Introduction to Political Theory

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1

Principles of equality

The term ‘equality’ is widely used in political debate, and frequently misunderstood.
On the political left, equality is a central value, with socialists and social democrats
aiming to bring about if not an equal society, then a more equal one. On the political
right, the attempt to create a more equal society is criticised as a drive to uniformity,
or a squeezing out of individual initiative. However, closer reflection on the nature
of equality reveals a number of things. First, there is not one concept of equality,
but a range of different types. Second, all the main ideological positions discussed
in this book endorse at least one type of equality – formal equality – and most also
endorse one or more substantive conceptions of equality. Third, principles of
equality are often elliptical, meaning there is an implicit claim that must be made
explicit if we are to assess whether the claim is valid. To explain, since human
beings possess more than one attribute or good, it is possible that equality in the
possession of one will lead to, or imply, inequality in another. For example, Anne
may be able-bodied and John disabled. Each could be given equal amounts of
resources, such as health care, and so with regard to health care they are treated
equally, but John’s needs are greater, so the equality of health care has unequal
effects. If Anne and John were given resources commensurate with their needs, then
they would be being treated equally in one sphere (needs) but unequally in another
(resources). The recognition of this plurality of goods, and therefore spheres within
which people can be treated equally or unequally, is essential to grasping the
complexity of the debate over equality and inequality. What is being distributed –
and, therefore, what we are equal or unequal in our possession of – is termed a
‘metric’. As the argument of this chapter progresses we will develop a framework
within which we can come to some conclusions on the value we should attach to
equality. We start with some principles of equality. Each principle is discussed in
more detail in the course of the chapter, but an initial outline of each will help
elucidate the connections between them:

  • Formal equality To say we should treat like cases alike states nothing more than
    a tautological truth. If two people are alike in all respects then we would have
    no reason for discriminating between them; of course, no two people are alike,
    and the principle is indeed ‘formal’ – it does not tell us how to treat dissimilar
    people. Racialists do not violate the principle of formal equality, because they
    argue that racial groups are not ‘similar’ and so need not, or should not, be
    treated in the same way.

  • Moral equality The concept of moral equality is sometimes presented in negative
    form as a rejection of natural hierarchy, or natural inequality. In many societies
    it is taken for granted that people are, in important respects, deserving of equal
    consideration. Much discussion in political theory – especially in the dominant
    liberal stream of the discipline – is about the characterisation of moral equality,
    which, paradoxically, can take the form of justifying inequality: that is, if people
    are morally equal, how do we explain their unequal treatment in terms of the
    distribution of social goods, such as income? The very idea that such inequality
    must be justified assumes that people are morally equal – in a society where there
    is an overwhelming belief in natural inequality, such as, say, a caste society, it

56 Part 1 Classical ideas

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