A few days ago I defined justice as that which makes a society harmonious. Although in our society justice usually means equality, because people become unhappy when they are treated unequally, equality isn’t necessarily what is just for every society. For example, in a feudal society where everyone, peasants and aristocrats alike, believes that the feudal structure is desirable, the feudal structure is just. In fact imposing equality on such a society would be unjust; although the peasants might be satisfied the upper classes wouldn’t. And so we would be exchanging a completely harmonious society for one that is in fact less harmonious. And this may seem to contradict certain strong intuitions, namely that equality, and only equality, is just.
But our intuition that justice means equality isn’t completely mistaken. Given certain facts about human nature we can conclude that in the long run what will be just for any society will be as much equality as possible, constrained by the other functions of society. Of course the other functions of society, specifically economics and politics, usually require some deviations from complete equality. In every modern political system some people have more political power than others (even if they are elected into that power), and thus we cannot be completely equal without sacrificing our political system. And capitalism requires that some people have more wealth than others, again a deviation from complete equality. In my personal opinion we should expect even these inequalities to disappear in the long run. Political systems will eventually arise that distribute power more evenly, and as the world becomes wealthier we will be able to gradually move away from capitalism.
But why should we expect that what is just for every society to gradually move towards greater and greater equality? Well, let’s consider our theoretical feudal society in which everyone is satisfied with their place. In reality it is never the case that everyone is satisfied. There are always some who will question why various inequalities exist. Society may or may not have a way to answer their complaints. It may be that no one has thought up, or knows of, a practical way to structure society more equally. Or it may be that the existing equalities are justified in some way. (For example, we justify economic equalities by pointing out that the existence of such equalities is required for the economy to function at its best.) When such responses exist it is hard for these complaints to get much traction. Some people will always complain, but they will remain in the minority. However, it may be that certain inequalities have no justification. The majority may not be unhappy with them, but they aren’t necessary. For example, as technology improves the way in which war is waged will no longer necessitate the existence of knights. And thus some aspects of the feudal structure become unnecessary. In such a situation more and more people will come to criticize that inequality. The people who are disadvantaged by it will of course be happy to see it go away, no one opposes an improvement to their lives. And since it doesn’t benefit society it is hard to convince them to keep it around. And some of the people who benefit from the inequality may also disapprove of it, out of sympathy. And so it becomes just for that inequality to be removed, because at this point doing so will increase the harmony of society by resolving these numerous complains.
As technology and society progress more and more inequalities become unnecessary (eventually all of them, I would hope), and thus will be eliminated. But how do we know that certain unnecessary inequalities won’t spontaneously be adopted? Well, I certainly see it as possible for new inequalities to be introduced, perhaps through religious fervor. However, we shouldn’t expect such new inequalities to have much staying power. A few generations after they are accepted they will seem unnecessary, again and hence there will be pressure to do away with them. And to introduce an inequality implies that we are making some people worse off, and it is generally pretty hard to get people to agree with that.
So, although it isn’t completely correct to describe justice as equality, there is some truth to the idea. In the long run equality is justice, for any human society. And thus it makes sense to always push for as much equality as possible (without sacrificing the other functions of society), because in the long run that will make society the most harmonious, even if there is some opposition in the short term.