Is equality really an ethical goal


The epitome of justice is equality - this is how mainstream political philosophy sees it today. According to Amartya Sen (7, 12), what separates the theorists of justice is the only question: equality from what? How do you recognize equality, what does it consist of? With the same income, the same freedom, the same well-being? Each of these answers excludes others who, like them, may claim to be “egalitarian” (e.g. Dworkin 6; Cohen 5; Arneson 4). What seems more egalitarian than an equal income for everyone? But because needs are unequal, so would the opportunities for action opened up by the same income. Equal options for action, on the other hand, do not guarantee equality of perceived well-being: some people love freedoms, others tend to fear them; some use their options decisively, others despair of them. In short: equality in one respect means inequality in other ways. “Equality par excellence” is not a sensible requirement.

So it is no wonder that Marxists and market liberals, communitarists and utilitarians give partly irreconcilable answers to the question “equality of what?”. But all are based on the idea of ​​equality. They just interpret it differently (see Kymlicka in 2). They argue in the same frame of reference. This is the basic conviction of philosophical egalitarianism. There is something encouraging about it: if everyone always wants equality, it should be possible to gradually separate the right from the wrong points of view.

But the number of doubters is increasing. Authors such as Harry Frankfurt, Joseph Raz., Angelika Krebs and Thomas Schramme believe that justice is basically equality
have nothing to do. They mean this for philosophical reasons, not because they wanted to fuel political attacks on the welfare state. Some of them are politically friends of equality. However, they deny that equality is conceptually part of justice. Nor do they assign any intrinsic value to equality. What is important is how one stands in absolute terms, not how he stands in relation to others. If everyone were doing well enough, some might indulge in wealth. Anyone who resented this would probably only be jealous, and that would not be a morally presentable feeling.

Philosophical anti-gallitarians take the reproach of envy very seriously. They therefore want to draw attention to the real goods on which a decent existence for all depends, for example. Nobody should suffer, everyone should get enough. Certainly, in our world, poverty and wealth are causally linked, and combating them may require redistributing them. But this is not a logically necessary circumstance and redistribution is only a means to an end. So far all philosophical anti-gallitarians agree. There is disagreement among them as to the basis of striving for a decent or even good life for all. Does it consist in a morality of equal respect and consideration, or does it have nothing to do with equality at all? Because the last view is the more radical, consider it first.

Equal respect and consideration

Joseph Raz and Harry Frankfurt deny that modern, human rights morality is correctly characterized as one of equal respect and consideration (so Dworkin 9, p. 298; similar to Tugendhat 18, Eighteenth Lecture). Human rights standardized universality, but not equality. Certainly all people have it. Nobody should be excluded, all people belong to the moral community. But that, according to Raz (16, chapter 9), basically says everything. The quintessence of modern human rights morality is that being human is enough to have rights. No other quality is required for it. Just being human is the closure principle of such a morality (ibid .: 220). This can be expressed by saying: All people equally have this or that right. They have them, that is, because they are human and for no other reason. The "equally" does not increase our knowledge. It does not add any point of view to it (also Krebs 1, p. 18).

Frankfurt goes even further in its criticism of equality. Whoever respects another tries to do justice to him as another. He tries to grasp the "reality" of this other person. A person's reality, needs, preferences and beliefs set them apart from others. Wherever they connect him with others, they do so by chance. Equality of respect is a moral consequence of such coincidences, which is not based on equality but on respect. If equality and not respect were the primary priority, we would all have to subject the same norms. We would do many injustice in this way. In the moral world, otherness is not a scandal and no reason for measures to adjust or compensate. As far as people are different, the following applies: difference instead of equality!

This is not an invitation to arbitrariness (Frankfurt 2000: 44f.). If pregnant women need special protection, it doesn't matter whether Petra is pregnant or Maren. The same cases are treated equally - but unequal cases are treated differently. According to Frankfurt, this is not a principle of equality, but merely a rule that applies. Avoiding arbitrariness through rules is part of morality as such. But taking sides for equality does not follow analytically from the desire to avoid arbitrariness.
Do human rights really have nothing to do with equality? As far as Raz is concerned, one can reply: If being human is enough to have rights, the historically most significant ways of distinguishing between human beings are already ruled out. Factors like gender, age, skin color, and even state of mind should no longer count. They are morally irrelevant. Using them to establish unequal rights would be arbitrary. Modern morality is based on a far-reaching law of abstraction. It is precisely this prohibition that it reveals as an egalitarian view. It is egalitarian not to see the monk, the woman, the Greek or the “barbarian” first, but rather the person behind all these differentiations. Even the universalistic world religions did not and will not go so far easily. They offered and still offer many examples of how one can include all people and yet assume innate differences in value as God's will. Not least against such (sham) justifications of stratifications, human rights endeavors since the Enlightenment have been directed. Their rhetoric of innate equality wasn't just misleading, and it wasn't just rhetoric. It was a powerful expression of the unwillingness to divide people into first, second and third classes. This unwillingness worked beyond its originators and, insofar as they themselves represented class-bound positions like the revolutionary bourgeoisie, also against them. It passed on to workers, later also to women, "colored people" and homosexuals. Even the discrimination against non-human animals is met with opposition today (keyword “speciesism”). In short: equality is not already included in general inclusion. It is two different things whether all people have rights or whether they have equal rights. The second is a substantial addition, not just an explanation of what "all people" mean.

As far as Frankfurt is concerned, one can reply: Anyone who speaks of “respect” in the modern sense means equal respect. Those who are not respected as equals are disregarded. It is not by chance. Modern respect is for what is common to all human beings. It is not an appreciation of this or that ability, this or that origin. It is not an estimate of something special, such as athletic ability or physical merit. Such an estimate can neither be universal nor equally distributed. It makes distinctions based on value standards. Also, the standards are usually limited to this or that community and are not generally applicable.

Respect, on the other hand, is appreciation of being human as such. Its most important political and moral expression are human rights. They are equal or they are not. Those who are not regarded as equals are not considered to be the subject of human rights. Frankfurt fails to recognize that. He fails to recognize it because, like Raz, he overlooks the fact that modern morality is based on a genuinely egalitarian law of abstraction. It requires disregarding many differences that were - or still are - morally significant at other times and in other places.

But doesn't that confirm Frankfurt's objection? Isn't blindness to particularities the price of egalitarianism? Doesn't it distract from everything that is important to us when we ask for attention? After all, we do not do this as unqualified beings, but with the knowledge of idiosyncrasies that we want to appreciate and protect. The egalitarian answer is: Equal respect does not exclude, but includes, consideration of the particular. More precisely: It takes particularities seriously if they are morally significant. One does not respect a pregnant woman and a construction worker equally by treating both equally in all respects. There are generally understandable reasons to deviate from the same treatment. Unequal needs are certainly part of it, and perhaps unequal contributions as well. Their impartial observance will not mark anyone as a second class person. Conversely, the following applies: You can treat a person as a second class person by subjecting him to mechanical equal treatment. All people should be treated as equals, but not all should be treated equally (so Dworkin 9, p. 370f.). What looked like an argument against equality turns out to be an argument for their careful handling.

Moral equality means taking the freedom and well-being of everyone equally important. The fact that equality can require unequal treatment is therefore only seemingly paradoxical. If the chronically ill had to pay for their expensive medication themselves, they would be in a worse position than their healthy fellow human beings, no fault of their own. To treat them as equals would be to support them proportionally, in exact proportion to their particular needs.

But is that just egalitarian? Isn't there a new and potentially competing point of view: that of well-being and freedom? Well-being and freedom are goods, and perhaps equality is too. But while well-being and freedom appear valuable in themselves, this does not make sense for equality. Otherwise we would have to assign a positive value to leveling down ourselves (see Parfit 15, 92ff.). Let us assume that there are 990 sighted and 10 blind people in a group. If one cannot make the blind see, one might consider dazzling all the others. That made for equality. Aside from the evil remedy, should we find this gratifying? How could there be talk of an advantage where "apparently" nobody is doing better and many are worse? The doubt is a doubt about the intrinsic value of equality.

The objection at least shows that equality cannot be a value in the same sense as freedom and well-being. Freedom and well-being are possible contents, equality is a possible form of consideration. This is expressed when one characterizes modern morality as one of equal respect and consideration. We want to be respected as freedom beings and considered as vulnerable creatures (so Dworkin 9, p. 439). The commandment to treat all as equals can only apply to such interests. Equal disregard and abuse of all would of course be of no moral value. That is why equality on the one hand, consideration and respect on the other go hand in hand. It is unclear why this should be an objection to moral egalitarianism, as some anti-gallitarians believe (for example, Krebs in 1). Isn't it more of an explanation from him?

Some newer philosophers distinguish terminologically between a “morality” of impartiality and an “ethics” of the good life (according to Habermas 20). The following relationship can be established between the two. What is inherently good - schematically, for example: freedom and well-being - forms the aspect of moral consideration (see Seel 23). It is the content to which moral duties relate. Assuming this, it can be said: I enjoy freedom and well-being. That makes them ethical goods. I measure how just or unjust something is by the degree to which the principle of equality is observed. That makes equality a formal property of morality. Moral validity in the modern sense is validity as an equal.

The distinction makes an intuition characteristic of modern morality understandable. Anyone who denied a person's equality of rights automatically inflicted a moral violation on him. The other is likely to feel directly discriminated against. He is likely to complain about an arbitrary reset without further justification. We would see in this a healthy expression of his self-respect. An anti-gallitarian would have to declare the same intuition either baseless or through special needs. What speaks against the last attempt is that not all people suffer equally if one denies them the same rights, without us therefore doubting the principle of legal equality. Rather, we doubt whether all people (can) know their moral status. Anyone who knows it, we believe, will regard human rights as their appropriate minimum expression. At least they must be evenly distributed if a political order is not to lack any legitimacy.

The Presumption of Equality

Not all philosophical anti-gallitarians deny this. Some allow the morality of equal respect and consideration as the framework for their criticism of equality (e.g. Anderson 8; Schramme 17). But what else can this refer to? Apparently only to the distribution of goods other than basic rights. As indicated, absolutely no philosopher thinks that everything should be distributed equally. Nobody wants wheelchairs to be equally distributed among disabled and non-disabled people, and very few deny that certain income differences, for example in accordance with the contribution principle, are justified. What separates egalitarians from anti-gallitarians is this: The former believe that distribution should always be equal if there are no impartial reasons for unequal distribution. The latter deny this. The former believe that a morality of equal respect and consideration implies a rule of the burden of proof: not equal, only unequal distribution requires justification. Where it is missing, it is to be distributed immediately. Egalitarians believe in a presumption of equality (so Gosepath in 12, p. 200ff.). Anti-gallitarians do not share this belief.

A simple argument for the presumption looks like this (cf. Ladwig in 3, p. 131). Morality demands arbitrarily justified solutions for all disputes. The outcome should not be determined by the balance of power, but by reasons that everyone can accept regardless of their particular position. This principle also applies to systems of distribution, provided that we can change them at will. Now two parties are fighting over a good. Everyone would rather have more than less from him. The parties could now put forward generally divisible reasons in their favor. However, if there are no such reasons, or if they cancel each other out, the only non-arbitrary solution that remains is the equal distribution. The factual equality of interests is then "converted" into a moral equality of claims by excluding opposing reasons.

However, it is assumed that everyone wants as much as possible. Doesn't this point the way to an “egalitarianism of greed” (as Schramme says in 17)? Suppose two managers are arguing. One of them "earns" five million euros a year, his colleague in the same group ten. Now the first manager demands a salary increase at least up to the level of equality with the colleague. Isn't that a model case of envy? Where should the moral relevance come from here?

Again we encounter the objection that we shouldn't care how we stand relative to others, but how we stand there absolutely. From an absolute point of view, the satisfaction of needs comes first. A real need is a claim that is covered by generally understandable urgency. The result of his unsatisfaction is suffering, in extreme cases death. This is what constitutes its moral relevance, which we miss in the claim of the income millionaire. Needlessness is not bad because it is usually associated with inequality. It is bad in itself. Inequality, on the other hand, is bad insofar as it is related to the non-satisfaction of needs. At best, inequality is bad to a limited extent; poverty, illiteracy and unemployment are absolutely bad. Thus, the egalitarian only gets a distorted view of the real evils. He is prone to the reproach of envy because he presents a conditioned evil as an unconditional one.

From an absolute point of view, it is also considered whether someone gets enough according to his well-founded idea of ​​the good life. Unlike the need criterion, the “sufficiency” criterion (Frankfurt, 10) is open to differences between people. Like that, however, it should be a non-relational criterion. Frankfurt, which represents it, assumes that people who pay attention to the positioning of others live past their own goods. Such people live alienated. Their wrong self-image should not feed the theory of justice. She should encourage her to ask: what is good for me and when should I say: enough is enough?

But are these really objections to equality or rather suggestions as to the “space” of relevant advantages in which we should locate them: that of need or well-being (on this interpretation, Goodin in 13)? The need criterion may also be a criterion for urgency. After all, not all claims are morally material, and not all are equally. In this light, what looked like an objection to equality points to the essential controversy of the idea of ​​equality.

Above all, the “anti-gallitarian” criticism would suggest that every morality, whether egalitarian or not, is based on a pre-understanding of relevance (cf. Schramme 17, pp. 267ff.). We do not take all advantages and disadvantages morally seriously. Politically speaking, opinions quickly differ here: right-wingers are inclined to speak of mere luck or bad luck, where left-wingers still see an injustice. Right-wingers are quick to say that luck and bad luck are part of life itself; Left point to our not yet exhausted options for action. This is where irreconcilable attitudes collide, and the philosophical argument about equality can overlap with the political one. In part it is a dispute about what politics can and should be allowed to do.

More values?

This points to another way of reading philosophical anti-gallitarianism against the grain. He does not then appear as an opponent of equality, but rather of a moral monism. He then asserts that justice, despite its importance, is not morally everything: that it has to share the moral space with other, potentially competing values.

The state is still primarily responsible for realizing equality. Despite all the skepticism about its remaining control options, we are often faced with the choice between more equality and more freedom from state interference. In all experience, we buy greater equality with an increase in bureaucracy. We buy it with an expansion of state powers up to the screening of intimate living conditions (see Margalit in 22). That speaks for a concentration on central evils, for an equalization in essential respects, for a waiver of some guarantees of success that politics might still be able to give.
However, avoidable inequalities that are accepted for the sake of other goods should not be called “fair”. The discussion about genetic engineering shows particularly clearly that modern political morality also knows more than one basic value. This is certainly also, but not exclusively, about threatening injustice. An essential principle of justice is non-discrimination. People with disabilities should continue to be able to participate in public life as equals and not be labeled as walking accidents. Carriers of "genetic risks" should not be treated like sick people and should not be disadvantaged by insurance companies (cf. in detail 19)

But the fears of many people go further. They feed on the negative vision of a world in which everything has become reproachable because everything has come within the reach of human making. The desire for more justice in particular could turn out to be the pacemaker for this questionable disposition. Finally, genetic engineering holds out the prospect of directly combating inequalities that go beyond treating and avoiding severe impairments (see Habermas in 20). In turn, trying to limit it only in the name of justice is not enough. Possible values ​​such as diversity and naturalness do not go into an adequate understanding of the basic norm of equal respect (as detailed in Siep in 24). So there could be more to philosophical anti-gallitarianism than there is if one understands it only as a proposal for justice. Perhaps most of all we owe him references to the limits of justice. If the egalitarians are right, it would be the limits of a contested area of ​​equality.


Introductions, anthologies
(1) Krebs, Angelika (ed.): Equality or justice. Texts of the new egalitarian criticism, 224 pp., Kt., € 10.—, 2000, Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt.
(2) Kymlicka, Will: Political Philosophy Today. An introduction. Study edition, 297 p., Kt., € 21.50, 1995, Campus, Frankfurt am Main.
(3) Ladwig, Bernd: Gerechtigkeit, in: Gerhard Göhler / Mattias Iser / Ina Kerner (eds.), Political Theory. 22 contested terms for introduction, 2004, VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden, pp. 119-136

Equality of what?

(4) Arneson, Richard: Equality and equal opportunities to achieve well-being, in: Axel Honneth (ed.), Pathologies of the Social. The tasks of social philosophy, 2004, Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, pp. 330-350

(5) Cohen, G. A .: On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, in: Ethics 99, 1989, 906-944

(6) Dworkin, Ronald: What is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources, in: Philosophy and Public Affairs 10, 1981, 283-345

(7) Sen, Amartya: Inequality Reexamined, 222 p., Cloth £ 40 .--, pbk. £ 16 .--, 1992 Oxford University Press

Why equality?

(8) Anderson, Elizabeth S .: Why actually equality ?, in: (1)

(9) Dworkin, Ronald: Civil rights taken seriously. 592 S., Ln. € 40.80, 1984, kt., € 14 .--, stw 879, Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main.

(10) Frankfurt, Harry G.: Equality as a Moral Ideal, in: Ethics 98, 1987, 21-43

(11) Frankfurt, Harry G .: Equality and Respect, in: (1)

(12) Gosepath, Stefan: Equal justice. Foundations of a liberal egalitarianism. 508 pp., Kt., € 17.—, stw 1665, 2004, Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main.

(13) Goodin, Robert E .: Egalitarianism, Fetishistic and Otherwise, in. Ethics 98, 1987, 44-49

(14) Krebs, Angelika: Justice or Equality. The more recent critique of egalitarianism at a glance, in: (1), pp. 7-37

(15) Parfit, Derek: Equality and Priority, in: (1), pp. 81-106

(16) Raz, Joseph: The Morality of Freedom, 448 p., Pbk., £ 20 .--, 1986, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

(17) Schramme, Thomas: The presumption of the equality requirement, in: Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie 2, 2003, 255-273

(18) Tugendhat, Ernst: Lectures on Ethics. 399 p., Left, € 15 .--, stw, Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main.

More values?

(19) Buchanan, Allen / Dan W. Brock / Norman Daniels / Daniel Wikler (eds.): From Chance to Choice. Genetics and Justice, pbk., £ 18-2000. Cambridge University Press

(20) Habermas, Jürgen: From the pragmatic, ethical and moral use of practical reason, in: ders., Explanations for Discourse Ethics, 1991, Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main, pp. 100-118

(21) Habermas, Jürgen: The future of human nature. On the way to a liberal eugenics? 164 pp., € 8.50, 2001, Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main.

(22) Margalit, Avishai (1997): Politics of Dignity. About Respect and Contempt, 1997, Alexander Fest, Berlin (out of print in bookshops).

(23) Seel, Martin: Attempt on the form of happiness. Studies on ethics. 300 p., Ln. € 24.80, ct. € 13.50, 1995, Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main.

(24) Siep, Ludwig: Concrete ethics. Diversity, naturalness, justice, 384 p., Kt., Stw 1664, 2004, Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main.