Equality (and congressional Republicans, deontology, and in theory vs. in practice)



Inequality is back in the public discourse, due in part, to the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a war on poverty, and the recent realization by Republicans that they might actually have to start representing some interests of persons other than wealthy white men if they want to keep representing the wealthy white man, and save him from the threat of extinction posed by the Obama administration. As of late, these two causes have intersected, with prominent Republican voices intoning that Johnson’s war on poverty has failed, and that it is time to treat the inequality program with methods other than welfare. While “other than welfare” might imply an alternative positive method (positive in the philosophical sense of the presence of doing something), their solution is merely negative: (both in the philosophical sense of the absence of doing something and the sense of being pessimistic) cut welfare completely.
The idea seems to be that the state should treat all persons equally, and that this will put the incentive on agents to pursue the good for themselves and not be “takers”, and consequently, those who fail to achieve goodness for themselves are responsible for their shortcomings in economic resources and welfare (welfare in the economic sense of metrics of well-being).

In his frequently anthologized paper, Equality and Priority, Derek Parfit notes that this might be classified as the deontological reading of the value of equality, wherein equality is morally valuable in treating agents in a certain way that is constitutive of them being treated equally in a morally valuable way. This view of equality is opposed to the other reading of the value of equality, that being teleological equality, wherein equality is morally valuable when agents are treated in such appropriate fashions as to end up equal in welfare or resources. Parfit’s intention is to show that neither view of equality sufficiently addresses the underlying intuition of what we think we value about equality, and as these two readings of equality are exhaustive of the distinctions of equality, we must turn to another principle to satisfy this intuition: giving priority to those that are the worst off in society (prioritarianism). Nevertheless, the paper also serves the purpose of showing that insofar as we are interested in equality we are interested in deontological and not teleological equality. Modern Republicans posit a version of deontological equality, so where is it that they go wrong?

The reason for the plausibility of deontological egalitarianism simpliciter and implausibility of Republican deontological egalitarianism is due to the simple fact that in order for deontological egalitarianism to satisfy the intuitions for which we desire equality, the society must have always followed this deontological idea. The simple fact is that the United States has never followed this deontological model, so that to impose it now would not be to treat persons equally. It’s a fascinating paradox: to treat persons equally (all of a sudden) is to treat them unequally. This is the flaw of Republican egalitarianism; it is a “starting-gate” version of egalitarianism that treats all persons equally after a starting point, but the fact of the matter is that if persons had been treated unequally before the starting point, then even if they are treated equally after that starting point, they are not equal in way that is morally significant.

This is where we see the need to merge our deontological egalitarianism with teleological egalitarianism, in practice. In theory deontology should be sufficient for meeting our egalitarian concerns, but in practice, what we see is a need to use redistribution to meet demands of equality that cannot be met by deontology alone. What this reveals to us, if we are being honest, is that we are concerned about the outcomes of policies of the polity as they affect us, not just that those policies apply to all members of society. In theory, and perhaps in practice if the starting point was the originating point of a society, deontology would result in the sorts of equal outcomes that we do value, and unequal outcomes would be fair due to the deontological practices of the polity. But in the political reality in which we find ourselves, one of deeply integrated and systemic racism and sexism due to the lack of implementation of deontological egalitarianism in the past, we find that the sudden implementation of deontological egalitarianism does not provide the sorts of equal or fair outcomes that we deem necessary for a just society.

What this might suggest is the inadequacy of egalitarian theory in political philosophy to express the real intuitions that we have of justice as they apply to modern society. Perhaps political philosophy has become too idealized and abstract to meet the need to craft theories tailored to our political realities. I think this conclusion would be too hasty; after all, philosophers such as John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, G.A. Cohen, Richard Arneson, Elizabeth Anderson, and Amartya Sen have all attempted to create theories that attempt to put our concerns for deontological egalitarianism into place with the facts.

I think the correct conclusion to draw from the preceding notes is that modern Republicans are living in a fantasy world divorced from the brute fact of the injustice that permeates our society. Their stringent commitment to their ideology compels them to commit themselves to a vague egalitarian theory that might work well in theory, but which we can clearly see is unjust in practice. So perhaps it is not a lie for the Republicans to say that they do care about equality. That very well might be true. The problem is that while Republicans might care about the theory of equality, they still do not care about the real people who are not wealthy white men.


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  1. #1 by Larry on January 11, 2014 - 3:33 pm

    Could you clarify this statement: “insofar as we are interested in equality we are interested in deontological and not teleological equality”?

    I don’t understand why being interested in equality can’t mean being interested in both kinds. Even starting from scratch, if everyone started out perfectly equal, I’d think it would be worth considering simple “equal treatment” as well as more complex “treatment to bring about equal results”.

    Assuming that we don’t all start out perfectly equal (and how likely is that?), it seems even more important to take both kinds of equality into account. If one of us starts out with a bad leg, treating that person equally might involve taxing everyone in a small way to provide crutches to that one person. Although maybe it wouldn’t seem that way if I was a Republican.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on January 11, 2014 - 6:17 pm

      Great points, and a great question, thanks for sharing them! I meant that we are interested in everyone having as much welfare as possible, but due a general scarcity of resources, we find it acceptable as a matter of justice that some people have less welfare than others if they had the same opportunity to have welfare levels as high as others. Now in practice, persons with welfare levels lower than others often did not have the same opportunity for welfare of others, even if it seems that the choices they made are directly responsible for their low welfare levels, i.e. a crack, meth, or heroin addict born into an impoverished family and community with little chance for social and economic mobility. Even if this person’s low welfare level is mainly due to his dependence on drugs, his responsibility for that shortage in welfare is lessened by the fact that he did not choose the environment he was born into, and new interesting research on drug addiction suggests that the determining factor of addiction is social and environmental factors (though of course there are exceptions). The idea is that if, from the get-go, all persons really were treated equally in society, the commonality of such scenarios would be lessened, and there would be a greater equality of welfare as an end.

      In other words, I agree completely with your point that we do care about equal results. But I think that, in theory, if people were truly and genuinely treated as equals in society, with equal opportunities, there would be more equal outcomes. I see both views as valuing end welfare, after all, insofar as we care about equality we care about equality of welfare. The difference between the two views is that deontological egalitarianism holds that a just society follows the most fair and consistent way to ensure equal outcomes and this is through equal and just treatment, and teleological egalitarianism holds that a just society requires that resources be redistributed so that all persons have an equal amount of welfare. I think we have the intuition that the latter is not required for a just society given the scarcity of resources, though it would perhaps be fine as a utopian ideal if there were infinite resources to be distributed.

      Continuing with the drug addiction thought experiment (excuse my lack of creativity with this example), if the addict truly did have an equal opportunity to have an equal welfare level to others due to a lack of systemic discrimination against his race and social class, and other social and familial factors were not such to push him to use drugs, I think our intuitions tell us that it is ok that he have less welfare than others, to some degree, and this is what deontological egalitarianism entails. It seems the teleological egalitarian will say that we should provide the addict with resources for him to have a level of welfare equal to others, which might entail giving him money for drugs. That seems repulsive. I do think society owes him the opportunity to go through drug rehabilitation (and I mean real rehabilitation, not throwing him in jail!), so that he can have an opportunity to have a welfare level equal with others, and I think this idea follows from the equal treatment notion prescribed by deontological egalitarianism.

      All of this goes to say that both views value equality of welfare as an end goal, it is just that deontological egalitarianism holds that the most just way to bring this about is by treating all persons fairly and equally, and teleological egalitarianism thinks that the state should just distribute goods to make all persons equal in welfare. My apologies for not making that clear initially, I appreciate your question in prodding me to make the distinction between the views more nuanced.

  2. #3 by SelfAwarePatterns on January 11, 2014 - 9:07 pm

    Very well said. I think most Republicans earnestly believe that they’re being fair with their idea of egalitarianism, with only a hazy idea, at best, of how difficult the life circumstances are of people not born into the same circumstances as them.

    • #4 by ausomeawestin on January 12, 2014 - 4:12 pm

      Thanks! And yes, I agree with you completely; I think that is exactly the problem with the modern Republican.

  3. #5 by Larry on January 11, 2014 - 9:37 pm

    Thanks for the clarification. You’ve done a great job (apparently standing on Parfit’s shoulders) clarifying the rationales behind conservative (I don’t think that’s the right word these days, but I’ll use it) and liberal political views by applying this distinction between the deontological and teleological views of justice or equality.

    Although in the example under discussion, I’m not sure it’s correct to say that the deontological view supports some level of drug rehabilitation, while the teleological view supports whatever it takes to make the addict as healthy as the average person. (I’m going to switch to “conservative” and “liberal” because it’s easier to type).

    To draw the distinction fairly, I think that a strict conservative would deny that the community owes any special treatment (e.g. drug rehabilitation) to anyone. Sure, let’s agree that we’re all entitled to, say, an annual checkup and vaccinations and having broken bones fixed, but that’s it. Likewise, a strict liberal might say the community should give everyone whatever special treatment is necessary to insure their (average) health, including a sufficient supply of heroin if that’s what it takes.

    Between these two extreme positions, there’s a continuum of possibilities, and that’s where most people end up, leaning one way or the other, or trying to find a middle ground. So the strict conservative might gives a little and says, o.k., it’s fair to give some special assistance to a person who has had some special difficulties in life or contracted a rare disease that requires expensive drugs, in order to bring that person to a healthier state (that’s a somewhat teleological view). While the strict liberal gives some ground and says we should do a lot to help such a person, but we can’t really insure that the person will become a model of health, and we don’t want to provide a sufficient supply of heroin either, because it’s unfair to give so much special (and possibly very expensive) treatment to one person (which is a somewhat deontological view).

    In other words, I think it’s very helpful to frame the discussion using these opposing views, but we should recognize that, strictly stated, both are extreme (meaning at the opposite ends of the continuum). One might argue that the conservative position is better because we can define “equal treatment” as allowing a small amount of special treatment (according to an individual’s specific needs), but as soon as the door is opened to some special treatment, I think we’ve departed from the strict deontological view.

    I didn’t intend to write so much, but the issue and your response were quite interesting. Thanks for the opportunity to discuss this.

    • #6 by ausomeawestin on January 12, 2014 - 5:21 pm

      I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying this dialogue, I know I am! You raise fair points. I actually think that both congressional Democrats and Republicans subscribe to a deontological egalitarianism, due to the general scarcity of resources that I alluded to in my previous comment as being sufficient to motivate deontology. The difference is that Democrats recognize that after implementing deontological egalitarianism, many injustices will remain unless steps are taken to break cycles of poverty. Republicans, I have been arguing, think it is sufficient for a just polity that we merely introduce deontological egalitarianism. Now we could explain this difference as a hidden interest by democrats in teleological egalitarianism, but I think another viable explanation is that democrats subscribe to a pluralistic conception of justice, where equal treatment is necessary but not sufficient for a just polity, as other values are needed, such as ‘priority’ of aid for the worst off (a la Parfit or John Rawls), ‘sufficiency’ in all people having enough (a la Harry Frankfurt), or ‘capability’ for well being (a la Amartya Sen).

      So, I agree with you about your notes on the continuum of equality. Perhaps we can set out the continuum as beginning on the one end with the extreme of pure deontology, with different values being different degrees of likelihood of promoting ending equality, moving towards the opposite end of the continuum as teleological egalitarianism. I’m not sure where the values I suggested above would end up on the spectrum, but that is a task for another day. I suspect that Sen’s ‘capability approach’ would be closer to deontology, and Parfit’s ‘prioritarianism’ would be closer to teleology, but I don’t won’t to rest too much on that assertion. Also, the spectrum would become very nuanced, as if we allow for pluralism we must allow for combinations of values (i.e. liberty, priority and capability), so setting it out would be challenging. Regardless, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter; your comments are appreciated.

  4. #7 by jmeqvist on January 12, 2014 - 6:43 pm

    Interesting, and I certainly agree with your point that simply treating people the same after certain inequalities have historically accumulated makes little sense.

    One interesting thing to note is that Nozick, hardly an egalitarian, realized this problem in his own work in some form. Nozick defends his non-patterned, historical theory of justice because while he wants to defend the right of property acquisition through non-coercive means, he recognizes that past acquisition of property through coercive means merit rectification. For Nozick property can only be legitimate if it was acquired legitimately, but given previous uses of conquest and coercion it seems that current property holdings are in no way legitimate according to Nozick’s standard. I disagree with Nozick because I reject the strong link he draws between liberty and the near unlimited right to accumulate property, but unlike many libertarian leaning politicians he actually recognized that concern for treating people with respect requires that we don’t simply ignore past injustices and the history of the acquisition of illegitimate advantage.

    Also, Ronald Dworkin made use of an interesting distinction which seems to speak to the problem of systemic racism/sexism and past injustice. The distinction I am thinking of is between equal treatment and treatment as an equal. For example, welfare may not involve equal treatment as people receive different benefits depending on their situation, but it certainly involves treatment as an equal. This distinction seems to show how being egalitarians does not mean simply being committed to treating everyone the same no matter what.

    I guess I see deontological egalitarianism as a derivative rather than a foundational principle. The foundational principle is that all people have value and ought to be treated with respect, and deontological egalitarian practises in many situations are an appropriate way of instantiating this foundational principle, but likewise so are teleological egalitarian practises. As a theory on its own, neither deontological egalitarianism nor teleological egalitarianism seems that plausible to me, as they fail to explain why equality is important.

    • #8 by ausomeawestin on January 12, 2014 - 10:51 pm

      Excellent insights, jmeqvist, thank you for sharing them!

      Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia is an interesting read, and I appreciate his treatment of utopianism due to it being a fascinating topic not normally addressed in political philosophy, but I tend to be skeptical of the intuitions he claims follow from the Chamberlain thought experiment. Still, I think you bring up a redeeming quality of his work. It is unfortunate that left libertarianism is a not well known position, even among academic political philosophers. It begins with the basic idea common to all libertarian views, the right to self possession, but from this does not make the induction to possession of all goods converted by resources by the agents own hand, which you rightly reject as foolish, and opts for a moderation of private possession and egalitarian distribution. Peter Vallentyne is at the forefront of this movement, and does a good job of answering the economic objections to such a position.

      I am a fan of Dworkin’s work, and will note that he does favor an deontological egalitarianism for economic equality in his theory of ‘equality of resources’. While I think Dworkin is right that the sovereign virtue is to treat all persons with equal concern, I think he is incorrect that the correct method of addressing economic inequality is through equality of resources. As Richard Arneson and Amartya Sen have argued, insofar as we care about equality, we care about welfare; to care about the equality of resources that bring about welfare is fetishistic.

      Nevertheless, I think you are right that deontological egalitarianism is a derivative rather than foundational principle. Like attempts to reduce “morally good action” to “that action that maximizes utility” I think that egalitarianism is an attempt to reduce “a just state of affairs” to “a state of affairs where the distribution of x is equal”. As such, I think that while moral philosophy has made attempts to provide decision procedures for actions even when non-naturalism (non-reducibility) is true, such attempts have not been made in political philosophy. Political philosophy has carried on as if recent developments in metaethics have not created need for changes to its normative prescriptions. It might turn out that the constructivist principles sculpted by John Rawls are misleading us, and that attention to a more fundamental principle will create better derivative theories. Justice might not be reducible to equality at all, as it could turn out on further inspection that the normative property clusters that regulate our use of the term ‘just’ are closer to giving people enough rather than an equal amount.

      All of this goes to say that I think you are right that neither deontological nor teleological egalitarianism completely address our basic intuitions of justice, but that might be because justice is not reducible to equality at all, but something more metaphysically basic about human dignity, incapable of being expressed in terms of ‘equality’.

      Thanks again for your great points.

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