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Dimensions of Equality

  • Dennis Mckerlie (a1)

The egalitarian values of equality and priority are standardly given maximal scope in that they are applied to the overall condition of peoples' lives and to temporally complete lifetimes. They are also standardly restricted to interpersonal choices. This paper argues that egalitarian values can also reasonably be applied to particular dimensions of lives, to people at particular times, and to choices made about one person's life. It contends that these special applications of egalitarianism are easier to defend in the case of priority than in the case of equality.

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1 Unlike some writers, I use the general term ‘egalitarian’ to include both the concern for equality and the concern for priority. This is not to deny that the two values are fundamentally different. Of course, some egalitarians might accept both values — perhaps Larry Temkin is an example (Temkin Larry S., Inequality, Oxford, 1993, p. 282).

2 The distinction between equality and priority is clearly drawn by Derek Parfit (Parfit Derek, ‘Equality or Priority?’, 1991 Lindley Lecture, University of Kansas, 1995). As Parfit explains, the distinction has been discussed, under a variety of names, in a number of books and articles over a number of years.

3 My account of the priority view assumes that we can make interpersonal comparisons of the size of gains and losses. It also assumes that we can estimate the size of a gain independently of the value that we assign to that gain. And it assumes that we can construct (at least) an interval-scale for measuring gains and losses. These assumptions are controversial, especially if the gains in question are gains in utility. I will not attempt to defend them in this paper, but I believe they are defensible.

4 Understood in this way, priority is not always a matter of giving extra weight to a benefit for someone who is antecedently worse off than others. Suppose we must choose between creating two outcomes and the people in them de novo. The first outcome would contain A at 2 and B at 5 while the second would contain C at 3 and D at 4. Priority is explained by the way in which we value the well-being that a life contains. So the priority view would say that the second outcome is better. It does not contain a larger total amount of well-being than the first outcome, but the well-being that it does contain has more value. However, no one in the second outcome was antecedently worse off than the individuals in the first outcome.

5 Sen Amartya, ‘Equality of What?’, Equal Freedom, ed. Darwall S., Ann Arbor, 1995.

6 Thomas Hurka has suggested that egalitarian values are plausible only when applied to welfare, not to well-being understood in terms of objectively good activities and states (Hurka Thomas, Perfectionism, Oxford, 1993, ch. 6, pp. 75–9). For perfectionist goods like knowledge we have no inclination to favour those who are worst off — indeed, we might be tempted to give priority to those who have already achieved the most in terms of those goods. I disagree. A relevant case is education, which aims at increasing knowledge and helping us develop and exercise our rational abilities. For the sake of simplicity let us suppose that IQ is a reasonably accurate measure of at least one aspect of this good. In my view a teacher might reasonably prefer an increase of 5 points in the IQ of a child at the level of 80 to gain of 10 points for a child with a present IQ of 120.

7 For example, Ronald Dworkin's understanding of equality of resources works with overall condition (Ronald Dworkin, ‘What Is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, x (1981). Inequalities in particular kinds of resources are not objectionable if they are compensated for in terms of other resources so that peoples' overall bundles of resources are equal.

8 How we answer Sen's question will also influence the choice between overall condition and particular dimension. For both equality and priority it will be harder to apply the value to particular dimensions if we understand overall condition in terms of utility. Utility treats other apparent goods and evils as means to welfare. For example, pain is bad because it frustrates our desire or preference not to experience it. But if pain or suffering is not, strictly speaking, intrinsically evil, it is hard to understand why we should accept some distributive principle concerned with that particular source of disutility. On the other hand, suffering could be treated as intrinsically evil in a notion of well-being. The notion of well-being combines suffering with other goods and evils, but that does not mean that it treats suffering as a means to something distinct from itself. This makes it easier to understand how we might be concerned about the distribution of suffering independently of our more general concern about the distribution of well-being.

9 Walzer Michael, Spheres of Justice, New York, 1983, ch. 1.

10 Williams Bernard, ‘The Idea of Equality’, Problems of the Self, Cambridge, 1973.

11 Mayerfeld Jamie, Suffering and Moral Responsibility, Oxford, 1999, pp. 131–6 and 152–8.

12 Someone may claim that the reduction in the intense pain of the better-off person, although smaller in terms of the reduction of pain, nevertheless is a larger gain in terms of well-being than the greater reduction of pain for the worse-off person. So helping the better-off person is choosing the larger gain of well-being, and there is no need to explain the conclusion by priority applied to suffering. However, we might not agree that the smaller reduction in pain is a larger gain in overall well-being. And even if it is, the criticism misunderstands the priority view about well-being. If this gain is larger, then the greater reduction of pain for the other person is a smaller gain of well-being. But that person is worse off in terms of overall well-being, so the priority view about well-being might prefer a smaller gain for him. In other words there can still be a difference between the conclusion of the priority view about suffering and the conclusion of the priority view about well-being, and our judgement about the example might show that we accept the first kind of priority principle.

13 Nagel Thomas, Equality and Partiality, Oxford, 1991, p. 69. The reference to ‘particular rewards’ perhaps indicates that Nagel would also give egalitarian principles maximal breadth in the sense discussed in section I.

14 Nagel Thomas, ‘Equality’, Mortal Questions, Cambridge, 1979, p. 120.

15 McKerlie Dennis, ‘Equality and Time’, Ethics, xcix (1989) and Temkin, ch. 8. It would be puzzling if equality and priority could be applied to stages in lives but other values concerned with justice could not. Desert is an appropriate comparison. W. D. Ross believed that pleasure should be distributed in accordance with virtue, and that desert is based on lifetimes. What we perceive to be good is a condition of things in which the total pleasure enjoyed by each person in his life as a whole is proportional to his virtue similarly taken as a whole' (Ross W. D., The Right and the Good, Oxford, 1930, p. 58). Ross's focus on lifetimes might be questioned. Suppose an idealistic reformer succeeds, at the cost of great personal unhappiness, in overthrowing a corrupt regime. Once in power he becomes as cynical and oppressive as the dictator he replaced. Is it just if he experiences great happiness as a tyrant so that his lifetime happiness will match his lifetime virtue? Perhaps we want virtuous people to be happy while they are virtuous.

16 For a proposal about how we might nevertheless be able to specify how a person stands with respect to these goods at a particular time see Hurka, pp. 118 f.

17 See Daniels Norman, ‘The Prudential Lifespan Account of Justice across Generations’, Justice and Justification, Cambridge, 1996, p. 265 and also Temkin, pp. 240–2.

18 It is not that valuing equality for its own sake commits us to objecting to simultaneous inequality between parts of lives. We might think that the later simultaneous inequality does morally cancel out the earlier one, independently of the argument about compensation.

19 It is criticized in Daniels, pp. 264–9 and Kappel Klemens, ‘Equality, Priority, and Time’, Utilitas, ix (1997).

20 Nagel, “Equality”, 124n16.

21 The simultaneous segments view does not claim that we should now have a special concern with inequality that exists in the present. It tells us to care in the same way about simultaneous inequality regardless of the time at which the simultaneous inequality occurs. But it does claim that inequality between parts of lives is only objectionable if the parts are simultaneous.

22 Many egalitarians suppose that inequality is not objectionable if it results from the choices of those who are worse off under the inequality. Suppose that a person, acting on his present values, freely chooses an inequality. When the inequality occurs his values have changed and he now regrets his previous choice. If we apply equality to people at particular times, should we count this inequality as objectionable? In other words, should the choice test of the wrongness of inequality also be applied to people at particular times? It seems to me that someone who holds the simultaneous segments view can still agree that this inequality is not objectionable. This is partly because the simultaneous segments view does not depend on questioning the ordinary notion of personal identity (see section III). I have explained priority, whether it is applied to lifetimes or to people at particular times, in terms of how we value well-being (the so-called intrinsic value' view). This implies that the priority view cannot give the role to choice that some egalitarians want it to have. If someone is very badly off, a benefit for that person will have special importance, even if their unhappiness results from their own choices. However, we might propose that the strength of the reasons that other people have to relieve the unhappiness could depend in part on responsibility and choice. Choice would not be relevant in simply assigning values to outcomes, but it would be a factor in determining the strength of the reasons for acting in order to bring about the better outcome.

23 If my conclusion about the example is correct it shows that we do apply priority to parts of lives, but it does not prove that we do not apply equality in that way. Perhaps we apply both values to parts of lives, and in this example we believe that priority outweighs equality. I will not discuss this more complicated suggestion.

24 I am in effect suggesting that priority applies inside a life in the same way that it applies between different lives. This is the topic of section III. Section III will explain how the priority view would reply to the argument from prudence.

25 Kappel believes that priority should not be applied to lifetimes (Kappel, 223–5). He appeals to cases where we would help the person who is suffering the most now rather than the person who has suffered most throughout her life. I think these examples only show that we apply priority to people at particular times as well as to lifetimes. Suppose that we must choose between saving the life of a twenty-year-old or a sixty-year-old. Surely the first person has a claim of some sort to be helped, and if it is explained by priority it must be based on lifetimes.

26 Applying the values to people at particular times might count against applying them to particular dimensions. It can provide an alternative explanation of the judgements that seemed to support the application to particular dimensions in section I. Arguably, the person who is experiencing intense suffering is worse off in terms of overall well-being than others at that particular time, even though in virtue of the past and future his complete life will be better than theirs. The decision to help him could be explained by a priority principle focused on overall well-being at a particular time rather than a priority principle focused on the particular dimension of suffering as opposed to overall well-being. I will not try to decide whether all of the cases that seem to support the application to particular dimensions could plausibly be reinterpreted in this way. However, it is worth mentioning that if the person's claim rests on his current level of overall well-being it should give him priority with respect to any increases in well-being, not just reductions in suffering. I am not sure that we would make that judgement about the example.

27 For these ideas see Rawls John, A Theory of Justice, Harvard, 1971, pp. 27 f. and Nagel, ‘Equality’, 119 f. Rawls argues that just because maximizing is the principle of choice inside a life it cannot be the principle of choice for different lives. Nagel criticizes this argument, but he agrees that maximizing is the principle of choice inside a life while egalitarian constraints apply only across lives.

28 For examples of such a view see Parfit Derek, Reasons and Persons, Oxford, 1984, ch. 15; Parfit , ‘Comments’, Ethics, xcvi (1986), 837–43 and 869–72; and also Posner Richard, Aging and Old Ages, Chicago, 1995, pp. 262–97.

29 As Parfit points out, a radical revision of our view of personal identity would also affect how we think of the unity of a life at a particular time (Parfit , Reasons and Persons, pp. 342–5). So it might influence the choice discussed in section I. We might be more likely to think that severe suffering cannot be made up for by other goods experienced by the same person at the same time. I think that the application of the values to particular dimensions does not require this kind of support.

30 Actually we could require equality between the different particular dimensions of the same life, at a time or over the lifetime as a whole. The possibility is worth mentioning although I will not explore it in this paper.

31 It might seem that the appeal to personal identity would at least support the application of equality to a single life. For example, it would help to answer the objections against applying equality to particular times discussed in section II. However, we should remember that in interpersonal choices the revised view of identity would lead to the intuitively implausible total segments view, not the simultaneous segments view (or the corresponding segments view).

32 Mayerfeld discusses similar questions about egalitarian priority, time, personal identity, and the difference between interpersonal and intrapersonal judgements (Mayerfeld, pp. 145–62). He thinks that we make priority judgements inside a life, but he also believes that we make stronger priority judgements across lives. Consequently he suggests that we hold both a principle explained by the intrinsic value of suffering which says the same thing in interpersonal and intrapersonal choices, and a principle of priority requiring a difference in persons which applies only to interpersonal cases. He also distinguishes between priority applied to lifetimes and priority applied to temporal parts of lives. Mayerfeld reserves the term “priority” for the moral reasons that do require a distinction between persons. To express my view in his terms, I think that priority judgements are explained by the intrinsic nature of suffering and well-being, and that they work in the same way inside lives and across lives. Mayerfeld's view is more complicated, and I think we should hold it only if we are convinced that interpersonal judgements are stronger than intrapersonal ones. I am not convinced.

33 Here, and in section II, I have claimed that a certain application of priority is persuasive while the corresponding application of equality is not. The claims may seem dubious because the two values are closely related. The judgements about cases that seem to support the application of priority could be reinterpreted as supporting the corresponding application of equality. One way of separating the two values with respect to the applications I am considering is to ask whether we would level down to achieve equality in a particular dimension or at a particular time. Applications of equality would sometimes reach this conclusion; the parallel applications of priority would not. In the case of the supposed difference with respect to being applied intrapersonally we can ask whether we would level down to create equality between the different temporal parts of the same life. Should we decrease a person's level of well-being at one time without increasing her well-being at any other time for the sake of equality? I think we would have no inclination to make the judgement that we should, unless we were influenced by a revisionist theory of personal identity. This case does not give us a reason to doubt the intrapersonal application of priority, since that application would not support levelling down.

34 As these remarks show, if we understand priority and prudence in this way we are agreeing with the traditional conception of prudence that prudence is ultimately concerned with lifetimes rather than with temporal stages of lives and that prudence involves a requirement of temporal neutrality or equal concern for each part of a life. But we are rejecting the view that the goal of prudence is maximizing the total amount of well-being in a complete life. The same idea would answer the argument from prudence against applying priority to temporal parts of lives (section II).

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