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Rutgers professor: equality is no joke

Equality is no joke, according to Larry Temkin, professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. Last Friday, to a nearly filled audience in Science Complex Room P101, Temkin said that comparative equality has independent worth and value.

Temkin’s paper, “Illuminating Egalitarianism,” was the second to be presented as part of the College’s three-part “Does Equality Matter?” series this semester.

Temkin’s thesis is that a certain type of equality, which he calls “substantive, non-intrinsic and comparative,” has important value, all by itself. Comparative equality, Temkin said, impacts the relative wellbeing of a society.

“Comparability is fundamentally concerned with how people fare in comparison to others,” he said.

Equality is non-intrinsic, Temkin said, because it has value even if no one is made worse off by the inequality in the world. For example, Temkin said, inequality is bad even if everyone is prosperous and the people who are less well off are only less well off in the sense that they are millionaires while others are billionaires.

Temkin also refuted others’ claims that his position was “luck egalitarianism.”

“It is not fair that someone is worse off than another through no fault of their own,” he said.

However, he said this position wasn’t about getting rid of luck in people’s lives. Instead, it was about comparative fairness between people who don’t deserve the positions that they hold in life. In other words, comparative fairness has to do with a certain sort of luck – the luck that makes equally deserving people less well off or better off in comparison to each other.

Temkin also claimed that the phrase “life isn’t fair” vindicates the egalitarian position.

“What separates the egalitarian from the non-egalitarian is her reaction to life’s unfairness,” he said.

Temkin also emphasized that egalitarians of his sort are pluralists. That is, they’re not only worried about egalitarianism. Instead, other values, such as well-being and justice, are also important.

He argued that if we had a choice between a situation where a non-equal distribution of welfare meant that some people lived and others died and an equal distribution meant that everyone died, the egalitarian would prefer that everyone died.

Temkin said this isn’t the case. Obviously, he said, the egalitarian would recognize that the unequal distribution was better, though both cases were tragic. In other words, equality is important, but equality isn’t all that’s important.

Temkin also used the case of magical immortality berries to point out how inequality can be bad, even if no one is worse off by the inequality. Assume that there were a certain amount of magical berries that allowed people to live healthy, active lives forever. Though anyone who doesn’t have the berries is no worse off than those who do have them, it is unfair that some people get to avoid death while others do not.

In response to Temkin’s talk, Pierre Le Morvan, assistant professor of philosophy and religion, said that he was sympathetic to Temkin’s points.

He said he didn’t rebut Temkin’s paper so much as he suggested points for further research and study.

Le Morvan suggested that Temkin’s assertions about “life not being fair” with regards to people who are born blind wasn’t quite right.

Instead, Le Morvan suggested, unfairness deals with the actions of people. Being born blind is tragic or unfortunate, but he said it’s not unfair because fairness had nothing to do with it – it was just genetic luck.

The College’s “Does Equality Matter?” program has been supported by the Center for the Study of Social Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, the Schools of Business and Culture and Society, and the political science as well as philosophy and religion departments.

The program includes four lectures and two classes at the College, Civil Liberties, taught by Daryl Fair, professor of political science, and Equality in Ethics and the Law taught by Melinda Roberts, associate professor of philosophy and religion, and coordinator of the program.


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