In what sense should we be egalitarian ? What should we try to equalise ?
Egalitarianism has been rightly identified as an "essentially contested concept", that is, there is not, and it is doubtful whether there ever can be, any agreement as to its meaning (HURLEY, 1993, p179). The value of equality is disputed by different thinkers. Some believe that equality is only to be valued as a means of attaining some broader aim, for example the maximisation of utility. By contrast, others believe that equality has an intrinsic value and should be pursued as an end in itself (BARRY, 1995, p186). The view taken on this question has important implications for debates concerning value conflicts, for example between equality and liberty. Moreover, even amongst those who accept equality as a primary goal, there is little agreement over what should be equalised. For example, should we try to equalise opportunity or resources or welfare - each of which may result in different outcomes, some more 'equal' than others? It is these issues with which this essay is concerned. Firstly, I shall examine the concept of egalitarianism in order to clarify the point that most thinkers advocate not absolute equality of all people but, what Rees terms, 'conditional' equality (1971, pp107-116). Next, I shall consider various accounts of what constitutes equality as offered by Utilitarianism, Rawls and Sen's conception of basic capability equality. Finally, I shall look at the different positions on what we should try to equalise.
`However, before examining the question of in what sense we should be egalitarians, it is important to examine the basis for any form of egalitarianism. Williams identifies two principle uses of the notion of equality (1967, p110). Firstly, it is used as a statement of fact, that is that 'all men are equal', and, secondly, as a statement of political principle, that is that 'all men should be equal (and at present they are not). Clearly human beings are not identical, they do not have the same desires, needs, wants, requirements, etc. Given the obvious diversity within the human race, what argument can be offered to justify equal treatment of different people? Williams suggests an answer to this problem (1967, pp232-9). He points out that all men possess a common humanity, for example they all possess the capacity to feel pain and affection, they all desire self-respect, etc. It is argued that common moral claims arise form these common characteristics. In short, the equality of men in simply being men gives credence to the assertion that men should be equal and treated as such.
`The most extreme version of egalitarianism advocates the equal treatment of all in every respect, whatever their condition. As Watkins notes this would require that "everybody should be treated alike, irrespective of whether they are competent, married, old lags, youths, alcoholics, or whatever" and this is "palpably absurd" (quoted by REES, 1971, p97). No writer of any note has adopted this position for, given the diversity of human society, the degree of social engineering that would be required to pursue it and the nature of the society that would be created, this concept of egalitarianism is both unattainable and undesirable. Moreover, an acceptance of the principle of absolute equality would lead to a situation in which all in society had nothing (but were equal in this!) being preferable to a situation in which any inequalities existed. This is clearly an untenable position.
`If the principle of absolute equality is rejected then we must look for some other, more appropriate, conception of egalitarianism. This can be described as 'conditional equality' which "prescribes that all persons should be treated equally (in the same way) save when there are reasons for treating them differently" (REES, 1971, p108). This is similar to Aristotle's notion of proportional equality which requires that if two people are equal they should have equal shares and if they are unequal they should have unequal shares in proportion to their inequality (REES, 1971, pp92-3). Whilst this conception has the advantage of successfully avoiding the injustices of treating persons with different needs in the same way, it is still a relatively weak conception. As Rees notes, this bare form of conditional equality represents no more than the assertion that there should be "no discrimination without a reason" (1971, p109). Thus, upon this conception, inequalities on the grounds of race, sex and religion would be justified so long as those discriminating were able to provide reasons for the inequalities. The question then becomes not whether there are reasons for unequal treatment but whether these reasons are morally relevant or appropriate. Given that there is no consensus on what constitutes morality or appropriateness, this criterion would appear to be inherently problematic. As Aristotle recognised: "Equals are entitled to equal things, but the important question is: equals and unequals in what?"