Is equality intrinsically valuable?

This essay was written as a formative part of my undergraduate studies at the London School of Economics.

Two problems arise when discussing the apparent value of equality. The first concerns the ability to define equality in such a way that it can be shown as prior to other moral constraints and thus foundational, and the second concerns the ability to prove its desirability given this foundational quality.

Broadly, political theorists have failed to articulate clearly why equality is in an individual’s interests and why they should be treated equally. Instead proponents are charged with making base assumptions that equality forms part of a comprehensive moral doctrine, leaving us with a list of related moral commitments rather than a sound theory (Dworkin 1983 p.25, Kekes 2009 p.180, Kelly 2010 p.57) – equality is “an axiom from which other things can be deduced or inferred” (Kelly 2010 p.57) but no one can articulate ‘why’. It is argued that if the view of equality as valuable is defensible, these challenges must be met (Dworkin 1983 p.25). This essay will assess the worth of equality by looking at instrumental and non-instrumental versions of egalitarianism. It will argue that on the whole, egalitarian theory fails to defend equality in a way that separates it from other moral principles, and that the closest to a defence we can get is using the Original Position as an attempt to prove the intrinsic value of equality.

The principles of equality, in one form or another, are threaded throughout egalitarian theory; whether they be equality of opportunity, resource, welfare, or otherwise. In general, two strands have emerged; that of instrumental egalitarianism and that of non-instrumental, or intrinsic egalitarianism. Instrumental egalitarianism places the value of equality in relation to its instrumental ability to bring about other good outcomes. Resource egalitarianism – which seeks equal-as-possible distributions in wealth – would be a clear illustrative example of how equality is instrumental (Frankfurt 1987 p.24). Equal access to resources, say, money, enables people to actively participate in the market, which enables them to fulfil their welfare requirements, engage in social activities, and so on. In this sense, instrumental egalitarian theory is pluralist (Parfit 1997 p.205). The idea that equality brings about other good outcomes in this way is not unique to egalitarian theory – many other political concepts employ similar principles; utilitarian values hold each individual person’s utilities as equally valid and important and libertarianism maintains that people have an equal right to liberty, to give just two examples. Indeed, it has been argued that all generally accepted modern day political theory is actually concerned with the concept of equality in some form – and thus it clearly holds some special value. All political theories “merely differ in the answers they give to the “equality of what?” question.” (Temkin 2009 p.156). In these cases, equality clearly exists prior to all other political concerns; as the default position for many political theories – to a lesser or greater degree (Kelly 2010 p.59) – it could be argued that it is intrinsically valuable in some sense. However, these theories don’t view equality as valuable in itself, but instead view its effects as valuable – equality is merely a stepping-stone to a greater political idea, and so an intrinsic value cannot truly be found here. Non-instrumental theory is our alternative vantage point.

Non-instrumental or intrinsic egalitarians view inequality as bad in a substantive sense and equality as a positive moral stance beyond its ability to promote other good ends (Temkin 2009 p.156). Several views have developed in this area; that of equality as fair process, equality of outcomes and also of prioritarianism; each place a different emphasis on the value of equality – both in a sense of its value in general and also when it is valuable.

When contemplating equality at a substantive level, unquestionably, fairness plays a role. Indeed, our gut reaction to unfair processes or outcomes proves this point; our instinctive reaction is to declare, “that’s unfair!” (Scanlon 2007 p.206, Kelly 2010 p.57, Temkin 2009 p.157). One route to proving the intrinsic value of equality is through procedural fairness, which is concerned with ex-ante equality (Temkin 2009 p.161). If we find an un-level playing field instinctively and morally unfair, then we should aim to ensure that people have equal prospects – that the expected outcome for everyone is the same. Fair process could be achieved by lottery or other unbiased methods in order to achieve outcomes that cannot be determined by “morally arbitrary” characteristics (Rawls 1972). The question arises however whether this is actually an intrinsic argument for equality. Arguably, procedural egalitarianism is more akin to the instrumentalist arguments; the procedure is only necessarily fair to ensure good outcomes elsewhere – we demand free and fair elections with equal voting rights in a democracy to ensure our concerns are heard equally and in anticipation of good future outcomes, for example. What we actually care about is fairness here, not equality – equality is not prior to our other moral principles, but a consequence of other pieces of a wider puzzle. That said, there is still some value to equality, the aim of procedural fairness may dictate the necessity for equality because some people wield excessive amounts of power over others; the very rich dominate political systems, for example. In these instances, it may be necessary and desirable for equality to form part of a moral basis for the egalitarian philosophy in order to reinforce the fairness of procedure (Scanlon 2007 p.205). Even with this as the case however, this hardly proves an intrinsic and foundational value to equality as it still relies on other doctrines to come about.

It is practically difficult to make a clear distinction between ex-ante process and ex-post outcomes when discussing equality. Outcome egalitarians argue that what matters isex-post equality and the comparative fairness of outcomes (Temkin 2009 p.157, Scanlon 2007). Again, we see that fairness plays a role in the development of our theory – what matters is not the outcome per se, but instead, the fairness of those outcomes. To illustrate the point; if two people earn a salary of £10,000, with person A living in the UK, and person B living in Rowanda, then it matters that A is earning vastly below the national average, and B earns starkly above the average, despite the fact that they earn the same, it would be judged both unfair and inequitable. Again we face the circular argument that equality holds no intrinsic value other than a subjective moral judgement, which in turn requires fairness to give it substance within a wider moral doctrine. We are no closer to showing equality as an intrinsically valuable asset.

Prioritarianism doesn’t seem to offer a response that clearly defends equality either. If we accept that egalitarians are necessarily pluralists (Temkin 2009 p.157), then we agree that a plurality of factors must comprise a moral code. One of these includes the humanitarian instinct to aid those that are worst off (Scanlon 2007 p.203, Temkin 2009 p.159, Crisp 2003 pp.751-761). Prioritarianism allows us to view our each of our basic needs equally, accepting that there is a marginal diminishing return to benefits and increasing returns to disadvantages (O’Neill 2008 p.155, Casal 2007 p.296, Frankfurt 1987 p.24). This however, does not provide an endorsement for equality as a universal paradigm, but again is arguably proof that there is intrinsic value to equality at some level, even in this limited framing of the bottom end of the scale. Ultimately, prioritarianism is about our desire to stop people from suffering out of compassion, not about some higher aim of equality in its purest form (Crisp 2003 pp.757-758).

It would appear then that existing egalitarian theory doesn’t provide us with a purposefully distinct view of equality as being individually intrinsically valuable, but instead, it is positioned in a range of other values. It is only valuable in either (1) that it leads to good outcomes or (2) that it is a by-product of other motivations, and thus not prior to egalitarian theory or foundational in this respect. However, much of the literature arguing against equality as a foundational principle seems to revolve around the argument of proof; political scientists simply do not articulate why equality is an intrinsically foundational principle that we’d choose to have. If the greatest weakness of the defence of equality is merely that it cannot be rationally explained through a proof, as Plato attempted with his defence of Justice in The Republic, then perhaps we can find a thought experiment to perform this role. Kelly (2010) assesses the debate surrounding equality in Locke’s Second Treatise arguing that, if Locke’s argument for equality as a foundational principal to obey is based on the threat of sanction from God for non-compliance, then this is a weak defence. This is a sound argument – if equality is proving difficult to justify as a foundation principle, making God the source of that principle is going to be even more troublesome. But nonetheless, this still doesn’t answer the question of why equality is intrinsically valuable, only that you should adopt it because of the threat of punishment (Kelly 2010 pp.61-67). Perhaps one way to try and prove equality’s intrinsic value could be to use the Veil of Ignorance and the Original Position (Rawls 1972). Behind the Veil of Ignorance, as rational individuals that don’t know their place in society, it is rational – taking into account each person’s differing capacities to reason and to have a sense of the ‘good life’ – that we would conclude that our concerns should be counted equally. Indeed if the Original Position works as a theoretical device, the same principles should be arrived at by one individual, let alone every head of household. If, under these conditions, equality in some form (like the difference principle) would be what we would choose as a set of principles – and I believe it would be – then it is reasonable to argue that prioritarianism and egalitarianism are based on solid ground and that equality, constrained though it is in Rawl’s theory, itself is of intrinsic value. Of course Rawl’s theory isn’t perfect, and has been challenged a great deal of times, but it is as close as we have gotten to securing a defence of equality without falling back on other subjective parts of a moral framework.

It appears relatively impossible to separate out equality from other subjective parts of a moral code without a sound theoretical framework behind it. The Original Position provides the starting point for that defence, even if the conclusions from it are not purely egalitarian in the sense of total equality. Without this however, the value of equality can only ever be positioned in relation to other frameworks, and egalitarian theory will not be able to confront adequately the opposing theory.

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