Philosophy, Society

How to compare people, or even nations?

How should two different entities relate to each other?

What do I mean by “entities”? People, organizations or even nations. And what do I mean with “different”? Obviously, that they are not the same, which implies that they are “unequal” in some way. What we think are the important ways to measure, to compare two entities, that’s what determines everything.

Is it wealth? Is it happiness? Is it age? Is it intelligence or technological progress? Without considering the problem of how exactly to define those terms, comparing people or nations with each of these measures gives vastly different results. But irrespective of what measure is chosen, one entity is always inferior when compared to the other. When choosing to measure in “wealth”, a rich CEO or an industrialized nation is “higher up”, or “more advanced”, when compared to a lowly construction worker or a so-called developing nation. But when choosing to measure in “happiness”, it might just be the other way around.

So, back to the question of how two entities should relate to each other, i.e. what nature their relationship should be of. Depending on the measure chosen to compare the two, there will always be inequality. Now, very often inequality is considered to be a negative phenomenon. It is used to point out that something is unevenly or unfairly distributed. But we wouldn’t want all people to be exactly equal to all the others, either. We wouldn’t want all nations, irrespective of the measure chosen, to be the same: the same climate, the same food, the same population density, the same level of energy consumption.

The key appears to be to rigorously define in which measure we want which entities to be equal, or at least to be more equal. And then demand for more equality in that measure. I some cases this may indeed be possible and even desirable. Although it is important to be aware that by choosing someone else’s measure, you invariably agree to play their game. As an example, by demanding “a career” (in the traditional work-a-lot-and-then-get-promoted-sense of the word), women agree to play the game of fighting for promotions. Alternatively (or at least additionally), they could demand less full-time stressing-out jobs for everyone.

Either way, there are a hoist of cases where it isn’t straightforward at all to settle on a measure for comparison. For example, when choosing a country to live in, or a person to marry, you might want to consider both the wealth of the country or person, and how happy you are going to be (among other factors). So you might be tempted to set up an equation to determine the “ultimate value” of each scenario p:

value(p) := λ1*wealth(p) + λ2*happiness(p)

where λ1 and λ2 are weighting factors you need to determine for yourself. For example, if you set both to 0.5, it means wealth and happiness are equally important to you.

It may be worth to point out that by combining the measure of wealth and happiness into one, what we have done in effect, is simply created yet another measure. I’m sure there are some economists or psychologists that have come up with a model like that already.

But now there are many more combinations of how very different entities can end up having the same value. Like a person being very rich but totally unhappy having the same “value” in that measure as one being very poor but extremely happy.

In order to form a balanced and constructive relationship where both entities can learn from each other, it seems important to choose the weights λi such that the value of both entities ends up being equal. That way, neither one appears more advanced in any absolute sense, and neither one is being looked down upon by the other.

It is easy to make the mistake to choose large weights for precisely those measures where you yourself already score high. That way, you’ll never be the loser. But it has the opposite effect as well: without noticing, you will end up behaving like a hegemonic empire. And both entities lose out.


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