Welcome to our book forum on Jennifer Morton‘s new book Moving Up without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility. Below is a brief introduction to the book by Jennifer Morton. As a reminder, you do not need to have read the book to participate; feel free to ask about any aspect of the book or discussion below.
Upward mobility has been an article of faith for generations of Americans. Many philosophers are well-versed in the philosophical problems with some concepts in the neighborhood—meritocracy, desert, equal opportunity, etc. Social scientists have provided us with plenty of data to be skeptical that upward mobility is a common or a viable path for most children who grow up in impoverished communities. And yet, the narrative of upward mobility has a peculiar hold on the public imagination. The stories of Sonya Sotomayor, Howard Schultz, or Colin Powell inspire and promise to lay out a path for those born into working-class families. In fact, the goal implicit in much of the broader debate about educational inequality is that we should alter the educational system so that we give more children the opportunity to be the next Sonya Sotomayor. But we rarely talk about the costs of upward mobility for those who make it (or for those who stay behind). That is the topic of my book. I’m concerned with the ways in which success on the path of upward mobility often comes at the expense of maintaining close relationships to family, friends, and one’s community. These are what I call the ethical costs upward mobility.
Before I describe some of the main themes of the book, I should make it clear that this book is written with a broader audience in mind than academic philosophers. My goal was to speak to students directly and to those working in higher education who are concerned with the experiences of first-generation and low-income students. I develop a philosophical framework for thinking about upward mobility that I hope will be of interest to philosophers, but there are questions, which I will highlight in what I say below, that would deserve much more careful treatment if this book was written with a philosophical audience in mind. I hope that our discussion here will help me think through some of those questions more carefully.
Note 1: Method. In the process of writing the book, I decided to conduct interviews. I’ve discussed why elsewhere. The stories are interwoven throughout the book. Sometimes I use them to make concrete abstract philosophical ideas, while at other times I use them to tease out aspects of the lived experiences of strivers that I hope will resonate with those who are reading the book.
Note 2: Some of what I say below is drawn from pieces I have written and interviews I have given which have been published at The Atlantic, Inside Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, New York Daily News, Vox, and Princeton University Press Blog.
What are the Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility?
This book focuses on the experiences of strivers which I define as those who are the first in their families to go to college (first-generation students, as they are known) or who come from low-income backgrounds and who are seeking a path to upward mobility through education. Strivers I argue are caught between two worlds—the one in which many of them have their most meaningful and valuable relationships to family, friends, and communities and the world of educational opportunities and well-paying careers. I suggest that joining the communities in which opportunities reside often involves the distancing and fraying of those meaningful, early relationships. I call these costs ethical because they concern what, for most of us, are central sources of meaning and value. That is, they undermine areas that are critical to flourishing. It is important to note that, though I focus on the experience of strivers, these ethical costs are borne not just by the student, but also by those with whom they have those meaningful relationships. When a relationship is frayed or lost, both people lose something of value.
It might be tempting to think of the ethical costs of upward mobility like we think about college debt—an up-front investment that is offset by the gains that come from obtaining a degree. But this ignores two important aspects of ethical costs that fundamentally differentiate them from financial costs—they are particular and they are irreplaceable. I suggest, following the literature on valuing and love, that much of what is stake for strivers are particular people or communities which are not simply replaced by other people or communities that have similar qualities. Unlike financial costs, these ethical costs are not fungible. That means that when a striver’s relationship with a family member or a friend deteriorates, the striver is not made whole even if down the line she makes new friends or has her own family.
Why are the Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility different than the Ethical Trade-Offs non-strivers maker?
Once we recognize the ethical costs of upward mobility, the question naturally arises, doesn’t everyone make trade-offs of this kind? Don’t all college students lose friends and distance themselves from their family and communities? Is the difference between those costs and the ones strivers bear simply a matter of degree?
The answer I give in the book is that the ethical costs of upward mobility are different because they are unjust in so far as they depend on background structures of injustices. Chapter 2 of the book is devoted to making this case by showing how three features of the background structure—socioeconomic segregation, the inadequate safety net, and cultural mismatch—lead to the sorts of ethical costs discussed in 1. This chapter is the most social science heavy and tries to show how understanding the context in which strivers face the ethical trade-offs they do allows us to see that they are the result of background structures of injustice. I’ll briefly give two examples here.
- Strivers often find that they have to distance oneself from their communities in order to access educational opportunities. In most cases, this is the result of the concentration of educational opportunities in some communities at the expense of others. As Raj Chetty’s work shows, the zip code a child grows up in plays a critical role in how likely they are to move up the socioeconomic scale. Comfortable, upper middle-class families might choose to send their child to a school outside of their community, but they need not. The opportunity to have their child attend a school with neighbors and friends that also offers a good education is one that is available to those who are better off, but not to many low-income families.
- Many of the most painful ethical costs I see my students confronting involve being torn between wanting to support their families and investing in their own advancement. These situations are in most cases directly the result of how the inadequate safety net impacts students. In my 9 years teaching at CUNY I have seen students face these choices daily—babysitting for a cousin who needs childcare or coming to class, studying for a test or working to support their families because a parent is disabled, and so on. In most of these cases, the lack of quality, affordable childcare or of financial support for a disabled parent is falling on the student’s shoulders and creating an ethical dilemma. These burdens are less likely to fall on students whose families are wealthy enough to access such support.
Though I think it is true that the ethical costs of upward mobility are tied to structures of injustice and this is in part what makes them unjust. I am not entirely satisfied with this answer. I think the deeper answer, which I cannot currently defend, is that some ethical trade-offs are themselves inherently unjust. I believe that part of teasing out a concept of justice is figuring out exactly which trade-offs are just and which are not. And I suspect that figuring that out requires us to work bottom-up starting with non-ideal theory about particular cases and developing a theory of what structures would give us the right set of ethical trade-offs. I would love to hear more about what people think makes the ethical trade-offs strivers face distinct (or not).
What is a clear-eyed ethical narrative? And why does it matter?
A central part of the book is spent arguing that we need a new narrative of upward mobility that is honest about the ethical costs strivers will incur. I model this narrative on the immigrant narrative which I think does a somewhat better job of making ethical costs and trade-offs explicit and central to the immigrant experience.
However, one might worry that if strivers know what the costs are, some might decide not to pursue college. The traditional narrative of upward mobility is aspirational; it is meant to motivate students to pursue an indeterminate better future. For many first-generation college students, that goal is quite hazy. Many of the people they grew up with might not have college degrees or the kind of jobs that those degrees make possible. Hearing about Sonia Sotomayor might be exactly the kind of positive story they need to stay motivated. Perhaps, it is better for the students not to know the full extent of the sacrifices ahead of them.
I disagree. I think it is important for strivers have an honest narrative. In the first instance because, as a philosopher, I care about truth for its own sake, but also because I believe that being clear-eyed about the ethical nature of the path ahead of allows students to make choices that speak for what they value and care about. What I try to show in the book (using examples drawn from my own experiences as a first-generation, Latina immigrant) is how easy it is to succumb to social pressure that distances one from what one values. I suggest that having an honest narrative of the values at stake in the path ahead offers students a tool to resist sacrificing ethical goods that they do not wish to give up on, and also to take the first step to resist becoming complicit in unjust social structures. Finally, I do not argue for this in the book, but I also think that giving students a false overly-optimistic narrative of upward mobility is a form of hermeneutical injustice.
Some other central questions I have not discussed here but that are discussed in the book: How can one codeswitch with ethical integrity? What obligations do strivers have to upend and resist unjust social structures? What can colleges and universities do to mitigate and minimize the ethical costs of upward mobility?
Very much looking forward to this conversation!
 Frankfurt, H. G. (1988). The importance of what we care about, Cambridge University Press. Jollimore, T. (2011). Love’s vision, Princeton University Press.
 Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing, Oxford University Press.