Saturday, 6 December 2014

Equality and Morality

Egalitarianism is one of the most common ideas that one comes across. As such, it is very, very good to be suspicious of it (even if it turns out to be true). Despite the catastrophic failure of the project of communism, egalitarianism is still a principle you have to go to some odd corners of the Internet to find serious speculation against. Let's unpack the idea of equality a little, and see where it takes us...


There is an obvious sense in which human beings are clearly not equal, and that is in terms of ability. It is a very clear empirical fact that some people are just better at getting things done than other people are. That is: person x is more useful than person y, the implication here being that there is an inequality between them. However, you would be right to observe that this may only true for a specific task that x and y are engaged in (let's call it z). For the purpose of completing z, x is more useful, superior even, than y: that doesn't mean that x is just better than y on some kind of abstract level, and it certainly doesn't mean that I should be required to back out of the room that x is sitting in without turning my back on her...

This being said, is it not true that some people are just generally more useful than other people?

Let's use the example of IQ here. I asked a friend with a real, bona fide psychology degree about this bit, so if I make any glaring mistakes, blame him. Contact details will be provided to any angry mobs who demand them. Anyway: IQ doesn't produce an objective measure for intelligence per se; there are far too many different forms of intelligence (which is a pretty vague concept anyway) for such a thing to be practically achievable: emotional, artistic, mathematical and so on. What it does do, however, is give us a useful ad hoc measure for certain abilities in certain circumstances, from which, if we take into account potential confounding factors, and combine it with other measures and observations, we can end up with a pretty reasonable general estimation of a person's intelligence.

We could, perhaps, arrive at a general measure of usefulness if we went in a similar direction. Let's call it Utility Quotient (UQ). I'm wary of getting too bogged down in an example that is only meant to illustrate a few thoughts, so I'm just going to assert that this hypothetical measure gives a reasonably accurate measure of a person's general value to society. UQ might be determined by combining several different measures together to arrive at a useful result. For example, a person might have consistently low scores for social aptitude and common sense, but they also happen to be a genius micro-biologist who leads their particular field, whose work has many and various practical implications, and as such scores a higher overall UQ than a person with common sense oozing out their ears. Perhaps UQ is designed in such a way that it can take into account people with exceptional, albeit selective, skills like this. Hell, it's my thought-experiment: UQ can take this into account.

Even without a measure like this, we would still most likely agree with the initial point: some people are just generally more useful than others, or have specific skills that make up for a lack of broader skills. The point I'm driving at is: even if we agree that, yes, everyone has different talents and skills, it does still make sense to say that some people are just generally superior than others in terms of ability and contribution to humanity. This is surely an empirical fact.

(By 'generally superior,' I mean in terms of the contribution they make to the general well being of humanity, whether or not this is limited to their particular community or is more global may be reflected in the UQ scoring too. Again, this is all purely hypothetical).

Why, then, are we so concerned with insisting that human beings are equal?

I think it is more of a reaction to the fear that by considering human beings to be unequal in ability we have to conclude, therefore, that they are not of equal moral worth. The attitude that some human beings are simply expendable (or do not count as human beings at all) was one of the most obvious driving forces, or justifications at least, of many of the great horrors unleashed during the 20th Century. However, does the recognition that human beings are not of equal utility really mean that they are not of equal moral worth? Or, does the act of accepting inequality of utility necessarily lead down the road of concluding that they are, therefore, not of equal moral worth?

That depends on how one defines moral worth. So...what do we mean by moral worth? Or, more accurately, what do I mean by moral worth?


Before we can ask how we determine moral worth, we need to actually define what is meant by the expression 'moral worth.' The definition I am going to assert for the purpose of discussion here is- the obligations that one has to another. Or, rather, that the other has a moral worth which means I have obligations towards them. From whence comes this obligation? For Kant, it is a part of our nature as rational agents that we have duties towards other rational agents; the Utilitarians consider us to have obligations towards other beings which are capable of pleasure and pain, or holding preferences in some versions; virtue ethicists would be more likely to suggest that it is a virtue to be compassionate, and that compassion involves acting in such a way that benefits others, for that is what it is to live a good life (I am simplifying all of these, of course).

It is easy to view these different theories as being cards in a game of Top Trumps, suggesting that we can find the 'best' system by comparing their various attributes. I find this a little ludicrous; it is far more helpful to see the different moral theories as building upon one another, informing the difficulties and strengths of one another, rather than as a number of competing systems. This is not to say that we cannot have preferences, or consider one theory to be better than others, but moral philosophy needs to be taken as a whole (in my humble opinion, at least). Speaking purely for myself, I consider myself to be principally a virtue ethicist with Utilitarian sensibilities, or possibly a Utilitarian with the sensibilities of a virtue ethicist.

As such, my view on the notion of moral worth is that: a virtuous person who pursues a good life is compassionate, that is, is open to the needs and suffering of others and acts in response to this. This is all very well, but what about occasions when one needs to prioritise one person's needs over another? And I don't just mean in the occasional trolley disaster. This is surely one of the greatest challenges, if not the greatest challenge, that any and every scarcity society must face: who gets what? And who decides this?

This isn't necessarily helpful. We were discussing whether or not recognising that people are unequal in ability was equivalent to suggesting that we do not have equal moral obligations to them. I think that the answer to this might be something along lines of the following: we have equally important moral obligations towards one another, but the nature or internal dimensions of these obligation, does not mean that we act uniformly to one another. If you'll forgive the clich├ęd example: suppose that one had to choose between the lives of a tramp and a scientist on the brink of curing cancer, and one chooses the scientist: does this mean that we have no moral obligation to the tramp? Although, in practice, it may appear not, perhaps this is not so. One movement we could make would be to state that, although our moral obligations require us to sacrifice one life for another, it is still a sacrifice. It is still, or at least should be, a recognition that the person who we must allow to die still has a moral worth, but that this moral worth occurs in a greater context of moral obligations, obligations that network around and through one another.

However, isn't there something perverse about this? What?

It feels more appropriate, almost, to suggest that when we let the tramp die we have failed him. By discussing his death as a sacrifice, it seems as if all we're doing is attempting to abrogate our sense of guilt by suggesting that we have not let him down. This is because, I feel, we cannot shake the idea that somehow, even though the scientist had the higher UQ, the tramp mattered just as much as he did. This does not necessarily suggest that there is any truth to the idea that this is the case, but the fact that we feel that way is morally significant, and should be addressed (though not here: I think a discussion of moral phenomenology deserves its own post). 


Are we closer to an answer to our question? Does recognising practical inequality lead to us loosing the notion of equal moral worth?

What this question shows is the way that moral theories can break down when they encounter the world. We can talk all we want that everyone matters, that everyone is special, but if we translate that into action we end up with a situation where we cannot treat people with preferences. No one can matter more to us than anyone else, not even ourselves. Arguably, this is the direction that Simone Weil tries to go in.

When we make a moral judgement, we are making a choice, and choice implies preference (bloody hell, am I praxing here?). When we choose one life and not the other, although we do not necessarily state that the life unsaved had no worth, we are implying that the life saved mattered more. We can still hold that we have duties to everyone, but we must be more honest with ourselves: some duties come before others.

I find this conclusion slightly uncomfortable. I fear I can glimpse Gnon on the horizon. 


  1. If you follow through with this, and begin to take into consideration those cases where we are forced to act so as to, if not decide who lives and who dies, but who shall be allocated more or less resources, and we must make this decision on the basis of limited information [where the cost-benefit analysis accounting for probability... you can see what I mean], that is where you start to get into the nitty gritty.

    Further, just as a practical matter people observably make calculations of differing moral worth between individuals constantly, discriminating against certain undesirables in their calculus of who shall receive their kindness, their charity, their esteem, and so on. One can observe how certain classes of "morally" low class groups, such as "racists," are essentially treated as persona non grata in the context of who on Twitter shall be shown the charity of engaging their ideas in a way reminiscent of gentlemanly argument. The theory of equality translates to a practice of radical inequality in treatment; certain people are just morally equaler, and can be extended more of a benefit of the doubt in those cases where you have a [insert historically oppressed group] interacting with a [insert historically dominant group]. Likewise, women observably exhibit a great deal of discrimination in who they will sleep with and marry, which systematically has unequal results [some men sleep with many women, and some with none; clearly the systematic behavior of women leads to some men being deprived of sexual opportunity, yet we never find feminists or women in general decrying this vast inequality... what's the Gini coefficient of sexual wealth between men?]

    Aristotle already had this figured out. Equality as a principle implies treating people equally insofar as they are similar, and unequally insofar as they are dissimilar. In no way does this entail not guaranteeing some essential rights by the state, but it also implies that some people, e.g. the more abled who provide for the less abled, justifiably have and should exercise more privilege in society.

    Whatever else people might say about the notion of egalitarianism, discrimination is preserved. It isn't a question of whether there shall be discrimination, it's a question of who we are discriminating against, how, and why.

    1. Just as point of fact re the comment on sexual discrimination, the Children of God sect (they're called The Family International now, I think) actively encourage female members to have sexual relationships with as many men and women in The Family as desired their company. They view it as a logical extension the self-giving preached by Christ. Oddly, although female bisexuality is permitted, same-sex relations among male members are not. As apparently that's the logical place to draw the line when you start the archetypal hippie love-cult.

      But yes, I'm more discussing the reality of moral decision making here than I am attempting to outline a manifesto. Indeed, the nod towards Gnon at the end was intended just as a recognition of how uncomfortable the real world is. One could make a theological movement here and use the observation of the inevitable unfairness of preference (Zizek describes love as being essentially violent due to its extreme selectiveness...and I suddenly recall Christ bringing a sword rather than peace...) as being a symptom of the falleness of our world. By which I mean, the inevitable aspect of injustice, pain, disappointment and so on that our lives have.