, he might be able to produce one car in ten days. If, on the other hand, he has very modern capital including various kinds of powerful and versatile machines, in 10 days he might be able to produce 3 cars by himself. We see from this example that the marginal productivity of his labor (in this case the additional cars he can make with each additional 10 days of work he puts in) depends on the capital he has available. The more capital (or, in this case, the higher quality the capital), the higher the productivity. This can be seen if the partial derivatives of Q are taken with respect to K and L – the higher the K, the higher the benefit of adding one more unit of labor. The higher the L, the higher the benefit of adding one more unit of capital.

Moving back to privilege, we can see how this applies: If your environment is very poor, increasing your personal efforts (separate from your success due to privilege) will result in small increases in success. If, on the other hand, you are very privileged, each additional unit of merit has a high impact on your success. Similarly, if you are not very meritorious, adding more privilege won’t help as much as if you’re very meritorious, all else being equal. [3]

Now, let’s try to further refine the definition of privilege. We stated before that factors like family income confer privilege. These are environmental factors external to the choices a person makes that affect his success. Let’s look at the privilege of being attractive. This is a privilege with which you were born, and it exists thanks to the good genes of your parents and also thanks to pure chance. Sure, perhaps you spend a lot of time working out and dressing well, but there is some degree to which your attractiveness is a privilege by birth – that shouldn’t be controversial.

To better explore the limits of privilege, let’s look at the other alleged component of success: merit. How can we nail down merit? Well, merit, which may loosely defined as the effort a person puts in, is (by construction) a variable separate from privilege. But can merit ever actually be separated from privilege? After all, how industrious and hardworking a person is is due in part to their education. Generally speaking, more educated people are probably more willing to put in effort to achieve something, all else being equal. And since education is very much affected by family income, merit becomes entangled in privilege. Furthermore, the effort one puts in also depends on the values instilled in him by his parents. This, too, was out of his control, and is a part of privilege. Successful parents who care about their children will pass on better life lessons. The third big factor affecting one’s effort in life is his genetics – both his propensity toward hard work and the IQ that is conferred by his genes. The person did not choose his genes. In fact, from our discussion of the privilege of being attractive, we saw that genetic traits are a form of privilege.

We see that all the factors that affect merit (“how much effort, work, and sweat a person ‘chooses’ to invest”) are in fact a type of privilege. If merit is a function only of privileges, then there is no real category of “merit” separate from privilege. All the efforts you’ve put into life have been a product of either nature or nurture. In either case, they’re privileges (or underprivileges) that were conferred to you externally.

We arrive to the conclusion that everything is a privilege and no one deserves anything due to “merit.”

Lest you think this conclusion too radical, consider the following thought experiment:

Imagine taking a person who, in 2014, was upstanding, smart, tolerant, respectful, and considerate and instead magically making him be born in a war-torn nation in the ancient world populated by mostly racist and ignorant people. This person would likely not have turned out tolerant, respectful, and smart. If in 2014 he could have learned integral calculus and the intricacies of DNA replication, in the ancient world he would have believed that storms are caused by the gods and that the sun goes around a flat Earth. This thought experiment makes it apparent just how strongly who we turn out to be is influenced by our environment (which, insofar as it is conductive to our goals, can be called our privilege).

Our conclusion so far has been that every single part of your life that led you toward success has been a privilege, and that you didn’t really make any choices that made you deserve your success in any moral sense. This discussion about privilege, then, begins to look very much like a discussion about determinism, and I’d argue that privilege could be just a face of determinism – the one that specifically deals with people’s success. Since we saw that success in life is fully determined by privilege, it is natural to make the symmetric argument that failure in life is also determined by privilege – or, in this case, the lack of privilege, or underprivilege. That is, if something very bad happens to a person, it is because they were underprivileged.

Now, let’s analyze privilege under two different scenarios of rape:

1) A perfectly rational man living in a world with no uncertainty one day rapes a woman. He is sentenced to death for this. Question: since his action led to a state of being that any normal person would deem unfavorable (ie, being executed), and since we concluded that failure is just as much the result of privilege (and is due to no merit or dismerit of one’s own), does it make sense to say the rapist is underprivileged? After all, his environment conspired in such a way as to make him end up being convicted. And just like successes are not due to one’s merit, the same goes for failures. The woman who is raped, on the other hand, continues living. Her life is doubtless much worse for having been raped, but at least she is alive. I doubt it’s easy to argue that being raped but alive is worse than being dead (though I suppose, in my ignorance, that it could be possible). Hence, it makes sense to actually ask whether the woman who was raped was more privileged than her rapist, who will go on to be killed. However, in this case, the answer must necessarily be “the fact that he will die is not enough to show he is less privileged, despite death being really bad.” Since the man is perfectly rational (by construction) and there is no uncertainty in the world, his action maximized both his ex-ante and ex-post satisfaction (which I will use as interchangeable with success or utility). Therefore, before he committed the act, he knew perfectly, 100% well what would happen and chose to do it anyway. This tells us something about his preferences: the act was to him more valuable than life itself. Given that he chose an action that he valued more highly than all the possible satisfaction of life, it appears that the criminal may be much more privileged than the woman. Of course, there exists the possibility that this isn’t the case, but it is not easy to show that this would have a high probability a priori.

2) A man with bounded rationality and imperfect information one day rapes a woman. He is sentenced to death for this. In this case, does the same analysis as before apply? Notice we have removed the assumption of perfect rationality. Now, it could very well be that the man was very irrational and couldn’t properly assess the consequences of his actions. Moreover, he had imperfect information, and maybe he had no idea that facing death in an hour would be so awfully terrifying. The rapist goes on to lose his life, which may reasonably be assumed to be very tragic for a person. Once again, the rapists’s actions were due to his environment/privilege. In this case, since his environment conspired to lead to an outcome where one of the worst things that could happen to a person did indeed happen, his environment conferred upon him severe underprivilege. The woman who was raped is, once again, alive but very distressed by the occurrence. Yet she still can go on to have a meaningful life. (Before you disagree with me for being callous, consider what disagreement with that statement would mean: that rape victims can never have meaningful lives after the crime). Hence, the woman is in a better position to achieve success, happiness, and satisfaction than her soon-to-be-dead rapist is. As such, by definition she is more privileged than her rapist. Why? Once again, because the actions of each individual are wholly determined by environment, and privilege exists when the environment is such that the events in one’s life result in success, relative to the alternative. Since the rape victim is able to have more future satisfaction than her rapist (or present discounted value thereof), she is more privileged than he is. Of course, it could be that the rape victim could go on to have a miserable life, in which case it can be argued that no, her rapist was in fact more privileged. This is true – but I am talking about the range of possibilities. And if you object to rape as an example, use another sexual crime that is not commonly considered as heinous – perhaps some more general form of sexual assault. In that case, it’s more and more likely that the criminal is less privileged than the victim, especially if the punishment is very harsh.

We now come to the topic of telling people to check their privilege. When one checks his privilege, this can be described as him exploring the privileges that led to his present (and future) success and seeing their relative contributions toward this success. He also compares his levels of privilege to either those of the person asking him to check his privilege or to those of a group which the person asking him to check his privilege is discussing. I can see a few legitimate reasons for someone being told to check his privilege, which I shall label as Types:

Type 1) “Check your privilege: You’re failing to realize how my/the group’s lack of privilege in some dimensions is leading to my/their lower success. By doing this, you are making me/them feel bad, which is bad for me/them.”

Type 2) “Check your privilege: You’re failing to realize how my/the group’s lack of privilege in some dimensions is leading to my/their lower success. By doing this, you’re failing to understand causal pathways in society, leading to an underdevelopment of your own understanding of how society functions, which is bad for you.”

Type 3) “Check your privilege: You’re failing to realize how your privilege in some dimensions is leading to your higher success. As such, you overestimate the privilege of others, you think that others are undeserving, and hence you do not support efforts (voluntary/coercive) to improve their success.”

What are examples of justified and unjustified instances of asking someone to check their privilege? Take the example from this blog post (caution: language), where the author tells white cis college girls to check their privilege when they complain they don’t get a weekly allowance. Her complaint is of Type 1 – other people’s complaining makes her feel bad because she does not have the privileges others have. Is this a legitimate complaint? Depends on your standpoint. If you’re a third-party person reading her post in America, perhaps this seems reasonable. But if you take a global perspective, the blogger’s own complaint is itself whiny from the perspective of a starving African child. In this case, that child could easily also tell the blogger that she should stop complaining since she is privileged to live in the US. Symmetrically, the girls who complain they don’t have allowances could easily complain about someone even richer than them complaining they aren’t wealthy enough. Taking this global perspective, it becomes difficult to say when asking someone to check their privilege is appropriate. The person doing the asking surely has someone below them on the success scale who has even less privilege. It appears that the solution, then, is either to say that almost everyone should be able to tell everyone else to check their privilege or that very few people (if any) should be telling others to check their privilege when it comes to Type 1.
Another example further muddies the waters: the familiar one of the woman who is raped by a rapist with bounded rationality and imperfect information. Say that she is able to go on and have a very successful life, due to being from a very successful family and having very supportive friends. If it is acceptable to tell people to check their privilege merely because they have otherwise high success, it would not be illegitimate for observers of the rape to tell the woman to “check her privilege.” Since she will go on to have a successful life and her rapist will be killed, her success value (in present discounted value terms) is far higher than that of her rapist. Hence, if you are allowed to tell someone to check their privilege when the gap between your and their success values is high, it would be legitimate in this case to tell the woman who is raped to check her privilege. It appears to me that this is a good reason to reject the “gap” criterion in Type 1 privilege policing as legitimate. Simply because someone is more privileged than you, it is not legitimate, when taking a global standpoint, for you to tell them to check their privilege if they are complaining about something.
Checking your privilege for fun and profit

Is it useful for you to check your own privilege? It can indeed be in cases 1 and 2 – when failing to do so either makes other people feel bad or when it prevents you from understanding your own source of success.

Take the example of a restaurant owner in a middle-class neighborhood that has some percentage of its patrons be poor families. Say this restaurant owner dislikes poor people and takes any chance he has to poke fun at them for not being successful. In this case, he might very well alienate patrons and have them stop coming. If he checked his privilege, he could become more understanding of their troubles and stop poking fun at them. They wouldn’t leave, and he would have more patrons.

Another example is that of the entrepreneur. If he understands that a certain social structure creates a cycle of poverty (which is, presumably, undesirable from the perspective of the individuals in poverty), he could try to start a firm that sells a product that helps people escape poverty (by, say, increasing people’s human capital). By checking his privilege and understanding why the poor people were poor, he is able to create a product to circumvent these social circumstances.

I will have more to say on the topic of why privilege checking can be of utmost importance – even to people who would consider themselves “conservative.”


In summary, we have learned a few things:

– Privilege exists relative to the goals of an individual.

– Since the importance of goals to various people cannot be compared (interpersonal utility comparisons are impossible), subjective privilege cannot in fact be compared.

– If we ignore this important theoretical point, we may say that insofar as people’s goals are the identical, everyone has privilege relative to an alternative value for a given characteristic.

– The social justice discussion on privilege is, at its core, an argument about the deterministic nature of the universe. Privilege is one face of determinism.

– Just as privileges reduces the emphasis on personal merit in achieving success, it similarly reduces the emphasis on personal fault for failures – including crimes against victims.

– As Peggy McIntosh points out in her seminal paper on privilege, privilege is not necessarily bad. In fact, I would argue that the goal should be to increase everyone’s privilege as much as possible.

– Analyzing events in the framework of privilege can give us odd conclusions – such as the fact that in a framework of bounded rationality and imperfect information, a woman who is raped may in fact be more privileged than her rapist. Such language is likely foreign to the discussion of privilege that exists among those interested in social justice, but is one that follows from our careful definitions.

Impact of conclusions

It is not my purpose to tie the arguments presented here into a larger philosophy in order to tell people how they should change their actions. I merely sought to follow the logic of privilege to its conclusion. Whether the framework itself is accepted is another matter. Still, I will note two impacts of my analysis:

– The existence of privilege cannot be denied by any reasonable person. The fact that you are far more successful in 2014 America than 2014 Congo, 1900 America, or 1900 Congo is stark enough evidence. Your place of birth significantly affects your prosperity.

– The importance of privilege analysis will rise and fall with the importance society places on an acceptance of a deterministic view of the world. If society decides that determinism shouldn’t affect how we view the moral positions of various actions and individuals, it logically should also not assign much importance to privilege analysis. On the other hand, if much weight is placed on determinism, much weight should be placed on privilege analysis as well. Conversely, if society decides privilege analysis is important, it should consider all the implications of determinism – for they are part and parcel of privilege analysis.


Much of this article makes arguments of the form “if X is accepted as valid, Y follows.” This is not meant to be interpreted as “X is valid, and therefore Y is true.” Furthermore, I have not passed moral judgment on almost any topic related to privilege. For example, saying that privilege analysis in the case of bounded rationality points to the possibility of a woman who is raped being, overall, more privileged than her rapist does *not* imply that I think that her rapist is a more moral person than she is because he is less privileged. I simply state he might be less privileged, whatever the moral implications of that are. This stems from the definition of privilege. In fact, the hypothetical rape scenario I discuss and its conclusions on privilege are one of the reasons I find privilege analysis to not be a very good framework of normative analysis (normative specifically – it is still useful for positive analysis).

I’d like to thank my co-blogger for taking the time to slog through this post and offering constructive advice. Any hatemail you have should be directed to me, for the ideas presented stand behind my name.


[1] Once we see privilege as being evaluated within the means-ends framework, we need to take into account the fact from economics that interpersonal utility comparisons are not possible. That is, even if a person has a privilege that objectively allows him to achieve a certain goal more easily than a person without that privilege, and even if the two people have an identical rank of their goals, it cannot strictly be said that the first is more privileged, since utility cannot be compared among people. Therefore, it is necessarily correct to say that privilege is actually *unable* to be compared across people when privileged is couched in terms of subjective valuations of ends. In the remainder of this article, I will ignore this and pretend that this utility among individuals can in fact be compared, despite believing that this is not possible even in theory and that it doesn’t make very much sense. I do this because most people do this subconsciously, and I will play along, ignoring the majority of the economics profession.

[2] The implications of the functional form and of the form of the variables P and M allow the model to generalize to intersectionality of privileges and interlocking hierarchies. For an intuition, see the economic analogy to capital and labor in an economy.

[3] I will add here that it is possible for the function f() to have a negative second derivative – that is, for your success to increase with both P and M, but more and more slowly over time. That is, the marginal benefits of increases in P and M go down as you have more of both P and M. An example would be increasing your merit in a very capital-poor society. No matter how meritorious, you likely will never be able to send a spaceship to the moon.