Dialogues with Richard Reeves

Jennifer Morton on creating a better elite

June 14, 2021

Societies always have an elite - but my guest today thinks we need a better one. Philosopher Jennifer Morton says we draw our leaders from too narrow a pool of institutions, especially educational ones, and that affirmative action does little or nothing to improve genuine representation. In what is at times quite a personal conversation, we discuss the ethical costs of upward mobility, animated by Jennifer’s own story of growing up in Peru before attending Princeton as first-generation student; as well as how to balance personal success against the dangers of complicity in unequal systems and institutions. She argues that less advantaged students face sharper trade-offs between different goods, and that as a society we under-value the ones related to associational life - family, friends, and hometowns. This conversation, and Jennifer’s work generally, has really shaped and challenged some of my own thinking - and I really enjoyed the conversation.

Jennifer Morton


Jennifer Morton is an associate professor of philosophy, currently at UNC Chapel Hill but she will be taking up a position at the University of Pennsylvania this fall. Her work focuses on the philosophy of action, moral philosophy, philosophy of education, and political philosophy. 

She is also a senior fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Ethics and Education. 

More from Morton

Also mentioned

  • Joseph Fishkin’s book Bottlenecks: A New Theory of Equal Opportunity. I actually liked this book so much I ran a blog series on it over at Brookings!
  • I referred to this study that shows that low college application rates for Hispanic youth can be explained in large part by their desire to stay close to home
  • Morton’s approach to ethical good bundles is in some ways similar to Amartya Sen’s capability set
  • Using data from The Equality of Opportunity Project, made interactive by the New York Times, here is the breakdown of economic diversity at these institutions: 
    • At CUNY, the median household income for students is $40,000, 15% of the students came from the top 20%, and 23% came from the bottom 20%
    • At UNC Chapel Hill, the median household income is $135,000, 60% of the students come from the top 20%, and only 3.8% from the bottom 20%.
    • At UPenn, the median household income is $195,500, 71% of the students come from the top 20%, and only 3.3% come from the bottom 20%. 
    • At Georgetown, the median household income is $229,000, 74% of the students come from the top 20%, and only 3.1% come from the bottom 20%.
  • We referenced Anthony Jack’s work, including his book The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students

The Dialogues Team

Creator: Richard V. Reeves

Research: Ashleigh Maciolek

Artwork: George Vaughan Thomas

Tech Support: Cameron Hauver-Reeves

Music: "Remember" by Bencoolen (thanks for the permission, guys!)

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