EQUALITY is one of three avowed aims of Compass but to date we haven’t really explored this notion, so I thought I would get the ball rolling, particularly since there is so much confusion over the issue.

Whenever we talk about equality we generally have three types to choose from – Equality of Treatment (EofT); Equality of Outcome (EofO), in the sense of equalising socio-economic means; and Equality of Opportunity (EofOp). But whenever politicians talk about equality they generally mean the latter without any real analysis, so it tends to become a meaningless mantra.

It is difficult, however, to isolate the three because they overlap in important and, sometimes, surprising ways. To show this I will take as an example the entrance qualifications to an organisation – let’s say the Civil Service. The first point to make is that not everyone can become a Civil Servant, so we are attempting to decide who should get what are often described as ‘lumpy goods’. So, we might begin by stating:


1 – EofOp means that no person or group of people should be excluded from a position as a Civil Servant in advance. But the head of the Civil Service might say that it is important to maintain its standards and traditions and the entrance exam is open to any cultural type that qualifies for this role, so EofOp already exists.


2 – But we might respond by arguing that true EofOp cannot exist unless all members of society have an equal chance of fulfilling the condition.

So, the Civil Service switches to an entrance exam open to all.


3 – This is still not good enough, however, because it is well known that social class and upbringing have a huge impact on intellectual achievement.


4 – The answer maybe to lobby for policies that provide extra tuition and intervention in early years – similar to New Labour’s Sure Start programme and would equate to EoO. This still wouldn’t be good enough for true EofOp because those people lucky enough to be better endowed genetically would have a better chance of success, so pure luck would play an uncomfortable role where merit is what we’re seeking.


5 – So now might embark on a programme of genetic engineering to equalise chance or introduce random lotteries to reduce the whole process to chance.


6 – Now, though, we have drifted away from EofOp altogether because merit, which we usually associate with EofOp, is either obliterated by pure chance or becomes less and less significant the more we are equalised through genetic engineering (the latter, of course, has its own ethical problems which we won’t go into here except to note it).


It is important at this stage to notice that (1) involves EofT, something like Peter Singer’s Equal Consideration of Interests and calls on the actions of moral agents.

After that, however, it begins to involve States of Affairs and how to improve them.

But things rapidly go downhill from then on and we end up in the uncomfortable position in which merit appears to play no role at all. To make matters worse, the two ends of the slippery slope split in two. At the top I have referred to as being within the range of Singer’s Equal Consideration of Interests. But that is only one view and one, it should be noted, that does not apply only to humans because non-humans also have interests – and Singer is interested in extending the moral sphere to include non-humans, particularly the other Great Apes. Some philosophers, however, want to find peculiar human traits which exclude non-humans. Jeremy Waldron, for example, develops John Rawls’s notion of property ranges in an attempt to do this in his book One Another’s Equals. For him qualities like rationality, moral agency and autonomy are properties typical of humans that are not apparent in other animals, even though there may be huge inequalities in the range of such qualities within humanity. He gets rounds this by drawing an analogy in geography. We might say, for example, that although there is a big difference in size between Salisbury and Whiteparish, they are both equally in Wiltshire. For myself, however, although I agree that humans are particularly well placed to exercise reason – even if it is not always very well exercised – this is a matter of degree rather than kind and I think it’s very difficult to draw an absolute firewall between us and other animals. The underlying assumption, also, is that the qualities that he privileges automatically mean that humans are in some way superior to those of other animals whose senses, for example, are much superior to those of humanity’s and not obviously inferior in themselves than rationality, moral agency and autonomy. So, I think that Singer’s principle is more appropriate precisely because it is blind to all such characteristics.

At the other end of the slope two positions open up. One might be called equal prospects and the other equal means or in our terms EofO. The first involves equalising regardless of whatever position one might hold in society and involves methods like sortation, random selection and allocation designed to evade the baleful influence of inequality and class, and genetic engineering. Equal means involves anything from remedial classes or intervention in early years (Sure Start again) to attempting to reduce inequality society-wide. Personally, I am in favour of the equal means approach at least in part because of the damage that inequality in itself can do as outlined in the seminal book The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. As we have seen random selection may also allocate people into positions to which they are not suited and, in any case, why should adding another layer of chance make things any better? On the other hand, we may spend huge amount of resources on equalising means without any guarantee that it will increase EofOp. It seems that equal prospects are meaningless without equal means and the latter is pointless without equal prospects.

Maybe we can halt the slippery slope somewhere near the top when we are asking agents like employers to consider the interests of applicants equally; and the State of Affairs in which we are trying to equalize means is simply a good in itself, freeing people to realise their potential in any field – what I have called the emancipation of the embedded citizen – and not necessarily always in the pursuit of limited ‘lumpy goods’, even though a more equal society is also more likely to lead to better opportunities. That is certainly the view of James Bloodworth in his little book The Myth of Meritocracy. He says: “Social mobility should be the by-product of a society that treat everyone well, rather than an end in itself…More equal societies tend to have better rates of social mobility.”

Dickie Bellringer