The Just Society: Equality or Freedom?

In A Theory of Justice John Rawls conducted a famous thought experiment. He asked, if we were to imagine, behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, being born into a world in a position somewhere on the scale of unalloyed privilege and crushing poverty, what would be the type of social system we would advocate. Rawls assumed it would be reasonable to choose a society in which economic justice of a distributive nature prevailed, on the likelihood that we would be more likely to be one of the multitude of the poor than the small fraction of the privileged.

Rawls attempted to derive in a purely rational manner the proper balance between freedom and equality. This has, indeed, been the central narrative of political discourse for at least the last century. It has been assumed that the rational position is a centrist one, forging a middle point somewhere between the two poles of freedom and equality. Although in American terms it was considered radical and A Theory of Justice is considered a liberal left academic touchstone, from the perspective of the present Rawls position seems mildly quaint. The middle ground is now largely out of favour and this is perhaps a timely moment to reconsider the prevailing political narrative. I happen to think that Rawls is wrong: from a point of logic, ethics and the facts of history.

To begin with, the contiguity of freedom and equality is the wrong juxtaposition. Freedom and equality are not opposite ends of a spectrum in which the Aristotelian mean is the just position; they are contradictory ideas which compete for the same space. Therefore, it is impossible to derive a stable balance between them. Logically, if you favour freedom, you cannot accept the idea of equality; similarly, if you favour equality, you cannot logically tolerate freedom. Some, like Rawls – though, I suspect, fewer than in the past – argue that we need to compromise: we accept limitations on our freedom for the sake of some equality (although, strangely, I never hear people arguing the opposite; it seems the argument only goes one way). However, the reality is that the advocates of equality are never content with some equality. In the end, everything must be levelled, to the point of absurdity. It would be reasonable to assume that this might have less to do with the idea of equality as an abstract principle than with its advocates; but even this obsession can be explained by an analysis of equality.

Freedom and equality are, in fact, only related by the concept of power, and who holds it. In freedom, power is distributed; so, the closest we get to equality is when we are free. In equality, power is concentrated in the hands of a few, and even the few controlled by the most powerful; so, the only sense in which we are equal is an equality of powerlessness. To paraphrase Orwell in Animal Farm, everyone is equal, only some are more equal than others.

Despite freedom and equality (or their advocates) competing for social space, there is an ethical difference between them, which to my mind is like the difference between light and darkness. Belief in freedom must logically be accompanied by a belief in tolerance. If I believe in freedom, I do not believe in it only for myself, but for everyone, because the fact that it is distributed guarantees my own freedom. Just as I have a right to my thoughts, words and actions, so do you and everyone else, except inasmuch as the exercise of your right would deprive me of mine, for example by intimidating me or killing me. This is a perfectly reasonable and realisable state, in a society in which everyone shares that fundamental belief. It does have vulnerabilities, though, to pathological liars, the intolerant, those living at the extreme and those whose tendency is to usurp power.

That vulnerability is exploited by ideologues, who manifest all the traits just described. The love of freedom grows out of the philosophical discovery of ignorance, expressed eloquently by Socrates, but reaffirmed in the scientific revolution and accompanying Enlightenment of the seventeenth century. Ideologues first trait is absolute certainty. That means, bluntly put, they believe a lie, as truth is an evolving quality, ever pursued but never finally attained. If you are certain of something, there is a tendency to think everyone who disagrees with you is a fool or a rogue. There is, of course, a reasonable degree of certainty, which anyone having a point of view is expected to possess (otherwise we would have nothing to say), but it is tempered by an openness to correction and development. The ideologue, though, cannot bear correction and hates the open debate of ideas. The more unreasonable the belief the more vociferously its opponents must be attacked, and in the most extreme cases, be silenced. That is why the ideologue loves power, because it is a means of controlling knowledge and protecting certainty.

The belief in equality is an ideological position tout court. There is no equality either in nature or human society. The Procrustean critique of equality is already so well established that it needs no repeating. The socialist dogma of equality of outcomes is just an economic version of such crude egalitarianism and is impossible to realise where any spark of human creativity and freedom remain. It has been shown in practice not to result in greater equality, except in misery and fear for all but a tiny privileged minority. The liberal fudge of equality of opportunity is no more realisable, though a worthwhile goal if pursued intelligently, pragmatically and gradually. I will suggest such an approach (at least the theoretical foundations of such) towards the end of this article.

Being an ideological position, and embodying a fundamental untruth, any programme to implement equality must resort to lies, the denigration of critical voices, the capture of the levers of power in any society, and the use of those powers to force conformity to the dictates of the ideology. This is both the logical necessity of equality and the actual practice of its advocates. This is most obvious in totalitarian states of the left, though it is also manifested in totalitarian states of the right that have policies to ‘equalise’ society by removing undesirable elements. However, it is also seen in otherwise liberal democratic societies where the equality agenda proceeds stepwise by advancing the cause of groups that are proclaimed to be disadvantaged, less by addressing the root causes of their disadvantage, but by political activism and entryism to tear down the normative values of those societies and to brand the relatively advantaged as oppressors. Each step proceeds by labelling the cause promoted as addressing an ‘injustice’. However, the final result is not equality but conformity and the rule of a powerful minority.

If there is one sense in which I would accept the notion of equality, it is that we are at a deep metaphysical or mystical level of equal value as human beings, and that as members of the species homo sapiens we have a value above all other species. I would qualify that by saying that in a secular context our assessment of the value of any specific individual is driven by a host of symbolic, aesthetic and practical concerns, such as who they represent, how they present themselves and how they act. Nonetheless, a transcendent sense of human value, in which we feel called to work for the betterment of humanity and, particularly, for the lessening of inhumanity, is not only compatible with freedom; it seems to me to be the essence of freedom.

Turning then to freedom, it has become an accepted orthodoxy that science has demonstrated the non-existence of free will. This is only true, however, according to the canons of positivistic reductionism, and I’m not even sure of the status of this assertion in the light of quantum theory, which portrays indeterminism at a very fundamental level. Be that as it may, the experience of freedom is real at the human and social level; we know when we are free and when we are not free, because it is felt at the level of our perceived status in the social order and our experience of relative power or powerlessness, which is even manifested as a physiological response.

The moment I think or move of my own volition, I assert my freedom and my difference, which is manifest in the world, multiplied infinitely by all the individuals in the world. In the way I am, think and move I create inequality. Naturally, I am better at some things than any other random person and worse at some; which is true of all people, everywhere. Some of these attributes lead to power, influence and wealth, some to mediocrity and some to ruin. This effect is multiplied across all societies and creates the turbulent history of the world, an uncomfortable truth of how individuals, peoples and nations prosper, stagnate and decline.

The true dilemma of justice is not in the clash between freedom and equality, but the subtle negotiation between freedom and responsibility. Freedom guarantees the possibility of doing anything within your power. This is an exuberant, exhilarating, addictive human experience, and one in which individuals can blossom emotionally and intellectually and achieve unimaginable things. On the societal level it enables the conditions under which real human progress can be made. It also, of necessity, allows bad choices to be made, individually and socially. That includes the freedom to act criminally and psychopathically and endanger the lives and possessions of others. It also includes the freedom to be obnoxious or simply insensitive and offend others. It may also just include acts of kindness in good faith which are, nevertheless, unwelcome. It will inevitably include choices which impact on our health, education, career, livelihood, prospects for love and family, and overall happiness and quality of life. Since the outcomes can be so different, it is important to understand responsibility and the part that it plays in freedom.

Responsibility is not well understood, because few people think about it, and it is not part of our social discourse today, apart from sniping asides from the fringes of moral commentary. If most people have heard of it, it is probably as an admonition to bend to the will of the commentator rather than to act on their own will; that is, it is perceived as a threat to, or an imposed limitation of, one’s own freedom. It is true that the word is often uttered as a reactionary shibboleth without, however, having any specific content. This is to misunderstand the role of responsibility.

Responsibility is not the inhibitor of freedom, it is its guarantor. The first stance of the responsible person is to accept that they are free, in both an existential sense and as a social actor making choices. Without this affirmation there can be no responsibility, only obedience, and at worst, slavery. The great tragedy of much of human history and still much of the world today is that social conditions do not allow people to be free and, therefore, not responsible, though this number is, arguably, diminishing. The human thirst for freedom is unquenchable; we always choose it as an alternative to tyranny, especially when we have experienced the latter.

The second stance of the responsible person is to accept that their choices and the acts that flow from them all have consequences, for good and ill, for which they reap the benefits and the costs. With experience comes a greater ability to discern between the two and the wise person will not only make better choices but also choose to impose limits on their actions. The actions that destroy, deplete and offend are the ones that are most likely to result in a reaction that aims to curtail the freedom of the individual for the protection of the common good. For this to happen, the power of the community or the state must be invoked. Every invocation of the power of the greater collective or its authoritative representative entails a diminution of the freedom of the individual, which itself informs the state of freedom of the society. Consequently, that which guarantees the freedom of society is an act of self-limitation imposed on oneself for the sake of the greater good. It is something that emerges from the realisation and experience of the actual and potential consequences of one’s actions in the world and the harm that may occur because of them.

The third stance of the responsible person is to work for the common good, which is as close to a definition of social justice as I would allow. A commitment to justice in this sense is not a commitment to equality, but it can be compatible with a commitment to reducing inequality, particularly of opportunity. Justice, we might say, is relative freedom (rather than absolute freedom). Justice is the addressing of actual injustices, where there is the absence, limitation or oppression of freedom. It is not attempting to equalise everything by limiting the freedom of the majority in favour of a minority. People are not, and never will be equal in freedom, but it is not unreasonable to address that issue by increasing the freedom of the less free. One of the ways of doing that is education about freedom and the values of freedom, that come through a grounding in science, the humanities, arts and ethics. Another is through strengthening the character of people to be self-reliant and resilient, as well as generous in spirit. Physical disadvantages can and are increasingly be addressed through technological development, empowering people who have life-limiting conditions.

It would be naïve to think that we could do without laws and rely simply on the self-realisation of all the individuals with whom we share a society. There is an argument to be made, though, that justice and the common good can only emerge when there is a keen sense of individual freedom and a commitment to be governed by a state that protects and fosters that sense based on an evolving notion of truth. An over-strong state or community has ideological motives, degrades its commitment to freedom and replaces it with coercion, precisely because it cannot command assent. In a free society, the justification for the state is that it protects the freedoms of the people that it represents, internally and externally, and not the interests of a ruling faction.

The quest to build an equal society, on the other hand, requires totalitarian government precisely because of its fundamental impossibility. In addition, radical egalitarians feel no need to exercise the type of self-control discussed here in their treatment of other people, and feel free to offend, demean, ultimately to dispossess and eliminate those that they have determined to be the enemies of equality. Of course, this mistreatment of those they consider ideological enemies demonstrates the absurdity of their position, as believers in equality and warps, ultimately, both their sense of and realisation of justice.



About the Author

Don Trubshaw
Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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