Here is my reply:
Thank you so much for your thoughtful response, Rob. Our blog desperately needs dialogue with differing views–both for balance and for interest. And all of us desperately need dialogue with differing views for mere sanity. That said, though, I agree with much of what you say here. But I still maintain that equality should not be considered an end in itself.
My goal with this essay was not to argue that equality is never proper or good or even requisite. It sometimes is all of those things. My goal was to show that it is never the fundamental good that is at issue in any context, and that it is illegitimate to think of it as a fundamental good. My description of it as “a false ideal” may be a little strong, but the strong formulation is intended to grab the attention.
What do I mean by a “fundamental good”? I would say that there are two types of fundamental goods that come into play with how we treat people. (This is simplistic, no doubt, but it will serve current purposes.) The first type is comprised of the internal, motivating goods: love for others, a sense of responsibility for their welfare, moral duty, etc. The second type of fundamental good is the end aimed at. In this category would be things like life, bodily integrity, freedom, happiness, well-being, belonging, justice, etc. Equality is not an ideal that belongs in either category. If we want some particular variety of equality, we never want it for its own sake, but for the sake of, for example, the underprivileged. We feel responsible for them–and this ethical sense is a fundamental good. We therefore share our goods, or put policies in place to redistribute wealth, or do whatever it is that we do–to benefit them. And even if the underprivileged attain equality of well-being (to be horribly abstract and unrealistic), the benefit they derive is not the equality, but the well-being itself.
As I said, justice/fairness is a fundamental good. But justice does not always equate to equality. Justice is always a good thing to pursue (though not, of course, at any cost); equality is sometimes a very bad thing to pursue (e.g., equality of power between young children and parents would be very bad, to use an easy case). This non-equivalence of justice and equality was precisely what I was most intent on demonstrating in my essay.
Again, equality is not, in an of itself, a good thing–nor is inequality, in and of itself, a bad thing. You and I can be very bad, to an equal degree, and this would not be good (by definition). Or imagine that there is some good that I am not capable of enjoying, but that you would enjoy immensely. In this case, it would not be bad for you to enjoy the good yourself, even though it might throw off the equality of enjoyment which (let us further imagine) existed between us. Or, you may choose to forgo the enjoyment out of compassion, or to avoid my jealousy. But then the compassion and the avoidance of jealousy are the goods, not the equality. And on that note, let me add that while I think that most of the rhetoric of equality is illegitimate, it is certainly powerful. It derives its power from the proclivity of humanity to be constantly comparing ourselves to each other. It is powerful because we humans are a jealous, prideful, and competitive race.
I think you can get to every place you want to go with the idea of justice/fairness (closely related to non-arbitrariness) and these other forms of fundamental goods. You don’t need the idea of equality to get there.
The second half of your response, Rob, is concerned mainly with distributive justice (i.e., distribution of wealth and other assets). You acknowledge that the problems of distributive justice are complicated, and I’m pretty sure that you have thought more about them than I have. You acknowledge that despite your acceptance of equality as an ideal, you believe that it “may indeed be worth the cost” to “encourage parents to excel so their children have these advantages.” That is, you agree that a radical sort of wealth redistribution may well be bad for society. It is certainly my opinion that it would be bad for society, but I think we have similar ideas about the values at stake on both sides of the issue. Certainly, I agree that it is good for everyone to have plenty of “money, education, psychological well-being, opportunity, nutrition, etc.” And we should do what we can, without injuring the rest of society, to ensure that everybody receives them. (I would be more hesitant to agree that everyone “deserves” all of those things–because, for me, the issue of deserving is usually besides the point.)
I am willing to concede the point about racism being a merely secondary evil. When I said that, I was thinking of racism in the very limited sense of the judgment that black people are inferior to white people. Even if this judgment was true, it would still be my moral duty to look after the welfare of my black brothers and sisters, and visa-versa. So you can see where I was coming from when I asserted that the failure to be good to black people was a greater evil than the mistaken judgment as to their inferiority. But, as you point out, racism is a much bigger and meaner animal than this mere judgment.
I am not sure what you mean when you assert that “the ‘equality of discernment'” argument is a straw man that was popularized by Ayn Rand. I was unaware that Ayn Rand wrote anything closely resembling my thoughts, and I mostly dislike her philosophy, so far as I understand it. (Though I understand it very little, as I have read only Anthem, which concludes by asserting, if memory serves, that “the only sacred word [is] EGO.” We read the last chapter out loud in high school, and I was the last reader. I pronounced the word “eggo,” as in the waffle. It was very embarrassing. Yet in truth, eggo may be a more sacred word to me than ego.)
But if you are asserting that the ideal of equality does not actually have the potential to threaten good forms of discrimination, I cannot agree. It did so during its first fat days of privilege in the French Revolution, as I suggested in my essay. Anything which had ever been associated with any of the pre-revolution social hierarchies was endangered precisely because it threatened the ideal of “egalite.” A similar phenomenon played out during China’s cultural revolution: anything which contained the suggestion of superiority over the tastes, knowledge, or abilities of the proletariat was liable to be “purged.” I will only cite two more examples, though I could go on: participants in literary circles feel obliged to attempt to distinguish themselves by their good taste and discernment (i.e. discrimination) while at the same time holding the whole idea of good taste in derision, and rejecting any criteria that would enable one to say that William Shakespeare really is better than Stephanie Meyers. And finally, I have personally been booed out of class (figuratively) for asserting in psychology class (again, high school) that boys are better at most sports than girls. Certainly, there may be more happening in each of these cases than the idea of equality illegitimately endangering legitimate discrimination. But that is one of the things that is happening.
Concerning gay marriage, I will have more to say in subsequent posts. But for now, let me point out that you go about your argument in just the way you should: you do not assert that a gay relationship should be treated as equal because equality is good. Rather, you argue that such relationships really are the same in all the relevant ways. You argue that the differences between homosexual and heterosexual relationships are not the sorts of differences that justify disparate treatment. I happen to disagree about that, but I certainly agree with most of what you say on the subject: different is not the same as inferior; gay couples really can love each other deeply; fear of change ought to be challenged if it has no foundation in reality. But my main subject here is not gay marriage. For now, therefore, I will just refer you to a very well-thought-out and well-researched argument that I find persuasive, written by an attorney who has argued many cases before the Supreme Court, and whom I have had the pleasure of meeting, Gene Schaerr: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/04/14822/.