What is Equality? (2): Or, Equality of What?

As I mentioned before, when people talk about equality they mean equality of something very specific. The problem is, they hardly ever agree on the specifics. So it’s not uncommon to see two people talking about equality and actually talking about something completely different. And even when they’re talking about the same specific type of equality, they often disagree about its importance, its definition and its (lack of) merits.

Here’s a list of some of the types of equality that are frequently discussed:

  1. equality of respect and/or dignity
  2. equality of income or wealth (sometimes equality of consumption)
  3. equality of a bundle of basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life
  4. equality of capabilities
  5. equality of power (political and other power)
  6. equality of rights
  7. equality of luck or opportunity, i.e. equality of natural and social endowments.

I’ll skip the first one for now (I may come back to it in a later post) because it’s vague in its policy implications, and it’s those implications I want to focus on here. In fact, what do we want to do when we say that we want to promote one of the remaining 6 types of equality? And what are the likely problems we’ll face? Let’s go over them one by one.

2. Equality of income or wealth (sometimes equality of consumption)

Few people actually want to strive towards complete equality of income, wealth or consumption, for several good reasons.

  • First, people have different consumption needs and hence different income or wealth requirements. And I’m talking about needs, not preferences. People who prefer expensive stuff will have a hard time justifying the inequality of income or wealth that they require to satisfy their tastes. On the other hand, a blind person will have no difficulties making the case for a higher income. Preferences may also be problematic when they aim too low rather than too high. People who are born into deprivation and only see deprivation around them may adjust their preferences and expectations so that they are satisfied with their lives. However, it would be wrong to follow their preferences rather than their real needs.
  • And secondly, equality of income or wealth creates an incentive problem. See here. If people are not rewarded for their efforts, they may decide that their efforts aren’t worth their while, and society as a whole may be worse off as a result.

So equality of income is in fact shorthand for reduced income inequality. As we don’t want this type of equality to collapse into the next one (see number 3 below), let’s assume that we’re not talking about a society in which income inequality means that the people at the wrong side of the inequality are poor – poor in the sense that they lack the basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life. So, instead picture a society in which all prosper but some prosper a lot more than others.

Is that kind of inequality a problem? Many say it isn’t. Why should a university professor care about how much a business tycoon earns? However, income inequality in this sense can be problematic. It can, for instance, shock people’s notions of fairness and justice. If the professor successfully teaches her students about morality, and the business tycoon earns his wealth by polluting the earth, it may seem unjust that the professor should be rewarded less. Merit and desert are powerful ideals, and a society that systematically violates these ideals through its system of rewards may not be the ideal place to live.

Even if the tycoon earns his wealth by way of morally sound activities, there can be a problem of justice: perhaps he started life in an advantaged position compared to the professor, and therefore doesn’t (entirely) earn his rewards. Maybe the professor also wanted to become a tycoon, but her blindness forced her into a different career. (See point 7 below). And even if the starting positions are equal, the result of the tycoon’s wealth may be that he, compared to the professor, has a larger influence on democratic politics. (See point 5 below). This may destroy democracy, or at least result in a highly fragmented and therefore also unstable society.

So we have some good reasons to do something about this type of inequality. However, when we try to reduce – not eliminate – income inequality, we’ll probably reach a point at which redistribution starts to discourage people from being productive (the incentive problem mentioned above). Or not. Perhaps the loss of income they suffer because of redistribution makes them want to be more productive. Higher productivity can be the means to compensate for the loss of income. It’s not clear how strong these two possible effects are.

In any case, many of the problems caused by income inequality don’t need to be solved by way of reductions in income inequality. Unequal political influence generated by unequal wealth can be solved by limiting the influence of wealth on politics, rather than by limiting wealth.

More on income inequality here.

3. Equality of a bundle of basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life

Let’s now drop the assumption that we’re talking about a society in which all prosper, albeit unequally. That’s unrealistic anyway. Even in the richest countries on earth, there are many people who are unable to secure the bundle of basic resources necessary for a decent human life. There’s a theory called sufficientarianism that wants to focus, not on income inequality or relative poverty, but on absolute destitution. It claims, correctly I think, that all have a right to an equal bundle of basic resources and that this is what equality means.

The easiest way to make sure that people possess these basic resources is to give them enough money to buy them. For example, there’s a political movement advocating a guaranteed basic income (an income people receive whether they work or not; Philippe van Parijs is a notable supporter of this policy). But also employment benefits, healthcare benefits etc. aim to provide people with access to the basic resources necessary for a decent life.

The advantage of giving people money is of course that money is fungible: people can use it the way they want. That means it takes into account the fact that different people need different and different amounts of basic goods (take again the case of a blind person). If you give people basic goods directly, rather than the money necessary to buy them, then it becomes difficult to tailor the given goods to the specific and variable needs of individuals. An all-purpose means such as money is clearly better.

However, you’ll still have the problem that some people may need more money than others because they have basic needs that are more expensive, again not because of differences in taste or preferences, but because of different abilities. A blind person does not only need different resources but also more resources in order to lead a minimally decent human life. So we’ll have to factor in capabilities (see point 4 below). Hence, equality of basic resources, outside of the capabilities approach, isn’t enough. If that’s your goal, you won’t do justice to everyone.

An additional difficulty is that the composition of the bundles has to be different from one country to another, and not just from one individual to another. A minimally decent life in one society is more costly than in another one. In a highly industrialized and technological society, it’s more expensive to earn a living than in a society where, in a manner of speaking, you can just pick the fruit from the threes. If you add up all these differences in the content and quantity of the bundles you risk ending up with something very arbitrary. The whole concept of a basic bundle may lose its meaning.

Even if we assume that this type of equality does retain some meaning as a separate type of equality, we’re faced with the same incentive problem as in income equality, depending on how costly the bundle of resources is and how heavily we have to tax to produce it.

A final problem with this type of equality is one of fairness. The guaranteed basic income approach, as well as all other forms of unconditional provision of basic resources, seems to reward the lazy and punish the hard working. It’s reasonable to provide basic resources to people who are poor because of bad luck, lack of talents, bad health etc., but not to those who voluntarily choose not to be productive.

4. Equality of capabilities

So let’s turn to this next type of equality, which can be seen as a fine-tuning of the previous type. Why do we say that people need a bundle of basic goods for a minimally decent life? Because a minimally decent life means something. It means having the capabilities to engage in certain functionings that are part of a minimally decent life. These functionings include “beings and doings” (in the words of Amartya Sen), such as being nourished and in good health, taking part in community life, culture and thinking etc. People’s capabilities to achieve these functionings should be equalized. That doesn’t necessarily require a fixed and equal basic income. On the contrary, because a fixed basic income does not take into account the different levels of incapability across individuals. Some people need no help whatsoever. Others may need a lot. The blind person mentioned a few times already may need more than the average poor person, but perhaps less than a particular person who’s very deep in poverty.

The problem with this type of equality is the precise determination of the list of functionings and capabilities that really matter and that should be equalized. There’s a risk of paternalism, a lack of neutrality and a sectarian bias. Maybe a democratic approach to this determination can solve that problem. And that’s the link to the next type of equality.

5. Equality of power (political and other power).

In a democracy, people have – formally at least – equal political freedom. They all have the right to vote, to voice criticism or support, to campaign and demonstrate, to assemble and associate, and to stand for office. However, a lack in some of the other types of equality mentioned above may reduce the fair value and effectiveness of this democratic equality for a certain number of citizens, e.g. the poor, the blind, etc. As already argued, even prosperous citizens can have unequal power in a society with large income discrepancies (remember the professor and the tycoon).

So, if we want to promote this kind of equality of power, we first need to promote other types of equality. People may need access to basic resources in order to have the time and energy to devote to politics. And some of these resources are directly necessary for political participation (people have to drive to the polling station, read the newspapers etc.). However, equality of power can also be promoted without first promoting other types of equality. We can regulate campaign financing and access to the media and thereby limit the influence of wealth on politics. We don’t necessarily need to reduce wealth inequality to do that (although there may be other reasons to limit wealth inequality, see above). Equality of power, therefore, doesn’t necessarily collapse into other types of equality. It’s a concept that merits a separate existence.

Equality of power isn’t just equality of political power. Slaveholders have power over their slaves, husbands may have (had) power over their wives etc. Again, equality of power in these contexts can be promoted by first promoting other types of equality. If slaves and women are given basic resources then we reduce the cost of exiting the oppressive relationship as well as the power of the counter-party to keep them in that relationship. We may also want to given them equal rights.

However, I see that this post is dragging along and is now way past the saturation level, I guess. So I’ll stop here and just link to some previous posts dealing with the two remaining types of equality:

6. Equality of rights: here
7. Equality of luck or opportunity, i.e. equality of natural and social endowments: here

What is Equality? (1): Some Dimensions and Distinctions

If you want to explain the nature of equality the best thing to do is to distinguish between different types of equality. In fact, we’ll need a whole set of different distinctions, so that’s what I’ll try to do below. You can probably already guess the conclusion: equality is always and necessarily complex equality (in the words of Michael Walzer). I suppose that’s also why this post is so long. I apologize.

What equality isn’t

But before we distinguish types of equality, let’s clearly distinguish equality from some other concepts: equality ≠ identity (or sameness) ≠ uniformity ≠ similarity.

When people speak about “equality” in moral and political philosophy, they never mean “identity” (perhaps they do in mathematics, but we don’t care about that). Claims that people aren’t treated equally or suffer from some form of unjust inequality are not claims that people should always and in every respect be equal or treated equally. Complete or absolute equality would be the same as identity, but that’s not what is at stake in moral or political discourse. To my knowledge, people never claim that all people should always be treated identically in every respect. The claim is that people should be treated equally, or “the same”, in some very specific ways or some very specific fields of life: people should have the same access to education, for example. The anti-egalitarian claim that those of us who care about equality will push society to a dystopian future of uniformity is therefore misguided. Egalitarianism demands certain forms of equality, but beyond that it’s very happy to accept inequality.

The egalitarian goal isn’t even “approximate correspondence” or high levels of similarity between people. Very dissimilar people can have a justified claim to equal treatment in certain respects, and when they achieve this equal treatment they don’t become “similar” to each other in any ontological sense. They remain very different people, except that in some very specific sense and very specific part of their lives they are being treated the same. For example, a poor African American has the same right to a fair trial as a wealthy WASP, but that, together with all their other claims to equality, doesn’t make them similar people.

Equality needs at least one other word: equality is always equality of something very specific. Equality without any qualifier would indeed be very close to identity or uniformity. People should be equal in important and specific respects only. They shouldn’t in general be the same, nor should they even be treated in generally the same way. The goal is to realize certain specific types of equality among human beings, not to move steadily towards ever greater “correspondence”, similarity or even identity and uniformity. This very specific nature of equality is a natural limit on its scope, something which should appease critics of equality. People shouldn’t be treated equally or uniformly in all respects, only in those respects for which people have a justified claim to be treated equally or uniformly.

The question then is, of course, what are those justified claims and which claims are not justified? What are the specific cases in which people deserve to be treated equally? We are talking about equality of what exactly? Which are those “specific field of life” where equality is required? That’s an ongoing and probably never-ending public discussion. A typical strategy in dealing with such questions is to take a step back as it were. Make things a bit more abstract. As a result, the most common qualifier or “second word” is dignity or respect, which in turn is believed to justify other, more specific qualifiers. For example, the equal dignity of all human beings, if that’s a claim that can be justified, is supposed to invalidate gender discrimination.

Descriptive or prescriptive equality

Justifying equality is a prescriptive task. You want to come up with reasons why a certain form of equality is morally necessary. You’re not interested in descriptive equality, i.e. the measurement of levels of (in)equality, of their causes and effects, of the interaction between different types of (in)equality etc. You will be interested, but only after the prescriptive work is done and after you’ve decided which types of equality are morally important. Prescriptive equality is the claim that people ought to be equal in some respects. Because equality is necessarily a social concept – i.e. you need at least two people before you can speak about equality – the prescription here is comparative: people ought to be equal in some respects to other people, mostly to all other people, but not necessarily. Perhaps people should be treated in an equal way by other people in certain circumstances (e.g. the ballot); or perhaps their opportunities should be equal to those of other people; or perhaps their basic resources should be equal to those of other people etc. (More below).

So prescriptive equality has two different aspects: people should be equal

  • in certain respects (equality of what: treatment, resources; opportunities etc.), and
  • to certain other people (equality of whom: we’ll see below that in some cases all people should be equal but in other cases only some people or people belonging to a certain group).

Prescriptive equality will also answer the question: why should people be equal in certain respects and to certain/all other people? Why is this equality important and why is its absence a problem? The remainder of this post will focus on prescriptive equality.

Universal or specific equality

Prescriptive equality can be either universal or specific. Since equality is a moral concept, we see in most cases that the equality claimed by people is a universal one: people want to be equal in some respect to all other people. The claims by victims of racism, discrimination, oppression etc. fall under this heading. However, equality can also be more specific: people may want to be treated equally compared to certain other people, and therefore, logically, unequally compared to the rest of humanity. An example of that is Aristotle’s claim that we should treat “like cases as like”. Cases that are unlike each other should sometimes be treated unlike each other. The classic example is that of students: we usually sense that there is something wrong when a teacher systematically gives the same grades to everyone, the meritorious as well as the lazy. Equal treatment in such cases should be limited to similar people, in this example people with similar merit.

Other examples of a non-universal notion of equality:

  • A sick person has other needs than a healthy person. Treating them equally doesn’t sound right. However, giving help to one sick person and not to another also doesn’t sound right. Equality here means equal treatment of all sick persons.
  • People who are themselves responsible for their unequal position because of their own free decisions – for example the so-called undeserving poor – will have more difficulties making the claim that society should restore their equal position – in this example, deliver some basic goods.

Instrumental and non-instrumental equality

The previous distinction leads to another one: suppose that you value equality not for its own sake but as a means for another goal, say solidarity. A more equal society is then supposed to be one in which people care more about each other, which in turn can be a means for yet a more profound goal, for example stability. In that case, it won’t make a lot of sense to adopt a universal type of equality (see above). You’ll focus instead on the equality between members of a specific community. If, on the other hand, you value equality for its own sake, then there’s no reason to limit the egalitarian concerns to a given community. However, an instrumental type of equality is not necessarily specific. It can be universal if the goal that is served by equality is a universal goal. An example of such a goal could be dignity.

Absolute or limited equality

If equality is a value in itself and not the means for achieving other values, and if it is, at the same time, a value that takes priority over all other values and that cannot be limited by other values, then we have a problem. Because in that case,

there is something good, from the standpoint of egalitarian values, in bringing about equality or a clear move in the direction of equality by making better off persons worse off without bringing about any offsetting gain at all to worse off persons. Suppose there are rich peasants and poor peasants and there is nothing we can do to improve the lives of the poor peasants. We could, however, burn the grain storehouses of the rich peasants, rendering them worse off but still no worse off than the poor peasants. … If equality were to be deemed a value that takes priority over all others, a trumping value, then we would be committed to asserting that the state of affairs after levelling down is all things considered morally better than the status quo ante. (source)

And that’s highly counterintuitive. This doesn’t mean that equality shouldn’t be a non-instrumental value; only that it shouldn’t be both a non-instrumental and an absolute value at the same time.

Formal or substantial equality

Equality can be either formal or substantial equality. An example of formal equality is legal equality: all people have the same legal rights – e.g. equal human rights – and all people are equal before the law. Marx has famously ridiculed this formal equality, saying that it has no meaning for the poor, and can even serve to oppress the poor (it’s therefore a negative instrumental equality). A rich and a poor person both have the same legal rights, but the rich person can use these rights more and better than the poor person, sometimes even against the interests of that poor person. Hence, formal equality leads to substantial inequality. However, I’ve argued elsewhere that formal equality isn’t as useless as that. It may be useful but it’s not sufficient, and more substantive notions of equality, such as equality of opportunity, of basic resources etc. are important as well. People shouldn’t only have an equal legal right to something, but also an equal right to access the means necessary for the enjoyment of that right. Those means can be food, education, opportunities etc. Let’s have a closer look at some of those more substantial types of equality.

Political, legal, economic or social equality

So universal equality isn’t only legal equality but also political, economic or social equality. Political equality means that all the citizens of a country should have the same political power. That usually translates into equal voting rights in a democracy – which are legal rights – combined with some more substantial equality like equal education, education being a prerequisite for adequate political participation (so the equal right to education is a “right to access the means necessary for the enjoyment of another right”, in this case political rights).

However, the universality of political equality is often somewhat limited, in a couple of ways:

  • people living elsewhere obviously have no need for political power in our country
  • it’s also limited to full citizens, controversially
  • and it’s – even more controversially – limited to adult people who are not in prison.

Economic equality is usually understood as the equal distribution – or redistribution – of some basic goods such as food, shelter, health, education etc. (It’s rarely seen as absolute equality of all goods).

Social equality is often a mix of the three previous ones: racial discrimination for example is a violation of the demands of social equality (equality between different social groups), but it often manifests itself unequal voting rights, unequal legal rights (e.g. segregation or Jim Crow) or unequal prosperity between racial groups.

Equal opportunity or equal outcomes

Equal outcomes can be, for example, equal resources: people should have the same basic resources (e.g. a guaranteed basic income). Equal opportunity means that people have the same options in life and the same prospects for preference fulfillment as all other people. The actual outcomes, what ultimately happens to them – whether their lives are equal or not, whether they’re rich or poor – is less important because, given equal starting opportunities, those outcomes are their own responsibility. However, most people would agree that outright misery, even if it’s someone’s own fault and not the result of back luck, discrimination or unequal starting opportunities, should be a legitimate issue of egalitarian concern.

Equality of opportunity then may not be enough but it certainly is important. No one deserves the circumstances, family, class, country etc. into which she is born. She doesn’t even deserve her talents and abilities (or lack of them), to the extent that these are not developed through effort. Bad luck in the natural lottery (talents) or the lottery of birth (circumstances and places of birth) can lead to vastly unequal opportunities. We can’t equalize talents or luck, but we can mitigate the inequalities they create. For example, we can offer some insurance against misfortune, or education as a means to develop abilities.

Quantitative or qualitative equality

And finally, equality can be viewed as a quantitative or qualitative notion. Two people can be equal when they have the same amount of something – e.g. income – or when they have the same characteristics or qualities – e.g. equal rights. Quantitative types of equality are economic equality, political equality in some sense and equality of certain opportunities. Qualitative equality is for example legal equality and social equality.