Thursday, 1 January 2015

Equality Right or Wrong

Jerry Cohen was my University tutor for a year. The next year I had Ted Honderich, and it would be hard to say which of the two was more fun. Jerry would take me to ‘Anwar’s Indian Delicacies’ for sticky sweets and embarrass the other customers by singing ‘I’d rather be lonely without you / Than happy with somebody else’ to illustrate the paradox involved in being in love. Ted would lie on the sofa with his eyes shut and wave his unnaturally long legs in the air, then look in affected surprise at their disposition, to refute my contention that we have ‘Proprioceptors’ that tell us these things.

I was reminded of those (sometimes happy, sometimes lonely) years by reading W.G. Runciman’s review in a recent London Review of Books of David Miller’s ‘Justice for Earthlings’. The reviewer several times mentions Jerry’s changing views on egalitarianism, and it reminded me how enthusiastic Jerry had been about a paper of mine, written for a weekend seminar-cum-jolly-outing, on Equality.

I wrote the paper after reading a story by Kurt Vonnegut. In this, equality had finally been achieved by means of what is now, oddly, called ‘Positive Discrimination’. (Oddly, because it usually means denying jobs or whatever to those manifestly well-qualified so as to give them to those less competent.) In Vonnegut’s imagined society, ballet-dancers are enchained to prevent their dancing better than the next person, and beautiful people are obliged to wear masks. (Jerry suggested that the well-hung should have weights attached to their scrota, but we decide to leave that out.) The story comes to a catastrophic end when dancers get out of their chains and the beautiful rip off their masks.

My point though was, suppose that, by whatever (perhaps less drastic) means, and however we define ‘Equality’, it were at last achieved? Would that be a ‘Just’ situation? More basically, complete and unalterable equality of each with all and all with each being guaranteed and everywhere taken for granted, would it still make any sense to ask whether this state of affairs was, in the moral senses, ‘Right’ or ‘Wrong’?

Yes of course it would. ‘Equality’ is not a moral concept: it has nothing to do with Right and Wrong.
These two clapped-out old farts in what looks like Death's waiting-room are in fact Kurt Vonnegut and William Burroughs.

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