Having followed the debate on sexual politics in the non-feminist camp for a number of years now, I’ve come across many critics of feminism who contend that the very term “feminism” reveals a rejection of equal rights between the sexes and that people who are actually in favour of gender equality should call themselves egalitarians. Some critics of the men’s rights movement have made the same objection. In both cases, this criticism is entirely misguided.
The first problem is that advocating only for women or only for men may be entirely in line with the pursuit of equality between the sexes. In a society in which women are disadvantaged in many ways and men are disadvantaged in no or only in a few minor ways, advocating for women would be in line with equality. Most feminists believe we live in just such a world. Conversely, in a society in which men are disadvantaged in many ways and women are disadvantaged in no or only in a few minor ways, advocating for men would be in line with equality. This is the world many men’s rights advocates (MRAs) believe we live in. More modest MRAs might claim that we live in a world where women are disadvantaged in some situations and men are disadvantaged in other situations, but that there are already many people working on women’s problems, so on the margins it’s more efficient to focus on men’s issues.
Thus, being in favour of equality between the sexes does not preclude focusing just on the problems of one sex. There is another problem with this criticism, namely that it uses the word “egalitarian” in an idiosyncratic manner and uncritically assumes that egalitarianism is good and desirable. In this article I will examine what egalitarianism actually is and why it is at least not obviously a good idea.
Egalitarianism starts out with the assumption that all people have an equal fundamental moral worth and that all people therefore should be in some sense equal. This can take many forms. Probably the oldest philosopher in the Western tradition who might be called egalitarian on this very loose definition is John Locke. He held that all people in all places and at all times have the same set of fundamental natural rights, which no one may justly violate. This kind of equality is also what Thomas Jefferson meant by the phrase “all men are created equal”. In a world of aristocratic privilege and slavery, it might be appropriate to call the Lockean natural rights theory egalitarian, but today mere formal equality of rights is by comparison an anti-egalitarian doctrine. In today’s world, calling oneself an egalitarian for believing in the Lockean account is confusing and misleading.
Today’s egalitarians seek a more substantial equality. Some seek to equalise opportunity, which at minimum entails anti-discrimination laws, but may also include affirmative action and subsidies or government provision of education, healthcare, and the like. At the extreme, equal opportunity would mean the abolition of the family so that every child can be brought up under equal conditions in state institutions. At the heart of the concept of equality of opportunity is the idea that success in life should depend on people’s talents and qualities, amd not on characteristics such as race, religion, class, or inherited wealth.
However, people’s innate talents are just as much a matter of luck as whether one is born the child of an unemployed, alcoholic single mother, or the child of a happily married well-to-do couple. Thus, most egalitarians today seek to equalise life outcomes, such as income, wealth, or welfare.
Arguably the most important egalitarian thinker of the last hundred years is John Rawls, who was a philosopher at Harvard University. His 1971 book A Theory of Justice is one of the most influential philosophical works of the 20th century. The most famous part of that book is a thought experiment Rawls calls the “original position”. We are asked to imagine that we are part of a group of people who will decide how a society is to be organised, in which we will then live. However, we are “behind the veil of ignorance”, i.e. we do not know which position we will have in the future society. Rawls believes that in this position it would be best to build a society where wealth, income, status, etc. are relatively equally distributed.
Based on these considerations, he thinks that the justice of a society can be measured by how well its least well-off members are doing. This means a good society in Rawls’s view is one with a large degree of redistribution of wealth. However, complete material equality would undermine the incentive to work and to be productive, so inequality is justified to the extent it improves the standard of living of the least well-off members of society. He calls this the difference principle. In this he differs from more radical egalitarians who prefer downwards equalisation to inequality.
I’ve now laid out some of the basic ideas of egalitarianism in what I hope is a fair manner. Now I’ll proceed to criticise them.
The problems begin with the central axiom of equal moral worth. What is the justification for all human beings (and only human beings) to have equal moral worth? One possible answer would be that human beings, unlike other animals, have a soul and that God loves all souls equally. As an atheist, I’m not particularly impressed with that answer. Justifying a dubious philosophical claim with an even more dubious theological claim is hardly very convincing.
Another approach would be to say that everyone who possesses a certain degree of rational agency ought to be treated as a person and should therefore have the same basic moral worth as any other person. But this is mere question-begging. Why should rational agency confer moral worth? And if it does so, why doesn’t a greater degree of rational agency mean greater moral worth? And even if, as Aristotle asserted, man is the rational animal, there are beings who we consider human but who are entirely lacking in rationality, or have less rational agency than some animals, e.g. people in a coma or who have severe mental deficiencies.
As far as I am aware, there is no satisfactory justification for this axiom. Moreover, most people don’t seem to believe in it. They may profess belief in this fashionable dogma, but their actions give the lie to their words. How many people are there in rich countries who, over their lifetime, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their children, but spend less than a thousand dollars on desperately poor people? How many children does the average First-Worlder have? Let’s say two. How many desperately poor people are there? Let’s say a billion. Simple multiplication suggests that, to a first approximation, people in rich countries seem to value their children hundreds of billions of times as highly as they value desperately poor strangers.
But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the central egalitarian axiom could somehow be justified. The various egalitarian programmes still don’t follow from that. Let’s begin with equal opportunity. Anti-discrimination programmes sound nice in theory, but they have many practical problems. If you make certain kinds of discrimination illegal, no one is going to admit to discriminating on this basis. If for example you are an employer who hates blacks, you can still reject black applicants and give some other reason for rejecting them. If the anti-discrimination law requires proof of illegal discrimination, you will almost never be able to convict anyone of discrimination. If you have looser evidentiary standards, you will catch some genuine discriminators, but you will also get many false positives, which will lead to suboptimal hiring decisions and waste lots of resources on litigation.
As for affirmative action, I refer you to a critique I wrote on A Voice for Men. The case against government subsidisation or provision of education and healthcare is more complicated and beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that it’s not at all obvious why education and healthcare are fundamentally different from food, cars, and clothing, which most people agree are better provided by the market than the government. Since very few egalitarians today take their ideology far enough to advocate for the complete abolition of the family, I won’t spend any time on that.
Let’s instead turn to the less radical egalitarianism of John Rawls. The initial position is an interesting thought experiment, but to get the result Rawls wants seems to require quite a bit of hand-waving. Yes, most people are risk-averse, so given a particular level of wealth in a society, most people would, if put behind the veil of ignorance, choose a more equal distribution of wealth. But people aren’t infinitely risk-averse. Given a choice between a society where everyone earns $20,000 and one where half the people earn $19,000 and the other half earn $100,000, I’d certainly choose the latter.
More hand-waving is required to justify why this thought experiment has any relevance to what a just society looks like in the real world. Regardless, the difference principle in the real world runs into similar problems as in the thought experiment. I do think it makes sense, ceteris paribus, to place greater value on the material well-being of the poor than of the rich. But to suppose that we should have an infinitely greater regard for the well-being of the poor is sheer lunacy.
How does all of this relate to sexual politics? Only indirectly, which is why it is so bizzare for people to classify themselves as egalitarians merely for being in favour of some sort of equality between men and women. But there are certainly ways in which egalitarianism is relevant to relations between the sexes.
There are all sorts of statistical differences between men and women. For example, men have higher incomes and are more likely to make significant contributions to science. On the other hand, women have higher life expectancy and are less likely to end up homeless. According to the results-based egalitarianism that is the dominant strain today, these disparities are pernicious and should be rectified.
But why should these inequalities be a problem? Men and women are different in a number of ways, so it’s hardly surprising that they would have different life outcomes. Given different talents and interests, such differences are in line with what we would expect from both men and women following their inclinations. If it is possible to equalise these differences upward, e.g. to increase women’s income without decreasing men’s income, and increasing men’s life expectancy without lowering women’s life expectancy, then those changes are obviously good. But equalisation for the sake of equality, even if that means equalisation downward, should be rejected by all reasonable people. It can be justified by nothing except envy and will only lead to further resentment and conflict.