Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Illusions of Egalitarianism

This is the title of a book by John Kekes (Cornell University Press, 2003). It looks to be one of those books that I need to assimilate thoroughly. What better way to assimilate a book than by ‘blogging’ it? Herewith, some notes on Chapter 1, with a brief foray into Chapter 2. Critical comments are in blue. I should say that I am deeply sympathetic to Kekes’ position, to the extent that I understand it. Bear this in mind when you read my critical comments below.


Keke’s book is a critique of egalitarianism, a currently dominant form of liberalism. Kekes defines egalitarianism as the view that "all human beings should be treated with equal consideration unless there are good reasons against it." (p. 1) This assumes an initial presumption in favor of equal consideration. Accordingly, for the egalitarian, what needs defense is not this initial presumption, but any departure from it.

Many will take egalitarianism to be a truism. Kekes, however, denies that egalitarianism is a truism and will go on to argue that the arguments given in favor of it are unacceptable.

The issue can be focused by asking: Why should the presumption be in favor of equal treatment rather than unequal treatment given the manifold differences among people in respect of capacities and incapacities, virtues and vices, and so on? As a matter of fact, many differences are used, and rightly used, to justify unequal treatment: we don’t allow non-citizens to vote in our elections, and, among citizens, we exclude children and felons. Parents do not afford equal consideration to their own and to other people’s children. People treat friends and strangers differently. Given all the many ways in which people are unequal, and are justifiably treated unequally, why should the presumption be in favor of equal treatment? Kekes maintains that "egalitarianism is based on a cluster of overlapping illusions." (p. 2) His list includes:

  • More equality makes good lives more likely
  • Responsibility holds only for intentional actions
  • Justice requires the equalization of property
  • Everyone ought to be treated with equal consideration
  • All human beings have equal moral worth
  • Equal compassion for all is the basis of morality
  • It is immoral to have more of the basic necessities when others have less
  • Equal freedom is the fundamental political value
  • Political neutrality about the good should coexist with personal commitment to it
  • Egalitarianism is the best defense of toleration
  • The aim of political theory is to propound an ideal

Not every egalitarian is committed to all of these putative illusions, but all are to some of them.

Underpinning these illusions is what Kekes calls the optimistic faith, the assumption that "human beings are, if not basically good, at least inclined that way." (p. 4) Kekes finds the assumption in Rousseau, Kant, J. S. Mill, and John Rawls. Those who adhere to the optimistic faith do not see the origin of evil in human nature, but in corrupt political arrangements. Man is not intrinsically corrupt, but corrupted by society. Kekes believes that the optimistic faith belongs on the scrapheap alongside of the divine right of kings, the classless society, the superiority of the white race, damnation outside the church, the planned economy, and the belief in an idyllic prehistorical society. (p. 7)

In Chapter 2, Kekes gives three reasons why the optimistic faith of the egalitarian is indefensible. The first is that it is not falsifiable: " is held in such a way as to make it impossible to adduce evidence against it." (p. 13) Good actions are explained by saying that they spring from human nature which is inherently good. Evil actions, however, are not taken as evidence of evil in human nature, but as indicating the contingent corruption of human beings by bad or unequal political arrangements. Since all that is evil in the human condition can be assigned to bad or unequal political arrangements, there is nothing that could falsify the optimistic faith.

Kekes’ second reason for the indefensibility of the optimistic faith is that it cannot explain how political arrangements become bad or unequal in the first place. Assuming a dominant propensity for good in people, how do bad arrangements come about?

Kekes’ third reason for the indefensibility of the optimistic faith of egalitarians is that it is that it is "inconsistent" (Kekes’ word) with such facts as widespread selfishness, greed, envy, etc. (p. 14) The optimistic faith " a sentimental falsification that substitutes illusion for reality." (P. 14)


I’ll conclude this post with a question. How is the third reason logically compatible with the first? According to the first reason, the optimistic faith (O. F.) cannot be falsified. According to the third, the faith is falsified by various facts. Obviously, the O.F. cannot be both unfalsifiable and falsified. It looks as if Kekes must abandon either his first reason or his third reason.

There may be a problem here for Kekes and other conservatives, and a way out for the egalitarian. The latter might say that the O.F. is not a statement about human actuality, but one about human potentiality. Accordingly, what O. F. says is not that human beings are basically good in actual fact, but that they they have the potential for becoming basically and perhaps wholly good. The egalitarian might continue: The empirical facts of mass murder, slavery, etc. establish what is and has been the case, but not what must be the case. (In the First Critique, Kant says somewhere that experience teaches what is the case, but not what must be the case.) Thus the empirical facts do not prove an intrinsic corruption of human being, but leave open the possibility of a future in which human potential is realized and the good triumphs. Kekes may be assuming that the empirical facts about human behavior give us insight into human nature, into what is essential to human beings, and thus cannot be otherwise. But this raises an epistemological question: How can one know necessary truths by a posteriori means? How can one know what man must be like from facts about what he is and was like? (Compare Saul Kripke, who argued that there is a posteriori knowledge of natural necessities.)

The egalitarian might argue against Kekes as follows: (1) The O.F. is not a statement about actuality, but about potentiality or possibility. (2) If X is not actual, it does not follow that X is not possible. Therefore, (3) The facts about actual human evil do not refute O.F.; the former are not, pace Kekes, logically inconsistent with the latter.

Here is another way to approach the problem. For Kekes, O.F. is "illusory," a "sentimental falsification." (p. 14 et passim) As an illusory idea or ideal, O.F. cannot represent a genuine possibility, something attainable by human (individual or collective) effort. But how can Kekes show that O.F. is not a genuine possibility? Presumably not by pointing to past and present facts. What is the case does not prove what must be the case, and what is not the case does not prove what cannot be the case. Of course, Kekes might insist that it is an excellent induction that the future will be like the past, and that human bad behavior with continue, and take this as indicating something about human nature. In other words, he could take the regularity of behavior as being grounded in, and explained by, an invariant human nature with an invariant propensity for evil along with a propensity for good.

But this leads to a stand-off, rather than a decisive refutation of the egalitarian. This suggests that Kekes himself is adhering to an indemonstrable faith – call it the pessimistic faith or the non-optimistic faith, or the realistic faith – that human nature includes an intrinsic element of corruption that will thwart every egalitarian attempt at amelioration, and indeed will cause those attempts to bring about a worse state of affairs that the one in which we now find ourselves.