I justed posted this on the Practical Ethics Blog. Equality is an ideal born of the vice, or one of the seven deadly sins, of envy. It has no intrinsic value but panders to our vicious nature to be envious of others. Levelling down is absurd. And why level up if we can raise everyone, improving all of their lives instead of just some? To reduce people’s envy of others, when their own lives are good and better? That is no reason.
Imagine that in our society, people are divided into two groups. One group, Short, lives for a maximum of 60 years and another, Long, for 120, for inherent genetic reasons. We could achieve equality by levelling down, by shortening the lives of Long, so they live 60 years (perhaps by introducing painless toxins into their water). That would level down. It is absurd. It is absurd even if Short remain envious and jealous of Long.
A therapy becomes available which can prolong healthy life by 60 years. A more attractive version of egalitarianism is levelling-up egalitarianism. This would require giving the therapy to Short so that they can live 120 years, the same as Long. This would create equality and reduce envy and jealousy.
But why should we stop at levelling up. We could adopt a maximising consequentialist strategy and give the therapy to everyone, equally. Short would live 120 years and Long would live 180 years. Everyone would be better off but inequality would be preserved. But so what?
Why should we deny Long an extra 60 good years simply to reduce the envy and jealousy of Short, for no material benefit to them?
Equality has no intrinsic value. Our commitment should be to the lives of individual people not to human ideals like equality.
Equality is a dominant moral ideal in contemporary society. Egalitarianism is the stated principle for the NHS: equal treatment for equal need. Equality might be a good rule of thumb but it should not be a final regulative ideal.
[I wrote this blog in response to Alex Erler’s “Levelling Up”: In Defence of Equality]