An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2002

Beyond compassion: selfish reasons for being unselfish

Orlando Patterson
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Orlando Patterson, John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, has long been interested in the comparative study of slavery; the study of its antithesis, freedom; and the study of socioeconomic underdevelopment with special reference to Jamaica and the Caribbean Basin. His 1991 study “Freedom” received the National Book Award. In the past decade, Patterson has shifted the focus of his research to contemporary America with special emphasis on the intersecting problems of race, immigration, and multiculturalism, publishing most recently “Rituals of Blood: The Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries” (1999). He has been a Fellow of the American Academy since 1991.

America has developed an unusual class system. It is a highly competitive society in which the majority of players are winners, but in which the winners to an increasing degree take all, or nearly all. This is the best of all possible worlds for the majority of winners. But for the losers, especially those at the bottom, it is the worst of all possible worlds. It means that, even as inequality grows, the dominant value legitimizing, as well as driving, America’s enormously successful social economy–the conviction that anyone can make it if they only try hard enough, and that failure is a reflection of character–is believed by the majority, which has its own successes to prove it.

Paradoxically, the great majority of Americans continue to espouse the ideal of equality. Surveys indicate that the commitment is genuine and plays an important role in the struggle of disadvantaged groups to improve their lot.1 Still, as Sidney Verba and Gary Orren concluded fifteen years ago, “The United States ranks among the most open and participatory of modern democracies when it comes to politics and among the least egalitarian when it comes to economic matters.”2

How do Americans reconcile their egalitarianism with the realities of extreme inequality and rampant poverty in the midst of affluence? Partly by separating economic life from egalitarian ideals, confining the latter to the domain of the personal and political; and partly through widespread denial about the realities of inequality. As Jennifer Hochschild found, “almost all [Americans] define themselves as members of the middle class, no matter how poor or rich they are.”3

Above all, Americans seem to be confused about the notion of equality, and either naive or hypocritical about the relationship between equity and the economic system. It is hard to know what else to make of findings such as the following: “Although few Americans are willing to blame the poor for their plight, even fewer blame the economic system for making them poor.”4 The problem, I want to argue, lies in the very idea of equality itself, and in our failure to find ways of reconciling modern American conceptions of it with the individualist indeterminism that is the foundation of America’s successful capitalist system.  .  .  .

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  • 1Herbert McClosky and John Zaller, The American Ethos: Public Attitudes toward Capitalism and Democracy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), chap. 3.
  • 2Sidney Verba and Gary Orren, Equality in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985), chap. 1.
  • 3Jennifer Hochschild, What’s Fair? American Beliefs about Distributive Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), 143 and chap. 5 passim.
  • 4McClosky and Zaller, The American Ethos, 125.