Equality and Justice

If one considers liberty an absolute value, then one likely will have a minimalist conception of a legitimate state.  For example, if one accepts the notion that liberty allows states to interfere with individuals’ autonomy only when they harm others, then any state which attempts to use its coercive powers under different circumstances is being tyrannical.  It’s abusing its legitimate powers.

 

But if one considers liberty a prima facie value, then one’s conception of a legitimate state will be compounded by any other values we can justify.  Can any other values be justified?  Which ones?  We will spend the rest of our semester attempting to answer these questions.  We’ll begin by examing equality and justice, two values with long and rich histories.

 


Equality
What is equality?  There are many ways to conceive equality.  First, formal equality prescribes that two persons be treated equally when they are equal.  For example, when applying voter laws, formal equality requires that the laws be applied to two people the same way if the two people are the same.  Similarly, when determining admission to a college or university, formal equality requires that the policies be applied to two people the same way if the two people are equal.  Second, substantive equality is achieved when a society distributes a designated good(s) or benefit(s) equally.  For example, one might propose that health care should be distributed equally.  If so, then a society with equal health care has achieved equality even if other goods and benefits are distributed unequally.  There are different forms of substantive equality.  For example, resource egalitarianism asserts human beings are entitled to equally valuable shares of resources.  For example, one might propose that education is a resource which should be distributed equally.  If so, a society providing equal access to all resources – including education – has achieved equality even if other goods and benefits (i.e., goods and benefits which are not resources) are distributed unequally.  In contrast, welfare egalitarianism asserts that people should experience equal personal welfare (interpreted as either personal fulfillment or satisfaction of personal preferences).  If one understands welfare as personal fulfillment, then a society has achieved equality when the society’s individuals are experiencing equal fulfillment.  On the other hand, if one understands welfare as satisfaction of personal preference, then a society has achieved equality when the society’s individuals are equally satisfied about their personal preferences.  In both cases, a society has achieved equality even if personal welfare is achieved by distributing resources unequally.

 

Our class discussions will examine Pojman’s reasons for concluding that “formal equality is without substance, and that no substantive version of equality is without significant problems.”



Equal Opportunity 
A distinct concern is equal opportunity.  While equality refers to equality-of-results, equal opportunity refers to the notion that everyone should have a fair chance to compete for the good things of life.  Arbitrary equal opportunity refers to the notion that “Nothing about the people [may] affect the rule under which they operate in society.”  That is, opportunities should not based on any personal character traits.  Opportunity should be arbitrary.  In contrast, Meritocratic equal opportunity prescribes that “All that we care about is whether you're the best-qualified person.”  Merit refers to any personal trait which is worthy of positive recognition.  As such, meritocratic equal opportunity prescribes that opportunities be based on those personal traits which are worthy of positive recognition (e.g., the ability to play baseball better than others or the ability to perform well in a college philosophy course).  In contrast, procedural equal opportunity refers to the notion that “The state may help by providing universal education, welfare, and job training, offering each citizen a similar toolbox, which allows him or her to compete in the marketplace.”  Finally, results-oriented equal opportunity refers to the notion that “Unless and until we have equal group results in all significant life spheres, we have not achieved equal opportunity.”  Our class discussions will cover each of these conceptions, but we will focus on Pojman’s reasons for concluding that meritocratic equal opportunity and procedural equal opportunity are the most coherent.


Justice
Questions concerning equality and equal opportunity can be seen as part of a larger concern for justice.  The concept of justice has changed over the last two thousand years; but David Hume provided a good summary of western philosophy’s conception of justice over the last few hundred years when he claimed circumstances of justice arise when, “in situations of scarcity we, as creatures of limited sympathies, seek to adjudicate between competing claims for limited goods.”

Pojman examines a number of different conceptions of justice, including theories by John Locke, David Hume, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick.  While our class discussions will cover these competing theories, we will focus on a common theme addressed by these different theories: the classic conception of justice.  According to Pojman, the classic concept of justice is that "Justice is blind to all irrelevant considerations (which birth, social status, race, and gender usually are), concerned only with giving one what he or she deserves.”  What does it mean to claim someone deserves consideration?  According to Pojman, desert is a subcategory of merit.  As we mentioned previously, merit pertains to any personal trait which is worthy of positive recognition.  Desert refers to one type of personal trait: voluntary actions.  So, while someone might merit consideration for some reason other than their voluntary actions (e.g., One might argue that young children merit the opportunity to have a publicly-funded education no matter what they have done), one deserves consideration when it is because of something they have voluntarily done (e.g., One might argue that adults deserve to paid a livable wage when they work).

It is common for people to assume the classic conception of justice.  In fact, many people reduce it to cliché, proclaiming it without clearly explaining what it means or examining it.  But is it justifiable?  Whether or not it is will, in part, depend upon whether or not the concept of desert is justifiable.

Pojman examines three potential problems with the doctrine of desert.  First, it has been claimed that the concept of desert has a criterion problem.  That is, there is a problem identifying the appropriate standard for determining if individuals have received their just desert.  Second, it has been claimed that the concept of desert has an epistemological problem.  Even if a reasonable standard can be determined, there is a problem knowing how much each person deserves.  Third, it has been claimed that the concept of desert has a metaphysical problem.  What does this mean?  Asking the question, “Is there anything whatever that, strictly speaking, a man can take credit for, or he can properly be said to deserve, with the implication that it can be attributed to him … as contrasted with the natural forces that formed him?” the philosopher Stuart Hampshire answers, “It would be better to think of all advantages, whether naturally acquired or conferred by men, as unearned and undeserved.”   That is, when one considers the natural forces which determine our behavior, it does not make sense to claim one deserves anything. 

Our class discussions will examine whether or not any of these problems are sufficient to conclude that state should not pursue equal opportunity.


Potential Essay Questions
The following are potential final exam essay questions based on our examination of political philosophy:

 

1-  According to Pojman, "welfare egalitarianism has problems of its own": a) The problem of external preferences and b) The problem of expensive tastes.  Do you agree each poses a problem for welfare equality?  Why or why not?  If so, can welfare equality be redefined in a way that avoids each problem?  Why or why not?

 

2-  Pojman considers three conceptions of equal opportunity: a) Meritocratic equal opportunity, b) Procedural equal opportunity, c) Result-oriented equal opportunity.  Are any or all of these reasonable conceptions of equal opportunity?  Why or why not?

 

3-  According to Pojman, "philosophers have found three significant problems with the doctrine of desert that have led many to abandon it and others to subordinate it under other ideals”: a) the criterion problem, b) the epistemological problem, and c) the metaphysical problem.  Do any of these pose a problem for the classic conception of justice?  Why or why not?