Investigating Equality

by John Baker, Edward Lewis

John Baker is Associate Professor of Equality Studies at University College Dublin, and a member of the UCD Equality Studies Centre and the School of Social Justice. He is the author of Arguing for Equality and co-author of Equality: From Theory to Action and Affective Equality: Love, Care and Injustice.

The first part of the interview, which follows, focuses on general and theoretical considerations regarding equality. The second part focuses on how to realise egalitarian aspirations.

Can you give an overview of key outlines of the field of equality studies, and of the work carried out by the Equality Studies Centre at the University College Dublin?

We think that the central concerns of equality studies can be expressed in terms of six interrelated sets of questions:

1. What are the central, significant, dominant patterns of inequality in our society, western capitalist society more generally, and, more generally still, the world at large? Since many people are unaware of the scale and patterns of existing inequalities, it’s important to start with facts about the distribution of income and wealth, inequalities of status and power, obstacles to decent work and education and the denial of human rights more generally. One should also ask who enjoys, and who is deprived of, relations of love, care and solidarity, and how the work involved in sustaining these relationships is distributed. Within the Centre we are interested in the whole range of inequalities, including those relating to class, gender, ‘race’, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion and location.

2. What are the best ways of explaining these inequalities, using which overall frameworks? This question is at home in a range of academic disciplines including economics, sociology, politics and geography, but its answers are sometimes hampered by disciplinary boundaries. The Centre attempts to take an interdisciplinary approach.

3. What are the central principles or objectives of equality? What in principle are egalitarians trying to achieve? How strong are the arguments for and against these principles? Since there are many possible conceptions of equality, it’s important to articulate these conceptions and explore their interrelations and relative merits. Within the Centre, we endorse a radically egalitarian vision that we call ‘equality of condition’. In my view, there are a number of distinct, complementary arguments for this radical vision, relying on values that are widely shared.

4. What are the best institutional frameworks for achieving equality in different spheres and contexts? This is a question about social institutions, in the broad sense of economic and political structures, legal systems, educational systems, family forms and so on. Although there has been a tremendous amount of relevant work in this area, it has rarely had an explicitly egalitarian focus. Our work has tried to contribute here.

5. Within a given institutional context, what policies would best promote equality? Whether one is concerned with the ‘utopian’ question of a fully egalitarian society or the reformist question of improving the world as it stands, the state and other institutions face a range of policy options that may be more or less egalitarian. These choices need to be analysed from an explicitly egalitarian perspective. The Centre has done a fair amount of this kind of work, often in collaboration with civil society organisations.

6. What are the best political strategies for promoting equality, given our vision of equality, our understanding of the causes of inequality, and the (corresponding?) obstacles to achieving equality? Egalitarian social movements have a wealth of experience in trying to achieve change, but it is not widely shared and a lot of movements end up reinventing the wheel. It’s important to analyse that experience in light of broader considerations about how change occurs. The Centre tries to facilitate the sharing of this knowledge through its links with Irish social movements.

I wouldn’t say this is an exhaustive list of questions but it is enough to be getting on with. What’s clear is that, to paraphrase Marx, equality studies aims not just to understand but to change the world. It is therefore essentially normative and sees knowledge as having a role to play in transforming social structures. As an unavoidably political form of enquiry, it is rooted in and aspires to express the understandings and priorities of egalitarian social movements.

The Equality Studies Centre was set up first in 1989 as a basis for offering a new, interdisciplinary master’s degree programme, and we’ve gradually branched out to do research degrees, outreach programmes, undergraduate modules and collaborative research. When UCD was reorganised into Schools in 2005, we joined forces with Women’s Studies to form a School of Social Justice. The Centre’s official role is now confined to research and professional development.

You argue that equality is a complex value. What do you mean by this? Is it politically significant that we appreciate the complexity of equality?

I do think equality is complex, but I want to say initially that I don’t think it is a particularly arcane value. I would not want to promote the idea that it is all so complicated that people should feel politically paralysed about calling for a radically more equal world. But I think that if we reflect on equality, not just in a purely theoretical way, but by thinking about the aims and ambitions of recognisably egalitarian movements, we have to acknowledge that equality does have a certain complexity.

One of the well-established questions in egalitarian theory is ‘equality of what?’ – what is it that we should demand equality (or at least more equality) of? I think it’s obvious that we should call for more equality of income and wealth. But egalitarian movements have also always been interested in more equality of status or respect or ‘recognition’, and not necessarily simply because these are necessary conditions for more material equality. There is also a long history of struggles for greater equality of power, expressed in the call for more democratic forms of decision-making both in formal politics and in other settings. In addition, egalitarian movements have demanded more equality in relation to working and learning, sometimes expressed as the rejection of discriminatory access to education and employment, sometimes expressed as a criticism of engrained divisions of labour including the gendered division of care work, and sometimes more ambitiously expressed as a demand for a life full of self-developing and self-realizing working and learning. The egalitarian tradition also embodies a concern for issues of love, care and solidarity, sometimes focusing on the way individuals and groups have been subjected to violence and abuse, sometimes focusing on the needs that all of us have as human beings for the love, care and support of others.

Taking all these together, there is at least at this level a clear complexity in the egalitarian tradition’s answer to ‘equality of what?’ – there are many dimensions of equality. Although some philosophers have attempted to find an answer at another level of thinking that simplifies this complexity – for example by saying that all these demands are part of a general struggle for everyone to have an equally good life – I think that this kind of move hides complexity rather than removing it, partly because a good life is itself a complex idea.

A different kind of complexity within egalitarianism concerns the question of who should be more equal. One answer, the dominant one in contemporary political theory, is to say that we want equality among all individuals. People who are involved in egalitarian movements, as well as people who study persistent patterns of inequality, are more likely to say that we should also be looking at reducing inequalities between groups – that reducing the overall inequality of income among individuals, for example, while perpetuating an inequality of income between men and women, is less desirable than attacking that gender-based inequality as well. Because, as I mentioned earlier, there are many different, cross-cutting social divisions that are marked by structural inequalities – divisions such as class, ‘race’, gender, disability and sexual orientation – it is of course a complicating feature of inequality and therefore of the ideal of equality that promoting greater equality with respect to one of these division is not necessarily tightly connected to promoting it in relation to another.

A third complication of the ideal of equality is that when we reflect on what exactly the ideal of equality requires in a particular dimension with respect to a particular social division, it is not always obvious, and it’s certainly a matter of argument, whether what we should be calling for is as much equality as possible or something else. For example, most self-styled egalitarians who think about the distribution of income would argue that it’s OK to have inequalities of income that reflect differences in people’s basic needs; some also believe that it’s acceptable for people who work longer hours or have more burdensome work than others to have higher incomes. We can still think of these positions as ‘egalitarian’ but they show that egalitarianism is not always about simple equality.

I want to pose a general objection to the idea that equality really is intrinsically valuable. Suppose that we have a world in which there is inequality, but in which everyone’s lives are better than in some other more equal world. Isn’t it obvious that we should prefer the first world? And isn’t that because what we should really be concerned with is how good everyone’s lives are, rather than how good or bad they are relative to the lives of others?

You’ve expressed this objection in a very abstract way, in terms of ‘how good everyone’s lives are’. That formulation raises a lot of complications, so to make the reply a little simpler let’s focus to begin with on people’s material standard of living.

The objection is a powerful one, and is central to the work of John Rawls, but I think it is mistaken. One set of strong replies to the argument, which was developed by G.A. Cohen (and for the full exposition of which I’d refer you to his book Rescuing Justice and Equality), goes something like this. Let’s accept for the sake of argument that your first world is better than your second. But then there is a third conceivable world with the same total material output as the first, but with its being equally shared. Why not compare your first world with that one? Your argument depends on assuming that worlds 1 and 2 are the only possible alternatives and that world 3 is not possible. But why should we assume that? World 1 consists of a population engaged in a set of productive activities yielding a total product that is unequally distributed. We can easily imagine those same people engaging in those same activities, yielding that same product, but with its being equally distributed, i.e. world 3. If world 3 is not possible, it must be because some of those people – namely those who have a higher-than-average standard of living in world 1 – will not engage in those activities without being paid a premium. But refusing to do something is not the same as its being impossible for you to do it, nor does your refusal to do it justify your not doing it. As Cohen points out, someone who has kidnapped your daughter may refuse to release her without getting a ransom, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t release her or that his ransom demand is justified.

Another strong set of replies, which uses a broader idea of people’s lives being better off, has been recently set out very powerfully by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book The Spirit Level. They produce very strong evidence for the conclusion that among relatively affluent societies, those with greater material equality do much better overall than more unequal societies. There are higher standards of health, lower mortality rates, lower levels of crime, lower rates of drug abuse, higher levels of education, higher levels of trust, and so on. These positive effects show no relation to how prosperous the society is, or even how prosperous its worst off group is in international terms, but they are significantly related to how unequal people are within the society in question. To put it in the abstract terms of your question, they show that once a certain level of material well-being has been reached, it is actually very hard to find real-life cases in which everyone in a less equal society is better off than everyone in a more equal one. What is standardly the case is the opposite: that nearly everyone in a more equal society is better off than their counterparts in a less equal one, even if that less equal society has a higher average income.

You might object that neither of these replies shows that equality ‘really is intrinsically valuable’. That doesn’t bother me because I’ve never based the case for equality on the idea of its being intrinsically valuable – in fact, I have always had a hard time understanding what that means. Instead, I think that there are a lot of complementary arguments for equality, one of which is, indeed, that people are generally better off in more equal societies than in less equal ones. More specifically, more equal societies are better at meeting everyone’s needs. They are also more consistent with everyday ideas about mutual respect and with ideals of human solidarity. Those are all arguments for the value of equality, but not necessarily for its being ‘intrinsically’ valuable.

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First published: 17 September, 2010

Category: Philosophy and Theory, Vision/Strategy

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