The Case Against Equity
Why we should toss this pseudo-value on the trash heap of history
“Philosophy ought to question the basic assumptions of the age. Thinking through, critically and carefully, what most of us take for granted is, I believe, the chief task of philosophy, and the task that makes philosophy a worthwhile activity.”
— Peter Singer
I would like to invite you to join me in an illuminating thought experiment.
Let’s imagine that Bill Gates and I have different modes of transportation. I drive a 2006 Toyota Prius. Gates has a private jet and a fleet of high-end cars. The inequity between us is enormous.
But it’s my lucky day! I was the contestant on a game show and I won a new car!
Now I drive a brand new Tesla. My life is even better. However, in that same time, Bill Gates doubled his number of cars and bought an additional private jet. The inequity between us has only increased.
Most would agree that I’m not unreasonable for seeing my new car as a net gain, even though in equity terms, it has been a net loss.
How could this be? How could the value in question be diminished while the overall quality of life for the people in question has only increased?
The answer is that the “value” in question — that is equity — has no necessary connection to human well-being at all. That, I will argue, presents us with a major problem.
The Definition of Values
Values should not be mysterious entities that we worship for no reason. They serve a useful purpose.
I define a value as a conceptual tool that enables us to improve the lives of people in the real world (or animals for that matter). This connection to human well-being can be seen in many basic values such as liberty, equality, love etc. The connection can even be seen in values such as truth or rationality since they allow us to improve well-being through science and other forms of scholarship.
My argument is that equity — defined as the equality of outcome rather than that of treatment or opportunity — doesn’t meet this definition.
Equity is a pseudo-value.
As a pseudo-value it is unnecessary, and if elevated above other values, can be harmful.
Why Equity is Unnecessary
Thought Experiment #2: Value Jenga
Let’s imagine that we could re-create society by removing one and only one value from our value system at a time. It would be sort of like a value-based Jenga where we remove one piece of the structure and leave everything else intact.
Let’s start with liberty: A society that has no concept of liberty isn’t hard to imagine because human beings have lived in them for centuries. They are the tyrannical societies where people are forced into absolute obedience by an authoritarian power. Not a great way to live.
Equality: If we removed it, there would be no reason to treat people with respect regardless of their class, race, financial position etc. This would result in people being mistreated, perhaps in horrific ways. This was normal when royalty and nobility were considered the only human beings worthy of honor or dignity.
Compassion: Obviously, without compassion we would have little reason to spare another’s feelings or to help someone in need. The same could be said for love.
Rationality: Remember the Dark Ages? Those were fun! We would have little basis for science, or any endeavor that improves human well-being in practical ways without this value.
How about equity? In a world where we had no such concept we would lose nothing. We could still live in a free society because we value liberty. We could strive toward a society where the dignity of all people is upheld because we value equality. We could still fight problems such as poverty, hunger, and sickness because we value love and compassion. We could still fight racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination because these ills are at odds with all of our basic values: liberty, equality, love and even rationality.
In other words, we have all of the conceptual tools we need to strive toward a society in which human well-being is protected, and continually improved. No need for equity.
Why Equity is Harmful
What’s worse is that equity often conflicts with the other values that are essential to well-being. That means that upholding equity above any other value will only impede human progress.
To demonstrate, let’s place equity above all other values and go back to the original thought experiment.
I want to correct the inequity between Bill Gates and myself. The easiest way to do that would be to harm him — steal what he has, or even physically hurt him — so that we are more or less equal with regards to what we have to enjoy.
Physical harm would be perfectly justifiable since in this hypothetical situation compassion and love are trumped by equity. Liberty is less important than equity, so physical force is not off the table. Rationality is less important than equity, so rash thinking and/or behavior is not out of the moral bounds.
This is precisely why marxist societies have not only been economic failures, but they have been moral disasters, resulting in some of the most brutal regimes in modern history. They have a skewed, poorly thought-out value system that holds equity in higher regard than other values.
A practical example of the harm that comes from valuing equity can be seen in the distribution of the Corona Virus vaccine. When the vaccine was first being rolled out in the United States, doses were limited. A debate began as to who to prioritize.
The elderly and the otherwise immunocompromised are at the highest risk of death from Covid-19. That means that any vaccination strategy that does not prioritize these two vulnerable groups will inevitably lead to a greater number of deaths.
Now why would any sane person argue for a strategy that would lead to a greater number of deaths?
As noted in a New York Times article entitled The Elderly v. Essential Workers: Who Should Get the Vaccine First, there was initially some pushback against the idea of prioritizing the elderly. The article quoted Harald Schmidt, an expert in health policy and ethics from the University of Pennsylvania. Schmidt argued against prioritizing the elderly on the basis that they are less racially diverse:
“Older populations are whiter… Society is structured in a way that enables them to live longer. Instead of giving additional health benefits to those who already had more of them, we can start to level the playing field a bit.
This concept of “leveling the playing field” when life itself is at stake is a classic example of what can happen when we think about “people” in the abstract rather than in terms of flesh and blood human beings, as equity-based thinking encourages us to do.
A death should be an equally negative occurrence whether it is a black person, a white person, a rich person or a poor one. To assume anything else is to repudiate the very foundations of liberal societies: the notion that all people are equal in value.
Not only would this prioritization of equity lead to a net increase in human suffering via Covid deaths, but the downstream consequences could result in a gradual dismantling of the notion of human value as intrinsic and inviolable.
We can say that because Schmidt’s outlook seems content to see the value of one’s life as being contingent upon one’s level of circumstantial privilege.
If we examine it closely, we can see that this particular equity-based argument is one that advocates for leveling the field by “cutting down the tall trees.” Only in this case, the tall trees are the lives of the white elderly.
As writer Coleman Hughes tweeted in mid December of last year:
Why Equity Sounds Good
Reason #1: Equity gets lumped in with equality
It’s tempting to think of equity and equality as being cousins — different, but related values working toward similar ends. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. In fact, I would argue that the two values are near enemies of each other.
Equality has to do with how people should be treated. Obviously, the answer is that they should be treated the same without regard to appearance or status in an equality-based society. We have extensive experience with societies that don’t value equality throughout history, such as those that upheld the divine rights of kings, or those that considered men more worthy of respect than women.
Equity is different in that it has to do with achieving identical outcomes.
Equality and equity often come into conflict because people are different. They have different levels of ambition; they value different things; they have different levels of ability, different circumstances etc. As a result, their outcomes differ.
That means that requiring equity would require a diminishing of equality, not to mention freedom of choice. Giving people freedom to chose, and treating them the same would allow their differences to play out and inequities to persist.
Reason #2: Individual well-being gets confused with group status
Sometimes in political discussions we can start to think about morality in terms that are divorced from the well-being of flesh and blood individuals. Instead, we become accustomed to thinking about people in the abstract and in terms of groups. That is a mistake; but before I explain why, I want to make a concession.
Thinking of people in groups is useful, but I would argue, only for practical reasons. For instance, if we were to notice that a group — we’ll call them group X — has a higher rate of cancer deaths, then that observation would help us to more efficiently tackle the problem. It might cause us to ask questions such as:
- is that higher cancer rate due to discrimination in cancer treatment/diagnosis?
- is that higher cancer rate due to greater toxin exposure because more people from that group live in certain areas where those toxins are used?
- is there a genetic pre-disposition to cancer in that group?
The end result would hopefully be coming up with a solution that improves the lives of a greater number of individuals than would otherwise be possible. Outside of that, considering the status of groups is counterproductive.
The reason we should make that distinction is that groups are not conscious entities. Neither are races, classes, or genders. As Steven Pinker notes in his book, Enlightenment Now, only individuals have thoughts, dreams, joys, fears, pain etc. Therefore, it is the well-being of the individual that must take priority. This, Pinker argued, was one of the great philosophical breakthroughs of the Enlightenment.
Equity based thinking brings the group and the individual into conflict almost constantly. This is because, as mentioned above, people differ in many ways. Homogenizing their outcomes, then requires restricting the choices and other rights of individuals. So we can see that in its emphasis on groups over individuals, equity-based thinking is a form of collectivism.
Aside from Pinker’s argument, collectivism’s moral bankruptcy can be shown by taking its operating principle — that the group’s needs trump the rights of individual — to its logical conclusion. That can be shown in one final thought experiment.
Thought Experiment #3: The Cancer Eradication Act
Let’s imagine that there is a bill being debated in Congress called the Cancer Eradication Act of 2021. The bill requires all citizens of the U.S. to have genetic testing. All people who are found to have a genetic pre-disposition to cancer must be sterilized. Anyone found to be in violation will be imprisoned to prevent any of them from spreading cancer through the gene pool.
Such a proposal may sound like something dreamed up by Nazi scientists, but I challenge you to find any inconsistency between the proposal and the collectivist principle. If the group’s good is paramount, then the needs, desires, or sufferings of any given individual are irrelevant.
The individual must be everything. Or she will be nothing.
Equity only seems to work as a value when we forget that people are individuals. Instead we are enticed into turning people— to use a phrase from writer/entrepreneur Chloe Valdery — into “political abstractions.”
Objections: The Lump Fallacy
Addressing all possible objections might make this post too long, but there is one objection I do want to anticipate. It is the notion that one person’s poverty/disadvantage is caused by another person’s wealth or privilege. I would agree, that if that were true, then equity would be important. It would be very important. But this way of looking at society is erroneous. In fact, there is a name for it. It is called the zero-sum fallacy or the lump fallacy.
To be fair, the zero-sum claim is true when a limited resource has to be distributed among a group of people — a pizza among a group of hungry kids, for instance.
Here, equity would seem to be the best guiding value. Everyone gets the same amount of pizza until everyone is full because if one kid eats most of it, someone’s “going to have to eat the box,” to quote PJ O’ Rorque.
The mistake occurs when we think of society in these same terms. Because economies and societies are nothing like pizzas. It is not as if there is a fixed sum of wealth/opportunity in the world, and it all gets distributed among the world’s citizens.
As economist Thomas Sowell often points out, the basic state of humanity is the possession of almost no wealth at all. Think of our ancestors in caves. Wealth is then continually created through productive activity: building, trading, inventing, creating, innovating etc. Because wealth is based on this productive activity, it is highly expandable. Often wealth is only created when a product or service is produced that raises the living standards of other people. That was the case with inventions like the iPhone, for instance.
That is not to say that market economies function as perfect meritocracies. It is to say that there is no causal relationship between one person’s wealth and another person’s poverty unless the disadvantaged person in question is being mistreated.
Mistreatment violates a host of important values already mentioned, and so once again, equity is irrelevant.
If values were commercial products, equity would be a hot commodity in our current marketplace of ideas. It has become central to the conversation around race, identity, and socioeconomics.
We must be willing to examine popular ideas to see if they truly work — practically and philosophically. This essay is meant to look at equity’s philosophical merits. The more specific aspects of equity and how it relates to policy will have to be the subject of another post.
For now, we can suffice it to say that equity has no connection to human well-being, except for those instances where it piggy-backs on other values that do.
Let’s emphasize love, dignity, equality and liberty because they help us to create a better world. Pseudo-values like equity only slow us down and should be tossed onto the trash heap of history.