There is a good article in the Guardian by Selina Todd on the tension between social mobility and equality. Written in the context of a disagreement between Conservative and Labour Party policies on education, it argues against social mobility and in favour of equality.

This post asks about the underlying values which might make us approve of one or the other, and argues that there is an essential difference between secular and religious perspectives.

Todd tells us that

social mobility reinforces social inequality… the social mobility agenda assumes we’re stuck with a hierarchical society…
The social mobility agenda has been lamentably unambitious. Its focus on the talented few offers no hope for the many.

There is also a short video arguing that social mobility depends on equality but undermines it.

Of course, every parent wants their child to do as well as possible in their lives, and interprets ‘doing well’ in terms of the values they themselves have learned.

That, characteristically, will mean their child moves up the social ladder. But we can’t all do that. For everyone who moves up, someone else will move down. That’s what social mobility is about.

The argument for it is that the most talented people will get to the top. So why should we want the talented to get to the top? Why should we want a top at all, rather than a more equal society?

The usual reason is that, if our society is to achieve its objectives, the big decisions need to be made by the most talented people.

So who decides what our social objectives are? For what purpose do we want the big decisions made by the most talented people? What are we – as a society – trying to achieve?

This is where secular and religious philosophies diverge.

The secular agenda

If there is no God – or if God is irrelevant to public affairs, as secularism insists – the big decisions have to be made on a god-free basis. This means presuming that humanity has evolved in obedience to impersonal, automatic laws of nature; that our environment is not consciously designed, let alone designed for our well-being.

Once this is accepted as the basis for society’s main objectives, it follows that the quality of our lives depends on our wits: how can we manipulate our circumstances to make our lives as pleasant as possible?

Our social objectives are therefore established in terms of conflict between ‘us’ and our environment. However we define ‘us’, the task is a technical one. We need to maximise the knowledge and power we have between us.

Science and technology. The quality of life, for all of us, will depend on the expertise of those who best understand how to manipulate the environment.

As long as we buy into this picture of the human condition it will seem logical to invest heavily in the most talented people and keep them sweet by giving them everything they ask for. As for those who do not have the skills to contribute at all, we shouldn’t waste resources on them.

When we spell it out like this we can see the dangers.

  • By over-empowering an elite it disempowers others. People of my generation, who entered employment in the 1970s, have seen how, in profession after profession, a job which once carried decision-making responsibility and presupposed the capacity to make wise judgements in unscripted situations, ended up being a box-ticking exercise to follow precise instructions handed down from above.
  • There is no limit to the amounts of wealth and power people will demand when they are stuck on this pedestal. We end up putting our trust in the untrustworthy. Usually, anyway, they are more lucky than talented.
  • The elite do not necessarily act in the interests of ordinary people. The further their lifestyles and self-image are separated from those of other people, the greater their tendency to misjudge other people’s needs. We can all think of politicians, celebrities and media barons whose beliefs illustrate the point.
  • Those who don’t contribute to the big agenda – the disabled, elderly, etc. – are then dismissed as more of a hindrance than a help. It seems that society would be better off without them.

The religious agenda

The religious alternative avoids these pitfalls. When we start with the presumption that humanity, and our environment, are products of intentional design.

The quality of our lives then depends on the intentions behind the design. This has been a matter of theological debate for millennia. For what follows I presume the kind of benign monotheism characterised by Judaism, Christianity and Islam and also common elsewhere. We might have been created by evil or stupid gods, but theologies like that have been debated for millennia and found wanting. I take it that, as the first chapter of Genesis emphasises, our existence is a deliberate act of blessing.

There are two immediate implications, both of which contrast with the secular alternative.

First, our quality of life does not depend on our wits. The ‘us against the environment’ agenda is not needed at all – which is just as well, in the light of the destruction we’re causing. Good quality of life is on offer without any need to manipulate the environment. Therefore we do not need to pick out the most highly talented and put them in charge of everyone else. A hierarchical society is not necessary.

Second, we are given an alternative evaluation of human life. If everybody is created by God as an act of blessing, the value of human life has its source in this blessing. As God loves us equally, it follows that we are all equally valuable.

To improve our quality of life, therefore, what we most need to do is not technological or scientific. It is moral – to care for other people for their own sakes, as God cares for them, regardless of how talented they may be.

To address all that is wrong in our lives, we should stop taking for granted that we are fine and the world around us is flawed. Instead we should recognise that the world around us is a generous gift but our own expectations and desires are sometimes flawed. We should seek a society with less competition and more co-operation - where nothing is more worthwhile than to make sure everybody’s needs are met. Because nothing is more godly than to bless others as we have been blessed.