I’m against inequality. (But what is equality, anyway?)

President Obama said that inequality is

the defining challenge of our time.

and he staked his presidency on trying to reduce inequality in access to health insurance and health care. Pope Francis said that

Inequality is the root of social ills.

Countless others have commented on these statements or made their own. (This one from Mark Thoma is especially good.)

But what do I mean if I say that I am against inequality? I will briefly summarize a few puzzles about equality in recent moral philosophy and give you some links to explore them.

I see three big questions. This first is, Equality Among Whom? Who falls in the population within which things should be equalized? The American founders believed that “all men are created equal” but they notoriously did not include women or slaves. Today, Americans mostly debate inequality among Americans. This special concern for our countrymen stands in need of justification, because inequality between Americans and the world’s poor is greater than inequality within America. Similarly, I am committed to reducing inequality among children. And yet I worked very hard to give my children the best health care and schooling I could. Can I square my partiality toward my children with my commitment to equality?

The second question is: Equality of What?, that is, what aspect(s) of a person’s life should count  when an egalitarian considers whether her ideal is realized in a given society? There are many social outcomes that we might seek to equalize. Much recent discussion focuses on inequality in healthhealth careincome, wealth, and political power. Considering these diverse aspects of life prompts us to ask whether there is a more fundamental social outcome that we are trying to equalize.

Perhaps we should focus on equality of wellbeing? Or perhaps we should equalize the primary goods or resources that a person can use to pursue their life goals and leave it to the individual to convert these to wellbeing? But what if you disapprove of the life that gives me wellbeing? Suppose that I just want to surf: Are egalitarians required to subsidize my lifestyle? Amartya Sen argues that we should not focus on equalizing wellbeing, but rather on ensuring that each person has the capabilities necessary

to lead the type of life he or she has reason to value.

Or should we not focus on social outcomes at all, but only on equality of opportunity to achieve those outcomes? But what does equality of opportunity actually imply? Must every child have the same probability distribution of social outcomes at birth? Could we get there without equalizing their parents’ wealth and income? Or is it sufficient for equality of opportunity that everyone is equal before the law?

OK, suppose that we know what we want to equalize. The third question is: Why Do I Want Equality?

Derek Parfit distinguished between two aspirations for equality. Some people believe that it is

in itself bad if some people are worse off than others through no fault or choice of theirs.

These people want to achieve equality for its own sake. A common objection to this view, however, is that it appears to endorse “levelling down,” that is,

this principle implausibly implies that, if some people are better off than others, it would be in one way better if everyone became much worse off, but the better off people suffered greater misfortunes, so that everyone became equally badly off.

Parfit distinguished the goal of seeking a better distribution from a prioritarian view, in which

we have stronger reasons to benefit people the worse off these people are.

Others believe that it doesn’t really matter that some people have less. Rather, the problem is that some people do not have enough by some criterion of need (see an influential account of this ‘sufficientarian‘ view here). For example, I may believe that everyone is entitled to sufficient health care to address life-threatening or disabling disorders, but I don’t have a further obligation to, for example, deliver care for less severe health problems, or to see that everyone receives health services conveniently or in an attractive setting. The challenge for this view is to find a non-arbitrary method to define sufficiency.

Thinking through these questions is deeply illuminating, but given their complexity, I am far from certain that I understand what the norm of equality means — let alone what causes inequality. Yet this is not disabling. Inequality is hard to define, but I think we know it when we see it. Daniel Hausman writes beautifully that:

What really drives most egalitarians… is a concern with the terrible circumstances of those who are worst off in the societies that we are familiar with. The misery, shame, helplessness, degradation, and servility of those who are poor give one reason to fight against inequalities in wealth. The limitation of freedom and the stunting of intellect and sensibility caused by poor education give one reason to fight against inequalities in schooling. The suffering of those who are sick and the shrinking of their lives give one reason to fight against inequalities in health… [This] concern with those who are poor bleeds into the other factor… that motivates egalitarianism, which is [that]… All people have the same intrinsic worth, deserve the same “baseline” respect from others, and deserve from their society an impartial and equal respect for their interests… Each person should be able to get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say to himself or herself [that] “I have the same worth as everyone else, and that is how others treat me and how they must treat me. I have no betters, and my society recognizes none as better than me. The institutions in my society favor none over me and favor me over none other. Should we happen to find one another’s company agreeable, I could be friends with anyone. No one is above me or below me.”

See also the quotations from Adam Smith in Thoma’s post.

My advice is: Make egalitarianism a way of life rather than a mode of rhetoric. Be careful about accusing others of not caring about equality. It’s likely that your adversary believes in equality, but construes it differently than you. Look past partisan labels. See who is truly committed to living with her neighbor as an equal.


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