Discussion: The Problem With 'Equality Is Profitable'

Discussion for article #234326

Let’s bury the reflexive idea that anything profitable must be good, and let’s work to define goodness on its own terms regardless of financial consequence.


I think that this shouldn’t be either/or. The decent-behavior-is-profitable folks are basically stripping away the last vestige of ostensible justification for bigotry and exploitation.The claim that treating other people badly is a tough choice that legislators and “job creators” have to make in the service of profit and economic growth turns out to be false. And that’s important not only as an economic argument but also as a moral one. Because when the Pain Caucus can no longer take refuge behind “We’re doing it for the long term greater good” they’ve got nothing at all except “We like to inflict pain on other people because we think that’s the right thing to do.”

So as I see it, at least, the “equality is profitable” people complement the “justice and human decency people” – even if you’re an amoral follower of Mammon, they’re telling us, that’s no excuse to be a jerk.

(Maybe somewhere at some point there will be a valid economic argument for deliberately fostering massive inequality, but I’m willing to burn that bridge if we get to it.)


This is just another manifestation of the “shareholder value” mantra. Right and wrong is defined in terms of whether an action increases or decreases shareholder value. To the insiders, it defines moral behavior. To the neutral observer, it is amoral behavior, a defining characteristic of neoclassical economics, efficient markets, and market-based solutions to just just about everything. To the victims, it is immoral behavior. Like the thousands of employees at Dominicks Foods in Illinois fired just before Christmas so a private equity fund could get a bump in the stock price, a quick return, and a quick exit. Even Scrooge would have blushed. But that is what they teach you in an MBA program at an elite school.

I’m not sure which bothers me more: making decisions about equality based on its economic value, or objecting to people pursuing a worthy objective because we don’t like the reasons they’re pursuing it.


The author focuses her blame on utilitarianism, but it’s hard to see utilitarianism as the culprit unless one conflates it with a profits-first value system, which anyone who studies utilitarianism will tell you is not what utilitarianism is about.

Although some of utilitarianism’s faults come up in this essay, they aren’t the focus. Indeed, when the author’s criticisms are sound, they are almost always against rhetoric that appeals to self-benefit, and business profitability, as the primary motivation for acting justly. That’s what deserves approbation, not utilitarianism, which has always emphasized looking after the welfare of everyone, not just oneself, and has been, historically, just as opposed as the author is to the kinds of self-serving reasons she catalogues here.

Even if we completely accept the utilitarian argument that equality is profitable, we have to look at the fact that people do not necessarily follow a utilitarian course. Humans are far from being creatures of logic. They are capable of delusion, selfishness and neurosis. A woman could, manifestly, be the best person for a management job and get passed over because her boss doesn’t want a woman manager. Perhaps this would be less profitable for the company, but managers do things that are unprofitable all the time. Or that are, at best, profitable in the short term and disastrous in the long term. The entire argument for utilitarianism is flawed at its foundation. This foundation being emotional and limited humans.

What the author seems to forget in all of this: it’s the behavior that matters here – I could give a good g*d damn whether or not my CEO is a feminist or pro-LGBT equality or any other diversity metric motivation… what I do care about is measurable actions, effects and consequences.

Attitudes follow behaviors more than the other way around – get the behaviors right, and all the rest works itself out – white males included.


FFS, is someone is aiding your cause, accept the help; don’t obsess over whether or not they’re helping for the “right reasons”. Keep your eyes focused on the goal!


Absolutely. Studies of racist attitudes have demonstrated repeatedly that mingling the races, in housing and education, leads to truly lowered prejudice. The same is true with the genders. If you’re a guy who’s never seen, let alone had, a female boss you may be very uneasy about working for one, and be looking for problems at every turn–or even intentionally causing them. If there are female bosses all over the place, mixed with male ones, you probably won’t turn a hair at the thought. If women “never” get promoted and then one gets promoted over you you may feel betrayed and humiliated and enraged. If both get promoted about equally you may not like being passed over but you’ll live with it till the next opportunity comes along, just as you would if another guy had been promoted instead. These influences will be moderated by your upbringing, of course, and the attitudes of people around you. But so long as the genders are mostly separated, each in his/her own “place”, this habituation to equality just can’t happen. First comes behavior; then attitudes.


You comment “so a private equity fund could get a bump in the stock price, a quick return, and a quick exit” is one of the major problems we face… it is a for the quick buck and funk anything long term goals of the company.

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I don’t give a flying fig why inequality unravels as long as it does. A good living wage and the 8 hr day was ushered in by Henry Ford, a virulent anti semite, among other things, not because it was ‘right’ but because it made business sense. Save me from those who demand that all progress must flow from the pure of heart.