Williams on equality

Notes for Thursday, October 30, 2014

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.

On the word “man”

Here is the beginning of the entry for “man” in the Oxford English Dictionary.

I. A human being (irrespective of sex or age). Man was considered until the 20th cent. to include women by implication, though referring primarily to males. It is now freq. understood to exclude women, and is therefore avoided by many people.

That seems about right for our author.

After hours, Prof. Brown noted that inequalities between men and women are completely absent from the article. Those were significant in the areas Williams discussed at the time the article was written: health care, access to education, and employment. Even if you want to make excuses for the language, you have to concede that this is definitely a significant oversight.

For what it’s worth, I knew Williams. Not well, but well enough to say with confidence that I’m sure he would have agreed.

Do goods have natures?

Nozick challenges this proposition by pointing out the absurdity of thinking that people are obliged to dedicate their lives to providing services according to need. Goods don’t have purposes, people have purposes in providing and consuming goods. These purposes can vary.

My own opinion is that Nozick and Williams are talking past one another a bit. Williams did not say that people are obliged to provide services according to need. He said that a society that does not do this is irrational. I find his point of view compelling.

For example, I think the following things.

  1. It is irrational that people are literally dying in the streets of Ebola in west Africa while doctors in the US (and other countries) provide treatments with little to no medical significance.
  2. Doctors who provide medically unnecessary treatments here are not doing anything wrong; they are not obliged to go to west Africa. (They’re wasting their talents, but that’s a different problem.)

The obvious solution is to pay doctors their reserve price for treating Ebola in west Africa. Who should pay them? A society whose members are offended by living in an irrational state of affairs such as the one we are in. (Well, the real solution is to train more doctors and develop a public health infrastructure in west Africa. But in the short term, we have to pay doctors to give priority to caring for the sick no matter where they live.)

The abstract proposition that goods have natures is hard for me to swallow. But when I think about a particular case, such as this one, the position makes a lot of sense to me. If you’re curious about it, Michael Walzer tried to develop this sort of view through a discussion of various examples in his book Spheres of Justice.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2014. It was posted November 2, 2014.
Freedom, Markets, and Well-being