Moving Up without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility, by Jennifer Morton (Princeton University Press),£22.00/$26.95
Jennifer Morton’s Moving Up without Losing Your Way focuses on upward social mobility though education. Morton’s central claim is that we need to be more aware of the costs of upward mobility, particularly the loss of ethical goods. Ethical goods are things such as connectedness to a tradition or family, romantic relationships, or friendships. They are particular (i.e. what I value is this particular family, that particular husband) and not easy to replace (e.g. your family or social network cannot easily be replaced by another).
Narratives of social mobility such as homeless-to-Harvard success stories tend to focus on the benefits that strivers receive from moving up. These sanitised narratives give us a sense that in spite of huge inequalities and differences in chances in life people have, hard work, talent and diligence still pay off. As Morton cautions, two elements are neglected in such stories: the painful sacrifices strivers (and their families and friends) have to make to achieve their success, and the larger societal structures that conspire against upward mobility, such as segregated and unequal access to good public schools. Particularly in a society with entrenched inequality such as the United States, social upward mobility is rarer than we think. And when it happens, strivers lose ethical goods such as connection with friends and family, or a clear sense of identity.
Morton makes her main argument through an astute and very accessible philosophical analysis. She also draws on qualitative evidence: her own experience as an immigrant from Peru and the insecurities she faced studying at elite American universities (Princeton and Stanford), her classroom experiences as a professor at a college with many first-generation college students (the City College of New York), and several open-ended interviews she conducted with strivers. These include people from the rural south, urban poor whites, and Latinx and African Americans, who through study managed to climb the social ladder. Through these sensitively presented narratives, we see how biographical and autobiographical experiences have deep philosophical significance. Strivers often face daunting dilemmas about what they should prioritise.
Morton’s narratives show how a university education — for strivers perhaps even more so than for others — is a transformative experience. It changes us in ways we cannot predict in advance. Not only will it change our situation in material terms, it also changes our values and who we are. The narratives in Morton’s book resonated with me, as I grew up in a working-class household in Belgium, with a bricklayer father and a stay-at-home mother. My father was an immigrant from Malaysia, and we were visible ethnic minorities. Though Belgium has a better social support system than the US does, this background posed obstacles for my younger sister and I to pursue higher education. Much like the people in Morton’s book, I noticed how a university education and pursuit of academic jobs not only created a physical distance with my parents and extended family. It also created a huge barrier in values and being able to talk and relate to them. Gender norms and the emphasis on modesty and thrift that I grew up with did not at all fit with the adversarial culture of philosophy and the self-promotion culture in academia more generally. Often, I felt unsure of who I was, or what values I cared about. These challenges are not unique to first-generation college students from blue-collar backgrounds but because the clash between values is so great, they are more keenly felt.
This brings me to the question of authenticity, and what role it plays in Morton’s overarching narrative. Morton seems ambivalent about the importance of authenticity, particularly in her treatment of code-switching. This is the situation where a striver adopts a different cultural way of interacting, appropriate to her environment. For example, a Peruvian immigrant studying at Princeton (as Morton was) behaves very differently and speaks differently from that same Peruvian immigrant who visits family back in Lima. Strivers have several strategies to deal with the feeling of a divided self that code-switching brings, but none are entirely satisfactory. Morton writes “…we should be wary of thinking of this issue as one concerning authenticity. If authenticity is thought of as staying true to one’s childhood self or to a particular culture, then most education will be inauthentic.” This seems to buy into an essentialist idea of authenticity, the kind where people who are authentic must remain rooted in the communities of their birth. However, there are other notions of authenticity which are more focused on values and on the choices we make that do not require we remain rooted in this way. Morton’s discussion of clear-eyed code-switching, and a keener awareness in strivers of what they are giving up and potentially gaining in return seem to gesture toward such non-essentialist views of authenticity.
Morton’s book is valuable because it not only focuses on the ethical costs of social mobility but also hints at solutions. These solutions will likely resonate with faculty who are mentoring or helping students who have to make painful trade-offs between their education and, for instance, being a carer for their younger siblings. Rather than exhorting them to prioritise their education above all else, Morton recommends we should help such students by acknowledging the trade-offs involved and having an honest conversation about what they want to achieve, and what they might need to give up by doing so. Being clear-eyed, as she puts it, about being a striver, may mitigate moral dilemmas and might also empower them to give back to the communities they value.