On Philosophy

July 26, 2007

Too Much Equality

Filed under: Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

Unjust inequalities are of course undesirable, but not every inequality is unjust, and excessive equality has its downsides as well. Not all people are the same, and the differences between people make some of them better than others. Trying to ignore that fact results in a society that ends up discouraging people from fulfilling their potential. There is an analogy here to the artificial economic equality enforced under communism. Artificial economic equality treats everyone as though they were equally productive. And this has the effect of discouraging anyone from being productive, since there is no incentive. Additionally, by failing to reward productivity, communism also has the effect of leading people to forget that productivity even matters. Similarly artificially treating everyone as equal discourages people from being more than average, and by not celebrating greatness we are led to forget that it even matters.

I think there are primarily two reasons why modern societies seem intent on perpetuating the myth that everyone is equal (at least in intrinsic value if not in purchasing power). The first is that recently most societies have undergone a process of self-improvement in which a number of unjust inequalities have been eliminated. Because of the difficulty in eradicating these unjust inequalities we are left with the suspicion that any inequality is an unjust inequality. I grant that it is appropriate to be suspicious of inequalities between people, because they can do a great deal of harm. However, it is relatively easy to separate most unjust inequalities from justified ones. An unjust inequality differentiates people based on what they are, while a just (or at least not unjust) inequality is based on who people are. Differentiating people based on what they are means differentiating them based on some external property, such as who their parents were, which is of course the source of most inequalities since that is the easiest way to separate people into different groups. In contrast differentiating people based on who they are means differentiating them based on internal properties, properties of their personality or character (of course we only have access to those properties by observing external properties, like their behavior, but all this means is that our judgments are fallible).

The second reason that the myth of equality is perpetuated is that it is flattering to the ego. It is nice to believe that there is no one who is better than us, because it makes us feel big. Even when someone is shown to be better than us at some specific task we can then comfort ourselves by appealing to the idea that we are equal, and thus that there must be some way in which we are better than them. Of course this is fallacious reasoning, but it is psychologically appealing nonetheless. Now I’m not trying to accuse people of purposefully promoting certain ideas about equality just to make themselves feel better, but I am claiming that when those ideas are introduced, for whatever reason, this fact biases many people unconsciously in their favor, making such equality seem better than it really is.

As I already mentioned one effect of this artificial equality is that people are discouraged from striving to be better (or even from realizing that they should strive to be better), and thus we end up with a society of mostly average and unremarkable people. Depending on your attitude towards humanity that may or may not be a bad thing. If you are of a more classical persuasion you might feel that personal excellence and nobility are the whole point, and thus that a society that doesn’t encourage those characteristics is a disaster. But if you are of a more modern bent then you may think that all that matters is pleasure, in which case individual achievement doesn’t matter. But whether people are led to excel or not is not the only consequence of treating everyone as equal. Another effect is that it makes people a poor judge of others, which can be disastrous if your political system involves electing officials. If everyone is equal then who you prefer is basically a matter of personal preference, and you are free to make your decision based on whatever criteria you like. Which means that when it comes to electing officials someone who is objectively better (by virtue of being more competent) may be passed over for someone who is more likable. Of course just permitting ourselves to consider some people as better than others wouldn’t automatically make people better voters, but it would allow candidates to actually compare their personal strengths to each other (in addition to the issues) without sounding pretentious (as it stands now no candidate can directly claim that they make better decisions, are more responsible, or are more intelligent without falling out of voter favor by violating the assumption that everyone is equal).



  1. I think assuming inequality is more of an ego boost than assuming equality because people like to assume they are better than others rather than simply being equal. Among other things, this explains the popularity of Nietzsche and Ayn Rand.

    Comment by Philip L. Welch — July 26, 2007 @ 12:37 am

  2. You present a fine argument, but you are arguing against an idea which few people actually believe. When most people assert that we are all equal, they generally mean it in one of two senses;

    a) Equality of opportunity. It is the ideal that even the weak and poor have the same opportunities as those individuals upon whom Providence has smiled. This is, incidentally, what Communism strives for but fails, whereas Capitalism (in its pure sense) tends to succeed.

    b) Equality on the whole. Generally speaking, we are all equal in that with no universal standard of value, a value-judgment of an individual is absurd. Within specific fields it is certainly acceptable to assert that a given individual is better than another, but on the whole, such a judgment is unreasonable.

    There are few people who would argue that, to use your examples, all workers are equally productive, or that all politicians are equally competent.

    Comment by Cameron Mulvey — July 26, 2007 @ 5:24 am

  3. Regardless of which view people hold the view that people are incomparible as wholes is equally absurd and leads to the same problems. (no motivation to improve as a whole, ect) And the exact same arguent presented here can be used against it.

    Comment by Peter — July 26, 2007 @ 6:42 am

  4. I disagree. If you remove individuals from the context of jobs, skills, intelligence, and achievement–that is to say, if you view the individual in front of you as you do an individual on the other side of the world–and compare two given people on the whole, you’ll not likely be able to assert that one is “better” than another. Value divorced from a standard is vacuous.

    You may respond that I’m being unreasonable in asking you to look at individuals sans normally-relevant attributes, but that is precisely how the people who claim universal equality look at them. And this is where your argument fails. You are analyzing the claim from a different perspective than those whose claim you are analyzing; you are working from entirely different presuppositions.

    As a final point, I do not see how a claim of either equality of opportunity or equality-on-the-whole can result in a diminished motivation to improve.

    Comment by Cameron Mulvey — July 26, 2007 @ 6:55 am

  5. I think it is obvious that there is a universal human standard that we can compare people with, setting other factors aside, which includes amoung other things, ethical standards.

    Anyways the reason that your attitude is asking for trouble is that it makes a mess out of the idea of self improvement and of comparisons between people. If I can’t compare future and past selves as wholes then it is perfectly reasonable to care about improving only certain facets of the person and letting others slide, simply because it leads us to ignore the person as a whole. Example: someone who becomes a better carpeter at the expense of becoming worse ethically. Since they aren’t led to think about themselves as a whole they can choose to focus only on the fact that they have improved as a carpenter while ignoring the fact that they are losing ground ethically, or justifying that loss by their improvement as a carpenter.

    I know it doesn’t sound nice to say that some people are better on the whole than others, but they are, and to deny that is essentially to stick your head in the sand and to ignore the glaring fact that people are different and that their differences make them better or worse than each other.

    Comment by Peter — July 26, 2007 @ 8:09 am

  6. Interesting argument. People are different, but so are their circumstances. I tend to see Mr. Mulvey’s point. The concept of equality is essentially metaphorical. It works legally and poetically. It does not work in economics as you so state and to make it fit is a fallacy. Only politicians would make it fit so; hence, communism is frankly too easy a target. Socialist systems very much akin to communist systems, however, tell another tale. People in the Netherlands, to put an example, may not all be equal in an economics sense, but they may nevertheless be more equal than people in mid-stream America. This may not be because of a natural given state of equality but rather most likely because their circumstances are quite equal (or more equal). The concept is therefore not absolute. A child in Harlem evidently has not been blessed with the same equality as the same child in the outskirts of Amsterdam.

    Comment by Alberto — July 26, 2007 @ 2:18 pm

  7. Which Harlem? The one in New York or the one in the Netherlands?

    Comment by Carl — July 26, 2007 @ 2:33 pm

  8. I’m not talking about economic equality or weath in this post at all (although we might draw a certain analogy there) but equality (or lack thereof) between the value of different people (not their posessions or purchasing power).

    Comment by Peter — July 26, 2007 @ 2:39 pm

  9. I think there is always a tension between the shared quality of our consciousness, which is the basis for our natural sympathy towards ideas of equality and our perceptions of reality, where we see differences between ourselves and others, and often find others to be of less worth in terms of their contribution to society, to be irritating, to be immoral or to be unpleasant.

    This tension is very much reflected in our political beliefs where we oscillate between an egalitarian and a libertarian approach. Fraternity – the state, the community – is I guess the context in which we manage this tension. Again, there is a tension between emphasising the state or the civil community.

    Comment by field — July 26, 2007 @ 4:53 pm

  10. Hmmm, I see a problem.

    The original premis is:

    “some people are better than others”, [affirm or deny.]
    The next premis is:

    “therefore, claims that humans are equal are false”

    I have an idea that I’d like you all to consider, if you would.

    People perform differently from one another. By “perform”, I mean ALL behaviors that are phenomena encountered by outside observers of that person. This means speaking, all physical movements (no matter their purpose or venue), authoring, working, etc. We can, and do, judge performance by certain agreed upon standards of excellence (and it’s groups of any number and kind that agree on what those standards are).

    What we are morally inelligible to judge is the worth of a person’s existential being, their showing up alive in our domain. And please don’t let’s hair split on “well, what if they are hooked up to a vent, in a persistent vegetative state? What if they are mentally incapable? What if they are evil? What if I they are mean to me, and I don’t like them?”. Regarding a person’s stark personhood, the point of speaking of equality, in a society, is to decide what RIGHTS each person has in that society. I think we went off on “equality” in terms not wanting to unfairly say “everyone is the same” (and therefore, why should anyone work hard, and get things right, or excellent, or more than just acceptable? There will be no rewards for doing so.)

    Basic human rights are a concern because they dictate what share of goods and resources a person is entitled to out of the commonly pot of shared societal stuff. Equality here just means you’ve got a ticket to the show, granted you by being a citizen of where ever the show is (the USA, your boyhood club in the treehouse, Brazil, your nuclear family, where ever there is a “group”). This is, however, festival seating: a basic ticket is just entree to the concert — few things are given to you here, but some basic things need to be (hense, laws).

    The point in speaking of equality should be to have a level playing field. After that has been established, then you rank according to MERIT. Some people are better at things than others, and other people who value the fruits of that “better performance” will pay more, and applaud more, and vote more to have that perons’ stuff available for them to enjoy. This plays out in the economic and the relational marketplaces, respectively — some people are paid a lot of money for what they do (that they do better than others) and some people are more liked and loved by others by dint of the excellence of the relationship goods they provide.

    But “equality”, I think, is a political term, used for goals of social justice.

    Anyway, this is my opinion, and thanks for considering it.
    Monica :)

    Comment by monica englander, msw — July 29, 2007 @ 9:13 am

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