2006 : WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

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Science Writer; Consultant; Lecturer, Copenhagen; Author, The Generous Man
Social Relativity

Relativity is my dangerous idea. Well, neither the special nor the general theory of relativity, but what could be called social relativity: The idea that the only thing that matters to human well-being is how one stands relatively to others. That is, only the relative wealth of a person is important, the absolute level does not really matter, as soon as everyone is above the level of having their immediate survival needs fulfilled.

There is now strong and consistent evidence (from fields such as microeconomics, experimental economics, psychology, sociolology and primatology) that it doesn't really matter how much you earn, as long as you earn more than your wife's sister's husband. Pioneers in these discussions are the late British social thinker Fred Hirsch and the American economist Robert Frank.

Why is this idea dangerous? It seems to imply that equality will never become possible in human societies: The driving force is always to get ahead of the rest. Nobody will ever settle down and share.

So it would seem that we are forever stuck with poverty, disease and unjust hierarchies. This idea could make the rich and the smart lean back and forget about the rest of the pack.

But it shouldn't.

Inequality may subjectively seem nice to the rich, but objectively it is not in their interest.

A huge body of epidemiological evidence points to the fact that inequality is in fact the prime cause for human disease. Rich people in poor countries are more healthy than poor people in rich countries, even though the latter group has more resources in absolute terms. Societies with strong gradients of wealth show higher death rates and more disease, also amongst the people at the top. Pioneers in these studies are the British epidemiologists Michael Marmot and Richard Wilkinson.

Poverty means spreading of disease, degradation of ecosystems and social violence and crime — which are also bad for the rich. Inequality means stress to everyone.

Social relativity then boils down to an illusion: It seems nice to me to be better off than the rest, but in terms of vitals — survival, good health — it is not.

Believing in social relativity can be dangerous to your health.