Whose Welfare Counts, and How Much?

This blog post isn’t about what you’ll at first think it’s about. So bear with me.

The United Kingdom’s National Trust was established in 1895 to showcase and protect  Britain’s national heritage. Among other things, it gives tours of historic sites such as famous castles and houses.

But the Trust’s public programmes curator, Rachael Lennon, thinks they’ve been doing it wrong.

Their tours of historic homes tell about the families that built them, lived in them, and maintained them over the centuries. That’s a problem because — wait for it — it “privileges heterosexual lives.”

Now you probably think this blog post is about gays. Nope.

It’s about a serious philosophical question. I have my own answer, but other answers are defensible. You’ll have to make up your own mind:

  • Should social policies, education, and media reflect the interests of the vast majority of people?
  • Or should they, for one reason or another, reflect the interests of specific minorities?

The first alternative is basically utilitarian: seek the greatest good for the greatest number of people, as long as it doesn’t impose unacceptable suffering on minorities.

The second alternative rejects utilitarianism in favor of something more complicated.

Gays are a good example, so let’s stick with them.

No informed person denies the contributions gays have made to our civilization. Nor does anyone deny the sometimes vicious persecution they’ve suffered — in the past of Western countries, and at present in most of the rest of the world.

On the other hand, gays are a small minority. I don’t have figures for the United Kingdom, but Gallup says that 3.8 percent of Americans identify as gay (including bisexual). Pew says 4.1 percent. Gallup adds that Americans believe gays are much more numerous than they really are: instead of the actual ratio of one in 25 people, Americans think that about one in four people are gay. Their mistake likely results from the media’s disproportionate attention to gays’ concerns.

“Disproportionate” does not necessarily mean “wrong.” It just means that the media devote much more time to gays than one would expect based on their small percentage of the population.

And that takes us back to Ms. Lennon’s concern about “privileging heterosexual lives.” Somewhere around 96 percent of the people who lived in the historic sites were heterosexual. So on that basis alone, we’d expect most of the talk to be about heterosexual lives. Is that “privileging” them, or is it just accurately describing reality?

There are at least two complications (two that occur to me; maybe you see others):

  • If gays played a significant role in the history of the sites, their contributions obviously shouldn’t be ignored. I think it’s a mistake to define people by their sexuality, but if their sexuality was relevant, then it should be mentioned. I’d be surprised if it’s very often relevant.
  • If gays are currently persecuted in a society, it might be reasonable to spotlight their contributions more than would otherwise be justified. That doesn’t apply in the United States or Britain, though as Britain’s Islamic population grows, the situation there might change.

You can apply the same logic to any majority / minority situation. Does the welfare of the majority have priority? Or does the minority get special treatment — and if so, why?

A lot of social problems depend on how we answer those questions. A good first step toward answering them is to talk to each other calmly, trying to work out what’s fair to everyone and best for society.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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2 Responses to Whose Welfare Counts, and How Much?

  1. J P says:

    I am late getting to this one. It is not surprising that nobody has stepped into this charged topic.

    It seems to me that each of us has certain things that set us apart. Sexuality is one, then add race, religion, physical disability, sex/gender and undoubtedly many others.

    It also seems to me that we are left with a binary choice: we either value everyone as a person and do our best to accept and accommodate differences or we become defined by our differences and enter into a never-ending series of conflicts over how my differences entitle me to more accommodation than your differences entitle you to.

    I think the former is a decent (though not perfect) way of forming a community while the latter creates many little communities that are in perpetual conflict with one another.

    I am either coming to a reasonable conclusion or my differences are less important than everyone else’s and I am just trying to come out on top, depending on your point of view.


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      Well, I think you stated the case very clearly. I agree that it’s best to give all people at least the same basic respect to which they are entitled as human beings. Other characteristics can be considered if they are relevant.

      Which reminds me of a funny line from the TV series “Back to 1989.” Chen Che accidentally time-traveled back to the year before he was born. He meets his mother and falls in love with her best friend, Zhen Zhen. At one point, Zhen Zhen asks him who he would save if both she and his mother were drowning. “My mother, of course,” he replies. “And then I would drown myself.”

      Liked by 1 person

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