Often when I talk to people about equality (I do not just inflict these questions on Feministe readers), the first response is “we should just treat each other the same.” A statement that is typically followed by the assertion that they always treat everyone the same.
But, of course, people aren’t the same. We live in a complex hierarchical world that values some attributes and abilities over others, makes access to certain preferences are more readily available.
As a few people pointed in the comments on the last thread this approach to equality – which is a variation on resource equality – doesn’t lead to a just society it merely perpetuates existing inequalities. Equal treatment sounds great but if we stock the world’s bathrooms with urinals then those of us who need to sit to pee are going to be highly uncomfortable.
The philosophical counterpoints, (Bentham’s) utilitarianism and welfare equality, are not without their own problems. To start with the obvious, happiness or utility are not measurable, not easily comparable, fluid, and probably competitive. But even if we were to posit an omniscient being with the amazing ability to continually adjust the happiness level of every person on earth – we’ll call hir Super Utilitarian, we’re still left with the immoral preference problem. If a person derives well-being from causing harm and the rules of the society restrict that person’s activities, then Super Utilitarian would have to provide additional compensation to that person in order to equalize hir well-being. Allocating additional resources to someone because they derive happiness from hurting other people violates my personal sense of justice. But your mileage may vary.
The middle ground is equal opportunity or equal access to welfare which many of you found compelling. Mxe cited Alexander Berkman’s seminal work What is Anarchism? but philosophers from the other side of the political spectrum like G.A. Cohen agree with the principle of equal opportunity (although they disagree in many of the details). To completely butcher the concept with a summary, equal opportunity is giving each person the same opportunity to satisfy their own preferences. Said differently, equal opportunity is the idea that we should equalize everything but “preferences.” In that sense, preferences are seen as something that may justifiably lead one person to a different outcome than another person.
One difficulty as you may imagine is determining what is a “preference” and what is luck or circumstance. Is ambition a preference? Is the enjoyment of more dangerous activities a preference? Preferences aren’t formed in a vacuum and even more challenging is the possibility that our preferences may be ordered against one another [University of Warwick]. To move to an even more meta perspective, by delineating between circumstances and preferences, particularly where the difference isn’t at all clear, aren’t we simply introducing a new system that values certain “preferences” or “circumstances” such that once again we’re living in a complex hierarchical world filled with a New and Improved type of oppression and inequality?
Fucking hell. Apparently, we need Super Preference Identifier.
Once preferences are identified, under the equal opportunity theory, people may still justifiably suffer as a result of those preferences. In the most extreme example, if my preference is to exchange all of my resources for the chance to win the lotto then I am responsible for outcome of that risk including having zero resources on which to survive. Very few proponents of equal opportunity would argue that equal opportunity should equalize poor decision making – although I would argue that poor decision making is a feature of human nature not an aberration. I think that is what makes SamLL’s definition of equality so intuitively appealing:
[A]n equal world is one where no person in that world would be overwhelmingly unhappy with the prospect of having their social position swapped with a different person, selected uniformly at random from all others in the world.
This definition provides for the exercise of preferences but limiting the bounds of any resulting inequality. Still without a super power we’re left with trying to sort out the fundamental tension of wanting people to have the ability to exercise their preferences (or choice) and never wanting the outcomes of individuals to be so disparate as to be intrinsically unjust. I’ve got some ideas along those lines that I’ll share in the next post (this one is hitting tl;dr territory) but what are your thoughts?