Whole > Parts

The community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting as it were its members . The interest of the community then is, what is it?—the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it.

This quote is from the first chapter of An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation* by Jeremy Bentham, the original utilitarian. If I read him aright, he’s saying that if you know all of the facts about the members of a group, then you know all of the facts about the group; a whole can only have qualities which its members have.

This view makes intuitive sense. For instance, when we talk about red states vs. blue states, we’re really just making a generalization about the whole state based on the political allegiances of its member-citizens (i.e. that they are predominantly Republican or Democrat). Or when we say that a town is poor, that’s just a shorthand for saying that its individual residents are poor (whether in terms of their individual finances or in terms of their share of the town’s budget). As British PM Margaret Thatcher famously said,

…who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women…

However, this view is wrong. It is false that a group cannot have a quality which none of its members have. Here are some examples of cases where a group does have qualities which cannot be found in any of its individual members.

1. Systemic Racism

Suppose that we look at the rates at which Americans who’ve applied for a job successfully get that job, and we compare between white Americans and black Americans. Suppose we find that a white American gets a job they’ve applied for about 50% of the time, while a black American gets a job they’ve applied for about 25% of the time. In this case, black Americans as a whole have half the chance of landing a job as white Americans. But there is no individual black American whom we can measure as having a 25% chance of landing a job they’ve applied for, and no white American we can measure as having a 50% chance: individual persons either get hired, or they don’t. The rates of successful application become visible only when we look at the population as a whole.

2. Wage Labor

…the worker, whose only source of income is the sale of his labour-power, cannot leave the whole class of buyers, i.e., the capitalist class, unless he gives up his own existence. He does not belong to this or that capitalist, but to the capitalist class; and it is for him to find his man – i.e., to find a buyer in this capitalist class. (Karl Marx, Wage Labor and Capital)

So when you view the relationship between a laborer and any individual capitalist, it appears that laborers are free to sell their labor or not. However, when you consider the relationship of the laborer to the capitalist class as a whole, you see that the laborer is beholden to them even though he is not beholden to any one in particular.

3. Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering is a political tactic which trades on the fact that the electorate, rather than being one big ocean of voters, is divided into districts which each elect their own representatives. Basically, you draw the borders of voting districts in such a way as to either concentrate or dilute certain populations, e.g. splitting a primarily-black neighborhood into five different, primarily-white districts, like the center of a pie. Here’s the thing: if Bentham’s right that the qualities of the whole (in Wikipedia’s example below, a state) are be nothing other than the sum of the qualities of the individuals (in Wikipedia’s example below, voters), then gerrymandering shouldn’t work, because it doesn’t change any facts about the constituent individuals. It only changes their relationships to one another and to the whole.**


Screenshot from 2013-08-19 00:32:33

The kernel of truth that I think Bentham was correctly getting at is that a group with no members is empty and cannot have qualities.*** But that is different from the claim he actually made, which is that a group has no qualities other than the qualities of its individual members.

Another way of stating my point is to say that relationships are real: relations between members of a group are as real as the members themselves. A pile of severed fingers and palm are not the same thing as a hand; a pile of rubble is not the same as a house; a community at civil war with itself is not the same as a community at war with an external force. And a whole is not identical to the sum of its parts; if it were, the word “whole” would be meaningless.

*Which I’ll just note in passing construes, in the title and in the text, morals and legislation to be intimately connected.

**One (I’m thinking of libertarians here) might respond to this example by saying that the problem disappears if we just get rid of arbitrary voting districts and only hold state-wide votes. But the problem doesn’t disappear, because elections are winner-take-all (so e.g. if 51% of the state electorate votes to outlaw abortion, then the state as a whole will have chosen to outlaw abortion; the dissenting 49%, in effect, ceases to exist in terms of actual policy). A shorter way of saying all this: the larger the group of people you’re trying to coordinate, the more you’ll have to simplify their individual preferences–which, again, means that there’s a dissimilarity between the whole community and its individual members.

***This makes me think of Descartes, who thought that consciousness was a non-physical thing (in the way that a table or mountain is a thing). Douglas Hofstadter has argued on the contrary that consciousness is not a thing but a process composed of things (like a hurricane is composed of air and water).


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