The Enlightenment of the 18th century opened up the floodgates of new ideas, new thoughts on everything from the way man saw government and his own role in society to the way scientific ideas were conceived, demonstrated, and above all, published and shared with the world. During this period there arose three major areas of concern for the philosopher: the discovery of the underlying laws which govern society, the proper structure of government, and dissemination of knowledge of the material world.
Newton began his career with mathematics work that would eventually evolve into the entire field of calculus. From there, he conducted experiments in physics and math that revealed a number of natural laws that had previously been credited to divine forces. After Newton’s discovery of the laws that governed nature it was believed that through reasoning it would be possible for one to look past the traditions and conventions that had dominated Europe in the past, and to make decisions for oneself – to discover the laws that governed society.
It was believed that through the use of rationality and improved technology there would be progressive improvement of people’s lives both in terms of physical comfort and intellectual sophistication. Denis Diderot recruited a group of intellectuals in France to write and publish the first systematic encyclopedia of human knowledge. This group hoped to enlighten the public by encouraging critical thinking, promoting scientific research and by publishing information people could use to understand their world and improve their existence.
The Enlightenment writers were concerned about the inequality of the existing system and introduced questioning and critical thinking to replace the dead weight of tradition and challenge the blind faith in institutions. The philosophers wanted to understand the rationale behind inequality, were particularly interested if there were natural reasons for it, or if inequality came wholly from social conventions. Voltaire criticized the class system of the time – a rigid class system based on inherited positions of nobility and wealth – as being a system exclusively dominated by aristocrats who possess all the financial, political and social power.
Charles Murray claims there is a class structure in the US based on IQ. In his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Murray promotes a trickle down value system. Rather than explain social problems in economic terms, he explains social problems in moral terms. The gap that Murray has identified is illustrated by the fact of a marriage rate of 83% in upper middle class neighbor hood compared to 48% for working class contemporaries. So instead of contributing economically, the wealthy should be contributing morally to healing a culture gap (which began with the disintegration of national values by the counterculture of the 1960s). The attack on women by the conservatives in the US is the claim that workingwomen weaken the family and its adherent social values.
Murray claims a new upper class and a new lower class in the US have diverged so far in core behaviors and values that they barely recognize their underlying American kinship – and claims divergence has nothing to do with income inequality and has grown during good economic times and bad. A new upper class with advanced education has appeared. Murray has produced a book-length argument placing responsibility for rising inequality and declining mobility on widespread decay in the moral fiber of white, lower-status, less well-educated Americans, putting relatively less emphasis on a similar social breakdown among low-status, less-educated Americans of all races. Murray alleges that those with higher IQs now exhibit personal and social behavioral choices in areas like marriage, industriousness, honesty and religiosity that allow them to enjoy secure and privileged lives. Whites in the lower social-economic strata are less cognitively able – in Murray’s view – and thus less well equipped to resist the lure of the sexual revolution and doctrines of self-actualization, so they succumb to higher rates of family dissolution, non-marital births, worklessness and criminality. This interaction between IQ and behavioral choice, in Murray’s framework, is what has led to the widening income and cultural gap.[i] In such a system, he believes, the free market must provide income to create the social processes.
Murray is the not first to propose that the plight of the poor is due to character weakness. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) advocated utilitarianism as the basis for government reforms in the early 19th century. He claimed that it was possible to decide by scientific means what was morally justifiable by applying the principles of utility. He advocated that actions were right if they tended to produce ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.’ In his day, the ‘people’ were individuals who could vote – workers at that time did not have the vote. While he died in 1832, his ideas were applied to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, with the goal to reduce the rates of poverty in the country in order to reduce the cost to the landowners.
In 19th century England most members of the working class likely slipped into poverty at some point in their lives because of such things as unemployment, sickness or old age. They had to rely on their friends, children or credit in hard times, and this was considered proper as it encouraged the poor to work. Poverty was not seen as a social problem – destitution was felt to be the result of character weakness. The Poor Law reform that reorganized the workhouses was expected to work wonders for the moral character of the workingman, because it was believed that poverty was caused by the bad habits of the poor.[ii]
When an individual fell into debt he had to report to a poorhouse, or workhouse, to live and work until he or she had paid off their debt. The poorhouse was bleak living conditions, provided with the bare essentials and bland food – the men and women were segregated so that they could not ‘breed’. The goal of an efficient workhouse was to ensure conditions within the workhouse were worse than the lowest paying jobs on the outside. Bentham’s pain pleasure principle was in play. The Poor Law did not deal with physical/mental ill health, old age, or loss of parents. This 19th century plan to instill morality into the poor was an unmitigated failure.
During the 19th century, the size of many British cities increased rapidly as a result of the industrial revolution. Housing, in turn, became overcrowded and epidemics were a major problem. After the influenza and typhoid epidemics of 1837 and 1830 Edwin Chadwick (1800-1890), a lawyer and social reformer, was asked by the government to carry out an inquiry into sanitation in Britain.
His report was published in 1842 and it claimed that disease was directly related to living conditions and that there was a desperate need for public health reform. He advocated government intervention (take steps) to protect the lives of people living in Britain’s towns and cities. He claimed that public health should be administered locally so as to encourage people to participate in their own protection. One part of his advocacy to protect and improve health included changes to building codes to protect the health of the laboring classes by amendments of existing building and regulation of new buildings to address the conditions in the towns – “in the great proportion of cases where neither private benevolence nor enlightened views can be expected to prevail extensively.”[iiii] Chadwick noted that it was necessary to address issues of sewage and good water supplies before actually being able to determine the contribution of crowded housing to health problems. He was appalled at the number of people admitted to the workhouses and became convinced that if the health of the working population could be improved then there would be a drop in the numbers of people on relief.
Chadwick used an economic argument to drive change – loss of revenue to the government because of early death of so many people. He believed that a healthier population would be able to work harder and would cost less to support, and if all of his recommendations were carried out the average life expectancy for the laboring classes would increase by at least 13 years. The report was not acted on until 1848 – following a general election, when a new government under Lord John Russell came to power. The 1848 parliament passed a Public Health Act that provided the formation of a Central Board of Health with powers to create local boards to oversee street cleaning, refuse collection, water supply and sewerage systems. This was the beginning of public health advocacy.
In spite of the scientific revolution, new ideas from science can take awhile to have an effect. Corporations have adopted the disinformation programs perfected by the tobacco industry over the past fifty years. These tactics include introducing manufactured uncertainty by raising doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence, by setting up so called independent front organizations to publically promote its desired message. This includes cherry picking scientific spokespeople whose interpretations of the peer-reviewed literature suggest to the media and the public that the debate amongst scientists continues, and the results are not definitive. Industries sponsor sophisticated research activities that include both funding of established research institutions, as well as funding of advocacy and ideological organizations to conduct disinformation campaign – leaving public and law makers confused. Finally the tobacco control movement prevailed. It took a series of regulations and taxes to address the negative effects of smoking and create the opportunity to achieve wellness or good health – a process or quest by which a person always seeks and moves towards their own full potential.
Once the reality of the consequences of the economic debacle of 2008 set in that the pleasant retirement and the promise that one’s children would have a better life than their parents had been destroyed, many became angry and disillusioned. For the first time in history middle class children will likely end up poorer than their parents. The Occupy Wall Street protesters are connected by the anger of the common person against the banks for manipulating the system and nearly tanking the economy. Their manifesto becomes a list of items for corporations to clean up and become accountable. This includes rolling back the widespread tactics of misinformation that originated with the tobacco industry, and promote the political will to transform the system in fundamental ways.
In the second decade of the 21st century we now realize the middle class has been stripped of jobs, income, and security. We need to replace socioeconomic status with class as the significant structural factor in determining health. Class represents structural characteristics of society. Recently the structural class perspective is rapidly increasing. Social inequalities, such as income, are a consequence of structural change in class power. It is about the rise of business power and the decline in labor power (as part of the era of globalization) along with the attacks of the “new right” on the welfare state – consequently there is a rapid rise in social, income and health inequalities. The global class system (now considered the new aristocracy) is described as a system in which privileged groups in both developed and developing countries act (often in concert) to protect their own position at the expense of others. Under globalization the dominant business class no longer needs to accommodate citizen pressures within national boundaries.
The accumulated impacts of human activity over the past two centuries are now threatening our continued well-being. Under The Four Systems Conditions identified by scientists: “The problem is not the mining of heavy metals, or the use of chemicals or compounds produced by society or disruption of natural process, or even temporarily interfering with people’s capacity to meet their basic needs (unemployment). It is, rather, our industrial system has developed so that substances extracted from the earth and produced by society will continue to build up indefinitely in natural systems. This means a progressive build up of pollutants and substances that not only harm us directly but damage natural processes that have taken billions of years to develop.”[iv]
Today economics trumps politics – the trickle down economics belief system supports industrial and environmental deregulation for job growth. Scientific information that should be used to make decisions on sustainability is manipulated or hampered by underfunding of regulators and through the influence of lobbyists. Consequently there are many toxins (such as endocrine disruptors) in the environment that the majority of people are unknowingly exposed to. The harshest costs of modern economic practices fall upon ecosystems and populations with little current economic power or value, including generations not yet born. In thirty short years this economic system has created a class system in Canada and the US with increasing inequality between the wealthy and the rest of society. Class, now an important social determinant of health, needs to be addressed to ensure the social mobility necessary for all individuals have an opportunity to reach their potential.
[i] Edsall, Thomas B. “What to do about ‘Coming Apart.’ (12 February 2012 New York Times. <http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/what-to-do-about-coming-apart/>.
[ii] “Jeremy Bentham.” <http://www.historyhome.co.uk/people/bentham.htm>.
[iii] Chadwick, Sir Edwin. Inquiry into the Conditions of the Poor. (184)
[iv] “The Four Systems Conditions.” <http://www.thenaturalstep.org/en/canada/the-system-conditions>.