Whose Welfare Counts, and How Much?

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

This blog post isn't about what you'll at first think it's about. So bear with me.

The United Kingdom's National Trust was established in 1895 to showcase and protect Britain's national heritage. Among other things, it gives tours of historic sites such as famous castles and houses.

But the Trust's public programmes curator, Rachael Lennon, thinks they've been doing it wrong.

Their tours of historic homes tell about the families that built them, lived in them, and maintained them over the centuries. That's a problem because -- wait for it -- it "privileges heterosexual lives."

Now you probably think this blog post is about gays. Nope.

It's about a serious philosophical question. I have my own answer, but other answers are defensible as well. You'll have to make up your own mind:

  • Should social policies, education, and media reflect the interests of the vast majority of people?
  • Or should they, for one reason or another, reflect the interests of specific minorities?

The first alternative is basically utilitarian: seek the greatest good for the greatest number of people, as long as it doesn't impose unacceptable suffering on minorities. The second alternative rejects utilitarianism in favor of something more complicated.

Gays are a good example, so let's stick with them.

No informed person denies the contributions gays have made to our civilization. Nor does anyone deny the sometimes vicious persecution they've suffered -- in the past of Western countries, and at present in most of the rest of the world.

On the other hand, gays are a small minority. I don't have figures for the United Kingdom, but Gallup says that 3.8 percent of Americans identify as gay (including bisexual). Pew says 4.1 percent. Gallup adds that Americans believe gays are much more numerous than they really are: instead of the actual ratio of one in 25 people, Americans think that about one in four people are gay. Their mistake likely results from the media's disproportionate attention to gays' concerns.

"Disproportionate" does not necessarily mean "wrong." It just means that the media pay much more attention to gays than one would expect based on their small percentage of the population.

And that takes us back to Ms. Lennon's concern about "privileging heterosexual lives." Somewhere around 96 percent of the people who lived in the historic sites were heterosexual. So on that basis alone, we'd expect most of the talk to be about heterosexual lives. Is that "privileging" them, or is it just accurately describing reality?

There are at least two complications (two that occur to me; maybe you see others):

  • If gays played a significant role in the history of the sites, their contributions obviously shouldn't be ignored. I think it's a mistake to define people by their sexuality, but if their sexuality was relevant, it should be mentioned. I'd be surprised if it's very often relevant.
  • If gays are currently persecuted in a society, it might be reasonable to spotlight their contributions more than would otherwise be justified. That doesn't apply in the United States or Britain, though as the UK's Islamic population grows, the situation there might change.

You can apply the same logic to any majority / minority situation. Does the welfare of the majority have priority? Or does the minority get special treatment, and if so, for what reason?

A lot of social problems depend on how we answer those questions. A good first step toward answering them is to talk to each other calmly, trying to work out what's fair to everyone and best for society.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an "impressively nuanced analysis."