UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The idea of equality MacKinnon, Robert Michael


A great deal of controversy has attended current discussions of public policy in the Western world; much of this controversy has centred on the idea of equality. The idea has been strongly advocated and vigorously attacked; unfortunately, most of the discussion has been polemical in tone rather than analytic. Supporters and critics have been more anxious to press their own interests or preferences than to come to a reasonable appreciation of the notion. This is not to say that the present confusion stems entirely from prejudice, ill will, or shortsightedness. Like all concepts, equality is very general and often quite vague in its meaning. It can be approached in a number of ways, each of which is liable to yield a different policy prescription, and thus a different opinion as to its value. It is, then, a difficult idea to work with. Nevertheless, I do not feel that it should be done away with. It can be understood and usefully applied, I believe, if one attempts to discover what it does mean, rather than what one wants it to mean. The thesis examines the notion that all men are, in fact, equal, and finds it lacking. Even if all men were equal in significant respects, it is difficult to see what sort of prescriptions this would entail. We must turn, then, to equality as a normative expression—as an ideal. The idea of value is touched upon; the conclusion is that while no values are absolute, there are some, such as human welfare, that are clearly central to any form of moral discourse. The idea of morality involves the concepts of rights, rules, and justice, all of which are connected with equality to some degree. Justice is seen as particularly important to the question of how men should be treated, which is, of course, at the heart of the egalitarian ideal. It is found that justice involves more than equality, but that the latter is still a major element of the former. The value of all men as men suggests that all human needs should be attended to—everyone is equal in need (up to a point) and therefore has the right to be treated equally (up to a point). The value of fairness and the existence of rules both suggest the notions of equality of opportunity and equality before the law—these also can be viewed as matters of right. Finally, the ideas of corrective justice and reward according to effort entail a redistribution of goods which leans towards equality of result. In all of these spheres, the principle of equality plays a legitimate role. Beyond them, it tends to be distorted and used for other purposes. Examples of such distortion can be found in several areas of contemporary public policy (e.g., quota systems, education, open admissions to universities). The result is that many observers have been led to criticize the principle rather than those who misuse it. Several criticisms are noted; while some are well taken, however, none can be said to destroy the validity of the notion of equality. The idea of equality, then, is difficult but not impossible to understand. It must be kept in mind that it is not absolute or eternal, but one ideal among many. If it is approached and applied with reason, so that attention is paid to the limitations imposed by the various contexts in which it may occur, it can be seen as a legitimate and useful concept.

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