J.R. Lucas on Equality and the Multidimensionality of Status

How Have I Never Read this Paper? J.R. Lucas, “Against Equality, Again,” Philosophy 52, 1977, pp.255-280:

We can object to strictly hierarchical societies on the grounds that those on the bottom of the hierarchy—the serfs, the villeins, or the prison-camp slaves—are accorded no respect at all. But we should remedy this by having more than one hierarchy, and, in so far as any one ranking system is dominant and generally accepted as constituting the social order, demanding that those who are deferred to should make manifest their respect and consideration for those who render them services.

The argument can, in part, be transposed to a lower key. Two inequalities are better than one. It is better to have a society in which there are a number of different pecking orders, so that a person who comes low according to one order can nevertheless rate highly according to another. One advantage that English society used to have over American was that whereas in America wealth was the only criterion, in England social standing was largely independent of wealth, and could, therefore, act as a corrective. More generally, it is good that there should be an athletic hierarchy besides the academic one, so that boys who are not blessed with brains may nevertheless be, and feel themselves to be, the stars of the football field. A man may not be a great success economically but still can be a big noise in the Boy Scout Association or the pigeon fanciers’ club. So long as we have plenty of different inequalities, nobody need be absolutely inferior. It is only if, in the name of equality, we set about eliminating them all, that we shall succeed in eliminating many of them and thereby make those that remain far more burdensome.

Egalitarians are angered when the argument from Universal Humanity is called in aid of inegalitarian conclusions, and produce vehement counter-arguments against it. They will not accept that the college servant is really better off than the prosperous proletarian, however much happier he may subjectively suppose himself to be, because the mere fact that the society recognises a difference in status between the college servant and, say, the fellows is itself an affront to human dignity. If we differentiate at all between one man and another on account of the social functions they fulfil, then we are no longer regarding them as men but merely as performers of certain roles. The bathroom attendant may think that he is valued for himself alone, but he is wrong; he is valued merely as a cleaner of baths and lavatories, merely as a pair of hands, merely as a useful automaton and not at all as a person, a child of God, a human being, an immortal soul, the bearer of an eternal destiny. This argument has powerful emotional appeal, but it is confused. It confuses the minimal and the maximal respect we may pay to a human being. Whatever a man does, whatever contribution he makes to our well-being, whatever his achievements, he is more than merely a doer, a contributor, an achiever, and I do not respect him properly, if I respect him merely as a doer, a contributor, or an achiever. If I am to respect him fully, I must respect him for himself, rather than merely as someone who satisfies certain specifications, just as a girl feels that she is not really loved unless she is loved for herself alone, and not her yellow hair. But only God can do that. In an imperfect world limited mortals have only limited respect for most other people. The respect which affords a basis for political argument is not a maximal respect we can aspire to but seldom achieve; rather, it is a minimal respect which we all ought to pay to everybody else. It does not exhaust the whole of political argument, but simply provides an incontrovertible starting point. I respect another man’s humanity by observing a certain set of minimum conditions towards him—by not killing him, by not torturing him, by not leaving him to starve by not depriving him of civil rights—and it is important to see these conditions as minimum conditions which must be fulfilled rather than as maximum conditions to which we should aim but which we cannot be blamed if we fail to achieve. If we set our sights too high, we shall secure nothing.

Yup. The multiplication of inequalities through the multiplication of status dimensions is perhaps the chief way in which liberal market societies achieve rough equality of status. It’s counterintuitive but true: more ways of being unequal in status increases the chance of enjoying high status and reduces the chance of being humiliated by inescapably low status. That many egalitarians are so eager to sniff at this is, to my mind, an indication that many of them aren’t so much concerned with the inequalities that matter most to most people. The motivated thinking seems to go something like this: If the best means of bringing everyone up to a minimum of status or a minimum sense of self-respect needn’t involve a lot economic leveling, then pride in being the president of the local PTA must be self-deluded crap. But where’s the respect in that?

Of course, most egalitarians see the minimum equality of respect implied by an equality of rights as too little. I guess I do too. I demand a somewhat more substantive equality in the sense that each has the necessary means to exercise her rights in a worthwhile way. We don’t respect others in this minimal sense if we don’t care whether it seems pointless to them to dream up some relatively long-term plans, because they doubt whether they will be able to act effectively to enact them. But we don’t give people that respect by politically “guaranteeing” them these means, either, because there is nothing in the nature or history of government to cause us to believe it is specially competent to make good on them. We give people their due portion of respect by attempting to maximize the probability that they will have these means. That’s likely to require both private and public assistance, but there’s no way to honestly guarantee that people need it will get it. We can say anything we want. What matters is what people get. The closest we can get to a guarantee is by cultivating a system of institutions that maximizes the production of wealth.

And it happens that this kind of system is one of mind-boggling task specialization and spatial distribution–a system that gives almost everyone a way to make things better for others, a system that implicates almost everyone in the process of wealth-creation that is as close as we come to a guarantee. In a market system, when we do our jobs, we help to provide for others–we help make available to others the means for building a life–in the way that respect requires, and this in turn gives us reason to respect people who do their jobs. Respecting someone as “a doer, a contributor, or an achiever” is no small thing.

In addition to supplying meaningful work that allows each of us to contribute in some real way to the welfare of others, successful market cultures create a climate for proliferating communities of affinity, much like the Great Barrier Reef creates a climate for a teeming proliferation of exotic sea life. On the job and in our “scenes” is where most of us get our quota of status. Our jobs and our standing in our multiple elective communities provide us grounds to respect ourselves and grounds for others to respect us. When we pretend not to see a beggar making an appeal, we do not treat her as an equal in even this small way, perhaps because we suspect she has done too little to merit even a quantum of respect. It is not really so hard to look someone squarely in the eyes, in the way a person acknowledges another’s personhood, but it is easier when we are all part of a joint enterprise of cooperation, improving life infinitesimally but actually for one another. And it is easier to confidently to hold another’s gaze, to feel an equal, when you are in your own small community, in your own small way, somebody. Because it doesn’t seem small to you.

But that’s all sort of beside the point. Because our government’s actual respect for its subject’s “merely formal” political rights is so sorry that it seems that Lucas’ “minimal respect” is fairly demanding after all, and there’s really nothing morally unambitious in aiming at this kind of liberal equality.