The Philosophical Basis of Egalitarianism: Egalitarianism

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963

Nothing I have said thus far can be read as the straightforward basis for a political programme. In this piece, I shall try to gesture towards some political implications of treating others as equals. We can start by considering what is and is not required for a community of equals, a society in which everyone is treated as an equal by everyone else. I suggest that absolute equality of wealth or resources would be both insufficient and unnecessary for this. It would be unnecessary because it seems possible for two or more persons to treat each other as equals without having precisely the same wealth or resources. More interestingly, it would be insufficient: even if two persons have equal wealth, this doesn’t require them to treat each other as equals. There are many ways in which one person might be regarded as inferior to another: race and gender are two of the most familiar.

Racism and sexism are good examples of anti-egalitarian positions which owe relatively little to the distribution of wealth. What they point to, for our present purposes, is that treating others as equals is partly a matter of an attitude each of us takes towards others, an attitude which is not itself fixed by the distribution of resources. Furthermore, for a society to form a community of equals involves what might be termed a collective attitude, a way of thinking which frames social activity in that community. It is not enough for each of us to happen to treat others as equals; the social institutions and practices basic to the society must embody a broad agreement on the value of equality, in addition to other values. This collective attitude might be expressed in social prohibitions on treating others with contempt, on seeking to reduce their social status for no good reason, or for that matter on exalting some persons as more valuable than others.

This is not to say that egalitarianism, of the sort I am discussing, does not bear on the distribution of resources. My point is that it involves more than that. The familiar question, why is equality of wealth or resources valuable, is best answered by appealing to the ideal of a community of equals. More precisely, gross inequalities in wealth or power tend to have a distorting effect on social relations. If such inequalities are to be permitted, it is crucial that they be regulated. For example, certain public goods might be made unavailable for private purchase, or at least for private profit. Alternatively, the possession of private wealth above a certain threshold might be contingent on the use of some of this wealth for certain specified social ends. Or the generation of wealth for particular individuals might be linked more closely to the performance of the companies which reward them.

I am drawing here on a distinction between the private and public spheres, very roughly understood. The importance of this distinction should not be overstated. In assessing what a community of equals might be like, the issue of who owns what is probably less important than that of preventing the unregulated accumulation of wealth. The state might actually own relatively few resources, or administer relatively few public facilities. I see no objection in principle to many such facilities being administered by public trusts or charitable bodies. Nor do I object in principle to private profit, or for that matter to pay differences which are clearly earned. But we should be wary of treating wealth and profit as property like any other kind; or of treating private property as something entirely distinct from the social and economic structures in which it is created. This way of thinking too easily allows for substantive equality to be eroded. This, I suggest, is good reason to limit the workings of private profit and the degree to which private property is independent of social concerns.

Our society is awkwardly balanced between egalitarian principles, best embodied by the welfare state, and the anti-egalitarian thinking underpinning contemporary capitalism. This is not to say that the welfare state ought to be immune from criticism or revision, or that capitalism must be abandoned wholesale. The political lessons of egalitarian thinking are that inequalities of wealth, while not eliminable, are a political and moral problem; and that equality is primarily a matter of attitudes we can and should adopt towards each other. How to reconcile these attitudes with other imperatives is a challenge which serious ethical and political thinking cannot ignore.

Previous articles in this series: 1. The Limits of Liberty, 2. Autonomy, 3. Dignity, 4. Dignity and Equality.

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