Williams on equality

Notes for September 12

Main points

Williams tries to show how equality is a significant political ideal. In particular, he tries to show how egalitarians can move from apparent facts about human equality to normative conclusions about how they ought to be treated.

He described two cases involving equal and unequal treatment. In the case of equal treatment, the fact about people is that they all have a desire to identify with what they are doing and realize purposes of their own without being the instrument of someone’s else’s will. This leads to the egalitarian political project of exposing false hierarchies.

In the case of unequal treatment, the relevant facts concern the nature of goods: the purpose of health care is to cure illness, the purpose of higher education is to teach those capable of learning, and so on. The corresponding egalitarian project is to make the actual distribution of these goods reflect their natures. For instance, egalitarians believe that health care should be distributed according to medical need regardless of wealth.

Nozick’s criticisms

Nozick criticized Williams for failing to take production seriously. In particular, he said that Williams’s views would intolerably infringe on individual rights to liberty.

In my opinion, they are talking past one another. Williams is describing a rational distribution of goods while Nozick is describing a system of rights and duties.

Fairness and equality

We had a fair amount of discussion about equal opportunity. Most of this stemmed from trying to understand a passage from Nozick. (We decided that everything up to page 238 was an argumentative back and forth between his own position and that of his opponents. His own opinion comes on p. 238).

Rebecca articulated a strongly egalitarian view: since it isn’t fair that any of us deserve the various talents that we use to gain a competitive advantage over others, fairness really requires equality and not just equal opportunity. Madison and Robert disagreed.

Health and economics

Professor Brown closed us out with a quick exercise: how would we construct an economy that would make the distribution of health care rational, in Williams’s eyes? A lot of what we talked about will come up in the Arrow reading that we will do next Thursday.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2013. It was posted September 12, 2013.
Freedom, Markets, & Well-being