Tag Archives: equality

Justice and priorities

We disagree about justice but we agree about this: if knowing someone’s race, gender or social background enables you to predict how their life will go, something is seriously wrong.

But we cannot change everything at once. Or, to adapt a phrase of Aneurin Bevan’s, if the language of priorities is the religion of social justice,** we should find out which of gender, class or race is a greater disadvantage.

At the level of political philosophy there is no answer to this question. But political philosophy can help to identify the key issues.

A simple approach

We are going to aggregate sources of disadvantage. Let’s assume that gender, class, and race are independent sources of unfair treatment and that each is equally disadvantageous. To keep things simple we will stick with a binary set of attributes, i.e.,

1. Male or female;
2. White or non-white;
3. Middle-class socio-economic status (SES) or working-class SES;
4. Privately or state educated;

(Why 1-4? Because no one has any control over whether 1-4 is true of them.)

If you fall on the right side of any disjunction (the ‘or’) you are disadvantaged and you get -5. If you fall on the left hand-side you are ‘advantaged’ and get 0.

Simple enough. We then aggregate scores. The lower the score the less disadvantage you face.

Below is a ranking of some individuals by their score. (Each measure of disadvantage is emboldened. Anyone interested in the complete ranking should email me.)

Unsurprisingly (this is England) being a white privately-educated middle-class male puts you top of the class. Equally, unsurprisingly, being a non-white, state-educated, working class female is not good for you.

1      White, Male, Middle-Class, Privately-educated:                 Disadvantage score: 0
2      White, Male, Middle-Class, State-educated:                                                     -5
2      White, Female, Middle-Class, Privately-educated                                              -5
3     White, Female, Middle-Class, State-educated:                                                 -10
3     Non-white, Male, Working-Class, Privately-educated:                                      -10
4     White, Female, Working-Class, State-educated:                                             -15
4     Non-white, Male, Working-Class, State-educated:                                         -15
5     Non-white, Female, Working-Class, State-educated:                                    -20

What does this tell us?

This exercise is no more than suggestive but it does enable us to pose several important questions and draw a couple of conclusions. Questions first.

1. Is it correct that each measure is equally disadvantageous?

Perhaps being female should get -7 while being working class -5.

2. Are the measures independent? Is there dynamic interplay between them? Are disadvantages (what the sociologists call) ‘intersectional‘?

For instance, if you are female, does being non-white disproportionately exacerbate the problems you face? If so, we should not aggregate disadvantage. We might need to multiply it.

3. Is the opposite true for some measures? Can disadvantages cancel each other out or partially mitigate each other?

It has been put to me that, while being a white male is more advantageous than being a white female, being a non-white female is more advantageous than being a non-white male.

4. What other disadvantages are important?

One obvious candidate is physical disability. If you are unable to walk then many places – including University College London’s Philosophy Department – are inaccessible.

I don’t know the answers to questions 1-4 but they are important. To be more precise, anyone desigining policies to reduce disadvantage should have some answers to 1-4.


Finally, assuming that the analysis here is accurate, one point can be made: it might be wrong to prioritize gender as a source of social injustice.

For example, if the analysis is accurate, Alan Johnson (a white, working-class, state-educated, male and former UK cabinet minister) faced more difficulties in rising than did Harriet Harman (a white, middle-class, privately-educated, female and former UK cabinet minister).

The significance of this is that FTSE 100 companies, universities etc. currently seek to appoint more women to senior posts. But if gender is the only measure on which they focus, they may simply be helping white, middle-class, privately-educated females get level with their male equivalents.

Clearly this an improvement but, for those interested in social justice, is it a priority? There are two ways in which it might be.

The first is that giving the relevant females the same chances as their male equivalents is intrinsically valuable irrespective of any effects on other groups in society. The problem with this claim is that helping any disadvantaged group has intrinsic value so the priority question remains.

Second, is a kind of two-for-one argument. It might be that helping one group of females has beneficial consequences for other disadvantaged groups. Breaking down some social barriers might lead to others falling too.

But it is not obvious that it will. Advancing the interests of white, middle-class, privately-educated males does not seem to have helped non-white males very much. Why should helping white, middle-class, privately-educated females have different effects?

One reason might be that gender disadvantage is more severe than class or racial disadvantage.  If so, reducing gender inequality will knock down a higher social barrier. This point connects to question 1 above and illustrates how important the question is.

More generally,  if the language of priorities is the religion of social justice,** we need to address questions 1-4 before we have much of an idea about social justice priorities, including the relative importance of appointing more women to senior posts.

**The actual quote is ‘the language of priorities is the religion of socialism’.

To level down or not to level down – that is … actually quite a difficult question

Levelling down – making some people worse-off and no-one else better-off – is not looked upon favourably. And how could you prefer others being worse-off if you remain exactly as you were before? Let me try to persuade you that things are more complex than they appear.

You might think that it is intrinsically important that we have similar kinds of lives such that if one person experiences a set-back so should others. We will call this the Musketeers’ Principle (‘one for all, and all for one’). Here is an example: 

The game: your children are squabbling about who is to go first at some game. You have no coins etc. so you have to choose one of your children or abandon the game. As you can think of no fair way to do this, you abandon the game.

If the children would rather to play the game – even those who don’t go first – you have made them all worse-off rather than make one of them feel they are your favourite. You are levelling down.

Thick moral relationships

The game involves a family. Idealizing a little, the family involves a set of long-term and very meaningful (or ‘thick’) moral relationships that are justified in terms of the interests of the children and parents. Within this context, fair treatment is very important so levelling down can be acceptable.

But should we concede that the Musketeers’ Principle applies within the family but deny that it is relevant to our politics (which, after all, is where levelling down is most controversial).

Is politics about thick moral relationships? 

Let’s imagine two extremes: at one end is an idealized family – the Waltons perhaps. At the other is a group of self-sufficient hermits who interact only when it is unavoidable. At which point between these two extremes should we locate a modern political society?

Your answer here will affect when (if ever) you think levelling down is desirable. Your answer will be informed by your other political and moral commitments. The more important you think shared ‘social glue’ is, the more prepared you will be to countenance levelling down. If you think social glue is irrelevant, or harmful, you will take a different view.

Political disagreement is the norm in modern societies so we should not expect any consensus here. But from this we should not infer that anyone who favours levelling down must be an envious reprobate. We should expect some people to recommend levelling down when we think it is inappropriate.

Things that look like levelling down but aren’t

Apart from what might be a small class of cases in which levelling down is acceptable, there are situations that look a lot like levelling down but are not. Remember, for something to count as levelling down some people must end up worse off and no-one else better-off.

Table 1 lists five alternative situations for three different people (John, Mary and Joseph). We will start by focusing on S1-S3 (we bring in S1* and S3* below). Which of S1-S3 is better or worse? This might help us decide:

BadEffects: Over-time the significant inequality in S3 causes Joseph to come to see John as somehow inferior. John is talentless, or feckless; or just insufficiently like Joseph to warrant the same kind of respect. This becomes public knowledge and John loses friends and becomes socially isolated; his well-being falls.

TABLE 1 John Mary Joseph
Situation 1 (S1) 8 8 8
Situation 2 (S2) 8 12 16
Situation 3 (S3) 8 12 50
Situation 3* (S3*) 6 12 52
Situation 1* (S1*) 13 13 13

If we should not choose S3 because of BadEffects this is because S3 will lead to something like S3*. In S3* the worst-off person (John) is worse-off than in any of S1 to S3.

You may reject S3 for this reason but levelling down has nothing to do with it. You might just think that the worst-off get some kind of priority. They should not be made worse-off. But if S3 leads to S3* then in choosing S3 you are making John worse-off.

We are left with S2 and S1. You might choose S2. But you can choose S1 and find levelling down repugnant. You may think GoodEffects is true:

GoodEffects: where everyone is equally well-off a positive ethos is created. Over-time, this increases the psychic well-being, and so welfare, of everyone.

If GoodEffects is true you may choose S1 over S2 because S1 leads to S1*. This is not levelling down either: in S1* someone (Joseph) is worse-off (compared to S2-S4) but both Mary and John are better-off than in all other situations.

Some people may still opt for S3. They may think BadEffects or GoodEffects won’t happen. But – and this is the key point – their views on the acceptability of levelling down are neither here nor there.

Is it ever acceptable for politicians to level down?

As Bad and GoodEffects show, politicians may recommend something that looks like levelling down but is in fact something else. They may think that equality will increase everyone’s well-being (or just some people’s). They may be wrong about this but they are not levelling down.

At other times, politicians may think society’s thick moral relationships – its social glue – requires the application of the Musketeers’ Principle. They might be wrong here too but they are not obviously wrong. It’s time to give levelling down a fair hearing.