Philosophers have different ways of thinking about equality. One of the most important recent contributions is Elizabeth Anderson’s idea of relational equality, which recognizes the significance of social integration.
What do we talk about when we talk about equality? In our group discussions we talked less about equalising income, and more about building boats; less about equalising opportunities, and more about people chatting together on playground swings; less about equalising outcomes, and more about sharing a communal meal. When we talked about equality, we talked about relationships. When we talked about relationships, we talked about respect.
Equalising income, opportunities, and outcomes is important. But a world of equal incomes, opportunities and outcomes in which communities are estranged, in which single mums are stigmatised, and in which vulnerable adults are socially isolated remains unequal.
We heard an inspiring story of bonds of respect forged through a community boat building project. The collaborative work of community boat building fostered solidarity and fraternity. We heard a moving tale of a single mum of two, struggling with poverty and depression, gaining self-esteem through volunteering to help others. Chatting with a community development volunteer while watching her children at a playground, she told how her confidence had grown through helping others. We heard a powerful narrative about an alcoholic dad who had lost everything, including a relationship with his daughter. Through producing healthy food and sharing meals at a common table with others struggling similarly he stopped drinking, maintained a home, and reconnected with his daughter. He was proud of his contribution to others, and of his stronger relationship with his daughter.
These stories about building boats, chatting in a playground, and sharing a common meal tell us that equality is both a matter of how we distribute society’s resources, and of the attitudes we express towards each other. These compelling narratives affirm some important developments in recent political philosophy of social justice.
Equality is a central concern of current thinking about social justice. There is a rich literature that considers such philosophical problems as: what kind of goods should we seek to distribute equally? Should we seek to equalise resources that people can use to pursue their goals? Should we seek to equalise the material quality of life, or welfare, that people experience? Beyond this, political philosophers have helped clarify questions regarding how we should distribute that which we seek to equalise. Should our goal be that everyone has roughly the same amount of goods? Or should we prioritise giving those who are worst off more? These arguments (and many others connected) are important for anyone with an interest in equality or inequality. They help clarify our thinking to make progress in proposing better answers to the inequalities we face. As important, they improve our defences against those who argue against greater equality. But recent work in the philosophy of social justice has also responded to the kind of intuitions we all recognise when we hear stories such as those above.
We all know that a factory that pays its workers equally, but which disrespects those from an ethnic minority, is unequal. From the point of view of equality, our attitudes towards each other matter as much as the way we distribute society’s goods. This concern with the importance of attitudes of respect to equality has become known as ‘relational equality’ or ‘social equality’, to distinguish it from questions more concerned with ‘distributive equality.’ Relational equality trumpets the importance of the attitudes expressed in our social institutions. Our laws around marriage say something about how we regard different ways of living in loving relationships. Allowing unreflective racial discrimination in employment practices says something about the importance we give to racial equality. Political philosophers working on relational equality have much to offer those seeking a deeper understanding of the significance of relationships to equality.
One of the most important contributions made by a foremost theorist of relational equality, Elizabeth Anderson, emphasises the significance of social integration to greater equality. Segregation, whether along racial, religious, class or other lines, is anathema to social equality. Segregation obstructs relationships, desiccates fraternity, and poisons mutual respect. Sociologists tell us that we have natural tendencies to segregate through clubbing together and excluding others from our familiar groups and their benefits. Social psychologists explain how segregation fuels attitudes of discrimination and stigmatisation towards members of other groups; how we unconsciously think more favourably of those closest to our own groups, and are unfairly suspicious and quick to blame those from other groups for their problems and those of society.
Separate and together
Yearning for segregation is part of the crooked timber of our humanity, but so is aspiring to integration. Such is the natural tendency to club, group, and gang that we need strength to resist it. We need admissions policies that prevent segregation of children at school. We need planning rules that prevent communities living ostracised from each other. We need laws that ensure our workplaces are kaleidoscopic in colour, gender, and ability. We need to be encouraged, persuaded, enticed and incited to integrate. If equality is about distribution of society’s goods and the quality of our social relationships, we need to guarantee respect for all. We guarantee respect for all through greedily exploiting every opportunity we can muster to build better relationships
When we talked about equality, we talked about relationships. When we talked about relationships we talked about respect. These stories affirmed exciting developments in political philosophy about relational equality. Political philosophers and those working to promote equality have much to offer each other. But I wish everyone who reads this could have heard the talks about building boats, chatting together on playground swings, and sharing in a common meal. These stories were like postcards from a better place, a place that seems utopian to many. But this utopia is real to the boat builders, the confidants on the swings, and those sharing a common table. What can I do, what can you do, to move one step closer to someone more impoverished, or more stigmatised, or more vulnerable than you? What will you talk about when you talk about equality?
In 2015 Professor Richard Freeman from the Academy of Government at the University of Edinburgh convened a group to discuss inequality. They found their discussion so useful that they kept meeting and discussing. In 2017 all 22 participants contributed to Working for Equality: Policy, politics, people edited by Richard Freeman, Fiona McHardy and Danny Murphy. The book, from which this extract comes, can be purchased online from www.postcardsfromscotland.co.