Meaning of 'social equality'
Three conceptions of equality
    Ronald Dworkin's Equality of Resources
    Michael Walzer's Complex Equality
    R. H. Tawney's Group Equality                         Return to contents

Meaning of 'social equality'

    Social equality concerns the distribution of social goods and burdens, such as income, wealth, opportunity, education, and health care. Although we may claim that all people are somehow "equal" -- say, equally valuable in the eyes of God -- this is not a conception of social equality but a call for equal moral treatment -- for example, to claim that everyone has the same basic rights. Instead, social equality occurs when some good, like income or happiness, is equally attained. Say the good is freedom. Social equality would then mean that freedom should be equally distributed. The problem of defining social equality involves the specification of the goods that should be equally distributed and the units to which those goods are distributed.
    Should we claim that basic political rights should be equally distributed, or should we concentrate on income, workload, wealth, health care, or opportunity? The units to which these goods are to be equally distributed is also problematic. Many believe that all proposals should be in terms of individuals. All people should have an equal attainment of good X (or the good we decide should be equally distributed). Suppose we use income as the good. Should we really insist on all individuals having a right to the same income when many people are infants and many people share expenses in the same households? We may believe that a proper mark of social equality will call for equal distribution of income to all households. This example shows that the question about the unit to be equally provided with a good is not properly answered by the quick claim that individuals constitute the unit.   Top

Three conceptions of equality

    We turn to three attempts to define social equality. Many other answers have been suggested; these three have been selected because their involve dramatic differences in perspective that help to show us the options and difficulties involved in supporting a proper conception of social equality. Each conception we explore involves the proposal of an ideal version of equality. Perhaps a completely equal society is undesirable, but considering the harmful inequalities history has forced on people, the ideal version of an equal society can serve as a helpful moral guide to morally needed political, social, and individual reform.  Top

Ronald Dworkin's Equality of Resources

    Ronald Dworking, a contemporary philosopher, explores whether welfare (perhaps measured by happiness) or resources should be equally distributed. Dworkin assumes that the goods involved go to individuals, so he only seriously examines the sort of good involved. He rejects narrowly defined goods, even goods like income and wealth. Different incomes may compensate for unequal burdens, while wealth, like a farmer's wealth in land, may not be easily translated into a genuine inequality. Instead, Dworkin first examines welfare. Does it make good sense to claim that everyone, regardless of income or wealth or anything else, should be counted as equal when they have the same happiness, utility, preference satisfaction, or, more generally, thew same welfare?
    Welfare (considered as a kind of satisfaction or happiness) is the purpose behind having wealth, income, and all other goods. Dworkin believes that the best notion of welfare, the one most suited to current economic theories, involves success at gaining what is preferred. But this leads to problems because some people have preferences for things that are difficult to attain; they may need amazingly large amounts of resources to gain what they want. So, Dworkin concludes, if everyone is equally successful, they will be, in other ways, grossly unequal. This is not equality.
    The problem with welfare theories of equality is that they permit gross inequalities in the name of equality. Thus, a standard independent of people's personal sense of attainment is required, so Dworkin turns to an examination of equality of resources. Resources come in different kinds, so we need a way to think of them as equally divided. Dworkin offers a hypothetical scheme; one that he believes will help us set the ideal of equally distributed resources. He imagines an original auction, with each person being given an equal amount of bidding money. Then all the goods will be bid upon. What is received in a fair auction counts as an equal distribution of resources. After that, whatever each person does with his or her goods is permitted. Keep in mind that Dworkin is proposing a hypothetical standard. Is the distribution of resources in our society consistent with the kind of distribution that would follow, over time, from an original auction where people have equal amounts of bidding money? If the answer is "yes," then our society is, in this sense, equal in resources.
    However, Dworkin argues that equality is consistent with people using their resources as they see fit unless their use of goods is based on natural talent. Unequal natural talent introduces a morally unacceptable inequality, he thinks, because it is based on genetic luck. He proposes a scheme of social insurance to protect people against bad genetic luck, like the way we currently insure against accidents. This insurance level is set by how we would expect people to bid on it in an initial auction. Dworkin speculates that the level of insurance would not be very high, because a high level of insurance would be expensive.
    Dworkin's plan may be better than equal welfare at holding down extraordinary inequalities, but it might not be. People may be lucky about the resources they select, might work harder, and might amass fortunes that could then be used, over time, to promote unequal consideration, politically, legally, and socially -- much the way things are now. This plan would then meet the same fate as equality of welfare because its notion of equality might involve tremendous inequalities. Equality of resources may be its own worst enemy; it eventually leads to great inequality of resources based on genetic luck (with a small insurance), resource luck, and hard work. We may believe that such inequalities are morally acceptable, but such acceptance does not mean that such inequality should be considered equal.   Top

    Michael Walzer's Complex Equality

    Perhaps the trouble involves reliance on the distribution of the same or similar goods to all people as individuals. Michael Walzer tries an approach that focuses on the type of goods distributed but doesn't worry much about the exact amounts people get. Inequality is oppressive when one type of good, like money, dominates other goods. He proposes that goods be allowed to be unequally distributed within their proper spheres of influence. But one type of good should not influence who has another type. Money should buy many things, but not such things as health care or political power. Each good is allowed to be unequal in its own sphere; unequal wealth is not offensive when it does not have power over the things money should not buy. Walzer calls this complex equality.
    He has a point. For example, today wealthy people bid up the price of fine violins, causing difficulties for excellent musicians. When musical instruments, health care, education, and access to good lawyers go to those who need them, instead of those who can pay for them, then inequalities of wealth have a smaller social impact. Walzer claims: "So long as yachts and hi-fi sets and rugs have only use value and individualized symbolic value, their unequal distribution doesn't matter."
    While we worry whether unequal distribution of goods is really a conception of social equality, we see another problem. What keeps Walzer's spheres separate? Doesn't wealth affect educational attainment, political power, health care, and leisure time? Allowing income and wealth to be greatly unequal, while prohibiting spheres from overlapping, is unrealistic. Walzer's analysis does not adequately take into account the overlap of spheres. Regardless, we may call his complex equality "complex inequality." Nothing in it needs to be equally distributed. We seem, again, to fall short of an equality ideal.   Top

    R. H.  Tawney's Group Equality

    The British social critic R. H. Tawney rejects the use of "individual equality." He does not take individual inequality to be offensive, instead, he disapproves of unequal attainment of any goods which may lead to significantly unequal class status. He states his ideal:

It is to hold that, while natural endowments differ profoundly, it is the work of a civilized society to aim at eliminating such inequalities as have their source, not in individual differences, but in its own organization, and that individual differences, which are a source of social energy, are more likely to ripen and find expression if social inequalities are, as far as practicable, eliminated.

    Tawney rejects inequalities among social groups. When, for example, blacks and whites and men and women are judged on individual merit and receive goods and burdens based on that merit, and not on initial group status, then social equality among these groups is achieved.
    I believe that Tawney's message comes closest to an adequate ideal of social equality. Unfortunately, his proposal is vague. He does not tell us how we are to determine whether group traits are used to determine inequality, and he does not specify the sorts of goods to be used in the measurement.
    Equality is a crucial moral and political ideal, but it is difficult to settle on a conception of equality and the criteria for recognizing its presence. More work needs to be done to clarify the issues involved, the way equality can be measured, the impact of inequality, and the extent to which inequalities are socially engineered. Notions, even vague notions of equality as a social ideal, have been influential in guiding moral decision making. Philosophers are called upon to propose and critique equality ideals; they have done so, but so far without the success of a consensus around any conception. Although we may believe that a fully equal society is unattainable, and perhaps even less than fully desirable, we do need to understand inequalities in our societies, how they arise and their consequences. With a full understanding of social inequalities, moral decision-making holds the promise of being more equitable and impartial.    Top

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