Equality: Desirable or Not?

By: Staff Writer Richard Wheeler

“Perhaps no single phrase from the Revolutionary era has had such continuing importance in American public life as the dictum, ‘all men are created equal,’” declared American historian Jack Greene in 1976, 200 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. This idea of fundamental human equality is embodied by the theory of egalitarianism: a theory based on the principle of equality. This principle simply holds that it is bad if some people are worse off than others. Restated in a positive sense, egalitarianism holds that a state in which everyone is equal is intrinsically better than a state in which inequalities exist. This view seems appealing to many people at first, for is it not one of the pillars of the free world? The ideas of egalitarianism are woven through political discourse, found in public and private institutions, and even in our daily lives.
That said, what objections could be brought against such a seemingly universal theory? Derek Parfit presents a convincing argument against egalitarianism in his 1997 piece “Equality and Priority.” First, he presents the “Leveling-Down Objection,” perhaps the most rhetorically strong objection to egalitarianism. This objection can be explained as follows: (1) Egalitarianism holds that inequality, in itself, is bad. (2) A world where some people have more of any given good (money, health, knowledge) than others is unequal. (3) In some cases, equality can not be achieved by leveling up (one can not give everyone in the world as much money as Bill Gates; one can not give every person who needs a kidney a kidney transplant) (4) Therefore, it is better to live in a world where all people who are better off to begin with, are made worse off, so that equality can be achieved. Imagine a world where everyone has perfect eyesight, except one man who is blind. Parfit argues that according to egalitarianism, the world would be better off is everyone with perfect eyesight were to gouge their eyes out so that everyone could be blind, and therefore equal. This seems illogical, as it significantly lowers the overall utility of the world’s population. The implications of the leveling down objection is that equality, in many scenarios, is actually not desirable at all. In addition, there exists a plethora of other scenarios where equality may desirable, but our desire for another value overrides or precedes our desire for equality.

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