Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Egalitarianism, Education Attainment and Marriage

Last week the Globe and Mail had this article about this study which suggests that the tendency of better educated people to marry each other has been a key force in producing unequal family incomes. This raises interesting questions for egalitarians who take the kind of hard line position advocated by G.A. Cohen. That is, those who believe that an “egalitarian ethos” requires us to make salary and career decisions that will be optimal from the point of view of the least advantaged. Does a similar moral obligation apply to our attitudes about potential partners?

Just to be clear, I myself am not a luck egalitarian, nor has my choice of partner exacerbated inequality. But I think there are some important questions here worth taking seriously. Namely, how the personal decisions (concerning what constitutes a desirable partner) of many educational elites further entrench the attitudes and social structures they supposedly are opposed to.

Cohen does of course invoke a proviso that permits individuals to pursue self-interest to some “reasonable degree”. And one might think that this proviso then rules out a moral obligation that applies to our choices concerning who to marry. But I don’t think this is the case. What the proviso would rule out is the stringent requirement that a person marry a particular person (X), or remain single, simply because that decision would be optimal for the least advantaged.

But the proviso would not rule out a more general requirement, something like the following: those who have above average levels of educational attainment are morally prohibited from limiting their search for a partner to people with similar levels of educational attainment.

One might respond to this move by claiming that this imposes unfair burdens on educational elites. A major reason the educated marry each other is they meet at university, at work, have common interests, etc. So this imposes too stringent a requirement on educational elites. But I think this response will also fail. Of course some people might say “All the people I meet at work have PhDs!, and hence most of the people I date are educational elites”. But this fact simply follows from the conscious or unconscious constraint that one has imposed on themselves- namely, that they will only seriously date people from the small pool of candidates with the desired educative qualifications. Sure it is time consuming to meet people outside of work, but the social class system of contemporary capitalist societies are not so rigid that educational elites do not meet intelligent, friendly, kind, engaging people with lower educational qualifications. So the response that it is hard to meet people just doesn’t cut it.

While I am not a Cohenian egalitarian, I am sympathetic to the concerns I raise above. I think there is something deeply troubling about the attitude of some educational elites who have a very narrow view of who constitutes potential partners. Some of this is just snobbery (which is rampant in academia), but it is also something more troubling.

Many academics pay lip service to ideals of inclusion and equality, and yet the decisions they make in their personal lives reinforce the attitudes and social structures that run counter to these ideals. So the motto “the personal is political” is useful to invoke again.

Not only does the tendency of educational elites to marry amongst themselves harm equality, it also harms the individuals who adopt such a narrow view of potential partners. Exposure to difference can enrich one’s life in diverse and valuable ways. Given that the level of educational attainment will also likely track other things, like socio-economic background, this tendency says something dire about the poverty of our culture.

The behaviour of some educational elites detracts from the real value the relationship of marriage can offer. Perhaps this is the product of the consumerist society- where even the choice of partner is seen through the impoverished lens of economics. In a society where the ideal of genuine love informs our decisions about marriage, I do not think we would find this pattern of marriage among educational elites. But to make that argument I would need to say a lot more about my perfectionist account of love and happiness. And I’m still mulling that over.