Check your privilege: A philosophical critique

The notion of privilege is becoming very mainstream in our culture, one can even take a quiz to determine how much privilege they have.

Privilege (for anyone that doesn’t know) is a concept that gives one group or person social advantages over another group or person.

This definition has some issues, which I will address shortly, but overall is easily identifiable. For example, it would be hard to question that I (as a white male, living in 21st century America) have some privileges that an African slave, living in early19th century Europe did not. This seems like a legitimate statement to make. However, what is at root here is not so much the idea of privilege, but the implications and expected action that may come from accepting such a term. First let’s deconstruct the term itself.

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What exactly is a social advantage? This seems like a non-sequitur at first, but if we examine the idea, it may become less clear. For example, it seems that in our current time, owning a car is considered a social advantage, but this is only true if one accepts that “being able to go more places, at a quicker pace” has some sort of positive value to it. I think I would accept something similar to that, but perhaps another statement, “being healthy always trumps convenience” would negate this first premise. Ah, we must go deeper down the rabbit hole.

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What is Value? How do we measure value? Are values objective or preferential? Is there a set hierarchy to values?
All these questions ought to be answered before we can actually say that “owning a car is a social advantage.” If value is “worth or usefulness” it can be said that this is going to be different for different people, which then gives an affirmative to the question “is value preferential?” Well, if value is preferential, is there one inherent way to measure it? This may also may make the question “is there a hierarchy to value” relative or contextual. This brings up an even more fundamental question. Deeper we must go.

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How to make our ideas clear. This is the name of a great essay by Charles Saunders Peirce, which deals with a question that still hangs on the mantles of most philosophers. Peirce defines a clear idea as “one which is so apprehended that it will be recognized wherever it is met with, and so that no other will be mistaken for it.” Ideas that are not clear, are obscure or vague. I would venture to say, that more ideas, more words, phrases, idioms, and sentences are vague, than they are clear. This is an unfortunate, yet obvious place we must start from. So, when dealing with privilege, we must be aware of the vague. As Peirce concludes his brief work, he points out that we are not yet to a level of scientific logic. “How to give birth to those vital and procreative ideas which multiply into a thousand forms and diffuse themselves everywhere, advancing civilization and making the dignity of man, is an art not yet reduced to rules…” We can’t say that it is easy or simple, but there appears to be a reducible clear distinction to our words and ideas.

An idea may be vague when there are border cases (that is, when there are instances where the word falls into obscurity, because an example appears to both be defined by the word, and yet not satisfied fully by the word).

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What makes Privilege vague is that it holds an indeterminate amount of subtleties and nuances that come with the subject of the privilege, mainly in how that person determines value. What is valuable to me, may not be valuable to me in 15 years, and may never be valuable to another person. So, there are aspects to privilege that are not hard and fast.

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Thus, the problem of political justice. Justice is not a word that escapes vagueness either. There are multiple theories of justice; there are some thinkers that have accepted the terms that others have set for something to be called “just”, but don’t see it as important to political legitimacy or even counter to such a thing. The bifurcation may very well end here. If one accepts a form of Kantian ethics, one where a categorical imperative can be reached, then we can set axioms and rules by which to govern our concept of justice. If we instead accept an Aristotelian Virtue based ethics, we can accept a more case by case, person by person, view (more can be said about this is full detail, but I’ll reserve that for another post).

An example of just one tool that is often employed by Deontologist,  is that of an original position (or starting from behind a veil of ignorance, or a state of nature). If we can start with a basic point, one where our outcomes, privileges, and differences are not yet determined, there may be some universal (or categorical) rules that seem irrational not to accept. This is where equality, fairness, liberty, and other ideas are often accepted.
Privilege makes sense, from this perspective, but if one does not accept this view of ethics, the very notion starts to dissolve into absurdity.

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Values are virtue. Those things that which each individual chooses to invest their energy and passion into, are not hard and fast, there isn’t a categorical imperative for taste and preference. But if one cannot accept that there must be certain hard rules about value, then what sort of implications can come from the idea of privilege? We can’t say that there is not a hard rule about privilege, but then also say that certain things ought to be done. So, yes, accept the idea of privilege as a concept of virtue based ethics, but then what?

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To conclude, I am not offering much of a solution, but pointing to the fact that modern liberalism often times blurs value with virtue,  justice with morality, and acceptance with necessity for action. This makes things vague, when we ought to be striving for clarity.* I also point out that this vagueness makes it difficult to reason coherently about what then ought to be done with certain things we identify (such as privilege). I suppose there is probably a way to clean all of this up, without being fallacious or jumping too many assumptive gaps, but I side with Peirce that we have yet to get there.

* I recognize that this is a fine example of assuming a sort of categorical imperative or moral axiom in dealing with language or philosophy, where one may not actually exist.

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