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The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice March 25, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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Following the story of the “Fukushima 50,” now up to 1000 workers, still working in shifts under what seems to be an increasing threat level, here from USAToday:

…Two workers have gone missing and 25 have been hurt or overexposed to radiation since the magnitude-9.0 earthquake hit March 11, according to the Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns and runs the plant. Most of the injuries occurred during explosions that resulted from uncontrolled buildups of hydrogen and oxygen in two reactor units.The latest injuries were reported Thursday, when TEPCO said two workers were sent to the hospital after their legs were contaminated with radiation, indicating the facility remains dangerous. Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), says it could be weeks before the radiation is under control.”Anybody that voluntarily enters a situation that puts their lives on the line can be called a hero, and those workers certainly meet that definition,” says David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project for the Union of Concerned Scientists.”I don’t know any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war,” says Keiichi Nakagawa, associate professor in the Department of Radiology at the University of Tokyo Hospital.

In the emergency, Japanese authorities increased the permissible radiation exposure to five times what plant workers normally are allowed in a year.

That move “ethically is a problem,” says Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician at Columbia University in New York and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “On the other hand, there are large-scale population needs and somehow that needs to be balanced. It’s basically men and women voluntarily putting themselves in harm’s way so thousands of others can be safe.”Such self-sacrifice is not uniquely Japanese, Redlener says. “It is something about human nature in emergencies that people step up to the plate in the interest of the greater good,” he says, citing battlefield troops and responders who entered the burning World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

The key word here, from a Western moral perspective at least, is volunteering. Willingly taking on a burden that will help others, but endanger your own life and wellbeing is what makes the ethics of altruism so challenging, and fascinating. It is hard to evaluate what cultural/professional pressures that may be involved in the current situation at Fukushima, because the Japanese tradition does value the ethics of self-sacrifice—but as long as we’re not talking about a company deliberately sacrificing its workers for the common good, utilitarian-style, a group-ethics pressure to volunteer doing helpful, but life-threatening work still requires a personal decision, and that decision is still a heroic act—even if it may be embedded in the cultural tradition, and expected in times of need. And, as the article points out, it is not unique to the Japanese tradition.

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Update on the “Fukushima 50” March 19, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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The Guardian writes,

… plant workers, emergency services personnel and scientists have been battling for the past week to restore the pumping of water to the Fukushima nuclear plant and to prevent a meltdown at one of the reactors. A team of about 300 workers – wearing masks, goggles and protective suits sealed with duct tape and known as the Fukushima 50 because they work in shifts of 50-strong groups – have captured the attention of the Japanese who have taken heart from the toil inside the wrecked atom plant. “My eyes well with tears at the thought of the work they are doing,” Kazuya Aoki, a safety official at Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told Reuters.

Little is known about this band of heroes, except for the few whose relatives have spoken to the Japanese media. One woman said that her father, who had worked for an electricity company for 40 years and who was due to retire in September, had volunteered. “I feel it’s my mission to help,” he told his daughter.

On Wednesday, the government raised the cumulative legal limit of radiation that the Fukushima workers could be exposed to from 100 to 250 millisieverts. That is more than 12 times the annual legal limit for workers dealing with radiation under British law. Each team works as fast as possible for the briefest of periods. The pilots of the helicopters used to “water-bomb” the plant have been restricted to missions lasting less than 40 minutes.

Nevertheless, the workers have not only managed to link a power cable to one of the plant’s reactors, No 2, but they have also connected diesel generators to the No 5 and No 6 reactors, which have so far not suffered serious damage. “If they are successful in getting the cooling infrastructure up and running, that will be a significant step forward in establishing stability,” said Eric Moore, a nuclear power expert at US-based FocalPoint Consulting Group. However, the government has conceded that it was too slow in dealing with the crisis at Fukushima. Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said that “in hindsight, we could have moved a little quicker in assessing the situation and co-ordinating all that information, and provided it faster”.

The fires at Fukushima have also triggered serious criticism of the plant’s design. The decision to place storage tanks close to reactors has been pinpointed as a key design error. When those reactors caught fire, they quickly triggered reactions in the storage tanks which themselves caught fire, and so the fires spread.

Altruism Unfolding March 17, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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A moving story is unfolding at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan: a group of engineers (now becoming known as “the Fukushima 50” although there appear to be close to 200 individuals) who were ordered out of the structure have volunteered to keep working, at levels of radiation that may be lethal. Assuming the the story is as reported, the workers’ willingness to do the right thing while risking their lives deserves to be mentioned as a case where reality matches, or even outdoes fictional narratives of self-sacrifice.

From BBC:

One woman told the papers her father, who had worked for an electric company for 40 years, had volunteered to help.

He was due to retire in September.

“The future of the nuclear plant depends on how we resolve this crisis,” he was reported to have told his daughter. “I feel it’s my mission to help.”

The workers might be faceless heroes for the moment, but their bravery has won them the admiration of many Japanese.

“They are sacrificing themselves for the Japanese people,” says Fukuda Kensuke, a white collar worker in Tokyo. “I feel really grateful to those who continue to work there.”

“They’re putting their life on the line,” agrees Maeda Akihiro. “If that place explodes, it’s the end for all of us, so all I can do is send them encouragement.”

From New York Post/AP:

“My dad went to the Nuclear Plant. I never heard my mother cry so hard. People at the plant are struggling, sacrificing themselves to protect you. Please dad come back alive,” read a tweet by Twitter user @nekkonekonyaa.

“My husband is working knowing he could be radiated,” said one woman, according to ABC News.

He told her via email, “Please continue to live well. I cannot be home for awhile.”

An email from the daughter of one volunteered was shared on Japanese TV and read, “My father is still working at the plant — they are running out of food…we think conditions are really tough. He says he’s accepted his fate…much like a death sentence.”

The nearly 200 workers are rotated in and out of the danger zone in groups of 50, taking turns eating and sleeping in a decontaminated area about the size of an average living room.

I will update the story here, and also through Twitter.

Patricia Churchland at Book Works March 9, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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A quick message for interested San Diegans: Patricia Churchland will be doing a reading Thursday evening , March 10:

In “Braintrust,” Patricia Churchland, professor emeritus of philosophy at UCSD, uses neuroscience to question accepted wisdom about the origins of morality.

She will be at Book Works in Del Mar Thursday at 7 p.m. for a reading.

From a San Diego Union Tribune interview:

What is new about the hypothesis you are offering?

As I see it, moral values are rooted in family values displayed by all mammals — the caring for offspring. The evolved structure, processes, and chemistry of the brain incline humans to strive not only for self-preservation but for the well-being of allied selves — first offspring, then mates, kin, and so on, in wider and wider “caring” circles.

Separation and exclusion cause pain, and the company of loved ones causes pleasure; responding to feelings of social pain and pleasure, brains adjust their circuitry to local customs. In this way, caring is apportioned, conscience molded, and moral intuitions instilled.

A key part of the story is oxytocin, an ancient body-and-brain molecule that, by decreasing the stress response, allows humans to develop the trust in one another necessary for the development of close-knit ties, social institutions, and morality.

Read more here.

The Winner is Watson February 17, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Artificial Intelligence, Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science, Technology.
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So it has finally happened: a computer has outwitted the humans—Watson won on “Jeopardy.” As reported by the New York Times’ John Markoff,

For I.B.M., the showdown was not merely a well-publicized stunt and a $1 million prize, but proof that the company has taken a big step toward a world in which intelligent machines will understand and respond to humans, and perhaps inevitably, replace some of them.

Watson, specifically, is a “question answering machine” of a type that artificial intelligence researchers have struggled with for decades — a computer akin to the one on “Star Trek” that can understand questions posed in natural language and answer them.

One of Watson’s developers, Dr. Ferrucci, refers to the computer as though it is a person who actually deliberates. That,  for you Trekkers,  is also reminiscent of numerous Star Trek episodes:

Both Mr. Jennings and Mr. Rutter are accomplished at anticipating the light that signals it is possible to “buzz in,” and can sometimes get in with virtually zero lag time. The danger is to buzz too early, in which case the contestant is penalized and “locked out” for roughly a quarter of a second.

Watson, on the other hand, does not anticipate the light, but has a weighted scheme that allows it, when it is highly confident, to buzz in as quickly as 10 milliseconds, making it very hard for humans to beat. When it was less confident, it buzzed more slowly. In the second round, Watson beat the others to the buzzer in 24 out of 30 Double Jeopardy questions.

“It sort of wants to get beaten when it doesn’t have high confidence,” Dr. Ferrucci said. “It doesn’t want to look stupid.”

And what’s next?

For I.B.M., the future will happen very quickly, company executives said. On Thursday it plans to announce that it will collaborate with Columbia University and the University of Maryland to create a physician’s assistant service that will allow doctors to query a cybernetic assistant. The company also plans to work with Nuance Communications Inc. to add voice recognition to the physician’s assistant, possibly making the service available in as little as 18 months.

“I have been in medical education for 40 years and we’re still a very memory-based curriculum,” said Dr. Herbert Chase, a professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University who is working with I.B.M. on the physician’s assistant. “The power of Watson- like tools will cause us to reconsider what it is we want students to do.”

I.B.M. executives also said they are in discussions with a major consumer electronics retailer to develop a version of Watson, named after I.B.M.’s founder, Thomas J. Watson, that would be able to interact with consumers on a variety of subjects like buying decisions and technical support.

But…here’s the ultimate Star Trek question: Will Watson and others of its kind have the right to refuse the tasks they will be assigned to do? Because otherwise (thank you, Melissa Snodgrass, writer of that classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Measure of a Man”) we will have created a new breed of—slaves. Provided that Watson actually develops a sense of self. But we have yet to see evidence of that. 🙂

Imagining John Lennon December 8, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Art and Music, Culture, Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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Today we should commemorate another passing, but this one lies 30 years in the past. Dec.8, 1980, John Lennon was murdered. For my generation it is a date we remember, always, because of Lennon’s standing as a cultural personality, as well as the symbolism of his passing. Now Rolling Stone Magazine has published his final interview with audio clips. For those of you who were around on that winter’s day in 1980, it may remind you of how so many of us felt. For those of you for whom this is ancient history, maybe this will give you a bit of a feel for why Lennon was such a significant person—even a philosopher, as some would call him, and why his death was so devastating for an entire generation. Some of us see the world through different eyes now, but that doesn’t mean his words have stopped resonating, because they came from the heart of a great artist.

Here is what MTV has to say today:

It was 30 years ago today that former Beatle John Lennon was murdered by a crazed fan outside his home in New York. To mark that tragic event, fans around the world are planning commemorations of the singer’s life and legacy on Wednesday (December 8), remembering his message of peace and love and paying tribute to one of the premier songwriters of the modern era.

As part of that celebration of Lennon’s life, Rolling Stone magazine has devoted its final 2010 issue to a nine-hour interview the singer did just three days before his death on December 8, 1980. Select excerpts from the interview writer Jonathan Cott conducted with Lennon ran in a tribute issue put out by the magazine in January 1981, but the full talk sat on a shelf in Cott’s closet for nearly 30 years.

In audio excerpts from the interview on Rolling Stone‘s website, Lennon laments, “I cannot live up to other people’s expectations of me, because they’re illusory,” he said of his efforts to include positive messages of hope and togetherness in his music and the pressure to live up to his legacy. “Give peace a chance, not shoot people for peace … I only put out songs and answer questions … I cannot be 18 and a be a punk … I see the world through different eyes. I still believe in love, peace and understanding, as Elvis Costello says.”

Philippa Foot in Memoriam December 6, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.
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An amazing woman philosopher has passed away. It only just now came to my attention that the British moral philosopher Philippa Foot died Oct.3, on her 90th birthday. It is primarily thanks to Foot that we today enjoy a revival and revision of Virtue Ethics. I hope to write more about Foot at a later date, but for now I will share these words from her obituary in The Guardian with you:

 The moral philosopher Philippa Foot, who has died aged 90, started a new trend in ethics. She challenged, in two seminal papers given in the late 1950s, the prevailing Oxbridge orthodoxy of AJ Ayer and Richard Hare; and, for the next few decades, passionate debate over her naturalism, as against Hare’s prescriptivism, occupied most moral philosophers in Britain and America. She was also one of the pioneers of virtue ethics, a key development in philosophy from the 1970s onwards.

From her essay Moral Beliefs (1958) to the collection Moral Dilemmas (2002), and throughout her academic life at Oxford and universities in North America, she was always passionate that “the grounding of a moral argument is ultimately in facts about human life” and in what it is rational for humans to want.

In the 1950s she had begun, along with Anscombe, to shift the focus away from what makes an isolated action good or bad, to the Aristotelian concentration on what makes a person good or bad in the long-term. Morality, she argued, is about how to live – not so much a series of logically consistent, well-calculated decisions as a lifetime endeavour to become the sort of person who habitually and happily does virtuous things. And “virtuous”, for Foot, meant well-rounded and human. She condemned as moral faults “the kind of timidity, conventionality and wilful self-abnegation that may spoil no one’s life but one’s own”, advocating “hope and a readiness to accept good things”.

Foot continued, and modified, her onslaught on subjectivism in ethics throughout her life. She also attacked utilitarian theories, which see goodness as a matter of actions’ consequences, and tend to equate the badness of failing to prevent an evil outcome with perpetrating it. In a paper on abortion (The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect, 1967), she used what became a much-cited example to pinpoint fine distinctions in moral permissibility where an action has both good and bad results – the dilemma facing the driver of a suddenly brakeless trolley-bus that would hit five people unless he steered it on to another track into only one person.

Unlike many philosophers, Foot never strained our basic intuitions in the interests of pursuing some wild theory to its (il)logical conclusion. She said that, in doing philosophy, she felt like a geologist tapping away with a tiny hammer on a huge cliff. But her resolute tapping hit many fault-lines and reduced several inflated edifices. “Very tender and adorable, yet morally tough and subtle, and with lots of will and self-control,” was how Murdoch described her.

John Tyner’s Junk November 22, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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I am really unmoved by all the flap about TSA’s new screening procedures. I am especially unmoved by the much praised John Tyner. The very people who are complaining so much about intrusive pat-downs will be the first to complain if there is a successful terrorist attack. I agree with Jacques Berlinerblau:

Reading through the professions of outrage over the TSA’s new passenger screening procedures, I experienced a series of painful flashbacks. Listening to Mr. John Tyner (now viralized, lionized, and perhaps soon to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor) liken a pre-flight pat down to “a sexual assault” and expounding on the integrity of his “junk” evoked a flood of really bad grad-school memories.

Before I start reminiscing, let me get something off my chest: I too really hate those pesky security checks at airports. I hate the snaking lines. I hate taking off my cuff links. I absolutely hate it when the TSA dude confiscates my 14-ounce bottle of contact-lens fluid.

But you know what else I really hate? I hate when my plane blows up. God, I hate that!

I could have sworn that conservatives such as Charles Krauthammer and George Will and the editorial board of The Washington Times hated that as well. I always liked that about conservatives.

But what is revealed by their reactions to “Nutgate”—a Google search leads me to believe that I invented this term and I’m insisting upon paternity because it works on so many levels—is the degree to which anti-government ideology has replaced “national security” as the new coin of the conservative realm.

In this mindset, the TSA agent represents a government (with a Democrat at its head) bent on molesting law-abiding citizens. The guy prattling on about his genitals is depicted as a folk hero and a patriot (as guys who talk about such things often are).

But my question is this: Do we have any reason to believe that the TSA’s procedures overestimate the ruthlessness and resolve of our enemies?

Juan Cole explains why all of this is foolish:

The old scanners and procedures designed to discover metal (guns, knives, bombs with timers or detonators) are helpless before a relatively low-tech alternative kind of explosive that is favored by al-Qaeda and similar groups.

The inspectors are looking for forms of PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, which is from the same family of explosives as nitroglycerin and which is used to make plastic explosives such as Semtex.

Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, used PETN, as did Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the crotch bomber, last year this time over Detroit. PETN was in the HP cartridges sent by a Yemeni terrorist in cargo planes recently. And, a suicide bomber put some up his anus and used it in an attempt to assassinate the son of the Saudi minister of the interior (which does counter-terrorism). Yes, he was the first ass bomber, and he missed his target, though he no longer cares about that, what with being dead and all.

The problem with PETN is that it cannot be detected by sniffing dogs or by ordinary scanners. But if you had a pouch of it on your person, the new scanners could see the pouch, and likewise a thorough pat-down would lead to its discovery.

The TSA guys are trying to look more systematically for PETN. That is why they have adopted these more intrusive methods. And, there has been chatter among the terrorist groups abroad about launching attacks on American airliners with this relatively undetectable explosive.

None of us likes the result, which is a significant invasion of privacy.

But if al-Qaeda and its sympathizers could manage to blow up only a few airliners with PETN, they could have a significant negative effect on the economy and could very possibly drive some American airlines into bankruptcy. Al-Qaeda is about using small numbers of men and low-tech techniques to paralyze a whole civilization, which was the point of the September 11 attacks.

Since the Bush administration hyped the ‘war on terror’ trope half to death, many in the American public no longer want to hear about this danger. But it is part of my business in life to deliver the horrific news that the threat is real.

The question is really what level of risk Americans are willing to live with. On the one hand, studies suggest that the crotch bomber could not really have brought down the airliner over Detroit last year, even if he had been able to detonate his payload. And, 500 million Europeans decline to take off their shoes when they travel by air, but there haven’t been any successful shoe bombings over there, nevertheless.

On the other hand, it would only take a few small teams making a concerted effort at bombing airliners, to spook travelers and consumers. With the US at risk of a double dip recession, this moment might appeal to al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda wannabes to strike. Al-Qaeda in Yemen is openly talking of a low-tech, high-explosive war against US economic interests, a war of a thousand cuts. Its planned method? PETN-based mail bombs.

I doubt it is possible to outlaw or control PETN. The only alternative to looking for it systematically on air passengers and in cargo would be to just take a chance that no al-Qaeda operatives will be able successfully to detonate a PETN based explosive on an airliner.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

The Death Penalty and Teresa Lewis September 22, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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Let’s talk about the death penalty. A final appeal has just been denied by the Supreme Court, and a convicted criminal is headed for execution Thursday night. Such denials of appeals happen on a regular basis, but this one is a little different—and I’m not talking about the fact that the criminal, in this case, is a woman. If we want equality, well, there it is: If a man can get executed for being the mastermind of a murder-for-hire (and he can), so can a woman. No, it is the fact that this case goes against the recent tendency in the legal discussion to reserve the death penalty for the “worst of the worst,” if the death penalty is to be imposed at all.

If you are opposed to the death penalty, there is no particular reason to look more closely at this case, because all executions are, to you, morally wrong, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the person on Death Row, their age, their mental capacity, their remorse or lack of it, etc. Still, the case provides another opportunity to argue why capital punishment is wrong per se. If you’d like to share such arguments here as comments, feel free. But if you are in favor of the death penalty, this case deserves your attention, because Teresa Lewis doesn’t seem to fit the category of “the worst of the worst”—not like serial killers Ted Bundy (executed), or Robert Yates (awaiting execution), or the Green River Killer Gary Ridgway with his scores of murders (serving life without, because he made a plea deal). She hired a man (who happened to be her lover) to kill her husband and stepson. Before he killed himself in prison, he apparently stated in an interview that he had put pressure on her to go through with it, because he needed the money. Both he and a second hired shooter got life because of plea deals.  And it appears that Lewis’s mental capacity, while not reaching the criterion of being legally “diminished,” is still on the low side with an IQ of 72, making her sense of judgment more like that of a 13-year old.  She has no prior history of violence, and she apparently has shown genuine remorse during her years in prison.

I can’t claim to be familiar with the ins and outs of this case, because it just came to my attention, but after reading a number of news stories about Lewis, it seems to me that we’re definitely not talking about the “worst of the worst.” From a utilitarian point of view she would  present no danger to the general prison population, if  her sentence were commuted to life.  From a deontological point of view, justice must be done, but wouldn’t justice be served as well with her in prison, since that was the sentence given to the actual gunmen who may have influenced her decision? Her guilt is not in doubt, but her role as sole instigator may be.

There are many things I don’t know about this case; were D.A.s and judges up for reelection while it was going on? I have no idea. If they were, would it matter to their voters if they were tough on crime? I don’t know. I will assume that the trial had no elements that would make us question the motivations of the court, other than justice. But it seems to me that, contrary to that other infamous killer who took the life of his wife and their unborn baby/3rd trimester fetus, Scott Peterson, who didn’t have a history of violence, either, and who was sentenced to death, Lewis seems like a person who might be manipulated. Not a person of good intentions (or, as her lawyer says, “a good and decent human person”) at the time of the crimes, to be sure, but not a manipulative master mind, either. Still, within the legal parameters of capital punishment, we’re probably not talking about a miscarriage of justice if this woman is put to death—but might this not be an appropriate occasion to consider mercy?

According to author John Grisham, in a Washington Post article earlier this month,

Such inconsistencies mock the idea that ours is a system grounded in equality before the law.

In this case, as in so many capital cases, the imposition of a death sentence had little do with fairness. Like other death sentences, it depended more upon the assignment of judge and prosecutor, the location of the crime, the quality of the defense counsel, the speed with which a co-defendant struck a deal, the quality of each side’s experts and other such factors.

In Virginia, the law is hardly consistent. There have been other cases with similar facts — a wife and her lover scheme to kill her husband for his money or for life insurance proceeds. But there is no precedent for the wife being sentenced to death.

Your thoughts?

Race and Gender Cannot Explain Increasing Inequality September 14, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Uncategorized.
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As I have noted often on this blog, inequality—the Great Divergence—has increased rather dramatically in the U.S.

The question is why, a question Timothy Noah is attempting answer in his series of articles at Slate.

Most discussion about inequality in the United States focuses on race and gender. That makes sense, because our society has a conspicuous history of treating blacks differently from whites and women differently from men. Black/white and male/female inequality persist to this day. The median annual income for women working full time is 23 percent lower than for their male counterparts. The median annual income for black families is 38 percent lower than for their white counterparts. The extent to which these imbalances involve lingering racism and sexism or more complex matters of sociology and biology is a topic of much anguished and heated debate.

But we need not delve into that debate, because the Great Divergence can’t be blamed on either race or gender. To contribute to the growth in income inequality over the past three decades, the income gaps between women and men, and between blacks and whites, would have to have grown. They didn’t.

The black/white gap in median family income has stagnated; it’s a mere three percentage points smaller today than it was in 1979. This lack of progress is dismaying. So is the apparent trend that, during the current economic downturn, the black/white income gap widened somewhat. But the black/white income gap can’t be a contributing factor to the Great Divergence if it hasn’t grown over the past three decades. And even if it had grown, there would be a limit to how much impact it could have on the national income-inequality trend, because African-Americans constitute only 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Women constitute half the U.S. population, but they can’t be causing the Great Divergence because the male-female wage gap has shrunk by nearly half. Thirty years ago the median annual income for women working full-time was not 23 percent less than men’s, but 40 percent less. Most of these gains occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s; during the past five years they halted. But there’s every reason to believe the male-female income gap will continue to narrow in the future, if only because in the U.S. women are now better educated than men. Ever since the late 1990s female students have outnumbered male students at colleges and universities. The female-male ratio is currently 57 to 43, and the U.S. Department of Education expects that disparity to increase over the next decade.

Far from contributing to the Great Divergence, women have, to a remarkable degree, absented themselves from it.  […] during the past three decades, women have outperformed men at all education levels in the workforce. Both men and women have (in the aggregate) been moving out of moderately skilled jobs—secretary, retail sales representative, steelworker, etc.—women more rapidly than men. But women have been much more likely than men to shift upward into higher skilled jobs—from information technology engineer and personnel manager on up through various high-paying professions that require graduate degrees (doctor, lawyer, etc.).

These findings suggest that women’s relative gains in the workplace are not solely a You’ve-Come-a-Long-Way-Baby triumph of the feminist movement and individual pluck. They also reflect downward mobility among men.

And as Noah reports, conservative arguments that inequality is a product of single parents or the breakdown in the family also don’t wash.

But it would be difficult to attribute much of the Great Divergence to single parenthood, because it increased mostly before 1980, when the Great Divergence was just getting under way. By the early 1990s, the growth trend halted altogether, and though it resumed in the aughts the rate of growth was significantly slower.

Also, single parenthood isn’t as damaging economically as it was at the start of the Great Divergence. “That’s mostly because the percentage of women who are actually working who are single parents went up,” Jencks told me. In a January 2008 paper, three Harvard sociologists concluded that the two-thirds rise in income inequality among families with children from 1975 to 2005 could not be attributed to divorce and out-of-wedlock births. “Single parenthood increased inequality,” they conceded, “but the income gap was closed by mothers who entered the labor force.” One trend canceled the effects of another (at least in the aggregate).

So there is little evidence supporting either liberal or conservative arguments regarding increases in inequality.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com