This might seem like a topic completely out of the blue to discuss on my blog. But what prompted me to write on this topic is that currently, my group of students on the summer school I’m working on has to do a presentation at the end of the week on a topic of their choice. The title of their presentation is ‘The Idea that Changed the World’, so you can imagine the kind of broad ideas which were thought up during our initial planning session. Eventually after passing over ideas such as communism or artificial intelligence, my group settled on the idea of equality. They’re looking at how the promotion of the idea of equality in gender, race, religion and sexuality has changed the world in the last two centuries. It’s an interesting topic, and for the most part, the material they’re covering is fairly uncontroversial.
But what interests me, as a philosopher, is how the mainstream idea of ‘equality’ is so uncontroversial, yet the implications of egalitarian lines of thought are much more complex and incredibly disputed. The term ‘equality’ is used so positively that it is pretty difficult in today’s politically correct climate to speak out against it. If someone went around saying ‘I don’t support equality’ or ‘I don’t believe equality is always for the better’, you’d probably get branded a sexist or a racist or just a nasty person in general. The point of this blog post though is to question those broad assumptions, and I am going to try and argue that very few of us are actual egalitarians.
For the sake of simplicity here, the type of egalitarianism that I’m going to be disputing is intrinsic egalitarianism. That is, the doctrine that there is something fundamentally good about equality in its own right. You can contrast that with the idea of instrumental egalitarianism, which states that equality isn’t intrinsically good or bad, but generally circumstances which are unequal lead to bad consequences which are undesirable, therefore equality is good because it generally leads to better circumstances. But this isn’t the type of egalitarianism that most people endorse, which is why I will focus on intrinsic egalitarianism.
I argue that much of the political dialogue of our day seems to suggest that we are intrinsic egalitarians. If someone asked, “Do you support equality?”, you’re likely to just answer “Yes” and not “Well it depends on whether it leads to good consequences”. Firstly you’d do that because you’re probably busy and don’t really want to get into a big debate over it. Secondly you’d do it because I think there’s an understanding in the common use of the word equality which we understand to mean supporting things like equal rights for different races, religions, sexuality, gender etc. So that’s a completely reasonable stance to take, and a completely normal, mainstream one. Consider my country of the UK and the government’s attitude to equality. One of its policies is titled ‘Creating a fairer and more equal society’ and the first line of this report states ‘We want the UK to be a leader in equality’. We have an Equalities office. We have a Minister for Women and Equality. We use the term equality to freely mean something that is good, without much clarification or any kind of footnote saying that we endorse equality only sometimes. So when I say that most people think equality is intrinsically good, I hope I’m not over presuming anything.
So what is the problem with intrinsic egalitarianism? Well, the problem is that we can imagine scenarios which are equal, but seem to us to be unfair or not right or just immoral. Imagine a world where half the world is born with no eyes, and the other half has two functional eyes. Effectively this world is half blind, half sighted. Now in this world, eye transplants are entirely safe and entirely effective. Would it be right for the world leaders to force everyone who has two eyes to donate one eye which could be transplanted onto someone born with no eyes? This would lead to a more equal situation, surely, a situation where everyone is sighted (albeit probably without much depth perception). Now, opinions tend to be divided when I ask this thought experiment of people. It largely comes down to ideas about rights to your own bodily parts, your ability to choose etc. But still, if you value equality, it seems you must be able to say that there is something good about the situation which results. You move from a situation where half of the world is completely disadvantaged compared to the rest, into a world where everyone is equal (in terms of sight).
Now, consider the same scenario, but imagine that eye transplants are impossible but removing people’s eyes is perfectly safe. Would it be right for the world leaders to simply gouge out the eyes of all two-eyed people? There’s very few people in my experience who would say yes to that kind of scenario. Yet, you have the same sort of situation. You move from a situation where half of the world is completely disadvantaged compared to the rest, into a world where everyone is equal (in terms of sight). But there seems to be something very disturbing about saying that we value equality in this situation, where it seems that we move from a unequal but okay situation to an equal but much worse situation. How much do we actually value the concept of equality?
All this talk of worlds with eyes and blind people can be a bit abstract. So I want to follow up with perhaps a more relatable example. Consider the idea of equal pay for women – most of us support that, right? Now if you’re not already female, imagine that you are a female working in an office where one of your male colleagues does the exact same job as you but is paid more. If we went back 50 years, this would surely be the case. Let’s put concrete numbers to this and imagine you, the female, are paid a salary of £20k but your male colleague is paid £30k. Now your boss presents to you this situation where for no reason whatsoever, he gives you two choices. He offers that you get a payrise of £5k (bringing you to £25k) and your colleague gets a payrise of £20k (so he gets £50k). Or he can reduce both of your salaries to £15k, so you both have equal salaries.
Bearing in mind there is literally no difference in your jobs, there is no difference in amount of work done or anything which would merit this inequality. Well, what would you choose? I would probably choose to take the £5k pay rise. But then, have I endorsed a position which runs counter to my belief of equal pay for women? My choice directly leads to the fact that there is now more inequality between myself and my male colleague. I could have chosen the other route and made it more equal for the both of us. I would probably hate my boss, but nonetheless, I choose the pay rise because in absolute terms, it means we’re both better off.
So then why are we so obsessed with the idea of equality? What I think we actually value is the improvement of those who have the least advantages in life. This often gets confused with the idea of equality because it’s often the case that more equality does lead to this. But sometimes, inequalities can lead to this as well. Still, you never hear anyone say “I support inequality”. Yet some of the measures that we use in order to promote so-called ‘equality’ are actually rather unequal in themselves. Consider the post of Minister for Women and Equality. Isn’t the name itself a rather stark hypocrisy in the way it values the right of women over men? There is no minister for men’s equality. But don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely no Men’s Rights Activist who thinks that’s a bad thing. I think it is okay to have a Minister for Women and Equality, but it shouldn’t be pushed under the umbrella term of ‘equality’. Call it what it is: it’s improving the lot of women, who in many ways still suffer from being considered unequal to men. It’s not the equality we’re really concerned about, it’s the fact that women are more disadvantaged and we prioritise women because of that.
Consider a slightly different issue, like the way in which we try to improve the education system. Generally we prioritise improving the outcomes of the least advantaged pupils. No one really does a big push about improving the test scores of boys who attend Eton. Instead, we focus and prioritise the least advantaged, because we care about the absolute value of their success, not the relative one. If we cared about equality, we might want to instead take away all the privileges of rich, privately educated pupils. We could dismantle their schools, take their equipment, and distribute it all equally. But we don’t do that, and many of us wouldn’t support that, because whilst it might make society more equal, it actively makes some people worse off all in the name of equality.
It’s funny because it all ties back to the job I’m working on currently. I work as a Student Ambassador for my university, and it’s part of a department called Widening Participation. The focus of the department is to improve the aspirations of people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, and hopefully get those who are least likely to apply to university to both apply more, and have a better chance of being successful in their application. Of course we also do things like just providing general information about university, but a large proportion of the work which we do is specifically targeted at those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. As such, we engage in a type of positive discrimination. And my university is not unique in this regard, for the higher tuition fees came with the caveat that all universities charging the higher fees must earmark part of that funding into widening participation and encouraging people from worse off backgrounds to go to university.
This means that the school group who are doing this presentation on equality that I mentioned at the start were only eligible for this summer school if they met certain criteria which indicate they’re from disadvantaged backgrounds. So to me, it’s a bit ironic that a summer school which is intrinsically discriminatory has led my students to pick the topic of equality. What I mean by discriminatory is that it prioritises the least advantaged and isn’t a summer school that is open to all. Well isn’t this strange: don’t most people think of equality as allowing for equal opportunities for all people, regardless of their background? There are certainly people who argue that policies like widening participation by targeting the disadvantaged are bad, because they’re unequal. They argue that positive discrimination is bad because it treats people unequally, and prioritises certain groups of people over others.
How could you counter arguments like these? Because I certainly don’t agree with them. Perhaps you could argue that policies like these do in fact, promote equality by helping less advantaged students get up to the same level as more advantaged students, or to have similar chances for social mobility as their better off peers. But then you could just as well make it more equal by taking away from the more advantaged, until they’re at the level of those who are least advantaged. But no one wants to do that because it makes little sense. Hence I put it to you that we are not concerned so much with equality, but much more with just making people better off in general.
So the second option to counter these arguments is by rejecting the idea that equality is something we value and instead endorse the position that we want to do instead is to improve the lots of the least advantaged. And we could argue that doing such a thing is a good thing. If we reject the notion of equality, then positive discrimination is a good thing because it does improve the lot of the least advantaged. And that’s the position I hold, because I do support widening participation and I do support measures like this which improve the aspirations of the least advantaged pupils. But I don’t do it under any kind of guise of equality; I do it because I acknowledge that what is good is improving the absolute quality of life for those who have the least, those who were the unluckiest in the draw of life. Now whether prioritising the least advantaged is a good thing or the best attitude to take is up for debate. But what I have argued is that actually, a lot of the policies that we endorse in our governments these days, and what is generally accepted by the public, is not because we think equality is good. It’s because we like to be charitable, selfless people who want to improve the lives of the least advantaged. Equality is just a by-product of this attitude.
In conclusion, equality is a buzzword that has so many positive connotations which it simply does not deserve. I think using the term equality so freely and vaguely has led to confusion in the kind of values that we hold. And I think that we’re starting to come across problems when we say we so openly and unquestioningly endorse equality, problems which could be avoided if we just thought more carefully about what it is that we actually care about. The view I endorse might not necessarily be the right one, but I hope this blog post might encourage you to at least evaluate your views on equality and what your own values are.