Erotic capital?

This Zoe Williams interview is a joy to read.

Catherine Hakim is a sociologist at the London School of Economics, who has written a book called Honey Money. “The world smiles at good-looking people, and they smile back”, is its subtitle, and it goes on to posit this theory: that we have erotic capital, and this divides into six categories: beauty; sexual attractiveness; social skills like grace, charm and discreet flirtation; liveliness, which is a mixture of physical fitness, social energy and good humour; social presentation, including dress, jewellery and other adornments; and finally, sexuality itself, competence, energy, imagination.

We meet in Covent Garden, over fancy tapas. She arrives and says, “I must go and brush my hair,” which she really needn’t have done, because I don’t buy her theory. I don’t care what someone’s hair looks like, I find hair neither impedes nor accelerates a discussion about ideas. I did not say so, thank God, even in jest, otherwise our encounter could have been even worse than it was.

The theory that there is something which could be called “erotic capital” and that having it might help one in certain ways is obviously not a crazy theory. But MANY of the claims along the way are shockingly naive and unsupported. And Williams does a great job of demonstrating this. (Even though I found the beginning of the interview, quoted above, very funny, I found it far less convincing than the rest of the article: if Williams were affected by Hakim’s hair, she might well not have been aware of it.)

Who opposes redistribution the most?

Not necessarily who you’d think.

Instead of opposing redistribution because people expect to make it to the top of the economic ladder, the authors of the new paper argue that people don’t like to be at the bottom. One paradoxical consequence of this “last-place aversion” is that some poor people may be vociferously opposed to the kinds of policies that would actually raise their own income a bit but that might also push those who are poorer than them into comparable or higher positions. The authors ran a series of experiments where students were randomly allotted sums of money, separated by $1, and informed about the “income distribution” that resulted. They were then given another $2, which they could give either to the person directly above or below them in the distribution.

In keeping with the notion of “last-place aversion”, the people who were a spot away from the bottom were the most likely to give the money to the person above them: rewarding the “rich” but ensuring that someone remained poorer than themselves. Those not at risk of becoming the poorest did not seem to mind falling a notch in the distribution of income nearly as much. This idea is backed up by survey data from America collected by Pew, a polling company: those who earned just a bit more than the minimum wage were the most resistant to increasing it.

Poverty may be miserable. But being able to feel a bit better-off than someone else makes it a bit more bearable.

Thanks, Mr Jender, for sending me this fascinating article.

A meditation on our “be nice” rule

Stoat and I had a brief exchange on the psychological impact of strong, negative feedback.  I thought back to this passage from Ira Glass, who is the director and lead narrator in “This American Life,” a charming and informaitve weekly broadcast on NPR.  Glass’s comments do not directly fit philosophers, but it does not take much imagination to apply them:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
-Ira Glass

There are lots of complications that could be put in, but one thing worth stressing in this context is that acccusatory insistence on a beginner’s meeting your standards can be lethal in this situation.  That is, it can kill creativity.  The opposite, an insistence that everything the beginner does is brilliant, can also have a bad effect, leading that person unsure about how to repeat the effect.  Worst of all, may be the idea that one is not and never can be a player.   Or, in fact, there may be a still worse one.

I remember being at an art exhibit of work by Cezanne and looking at a series which consisted in the same still life done from slightly different perspectives or with slightly different tones.  I wondered what sort of love of self it might take to do that.  I don’t know that I was right about self-love being required, but I do suspect that attacks that jeer, ridicule, make fun of one are especially threatening to creativity.

Invited Men Speaking about Equality

The invited speakers are all male (correct me if I’m wrong) but perhaps the request for papers will yield some women. Surely it matters that we have women involved in discussions of equality in health, wealth, and welfare.
The Fourth McGill Workshop in Ethics
Egalitarianisms: Current Debates on Equality and Priority in Health,
Wealth, and Welfare

March 30th -31st, 2012
McGill University, Montreal, Canada
Workshop website:

Confirmed Speakers
Nir Eyal (Harvard)
Iwao Hirose (McGill)
Nils Holtug (Copenhagen)
Dennis McKerlie (Calgary)
Shlomi Segall (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Workshop Description

Egalitarian theories of distributive justice have recently encountered
fundamental challenges. Is egalitarianism susceptible to the leveling
down objection? Is it less plausible than prioritarianism? Does it
support reducing the inequalities resulting from brute luck, but not
option luck? Does it aim to equalize the distribution of welfare at
each time or over a lifetime? What does egalitarianism make of the
strong correlation between inequalities in health and inequalities in
socio-economic conditions? In this two-day workshop, we will discuss
current theoretical issues and seek common and unified grounds for
future research into egalitarian theories of distributive justice.

Call for Papers

We invite high quality papers on the recent philosophical challenges
to egalitarian theories of distributive justice. We will include at
least 5 submitted papers in the program. Papers should be suitable for
blind-review and no longer than 6,000 words (must include a 200 word
abstract in the first page). Please submit paper (Word or PDF file)
through We welcome submissions from
graduate students. For accepted papers, the organizers will cover the
cost of accommodation (up to 3 nights in downtown Montreal) and
workshop banquet.

Deadline for submission: November 20, 2011 (Notification of acceptance
by December 20, 2011)

This workshop is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Gay man to be deported to Uganda?

Uganda is not a very groovy place to be if one happens to prefer same-sex sex. Not only can one be imprisoned for life if one engages in ‘repeated acts of homosexuality’, the government keeps threatening to pass a Bill making such acts punishable by death.

And where legislation falters, the mob takes things into its own hands, and the prospect of
extreme violence is never far away.

How nice to hear, then, that good old Blighty is planning to deport a gay man back to Uganda because the judge refused to believe that he is gay (despite expert evidence to the contrary), and is adhering to the old guidance about which countries are safe (Uganda was only recently added to the list of unsafe countries for gay people, following an Amnesty report). You can read more here.

Scaling back BBC 4?

I’ve been hopping around incandescent with rage this morning, at the news that the BBC is thinking of scaling back BBC 4. ‘Shall I blog this?’ – I thought – ‘It’s surely got little to do with feminism, philosophy, or feminist philosophy.’ Then I found an article in the Huffpo, and decided if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us. So yes, folks, the BBC are thinking of scaling back BBC 4. For those of you who don’t know about the channel:

In the past few weeks the BBC has produced some really high quality programming. It has produced some programming that falls very much within their remit of public service broadcasting.

Examples of this high quality broadcasting include the shamelessly high-brow ‘Great Thinkers In Their Own Words’, some tremendous documentaries about Italy, Scotland and Liverpool, first class programming about popular, roots and classical music, and some fascinating documentaries about sculpture and art. On top of this, they have reshown the seminal ‘All Our Working Lives’ – about unemployment in the North East.

All of these pieces of programmes are thoroughly within the public service ethos that should be running through the BBC’s bloodstream. It is hard to imagine any other broadcaster making them. All of these programmes were shown on the excellent BBC4.

It comes as something of a shock, then, to discover that the BBC is, according to the Guardian, considering scaling back BBC4, as part of a cost cutting drive. This scaling back will, apparently involve the channel that is focused on high quality documentaries and innovative programming, becoming solely focused on “arts and repeats.”

The BBC is thinking of retaining BBC 3, which leans more towards the sort of voyeuristic fare one expects from more commercially focused channels.