Moral Limit of Equality

This is an essay on equality. The long debated question for equality, How a fair and just Society would distribute income, wealth, opportunities, honours and offices? Broadly, there are five model of Justice emerges around these question namely Feudalism, Utilitarianism, libertarianism, meritocratic Conception and egalitarianism.

Feudalism says opportunities need to be distributed based on birth, example — Manor System in medieval Europe or Caste System in India.This method of distributing good is based on arbitrary factor like Birth. So, no one is defender of this conception of justice in modern time.

Whereas, Utilitarianism propounded by English Political Philosopher Jeremy Bentham states that “above goods need to distributed in such a way, that it maximize the happiness”. What he called — “greater good for greater number”. But this notion of justice raises lot of hard questions. Firstly, What about minority rights? What about qualitative difference between pleasures? example — In Ancient Rome, Christians were thrown in the colosseum, where hungry lions tore them down and people used to laugh. Is this a fair method of measuring pleasuring and pain? So, it is rejected on the ground of irrational cost-benefit analysis based on monetary weight.

Then came the libertarian argument, which said the utilitarians were wrong because their conception of justice curtail people choice, freedom and equal opportunity. So, they push the argument that each and every one in a society need to compete for the common good and who ever wins take it. But, There is a serious objection to above principle, do everyone have a same start? You can’t think of taking an exam in which all candidates have to solve a paper in same time, without undertaking the background of candidates. A Candidate born in an effulent family has a fair chance of accessing good education, tuition and cultivating virtue of hard work than a candidate born and raised in poor family in Jharkhand. So, to correct above issues, philosopher came up with meritocratic conception of justice.

The meritocratic conception of justice argued that everyone need to be on same level in terms of cognitive ability, then competition would be fair. Here, Reservation System in India or Affirmative action program in west are example of meritocratic system. Take Reservation System, where it is difficult to train each and every candidate to same level. Thus, Indian Govt came up of relaxation in marks or age in competition based on caste. Although, Despite being proponent of reservation system, I have my own quarrel with underlying methodology as current reservation is some way reflects the feudal aristocracy, but let’s not digress. The most powerful challenge to this conception of merit is produced by John Rawls.

Rawls argued the competition is still unfair, because everyone is not born with equal natural abilities and he calld unfairness guided by “natural lottery”. Even if we train people in same environment, there are other factors, like order of birth decides natural capability of a candidate. So, How would Rawl decides Equality? He came up with theory of “veil of ignorance”. This theory starts with a thought experiment, under which people of a society would gather to decide the social contract to govern without knowing their capability, background, past and future. Then what short of social contract would come up under this veil? Rawls said people will reject feudalism since no one knows their birth status a priori. Rawls said people will reject utilitarian as no one want to forfeit their freedom of conscience, religious liberty if they fall in minority section. So, first principal certainly chosen by people would be Fundamental rights. What about liberalism and meritocracy ? Rawls is in more or less agreement with our earlier criticism of above distributive methods as he wrote – “meritocratic system, still permits the distribution of wealth and income(as compared to libertarian) to be determined by the natural distribution of abilities and talents”. So, how to compensate for the natural fallacy? Rawls came up with “difference principle”. As per this principle, people are allowed to compete in meritocratic conception with one caveat that their achievement and growth are not result of their own, but fruits of it is common good. Rawls acknowledges the “incentive” for competition so he is allowing those short of inequalities under “difference principle”, which would benefit least well off.

But there are three moral challenges to Rawls egalitarian nightmare. First, what about effort? Since, people placed at same level may put different set of efforts to achieve success. Rawls reject above argument on the ground of natural lottery where he is of opinion that your efforts are guided by natural abilities. He gave an example where a strong and weaker labour are working together, in that case it is not fault of weak labour of less productivity. But I have little issue with Rawls argument, because in meritocratic system, we will give everyone same start, so both labour must have same level of physical feature to check productivity. Secondly, what about Robert Nozick’s self-possession challenge? Rawls doesn’t have a direct answer to above challenge. Although, Rawls acknowledge equality as first principle he seems not in agreement with notion of self-ownership because he is all for high taxation against the Nozick’s opinion of taxes are slavery. The third challenge as I can push- what about feeling of disdain and self-inferiority because although, I have achieved some success with my efforts, I don’t have any moral desert because it is not my achievement but of some natural force.

Further, Michael Sandel, has criticism of Rawls on the ground that political theory are not born of thought experiment but build on democratic consensus, so his experiment of “veil of ignorance” is flawed.

Computer Science Engineer & political philosophy