A few weeks ago I called a local radio station to let them know I had stopped listening to their programming. It was too explicit for me, and I expected more from a high-profile station. The producer I spoke with took an interest in what I was saying and asked for examples of what I found inappropriate. I told him what I saw when I had checked the station’s website that day–its front page showed a picture of a naked woman covered only by her hands. I said I didn’t appreciate the way it turned her into a sexual object. “Oh,” he answered quickly, as if he had heard the concern a few times, “our website has plenty of pictures of men like that as well. We’re not sexist.” I told him I wasn’t worried about whether men and women were objectified equally; my issue was with the vulgarity itself. He continued to explain how many women the station employed, and explained its thorough commitment to gender diversity. It took me a few minutes to convince him that my concern was with something other than equality.
It sometimes seems as if equality, maybe along with its cousin individual freedom, is the only acceptable barometer of appropriateness in the public sphere. As the radio producer I talked to seemed to understand, most of the criticism directed at the pornographic nature of our popular culture is that is sexist–as if it would be a comfort to women to know that after all, men are degraded just as much. Vulgar language, if it is directed at a certain group in the form of a prejudicial slur, draws quick disapproval from mainstream media, and rightly so. Obscenities that are equal opportunity offenders, however, are mostly acceptable, and as a result common profanities now pervade our popular media.
Egalitarianism has an important place in the heritage of our civilization. When we think of equality, we remember institutionalized racial mistreatment, women as second-class citizens and privileged classes oppressing the poor. These inequalities of course haven’t completely gone away, and the voices promoting equality still need to be heard. But it is worth noting that all of these injustices are unjust for more reasons than inequality: it would be no less immoral to equally apply disenfranchisement and violence to everyone than to apply it to some.
This is just as true for economic inequality. Poverty for everybody obviously wouldn’t be better than poverty for some and prosperity for others. But more importantly, equality is almost completely redundant as an ethic when it comes to economic inequality. Public policy designed to enrich those who would most benefit from the help would do as much to help the poor as policy aimed at equality. The only difference is that equality assigns a positive value to diminishing the wealth of those on top. This can be a psychologically attractive idea, but it adds nothing constructive to our moral approach to the economy.
Other conceptions of equality might be just as redundant. What would be lost by replacing equality with impartiality (avoidance of bias)? It would be enough to turn us away from irrational prejudices like racial intolerance, sexism and snobbishness. But it would allow for sensible inequities. For example, the school principal who, while unbiased, prefers for safety’s sake to hire women as kindergarten teachers. Or the health organization that discriminates amongst blood donors in order to minimize disease. Or the social taboos against polyamory and consensual incest. “Impartiality” acknowledges the distastefulness of inequities that stem from ignorance, but leaves behind the unnecessary (and sometimes obstructive) commitment to equality for its own sake.
You won’t often hear direct challenges to the doctrine of equality. Even gentle questioning grates against the sacredness we are used to giving the principle. But while equality is important, the philosophical justifications for it mostly boil down to the idea that egalitarianism is natural, or obvious. These arguments matter, but they are probably too weak to justify the status of orthodoxy that egalitarianism has in the modern West. Equality may have more value as part of a collection of compromising virtues, alongside charity, moderation, forgiveness, and humility, than as a maxim of its own.
I’ve covered a lot of ground in this post without fully explaining myself. I would welcome questions and comments below!