In a recent post, I talked about the difference between people who see equality as process where everyone is treated the same and plays by the same rules, and people who see equality as treating people differently and applying different rules to different people in order to ensure the end result is equal. For a variety of reasons, I am very much on the side of equal treatment, not equal results. But there’s another angle to this debate worth looking at – is there a connection between equality (of results) and justice? Or, put another way, is it the case that equal results are intrinsically more just, all else equal, than unequal results? 

I don’t think they are. The recently deceased philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote a book called On Inequality which raised arguments that persuaded me that while there might be instrumental concerns about equality or inequality, the simple fact of equality itself has no intrinsic value. That is, there might be reasons to prefer greater equality if greater equality is a means to providing some other benefit or achieving some other value, but greater equality has no moral value in and of itself.

A major problem with treating equality of outcome as intrinsically (as opposed to merely instrumentally) valuable is that it encourages us to do real harm to people in order to achieve this allegedly valuable end. After all, there are two ways to reduce inequality. One way is to improve the situation of the worse off. Another way is to inflict harm upon the better off. Each is equally effective achieving equality – but the second is so much easier to achieve. But put that way, would anyone really think this is a good way generate equal outcomes?

Sadly, yes. For as long as I can remember, shrinking the “achievement gap” in education has been considered a valuable social goal to pursue. When I was young, it was taken as given that the right way to achieve this end was to put extra effort into helping students who were struggling to improve their performance, thus closing the gap and bringing about more equal outcomes. In these more “enlightened” times, however, some schools have decided that the best way to achieve equality is to limit the amount high performing students are able to achieve. For example, this story in the Boston Globe talks about a school district that will no longer teach middle school students algebra. This is explicitly justified on the grounds that offering such “advanced math” would be harmful to achieving equality:

We have a huge focus on addressing both the academic achievement gaps and the opportunity gaps in our community,” said schools Superintendent Victoria Greer. “One thing the district is not interested in doing is perpetuating those gaps.

It seems that if you can’t achieve equality by helping struggling students do better with advanced math, then in the name of equality, you should just stop teaching any students advanced math. If nobody is able to achieve anything, there will no longer be an achievement gap. If equality of outcomes really is the measure of justice, then this method would have to be viewed as just.

In his recent book Living Together: Inventing Moral Science, David Schmidtz talks about how the socialist philosopher G. A. Cohen treated equality as the measure of justice, not a merely instrumental goal that might be useful to achieving some other end. Cohen imagined a situation where there were two different worlds, each where two people received some benefit. In one, each receives a benefit equal to a value of 5. In the second, one person receives a benefit valued at 7, the other receives a benefit valued at 6. To Cohen, even though the second world is better for everyone and the first world is worse for everyone, the first world is more just, because justice and equality of outcome are inextricably linked in his mind. 

Schmidtz shows what’s wrong with this thinking by putting “flesh on the bones of Cohen’s example. Let Cohen’s vectors be units of life expectancy, as extended by alternative cancer treatments. Treatment (5,5) extends two lives by five good years each, whereas treatment (7,6) extends one patient’s life by seven years and the other’s by six.” To Cohen, the just outcome is the one where both patients end up with less life to live. This seems absurd on the face of it – Schmidtz invites us to “Imagine saying ‘Compared to (7,6), (5,5) is bad because the second patient gets one year less, but (5,5) is just because the first patient has two years less.’” I don’t want to live in a world where doctors are motivated by Cohen’s conception of “justice,” nor do I want my children to go to schools where teachers think it’s better to limit the ability of everyone to achieve in the name of keeping achievements equal. Schmidtz sums it up nicely:

Political theorists ponder how to form a community, keep it together, and make it worth keeping together. If I am terrified by the prospect of my children growing up in what I call a just society, then I need to rethink what I call justice. I accept Cohen’s premise that growing up in a just society guarantees little. Still, the prospect should be better than the prospect of growing up in an unjust society. (5,5) can’t be what justice amounts to. Even when justice is cruel, it isn’t petty.