Both of your neighbours’ houses are on fire. Neither of them is at home. The neighbour’s house to your left contains far more combustible furniture, and is thus more likely to burn to ground both more quickly than the neighbour to your right. Seven fire hoses are required to douse the flammable house, whilst only three are needed to put out the fire in the less flammable house.
The fire sergeant arrives, and allocates five hoses to each house. You pull them to a side and whisper, “Hold on—this house only needs seven hoses; the other needs three!” The fire sergeant blankly stares at you and says, “Yes, but these two houses are equal, so we ought to treat them equally. To favour either of the house would be unfair towards the other house.” Two hours later, the less flammable house survives, but the flammable one collapses amidst flames.
The fundamental misconception behind the sergeant’s words—and, more generally, certain literal egalitarians—is the view that equal treatment satisfies the normative objective of equality. It is worth noting that genuine equality—i.e. a long-run, comprehensive doctrine of equality that accounts for pluralistic aspects of individuals’ wellbeing—calls for more than mere equality in treatment, but a form of equality that provides individuals with equal access to advantage unless the inequalities are morally justifiable (cf. Cohen). Cutting the jargon short—basically: within an ideal moral world, people should be equally able to hold advantage over each other unless they have been implicated in processes (e.g. committing a crime, foregoing an opportunity) that render it justifiable to strip them of their advantage. This account mandates that the fire sergeant allocates seven hoses to the flammable house, and only three to the non-flammable house. In this way, both houses are saved. Genuine Equality refers to equality in this sense, whilst Flat Equality refers to the Sergeant’s conception.
The primary reason why Genuine Equality should be favoured over Flat Equality has to do with its ability to capture the fact that fundamental, long-run equality may necessitate superficially unequal treatment in the short run. Firstly, an unequal distribution of resources means that equal addition in resources does not rectify inequality. Giving 100 pounds to respectively a white, middle-class man and a white, working-class man may be a form of equal treatment, but does not create Genuine Equality, on the basis that the working-class man lacks far more resources in the Status Quo than the middle-class man anyhow.
Now consider the second claim. A typical critique of Black Lives Matter is that it allegedly neglects that “all lives matter”. This sentence makes as much sense as the fire sergeant telling you that they ought to allocate five hoses to both houses because “all houses matter”. Note that inequality in the Status Quo can persist on a second order—in terms of issue salience and our willingness to care. Black Lives Matter exists in response to the fact that the media have systemically erased or framed away the gravity of police brutality in America; that whitewashed newspapers and programmes have often framed black victims as faulty criminals or—at best—‘unfortunate incidents’—who largely deserved their fates.
The structured means through which these media present incidents of abuse are denied, trivialised, or dismissed as ‘single incidents’ or ‘overblown sensationalisations’ stand in stark contrast against more general outpouring over cases of violence against those who are not persons of colour. Noting this inequality does not entail that one attacks or aggresses upon people who partake in this process of erasure: it merely means that we ought to compensate the existent differential by allocating more resources to the particular cause of ensuring that the deaths of African-Americans are granted equal airtime as the deaths of non-persons of colour. Branding an African-American death at the hands of the police force as “just another civilian death” (i.e. “equalising” our treatment of their deaths) does nothing to improve public recognition and acknowledgment of the active suffering.
Thirdly, treatments may also be unequal in response to different degrees of suffering. A disabled child being verbally abused for their disabilities should be treated as comparatively worse (NB: treatment does not equate actuality: I am definitely not saying that the former is qualitatively worse than the latter) than an abled child being verbally abused, because the added dimension of exclusion on the basis of disability maps onto structured forms of exclusions that disabled people face in their daily lives—from hiring, to employment, to the ability to civically engage, to relationships, and beyond. Different extents of harms and disadvantages in the Status Quo require different levels of responses—whilst the treatments may be Flat Unequal, they culminate at Genuine Equality (cf. I.M. Young, and S. Okin).
A secondary reason—and one that is often glossed over—is the fact that we may sometimes have to treat people differently on the basis of our different degrees of reciprocal obligations (cf. Nozick’s principle of rectification) towards them. Suppose a thief steals 500 quid from you. Upon their arrest, they offer to give you 100 quid back, and the other 400 quid to four individuals (each person gets 100 each). Their justification is: you are no more entitled than the other four to the wealth acquired by them, because the fact of the matter is that the past should have no moral implications for the present.
This argument may sound absurd —but it applies to a familiar argument against the obligation of paying reparations to citizens in former colonial states (NB: I believe that reparations in practice are an awful idea and lead to poor consequences—e.g. abuse by despots, nationalistic rhetoric being used to co-opt opposition and slaughter minorities etc.—but these harms have nothing to do with whether the obligation exists prima facie). Former colonial states have often benefited actively (and to this very date, still do) from the wrongful exploitation of their colonies through processes of exploitative trade, violent resource acquisition, slavery, wealth-inducing warfare, genocides, and more. Having the capacity to call out and walk away from benefiting from the remnants of colonialism—and yet actively choosing to not do so—constitutes a prima facie harm. The principle of Flat Equality may posit that countries must treat each other as equal, and that no obligations to pay reparations hence exist. Yet this principle neglects the historical patterns that define our current property claims (cf. Nozick, Cohen, and van Parijs), and should therefore be rejected in favour of Genuine Equality, which accounts for historical grievances as debts to be settled and redressed.
The first objection may be this: large-scale redistributive programmes—e.g. taxation, welfare payments, Affirmative Action etc.—often harm the minorities rather than benefit them. Firstly, it is worth noting that empirical results are often mixed and cannot be homogenised. Secondly, that these programmes may not work out in reality does not imply that the principle that motivates and underpins it cannot stand. Note further, thirdly, that accepting a prima facie duty to achieve Genuine Equality does not mean abandoning all other relevant prima facie principles—e.g. social stability, respect for property rights etc.
The second objection is that this view seems to reduce individuals into an ‘Oppression Bingo’ game that essentialises their identities. Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that the essentialisation of individuals already exists independently of movements that push forward Genuine Equality—cf. racists, sexists, homophobes who define their victims of discrimination by the nature of their identities. Therefore, prioritising Genuine Equality does not further essentialise anyone—because they already are essentialised. Secondly, essentialisation is not a conclusive harm—its harmfulness depends upon its consequences; to the extent that essentialisation aids us in pinpointing moral imperatives and areas for compensation, it is very well justified. Thirdly, deconstructing oppression is a complex and multi-faceted process. An individual may be oppressed on one dimension and an oppressor on another—yet this absolves them neither of their claim to justice on one, nor of their obligation to compensate on another.
Finally, the most potent objection, perhaps—and the primary motivation for this piece—is that modern egalitarians appear to be “reluctant” to speak out against abuses that do not conform to their “egalitarian sphere”. The recent spark involves four black teenagers beating up a white, disabled individual and posting a video of their hate crimes on social media.
Let’s be very clear here. To posit that egalitarians would comfortably accept and dismiss such a hate crime is a bizarre conjecture. For any egalitarian to brush aside this form of ableist assault and abuse would be for them to reveal the fact that they are none but the antithesis to egalitarianism: partial and bigoted. Yet the more bizarre claim, perhaps, is that an egalitarian paradigm cannot reconcile with condemning ableist abuse directed towards a disabled individual—this is apparently false.
Genuine Equality requires an understanding of equality throughout time, with references to the past, understanding of present moral claims and inequalities, and a positive outlook for the future. To insist that equality means treating people equally is no less absurd than abandoning the flammable house to crumbling into the flames of cynicism and idiocy.