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Equality and its implications

This is an installment of my reading journal on ethics. The topic of this installment is the chapter “Equality and Its Implications” of the book Practical Ethics by Peter Singer [2, pp.16–54]. Compared to some authors on philosophy, I find Singer’s writing to be usually (but not always) approachable and mostly free of jargons that haunt the professional philosophy literature. This is hardly surprising. The title of the book itself speaks true to the style of presentation: clear and readable prose that touches on philosophical issues of immediate concern to anyone, not just arm chair philosophers. René Descartes’ Discourse on the Method [1] is an example of philosophy writings that are readable by anyone without training in philosophy. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to find (and read) another book on philosophy that is mostly jargon-free and written, not for philosophers, but for anyone with sufficient intelligence to follow logical arguments.

The chapter “Equality and Its Implications” considers the principle underlying equality and explores some implications of this principle. Humans differ from each other in many respects. What then is a core principle that underlies equality between them? Singer posits that when making an ethical judgement we must go beyond our own personal or sectional interests and consider the interests of people who would be affected by our decision. This is much more than an entreaty for us to take stock of stakeholders who would be affected by our decisions and actions. It is I think a gentle reminder that our decisions and actions do not take place in a vacuum, that we need to think beyond our own personal and parochial interests. A core principle of equality then is the principle of equal consideration of interests of those affected by a moral decision. Here, Singer says, an interest is to be considered on its own merits without regard to whose interest it is. “The essence of the principle of equal consideration of interests is that we give equal weight in our moral deliberations to the like interests of all those affected by our actions. … What the principle really amounts to is this: an interest is an interest, whoever’s interest it may be” [2, p.21]. In many cases, this principle agrees with the economic principle of declining marginal utility (diminishing returns?), but in special cases equal consideration can widen the welfare gap between people. The principle then is considered a minimal principle of equality.

With the principle of equal consideration of interests, Singer explores implications of this principle in the context of genetic diversity and justification of racism and sexism. Assuming for the sake of argument that there are specific genetic differences between racial groups so that, for example, one group has higher average IQ than another. Would this translate to a justification of racism? Or assuming that biological differences exist between female and male humans such that, say, males are more aggressive than females, etc. Would this mean that sexism is defensible? In both of these cases, justification of racism and sexism on genetic and biological grounds, it is not necessary for us to establish the validity of the theories we assume. We also do not assume that they are sound. We merely take the posited theories as is and explore how they relate to equality and their implications.

For the sake of exploring consequences, Singer first addresses the issue of racial differences and racial equality. Suppose that evidence accumulates to support the hypothesis of difference in intelligence between ethnic groups. That is, one group has a higher average IQ than another. What are implications of the hypothesis of genetically based differences in IQ between racial groups? First, this hypothesis does not imply that we should halt or reduce our efforts to overcome other manifestations or causes of inequality between people. Second, these average IQ scores are what they are: average scores that have little to no bearing on individuals. Third, the genetic hypothesis lends little to no credence to the justification of racism. In Singer’s view, “the principle of equality is not based on any actual equality that all people share. I have argued that the only defensible basis for the principle of equality is equal consideration of interests, and I have also suggested that the most important human interests … are not affected by differences in intelligence” [2, p.31].

Next, Singer addresses the justification of sexual differences and sexual equality on biological terms. His reasons against this are similar to those offered in the case of justifying racism on grounds of genetic differences. Singer then moves on to the issue of equal opportunity and equal pay. “To work for wider recognition of the principle of payment according to needs and effort rather than inherited ability is both realistic and, I believe, right” [2, p.44].

The principle of equal consideration of interests is next explored in relation to affirmative action. “The important point is that affirmative action, whether by quotas or some other method, is not contrary to any sound principle of equality and does not violate any rights of those excluded by it. Properly applied, it is in keeping with equal consideration of interests, in its aspirations at least. The only real doubt is whether it will work. In the absence of more promising alternatives it seems worth a try” [2, p.51].


[1] Descartes. Discourse on Method and the Meditations. Penguin Books, 1968. Translated by F. E. Sutcliffe.

[2] P. Singer. Practical Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 1993.

Categories: ethics, philosophy Tags: ,
  1. 16 June 2011 at 12:37 pm

    principle of declining marginal utility

    These are the terms I had to consult a dictionary for in order to understand this post. I admit, I’m not a native English speaker, still it is a relatively long list compared to other even philosopher’s blogs.
    I hope you don’t take offense in it, but I only want to illustrate how difficult it is to avoid jargon you are particular familiar with.

    The other assertion laid out over several paragraphs is that you oppose racial and sexual discrimination and even favor affirmative action. Guessing from your name, you probably suffered such discrimination and would benefit from affirmative action, so this point of view is probably also tainted with personal experiences.

    There is nothing wrong with that. As a rule that can be deduced from Fauceir Theory there is no such thing as an independent or impartial observer. Every perception is an information transfer between fauceirs and both fauceirs will change after that information transfer due to imprecision and resource consumption. In more colloquial words, a man after seeing a picture, hearing a voice, experiencing a situation, and so on will never be the same again.

    Finally, the main flaw in Singer’s book [1] (as far as I understand from your post) is that INequality is the goal of evolution. Examples that evolution created inequality are countless and commonplace. That human societies propagate equality is an other sub-process of evolution which is driven by ideology and therefore not perceivable as such by those engrained.

    Replace ideology by the more general term, a fauceir’s drive for inner stability, and you will find the same tendency to create uniformity in other social compounds, an ant colony for instance and a group of soldiers. As laid out in some earlier post humans as biological beings are no more at the top of the evolutionary pyramid on this planet. This place is occupied by social fauceirs now for which human individuals play the role as slaves only, and as such they have to suffer their society’s, master fauceir’s, pressure for uniformity, consequently.

  2. 25 June 2011 at 8:47 pm

    The question of racism (et co.) and genes will depend on what we mean by “racism”, and without a clear definition the topic is entirely open. On one extreme, many of the politically correct consider the mere believe in difference in IQ to be racism—some go as far as using the word even for believing in a validity of the concept of race. (Personally, I consider this an abuse of language, but the issue is worth to bear in mind.) In the sense I tend to use the word, namely that the members of different races are inherently of different value, differences in mean IQ would not justify racism, because they make a statement about groups—the IQs of two randomly picked individuals of two different races can very well go in the opposite direction of the group difference. (In addition, it is highly disputable whether the value of a human can be measured by IQ; however, for the purpose of discussing principle, I skip that issue.)

    The final statements about affirmative action and related issues are highly dubious, and seem to point in a leftist/equality-of-outcome direction. Equality of outcome, however, should not be understood when word “equality” (properly implying equality of opportunity) is used. That affirmative action almost invariably will violate equality of opportunity, the formulations used are inappropriate (at best—I cannot rule out that errors of thought have also been made). Obviously, even if no problems with equality were found, other problems both pragmatic and ethical would arise, e.g. that an employer is not allowed to hire the people he would prefer, limiting both his right to chose and his profitability.

    (Obviously, the my comment is based on the text above—not the entirety of Singer’s book, which may make parts of my comment irrelevant.)

  3. mvngu
    26 June 2011 at 4:54 am

    > (Obviously, the my comment is based on the text above—not the
    > entirety of Singer’s book, which may make parts of my comment
    > irrelevant.)

    I’m glad you make this caveat. It shows to some extent you understand that my purpose in writing this post is not as a discussion of equality, racism or affirmative action on my part. At the start of the post, I clearly designate it as part of a reading journal, meaning that the post itself is more or less an attempt to understand a text by way of summarizing its arguments. Basing a discussion of equality, racism or affirmative action on a second-hand account (i.e. the current reading journal installment) is absurd. However, what can be critiqued is whether or not I have been fair to Singer’s arguments in my summary above. It’s very easy to misunderstand Singer’s or anyone’s argument merely by reading a selected quotation from the person’s writing. A case in point is the misunderstanding of Singer’s views on animal liberation, on euthanasia, and issues in bioethics from people who happen to only read some of his quotations or extracts from his writing. To understand someone’s argument, you need to go directly to the person’s writing, not a second-hand account.

  4. 26 June 2011 at 9:33 am

    “ Basing a discussion of equality, racism or affirmative action on a second-hand account (i.e. the current reading journal installment) is absurd.”

    Not really: Basing a discussion of Singer’s views on a second-hand account of this length would possibly be absurd (certainly risky); however, for the purpose of discussing the underlying issue, per se, even an entirely misunderstood or misattributed starting point may be just as valid as what comes directly from the horse’s own mouth.

    As an aside, I looked up Singer on Wikipedia later yesterday, and found a lot of talk about Utilitarianism. In such a context, your post reads a bit different than without it. An interesting question is whether affirmative action (which is likely to have at least some negataive effect upon economic growth) would lead to a greater or lesser utility in the long term.

  1. 26 January 2013 at 12:59 pm

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