What does ‘Equality’ mean?

Yesterday was the first day of the U of T grad conference I mentioned on Thursday. I wanted to say something briefly about the keynote address, a very interesting talk by Raymond Guess on ‘Identification and the Politics of Envy’.

One of the key themes of the talk was ‘equality’, and a point that Guess made (though others have certainly made it) is that to speak of people being equal or unequal implies reference to some standard of comparison – they may be equally smart, equally tall, equally popular, etc. There can be equality and inequality in a hundred different ways.

But they can’t be equal-full-stop: that sort of claim is meaningless. For this reason, he suggests, egalitarianism at least in simple forms doesn’t make that much political sense.

I think this might overstate the case. It’s true that there are many sorts of equality, but it might also be true that one particular sense of equality is sufficiently central and important to count as an archetype or paradigm – i.e. there might be one sort of equality that lies behind 99% of ‘egalitarian’ demands.

What might that central sort of equality be?

One of the most widely accepted ways in which people are ‘equal’ is so-called ‘moral equality’, equal worth or value. Almost nobody actively denies this, even if they deny that people are or should be equal in any other way. I don’t think that’s just rhetoric – I think a lot of people have a strong intuition that ‘people are equal in value’ is both true and important. But it’s not at all clear what exactly it means.

I’m not going to try to say what exactly it means – but I do want to suggest that whatever it means, it may be possible to see it as drawing together many other important sorts of equality.

Here’s how it might do that. Instead of the idea of two people being equal (actually or possibly) focus on the idea of two people treating each others as equals. This seems to be linked even more closely with the idea of ‘moral equality’ – to treat you as an equal is to treat you in a way that responds to the special value you have, or in a way that ‘respects’ you.

For instance, we might think that I treat you as an equal when I try to persuade you to do something, but not when I make you do it with threats or commands. Is this still a bit obscure? Yes. But run with it.

The key move I want to make is that people being equal in various factual political respects may be importantly connected with people treating each other as equals.

On the one hand, being equal in certain factual ways might enable that sort of treatment, while inequality prevents it. I have in mind equality/inequality of power – if you depend on me more, or if I have more power over you, I can’t know whether you’re agreeing with me or following my advice because you think it’s good or because you need to for your safety. I am, in a sense, thrown into a relation of control, of seeing you as something does what I want and not as an independent centre of judgement.

On the other hand, being equal in certain factual ways might indicate or result from us relating as equal in value, while inequality is taken to symbolise disparities in value. For instance, we know from the ultimatum game that people would often prefer to get nothing than to accept an insultingly small offer – they see a very unequal division of a good as implying a correspondingly low view of their worth, relative to the other person, and resist this. They feel that when money is divided unequally between them, for no good reason, they are not being related to as an equal but as an inferior.

Similarly, one reason why people might care about inequalities of wealth per se is that it serves to symbolise a discrepancy in the value attributed to people. Why should I be poor and that other person rich, given that they’re no better than me? And people might feel the same way about other disparities (e.g. legal status).

If these suggestions were true, then even though ‘equality’ always means ‘equality-in-some-respect’, there is nevertheless a core meaning of equality, albeit a sometimes unclear or inarticulate one: that people are equal in value, and hence should relate as equals, which requires them to be roughly equal in power, and will tend to make them equal in the goods that are distributed to them. It would be a cluster concept, but still one with a meaningful sort of unity to it.

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One Response to What does ‘Equality’ mean?

  1. Pingback: Socialist Equality and Majestic Equality | Majestic Equality

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