This essay will make the case that equality is achievable within contemporary society, opting for a ‘thick’ definition of the term that goes beyond the argument for equal opportunities. It will be argued that egalitarian aims are implicit in the philosophies of many seemingly anti-equality thinkers, and that equality may well be a logical requirement of all normative claims. Due in large part to the work of Amartya Sen (1992), the argument over equality has shifted away from ‘why equality?’ towards ‘equality of what?’. For this reason the focus of this essay will be the various approaches to equality and their levels of persuasiveness. The two approaches that will be defended are both based on the notion of rights; the first concerns the inviolability of persons and the second the idea of rights as capabilities. Finally some criticisms of the ‘thick’ conception will be considered, and the achievability of equality in contemporary society will be defended from these counter-arguments.
Equality has been variously dismissed as ‘manifestly false’ (Scruton 1980: 59) in its assumptions, immoral (Nozick 1974) in its prescriptions and even conservative in its outlook (Greer 1999: 380-398). However, as Amartya Sen (1992: 12 – 15) has argued, beneath the surface we can in fact detect egalitarian notions in the philosophies of thinkers from across the political spectrum. Even market libertarians demand equality of liberty (in the negative sense), while bitterly opposing the redistributive measures commonly associated with egalitarianism.
‘Robert Nozick may not demand equality of utility… but he does demand equality of libertarian rights… James Buchanan builds equal legal and political treatment… into his view of a good society. In each theory, equality is sought in some space – a space that is seen as having a central role in that theory’ (Sen 1992: 13).
The issue, as Sen (1992: 12 – 16) argues, is not so much ‘why equality?’ but ‘equality of what?’. Despite the provocative arguments put forward by the aforementioned critics, equality is not therefore a concept that can be rejected outright. However, one can argue about the spheres in which equality should apply (e.g. legal, political, economic etc.).
At a more abstract level, some philosophers have argued that equality in our dealings with others constitutes the ‘Golden Rule’ of morality – or at least the rational component of moral discourse. Versions of the ‘thesis of universalizability’ are present in the works of thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Jesus, Immanuel Kant and R. M. Hare. Hare (1965) does not explicitly deal with the issue of equality in his discussion of the Golden Rule, but notions of impartiality and fairness – of equal consideration – feature strongly in his classic text, and Sen (1992) notes the relevance of Hare’s formal inquiry in his own discussion on the topic. Hare’s (1965: 34 – 35) argument is that universalism is a logical, and not by itself a moral thesis. That ‘one ought to treat others as one would wish them to treat oneself’ (Hare 1965: 34) is neither fanciful nor particularly radical, but truistic – as moral principles cannot be upheld selectively. Sen’s and Hare’s arguments are of course very different, and Sen (1992: 7) appears to be unconvinced by Hare’s formal/logical arguments, but their investigations lead us to similar practical conclusions. Equality, for one reason or another, cannot be dismissed as easily as many had hoped. The rest of this essay will therefore concern itself with specific conceptions of equality and proceed to defend two such conceptions against some prevailing critiques.
In today’s political climate, perhaps the least controversial form of egalitarianism concerns ‘equality of opportunity.’ This has been a key pillar of New Labour thinking, and features prominently in the arguments of the Chancellor, Gordon Brown (Callinicos 2000: 38). According to Roemer (1998) there are two separate principles contained within the idea of equal opportunities. The first principle states that ‘society should do what it can to ‘level the playing field’ between individuals’ (Roemer 1998: 1), including during their formative years. When entering the job market, according to this notion, individuals should not have to struggle with disadvantages caused by factors outside their control, such as an inferior education. The second principle is that of non-discrimination (Roemer 1998: 1), the view that individuals’ applications should not be judged by criteria that are unrelated to the requirements of a given job (e.g. a candidate’s gender, religious or ethnic background).
While the principles of ‘levelling the playing field’ and non-discrimination are sound, they are also insufficient. Firstly, the non-discrimination principle does not take into account the effect of individuals’ backgrounds on their chances of being able to meet the requirements of particular positions. For example, a student with less financial means may need to work part-time during their studies to supplement their student loan, making it more difficult for them to secure the degree classification they otherwise could. This would mean that an employer could choose the applicant with the better class of degree without breaking the principle of non-discrimination. This would not, however, reflect ‘equality’ in our society in any meaningful sense. Secondly, the principle of levelling the playing field focuses too narrowly on people’s external circumstances – ignoring the effect of luck on the distribution of individual’s physical and mental abilities.
One of Rawls’ most important contributions to egalitarian thought has been to argue that the distribution of natural talents represents, in effect, another form of brute luck… (Callinicos 2000: 55)
Neither principle can therefore solve the problem of unfairness and fully capture the notion of equality, so we must look elsewhere for a ‘thicker’ notion of the concept.
The second influential approach of equality is referred to as ‘equality of outcome.’ This is associated with traditional socialism, and the rationale for this principle has been summed up by former Deputy Prime Minister, Roy Hattersley:
[M]any inequalities are not the results of genetics, even less of fate. They are the product of the way in which society is organised… socialists want first to reduce, and then to eliminate the… factors which make men and women unnaturally different (cited in Daniel 1997: 23).
Egalitarians with this approach to inequality are unlikely to press the case that everyone should receive exactly the same in terms of their income, as people have different needs, wants and priorities (Baker 1987: 4 – 5). Neither are they likely to argue that everyone is born with the same natural talents, but rather that present inequality is not primarily a result of this differentiation. As Callinicos points out, one of the problems with the dominance of liberal individualism in egalitarian thought, is that it uncritically attributes inequality to the distribution of natural talents. A socialist analysis would, by contrast, ‘draw attention to exploitation as a source of unjustified inequality’ (Callinicos 2000: 65 – 66).
The argument for equality of outcome is in my view stronger than that for equal opportunities, yet the problem with this approach taken individually is that it provides no answer to our central problem: equality in respect of what? If one is to take the view that, in at least some respects, equality of outcome is achievable in contemporary society, then one must deal with this issue head on. There are two answers to the question of ‘equality of what?’ that I believe stand up to scrutiny. Both of these can be considered rights-based approaches. The first flows from a Kantian position, based on the third formulation of the categorical imperative that one should never treat people simply as means to an end. The second is based on the ‘rights as capabilities’ approach associated with Amartya Sen (1999) and taken further in the Aristotelian arguments of Martha Nussbaum (1992).
Kant’s moral philosophy is concerned more chiefly with duties than rights per se, but his works have stimulated much work on the latter. Kant’s third formulation of the categorical imperative is of particular interest (Kant 1996 : 1012). In Kant’s view, all rational beings must judge themselves as legislators and subjects of the universal moral law. Nobody may treat another as a means to achieve an end, as all individuals must be considered ends in themselves. When considered alongside Kant’s broader view that the rightness of any action is decided independently of its expected consequences, we have a strong basis for an egalitarian doctrine of inalienable rights. ‘Rights impose constraints on the pursuit of collective goals’ (Summer 2000: 289), as (to the extent they are upheld) their existence prevents the use of people as mere means in the pursuit of supposedly greater ends. To a Kantian working within a rights-oriented framework, there are some things that governments, individuals and societies simply must not do (e.g. torture a suspected terrorist) – regardless of the broader social goal.
One famous attempt to unite Kantian ethics with egalitarian liberalism is John Rawls’ (1971) Theory of Justice. As Rawls (1971: 250 – 257) acknowledges, Kant’s deontological theory was particularly important in the development of his theory in two ways. Firstly, Rawls puts forward the notion of an ‘original position’ in which the principles of distribution and justice are agreed by all under a ‘veil of ignorance.’ As nobody knows what their lot will be, they are ‘obliged to evaluate principles solely on the basis of general considerations’ (Rawls 1971: 137). As participation by all is equal, we can see the origins of Rawls’ arguments in Kant’s ‘Kingdom of Ends’ principle: everyone is both a legislator and subject of the moral law. Secondly, Kant’s view that people should never be treated as mere means is reflected in one of the opening passages of Rawls’ classic text:
Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others (Rawls 1971: 3 -4).
Despite many worrying inegalitarian trends within contemporary society, it is cause for optimism that this view has gained such wide currency. There are many actions which we simply do not contemplate within society, due to the aforementioned inviolability of persons. We could not, for example, consider using human prisoners for non-voluntary medical trials, regardless of the likely utility of such a move. As Summer (2000: 288) points out, ‘Of all the moral concepts, rights seem most in tune with the temper of our time.’
Again, however, we are left with a sound approach that remains insufficient by itself. Formal rights are essential to our account of equality (and its achievability in contemporary society), yet they are also compatible with persistent, grinding inequalities in other spheres – compatible even with famine and hunger (Sen 1999: 66). Likewise, Kantian ethics also form the basis of Robert Nozick’s (1974) market libertarian philosophy; a philosophy which claims that any level of economic inequality may be justified as long as the procedures by which resources are gained and lost is fair. Egalitarians must, therefore, look to supplement the doctrine of rights with a fuller conception of equality. Such a conception has been produced by Amartya Sen (1992, 1999) and developed by Martha Nussbaum (1992).
Sen (1992: 39) defends a ‘capability’ perspective on both (1) the assessment of the well-being of individuals, and (2) their real freedom to achieve such well-being. In the first category, one’s capabilities would be fulfilled by being adequately nourished, properly sheltered, possessed of a long and healthy life and so on. The second category of capabilities concerns the freedom to pursue ‘one kind of life over another’ (Sen 1992: 40). Capabilities are considered in terms of positive rights that relate to genuine opportunities, rather than negative rights defined in terms of freedom from interference. For example, one cannot be said to enjoy freedom of the press if one is unable to read or write – as rights and freedoms must relate to actual capabilities. It is, in my view, on the distribution of these positive rights that egalitarians should focus.
Sen’s capabilities approach coincides with a pluralist conception of value, leading to his reluctance to specify in objective or essentialist terms the nature of what we might consider ‘the good life’ (Callinicos 2000: 60). Instead, Sen is interested in equalizing the distribution of ‘freedom to live the kinds of lives we have reason to value’ (Sen 1999: 14), whatever that may mean in individual cases. Martha Nussbaum, by contrast, argues for an explicitly essentialist (or universal) theory of human flourishing, passionately condemning the pluralist (or relativist) position:
Highly intelligent people, people deeply committed to the good of women and men in developing countries, people who think of themselves as feminist and anti-racist, are taking up positions that converge… with positions of reaction, oppression and sexism (Nussbaum 1992: 2004).
Nussbaum proposes a ‘thick vague conception’ of the ends of human life, and produces a list of ten human needs, considering such requirements as a long and healthy life, the avoidance of unnecessary pain and the freedom to plan one’s own life (Nussbaum 1992: 222). Equality is about the equitable distribution of these capacities to function and flourish as human beings. Each of her points need elaboration and defence of course, and there is no room to do them justice in this essay. Briefly, I would suggest, however, that such a defence would require a belief in a universal human nature – hence a rejection of the empiricist ‘blank slate’ argument.
So far I have defended a ‘thick’ conception of equality, arguing for equality of outcome in terms of the distribution of inalienable rights and positive capabilities to function. This is a radical view of equality, yet I attempted to demonstrate the insufficiency of narrower approaches that focus on non-discrimination and equal opportunities. In the remaining section of the essay, I will consider the view that equality – so defined – is an unrealistic goal in modern society. The first criticism requires that we clarify our argument. It may well be the case that, in strictly formal terms, some level of inequality is inevitable, but this does not make egalitarian arguments naïve or idealistic. ‘Democracy’ and ‘freedom’ are ideals never likely to be fully achieved, yet we do not condemn Iranian or Chinese dissidents for their ‘unrealistic’ goals. The same is true of the call for ‘free competition’ or ‘flexible labour markets’ we hear from business leaders, yet one is unlikely to hear the CBI referred to as a group of naïve radicals. The point is that, for egalitarians, movement towards equality, just like movement towards democracy, involves steps in the right direction.
The second point made against egalitarians is the economic argument that increasing equality of outcome is wasteful and, therefore, immoral. It would, so the argument goes, stifle growth by punishing talent and effort and rewarding mediocrity; ‘everyone of us’ as Chancellor Gordon Brown puts it, ‘would pay a heavy price as a result’ (Daniel 1997: 23) of egalitarian measures. In fact, there is much evidence that the opposite is the case: high levels of inequality tend to be associated with lower growth rates. For example, the East Asian tiger economies grew far more quickly during the 20th Century than any Latin American states, and from its onset were blessed with much higher levels of equality (Rodrik 1996; Cumings 1989; Kohli 1994). In Europe, the example of Sweden also provides ample evidence that high levels of equality are compatible with sustained economic growth, even in the era of ‘globalisation’ (Hirst and Thompson 1999). Based on figures from the Economist, George Monbiot points out:
Sweden has a current account surplus of $10bn and the UK a deficit of $26bn. Even by the neoliberals’ favourite measures, Sweden wins: it has a lower inflation rate than ours, higher “global competitiveness” and a higher ranking for “business creativity and research” (Monbiot 2005: 21)
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Sweden is also the fifth most equal nation in the world, based on the GINI index, while Britain is 18th (UNDP 2006a). Likewise, Norway has the highest GDP per capita of any country in the world (UNDP 2006b). It is also the most equal according to the GINI index (UNDP 2006a).
In conclusion, the essay has argued that equality (or at least, far higher levels of equality) is achievable in contemporary society. The notion of equal opportunities, however, is insufficient in either of its forms as it does not deal adequately with the issue of fairness. I have therefore argued for a thicker, fuller conception of equality which concerns itself with both (a) the inviolability of persons in the protection of their rights and (b) the spread of concrete capabilities. Perhaps the biggest barrier to equality is ideological, and stems from the ubiquity of capitalism in the modern world, which leads to a sense that it is a ‘natural’ state of affairs. Yet Aristotle thought this was true of slavery, as the institution was so widespread in the ancient world (Aristotle 1992). Egalitarians must push the case that, as Rousseau saw, the institution of private property is itself re-distributive of resources that often belong in common. ‘You are lost if you forget that the fruits are everyone’s and the Earth is no one’s’ he lamented in his classic polemic (Rousseau 1999 : 106). While perfect equality may be impossible, there is always the potential for more fairness, more justice and more equality in society.