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December 14, 2017


Chris Bertram

You're in a muddle about the telic/deontic distinction.

A telic egalitarian believes that inequality is bad in itself.
A deontic egalitarian believes that sometimes equal treatment is required by a duty of fairness (perhaps when the state distributes some good to its citizens)
An instrumental egalitarian believes that inequalities are bad because of their effects.

Basically, you've mixed the deontic category (having to do with duties) with the instrumental one. Parfit's presentation isn't helpful in its exposition because he initially makes the distinction between telic and "for other reasons", but the "for other reasons" category splits in turn. And both deontic and telic egalitarians believe in the intrinsic badness or wrongness of the inequality they are focused on.


I didn’t read the source, I don’t know what those specific philosophical/economic terms mean (and I would be lying if I said I cared), but Jamie Whyte’s formulation of the seduction of female objects by heterosexual men who are either more or less favored by inborn sexual fitness marks him as a moron, a social Darwinist, or a non-thinker.

What does “witty” mean, even? Telling fart jokes? Repeating things Oscar Wilde claimed he said to stupid people? Sneering at the waiter? Perhaps an inaccurate definition of what constitutes wit explains why this person has such a hard time getting laid.

Wit is not a solid, eternal, immutable human characteristic. Neither is beauty. Neither are the thousands of other things, including talent and style (with what demonstration of superiority would the world’s greatest potential filmmaker have picked up women in the 1840s?) that people judge one another by. Wealth, on the other hand, is increasingly easy to translate across cultures, generations, and nations, and is a much more reliable indicator than “wit” or “beauty” or “talent” of how well its possessors will get along in the world. A rich man in India is probably also a rich man in the US; a nobleman with a bunch of gold in the 14th century or a Southern slaveowner with a 5000 acre plantation are also rich men by today’s standards.

Equality and sameness aren’t the same thing, or even close to the same thing. This is an extremely stupid argument. I hope Jamie Whyte isn't in charge of anything important.

(I'm a big fan of your blog, by the way. I mostly just read the articles for information, because I have very little knowledge of economics — but I’ve gotten so tired of the BUT IF WE FEED THE HOMELESS, WHAT ABOUT FREEDOM??? arguments people are trying to use against socialism/Marxism/whatever that I couldn’t help myself today.)


"This distinction, of course, isn’t confined to egalitarians. It’s also true of libertarians"

Libertarians ARE egalitarians, indeed the term was coined because Proudhon refused to recognise equality within the home -- unlike in the workplace. Joseph Déjacque pointed out the illogical nature of this in 1857 and coined the term libertarian to do so:


The right stole the term 100 years later to describe their anti-egalitarian position of voluntary tyranny. They are better called propertarians, as it is property rather than liberty which is their main concern.

It would be nice if others on the left refused to let the propertarians appropriate the term.


I would say that inequality of wealth allow some people to control means of production, which in turn allow them to determine the lives of great numbers of other people, since others need means of production to earn a living (and I don't think that you are really free to choose not to earn a living).

The same can't be said of inequality of wit.


@Chris Bertram
"You're in a muddle about the telic/deontic distinction.

A telic egalitarian believes that inequality is bad in itself.
A deontic egalitarian believes that sometimes equal treatment is required by a duty of fairness (perhaps when the state distributes some good to its citizens)
An instrumental egalitarian believes that inequalities are bad because of their effects.

Basically, you've mixed the deontic category (having to do with duties) with the instrumental one."

I must admit, I'm failing to see the distinction that was supposed to have been missed. If a deontic egalitarian believes that there is a duty for which a certain action is sometimes necessary to fulfill, then is he/she not being instrumental about that action?

This is, I think, a problem both for daily human action specifically and metaethics generally: we tend to think that deontological reasoning and consequential reasoning are opposed, or at least in a sense incompatible, when that ends up not being the case most of the time.

The duty-bound justification for action which deontological ethics is based upon generally derives from a predetermined good which is established a priori. I.e., it's fundamentally consequentialist: we are duty-bound to perform action A over action B because A results in our predetermined good and B either does not or is less efficient in doing so.

However, consequentialist reasoning tends to be unsustainably strict or inefficient. If we determine good A to be superior to good B, then we establish a duty towards the performance of actions which results in good A over good B, and use that duty as a rule to guide future action. Individuals and societies generally operate around heuristical analytic frameworks for ethics; we don't perform the kind of consequentialist calculations which attempt to predict the entire set of possible results of an action because we aren't god, but instead establish rules which accord duties which (we believe) will, on average, produce more good.

And so, an egalitarian does not necessarily believe in equality in-and-of-itself, but believes that actions which will produce the most equality are also likely to produce the most good--a nebulous enough word which can be tailored to describe the results of such actions in a way which accords with his/her understanding of the initial, proscribed good--equality. I believe this to be true of every proclaimed value.

derrida derider

A lovely clear exposition for non-specialists, Lukas - especially of how we arrive at rule utilitarianism. I never did like that Vonnegut story and now I can say why.

But I wonder if there are any actually existing telic egalitarians. If, as I suspect, there are not (at least outside a few academic philosophy departments and the odd radical religious cult) then they are indeed a pure straw man.


I like Victor Hugo on this subject... its that sovereignty problem again... the point of interaction of sovereignties... society... the social contract.

But I don't have his thoughts in English so here is a "Google Translate" version...

"From the political point of view, there is only one principle: the remembrance of the man on himself. This sovereignty of me on me is called Liberty. Where two or more of these sovereignties join together begins the state. But in this association there is no abdication. Each sovereignty concedes a certain amount of itself to form common law. This quantity is the same for everyone. This identity of concession that everyone does to everyone is called Equality. Common law is nothing but the protection of all radiating on the right of each. This protection of everyone on everyone is called Fraternity. The point of intersection of all these aggregating sovereignties is called Society. This intersection being a junction, this point is a node. Hence the so-called social link. Some say social contract; which is the same thing, the word contract being etymologically formed with the idea of ​​a link. Let us agree on equality; for if freedom is the summit, equality is the basis. Equality, citizens, is not all the level vegetation, a society of great blades of grass and small oaks; a neighborhood of jealousies castrating each other; it is, civilly, all aptitudes having the same openness; politically, all votes having the same weight; religiously, all consciences having the same right."

Chris Bertram

Lukas, there are certainly people who think that all deontological constraints can just be folded into some consequentialist theory (though I'm sceptical), but my point here was merely to say that Parfit employs a 3-way distinction. In any case, he's not here making a cut between deontic and consequentialist concerns generally, for the simple reason that telic egalitarianism also promotes equality as a consequentialist goal. He's saying that some people value equality because it is a valuable end to be pursued; some people value it because it is a requirement of the justice that some agents owe to others; and some people value it because it is instrumental to goals such as health, social solidarity or (for that matter) utility maximization.

Jamie Whyte

My post replies to an arument made by the head of the Fabians. He argued that inequality of wealth is inequality of power and is therefore unjust and in need of correction by taxation. In other words, he thinks that justice requires equality of power (his view). Wealth is power in the same sense that wit is power (I argue). So justice requires equality of wit, which I take to be a reductio ad absurdum of the Fabian's view. Of course, you can come up with another reason why we should equalise wealth that does not entail that we should also equalise wit -- utilitarian arguments, for example. But that is irrelevant because it was not the argument made by the Fabian.

Jamie Whyte

I should also probably comment on the "equality isn't the only value" reply. I did in fact raise this in my original post. I pointed out correcting wit inequalities by physically altering the witty would probably offend some other value held by the head of the Fabians. But he has no problem with using tax to correct inequalities, so he should have no objection to my proposal of using tax to elimintate the advantages of the witty. I have never encountered a socialist who thinks that taxation is an unacceptable violation of liberty. Nor have I met one who thinks that tax should not be used to influence the way people behave. At the deate in question, the Fabian expressed his enthusiasm for taxes and rules that would change what people eat!

Jamie Whyte

And, finally (I promise), my comment that “socialists have always proved willing to translate their theoretical absurdities into practical atrocities” is not "another example of how politics is becoming increasing tribal and polarized, with neither side wishing to properly engage with the other".

I ended my post with an invitation for socialists to explain where my reasoning went wrong. None did.

You may say this is because I rudely claimed that socialist regimes tend to commit atrocities. But can engaging "properly" with socialists require me to pretend that socialist regimes are benign? The USSR, Maoist China, the Khmer Rouge, North Korea ... and now Venezuala. It's like suggesting to someone arguing with a Nazi that he shouldn't mention Auschwitz.

Lidl Janus

A little surprised no-one's brought up the subjectivity of wit. I might think I'm witty; the (unappealingly) nerdy woman with a crush on me might think everything I say is amongst the cleverest statements ever made; the woman I actually want to sleep with might think I'm the most fucking tedious bastard around. I'm still faced with the 'injustice' of her preferring the (from my perspective) total douchebag she'd rather have.

(Of course, why I don't pick nerdy-woman over douchebag-haver then shades into questions of preferences and rational choice and opens up new headaches).

Money, on the other hand, is very measurable (if it isn't, you've probably got fraud or hyperinflation).

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