Reply to Equality is NOT a False Ideal


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:

4 thoughts on “Reply to Equality is NOT a False Ideal

  1. Alas, I don’t have time for the sort of response that this post warrants. I appreciate your thoughtful reply here, and I’ll take just a shred of time to make a couple clarifications.

    The “equality of discernment” argument I made was used by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged, with the example of a writer whose socialist ideology meant that every published book should have an equal number of copies printed, distributed, and read. This bizarre case is completely different than any beliefs held by any person I know, including the beliefs of many people who value equality.

    As for the role of equality in social revolutions, especially from those on the extreme left, I would argue that equality—while part of the rhetoric—was rarely, if ever, the motivating factor. Rather, the things appreciated by the upper class became symbols of oppression. Sometimes these symbols were ostentatious ornamentation (in houses, clothing, etc.), other times it was the literature, and so on and so forth, but the revolutionary wrath didn’t seem to discriminate.

    My argument here is that equality wasn’t what led to that lack of discrimination. Rather, that it was rage. In the rhetoric and justification of the revolutionaries you could find claims for equality and claims for justice (which you acknowledge as a legitimate virtue), but the presence of these justifications in the rhetoric does not prove or disprove the worth of those values.

    Here’s where I think we part ways on the issue of equality as an ideal: I tend to be fairly utilitarian in my ethics, so the question is never whether something is fundamentally or essentially virtuous. Rather, the question 1) always requires context, because it’s never as simple as all right or all wrong and 2) is, in its basic form, simply a question of whether—all else being equal—equality has merit. (I think we can agree that the other items on your list—even things like a sense of moral duty—are never goods that invariably outweigh all potential costs.)

    So if nothing has unlimited virtue, we return to that basic question of whether equality—with all other factors being equal—has merit. And I would argue it does. I would argue that a sense of equality between people increases the likelihood of happiness and satisfaction of all people in that group. (Not absolute equality regardless of action or contributed merit, mind, but equality in status and well-being and general access to resources.) For someone whose views are primarily utilitarian, happiness and satisfaction are the goods to return to, while suffering and dissatisfaction are the negatives to avoid. I would categorize equality as a virtue based on how it leads toward happiness and away from suffering, which is the same criteria I would use for most of the virtues you’ve brought up.

    (As for whether it’s concretely true that equality makes people happier, things get tricky. Studies have indicated that greater levels of equality in a culture’s happiness or wealth lead to greater satisfaction for the people in the culture, regardless of the objective amount of wealth or status. In other words, that happiness is—for better or worse—often hinged on comparison to those around us. To really make this point well, I would have to go dig up those studies, which I don’t have the time for right now … but they exist! I promise. ^_^ )

  2. Thanks again, Rob. I can give qualified agreement to the idea (supported by those studies) that a sense of equality between people increases the likelihood of happiness and satisfaction of all people in that group. I think that is probably true as regards groups composed of people who are peers–who are similar in the relevant ways. And I assume that this is the type of context you are thinking of. But I would say that the reason for this is that whatever inequality exists in a context of peer-hood is presumably arbitrary and unfair. In other contexts–the inequality between Gods and men, between parent and child, between a righteous king/leader and his loyal subjects, between teacher and student, between expert and novice, between the judge and the lawyer, etc.–the inequality actually contributes to the well-being of the group and the larger society.

    I also tend to be fairly utilitarian in my thinking, especially regarding policy choices (tax policies, environmental policies, etc.). But I am not comfortable with Utilitarianism as an ultimate moral philosophy. Certainly, happiness and satisfaction are uncontroversial goods, and they are often (though not always) the goods primarily at issue in policy choices. But I don’t think they are the only ultimate goods. I think that justice, love, truth, and beauty (among others) have independent value, and are sometimes to be sought even at the expense of happiness and satisfaction. In support of this claim, I would cite Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel (a holocaust survivor who argues powerfully that fulfilling the meaning of one’s life at every given moment is the primary moral imperative and the source of human well-being, and not pleasure or power or comfort)–and also a short story by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” You can read it here:

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