Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bernard Williams on the Idea of Equality

I recently read Bernard Williams's classic essay "The Idea of Equality" and thought I would share what I took away from it.

In my view, the clear upshot of the essay is that most of the usual objections to equality rely upon misconceptions about what equality requires. It seems to me that there are two objections in particular that the essay shows to be unfounded. The first holds that the idea of equality is absurd (since "people are not, in fact, equal"), the second that equality is trivial (because "the mere fact that we're all human doesn't entail any political vision whatever").

The familiar right-wing mantra about equality is that "it's just a fact that people are different in their abilities, so egalitarian politics is fundamentally misconceived." In other words: "people aren't created equal... they have different amounts of talent and ability, and political claims to equality simply ignore this fact". This is more of a card-trick than an argument.

It's an open question what exactly the fact of human differences in talent actually means. I would say that the range of different abilities between us are rather small in proportion to what we share in common. But even the standard deviation is quite large, you cannot unproblematically move from observing certain inequalities (be they social or "natural") to the claim that these inequalities should be the justification for social/political hierarchies. That's a bait and switch.

A statement to the effect that people are not equal in abilities, say, does not entail that people should not be morally or politically equal. By moral or political equality, I mean the kind of equality wherein all people, insofar as they are people, are owed equal consideration or are owed equal standing (or an equal voice) in matters of politics, law, and so on. If you disagree, then you should have no problem saying that people who are extraordinarily good at tennis, say, should have more votes than others who aren't so talented. It's not even clear that such a claim would make sense. Quite obviously, one kind of inequality simply doesn't follow from the other.

So, when egalitarians claim that all people are equal, they are not saying that all people are "equal in their skill, intelligence, strength or virtue". Instead, as Williams makes clear, the egalitarian claim is that all people are equal insofar as they are all people: "it is their common humanity that constitutes their equality".

Now this might strike you as trivially true. But I am with Williams in thinking that this claim still has unrealized critical potential.

For example, when Williams wrote this article (in the late 50s/early 60s) it was quite obviously not a trivial political claim (and, I would add, it is still non-trivial). As he himself points out, the deep-seated racial injustice of Jim Crow in the US was basically premised on the idea that black people were not people in the full sense. This is why the slogan "I am a man" had such critical bite and emancipatory power.

And this is only one example. History (as well as the present global order) is littered with hierarchical social formations in which political arrangements systematically neglected this obvious common humanity between people by treating some as though they didn't possess certain human capacities (e.g. the ability to speak a language, use tools, live in societies, feel pain and affection, the capacity for creativity, virtue and so on) that we all obviously possess.

And we should understand the arguments against common humanity for what they are: irrational rationalizations or ad hoc apologetics for political domination. That is, they aren't well-thought-through moral or political theories: they are merely window-dressing for domination and hierarchy. Thus, in the face of such views, it is surely not trivial to reassert the "apparent platitude that all people are, in fact, human".

But if we all share a common humanity, what would it mean to respect someone as a common human being? What political content does this claim have?

Let's consider first what it wouldn't mean. To respect (or relate to) someone merely as an occupant of a certain given social role, status or title would not yet be to respect them as a person. This technical or professional attitude or way of seeing others is deeply flawed and limiting: whereas this attitude regards others solely in terms of titles of this kind, a "human approach would regard others as persons who happen to have a certain title (among others), willingly, unwillingly, through lack of alternatives, with pride, etc." Respecting people as fellow human beings would not be to regard them "merely under professional, social or technical titles, but with consideration of their own views and purposes". In other words, the human approach "enjoins us not to let our fundamental attitudes toward others be dictated by the criteria of technical success or social position, and not to take them at the value carried by these titles and the structures in which these titles place them".

Now you might be tempted to read this suggestion to take a more "human approach" as implying that we should try to see other people and the roles they occupy from the "others' point of view", i.e. in light of their "own views and purposes". But this line of reasoning is fraught with difficulty. As Williams points out:
"there are forms of exploiting men [sic] or degrading them which would be thought to be excluded by these notions, but which cannot be excluded merely by considering how the exploited or degraded men [sic] see the situation. For it is precisely a mark of extreme exploitation or degradation that those who suffer it do not see themselves differently from the ways that they are seen by the exploiters... they may in some cases acquiesce passively in the role for which they have been cast".
This is consonant with Malcolm X's powerful challenge to black people in the early 1960s: "who taught you to hate yourself?". The idea was that black people had, over time, come to internalize white supremacist norms in such a way that they needed to be cognitively liberated from an entire way of seeing the world that tended to justify (rather than resist) the white power structure. The same could be said about the way that women may internalize or are socialized into accept certain oppressive social roles that serve to maintain their continued oppression. In both cases, it is a condition of emancipation that the oppressed throw off the conceptual framework they've inherited from oppressive social conditions.

Williams argues here that "we evidently need something more than the precept that one should restrict and try to understand another man's [sic] consciousness of his [sic] own activities; it is also that one may not suppress or destroy that consciousness".

All of us, all human beings, are potentially conscious of how social structure influences our ideas about our role in society. But not everyone, as a matter of fact, is actually conscious in this way (this is why "consciousness raising" is an intelligible political activity). As Williams points out:
"it is precisely one element in the notion of exploitation that such consciousness can be decreased by social action and the environment; we may add that it can similarly be increased... all human beings are capable of reflectively standing back from the roles and positions in which they are cast; and this reflective consciousness may be enhanced or diminished by their social condition".
One way that hierarchical political arrangements are maintained is by the idea of necessity:
"the oppressed are made to believe that it is somehow foreordained or inevitable that there should be these orders; and this idea of necessity must be eventually undermined by the growth of people's reflective consciousness about their role, still more when it is combined with the thought that what they and the others have always thought about their roles in the system was the product of the social system itself".
From here Williams goes on to discuss what this understanding of equality would be mean if applied to basic social and economic institutions. Here again, Williams helpfully demolishes some conceptual confusions that often allow the Right to strawperson arguments for increased social/economic equality.

First, Williams starts off with a distinction between (1) inequality of need, and (2) inequality of merit, and thus: (1') goods demanded by need and (2') goods that can be earned by merit. Goods of the second sort typically have a competitive aspect lacking in the case of the first sort of goods that correspond to needs.

The example of (1) that Williams examines is the case of need for medical treatment. Williams holds that the structure of social institutions involved in delivering health care should be organized in such a way as to fulfill this basic function: the only proper ground of distribution of medical care is ill health, which is to say need.

Yet in many societies (e.g. the US, in spite of recent "reform") the possession of sufficient amounts of money becomes a necessary condition of actually receiving treatment. Williams argues that this is irrational. The good in question, medical care, is not like a trophy or a medal for winning a competition. It is indexed to human needs, and it does not make any sense whatsoever to ration medical care according to competitive ideas such as "merit" or "financial achievement" that are alleged to attach to the wealthy (side note: I register my skepticism that the wealthy and powerful are wealthy and powerful merely because of "merit").

Why is it irrational to structure health care institutions in this way? Because, Williams argues, this way of structuring health care (according to "merit") is not appropriate to the sort of thing health care is. We don't think of health care as a luxury, or privilege, or trophy-like achievement. That's simply not the sort of thing it is. If you want to understand the sort of good that medical care is, if you want to understand its proper function, you wouldn't think of it in the same way that we think of goods such as winning the Pulitzer Prize, for example. Medical care simply isn't the same sort of thing as a trophy or medal. Medical treatment attaches to human need, not to merit or competitive norms that we attach to, say, a bicycle race. The upshot is that we should organize health care institutions according to rational principles, viz. according to principles appropriate to the kind of good that medical care is.

The operative idea here is that there are different kinds of goods, and they should be distributed with these differences in mind. Conceptual clarity here helps to demolish the dismissive (and rather obtuse) attitude towards equality harbored by those on the Right. There are at least three kinds of goods relevant to our discussion here:

  1. There are goods (Rawls calls them "primary social goods") that are desired by virtually everyone in society, or would be desired by all sections of society if they knew about the goods in question and thought it possible for them to attain them. For example, Rawls lists under this heading certain freedoms, powers, opportunities, levels of income/wealth, education, health and self-respect as goods of this sort.
  2. There are goods which people may be said to earn or achieve.
  3. Then there are goods which not all the people who desire them can have. There are three important cases of this sort of good:
  • Certain desired goods, like positions of prestige, are by their very nature limited. The entire idea of prestige is predicated on the existence of the not-prestigious.
  • There are also contingently limited goods, viz. goods that require the satisfaction of certain conditions in order to access them. But contingently limited goods are in principle open to anyone who satisfies the conditions, thus there is no intrinsic limit to the numbers who might gain access. University education is a good example: there are conditions for accessing it (e.g. completing high school, etc.), but it is in principle possible for everyone in society to fulfill these conditions.
  • Finally, there are what Williams calls fortuitously limited goods, which are those goods that are scarce enough that there aren't enough to go around.
Importantly, the aim of these distinctions is to demolish the following Right wing "argument":
The Left argues that everyone should have medical care and education, but that's like saying everyone should be allowed to win the Nobel Prize. It's just a fact that there are going to be winners and losers, and therefore we shouldn't try to secure, for example, health care for all.
It should be clear now why this "argument" is invalid: it conflates different kinds of goods and suggests (falsely) that medical treatment is the a similar good to winning a gold medal in the Olympics. There is no tension in thinking that, on the one hand, gold medals should be awarded on the basis of athletic achievement in a competition, and on the other that access to medical care should be distributed merely according to need. They are vastly different kinds of goods. And to think that they're the same is either to do something disingenuous and sneaky, or it's to be wildly mistaken about the sorts of things that gold medals and medical treatment are.

We need to distribute and value goods according to the sorts of good that they are. We should not assume that the exchange-value logic of capitalists markets is the only kind of value there is. Often this form of evaluation is totally inappropriate to many things we value (e.g. friendship, love, and so forth).

This mistake is submitted to severe scrutiny in Elizabeth Anderson's excellent Value in Ethics and Economics (Harvard: 1993). Her argument is that we value different things in different ways, according to the features of the thing in question. It would thus be a serious mistake to assume, as economists often do, that we value all things in precisely the same way (i.e. as satisfying mathematically equivalent "consumer preferences").

Thus Anderson attacks this way of thinking (common on the Right) that assumes that value is univocal and may be commonly measured by cash value. Different goods, Anderson argues, "differ in kind and quality: they differ not only in how much we should value them, but in how we should value them". Anderson thus concludes that everything shouldn't be put up for sale: universal commodification is irrational.

Consider the following example. Treating something like a commodity means asserting that its value can be expressed in a price. But this evaluative attitude is not appropriate to everything: we don't think its appropriate to put human beings up for sale because this fails to properly value them. Assigning exchange-values to human beings misunderstands what human beings are. Assigning a price to human life doesn't merely undervalue human beings: it misvalues them.

There are numerous other examples. Education, we tend to think, is a "primary social good" of the Rawlsian sort if there ever was one: education is something that every person wants, whatever else it is that they may want. And if that's true of the sort of thing it is, then it would be absurd to think that education should be commodified and subject to market forces. This would be misunderstand the kind of thing education is: education is not like an iphone or a luxury item. Assigning a market price to education and rationing it according to ability to pay is to misvalue education. Education is not a commodity, and thinking of it in these terms is to systematically distort its significance.

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