What’s So Good About Equality?

An interesting part of Honderich’s attack on Conservatism is the discussion he includes of ‘the left’, in particular of the idea of ‘equality’. He rehearses a series of conservative arguments against ‘equality’, and rejects them, but then finishes with an argument often urged which he thinks it quite correct, what he calls the ‘mere relativities’ argument.

The complaint is that any principle along the lines of ‘people should have lives which are, as far as possible, equal in the satisfaction of their basic desires and needs’ fetishises a certain relative standard, fetishises people’s incomes being similar to other people’s incomes, independently of them being high or low. This seems a bit strange – why should this relative standard be so important?

What’s worse, it seems to generate absurdities. Firstly, it means that if everyone is equally well-off, and we have the option of making some people a bit better off, we have a good reason not to do so (to preserve equality), which seems perverse. Moreover, it means that if some people are badly off and others well off, but that the only way to make them equal would be to make them all even worse off than the badly off, then we should do so – we should make everybody worse off for the sake of equality.

As Honderich presents it, this is a formulation of ‘equality’ that has sometimes been put forward by socialists and liberals, and very often attacked by conservatives, but which is actually very clearly alien to the practice of the socialist and liberal traditions. As he says, nobody has ever seriously suggested taking measures to lower the life expectancy of the wealthy in order to bring it into equality with that of the poorest.

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