The Philosophical Basis of Egalitarianism: The Limits of Liberty

Equality and fairness have become increasingly prominent political topics of late. A number of issues, chief among them banking sector remuneration and cost-cutting measures in public services, directly involve claims about equality and worries that inequalities are being ignored or fostered. In this series, I shall not examine these political or legal issues, but consider rather the philosophical basis for treating equality as important. Why, and in what sense, are people equal? What does this fact, if it is one, demand of us?

Very roughly, I shall argue that we should treat people with dignity; this will involve treating people as equals, and this requires a substantive egalitarianism. This sort of egalitarianism can be contrasted with more formal versions, which might involve merely giving equal weight to each person’s interests. To see how limited this commitment is, consider a society organised so that a minority can be enslaved for the benefit of the vast majority. This arrangement could be formally egalitarian: the needs and interests of the slaves are not ignored, but are simply overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers. A substantive egalitarianism would reject this arrangement, since to enslave someone is not to treat them as an equal.

To get a handle on the demands equality places on us, let us start with a rival view. Perhaps the most common reason people have for rejecting substantive egalitarianism are considerations of personal liberty. Here I take liberty in its “negative” sense, as freedom from external interference or coercion. I shall consider so-called “positive” freedom, the freedom to do certain things, in the next article. For the moment, I confine my attention to libertarianism, the view that liberty (in the negative sense) outweighs any other ethical consideration.

One simple form of libertarianism is the view that what we are allowed to do is ethically constrained in only two ways: by not interfering in the liberty of others, and by contracts or other binding agreements that we freely enter into. In other words, provided you don’t coerce others or forego voluntarily chosen impositions, you can do (or refrain from doing) what you please; you are under no other ethical obligations. (I should add that this is only one, rather simple, version of libertarianism; I choose it as a foil largely because it is a particularly stark presentation of an ethic which is effectively exhausted by considerations of liberty.)

We can raise two objections to this position, both of which are suggestive of what a more egalitarian theory might try to accommodate. The first objection is that this libertarian position seems to confuse two categories of values. The first category includes that which is valuable in and of itself; the second includes that which is valuable as a condition for items belonging in the first category. Liberty, in the negative sense we are concerned with, pretty clearly belongs in the second category. We rightly value liberty very highly. A life without any liberty would in an important sense not be one’s own, in that one would be open to all manner of coercion. But it does not follow that liberty is the highest value, or even that it is valuable in and of itself. Liberty is necessary for letting us live as we wish, but it is not sufficient. Consider two individuals: one has no liberty whatsoever, the other has as much liberty as could be wished for. Assume further that the latter, though under no ethical or legal constraint, has no power to do what they will (perhaps they are the victim of a condition which renders them unable to act in any way). Neither of these unfortunates can live as they wish. It would seem peculiar to have a strong preference to be in the condition of one of them rather than that of the other.

The second objection to libertarianism is rather more direct. While this position does not entail gross selfishness, it ethically sanctions it. For the libertarian, one is under no obligations other than to avoid coercing others or breaking one’s agreements. Therefore, these considerations aside, one would have no duty to a person dying of starvation. One would of course be free to exercise compassion, but that would be entirely a matter of personal choice. This feature of libertarianism strikes many people as outrageous. One might ask what it is about individual liberty and personal rights which could outweigh what, at the very least, appear to be obligations towards others. The libertarian position begins with extremely plausible assumptions about the ethical import of liberty, but excludes other extremely plausible assumptions, about our ethical duties to others. To this extent, it produces an ethic which seems at best lopsided, at worst stunted.

This problem may not apply to other forms of libertarianism. But all I have set out to do in this article is suggest the limitations of an ethical view based solely on considerations of liberty. If accepted, this is enough to place considerations other than liberty on the table. Whether these considerations can yield a substantive notion of equality is a further issue.

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