At first blush, it may seem obvious that equality ought to be a central goal of social policy, and that insofar as a society contains significant inequalities that society stands revealed as fundamentally unjust. In fact, even many of those who would oppose efforts to decrease inequality admit the desirability of equality as an ideal or goal, and merely contend that these efforts are ineffective or impracticable. Yet upon reflection it is not clear (to me, at any rate) why equality as such should be viewed as having such a central importance in evaluating a society.
To say that two things are equal is to say that they are the same. To say that two plus two equals four is to say that the sum of two and two is the same as four, and to say that two people are equally tall is to say that they have the same height. A completely equal society, therefore, would be a society in which everyone was completely the same. Far from being desirable, such a society can only aptly be described as monstrous – a world devoid of any diversity or individual distinctiveness, in which everyone looked the same, talked the same, thought the same, and acted the same. Even if it were possible to create and maintain such a world, it would hardly be desirable to do so. And if equality is not desirable as a goal, then it is not clear why incremental steps toward that goal should be regarded as on that account being desirable.
Now the advocate of equality, if presented with these thoughts, might I expect become somewhat annoyed. He would contend, no doubt, that he never wanted a society in which people were equal in all respects. What upsets him is not inequality with respect to appearance, or intelligence, or humor, or virtue, but inequality with respect to material condition, and when he says that everyone should be as equal as possible, what he means is not that they should all be equally funny or attractive, but that they should be equally wealthy. It is true that a society in which everyone was equally wealthy is not self-evidently undesirable in the way that a society with total equality would be (then again, there is nothing self-evidently undesirable about a society in which everyone is equally smart or equally virtuous either). Yet it is hard to see why, if equality as such is not desirable, equality of wealth or income should have such a prominent place in our vision of the good society. One could not, for example, simply point to the equal dignity of each human being or their equal worth in the eyes of God, since these facts are perfectly consistent with significant inequalities in manner important qualities.
One might, of course, argue that the amount of inequality of income is something within our power to control, whereas inequality regarding other things (such as intelligence, or appearance, or strength) is not. Even if true, one might wonder why a just God (for whom the distribution of such qualities was under His control) would distribute them unequally. But it is not even true that we have no control over such matters. While differences in things like intelligence, or attractiveness, or strength are no doubt partly due to genetic endowment, they are also partly due to human effort, and we could reduce such inequalities if we so chose. When a teacher helps a student achieve her above average potential, that teacher is increasing the overall inequality of intelligence. Yet we do not on that account consider that this teacher has done something shameful or wrong. Indeed, if a teacher tried to squelch a particularly bright student’s learning on the grounds that it reduced inequality, we would object vehemently. Likewise, only a fool would recommend discouraging virtue among the more virtuous members of society, on the grounds that this decreased the inequality of virtue in the society.
When it comes to virtue, what we want to reduce is not inequality of virtue but sin. When it comes to intelligence, what we want to reduce is not inequality of knowledge but ignorance and stupidity. Similarly, I think, when it comes to wealth what we should want to reduce is not inequality of income but poverty. Reductions in poverty may accompany reductions in income inequality, or they may not. Strange as it may seem reductions in poverty are accompanied by increases in income inequality as often as not.
Of course, in judging the prosperity, or intelligence, or virtue of a society, one cannot look simply at the richest, or smartest, or most virtuous members of that society. A society with a few saints surrounded by a hoard of moral monsters is not on account of those saints a very moral society.
At the same time, one cannot judge the wealth, or intelligence of a society by looking solely at its median income, or IQ either, and it may actually be beneficial to a society in some ways for it to have higher inequality. A group that has some geniuses and an average IQ of 90 will often be better off than a group where everyone has an IQ of 100. Likewise, as Pope Leo XIII noted in Rerum Novarum, there are advantages that come from a society in which not everyone is equal:
There naturally exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition. Such unequality is far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community. Social and public life can only be maintained by means of various kinds of capacity for business and the playing of many parts; and each man, as a rule, chooses the part which suits his own peculiar domestic condition.
Nor does the fact that inequality as such is not a matter of great concern mean that inequality might not have secondary effects that should concern us. Large amounts of inequality might, for example, incite envy or pride. Yet attempts to reduce inequality also may have negative secondary effects, which must be taken into account. Once we understand, however, the proper place that concerns about inequality should have in our vision of society, we will be in a better position to evaluate how best to achieve social progress.