I’m very pleased to welcome Kristina Meshelski. She is an Assistant Professor at California State University, Northridge. She specializes in political philosophy. Her current research includes work on Rawls, the relationship between ideal and non-ideal theory, the scope of distributive justice, how social contract theory can adequately respond to globalization, and affirmative action. She also does a bit of work on Spinoza.
Her post follows.
Thanks Meena for having me on the blog! I want to use this space to try out an argument I’ve been developing against relational egalitarianism. Like many philosophers I know I was extremely happy when I first discovered Elizabeth Anderson’s 1999 article “What is the Point of Equality?” which argued for relational egalitarianism as an alternative to luck egalitarianism. Briefly, while luck egalitarians seek to equalize inequalities due to luck, relational egalitarians seek to equalize inequalities in social relationships. For me, the biggest problem with luck egalitarianism is that it must rely heavily on a distinction between chosen and un-chosen circumstances in order to demarcate which inequalities are objectionable. For example, consider two unemployed people. The luck egalitarian needs to know why they are unemployed – someone who had the misfortune of being born in an area without any job opportunities or without money to move was unlucky and thus her unemployment is something society should seek to redress in some way, but someone who freely choses to turn down job offers in the interest of leisure is unemployed by choice and thus her unemployment is not something society should seek to redress. This is a problematic distinction to rest a theory of equality on for those of us concerned with oppression. I do not doubt that there is such a thing as choosing a certain way of life as opposed to simply finding yourself lucky or unlucky, but using choice as the way to set the limits of egalitarianism is far too blunt to take account of the real facts of the world. When a person faces oppression it can become impossible to tell which difficulties she faces are her own fault, so to speak, not to mention I find it profoundly unhelpful to try to figure this out at the level of theory.
So an alternative to luck egalitarianism was certainly needed, but recently I have more and more misgivings about relational egalitarianism, and I want to try and articulate some of them here. I’m here sticking to the domestic context for the most part, but I think my worry applies to relational egalitarian views of global distributive justice as well (Rekha Nath defended one such view on this blog, though I think her view escapes my worry).
For Anderson, relational equality is an equality of authority, status or standing, as opposed to an equality of goods. To me, this collapses some important distinctions. On the one hand, it is taking a stand against resourcist views, which seek to equalize resources. There are some well-known problems with resourcist views, most importantly the fact that we all need different amounts of resources to flourish. (At this time in my life I don’t require any assistance to walk, but I can’t see much without my glasses/contacts. All this requires more resources than some people, since I need to buy stuff to see well, but far fewer resources than it would if I had to buy something like crutches, a wheelchair, or a guide dog.) Whether or not we want to respond to these complications by adopting a welfarist view (in which we seek to equalize welfare) we can at least say that strict equality of resources is not sufficient or necessary for distributive justice.
But I am uncomfortable with the idea that concern for equality of status or standing should replace concern with equality of resources. It seems there is something very different going on when we use relational equality as justification for more equality – as when we say we want to equalize more than resources – as opposed to when we use relational equality as a justification for less equality – as when we say those who are equal in status do not need to have equal resources.
I argue in a (unpublished) paper that principles of justice should regulate structures, not individuals or institutions. To connect to Sally Haslanger’s earlier post on this blog, I am replacing what she calls “political justice” with something I think is broader, and may answer some of her concerns about the narrowness of “political justice”. My motivation for this is roughly the same as that articulated in Iris Marion Young’s later work, that there may be injustice that is not caused by individual bad actors, nor is it caused by state institutions like the legislature or the criminal justice system. Young defines structures as “the accumulated outcomes of the action of masses of individuals enacting their own projects, often uncoordinated with many others” (2011, 62). Young wants to differentiate between structural injustice and injustice directly caused by the state whereas I would say these things are not easily separated. But I am in agreement with her that justice, including distributive justice, must be concerned with the outcomes of various uncoordinated actions. For example, it seems that the pay gap between men and women is the outcome of many uncoordinated actions. Though we have evidence that some employers pay women less than men consciously and with malice, this doesn’t seem to account for the entirety of the pay gap.
Now I think there is some tension between a Young-type concern with structural injustice and Anderson’s relational equality. I believe it has to do with the fact that we would normally take something like the pay gap as evidence of women’s oppression, without needing further information about how this is caused. (And I think this is the right thing to do, the pay gap is objectionable because it serves to marginalize a historically disadvantaged group, whether it is done on purpose or not.) One way to understand this would be as Anderson does, that we find this inequality objectionable because it disadvantages people in the sense that it “reflects, embodies, or causes inequality of authority, status, or standing” (2010, 2). But that explanation goes the other way too, we believe women are disadvantaged partly because there is a long-standing pay gap between men and women. In other words, we take the pay gap as evidence of women’s disadvantage, at the same time as we find women’s disadvantage to be the reason why the pay gap is objectionable.
So while relational egalitarianism is very good at capturing the importance of equality of status, it seems counter-productive to say that equality of status can replace all other types of equality. Resource equality seems petty or even confused at the individual level, but quite important at the level of social groups. Shouldn’t critics of structural injustice want to eliminate these resource inequalities between groups?
Anderson makes my worry more acute when she asserts that while luck egalitarians believe justice consists in a desirable distributive pattern, relational egalitarians believe justice is a virtue of agents, not of states of affairs (2010, 2). But if structures are outcomes they are at least partly distributions (in fact I believe structures are distributions, but that may be too much to argue for here). So eliminating structural injustice must at least partly consist in achieving a desirable distribution, and this distributive goal is not reducible to achieving virtuous people and virtuous institutions, because an institution or a person could be virtuous and still inadvertently disadvantage a certain social group.
Anderson, Elizabeth. “The Fundamental Disagreement Between Luck Egalitarians and Relational Egalitarians.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy Special Issue: Supplementary Volume 36 Supplement 1 (2013): 1-23.
Anderson, Elizabeth. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics 109.2 (1999): 287-337.
Young, Iris Marion. Responsibility for Justice. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.