Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: Lewis

Equality – The Kind That Really Matters

or why status is not a zero-sum game

This essay jumps headfirst into a complex debate which deserves a more careful set of introductory comments. However, I am pressed for time, and so I merely want to offer a few philosophical thoughts in response to some of the practical work that I’ve been involved in over the past few months.

The limits of reasonable income inequality

One of the most important political philosophers at the end of the twentieth century was John Rawls. He asserts:

All social values – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect – are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage. (A Theory of Justice p. 62)

In principle Rawls offers us what appears to be a highly egalitarian starting point for social justice. However, in practice, the publication of his A Theory of Justice, his ground-breaking work in political theory, coincided with the end of a moderately egalitarian period in the political development of English speaking countries. Since the 1970s income inequality has grown significantly in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia and governments of all colours have abandoned any serious effort to promote income equality as a social goal. I am not blaming John Rawls for the collapse of egalitarianism and the rise of neoliberalism – but it is a curious coincidence.

The principle that Rawls is most famous for advancing, a principle that arises logically from the assertion above, is the maximin principle: Social arrangements should be so organised that the position of the worst off (the min) should be as high as possible (the max) and that if a certain level of inequality makes such an improvement possible then – only to that limited extent – such inequalities would be justified.

As someone who studied Rawls in the 1980s I remember this as a convincing theoretical position. How could I as an egalitarian resist a level of inequality that improved the position of the worst off? However looking back today I wonder what real effort we made to distinguish Rawls’ position from the idea of trickle-down economics: Let the rich make as much money as possible in the hope that the poorest would benefit – for a ‘rising tide lifts all boats.’

It turns out, if we examine the data of the last 40 years – as I did recently – this is a forlorn hope. It is very clear that growing inequality has not improved the position of the poorest, nor even overall economic growth. In fact, in the UK at least, as inequality increased so have the incomes of the poorest fallen. What is worse, because it is clearly intentional, is that the political system further reduced the incomes of the poorest by policy changes that were highly regressive. In fact we’ve stolen from the poor three times: First by allowing greater economic inequality; second by redistributing money away from the poor by political policy; third by pouring scorn and stigma on the heads of the poor through shameful political rhetoric.

Rawls’ argument was equivalent to saying: Poison sometimes improves our health and so we should sometimes be willing take poison. For, in fact, all medicines are also poisons – what is critical is to take exactly the right amount of the poison if you want the beneficial impact. However instead of taking care to find the correct dose of inequality we’ve been swallowing inequality by the bottle and declaring our overdose success.

Meanwhile, if someone did identify the sweet spot for a legitimate level of inequality, then I guess I missed the news.

Instead of careful efforts to limit and control inequality in the interests of poor we’ve seen trickle-down economics rise unchallenged as the economic philosophy of our time. Instead of attempts to quantify the minimum level of inequality necessary to lift the incomes of the poorest we’ve seen a number of other more dangerous arguments and assumptions rush to fill the vacuum in Rawls’ argument.

For instance, some argue that the economy needs a free labour market to efficiently allocate resources to promote the skills necessary for the economy: If we need to pay an extra £10,000 to get the right doctor, an extra £100,000 to get the right CEO or an extra £1,000,000 to get the right football player, then we must do so.

This kind of free market argument seems quite persuasive, if we don’t think too hard. After all this seems precisely the kind of reason why Rawls might allow us to release the hounds of inequality from their leash: To incentivise better performance and recruit people for essential skills – whether they be medical, commercial or athletic. But a moment’s thought must make us wonder whether we’re confusing the good of the worst-off with the good of a particular community:

  • If we need more doctors, don’t recruit doctors from Africa or Asia (where they are needed even more) to come to Europe (where we have plenty already and could certainly train more).
  • If your company needs a better CEO then train one, don’t bribe someone to leave their current job by simply offering them more money than they get now.
  • If you are a fan then you may be happy that the wealth of your team allows you to poach the best players from other teams. But none of this adds to the quality of football.

Incentives may offer a different kind of argument: There is surely a case for rewarding people for good work and discouraging people from doing bad work. But very low levels of inequality leave plenty of room for incentives. Good work is surely what we want everyone to do as a norm and inequality makes it harder to reward good work when everyone is working well.

In fact I think the case could be made that what is more important than positive incentives is the possibility of failure. Failure is what makes all forms of progress possible. Systems that makes failure impossible or too expensive are systems that do not develop and improve. The failure of state socialism in Russia was not an excess of equality, it was an excess of security, where rigid economic structures didn’t adapt to changing circumstances. (One of the arguments for basic income, which I support, is that it would make economic failure, and therefore improvement, much less risky.)

Another weak argument for inequality, but one that is heavily relied upon by advocates of inequality, is that economic goods (let’s call this wealth) are not created in a zero-sum game. If you are not familiar with the idea of a zero-sum game let me try and explain what this means:

Chess is a zero-sum game. I can win and you lose, you can win and I lose or we can draw. We can’t both win. Some things in life are much more like chess: winners are matched by losers. Zero-sum games can only redistribute a finite (fixed) amount of resources. Land is finite and hence the distribution of land is a zero-sum game.

Not everything is a zero-sum game. For instance, education is not a zero-sum game (unless you’re doing it very badly). Everybody can learn, and if I develop some ability at Latin, I do not reduce your ability to understand Latin or anything else.

Whether economics is a zero-sum game is a critical question, but also quite complex. When we look at the economy from some perspectives then it can seem a zero-sum game. For instance, the UK’s recent Coalition Government increased VAT, increased income tax thresholds and cut benefits. The combined impact of these changes was to reduce the incomes of the poorest 10% (6.5 million people) by 9% and to increase the incomes of those on middle-incomes. Government redistribution like this is, in the short-term at least, a zero-sum game.

Not all economic change is like this. If people begin to find new ways to organise things then this may increase the overall amount of wealth. Better farming techniques can improve productivity overall. Industrialisation and technology can increase the availability of useful products. These changes are much more like educational changes, new ideas and technologies change how we do things to make more possible.

However, sadly, these transformational changes, that certainly do accelerate economic production, are also associated with the greater levels of social injustice, uprootedness and insecurity. Often they led to riots, rebellions and revolutions. So, while such economic growth can potentially benefit the many, it usually seems to benefit the few, especially in the short-run. We are discovering the same today as global businesses and technologies demolish old ways of working, accelerate inequality and reward socially irresponsible behaviour.

I think this means that economics is not quite a zero-sum game; but neither are most economic goods infinite. Distribution remains a critical issue, especially for obviously finite goods like land and access to basic resources (like water, food, clothing and healthcare). It is also clear that we should be constrained by our respect for the planet as well as the needs of each other.

The evidence that economic inequality is good for us and is justified by its impact on the poor is very poor. In fact we don’t seem in much of a hurry to gather evidence on this matter at all; perhaps we are simply in awe of the power of money and don’t know how to put the dogs of inequality back on the leash. When money can buy public policy and research, as it does today in the UK, there may be few incentives to be honest about the limitations of inequality. Perhaps also, the glaring failure of socialist states like the USSR, has rather blinded us to the obvious success of democratic welfare states, like Denmark, at finding a much better balance of equality and productivity.

The importance of status

One other thing that strikes me, looking back on Rawls, is that most of the discussion about equality has tended to be highly materialistic. Perhaps we should have looked rather harder at what Rawls called the “bases of self-respect” for surely the respect in which we are held, particularly our status as an equal, is of much more importance to an egalitarian than the particular bag of money we happen to be holding.

In fact neoliberals often deploy a version of this argument when they propose that egalitarians are simply promoting the vice of envy: There is nothing wrong with inequality; inequality is helpful and essential; you are simply envious of the better-off and your envy is wrong in itself and damaging in its impact. You’ll drag everyone and everything downwards in your quest for equality.

Now, I think it is rather easy to show that income inequality (perhaps beyond some modest level) is harmful. It is also possible to show that income inequality is controllable – if you want to control it. However I do think there is something to the argument that income is not everything and that there is something worrying about a society fixated on achieving income equality as if that were the most important goal.

True equality does not meant I have exactly the same amount of money in my bank account as my neighbour: It is to live with my neighbour as an equal – for us to value and respect each other as equals.

Moreover the reason that this kind of equality is important is not that my neighbour and I are equal: We are not the same and we do not want to be the same; we are different from each other, along an infinite array of dimensions.

What we seek is an equality of status, of respect; perhaps we could almost say that we seek spiritual, not material, equality. Moreover there is a name for this kind of equality and that name is citizenship. For at least two and half thousand years, and possibly longer, some humans have sought to live together in a community of equals.

One famed example is ancient Athens, the home of democracy, where Pericles once said:

We regard wealth as being something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it. Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the polis (community) as well: even those who are generally occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics (community life) – this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics (the community) is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all… (cited by Thucydides)

What mattered in Athens was to be a citizen, and as such you had equal status with other citizens. Of course, Athenian citizenship excluded slaves, women and foreigners, but it still offers an important example of a different approach to equality. Moreover, in many ways it was much more egalitarian in its actual organisation and spirit than is a modern democracy. Athenian citizens had much more influence over and involvement in the life of their community than we do today.

And is this kind of equality not a more fundamental kind of equality? We do not want people to be uniform; we do not want lives to be standardised; we should surely not care too much about differences in roles, resources or relationships. Surely, what we want is a world where everyone can flourish, in all their diversity, and where everyone is treated with respect – as an equal.

If you accept this argument then you might think that it gives some support to the neoliberal position: Stop worrying about inequality; stop envying the rich.

However, this is wrong. It is in fact precisely because status equality, not income equality, is the goal of a just society that we actually need to take income equality much more seriously.

At this point I’d like to quote an argument from C. S. Lewis. But we moved house last year and most of my books are still in the garage; so I will try and make his argument from memory. The reason we should take great care to limit the visible and obvious differences between us, like differences in wealth, is not that we are all equal, but that we are all different. It is because of our much deeper and wilder diversity that should ensure that we clothe ourselves as equals. The disciplines of equality exist to help diverse people live in a spirit of equality.

This may seem a paradox, but it is not. We are beings who are each unique and diverse, but who are also each of equal moral worth. In living together we must find a way to appreciate each other’s uniqueness and yet respect each other as equals. We can do this by choosing to live as citizens; that is we can choose to live in a society that honours our shared status as equal citizens. In so far as we discover that certain kinds of artificial differences (like income) can become excessive, that they can threaten our ability to treat each other as equals, then we should restrict or tame those differences. Excessive income inequality does threaten our ability to see each other equals, particularly by stoking the pride and greed of those with the most; but also by encouraging a sense of worthlessness in those with the least. Income inequality is corrosive of most of our virtues and it makes it much harder to live in a spirit of equality.

Status is certainly not a zero-sum game. Societies can exist with very low levels of status; in fact the twin concepts of meritocracy and aristocracy offer us a vision for society where the highest status goes to the ‘best’ and the lowest become the ‘worst’ – the scapegoat, scrounger or outcast. Meritocracies produce very low levels of status overall by using a narrow and highly rationed account of social value. Almost everyone’s a loser in a meritocracy.

Citizenship maximises the distribution of status by equalising that status – everyone can share in it. Moreover society can not only adopt equal citizenship as its goal; it can go further and also seek to welcome others into citizenship. If male Athenians had welcomed women as equals, allowed foreigners to become citizens or abandoned slavery then it would have advanced equal status for all. There would have been no loss of equal-status for male citizens. (I accept that this would have made the category of citizen less ‘special’ within Athens – but this kind of enhanced status is actually a form of meritocracy and is not essential to the kind of true and equal citizenship which I am arguing for). To feel you are an equal and to see others as equals is a real form of non-hierarchical status and it is the best form of self-respect – because it takes nothing away from anyone else.

It is this is inclusive account of citizenship what some of us have been exploring as we develop Citizen Network: How to build a world where everyone is a citizen, where everyone is equal and everyone is different.

How to find justice

So, if we return to Rawls, then I think my argument is that Rawls has made a fundamental error. He forgot that a just society does not start by redistributing resources in order to advance the bases of self-esteem. Instead it begins by commiting itself wholeheartedly to equality, and it does so by establishing equal and universal citizenship as the basic role which everyone can occupy.

Rawls tried to get to equality ‘by going round the houses’ – by focusing on economic goods first – and I think this is connected to another mistake that Rawls makes:

There is no reason to assume our sense of justice can be adequately characterised by familiar common sense precepts, or derived from the more obvious learning principles. A correct account of moral capacities will certainly involve principles and theoretical constructions which go much beyond the norms cited in everyday life; it may eventually require fairly sophisticated mathematics as well. (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 47)

The fundamental problem here is that Rawls is seeking a formula for justice which must be applied to society from the outside. He is not offering us an attractive conception of justice, one towards which we can turn, around which we can rally and one which enables us to build a just society together. Instead Rawls is offering a complex and ambiguous template for ghostly civil servants or philosopher-kings to interpret on our behalf.

If we are not motivated towards justice by a shared conception of justice then no operating principle, however sophisticated will save us: For who is to interpret and implement such a principle? If we do not choose to live as citizens, and if we do not act to build a world for citizens, then we choose to live in a world where inequality is guaranteed.

If we are motivated towards justice then what matters is identifying it, living by it and disciplining ourselves according to its needs. Our fundamental principle must be that we are citizens, we are all equals and that we must welcome others into this world of citizenship.

The Self-Sacrificing Gene

I am no expert in biology but something struck me recently. As I understand it there is a natural process of change which goes by the name ‘evolution’. It is by this process of evolution that plants and animals change from generation to generation and how new kinds species come to exist – new kinds of being.

It also is by this same process that some kinds of being stop existing – become extinct.

For many hundreds of years human beings have realised that evolution is real – but in more recent years we have started to believe that we have now come to a deeper understanding of how this process works.
The survival of the ‘fittest’

Darwin proposed that organisms compete for resources. Organisms – are deemed successful if they can find a way of surviving in any given environment. This process can even be imagined as a kind of competition. For resources are finite and some organisms seem to be more effective at seizing these resources: light, minerals, water, vegetables, meat. [Although, interestingly, ‘taking’ is actually a process of transformation into food, energy, growth – not taking to hold.]

However to call this a competition is peculiar; for the goal of this supposed competition is not to win anything, not even to survive, but merely to generate others beings who are as similar to yourself as possible. An ape that has become extinct on the way to creating humanity is deemed to have failed; while humanity, who so far has only evolved into more of humanity, is deemed to be a success.

So, paradoxically, this means that success in these terms means not evolving – just outlasting other kinds of organisms

More recently scientists have identified a certain molecule that exists in all living organisms – DNA. This molecule is very important because it seems to hold the information which defines what kind of organism it will go on to create.

As far as I can understand it there seem to be a number of ways in which DNA and the genetic information it holds can change over time. But all of these seem to involve the destruction of the original molecule. Not just evolution, but life and growth, all seem to depend on a process of destruction, of the very materials from which it starts.

So, again, it is somewhat strange that a term like the ‘selfish gene’ has become so dominant. For it seems rather that it is a process of dramatic self-sacrifice that underpins life – not the selfishness of the gene. Similarly, while we might say we have children in order that we can somehow, reproduce ourselves – in fact we are not reproducing ourselves at all. We are creating something new and different – and where sex is involved we are creating something which is inevitably different because it is also going to be like our partner.


As I write this I can almost hear all true scientist groaning at my seeming incomprehension:

Of course this is not really ‘competition’. Of course this is not really ‘selfishness’. These are just metaphors – we are appealing to concepts with which people are familiar in order to explain complex natural phenomena.

But it is surely worth asking why these metaphors were chosen. Darwin could have talked about the Christian nature of reality –  life being intimately bound up with love, self-sacrifice and rebirth. Or he could have taken a more pagan perspective – the fragility and creativity of life, creating new and diverse forms of life out of the old. Similarly, Dawkins could have talked about the heroically altruistic gene – an object that destroys itself for the sake of others.

As Hegel, Lewis and many others have noticed – all language is in fact rooted in metaphor – strange as that seems. There is no pure non-metaphorical language, and how we choose to describe reality is important and reflect our underlying values and assumptions. The wonderful writer, Marilynne Robinson writes of this issue:

The notion of “fitness” is not now and never has been value neutral. The model is basically physical viability, or as the political economists used to say, physical efficiency. 

She goes on to cite Darwin:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There’s reasons to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands who from a weak constitution would formally have succumbed to small pox. Thus the weak members of civilised society propagate their kind. No one who attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but expect in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Robinson demonstrates that, contrary to many modern accounts, eugenics – the barbaric notion that human beings should be bred towards some madman’s notion of perfection – was always part of Darwin’s thinking. It was not just the result of the twisted thinking of Francis Galton – Galton was just putting Darwinism into practice.

I have written elsewhere of the dangers of eugenics – and of how likely we are to see its resurgence. I will not repeat these warnings here. Instead I’d just like to offer the thought that we don’t need to reject evolution in order to reject the metaphorical (and metaphysical) wrappings provided by Darwin, Galton and Dawkins. Again Marilynne Robinson’s observation is acute:

The Creationist position has long been owned by the Religious Right, and the Darwinist position by the Irreligious Right. The differences between these camps are intractable because they are meaningless. People who insist that the sacredness of Scripture depends on belief in creation in a literal six days seem never to insist on a literal reading of “to him who asks, give,” or “sell what you have and give the money to the poor.” In fact, their politics and economics align themselves quite precisely with their adversaries, who yearn to disburden themselves of the weak, to unshackle the great creative forces of competition. The defenders of “religion” have made religion seem foolish while rendering it mute in the face of a prolonged and highly effective assault on the poor. The defenders of “science” have imputed objectivity and rigour to an account of reality whose origins and consequences are indisputably economic, social and political.

Those of us who care about justice and truth – whether or not we are Christian, atheist or of some other faith – do not need to pick between the idiocies of the “Religious Right” or the “Irreligious Right”. We are beings whose essence is love, and who must live together with love, if we are to live at all. We are beings whose essence is dependence, and who must respect the world from which we draw life, and which demands our attention and care. We are beings who are wonderfully diverse in our being, and who must celebrate and nurture that diversity within ourselves and others.

Instead of rejecting evolution we must treat it as an aspect of the moral universe in which we live.

Friendship and Love

In Greek, the word “fileo” means the love of friendship, tender but not all-encompassing; instead, the word “agapao” means love without reserve, total and unconditional. Jesus asks Peter the first time: “Simon… do you love me (agapas-me)” with this total and unconditional love?

Prior to the experience of betrayal, the Apostle certainly would have said “I love you (agapo-se) unconditionally.” Now that he has known the bitter sadness of infidelity, the drama of his own weakness, he says with humility: “Lord; you know that I love you (filo-se),” that is, “I love you with my poor human love.” Christ insists: “Simon, do you love me with this total love that I want?” And Peter repeats the response of his humble human love: “Kyrie, filo-se” – “Lord, I love you as I am able to love you.” The third time Jesus only says to Simon: “Fileis-me?” – “Do you love me?”

Simon understands that his poor love is enough for Jesus, it is the only one of which he is capable, nonetheless he is grieved that the Lord spoke to him in this way. He thus replies: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you (filo-se).”

Pope Benedict XVI in The Apostles

This is an important passage and the analysis by Benedict XVI is very illuminating and it shows the value of careful attention to differences in language. Reliance on a particular translation – particularly if this is then converted into a literalist interpretation – is naive.

We also remember the wonderful four-fold analysis of Lewis in The Four Loves. Both Lewis and Benedict XVI both identify true Christian love with agape. Lewis argues that each of the other kinds of love is good, but that each of the lower forms of love, if it becomes exaggerated and loses the balance brought by obedience to virtue will become distorted.

  • Storge – affection can become obsessive and distorting, leading to prejudice.
  • Fileo – friendship can become clubbish, cliquish.
  • Eros – erotic love can be selfish and narcissistic.

For Lewis ‘agape’ is the ideal form of love, proper Christian love, which is universal, selfless and truthful. It does not exclude or dimish the other forms of love – it completes, balances and transforms them – this transformation can also require suffering.

But Benedict XVI makes the additional and necessary point – God will even accept the poorest versions of our love – he knows agape is often a stretch for human beings in all their weakness.

The Difference Between Prison and Institutions

Yes, because in prison at least you know where you stand. You have a sentence – till the whistle blows. Of course, they can always tack on another sentence, but they don’t have to, and in principle you know that sooner or later they’re going to let you out, right? Whereas in a mental institution you’re totally dependent on the will of the doctors…

Joseph Brodsky in conversation with Solomon Volkov

In the UK we remain totally complacent about the basic abuse of people’s human rights by the excessive use of institutions and hospitals. We seem immune to the fact that there is no evidence that these institutions work and only too much evidence that they fail: encouraging abuse, suicide, depression and increasing problems for their inmates.

I recently came across an honest assessment of the true problem from R D Laing:

It is not easy. What do we do when we don’t know what to do? I want that guy out of sight, out sound, out of mind… The situation keeps cropping up in our society, when no matter how liked, esteemed or loved, some people become insufferable to others. No one they know wants to live with them. They are not breaking the law, but they arouse in those around them such urgent feelings of pity, worry, fear, disgust, anger, exasperation, concern, that something has to be done. A social worker or psychiatrist is ‘brought in’.

This is honest, but also frightening. Is this really the best we can do?

My own experience is that there is much we can do to avoid the path to institutionalisation and much we can do to help people escape institutions. But the forces that keep these institutional arrangements in place are immense. A recent study showed that ‘out of area institutional placements’ were costing the NHS £175,000 per head. This is money that is being invested in abuse and wasted lives.

It is not the economics of rational commissioning that keep institutions going – it is the fear and anxiety that Laing describes. Professionals, families, sometimes even the individual themselves, all lose faith in the possibility of any sensible solution. The existing community care support offerings are woefully inadequate and for many people they quickly breakdown:

  • Day centres that lead nowhere and which are often boring and fruitless
  • Care homes that force people to live in groups they don’t choose
  • Domiciliary care that works to its own rules and its own time tables

In other words we force people to fit into systems that work to their own institutional logic, and then we blame the person for failing to fit in. When these ‘community care’ solutions fail we then send the person even further away to an institution that will fail even more dramatically – at greater expense – but at a ‘safer’ distance. The very fact that we spend so much money is perhaps partly a salve to the conscience: look we care – see how money we are prepared to spend!

Brodsky (who was forced to live in both prison and the institution for refusing to accept the justice of the USSR) rightly observes that with the institution there is no time limit to this madness – in the institution imprisonment can be endless.

The question then arises: Why could we not start by actually working with the individual, their family and their community, to provide what really does work? Instead of abandoning them we could work with them to find solutions that strengthen them and those that care about them.

Those of us who have worked in this way know that it works. What will it take to encourage the system to defend human rights and develop personalised support?

© 2017 Simon Duffy

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑