3. The Philosophical Justifications Continued: The Result of Moral Equality

In the previous essay, it was established that there exists a moral equality of persons, whereby they should incur no advantage or penalty for features of their existence which they had no control or choice over. In this way, our intuitions about the injustice of discrimination are confirmed. It was stated, however, that this moral equality must therefore be factored into our thinking about the ideal state. If this project of essays is to provide a positive case for the ideal of liberalism, such thinking about a putative liberal Utopia must be permitted. In what follows, I will demonstrate that our basic principle of the moral equality of persons, when applied to thinking about our ideal state, leads inexorably to the idea of EQUAL FREEDOM FROM DOMINATION, which I argue is the supreme goal of liberalism.

If we are to be taken seriously as thinkers about the nature of the ideal politics in the ideal state, then, it follows trivially that we must have a conception of what that ideal state is. In this way, we move from abstract thought about moral principles to thinking about political institutions and the structures of nations. If we wish to be bold and take such a step, however, even if we believe that to incorporate our personal moral views into the very fabric of our ideal state would be wrong and overbearing, we must surely decide how our state interacts with the individuals it comprises. To do so in a way which would be viewed as universally unjust, no matter a person’s higher level moral beliefs, would be clearly perverse. I suggest that our core principle of the moral equality of persons is something that no rational person would dispense with, particularly considering its grounding in that most basic principle of morality – that people shouldn’t be punished for things they didn’t do. If this is to be accepted, it follows logically that respect for the moral equality of persons must be incorporated into the very nature of our ideal state.

The precise mechanism for the incorporation of this respect for moral equality can be illuminated by analogy from the small-scale to the large-scale. It has been established that, for an individual, they should receive no reward nor incur any penalty for features of existence which they had no control over and no choice in. Writ large, and with this principle applied to the structure of a state, we find a similarly intuitive set of political principles: a person should receive no state reward nor incur any state penalty for features of existence which they had no control over and no choice in. What is meant by state rewards and state penalties is self-explanatory, but can include criminal punishment, financial benefit, or structural preferment.

The projects of mankind are cursed forever to fail, however. Principles decay; systems are corrupted; error abounds. Even when the very greatest moral concepts are at stake, the inevitable course of the enterprise and character of individuals can be enough to damage even the most meticulous of arrangements. So too with our principle of state respect for the moral equality of persons. It is inevitable that in an organic society, strict adherence to abstract moral concepts goes into abeyance – in this way, it may well be the case that either a state falls from perfect respect for moral equality, or that that respect never existed in the first place, even if, on a principled level, it ought to have done. For example, citizens may begin to be rewarded for actions they didn’t perform, or characteristics they had no choice over; or may be punished for the same. Considering the centrality of this basic principle of equality to our status as people, and, consequently, its importance to the relationship between the state and the individual, it surely cannot be right, in these cases where it is no longer observed, to merely shrug our shoulders and abandon it. In some way, it must be corrected. As for who must do the correcting, clearly, as it is a principle which the state ought to adhere to, it is the state which ought to repair any violations of it. In effect, as the state would be morally to blame if it did not respect the moral equality of persons in its political structure, it is the responsibility in turn of the state itself to ensure some kind of substantive equality and to repair unjustified inequalities where it finds them.

We have thus far identified a duty for states to respect the principle of moral equality by incorporating it into their fundamental fabrics, and by correcting deviations from this respect where they arise. In short, we have realised that the state has a duty to ensure equality with respect to those unchosen features of life. But this equality is a nebulous thing, and at present, we simply know its name, and not its form. We have identified the shadow of equality – we must now work out what it is that is casting it. Equality of what, precisely?

Many scholars of great erudition have written on this matter. Many have said that, because our base talents and fundamental capacity for acquiring further skills are one of the in-built features of our lives, over which we had no choice, we are entitled to no additional reward if we happen to have got lucky and been born clever, and deserve no penalty if we happen to have been unlucky and been born without such natural talent. There is some merit to this argument, but it seems to miss something more fundamental still. For example, even if by some contrivance of the state, all citizens were to be given equal pay, and a law were enacted enforcing totally equal wealth at all times, it would still be possible for citizens to be unequal to one another in more pernicious ways. It is an ancient idea that money begets power, and I don’t seek to challenge the truth of that here, however much that situation may be hypothetically wrong. But that is not the full story, and money is not the only mechanism by which power is obtained. It would be perfectly feasible, even in a world of perfect financial equality, for citizens to be deprived of civic rights based on other unchosen characteristics. Imagine, for example, a state which discriminated against those with blue eyes. Our blue-eyed citizens, doggedly persecuted, unable to participate in the national community, segregated, arbitrarily targeted by police, and so on, would take no comfort at all from the promise of mere equal pay. How can our discriminated-against citizen be satisfied with equal resources when they lack the capacity to use those resources in a meaningful way, as a result of continued discrimination? This example highlights a more fundamental equality: the equality of citizens as citizens, where each is endowed with the same set of privileges within the state, and none receives greater advantage or disadvantage in terms of their power within the state on account of one of their unchosen features. And, indeed, this needn’t merely obtain for the state, but for any other source of power as well, for they are bound either by the moral principle we have highlighted, or, if they fail to adhere to it, ought to be corrected by the state to ensure no indirect discrimination on the grounds of unchosen features accrues. They too must respect moral equality.

In short, the equality which is of central importance, on the picture we have painted, is EQUAL FREEDOM FROM DOMINATION, where every citizen, no matter their natural endowments and capacities, possesses equal freedom from the arbitrary interference of concentrations of power – most perniciously, the state, but also private conglomerations. It is my view that this equal freedom from domination is the supreme purpose of liberalism, and thus the liberty for which we should seek to strive. Its end is not reached until the lowliest of citizens is hoisted from disenfranchisement to equal empowerment and freedom. As Pericles said at Athens, “a man who thinks public affairs are none of his business in fact has no business in this city at all”. So it must hold for our liberal utopia, but by moral right rather than mere expectation.

This equal freedom, as noted, is not the whole picture, but merely its most fundamental part. Upon the foundations of equal freedom from domination can be built a distributional equality based on the intuition that our talents and intellectual capacities are unchosen by us and thus that we deserve no inherent advantage of resource if they are good, or disadvantage if they are bad. It is to this theme, how precisely we are to build upon moral equality in terms of equality of financial resource, that I will return in the next essay.

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