Some notes on equality.

As expected, now I’m back studying and busy this blog has dried up and lost its identity somewhat. I won’t have the time to offer news commentary, at least not to the extent I have over the past 9 months. So I think what I’m going to try to do is use it as a platform for sharing any rough thoughts I have on the reading I am doing for seminars and supervisions. And if my essays are relatively accessible and I’d appreciate feedback, perhaps I’ll stream excerpts here too. So it’s very much going to turn into an ad hoc philosophical stream of consciousness thing. I’ll aim for two posts a week at a minimum.

I want to start, then, with two distinct thoughts on the literature I’ve read this week for an opening seminar on egalitarianism in political philosophy. Both Parfit in Equality and Priority and Frankfurt in Equality as a Moral Ideal seem very keen on insisting that some professed theories of egalitarianism are not genuinely egalitarian at all. Their litmus test is whether or not the pursuit of equality is perceived by a theory to be intrinsically valuable – sought for itself – or whether it is endorsed merely by coincidence because it happens to align with other Good Things.

So, for instance, Parfit notes that some egalitarians claim to value equality on the grounds that it is likely to ensure a world in which everybody has a heightened sense of self-respect, and bad sentiments like envy are not prevalent. But, as he notes, this will only justify egalitarian policies in cases where people are conscious of their relative position. In a Divided World where one half of our species lives in inferior conditions to the other half, but neither knows of the existence of the other, this form of egalitarianism would not be concerned by inequality at all. Hence, Parfit claims, the egalitarianism is not to be deemed ‘genuine’.

Frankfurt’s position is similar. He also contemplates justifications of egalitarianism that center around Rousseauian values of self-awareness intent on boosting esteem, and again this is labelled an ‘instrumental’ justification of equality based on a ‘contingent’ connection.

Now, I’m not convinced by either. Parfit is right, of course, that egalitarians of this kind cannot justify equality in cases like Divided World. But for practical purposes, considering the state of globalisation today, this form of egalitarianism can explain why a lot of us feel obliged to seek equality in the world as it stands. And to call this a mere instrumental and contingent defense of equality seems particularly misleading precisely because, according to this theory, the connection between equality and an individual’s sense of self-esteem is unimaginably robust. It’s not a relation that will hold in all possible worlds, because the Divided World is possible. But we can give ‘possible’ an only slightly narrower reading and still allow our claims to cover ‘any world that is currently socially conceivable’. If it is right to suggest that man, by his very nature, is concerned about his comparative status and that this gives rise to moral claims, then so long as we live in a world in which comparisons will be made, we will have an argument for equality. Contra Parfit and Frankfurt, I’m not sure what the purpose is of implying this is a phoney version of egalitarianism.

The second issue concerns GA Cohen’s absurd attempts in On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice to ground egalitarianism on a desire to ensure nobody is worse off in the world through bad luck, whilst trying to avoid delving into the metaphysics of free will and choice and ensuring our intuitions fall on the right side of the fence. Let me elaborate.

Cohen wants to define and defend a form of egalitarianism that compensates people that the world has screwed over through no fault of their own. So he thinks equality demands, for instance, that we don’t allow someone’s life to go badly just because their property was struck by lightning. If that happens, we step up and offer the victim resources so they can re-achieve the level of welfare available to everyone else. The problem, of course, is how to account for such cases whilst not also taking it as a licence to give the bourgeois extra resources to fund their expensive tastes on the grounds that they need champagne rather than beer to reach the same level of contentment as the rest of us. If equality required that, it may start to look like an appalling ideal.

So most respond by saying that in the Expensive Tastes thought experiment, the reason we don’t offer compensation in the form of extra resources is that the bourgeois are responsible for their extravagant preferences – they somehow chose them in a morally significant way that allows us to distinguish such cases from being struck by lightening.

And yet, Cohen simultaneously tries to defend such a distinction whilst arguing that, for instance, we should grant a photographer extra resources to fund his expensive life-passion in the name of equality, because people cannot help having these type of passions. Similarly, he’s open to compensating people that feel systematically down by virtue of religious guilt on the grounds that they are likely to have been brought up to feel this way and will have reached such a state through social conditioning, again meaning it was not a ‘genuine choice’ and is more like the ‘bad luck’ seen in lightning.

This is terribly and blatantly inconsistent. You can’t condemn and reject the claims of the bourgeois on the grounds that they somehow miraculously transcended determinism and formed their expensive tastes, whilst giving the photographer and the guilt-stricken Christian free passes. There’s simply no good reason to distinguish such cases. Any account of choice will, surely, group all these cases in the same category, and so equality will demand listening to all or none of them.

This implication is awkward, of course, because I take it that our intuitions do tend to want to compensate the photographer but not the champagne drinkers. But I don’t think Cohen finds any rational grounds for that thought. It must be based on unwarranted qualitiative judgements about the value of certain preferences, and as such it has to be ditched.

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2 thoughts on “Some notes on equality.

  1. Frankfurt is just far too concerned with whether or not equality has intrinsic or instrumental value. I remember being struck by the possibility that extensions of his mode of analysis to other concepts could lead to the conclusion that nothing has intrinsic value (in which case, it seems either (a) he’s wrong or (b) it doesn’t matter.)

    I know Rousseau is very relevant here (your nod towards Neuhouser was incredibly useful when I wrote an undergrad essay on this topic) but I just wanted to query this bit from your post;

    “He also contemplates justifications of egalitarianism that center around Rousseauian values of self-awareness intent on boosting esteem”

    In what sense do you mean that those values are “Rousseauian”? Genuine question – you’ll know more about this than me. But I don’t think Frankfurt was expressly referencing JJR, and I’m not convinced he’s the only source of the idea that equality is important for reasons involving social standing.

    • Yeah, you’re right that nobody really says ‘Rousseauian’ and he’s far from the only one to give such a defense of equality, so I guess it just reflects my belief that, as far as I know, he really was the first major figure to get this theory moving. I mean, people like Hobbes and Locke before him had defended equality, but they had always said it was consistent with vast wealth disparities. I think Rousseau was the first to stress the side of our nature that values being respected and esteemed, and he was the first to claim moral conclusions from those facts. All of it flows from the concept of amour-propre, which really might have had no history before R in political thought.

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