What’s Wrong With Inequality?


Gary Gutting talks to Elizabeth Anderson over at The Stone:

GARY GUTTING: Public policy debates, particularly about economic issues, are often about how to treat people fairly. You argue for “democratic equality,” which says that treating people fairly requires treating them as equals. What do you mean by equality?

ELIZABETH ANDERSON: Talk about equality gets off on the wrong foot if we start from the assumption that it expresses an immediate moral demand to treat everyone the same. Of course, there are thousands of legitimate reasons why people may treat different individuals differently. What egalitarianism objects to are social hierarchies that unjustly put different people into superior and inferior positions.

G.G.: Let’s get specific. What do you see as unequal treatments that are unjust?

E.A.: Of course, there are standard cases of discrimination on the basis of antipathy against, or favoritism towards, arbitrary identity groups — such as race, gender and sexual orientation. But I want to stress the many ways in which unjust social hierarchy is manifested in other ways besides direct discrimination or formally differential treatment. The discrimination/differential treatment idea captures only a small part of what counts as unjust inequality.

On this broader view of unjust inequality, we can see three different types of social hierarchy at work. One is inequalities of standing, which weigh the interests of members of some groups more heavily than others. For example, perhaps out of negligence, a courthouse or hotel may lack elevators and ramps for people in wheelchairs. A law firm may promote a culture of off-hours socializing over drinks between partners and associates that excludes women who need to spend time with their children from opportunities for networking and promotion. As Anatole France noted, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.”

Another type of social hierarchy is inequalities of power: when some groups exercise arbitrary, unaccountable power over subordinates, and can order them around or harass and abuse them, without subordinates’ having a voice in how they are treated. Traditional hierarchies, as of masters over slaves, landlords over serfs, and dictators over subjects, are of this sort.

More here.