23 April 2008

Against Equality

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 22, 2008

No value is more central to current moral and legal thought than that of equality. It explains why schoolchildren should have the same opportunities in school, even if this costs a lot more for some. For example, special-education students cost far more than other students and money spent on them could otherwise be spent on average or gifted students. The importance of equality is also used to explain the prohibition of workplace discrimination, government redistribution of wealth, and how we distribute human organs to those who desperately need them. However, equality is a false god.

When discovering how valuable persons are, we need to look at two types of value. First, there is intrinsic value. A person is intrinsically valuable when he (or his life) is valuable by itself. For example, as the late philosopher Ramon Lemos points out, a boy enjoying an ice cream cone makes the world a better place even if he were the only thing in the universe. Second, there is extrinsic value. A person is extrinsically valuable when he (or his life) makes the world a better place for others. A nurse who cares for her patients makes the world a better place for others and hence has extrinsic value.

People differ in their intrinsic value. It is controversial what makes some individuals more intrinsically valuable than others. Everyone who thinks that it is okay to eat chickens or pigs but not adult human beings must have some explanation of why animals are less valuable. This is often explained on the basis that human beings are rational, virtuous, or have some other feature that makes them more important than animals. Yet human beings differ in the degree to which they have these features. Some human beings are more rational than others, some are more virtuous than others, etc. This is particularly true when we compare normal adults with those who suffer from mental illness or Down syndrome. Hence, some persons are more intrinsically important than others.

People also differ in their extrinsic value. Some people do more to make the world a better place. Scientists who invented cures to horrible diseases like polio and smallpox did far more to make the world a better place than unskilled and semi-employed workers. Similarly, women who have many happy children usually do far more in making the world a happier place than women who have none. Some people who lack family or friends and make others’ lives miserable might even have negative value.

Because people differ in their intrinsic and extrinsic value and because the differences don’t always cancel each other out, some people are more important than others.

One objection to this argument is that pleasure and pain are equally valuable regardless of who experiences it. If correct, however, this would suggest that the pleasure and pain of animals is as valuable as that of human beings and if so, then growing them in cruel factory-like farms is wrong. On this account, such practices would be as wrong as if it were done to severely retarded human beings or infants. In any case, persons differ in the amount of pleasure and pain in their lives and hence, on this account, differ in their value.

A second objection is that all human beings are equally valuable and they are all more important than non-human animals. There are a couple of problems with this. Whatever explains why most human beings are more valuable than non-human animals (for example, rationality) comes in degrees. As a result, some human beings will still turn out to be more important than others. In addition, focusing on whether an individual is human (for example, a severely retarded human being) as opposed to some other equally intelligent creature (for example, a chimpanzee) focuses on a morally irrelevant feature. Being human is like being white, it is irrelevant to one’s importance or rights. For example, if alien beings in the movies (consider, for example, ET and the Coneheads) were to exist, they would be as important as we are despite the fact that they are not human.

A third objection to this argument is that this thinking is dangerous. The objector might claim that the notion that some people are more important than others is the sort of thought that led to the horrors of slavery and Nazism. One problem with this objection is that even it confuses the issue of whether an idea is true (all persons are equally valuable) with whether it is dangerous. There are many ideas, such as those that went into the atomic bomb, that are true but dangerous. A second problem with it is that the objection is unconvincing. It’s not the denial of equality that led to Nazism, but the contempt for liberty, especially that of Jews and other minorities. Liberty and equality are distinct notions and one can and should value the first without valuing the second.

A fourth objection is that even if people are not equal as adults, they were all created equal. This is the view set out in the Declaration of Independence. However, if an individual’s value as a newly created fetus rests on its potential to develop into something that is rational, virtuous, etc., then fetuses with greater potential are more valuable. This is analogous to the way in which fetuses differ in their potential to be tall or smart.

A fifth objection is that God made human beings more valuable than non-human animals and made the former equally valuable. This might explain why most religions accept the Golden Rule (do onto others as you would have them do onto you). However, it is still a fair question to ask the theist what about human beings makes God view them as more valuable. To the extent that the feature that answers this question comes in degrees, it follows that some humans have more of it than others.

Acknowledging that some people are more important than others might lead us to shift money from average children to gifted ones. It might also lead us to favor among those who need organs, those who are more rational, virtuous, or who make the world a better place. The notion that some people are count more than others makes many people uncomfortable. It’s true nonetheless.


The Objectivist said...

On a more technical note, if the good is solely a function of two factors: well-being and desert, then even the interest (well-being) of one individual will not be as significant as that of a second. Desert results in one having greater weight.

The Objectivist said...

Note also that some of the above programs might be justified on the basis of efficiency or justice (particularly egalitarian justice). However, they often seem to be argued for on the basis of equality.

Anonymous said...

I think the whole notion of value is absurd and the same with the notion of desert. Things are only 'valuable' in so far as they bring about pleasure for whoever is judging their 'value'. Nothing in this world is valuable in and of itself. A child eating an ice cream cone is not valuable in and of himself, he is only valuable if the person assessing him thinks he is. The same goes for extrinsic value. Whether or not someone 'benefits' or 'harms' the world is all relative to the values of the person judging him. You might say a death-row inmate has negative extrinsic value because he's a waste of tax dollars and a killer, I may say he has positive extrinsic value because he teaches others that murder is wrong and that crimes will not go unpunished. It's hard to see how you would come up with any objective scale for either intrinsic or extrinsic value. I think this is so because there is simply no such thing as value, it's just something that people make up to talk about things that please them.
I think the notion of desert is just as troubling. I find it absurd to proclaim that anybody deserves anything, especially if you are going to try to find some particular characteristic that makes a person deserve one thing or another. If people don't deserve this particular characteristic (intelligence, money, virtue), and it's fairly clear that they don't (determinism is true), then how is it that they deserve anything at all on the basis of an undeserved characteristic?
So it isn't clear to me that you need either of these crutches to talk about why we shouldn't discriminate, should redistribute wealth, etc. The fact of the matter is, nobody has control of the troubling situations they are in (poverty, being a member of a minority, being retarded) just like they don't have control over the non-troubling situations they are in (again, determinism is true). From this we can conclude that neither group of persons should be punished or praised for their situations, and hence all should be treated equally. This entails redistributing wealth so that the poor don't suffer, because they don't have control over their poverty and a world where people aren't starving is always going to be better than a world where they are, ceteris paribus. It also entails anti-discrimination laws, and aid for disadvantaged at school for the same reason.

Rob said...


I think you've made a lot of good points here, but I have a couple objections to what you're saying. You say that the notion of value is absurd and go on to talk about the subjectivity associated with assigning value to different things. One particularly telling point is that "Things are only 'valuable' in so far as they bring about pleasure for whoever is judging their 'value'." Couldn't pleasure itself be a satisfactory bearer of intrinsic value? If it were, from that you would be theoretically able to determine the extrinsic values of different states of affairs based on how they effected the sum happiness of the world.
I do agree with you about desert though, specifically that one cannot be deserving without being responsible, but I don't understand how that leads to the conclusion that all should be treated equally. If we are all equally undeserving, then why should we mandate inefficient programs that seem to punish people who are not responsible for their lot in life?

The Objectivist said...

Dear Zenithmbr:

Some excellent points. Here are a few objections.

First, if there is no such thing as value, why then do we have a reason to do something (e.g., prevent suffering). You might argue because we want certain results, but we still lack a reason to do things that give us what we want.

Second, if there is no such thing as value in what sense is a world without starvation better than a world with it? If "better than" is not filled out in terms of value, then I don't understand what you mean by it.

Third, people seem to value things because they think they have features that make those things worthy of being valued. If the relevant features just were shorthand for person-X-wants-it, then a person would value something because he wants it, then there would be no reason as to why he would value it.

The Objectivist said...


Excellent response. In addition, I think there is good reason to believe that pleasure is the only thing that is good for someone (intrinsic welfare) and good simpliciter (good in and of itself). This explains why our preferences are relevant to value, without creating value.

Again, interesting comments.

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