Equality ( www.Dictionary.com ) is a “correspondence in quantity, degree, value, rank or ability”. Therefore people are equal when they have the same amount of goods, can attach the same value to their lives, are equally happy and satisfied with their overall situation and have equal ability in certain tasks.
We intuit that inequality is essentially constitutive of our being: people are born from different backgrounds, with different talents, riches and attitudes towards life. We are born unequal. Certain philosophers, however, contend that all human beings are – and should be treated as – equals.
This raises the question of whether – and to what extent – intervention is required to rectify this imbalance: “Is it morally acceptable that people have an unfair advantage over others?” “How can this be solved? Is it through equal welfare, equal rights or equal outcomes?”
The conundrum has been debated at length by philosophers and a series of solutions has been proposed that goes under the name of Egalitarianism. All of these agree that equality should be universal in its application and should treat people impartially. The American philosopher Larry Temkin, however, contends that “universality” and “impartiality” are insufficient criteria as they pursue equality as a means of achieving another ideal ( Temkin, p.156). He believes in the principle of “equality as comparability” ( Temkin, p. 156), which analyses a person’s situation in relation to a group or society.
Thus inequality, as Temkin intends it, stems from a situation in which a person, though no more deserving, is better off than another, especially if this wealth is obtained through luck and not choice (for example, if one who took a calculated risk fares worse than another whose risk was far greater, this is unfair, thus the inequality must be rectified).
Temkin is pursuing the idea of substantive equality- that is, unequal situations, whether or not they be the result of fair procedures, should be corrected. He wants to eliminate the role of luck in our lives to facilitate discrimination on the basis of desert. People should also have equal opportunity to be deserving of something, he argues, therefore they should benefit from ex ante equality (equality in their prospects). But surely equally deserving people should benefit from equal outcomes (ex post equality). Thus it is the role of the state to supervise and intervene where necessary to maintain equality.
At this point a prioritarian- who believes that the best outcome is that which generates the highest level of aggregate welfare whilst giving greater weight to the worst off- might advance the argument of sufficiency: instead of worrying about fairness per se, society should provide for everyone’s needs. Equality is of secondary importance.
To answer this, Temkin introduces the example of “Ruth”, a poor American citizen. Ruth earns $20.000 a year from two jobs, has four children, an old car and a mortgage. She worries about losing her house and not being able to send her children to university. Yet Ruth can be considered one of the luckiest people in history: she has a longer life expectancy than her ancestors, she lives in a country where there are no disease epidemics and free speech and choice are not only permitted, but expected. Her absolute level of wealth is one of the highest on the planet. Yet it seems bad that she fares much worse than others in her society whom she is no less deserving than (Temkin, p.175).
Unfortunately for Temkin, people are unequal, and any idea that we could create a fair egalitarian society is a fantasy because egalitarianism is fundamentally flawed.
Egalitarians argue that they champion justice and fairness. Let me give an example to disprove this: Jim and Joe are writing an essay for their professor, who is a comparative egalitarian. They both work for exactly the same amount of time, therefore from an egalitarian moral point of view they deserve equal rewards. Jim, however, has a talent for writing that Joe does not possess, so he is given a far higher mark than Joe. At this point the egalitarian professor decides that it would be unfair to award different marks to “equally deserving” students, so Jim is docked points until he is at Joe’s level.
What exactly is fair or just in the example above? How is it reasonable that not only a person’s talents and merits are ignored, but that they are actively deterred from developing them?
This example shows just how unfair an egalitarian society would be. Egalitarianism, like most other attempts to artificially create equality, is at best misguided, though many would describe it as arbitrary nonsense.
I would argue that any form of egalitarianism is an excuse for laziness and irresponsibility. It wants to convince people that they are not responsible for their outcomes, that if anything goes wrong in their lives it is somebody else’s fault. It promotes the fallacious idea that people are equal and equally deserving. It blames the rich for being rich, the ambitious for being ambitious. It erases any incentives people might have to work hard and become high achievers.
Let’s return to the Ruth example. It seems to me that Ruth is envious. It also seems like she believes society owes her equal welfare. Society doesn’t owe her anything except the guarantee of fair procedures. That is it. What has she done to consider herself equal to the better-off members of her society? I think it a fair to presume her education levels are low (her income from two skilled jobs would not be $20,000). That unfortunately means that, in economic terms, she is less valuable to a company than, say, a financial director. I am not suggesting that her intrinsic value is diminished, I am stating an economic fact. She is not worth more than $20.000 a year to a company.
I do not believe anyone has the right to claim that society owes them a living. I believe in responsibility, and that is something for which egalitarians cannot make provisions .
We should strive towards a society that provides incentives for its citizens to work hard by guaranteeing equal opportunities. What we should not aim for is a society that taxes those who work hard so as to provide for those who are content to depend on the State for income. We should of course allow people to be charitable, if they so wish. But we should not show equal concern for those who do not deserve it.
People should be rewarded for their merits, not on the basis of equal benefits. Absolute equality is unrealistic. Comparative Egalitarianism may be moved by compassion and goodwill, yet it seems to create more injustice that it solves.