Skip to content

Against Equality

by Julian Savulescu

Equality is an ideal born of the vice of envy, one of the seven deadly sins. But equality has no intrinsic value and panders to our vicious nature to be envious of others. Levelling down is absurd. And why level up if we can raise everyone, improving all of their lives instead of just some? To reduce people’s envy of others, when their own lives are good and better? That is no reason.

Imagine that in our society, people are divided into two groups. One group, Short, lives for a maximum of 60 years and another, Long, for 120, for inherent genetic reasons. We could achieve equality by levelling down, by shortening the lives of Long, so they live 60 years (perhaps by introducing painless toxins into their water). That would level down. It is absurd. It is absurd even if Short remain envious and jealous of Long.

A therapy becomes available which can prolong healthy life by 60 years. A more attractive version of egalitarianism is  levelling-up egalitarianism.  This would require giving the therapy to Short so that they can live 120 years, the same as Long. This would create equality and reduce envy and jealousy.

But why should we stop at levelling up. We could adopt a maximising consequentialist strategy and give the therapy to everyone, equally. Short would live 120 years and Long would live 180 years. Everyone would be better off but inequality would be preserved. But so what?

Why should we deny Long an extra 60 good years simply to reduce the envy and jealousy of Short, for no material benefit to them?

Equality has no intrinsic value. Our commitment should be to the lives of individual people not to human ideals like equality.

Equality is a dominant moral ideal in contemporary society. Egalitarianism is the stated principle for the NHS: equal treatment for equal need. Equality might be a good rule of thumb but it should not be a final regulative ideal.

[I wrote this blog in response to Alex Erler’s paper “Levelling Up”: In Defence of Equality, presented at the graduate discussion group]

Share on

8 Comment on this post

  1. This argument assumes that if equality is of intrinsic value, it must sometimes be morally appropriate to “level down,” or, in the second case, to refuse to provide benefits to the better-off because doing so would increase inequality.

    That premise is false. One can easily define the value of a distribution such that equality contributes directly to determining that value (and thus is intrinsically valuable), and such that levelling down would never be appropriate. John Broome lays this out very clearly in this paper:

    To summarize Broome, you can simply let the value of a distribution be something like this, for example:

    V = (w1 + w2) – (1/2)|w1 – w2|

    where w1 and w2 are the well-being levels of two people (or groups). Inequality counts against V because of the second term, but never in such a way as to recommend levelling down.

    So the argument doesn’t go through: the fact that one should not level down (or should not deny non-redistributable benefits to the better-off) is not instructive with respect to whether equality is intrinsically valuable.

  2. Great piece Julian.

    What happens if, as often happens in the real world, the therapy you propose were only able to be rolled out to a limited number of people? Should the Shorts take precedence for treatment? If the idea of equality is intrinsically valueless then presumably this treatment should be distributed randomly between Shorts and Longs. Or is there even an argument for giving therapy first to Longs, so as to create greater inequality? Perhaps having some people who live to 180 could be good for society as a whole?

  3. Well, you have mentioned equality in terms of treatment on the NHS but this doesn’t address equality in other arenas. What about racial equality? Equality for sexual minorities? There may be no intrinsic good in equality but surely its absence produces things that we might want to label as intrinsically evil?

  4. Being as you know quite consequentialist in my leanings I’m initially prone to agree with your argument, but I think it needs to take into consideration more sophisticated versions of ascribing something more than instrumental value to equality. This connects to the way you connect valuing of equality with envy – that’s no necessity, equality may be valued as a structural property, just as, e.g., preference satisfaction can be. To get at that, one needs a more clever argument and the only one you present here is, as far as I understand, the leveling down objection. However, you may value equality in ways that is not sensitive to that argument.

    Broome’s idea mentioned by BME is one way of having equality play a role in a theory of what has intrinsic or final value without falling into the leveling down hole. As far as I understand this is the idea of ascribing to equality a contributory value, such that value is realised through increased equality only if it is not brought about by a leveling down move. For instance, one could ascribe intrinsic value to distributional changes that increase equality without producing what we may call a pareto worsening (someone becomes worse off while no one becomes better off). However, one may also claim that all leveling downs are not equally obviously bad – it depends on what we take from those whose situation are worsened and how they fare as a result, and how much this affect the structural situation of equality in distribution.

    Another idea is, of course, to go for some sort of prioritarianism, saying that giving the drug to the worse off may be worth it, even if they gain less years of life than the already healthy would. That is, improvements of well-being produce more value when adding to a worse level of well-being. This could motivate why we should not spend the national budget on achieving 180 years of life for a few, since presumably there are other and more valuable things to spend those resources on in terms of improving the situation of the worse off in other ways. Of course, you can always create a thought experiment where no such options exist, and then a prioritarianist would have no objections, I presume.

    Perhaps some of these ideas could be combined….

  5. Julian:

    Following up on Christian Munthe’s last point: I think most people, including myself, would agree with you that in your hypothetical example we should make everyone better off rather than aiming for equality of lifespan. But that does not commit us to the conclusion that we should always aim at maximizing the total sum of well-being. Consider an alternative scenario in which we can either 1) extend the life of Short by 30 years and the life of Long by 40 years; or 2) give Short the same lifespan as Long, i.e. 120 years, and leave Long’s lifespan untouched, leading to equality. Suppose Short and Long each have just as many members. According to your view (as I understand it), we should go for 1), as it will produce the greatest sum of utility. But this is a much more controversial suggestion than the one you make in your own example. Indeed, in this scenario, the worse off have more to gain than the better off, and I would argue that their interests should be given priority. 2) is better than 1).

    True, it is trickier to say e.g. if we should equalize Short and Long’s lifespan at 110 years if this was the only alternative to 1), for this would mean harming Long by reducing their natural lifespan by a decade. But all this shows is that we take harm more seriously than a simple failure to benefit. In such a case, considerations of well-being might outweigh the demands of fairness, which tell us to give priority to the worse off and to realize a more equal distribution of goods. But that doesn’t mean that equality, which is typically required by fairness, is just an irrelevant consideration.

  6. I’m not sure that the thought experiment works, especially given its speculative dimensions, which make it unreal and open to possibilities simply because of its fictional nature. Perhaps a more historically informed approach gets closer to what people will do to ensure equality. It seems true that in many societies people are in general willing to give up more so that they can maintain a certain level of social equality – at least if we define it in terms of envy as is done here. Habermas says that this was true, for example, in 50s America when the richest were willing to pay a 90 percent tax rate to maintain a tacit agreement with the working class to equalize income disparities.

    Expanding the context of the argument a bit, however, I would mention that the concepts of envy and equality are the themes of Kierkgeaard’s small work titled Two Ages. There, he seems to make a similar argument as here, though couched in a larger historical context as well. Alastair Hannay kind of takes up this theme in his work on the Public. Hannay ends it with what I would term a “negative” equality, a state wherein we recognize each other’s humanity. This equality is experienced in events such as 911 where we are leveled and see each other as intensely human. Hajime Tanabe speaks of such an experience as nothingness, and suggests that it is this which can form the basis for a true form of equality.

  7. I would take issue of two apparent premises underlying Julian’s objection to equality as a regulative ideal.

    Firstly, that because our concern for equality springs from envy, “one of the seven deadly sins”, it is somehow invalid. But if we regarding envy as a “‘deadly sin” is something we have taken from our Christian heritage. In reality it is a natural human emotion, which, among other things (not all positive of course), can drive healthy competition and creativity.

    Secondly, that there is such a thing as “intrinsic value” that can be deduced by logic and philosphical discourse. To this I would counter, in line with previous comments, that what we value is a matter of choice, not logical deduction.

    Should equality be treated as a regulative ideal? Not the only one, for sure, not least because it can indeed be the enemy of progress and lead to dreary uniformity. But people do value equality, and I wonder how it can be useful for philosophers to tell them they are wrong to do so.

  8. I agree that there is no intrinsic value of Equality, whatever that term may mean. I have never heard a sensible discussion of the term, and most people who try often end up with denying that “sameness” is meant. So, what counts as equality in distribution becomes a matter of judgment which opens each decider to perfectly sound accusations of arbitrariness and perhaps unconscious favoritism. Think about Mickey Mantle’s liver transplant in this regard (think about the unfamous person who died because of it).

    I think there are two equality principles. One is the old Liberal one of stripping people of privilege arising from social rank (race, religion, etc) in the distribution of public jobs. It is essentially negative. Since it wants office to be given on merit (which means “merit” in terms of the job, and not “intrinsic merit” as some intellectuals might claim), the luck of the distribution of talents and education is rejected as simply incurable (pace Rawls). So individual liberty and property trumps equality.

    The other principle is the leveling principle, which is usually the product of envy-fed populism. It is a principle of distributional justice. Applying this principle often results in some improvement for the worst off but generally (a safe term; I prefer “always”) a leveling down, as Julian pointed out. It also requires an active monitor to make sure that everyone is being treated “equally”. So, with leveling, equality of result trumps liberty and property. It also produces a hierarchy of the sort predicted by Orwell, and demonstrated by the Soviet Union and Cuba.

    Finally, equality of distribution is a time-honored default principle. It works best at children’s birthday parties with respect to cookies. It also works if everyone wins all games. On the other hand, there are many reasons for unequal treatment (e.g., a parent is expected to prefer that person’s child over other children up to some point, with respect to scarce necessities, the distribution of wealth, etc…). Finally, inequality of initial distribution of wealth is often beneficial to the operation of markets and the encouragement of competition and invention. Moreover, as I said at the top of this long note, it is really impossible to know when there is an equal distribution when one considers all the other factors involved in the distribution.

Comments are closed.