Aristotle on modern ethical dilemmas

Woman alone in a bar What would Kant say to social climbers?

Getting on in the world is a priority for many. But is social mobility good? As the BBC researches the class system, philosopher Mark Vernon says thinkers like Kant have mulled over such questions for centuries.

Is social mobility good? The immediate response would be yes, of course.

Who could argue against lifting people out of poverty, rewarding individuals according to merit, and ensuring equal opportunities for all? Surely, a more socially mobile world is a more just world.

This is why BBC Lab UK has devised a class survey to test if the traditional class divisions still apply.

The moral upside of social mobility is particularly clear in a Kantian approach to ethics.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant was very clear that an enlightened culture is one that does not rely on inherited traditions, authorities and social structures. To be enlightened is to question and challenge such aristocracies, be they aristocracies of wealth, politics or the church. Social enlightenment brings justice in its wake.

Which class are you?

Acacia Ave street sign, symbol of middle class life
  • The class test takes about 25 minutes
  • Covers wealth and job type, as well as interests and social circle
  • Aims to find out if traditional divisions of working, middle and upper still apply

It also enables the individual to take responsibility for their own lives, and not be weighed down by cultural constraints. It's the kind of justice that spreads freedom throughout society, based on just deserts rather than birthright.

But there's a price to pay for social mobility that other ways of looking at ethics highlight.

The utilitarian approach to life, associated with philosopher Jeremy Bentham, always returns to a single question - what makes for more happiness in the world?

Does social mobility achieve that? Well, it might.

But social mobility also produces dislocation. People migrate to cities and find themselves isolated from their family, and constantly having to make new friends - relationships that might be fun but not very deep. They may be richer, but are they happier?

The new meritocracy

Big Issue sellers on Bentham's idea of workhouses for the poor to keep the rest of society happy

There's another problem. In a socially mobile world, life's rewards are no longer the preserve of elites, but are distributed according to merit.

So what happens if you feel you don't receive your fair share of life's rewards? You've now only got yourself to blame. In an elitist world, you could blame your birth. In a socially mobile world, what you get is more likely to be thought of as what you deserve.

There's another concern. It's raised by the third approach to justice, that of virtue ethics, associated with Aristotle.

The virtue ethicist would want to ask whether a socially mobile world rewards certain kinds of ability more than others. For example, someone with skills in banking or sales can do pretty well in a market society such as ours. But someone with skills as an artist or a mother may well find it hard to make ends meet.

Posh and posher

Eton College boys
  • Broadcaster Andrew Neil says the meritocracy - in politics at least - is grinding to a halt
  • Today's MPs increasingly come from privileged stock
  • His documentary Posh and Posher is on BBC Two, 26 Jan at 2100 GMT

Further, the virtue ethicist asks, does a socially mobile world actually undermine certain roles that are great goods - such as the arts or being a mother?

These things contribute to the common good. They are part of any just, flourishing society. And yet, social mobility may sideline them by not appreciating them.

This is not to say that a virtue ethics approach is against mobility.

What it would suggest, though, is that a good society needs to have ways of rewarding individuals that contribute things of moral, not just material, worth.

That might be a society which funds the arts, encourages the humanities as well as sciences, and doesn't forget that what goes on in the home matters at least as much as what goes on in the marketplace.

Mark Vernon, the author of Philosophy For The Curious and Ethics For The Curious, will tackle more modern dilemmas throughout the week. Tomorrow, should victims have a say in sentencing criminals?

Below is a selection of your comments

I love the idea of a meritocratic society (and hope that one day we will have one), I'm not entirely sure it's always for the best. I've been to university (twice), the first in my (working class) family to do so, and have the white-collar career and income that I always aspired to. But am I really happy? My education and professional career often conflict with my beliefs, behaviours, morals and general up-bringing & background. I feel I've over-achieved and really don't fit in with my peers. To be clear, I appreciate that my life's great and I shouldn't be moaning: my tale is not worthy of even the world's smallest violin in the grand scheme of things, but I do find myself often wondering if I'd be happier had I stayed closer to home and done the sort of job my family would've expected of me when I was born.

Anonymous PhD, Bristol, UK

Social mobility isn't about meritocracy but just being able to move up out of the "class" you are in and into a better one which implies more opportunity, more privilege and greater wealth. Obviously the biggest problem is that we can't all be at the top of such a pyramid which is where defining the pyramid becomes part of the question and looking at what being socially immobile really means part of the answer.

Laura Pritchard, London

A good society needs to have ways of rewarding individuals that contribute things of moral, not just material, worth. What about the idea of a fixed basic income? This is something like minimal social benefits for everyone, regardless of what they earn, and is designed to narrow the earning gap between skills the market likes more and others.

Michael, Stuttgart, Germany

Apparently I'm 50/100 for social capital - exactly equal - in the Great British Class Test. I'm an introverted geek who works with analytical data all day and goes home to an empty house and plays World Of Warcraft all evening. If *I'm* average, I'd hate to see who I'm ahead of.

Ian Oliver , via BBC News Magazine on Facebook

In an egalitarian society with all at the same level, can you be socially mobile? Societies always give merit and therefore higher status to particular abilities or attributes, so unless you own or obtain those attributes your social mobility will not be up. Upward social mobility has its own rewards but does not necessarily lead to personal happiness.

Jennifer Smith, Aberystwyth Ceredigion

Social mobility is good in societies where the prevailing values are virtuous. If people are rewarded for things like generosity, compassion, honesty, and patience, social mobility is good. Moreover, in such a society, you will meet people with those virtues wherever you go (and don't need to worry about loneliness). But if people are rewarded (and thus have mobility) for greed, cruelty, deceit, and recklessness, social mobility will probably make things worse in just about every way imaginable. And, of course, you will be lonely because all those you encounter have these kinds of faults.

Mark Vogel, via BBC News Magazine on Facebook

As parents of two socially mobile adult children, one working toward a career teaching in Africa, and the other providing social services in Argentina, my wife and I constantly struggle with the pain of maintaining distant relationships. But life is short. And a life lived fully requires constant growth and adjustment. Having lived in the four corners of our country, we are preparing ourselves for a move to Britain. It would so much easier to stay put and sink our roots deeply. Where would the adventure be in that?

Ted Schmidt, Portland, ME, US

A culturally enlightened, open society is less burdened by debilitating, unequal social structures that often restrict choices. But openness does not imply a situation free from restraints. Only freedoms with responsibilities can make a civilised society sustainable. And the aim of creating a level playing field should not be confused with ensuring equal outcomes. The latter would require some unethical social interventions.

Autar Dhesi, Chandigarh, India

I work, I go home, I do what I want - sleep, make plans etc. So does Prince Charles and the bus driver.

John A Walsh , via BBC News Magazine on Facebook

I expect that Prince Charles does "what he wants" a good deal less often than the bus driver does, what with all the ceremonial pomp a prince is absolutely required to participate in. On the other hand, the bus driver would very much like to win the pools and move to the Bahamas. In most of the world, social mobility (upward, that is) is very restricted and hard to come by. Downward social mobility is widely available via war, economic decline, natural disaster, religious fundamentalism, and reactionary politics. Suffering downfall through these forces is common and calamitous, and implies no counter-balance of social mobility upward in the same population. If we want social mobility to work for us, we must support policies that increase the up-side. Otherwise, the down-side, operating willy nilly, will take us all down with it.

SM Charnas, Albuquerque, New Mexico

The main drawback to social mobility is competition. People compete all their working lives in order to better themselves: it's a rat-race. The more mobility there is in a society, the more competition follows, with all the problems of stress, fear of failure, envy, lack of self-esteem and depression. The other extreme, where people are stuck in a social groove all their lives, such as in India, has also its obvious drawbacks. Would a happy medium between these two extremes be the solution?

Catherine, Wells, Somerset

I am a social climber - my dad was from a working class background, and yet I had a grammar school education, followed by university and a white-collar job. Am I happy with it? Yes, because I have progressed just a little, and still kept touch with my origins, because I have not deliberately climbed socially, but simply made the best of the opportunities presented to me. A meritocracy should be a place where people can do just that - make the best of themselves, not see a social ladder to climb. That is, I think, the way to happiness or satisfaction.

Steve Clough, St Albans

A meritocracy rewards those who are successful, those who achieve at whatever skills the society values the most. But is it really just? If I am blessed, either through genetics or through upbringing, with an immense aptitude for singing or football, then I have a much easier path to success. Yet I have done nothing to earn it. Some people work hard and show great perseverance through their whole lives, yet achieve very little, whereas some people are able to work sporadically and rely on natural genius in whatever field to bring them success and a route up the social ladder. Success is ultimately down to chance, a lottery based on a whole range of factors that we have very little, if any, control over.

Tim Bailes-Brown, via BBC News Magazine on Facebook

The curiosity of social mobility is how every society, after overthrowing a class system, promptly creates a new one, based on different criteria (political, economic, etc) but no less unequal and binding. Most market societies such as the US have a very clear class system, based on income and to a lesser degree politics. A child born to a very wealthy family in a rich suburb is all but guaranteed a good education, a well-paying white collar job, and access to all manner of social benefits. The same child, of the same abilities, born to a very poor family is likely to get none of these things. The question is - even if we can correct this injustice, how do we keep from recreating it in another form?

James, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

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