Against Equality Again

from Philosophy 52, 1977, pp.255-280.

Equality in the present age has become an idol, in much the same way as property was in the age of Locke. Many people worship it, and think that it provides the key to the proper understanding of politics, and that on it alone can a genuinely just society be reconstructed. This is a mistake. Although, like property, it is a useful concept, and although, like property, there are occasions when we want to have it in practice, it is not a fundamental concept any more than property is, nor can having it vouchsafe to us the good life. In an earlier paper 1 I argued against equality by showing that the concept of equality was confused and that many of the arguments egalitarians adduced were either invalid or else supported conclusions which were not really egalitarian at all. Many egalitarians, however, have complained that my arguments were not fair, because I had failed to elucidate the concept adequately, or because the position I attacked was not one that any egalitarian really wished to maintain, or because I had overlooked other arguments which were effective in establishing egalitarian conclusions, or because the positive counter-arguments of my own I put forward more as a matter of taste than of serious political commitment. In this paper, therefore, I want to elucidate the concept more fully, concede what I should to my critics, point out that, even so, their conclusions do not follow, and give further reasons not only for supposing that egalitarian arguments are invalid but for discerning positive merits in some forms of inequality.


The concept of equality belongs, properly speaking, to the mathematical disciplines. Numbers, lengths, angles, vectors, tensors can be said to be equal to one another without any trace of metaphor. There are some attributes of men where questions of equality can be raised without any conceptual strain. We can ask whether one man is as tall as another, or we may, like Procrustes, seek to establish equality among all men in this respect. Similarly we may measure out equal weights of sugar or margarine as rations in time of war. Money is pre-eminently suitable for making comparisons with, and naturally gives rise to the questions of whether I am [255] getting the same as you or whether your differential has been maintained, and admits the conceptual possibility of our all being paid the same. But most human attributes cannot be quantified without distortion. I cannot have as much education as you, nor as much love, nor as much happiness, because education, love and happiness are not commodities that can be measured and thus compared. One fundamental objection to egalitarianism is that it encourages people to view the good things of life in depersonalised, homogenized terms so that politicians can argue about how much should be assigned to anybody, but nobody can actually engender or enjoy them. It misconceives our human nature to see us primarily as possessors rather than as agents. Although we have feelings of pleasure and pain, and can have possessions, we are first and foremost agents, who do things. We are happy, we love, we are educated, in and by doing things, not in having things done to us or being given them. To talk abstractly of these goods as something that we can have is subtly to misconstrue their real nature and thus prevent our achieving them.

Few aspects, therefore, of human life can be quantified without distortion, and so the concept of equality will seldom be applicable in a strict sense: but the concept is used widely in an extended sense, and we need to see what the underlying logic of this extension is. 2 Two important types of relations are involved: ordering relations, that is relations which are asymmetric and transitive; and equivalence relations, that is relations which are symmetric and transitive. The standard examples of ordering relations are expressed by comparatives, -er than: e.g. taller than. If I am taller than you, then you are not taller than me---the relation is asymmetric; and if I am taller than you, and you are taller than Peter, then I am taller than you---the relation is transitive. Such a relationship may concern attributes, e.g. heights, but need not: we cannot really measure hardness, but can arrange things in an order of hardness: one stone is harder than another if it will scratch it but not be scratched by it, and if one thing will scratch another and that other a third, then the first thing will also scratch the third. Orderings give rise to a concept of equality. At first sight it seems simple to define two things as being, say, equally hard, if neither can scratch, or be scratched by, the other; often such a definition is adequate, but it rests on the hidden assumption that the ordering is `complete'. An ordering is complete if any two things that can be ordered by the relation at all can be ordered with respect to each other, or, to put it another way, if the ``Law of Trichotomy'' holds---thus, given any two stones, either one stone is harder than the other, or the other is harder than the one, or they are both just as hard as each other. An example from relativity theory may help; our [256] ordinary, non- relativistic temporal ordering is complete: given any two events, either one comes before the other, or the other comes before the one, or they are simultaneous: in the theory of special relativity, however, a `distant' event, that is an event outside the light-cone of another event, is neither before it nor after it nor simultaneous with it. So, too, although we may say that Kant was a greater philosopher than Wolff, and Hegel than Fichte, we may find it impossible to compare Kant with Hegel, or Wolff with Fichte. Some social relations are ordering relations, and therefore give rise to a hierarchical system. I habitually pay respect to the Warden, the Vice-Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Queen, and undergraduates and scouts like to call me `Sir', and shopkeepers and parents listen to my opinions with deference. In some societies, like ancient Egypt or modern Russia, the ordering is complete, and everybody knows his place in the hierarchy, and if of two people neither is superior to the other, then they are both social equals. But the relation of social deference does not have to be complete, and is not complete in many Western societies. There is no single all-embracing hierarchy of status, but a multiplicity of conflicting ones. Within any one of these we might be able to define social equality in terms of social deference, but outside them there will often be cases of non-comparability. If an American Congressman or a rising journalist or a successful pop-singer were to come across me, he would be as little likely to feel respect towards me as I towards him: yet it would be an unwarranted conclusion that we were, therefore, social equals. Social equality is something much more positive than a mere absence of ordering relation, and may, indeed, be compatible with a definitely ordered social system.

We need, therefore, to characterize social equality not merely negatively, in terms of the absence of some ordering relation of social deference, but positively in terms of some equivalence relation. An equivalence relation is, like an ordering relation, transitive, but symmetric, not asymmetric: if my height is equal to yours, and yours to Peter's, then mine is equal to Peter's; but also if mine is equal to yours, then yours is equal to mine, not unequal. Equivalence relations are often expressed by some phrase using the word `same', e.g. `the same height as'; an equivalence relation relates together all those things which have the same property. In fact, we often use equivalence relations to introduce, or even to define, properties. The concept of weight depends on our having balances, together with the facts, vindicated in experience, that if two objects exactly balance when placed in the scales, they will still balance if we interchange them, and that if two objects each exactly balance when weighed against a third, they will balance also when weighed against each other. Balancing is a symmetric and transitive relation, which therefore enables us to pick out all those things that balance with one another, and say that they are all in some respect the same, namely in respect of weight. Weight is just the property with respect to [257] which each equivalence class is the same. Frege and Russell used a similar strategy in defining the concept of number, and in mathematics we very frequently introduce a new concept by defining first an equivalence relation, then an equivalence class, and then the property as that which all members of the equivalence class have in common. In politics the argument often goes the other way, and the fact that a number of men all have some property in common is represented as their all being equal in this respect. Instead of saying that we shall all die---which is true but not very grandiloquent---we talk of death being the great equaliser. Equality before the law does not mean that the law metes out the same sentence to us all, innocent and guilty alike, but only that we are all under the law and all answerable for our illegal acts. Many egalitarian arguments rest upon our having some one condition or aspiration or purpose in common. Often the things we have in common are important and generate valuable feelings of fellowship. But always we need to know in what respect we are the same as other people, and to what extent that similarity should override other, equally important, differences.


One pervasive argument for egalitarianism is the demand for justification of differences, coupled with a certain scepticism about justifications actually offered. Thus Professor Benn argues `Egalitarians protest when ... they see no rational justification for differentiating a particular class for the purpose of allocating certain specific privileges or burdens'. Both the issue and the standard of justification required are left to the choice of the egalitarian. Thus discrimination between the sexes has been called in question in recent years `because, it is argued, no one has yet shown good enough reasons for thinking a person's sex relevant to the income he should earn---and the burden of proof rests on the discriminators'. But sometimes a practice is not called in question or is thought to be justified, as Benn goes on to point out: `On the other hand, discrimination according to sex for military service has been generally accepted without much question and is usually considered well grounded: so it is rarely called an inequality'. 3 This principle, which Professor Bedau calls the presumption of equality 4 is clearly a powerful principle, but open to considerable objection. It is easy to ask questions, and easy not to be satisfied with the answers given. But not all [258] questions ought to be answered, and often merely by asking a question one is committed to waiting for an answer and not dismissing it out of hand. Moreover, without considerable qualification the presumption of equality is bound to prove internally inconsistent. It cannot be a presumption we are always entitled to make, and once we have to consider whether in any particular case it is justified, its bulldozing power is already gone.

It is easy to ask questions. Job asked God to justify His treatment of him, and modern man, especially modern young man, is fond of demanding that society should justify itself to his satisfaction. But questions have to be addressed to someone, and it depends very much on the person to whom the question is addressed what sort of answer it is reasonable to expect. If you ask me, I may be able to explain why we have certain arrangements, but I cannot be called on to justify them unless I have some control over them and am therefore responsible for them. It is dangerously easy in seeking a rational justification to smuggle in an assumption of omnipotence. In our age of unbelief we tend to be `egotheists' and to assume that we, or the State at our bidding, can arrange everything as seems best. But not everything is possible to the State, nor should it be. If we insist on the State's being answerable for all the arrangements of society, we implicitly concede to it absolute power. Unless we are totalitarians, we must be prepared on occasion to disclaim responsibility, and to refuse to offer a justification in the terms desired of some social arrangement which has attracted criticism. In an imperfect world inhabited by imperfect men, many things will go wrong, which are indubitably wrong, but which cannot be remedied except at the cost of much greater evils. Egalitarian sentiment leads easily to totalitarianism, and if we abhor totalitarianism we must be prepared on occasion to rebut the presumption of the egalitarians, and concede that not everything in our society can be justified.

There are many different limitations on the power of the State, some contingent, others essential. Often things work out badly because no one is wise enough to make them work out well. The intellectual limitations of our rulers are of immense practical importance, and sometimes, as we shall see, 5 an examination of their, and our own, imperfections yields philosophical illumination. Sometimes, however, we object on a point of principle. the action complained of was an exercise of freedom, and therefore the agent cannot be called to account; or the interests involved were peripheral or illegitimate, and for that reason the issue is not justiciable: or---more difficult---the arrangements are not to be seen as the actions of anybody, and there is nobody who should be held responsible for what happened. These disclaimers of responsibility are not to be always invoked. One of the reasons for the radicals' impatience with authority is authority's tendency to brush off awkward questions with unreasonable disclaimers. [259] Nevertheless, the tone of the discussion should change. Although we should think critically about our society, we should not be too strident in our questioning. There will be plenty of occasions when we shall have to probe and press our questions hard, and not be put off by easy evasions; but we must not assume that answers must always be forthcoming, or that nothing can be accepted unless it has been rationally justified to our complete satisfaction.

Benn is at pains to distinguish his egalitarianism from the radical egalitarianism, discussed by Bedau, which presses for the removal of all forms of differentiation. Having allowed that the conditions under attack may be contextually supplied and not explicitly stated, he protests in a footnote:

A favorite way of discrediting the egalitarian, however, is to make it appear that he seeks to remove forms of discrimination that neither he, nor anyone else, would for a moment question. Though the Levellers were concerned only for equal political rights, for removing monopolistic privileges in trade, and for legal reforms, they were frequently accused, despite vigorous disclaimers, of wanting to level property.

But it is a perfectly reasonable counter. If the egalitarian is entitled to call any form of discrimination in question, then the anti-egalitarian can reduce the presumption of equality to absurdity by calling in question some form of discrimination the egalitarian is disposed to accept. American advocates of Women's Lib who believe that considerations of chivalry should secure them exemption from the Draft Law are being inconsistent if they base their claim for equal treatment on a general refusal to allow that differences of sex can ever be relevant to the treatment meted out to a citizen by the state. Often in politics criteria of relevance are difficult to determine, and we have to take into account many different considerations based on different facts. The presumption of equality, however, focuses on just one factor, and ignores all the rest. At one time advanced educationalists get hot under the collar about inequalities of opportunity, and ask indignantly why the son of a rich man should be given a public school education while the much abler son of poor parents is denied one. No fluffy answers are accepted, and under the concentrated gaze of public scrutiny it becomes evident that what sort of education you get should not depend on who your parents are. A generation later the centre of indignation has shifted, and advanced educationalists ask indignantly why the education a boy gets should depend on the genes he happens to have inherited from his parents, and left-wing thinkers extol comprehensive schools with the aid of the same arguments that old Etonians used to use against the grammar school brigade in the days of the Butler education act. We may smile ironically, but should recognise that education is being grievously damaged and clarity obscured by a scheme of argument which presents issues in terms [260] of a few arbitrarily selected black- and-white distinctions instead of a multitude of grey ones. The presumption of equality concentrates our attention on one distinction and leads us to ignore all the others. But whether a distinction is relevant or not cannot depend on whether the egalitarian happens to question it or not. It may be that at present no one questions the 18-plus selection for the university on the basis of academic ability. But if egalitarians aver that intellectual ability is no justification for giving one child an academic education denied to another, then I am anxious to know what, should the question of university entrance ever be raised, their answer will be. Ought I to be preparing myself to lecture on Aristotle's Ethics or on First-Order Predicate Calculus to people who know no Greek and cannot do Logic, but have come to Oxford in order to play rugger or row? It is, of course, a rhetorical question. But it shows the weakness of a schema of argument which depends on asking questions that are rhetorical in as much as no serious answer is sought for or listened to. We cannot avoid every sort of distinction or discrimination. If we set out to establish equality in one respect, we shall thereby establish some other inequality in another respect. The free use of the presumption of equality is bound to lead to inconsistency. It must, therefore, be, at best, a principle of only restricted applicability, and before the egalitarian can apply it, he needs to show that the case is a suitable one for its application.


Egalitarian sentiments are often the vehicle for expressing positively either a demand for, or a recognition of, some underlying unity. Sometimes we are concerned to express our common humanity, and to work out its implications for our political thinking. In other cases we discover an underlying unity, find that it engenders deep feelings of fellowship which we, quite rightly, value. Arguments of the first sort, arguments from Universal Humanity as I term them, are more complicated, and deserve fuller treatment, than I originally allowed for; arguments of the second sort, peer-group arguments as I shall call them, I neglected altogether; they have great emotional appeal, but cannot, and necessarily cannot, establish all that the egalitarian wants.

Many arguments from Universal Humanity are arguments from need. They are weighty, but do not have essentially egalitarian implications, 5 and, because they are many, are none of them conclusive. The simplest and most appealing is what I might term the Oxfam argument. If my brother is in need, and I am in a position to help him, and fall to do so, then I am failing to recognise our common humanity. And in a world in which there are millions of starving people it must be wrong for anyone to have more [261] than anyone else, because his superfluity should always be transferred to those in greater need. When there are people hungry or naked or in need of medical attention, it seems wrong to devote available resources to providing the very rich with pink champagne, or for that matter the fairly prosperous artisans of our own country with a second colour TV. There is much force in this argument. But there are limitations to its applicability. Consider the War on Want argument. The War on Want argument, like the Oxfam argument, is concerned with human need, but holds that it is not enough simply to relieve need, and that we should, rather, devote our energies to helping people to stand on their own feet, even sometimes at the expense of meeting more immediate needs. In the long run, we cannot help them effectively, unless they will help themselves. And therefore, apart from short- term help in times of emergency, we should help them by helping them to help themselves. Their needs still have a claim on our attention and our resources; but in a less straightforward and mechanical way than the Oxfam argument would suggest. Men are not just passive patients whom we ought to do good to, in order that they may not suffer pain or deprivation or want: they are also active agents, whose nature it is to do things, and to do things on their own initiative and for their own reasons. They need liberty and opportunity as well as food and medicines; stimulus as well as satisfaction. And therefore we should, as we do in practice, acknowledge many other arguments besides the Oxfam one as weighty. We do not give all our resources to the relief of suffering and need. Let the reader consider his own gifts to charity in the past twelve months. He may well have given money to Oxfam, or to Christian Aid, or to Shelter, or to Help the Aged. But he will almost certainly have given something to a political party, or to a church, or to a theatre guild, or to a conservation group, or to pay the legal costs of someone being unfairly prosecuted by some public authority, or to some other good cause. We cherish many charities, not only those which seek to ensure that nobody will suffer from any sort of need, but also those which seek to secure by private or collective action that some one of a host of innumerable goods shall be achieved. We have many ideas of good, and many reasons for action. The Oxfam argument is one, and an important one, among them; but it is not the only one, and therefore there may be occasions when we are right to find other arguments more compelling.

Benn distinguishes from among the arguments from Universal Humanity one---the principle of equal consideration of interests---to which he attaches great importance, because he thinks that I have dealt with it too shortly and that it yields conclusions which are strongly egalitarian in effect. 7 It is [262] clear that it is an important principle, and it is certainly not one I should wish to neglect. But I find it difficult to see what the word `equal' is doing in Benn's formulation of it. Benn does not mean that any man can always claim the same treatment as any other, nor that the interests of every man should weigh equally with me. He is at pains to point out that it is perfectly possible for one man's interest to have priority over another's. 8 But then what is the force of `equal'? Have I got to devote equal periods of time to listening to A and B pleading their usefulness to me? It is clear that Benn does not mean this. There are many cases where very short consideration is all that we are obliged to give to another man's interests---I need not spend long considering the claims of very distant relatives or of people who are not members of my family at all to hospitality at Christmas, and often a judge needs only a few minutes to decide that no reasonable cause of action lies on the facts presented to him. What Benn has in mind is something very different: that there should be no non-Archimedean ordering among the members of a society, so that the interests of members of the Party always outweigh those of mere ordinary people, or that the interests of some people---blacks, Jews, wogs or levantines---are always overridden if they happen to conflict with the interests of full members of the community. Perhaps the principle can best be explained in terms of the scope of quantifiers: we want to quantify primarily over cases, not persons; justice, as we say, is no respecter of persons, although it is concerned to give full consideration to each case. What Benn wants to avoid is that there should be some people who, whatever the case, always won, or some people who, whatever the case, always lost. This, indeed, is an important principle, long acknowledged in English law, although in recent years increasingly disregarded in other areas of government activity. The tendency of official decision-makers to think that only the official point of view needs to be taken into consideration should be strenuously resisted, and Benn is quite right to insist that everyone's interests should be given proper consideration, and that the claims of those outside the government machine should not be ignored or discounted in the process of public decision-making. The only difficulty is in describing this as g , giving them equal consideration. Benn has shown that the word is not entirely vacuous---that the principle he is propounding is more than a mere principle of consideration of interests, which would be compatible with an elitist morality which considered the interests of non-officials but never allowed them to outweigh those of the bureaucracy. But although some word is needed---l suggest `full', `proper' or `due'--- the word `equal' carries misleading connotations, as Benn himself shows by linking it with the quotation from J. C. Davies, `I am as good as anybody else; I may not be as clever or hard working as [263] you are, but I am as good as you are'. 9 But this, although a genuinely egalitarian doctrine with characteristically untoward consequences, 10 is not what the principle of proper consideration of interests establishes. What the principle establishes is `I am a man. I am not to be ignored, nor should my interests be systematically discounted'. To go further and to claim that I am as good as anybody else is to divorce goodness from all possible criteria, and ultimately to devalue personality. If I am as good as you no matter what you do and I fail to do, then it does not matter what you do or what I do; similarly, if my view is as good as yours, irrespective of the fact that you are clever and I am not, and you have examined the evidence and considered the arguments while I have just opined, then it means that there is no right or wrong in our thinking, and that any view is as good as any other. A system in which on grounds of non- discrimination we can never distinguish between one view and its opposite is analogous to the `absolutely inconsistent' systems of formal logic, where every well-formed formula is a theorem and therefore there is no point in picking out the class of theorems. To reason is to select-to select the right and reject the wrong. If you are to engage in rational argument with me, then it cannot be on the precondition that my views are just as good as yours. To reason is to lay oneself open to the possibility of being wrong, and if the egalitarian is so wedded to the principle of non-discrimination that he cannot entertain the possibility of anybody's being wrong unless everybody else is too, then he is committed to irrationality.


The peer-group argument goes back to Plato. We need to treat some men---colleagues, friends, partners---as equals, peers standing in the same relation to oneself as one does to them. Although not all relations between men need be, or are, reciprocal, groups of fellow citizens, fellow officers, fellow rulers, played a central part in Greek social life, and still meet important emotional needs in our own society. Plato envisaged the rulers of his ideal state being so much of a peer-group that they would have everything, even wives and children, in common, so much so that the use of the first- and second- person pronouns---I, me, my, and you, your--- should be replaced by the first person plural (Republic, V, 451c-469b). Likewise in the sub-ideal community for which he laid down the Laws, he is aware of the importance of fellow-feeling and peer-group behaviour (Laws, VI, 777d5 and XI, 919d7). We may distinguish two strands in the argument: one is that of anti- selfishness. Plato was appalled at the me-firstism rampant in [264] Athenian society, and so he opposed to amoral self- aggrandisement the selfless pursuit of the common good. So, too, many modern egalitarians are moved primarily by a detestation of the profit-motive. But the alternatives are not exhaustive, and the dangers of corporate selfishness are no less great, indeed they are more insidious, than those of simple, individual greed. The first-person plural is still the first person, and in danger of excluding third personal outsiders. Within the group there is total equality: but the group is restricted, and there is no equality between members and non-members of the group. Plato's peers, like the peers of England, are more noticeable for the inequality which separates them from everybody else, than for the equality which does exist among them. So, too, modern denunciations of the profit-motive have been the pretext on which bureaucratic empires have been built up, and have resulted in an inequality of power which is both more unequal and more dangerous than the inequality of wealth to which objection was originally made.

The second strand of Plato's argument is less extreme. No abnegation of self is needed to justify our enjoying the company of our fellows. It is an important part of a man's emotional life, not adequately catered for in modern society, to be among his equals. Social relationships which are symmetric are undemanding. The emotional temperature is lower when I am with my pals than when I am with my girlfriend: I can relax with my colleagues in a way I cannot when I am with pupils or parishioners or the headmaster or the Vice-Chancellor or the bishop. Modern society fails to institutionalise provision for this need, and powerful emotions show themselves socially in football crowds and politically in demands for total fraternal equality. But the political demand is misformulated. The argument from fraternity to equality fails in two respects. It fails first because we are not all brothers. Half the human race are disqualified by sex from being even metaphorical brothers, and although the advocates of Women's Lib seem to suppose that Sorority should be the watch-word of the Sexual Revolution, it seems to me that the aspirations of most women are deeply unsisterly. Young women give few indications of seeing themselves as sisters or wanting to be treated in a sisterly fashion by the young men of their acquaintanceship, and in later years maternal and grand- maternal affection loom much larger in their life than any desire to gatecrash other people's peer-groups. It is no accident that we find Plato's treatment of sex the most repugnant part of his programme in the Republic. Sexual relations are essentially asymmetric, and the emotions they engender are not only intense but necessarily exclusive. In addition to the exclusive love between husband and wife, many other relationships, both within the family and outside it, are similarly asymmetric. I cannot really regard even all male men as my brethren, without misrepresenting the true state of my feelings for my father, my sons, my ancestors and my possible descendants. Similarly, the regard I have for my teachers and tutors, mentors and benefactors [265] is necessarily asymmetric, as is the concern I feel for my pupils and possible recipients of my advice or benefactions. It is essential to society, and, as I shall argue more fully later, essential to each man's emotional fulfilment that there should be some differentiation in the structure of our society and in our social relations one with another. The full-blooded argument from fraternity to equality fails because it is founded on a premiss which is false in fact. We are not all brothers.

Fraternal feeling is none the less a good thing. It needs to be cherished and catered for, and sometimes calls for some equality in treatment or circumstance. But it neither requires, nor can endure, total equality. Fellow-feeling can exist on a basis of a recognition and mutual acceptance of differences. The tenant farmer who clapped the late Lord Halifax on the back and said `Tha's made a good start, lad; keep it oop' clearly did not find the difference between being a farmer and being Foreign Secretary a barrier. Other examples abound. It is not equality but justice that is essential if fellow-feeling is to flourish. 11 I can identify with you and enter into your aspirations and purposes so long as I believe that you and I are tied together by bonds of mutual respect, and that each will accord the other a consideration which we both believe will be reasonable. Equality of circumstances may conduce to fellow-feeling, but need not, and will not if in fact it seems unjust. Equal conditions often fail to engender feelings of fellowship: and even in the small, cohesive peer-group there is, and has to be, some recognition of the differences between different members.


I now turn to positive arguments for inequality. They are of many different kinds. Some are almost logical, opposing the principle of uniformity with that of uniqueness. Others are based on the fundamental values of liberty or justice, arguing that if these are to be observed at all in public affairs the principle of equality must to some extent be compromised. Others again are more pragmatic, arising from the practical necessities of political and social life, which in turn reflect the limited abilities and imperfect aspirations of human beings.

The argument from Universal Humanity can be called in aid of inegalitarian, as well as egalitarian, conclusions. Many inegalitarian societies show more respect for each individual man than supposedly egalitarian societies do. Marx saw merit in feudalism, in contrast to the liberal societies of his own day, because in a feudal society each man had his own place, and was respected in that place. It is better to be a bathroom attendant in an Oxford [266] college than to be a prosperous proletarian in an amorphous plebs, because the bathroom attendant, although he occupies a relatively lowly place in the college hierarchy, nevertheless is enabled to feel that he is a valued member of that society, making a real and definite contribution to its well-being. In comparison, a modern egalitarian society can be very heartless, showing no concern for any individual as such. Although the prosperous proletarian has more money than the college servant, and although he is not obliged to regard anyone as his superior, he does not feel that he is valued for himself alone, or that society cares for anything but his cash. A society which accords respect to each man in his place is appreciated because it seems to individuate individuals in a way in which societies committed to the egalitarian ethos are unable to do. If the only social relations are transitive symmetric relations, then I necessarily stand in exactly the same relationship to society as anybody else, and therefore I can have no social position which is peculiarly my own. Since my relationship to the rest of society is the same as yours, it would not make any difference if I were replaced by you; and from this it follows that I in myself am replaceable, and therefore dispensable. In a totally egalitarian society I am always potentially redundant. I am merely a unit, not a unique individual. If I see myself as a man, with a real personality and a real contribution all of my own to make to my fellow men, then I shall reject the ethos of egalitarianism and see positive merit in a social order which acknowledges the distinctiveness of the individual and therefore the differences between men.

A status society does not have to be strictly ordered. It is compatible with there being some ordering-but the ordering does not have to be complete, and, more importantly, does not have to be all important. What is desired is that each man should stand in regard to the rest of society in a relation which other men do not, and that this relation should itself be the ground of respect. The village cobbler performs a different function from the squire or the parson, and one that is needed, and cannot be performed, by them, however wealthy or well educated they may be. Each man wants to be respected. The egalitarian seeks to satisfy this need by ensuring that no man is ever in an inferior position vis-…-vis anybody else, and so insists that all social relations shall be equivalence relations. That fails to meet the need, which is much better met by allowing relations which are asymmetric but securing for each man that there is some relation with respect to which he is superior to other people. No one should be always the underdog. We can object to strictly hierarchical societies on the grounds that those on the bottom of the hierarchy---the serfs, the villeins, or the prison-camp slaves---are accorded no respect at all. But we should remedy this by having more than one hierarchy, and, in so far as any one ranking system is dominant and generally accepted as constituting the social order, demanding that those who are deferred to should make manifest their respect and consideration for those who render them services. [267]

The argument can, in part, be transposed to a lower key. Two inequalities are better than one. It is better to have a society in which there are a number of different pecking orders, so that a person who comes low according to one order can nevertheless rate highly according to another. One advantage that English society used to have over American was that whereas in America wealth was the only criterion, in England social standing was largely independent of wealth, and could, therefore, act as a corrective. More generally, it is good that there should be an athletic hierarchy besides the academic one, so that boys who are not blessed with brains may nevertheless be, and feel themselves to be, the stars of the football field. A man may not be a great success economically but still can be a big noise in the Boy Scout Association or the pigeon fanciers' club. So long as we have plenty of different inequalities, nobody need be absolutely inferior. It is only if, in the name of equality, we set about eliminating them all, that we shall succeed in eliminating many of them and thereby make those that remain far more burdensome.

Egalitarians are angered when the argument from Universal Humanity is called in aid of inegalitarian conclusions, and produce vehement counter-arguments against it. They will not accept that the college servant is really better off than the prosperous proletarian, however much happier he may subjectively suppose himself to be, because the mere fact that the society recognises a difference in status between the college servant and, say, the fellows is itself an affront to human dignity. If we differentiate at all between one man and another on account of the social functions they fulfil, then we are no longer regarding them as men but merely as performers of certain roles. The bathroom attendant may think that he is valued for himself alone, but he is wrong; he is valued merely as a cleaner of baths and lavatories, merely as a pair of hands, merely as a useful automaton and not at all as a person, a child of God, a human being, an immortal soul, the bearer of an eternal destiny. This argument has powerful emotional appeal, but it is confused. It confuses the minimal and the maximal respect we may pay to a human being. Whatever a man does, whatever contribution he makes to our well-being, whatever his achievements, he is more than merely a doer, a contributor, an achiever, and I do not respect him properly, if I respect him merely as a doer, a contributor, or an achiever. If I am to respect him fully, I must respect him for himself, rather than merely as someone who satisfies certain specifications, just as a girl feels that she is not really loved unless she is loved for herself alone, and not her yellow hair. But only God can do that. In an imperfect world limited mortals have only limited respect for most other people. The respect which affords a basis for political argument is not a maximal respect we can aspire to but seldom achieve; rather, it is a minimal respect which we all ought to pay to everybody else. It does not exhaust the whole of political argument, but simply provides an incontrovertible starting point. I respect another man's [268] humanity by observing a certain set of minimum conditions towards him---by not killing him, by not torturing him, by not leaving him to starve by not depriving him of civil rights---and it is important to see these conditions as minimum conditions which must be fulfilled rather than as maximum conditions to which we should aim but which we cannot be blamed if we fail to achieve. If we set our sights too high, we shall secure nothing. It may---or it may not---be desirable that I should identify fully with the bath attendant, and seek to enable him to fulfil his potentiality in every way; but it is a fact that most people can, or at least do, identify with most other people only to a very limited extent; and if we want to ensure that there shall be nobody who is not identified with at all, we must accept the consequence that the extent to which identification is achieved will be a fairly minimal one. But better that than that we should fail to recognise another man's humanity at all.

The egalitarian argument against differentiation of function seems unrealistic. Although I may object to being regarded merely as the performer of a certain role, I do not normally object to being regarded as a person who does perform a certain role, or who has carried out certain achievements. The reason is that these roles and achievements are activities or actions of mine, and therefore manifestations of my own personal choices, and so very much part of what I essentially am. What I do is the mark I make upon the world. I am different from everybody else, and one chief way in which my being different from everybody else is made plain is in what I choose to do. Even if what I choose to do is something fairly humdrum, like cleaning baths, it nevertheless is what I have done, my own special contribution to making the world a better place. A society which differentiates between people on the basis of what they do is not denying their humanity, but emphasizing a most important facet of it. This is not to say that all hierarchical societies pay respect to the human worth of all their members, any more than all egalitarian societies do. But the principle of Universal Humanity requires us to pay attention to the differences between men as well as the resemblances, and an inegalitarian society can often be showing just as much respect for the individual worth of its members as an egalitarian society does.

Professor Williams concedes the force of these arguments, but still maintains that only an egalitarian society would suit the true, unconditioned consciousness of every man. 12 He is right to resist the simple argument from consciousness. It is not a conclusive argument for a status society that it makes everyone happy. The slaves in the American South may have been happy, but still it is better that they should be free. A society may so [269] condition a man's consciousness that he can form no proper view of his own potentialities, and whole peoples may be wrongly reconciled to their lot by being persuaded that it is inevitable. But it does not have to be so. Not all consciousness is false consciousness. Although we are all greatly influenced by our cultural and social environment, we can stand back and make our own critical appreciation of our society, and can consider our own position in it and make up our own minds whether we are willing to accept it or not. No society, whether hierarchical or egalitarian, will be immune from criticism or completely stable; always there will be some who are divinely discontented with their lot and who will seek to improve their own position in it or remould it to their own advantage. But that does not touch the argument from respect. Respect is not shown me by treating me merely as a transcendental ego or unconditioned consciousness, which, had circumstances been different, might have had very different abilities and attitudes from those I actually have. Child of my age though I am, I am what I am---a unique individual, anxious to make my own contribution to the age I live in, and to fulfil myself by filling social roles which are not just thrust on me by society but are freely accepted as giving me the opportunity of doing my bit. Only by abstracting from all actual aspirations and activities can Williams equalise us all and extract egalitarian conclusions from the argument from respect. But respect, if it is to be respect at all, must look to the actual individual, and take account not only of what he might be, but what he actually is. And what he actually is will be different from what anybody else is, and will characteristically manifest itself in his actions; and therefore society will show respect to individuals by taking account of the different things different people do, that is, acknowledging the importance of each man's social role.


The argument from respect is paralleled by the arguments from liberty and from justice. Liberty requires that we let people be different, justice that we treat them differently: the one because it is for them, rather than for us, to decide what they shall do, and different men decide to do different things. the other because all the relevant factors should be taken into account, and these will often be different and demand different sorts of treatment. Radical egalitarians recognise the incompatibility between their ideal and the ideals of liberty and justice, and say, simply, that these ideals are less important and ought to give way when they conflict with the overriding claims of equality. Most egalitarians, however, seek to reconcile the various ideals by claiming that the uniformities they seek to ensure are compatible with the exercise of liberty and positively required by justice. [270] They envisage a society in which each man does his own thing, but important equalities between different people are not upset by the different things they do. It is permissible to hope for this, but not reasonable to expect it. Unless our liberties are so circumscribed that we can make choices on our own account only about matters that are essentially trivial---if we can choose our hobbies and the d‚cor of our flats, but not our jobs or where we are to live some of our choices will impinge on the way important affairs turn out, and will work out well or ill for us not only in our own estimation but in that of others too. Contrary to the belief of some lovers of liberty, our values are not entirely our own but have some tendency to be shared. In any society there must be some shared values, and therefore some shared assumptions about what is to anyone's advantage or disadvantage, and so some common standards of success. This is why, although there is no necessity for social relations to be ordering relations, nevertheless a social order tends to establish itself. Although I may, in accordance with the Declaration of Independence, pursue happiness in my own way, and although many Americans have in fact set themselves idiosyncratic goals of success, nevertheless for most Americans success is to be measured in pecuniary terms. We want to succeed not only in our own eyes but in the eyes of other men too: we are competitive creatures, who value goals not because we have assessed them independently on our own account, but because others do and we want to outdo them. If we allow men liberty in things that matter, they will soon establish inequalities that signify. hence, if we value liberty at all, we cannot abolish all inequalities, but only, at best, reduce their impact by multiplying them.

The argument from justice is more difficult. Whereas most people sense some difficulty in reconciling liberty and equality, many think that justice and equality are not only compatible, but come to the same thing. Nevertheless, justice is not equality, even though it sometimes requires that people be treated alike, as equality always does. We can see that justice is not the same as equality, because we sometimes stigmatize as unjust laws imposing `strict liabilities', although they are evidently unobjectionable on the score of equality, since they apply to everyone without exception. If there were a law imposing the death penalty on the driver of a motor vehicle involved in a fatal accident, it would be unjust in spite of---indeed, because of---its treating all such drivers the same. We fail to do justice to the individual unless we give due consideration to the circumstances of his case. Equality, because it focuses attention on only a few circumstances, may well lead us to ignore some other circumstances that are relevant, and thus to be unjust. Again, justice gives rise to certain procedural requirements, while equality is concerned only with results, not processes. Equality does not insist upon the principle audi alteram partem: audi neutram partem would be just as good so far as equality is concerned. justice is much more complicated than equality. We can make sense of the tender-minded toughness [271] that characterizes the just man, if we see him as being imbued with a rational concern for the individual, which makes him unwilling to reach any decision adverse to any individual's interests, until he has considered all reasonable possibilities of not so doing, and unless he is adequately persuaded that there are reasons of an acceptable sort which require such an adverse decision to be made. This is why we require the case against a man to be tried and rejected unless it is shown to be sufficiently strong. This also is why justice is concerned not only with the final decision reached but the way in which it was arrived at, and, in particular, is concerned that no factor in favour of any individual should be overlooked or discounted. Because justice is rational, it is subject to the requirement of universalizability, which is the hallmark of all rational decision-making. But a readiness to treat like cases alike, although a necessary feature of justice, is not a sufficient characterization of it. It is a necessary feature of good administration, too, and even of enlightened self-interest. A modern bureaucracy could be scrupulously rational in its decision-making, and always mete out the same treatment except where circumstances warranted it, but accept, as relevant circumstances, reasons of state and considerations of public policy, which were reasons indeed, but reasons of expediency rather than of justice. What exactly should count as reasons of justice is difficult to determine. Often it depends on convention, and often it is a matter of public agreement or general expectation rather than of abstract principle. Nevertheless, although justice may be largely conventional, it is not entirely so, and there will always be occasions where we fail to do justice to a case if we ignore certain factors, which, were equality our only guide, we should not need to take it to account. justice does not always require that we treat different cases differently, but if we always, as good egalitarians, treat different cases the same, we can be sure that sometimes we shall commit great injustice.

The divergence of justice from equality is particularly important in economic affairs. Many people have argued against economic equality on the score of expediency, and some weight should be given to the need to provide people with adequate incentives. But for many people, particularly for members of trades unions, the question of expediency looms less large than that of justice. So long as money plays an important part in our way of life, it will be a tangible token of esteem and gratitude which ought not to be withheld from those who have done well by us and deserved well of us. Much of the current concern with differentials is concerned less with incentives than with respect. People ask for more not because there is an imbalance between supply and demand for their services---though this may well have a bearing on the readiness of employers to concede their claims---but because they think existing remuneration does not reflect the real value of what they do, and they are unwilling to acquiesce in other people putting a low valuation on their efforts. Although on occasions, [272] under limited conditions, for set purposes, we may agree on a flat rate irrespective of effort or skill, there remains an obstinate feeling that those who have borne the heat of the day ought to be more handsomely rewarded than those who have laboured only briefly or made only a slight contribution to the success of the enterprise. Economic justice can argue in the opposite direction to economic equality.


Arguments from social expediency can also be urged. The argument from incentives is too well known to need elaborating here. The argument from innovation is not so well known. Professor Hayek and Lord Hailsham point out that inequality has been the means whereby economic progress has been achieved. 13 If there had not been some rich people in the early part of this century who could afford to waste a lot of money on horseless carriages, there would be no production of cars now. The argument from economic progress has become somewhat polluted with the passage of time: we can no longer feel it that important to secure that everybody has a third car or second spin-drier. Nevertheless, an important point remains. Although not all innovations are desirable, some are; and we can only discover which, if our society contains people who can afford to try out new ideas. An egalitarian society rapidly becomes wooden and immobile, because the majority of new ideas, which, when they are new, do not appeal to the majority of people, can never be put into effect.

The third argument from expediency for inequality is what I call the explosive argument. If I wanted to ensure that parcels I was sending by train should not be chucked about by the porters, it would not be enough merely to label them all fragile; but if I labelled them explosive, and let it be known that one in every thousand contained mercury fulminate, then they would be handled very carefully indeed. So, too, in affairs of our society. We can adjure officials to treat members of our society carefully but, human nature being what it is, not every official will be disposed to put himself out for awkward members of the public. There will be a tendency to treat them with scant consideration, discourtesy or even gross disregard of their rights. And most members of the public will take it lying down, and will be pushed around like sheep. But if there are some members of the public who will not only want to stand up for their rights, but are in a Position to do so, the case will be very different. Although there may still be bad officials who behave like jacks-in-office, sometimes the fact will be discovered, and all officials will become anxious to avoid the sort of [273] unpleasantness that can result from arrogant behaviour on their part. And this requires that some members of the ordinary public have the possibility of taking effective action in spite of their not having any official standing. The best modern example is Crichel Down. The Civil Service had been acting wrongly over a period of years; but when they sought to annex Crichel Down for their own purposes, they were resisted by a man who, because he was rich and had influential connections, was able to prevent them sweeping the issue under the carpet. He was able to fight it to a finish, which a poorer man could not have afforded to do, and in the end he won, and civil servants have been better behaved in consequence, and we all have benefited. It is therefore desirable that there should be some rich men, who can afford to fight the government on their own, and hence also on our, behalf. Of course, it is not only a matter of riches. Wealth is not always necessary or sufficient, nor is it the only desirable form of inequality for this purpose. Some John Hampdens have been successful though poor, and wealth without `pull' would not have restored Crichel Down to its rightful owner; and we should be worried not only by what may be done to nonofficial members of the public, but also to non-rich ones. We want to have a number of different inequalities, some not at all evident to the official eye, which together will have the effect that in the long run any official abusing his power will be brought to book. And I for one am happy to see other people being rich or other people being influential, as part of the cost of living in a society in which officials of all sorts handle me with kid-gloves, for fear I might turn out to be rather an important person myself.

The last two arguments may seem to be practical rather than philosophical, but they reveal an important aspect of human society which in turn reflects a fundamental feature of human nature. It is difficult and costly to initiate action. If private individuals are to be able to take certain sorts of initiative effectively, they need to be rich. Not all people can be rich. If from this we infer that nobody should be rich, then we are precluding private individuals from starting things on their own, and thus are conferring a monopoly of initiative power on officials. And this is dangerous and illiberal. We want there to be at least some citizens outside the state bureaucracy who not only can resist the official point of view, but can get new ideas off the ground, because otherwise we shall be not only defenceless against the bureaucratic juggernaut but soon as obsolescent as the dinosaur. How much money is required depends on the enterprise. Any civic society or amenity group is far more effective if one of its supporters is a business man who can get things typed by his secretary or copied on the firm's Xerox. Postage, telephone calls, journeys to London to see MPs or civil servants, all cost money, and unless there are some people who do not need to count the cost very carefully, the first, critical, stages of launching a new idea will never be undertaken. Of course, at a later stage, a large number of subscriptions will more than make up for the absence of individually large [274] subscribers---the trade unions now are not hamstrung by poverty---but this is only at a later stage. It is difficult and expensive to attract a large number of subscribers, especially if they are all equally poor and equally tight for money. The number of people anyone is likely to know in the normal course of events is limited. If some circles of acquaintanceship include one or two people who can easily part with œ100, they can start a campaign for---say---enabling mothers of young children to stay with them in hospital if the maximum possible subscription is œ1, very few people know enough people well enough to touch them for œ1 at the outset of a campaign which has yet to impinge on the public consciousness or prove itself as a practicable project. So too on a much larger scale, rich men are useful to have around, because they are easier to persuade to back their fancy than cautious committees or government officials. In a very different way, rich men are useful in politics, because they can afford to ignore financial inducements and will not be beholden to campaign contributors. Kennedy did not need to cheat the income tax.

Status is as important as money, and although in recent years egalitarians seem to have been less worried by social than by economic inequalities, the cases are very comparable, and the argument from the need to preserve private initiatives requires not only that there should be concentrations of economic power under the control of private individuals rather than the state, but that not every individual voice raised in protest will be disregarded. If I may be forgiven for lapsing into autobiography, let me cite an instance when I was fighting a motor manufacturer about the exclusion clauses in their guarantees, and my being an Oxford don was of crucial importance in securing the attention of a shareholders' meeting for two decisive minutes. In a finite world we cannot expect people to give adequate attention to everyone, and if everyone is to have equal attention then all will be equally ignored. Freedom of speech generates a lot of `noise' which may well drown the significant signals unless we have some pre-set filtering devices. Many of our social institutions have the important function of telling the world at large who it is they ought to listen to. What is a university degree but this? The university certifies to all those it may concern that Mr John Smith has shown himself capable of thinking for himself, and that his opinions therefore should be treated, if not with deference, at least with some respect. If you opine that I have got myxomatosis, it will not give me pause to think, but if a doctor does, I shall act on it at once. In a world of imperfect information we cannot take everyone for what he is really worth, and since it would be unwise to take everyone at face value, we are bound to rely on distinctions to enable us to discriminate between one man's judgment and another's, which therefore are inherently inegalitarian. It is as foolish to lament this fact as it is to worship it. If, in the name of equality, we attempt to disallow all social distinctions, we prevent people from making up their minds for themselves, and leave them [275] all prey to the manipulators of the admass society. Better an inequality between doctors and the medically unqualified than that we should all be taken in by a plausible charlatan. But, much as we may be tempted to worship degrees or qualifications or titles or membership of select bodies, it is wrong to attach over-much importance to them. They are useful and necessary when introductions are being made, but ought not to be conclusive as to the final judgments we make. Some quacks are better than many doctors, and many of the world's most original thinkers have never held a university degree. It is always possible that, despite first appearances, the unqualified man has a sounder judgment than the expert, and the ill-bred a finer sense of what is fitting than the expensively educated. Examples abound. Snobbery is the vice that denies the possibility, and mistakes the outward appearances for the underlying fact. If we are not to be snobs, we must retain a lively appreciation that customary social distinctions may prove in any individual case utterly misleading, and be always ready to be guided by what we have discovered the individual to be really like. But in the rush of ordinary life we shall go on having to make snap judgments about people we do not really know, and must rely on socially established criteria. When the garage attendant tells me he has discovered a practicable way of obtaining energy from nuclear fusion I shall continue to be much less interested than if a professor of physics had said the same.

We need inequality because we are limited beings only imperfectly informed. If I were God, and could look into each man's heart, I could respond to him fully and totally as the person he was: but since I am only a man, I can know only the outer man, and must of necessity judge by appearances. It makes a great difference if the man at the door is a doctor, a colleague, a former pupil, a business man or an itinerant salesman. In a very small society where everyone knows everybody else, we know who each man is, what role he plays, and therefore what response is appropriate on our part. But we do not---cannot-live all our lives within the confines of a face-to-face society, and are constantly seeking for clues to enable us to address ourselves appropriately to strangers. How many young men on seeing a pretty girl glance at the fourth finger of her left hand to see whether they should be merely chivalrous or should risk rebuff by being something more? We depend very much on various signs---in Britain very largely on accent---to indicate what the basis of social interchange is. Am I supposed to be driving a bargain with him P Or if I do not look after my own interests, can I be sure that he will not take advantage of me? The old school tie, the Oxford turn of phrase, the cavalry moustache---all play their part in informing strangers about what they may expect. As fast as one indicator is aped or falls out of fashion, another is seized upon to give us the guidance we need for the ordinary purposes of social life. Egalitarians find all such distinctions offensive; and often, indeed, they have their offensive features. [276] But egalitarians fail to recognise the deep sociaI needs that give rise to such distinctions--- our need to classify people in order that we may know what to expect from them and how far it is safe to relax our guard against them. Take away all outward and visible signs of friendliness and trustworthiness, and everyone will be treated as a debt-collector or high-pressure salesman. The effect of egalitarian principles is to ensure that each man is treated as every man's enemy.

Class distinctions enable a man to know where he stands. He may be better off with that knowledge---even though he stands in a low position according to most people's estimation---than without it. It depends largely on how other people treat him in the light of that knowledge. If, knowing that he is poor they are the readier to purchase his services for money, he is better off; if, knowing that he is weak, they are the readier to trample on him and use him discourteously, he is worse off. Too often today, it is the latter response that is evoked, but it does not have to be like that. We often take the offensive because of what we fear rather than because we are sure we can get away with it, and in some cultures men---like many other animals, according to the ethologists---reserve their enmity for their equals, and are remarkably forbearing to those evidently weaker than themselves.


We return to morality. It is forbearance and consideration of others that we want---not necessarily equal consideration, but consideration suited to the circumstances. The virtue of visible distinctions is that by indicating the sort of consideration that is appropriate they encourage us to give it. We cannot extend maximal consideration uniformly to everyone. If we are all equal, we are all competitors, since each of us, not being ready to merge his identity in Plato's ideal society, knows that sometimes he is seeking his good in rivalry with others. Few men feel willing---or can afford---to be always uncompetitive. If only equal consideration is to be extended to everyone, then everyone must be treated equally guardedly, and there will be no occasions on which it would be reasonable to go the second mile or give the other man the best of the bargain. De Tocqueville ascribed the acquisitiveness he noted in America to the egalitarian tenor of American society; and the connection is due in part to the way in which egalitarian assumptions structure men's concepts, so as to foreclose the possibility of one's sometimes having special obligations to extend extra consideration. Noblesse oblige does not flourish in a climate of egalitarianism. And whatever we may think of the noblesse, we can ill afford to dispense with the oblige.

Noblesse is, in fact, inevitable. The social advantages of inequality are so great that, however equal we try to make society in some respects, there are [277] bound to be other respects, if not money then power or prestige, in which some people are markedly better off than others. If we will admit this, we can control it. We can take steps to prevent classifications being unjust or irrelevant, or becoming obsolete, and we can encourage those who enjoy advantages to take on corresponding responsibilities. We can ensure that degrees are not awarded on a basis of self- assessment or replaced by a form of self-advertisement, and the Queen can ennoble trades union leaders and can confer knighthoods not only on rich businessmen as of yore but on those who have proved their prowess in the field of football battle. The egalitarian, because he will not allow the existence of inequalities, is unable to ameliorate them or make them work out for the benefit of all concerned. It is no accident that in societies supposedly imbued with egalitarian sentiment snobbery abounds and public relations men prosper. Again, if we acknowledge the fact of inequality, we can adjure people to accept an inequality of obligation too. Our society is one that in fact confers great privileges on many men---perhaps deserved, but great all the same. Trades union officials, civil servants, chartered accountants, university graduates and all those in receipt of grants for higher education are very well done by, and do very well in consequence. But the fact and its concomitant obligations are not readily recognised. Pupils are surprised when I point out that a degree now is in effect a patent of nobility. The protagonists of the student movement were unable to see that because they were given advantages denied to other people, therefore their responsibilities were correspondingly different; and the reason why they were unable to see this was that they were so deeply imbued with the belief that privilege was wrong that they could not really accept the fact that they themselves were privileged, or that their being privileged could be a ground of obligation. Egalitarianism induces blindness. It not only leads us to avert our gaze from those inequalities not currently under attack, but it makes us unready to recognise in our own case benefits which perhaps, if egalitarian arguments were valid, we ought not to receive, but which, as a matter of fact, we do receive and enjoy. The rich egalitarian agrees that riches are wrong, and that the whole system ought to be changed; but meanwhile he remains rich, and he is tempted, having decided against riches in principle, not to allow the fact of his still being rich to enter into his moral reckoning. Moral reasoning is best based on facts as they are: and if, for whatever reason, there are in fact significant inequalities in our society, it is well that those who benefit most should operate with a scheme of thought which enables them to come to terms with the facts and recognise the responsibilities they engender.

Many egalitarians take a high moral line, and tell me not to set my heart on mere monetary values. Of course they are right. There are greater things in life than money, and I ought not to be too much concerned with what I earn. But nor should they. The argument cuts both ways. If I [278] ought not to be greedy, they ought not to be envious; and if I should school myself to labour and not to hope for an additional reward, they should practise being pleased at my good fortune when I prosper, rather than belly-aching at my having done better than they. More precisely, we should distinguish two sorts of moral argument. Some are counsels of perfection, concerned largely with motives, and must be adopted wholeheartedly if they are to be acted on at all: others are binding requirements, concerned primarily with behaviour, and are better done grudgingly or for the wrong reasons than not done at all. High-mindedness about money or any other material good falls into the former class. It may be right for me to renounce worldly possessions and devote myself to contemplation or the service of the poor: but only if I am sure that it is the thing for me, which I gladly embrace for myself and without repining. It is not for me to tell you to do it, nor for you to tell me, and it is not much good my doing it and then continuing to read the Financial Times and dream of dinners at the Ritz. When it comes to paying my debts, however, or giving my employees a just wage, the case is reversed. This is something you can tell me to do, and it is far better that I should do it for the wrong reasons than that I should not do it at all. If the wrongfulness of riches is urged in the former sense, there is much truth in what is said, but in the nature of the case it cannot be urged or insisted upon. If the rich young man responds like St Francis, well and good: but if he goes away sorrowful we must let him go, and cannot take it upon ourselves to remedy the one remaining thing he still lacks by relieving him of his possessions ourselves. If the latter sense is intended, then were the wrongfulness of riches once established it would be right to press for action; but it cannot be established. Ill-gotten gains are wrong, but it is a truism that not all gains are ill-gotten. The institution of money is defined by rules, which can be obeyed and if obeyed legitimise the acquisition of money obtained in accordance with them. Some people may have acted illegally or unjustly, and then remedial action may be called for. But it always remains possible that some have not so misbehaved, and the bare fact of having more than other people cannot of itself show that they have acquired it wrongly or ought to be deprived of it. The argument from morality only appears to work in virtue of a confusion in modes of moral discourse. Arguments from morality can be relevant in politics, but they need to be rational arguments put forward in a dispassionate tone of voice. On a rational dispassionate view, wealth, like pleasure or power or fame, is to be seen not, indeed, as the summum bonum, but as a good which men often seek, and at least sometimes legitimately, and sometimes to the general benefit of society. Millionaires are like marquesses: one wants them to exist, although not to be one oneself.

Equality is the idol of the present age and, like all idols, illusory. Although it is a great thing to enjoy the company of one's equals, and although under some conditions some equalities are feasible, and well worth our striving to [279] establish them, equality as a general goal of political endeavour is impossible to achieve, and in any case undesirable. Worse than this, the effort to establish equality everywhere has diverted the energies of many good men from more worthwhile endeavours. Because they have confused equality with humanity or with justice or with equity, men have thought that in endeavouring to establish equality they were ensuring that these other goods would be enjoyed by everyone, and have therefore been blind to the subtle ways in which our society has come to care less for men's humanity, has been less sensitive to considerations of justice, and has been more ready to countenance iniquity. Why is it that over the last thirty years our society has become more uncaring, more impersonal, more brutal? Other factors, no doubt, are also responsible, but one is our obsession with equality. It has blunted our perceptions and diverted our efforts. Instead of considering each man in his own individuality, equality has encouraged us to consider people in the mass, and in regard to those facets of their lives that can most readily be quantified and compared. If we had laboured to secure justice or humanity with half the zeal with which we have secured the more jealous god of equality, things might not have come to their present sorry pass.

1. `` Against Equality'' Philosophy 40, 1965, 296-307; reprinted in H. Bedau, Justice and Equality (Prentice-Hall, 1971), 138-151.
2. I have given an essentially similar but fuller account in `` Equality in Education'', Bryan R. Wilson (ed.), Education, Equality and Society, (London, 1975), pp.40-43.
3. S. I. Benn, ``Egalitarianism and the Equal Consideration of Interests'', Nomos, IX: Equality, J.Rowland Pennock and John W.Chapman (New York, 1967), 64-65; reprinted in Hugo A. Bedau, Justice and Equality (Prentice-Hall, 1971), 155.
4. Hugo A. Bedau, ``Radical Egalitarianism'', Justice and Equality, 173; or his ``Egalitarianism and the Idea of Equality'', Nomos IX: Equality, 19.
5. SS VI-VII, pp. 270-277.
6. `` Against Equality'' pp. 302-303/145-146.
7. S.I.Benn, ``Egalitarianism and Equal Consideration of Interests'', Nomos IX: Equality, J. Rowland Pennock and John W. Chapman (eds.) (New York, 1967), 65ff.; reprinted in Hugo A. Bedau, Justice and Equality (Prentice Hall, 1971), 156ff.
8. p.60/p.159.
9. J.C.Davies, Human Nature in Politics (New York, 1963), 45.
10. See below, S VIII, pp. 277-280.
11. See, more fully, my ``Justice'', Philosophy, 47 (1972), 229-248, or my Democracy and Participation (Penguin, 1976), Ch. 7, 108-113.
12. B.A.0.Williams, `The Idea of Equality', Philosophy, Politics and Society, Peter Laslett and W. G. Runciman (eds), Series II (Oxford, 1962), 114-120; reprinted in Hugo A. Bedau, Justice and Equality (Prentice-Hall, 1971), 121-126.
13. F.A.Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (London, 1960), chs. 2, 3 and 8; Quintin Hogg, The Case for Conservatism (Penguin, 1947), chs. 16 and 26.

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