what’s an egalitarian?

Larry Temkin, in his book Inequality, defines an egalitarian as “anyone who attaches some value to equality itself. That is, an egalitarian is anyone who cares at all about equality over and above the extent it promotes other ideals.”

It makes sense to talk about whether we value something in itself or for some other reason. We make this distinction all the time. But, on its face, it doesn’t seem to make much sense when talking about inequality. Inequality is, by definition, inequality of something. You can’t have individuals that are unequal if there is no means by which they are unequal. If we must talk about inequality as inequality of some good or some position, then it seems tricky to define an egalitarian as someone who attaches some value to equality in itself.

In other words, it doesn’t seem to me that there is much ‘equality in itself’ in the world. If I have two bananas and you have four, the inequality is of bananas and bananas have a conventional use to which there is already value attached. When we talk about inequality of things, which we must, we can’t detach from those things the value that has already accrued.

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