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About equality

Published on September 8, 2011 by: in: Society

If it is possible, by means of social redistribution of resources (the use of e.g. tax measures or social welfare), to minimize the negative impact on our lives by certain factors that are beyond our control, such a strategy realizes the liberal ideal of freedom. It provides deep justification for this ideal of freedom.

Liberalism – as I understand and accept it – is a deeply egalitarian philosophy, though equality is not its fundamental nor intrinsic feature.

The previous sentence sounds terrible – equivocal and wavering, by means of typical “on the one hand – on the other hand”. In this article, I will attempt to convince the Reader that it is not true and – at least as I intent, not absurdly – this sentence is precise, internally coherent and valid.

I understand the notion of “the fundamental value” strictly and literally: as a value-fundament, which is a basis for a certain philosophy or world view. It is a value that begins our reasoning, serves as an argument when we encounter dilemmas or conflicts of ideas that cannot be solved otherwise, or when each solution seems equally wrong or (less often) equally good. Freedom – as Ronald Dworkin wrote in the title of his book – is such a value in liberalism. It is freedom that is the starting point and serves us to solve moral dilemmas and controversies (“us” – means liberals).

Equality is not an intrinsic value, too. I understand an intrinsic (or, to use another notion, “inherent”) value as an ideal that is valuable itself. Unfortunately, it is an “idem per idem” explanation, but I hope the Reader can guess what I mean by that: an ideal that does not have to be linked to other ideals to gain moral value. In other words, an intrinsic value is not of instrumental character, thus it is valid even if it does not fulfil any other ideals. To accept the fact that equality is not and cannot be an intrinsic value in this sense, it is enough to carry out the following test: equality in poverty must be better than inequality in wealth for somebody who considers equality an intrinsic value. Or, to put it schematically: situation (I), where persons A and B have 2 units of certain goods each, that is distributable (e.g. material wealth, access to culture, education, etc.) is better than a situation (II), where A has 3 and B – 4 units. The opinion that situation (I) may be perceived as morally better than situation (II) is in my opinion absurd. Therefore, I consider absurd the belief that equality may be an intrinsic value.

That is enough for the negative disquisition: equality is not (at least for me) a fundamental nor an intrinsic value. Is it, however, invisible for a liberal? Right the opposite: equality (in its strong, or even quite radical version, though I will try to articulate the nature of this “radicalism” below) is the inevitable implication of liberal freedom when perceived correctly – an ideal that has both fundamental and intrinsic character for liberals.

I do not intent – to calm the Reader that may be worried at this point – to introduce a relation between freedom and equality by the use of a semantic or definitional trick that would expand the notion of freedom in a way that it includes also equality. “Equal freedom for everyone” – it sounds very nice, but – firstly, it does not remove possible conflicts between the two nouns in this ideal; secondly – it restricts the use of equality solely to “distributing freedom”. Equality, however, as I understand it (and as it is worth reflection and defense), must also refer – maybe above all – to material resources. “Currency” of equality is not just e.g. freedom to express ideas but, first of all – certain scope of material goods that allow us to lead a worthy, interesting and fulfilled life in a society and provide access to such goods as educations, culture, professional life or power.

We must think about connections between freedom and equality more seriously. However – relying on the statement that freedom is a fundamental and intrinsic ideal for liberals – we need to start with a reflection about freedom. Readers of “Liberté!”encountered my reflections “About freedom” in one of the previous issues of the magazine (no V, pp. 50-55). Therefore, I will only say briefly that I understand freedom in the traditional liberal way, as negative freedom that implies no external duress. I understand duress as a situation that results from other people’s intentions (or a situation that, at least, can be modified by others), when I am confronted with options that are all unfavourable for me (worse than before duress) and I have to choose the least bad option, which is more favourable for other people. This is the negative understanding of freedom, inspired by Friedrich Hayek (on the first pages of “Constitution of freedom”). He is convincing for me in this matter, though his understanding of duress that is limited to actions of specific individuals is too narrow for me.

Equality understood in this way, i.e. as a lack of external duress (or, in a more realistic and modest way, limitation of external duress to minimum), is both a fundamental and intrinsic ideal for a liberal. However, it does not mean that we cannot ask about a more profound ideal, a vision of humanity or a model of life that would be essential for such an ideal? What does “no external duress” involve that we can treat this state as desired and attractive? What vision of humanity – happiness or fulfillment – does such an idea support? It is not a non-controversial, obvious ideal shared by everyone. Right the opposite – it may not suit many people (especially some conservatives, traditionalists and supporters of authoritarianism). Hence, we, liberals, carry the duty to justify and defend it. We can deduce its legitimacy from objections formulated against it by conservative critics who affirm ideals of human life that are different from life in such freedom.

It seems that the most efficient (and possibly the only) defense may refer to the ideal of a person who is (I apologize for solemnity of this statement) the architect of one’s own fate. It is a person who is not subject to other people’s will and impersonal fate, but forms their life according to one’s beliefs and preferences. It is concordant with the Kantian ideal of autonomy – a state where we are not just a tool used to accomplish other people’s plans, but we form our life according to our own plan and conception of good. Or – if someone is searching for other philosophical provenances of such an ideal – concordant with Millian individualism: affirmation of a human as independent of tyrannical superstitions, tradition or the opinion of majority. Or – if someone prefers convincing moral intuitions that origin from folk wisdom rather than respected philosophers of the past – concordant with the ideal of a person who reaps what they have sown.

If it is so, we need to make our lives completely independent of the factors we do not influence and which may negatively influence our self-fulfilment. It does not mean that the ideal of freedom should eliminate e.g. the law of gravity or getting older – certain things are “natural” in the sense that they are part of human condition and we cannot influence them. Hence, the only reasonable approach is to humbly accept them and adapt to them. Defining what is natural in this sense is in fact historically changeable and socially determined. If we can minimize the negative influence of some factors, which are beyond our control, on our lives, as a result of social redistribution of resources, such a strategy realizes the liberal ideal of freedom. In any case, it is an answer to the deep justification of that ideal of freedom.

This strategy must lead to more equality than the one we can see in the existing societies – in this sense, it is quite radical egalitarianism (if the degree of changes that are necessary to reconcile reality with the ideal is the measure of “radicalism”). This egalitarianism requires reducing inequalities – namely those resulting from factors over which we do not have control and which place us in an underprivileged position. It is thus an ideal of equality that reflects the influence of conscious decisions, preferences, choices and efforts and not objective factors in the achievements of people. It is an ideal of freedom that requires neutralization of the influence of “accidental” factors on inequalities. I understand “accidental factors” as factors that are independent of a person and thus are out of their control.

Is this really egalitarianism? In the principal sense – no: this ideal does not require equality as such, but it requires the real inequalities to reflect only our decisions, plans, preferences and efforts which may be in fact very unequal. In the empirical sense – yes, because a society which would fit such an ideal would be much more egalitarian that any known real societies.  These tolerate and cement many inequalities shaped by factors that are completely independent of us: birthplace, wealth of our parents or their ingenuity, sex or skin colour, etc.

But what can we do with such “accidental factors” like innate intelligence, strength or beauty – these factors are in a sense “beyond our control” (regardless of my efforts I will never be a good fiddler or sculptor), but certainly influence our choices? There is probably no reason for them to be beyond the interest of liberal ideal of equality. Of course, the point is not  the redistribution of these qualities (it would be impossible, undesirable and unjust), but only minimizing the influence of inequalities connected with them on our lives. Certain benefits that come from them cannot and should not be eliminated. What we can do – via social redistribution e.g. of taxes – is to organize the social distribution of benefits in such a way that will prevent the underprivileged from being affected by excessively negative results of these so to speak “natural” shortages. This is how I understand the basic idea of the liberal theory of justice by John Rawls; inequalities in distribution should be justified for the benefit of the underprivileged. Social instruments of justice should neutralize what can be named as “natural” injustice. Nature, as rightly argued Rawls, is neighter just nor unjust; it is social consequences which derive from natural differences that are evaluated in terms of justice.

A while ago, the ideal has been presented as controversial, but at the same time very simple: it is the ideal of eliminating chance in social distribution. I dedicated a major part of my recent book “Equality and Legitimacy” (Oxford University Press 2008) to develop and defend this concept of equality – and I am not even able to  summarize it here. Instead, I will recall two most obvious charges that can be formulated against it.

The first charge is that this ideal is too harsh and too “little forgetting” since it obliges us to sustain inequalities. Although they result from conscious decisions, we should neutralize them by forgetting mistakes or excessively risky decisions. The Polish Prime Minister said: “They should have secured themselves” about helpless victims of the flood. This sentence was shocking, though significant. From the point of view of “luck egalitarianism” he was absolutely right, also in the moral sense. The same refers to every risky gambler or – any person who takes bad decisions in their lives. To answer this charge, I will say: in fact, although risk is part of our lives, in certain situations we are ready to paternally equalize the outcome of other people’s wrong decisions. This is at variance with the ideal of liberal equality, but this ideal should be moderated by the ideals of forgiveness, mercy, charity and empathy. Facing such values, we encounter limits of liberal equality and freedom, though we are ready to accept some dose of paternalism.

The dilemma is certainly broader and indicates at the fundamental problem in applying the ideal of equality. In order to put this ideal into practice, we must separate the “accidental” factors ( in the sense that people subject to them do not have control over them) from the factors we can control – factors we can shape by our own will and for which we are so to say responsible. Is it possible to make such a distinction? Yes, I think – though we could argue which specific factors should be classified to one or another category, as well as stages in-between. However, if we negated the categories of facts and factors that are actually controlled by our will, we would negate the aesthetic sensibility of numerous social practices – as the institution of punishing for crimes according to the committed offence.

The ideal of freedom, which lies in eliminating inequalities that result from “accidental factors”, is at the same time radical and very simple – a rare combination in moral reflections. It is radical, because its application, as I have mentioned before, would lead to a society basically different from the one we can see around us. It is also extremely simple, as it comes from one of the most elementary moral intuitions: human fate should be shaped by people themselves. It supports the liberal principle of freedom as the elimination of external duress. If we apply it also to the principles of material distribution, we will obtain the picture of equality. As I have indicated in the first sentence of this text – equality is neither a fundamental nor intrinsic value, but it gives liberalism much more egalitarian character than it is usually seen in discussions, where the ideal of freedom opposes the ideal of equality in liberalism in a superficial way. It does not limit the liberal ideal of equality to the purely formal equality to the law or equal rights, which is understood clearly meritocratically. Such perception disregards the way our chances to achieve qualifications are determined. These qualifications figure as an operand in the ideal of equal rights.

Translation: Marek Pinta ()

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About Wojciech Sadurski

Professor of philosophy at European University Institute in Florence; also connected with the Faculty of Law at Sydney University and with European Centre of Warsaw University. He studied and took his doctorate at the Faculty of Law at Warsaw University; then he worked in Australia and Italy and was an academic teacher at few American and European universities (among others at Central European University in Budapest). His main academic books are, among others:”Neoliberal System of Political Values” (1980), “The Theory of Justice” (1988), “Moral Pluralizm and Legal Neutralisty” (1990), “Freedom of Speech and its Limits” (1999), “Rights Before Courts” (2005), and recently “Equality and Legitimacy” (2008). He is also a regular columnist, among others in “Rzeczpospolita” and “Gazeta Wyborcza” and recently he has been writing a blog on a web portal Salon24. He is a member of Programme Councils of Institute of Public Affairs and Centre for International Relations, as well as of few international think-tanks and editorial teams.

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