How equal should we strive to become?

Political philosopher John Baker makes the case for ‘equality of condition’ and a basic income

French economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital has fuelled fierce debate about inequality

French economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital has fuelled fierce debate about inequality

Fri, May 16, 2014, 01:00

The economic collapse has revived the fortunes of equality, a principle once scoffed at by ruling politicians.

The French economist Thomas Piketty is topping the best-sellers list with his grim analysis of modern capitalism. By delving into the data behind inequality, he has done the same sort of damage to our faith in the markets as social scientists Richard G Wilkinson and Kate Pickett did to our faith in meritocracy through their book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.

Such research provides fresh momentum to an age-old, egalitarian cause. But what exactly is the philosophical justification for equality? And how “equal” should we strive to become?

Political philosopher John Baker, who taught in UCD for more than 35 years, helping to found both its Equality Studies Centre in 1990 and its School of Social Justice in 2005, has been writing and thinking about equality since long before it became fashionable. And today he is involved in the Basic Income Ireland campaign, which seeks to challenge the status quo in a very practical way.

In a Socratic spirit, he suggests that you should take your lead not from any ideological standpoint but from a careful examination of your own beliefs, and thus he provides today’s idea: Once you endorse any kind of equality, there is a logic that pushes you to endorse equality of condition.

What do you mean by equality?
John Baker: “There are several different definitions or what philosophers call conceptions of equality. The one I prefer is the idea of ‘equality of condition’, which means that people should be relatively equally well off in terms of the social conditions of their lives.

“Those conditions include not just their incomes and other material things, but also the respect they have from others, their power in society, the love and care they experience and have the opportunity to give to others, and the quality of their working and learning experiences.”


What’s the best argument for equality?
“I’m not sure that it is all a matter of argument, because most people’s belief in equality comes from their recognition of the value of other human beings, and I’m not sure that you can argue anyone into that if they don’t get it already. Once you do see others as valuable, then it’s hard to come up with any argument to show that they are any less valuable than you are or that their lives matter any less.

“And if their lives matter as much as yours, then you are very much on the road to the conclusion that the conditions in which they live their lives should be no worse than the conditions in which you live yours.”


Is egalitarianism a fixed, or universal, belief system?
“Since there are several different conceptions of equality, the real question here is which of these is the best one to believe in. My view is that once you endorse any kind of equality, there is a logic that pushes you to the more radical idea of equality of condition.

“For example, suppose you think that everyone has certain very basic human rights, which is itself an egalitarian idea. Once you start thinking about how inequalities of condition contribute to the violation of those rights, you are on the path to equality of condition.”

Is it sustainable to advocate equality in a whole range of things at once? Equality in opportunity, for example, would seem to involve inequality in income.
“Generally, my view is that the different elements of the egalitarian programme are consistent with each other, so there is no theoretical problem with advocating equality across a whole range of issues. There are also practical advantages in working with a range of issues. For one thing, it helps in trying to build coalitions of all the social groups that do badly from inequality. For another, it emphasises the links between, for example, inequality of resources and inequality of respect.

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