Is Equality A Good Goal?

First, some definitions. “Equality” is what? Income; access to making income; material goods; time to enjoy one’s pursuits; treatment vis-a-vis others; treatment vis-a-vis authorities/gatekeepers; access to the necessities of life; and so on.

“Good” may be considered from the personal, family, community, social, species, biosphere perspective.

“Goal” may be a clearly defined end result; an achieved state or condition that extends though a period of time; a stretch goal; a general state or condition whose definition depends on a consensus arrived at by personal, family, community, social, species, or biosphere agreement; serendipity accepted as willful action.

Looking for something?

For most people the response would be, “It’s my ox being gored so that is how I will choose to see it.

In his opus, The Quest for a Moral Compass, Kenan Malik, in chapt. 2, touches on Plato’s views on equality and democracy:

A democrat puts all “his pleasures on an equal footing”, “always surrendering rule over himself to which ever desire comes along, as if it were chosen by lot”. Political equality inevitably leads to a coarseness of culture and to an anything-goes morality, a claim that finds an echo among modern conservatives.

The only society worse than a democracy is a tyranny. This is not the opposite of democracy but is rather democracy fully played out, a society in which every form of behaviour, including murder and disrespect for law, becomes acceptable.

Note that this was written before the current US President’s statement, on the campaign trail, that it would be acceptable for him to shoot a person on a New York street, or his subsequent disparagement of court rulings that were against his wishes.

In Ethics, Responsibilities & Sustainability, Robert Sexty, in chapt. 2, defines “equality of opportunity”:

The assumption that all individuals or groups have an even chance at responding to some condition in society.

Saxby goes on to say:

Many of those involved in Canadian business in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were attracted to Canada because there was less influence exerted by nobility, landed gentry, and a rigid class system in North America than in Europe.

He goes on to offer an interesting take on the difficult dichotomy between a capitalist system and the goal of equality of opportunity. Presuming that capitalism is self-defined as producing inequalities such as of income, the goal is switched to “equality of results”. Perhaps this redefinition is another way of saying, “It’s not the gun that kills…”

The human resources text, Strategic Compensation in Canada, by Richard Long, understandably avoids discussion of individual equality and moral or ethical implications therein. Long does define equity theory:

Employees’ base perception of equity (fairness) on a comparison of their contributions/rewards ratio to the ratios of others perceived as being similar.

The HR business requirement is, of course, to maintain harmony in a company and to promote effective use of employees’ capabilities to the benefit of the organization. This common understanding of “fairness” in a relationship seems to be the only universally agreed definition of equity that can withstand the contemplative slings of philosophers.

It has not been long, historically, since some people in society first turned their attention in specific ways to the possibility of a society that is predicated on non-privileged expectations like “liberty, equality, fraternity”. Or, in the USA, their 14th amendment to the constitution which states all citizens shall be afforded “equal protection of the laws”. In Canada, and in other countries that used the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a model, equality rights are clarified: “Everyone has the right not to be discriminated against by the government based on personal characteristics”.

These examples refer to an individual’s rights with respect to government action or inaction. The intent was to place on the table a template by which individuals or business entities were expected to model their non-governmental behaviour. It was subsequently found necessary in every case to enact legislation that went beyond the expectation of voluntary compliance.

Equality, however one defines it, is new. Its application in societies that have professed to adopt it has been spotty. But many writers and activists have gone further to say that some form of equality should be codified into law.

In factors such as health coverage, it is instructive to discover the dichotomy that can arise between constitutional equality and corporate profit. A 2011 OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) study, echoed in 2017 with similar results, found that the USA stands out: “the United States spends two-and-a-half times more than the OECD average health expenditure per person.” (http://www.oecd.org/els/health-systems/health-data.htm).

While all the other countries studied have some form of universal health coverage, only the USA does not. The cost per person for health care in the USA averages about $8000, while the OECD average is about $3500.  The profit motive easily trumps the 14th amendment right to equal protection under the law.

So, equality is at risk whenever it bumps up against the financial interests of privileged groups. Far from being a universal Right, equality is easily reduced to a glimmer in some unimportant eyes.

Can the topic be approached in a different way? If you can’t beat them, should they be joined? In Nautilus magazine, an engineer by the name of Venkat Venkatasubramanian offers the opinion that there is a mathematical formula for the ideal level of inequality (http://nautil.us/issue/52/the-hive/is-there-an-ideal-amount-of-income-inequality). The purpose seems to be finding that level of being held down by gatekeepers of the privileged groups in such a way that it does not bring out the urge to gather pitchforks.

It may be argued that the Occupy movement shows we have passed beyond that level. However, the sound of swooshing pitchforks that were heard in Paris of the 1790s are absent today. Outside of those involved in movements such the Arab Spring, those of us thinking about the subject briefly between our 2 or 3 jobs may have forsaken direct action for a more sedate round of periodic (and usually virtual) “activism”.

Is the formula correct? Perhaps the right level of inequality has been found.

Perhaps equality is not a worthwhile goal? Who really wants it, anyway?

 

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