Last time on posts about esoteric philosophical concepts,* we deconstructed various definitions of distributional equality and attempted (unsuccessfully, in my view) to reconstruct them in a way that fits both our human limits and our sense of justice.
Given the difficulty of constructing a definition of equality – one might wonder when the concept of equality should be abandoned altogether. Indeed some thinkers have criticized the idea of equality as irrelevant to social justice. As Harry Frankfurt argued in The Importance of What We Care About [Amazon]:
The fundamental error of egalitarianism lies in supposing that it is morally important whether one person has less than another regardless of how much either of them has…
Instead of focusing our attention on who has what, he believes we should put our efforts towards making sure that everyone has enough. When everyone has enough to satisfy their needs, Sufficiencians (okay, I totally made that up, but we’ll just go with it) believe that we won’t care if there are others who have more.
Closely related (at least in my mind) to the theory of sufficiency is prioritarianism (I did not make that one up). Prioritarians also argue that egalitarians are wrong to seek equality as an end. Instead they argue that resources should be distributed to those who are most in need.
Personally, I find the theories of priority and sufficiency compelling. The reduction of suffering is in my view the *point* of trying to create a just and egalitarian society. But the flaws we discussed with respect to welfare equality are present in these theories as well.
How do we measure comparative suffering? In many cases its easy to ascertain and I think the world would be a far more equal and just place if we adopted either of these approaches. But our view of who is suffering and the depth of that suffering is linked to social norms. At the margins people whose suffering didn’t fall into the appropriate categories might easily be left behind.
More importantly in the context of sufficiency, the idea of what is “sufficient” is amorphous. What would be sufficient for a “good” life 100 years ago would not be sufficient today. And not only because – at least in the US – we are a consumerist society, but also because technological progress permits us to enjoy things (like the internet!) that they didn’t have. Hopefully, the progress we make over the next 100 years will make what seems sufficient today appear inadequate by their standards.
While philosophers like Frankfurt would like to break us of the habit of comparing resources, I think if we’re all flying around in fancy hover cars on our way to Mars (which has fabulous beaches) while others are sitting in their apartments and walking to their personally fulfilling work – that isn’t just even if they do have the resources we consider sufficient.
At the end of the philosophical day, I guess that means I value equality as a key component of a just world.
So where does that leave us? The formal definitions are flawed in various ways, but the concept of equality is still valuable. If we can’t find a formal definition of equality that suits our purpose, perhaps we can construct a working definition that does, even if its not theoretically satisfying. The first step, I think, is identifying what concepts we believe need to be incorporated in any definition of equality.
For me any definition of equality must start with sufficiency. Being equal in dignity is all well and good, but you can’t eat dignity (believe me, I’ve tried). Everyone has to have access to the resources they need.
But sufficiency isn’t absolute. It must adjust as society shifts. Consequently, we need proportionality. No one person should have so much more than others that their quality of life far outstrips everyone else’s. Of course such a concept is not well defined. How much resource inequality is too much? I don’t know the answer, but I can say with complete confidence that the amount of resource inequality we have now is far too much.
Well-being of course is not just the product of resources. People have different preferences and so an equal world is one in which each person has the resources they need to seek fulfillment of their preferences. But to avoid the trap that opportunity egalitarians fall into we can’t attempt to impose our own values on the question of whether or not an action is a preference. Instead we must offer each other freedom to choose** what we believe is best for ourselves.
So, to summarize, for me equality requires that each person be free to choose what they believe is best for themselves, knowing that they will always have the resources they need to survive and that no one will have access to a quality of life that far outstrips their own.
What do you think?
[The last and final segment will come out tomorrow. Sorry for jamming these all at the end...but its been a hectic week!]
*Have you guys ever watched Dragon Ball Z? No? Then you won’t get this reference.
**Hopefully, it goes without saying that this is constrained by the harms principle, but if not…let me be explicit…except to the extent that such persons actions would result in harm to a third party.