Relational Equality

Before turning our attention to the equality of distribution of goods, it is important to point out that the ideal of equality requires, in addition to an equal moral status, an equal social status as well. This is called ‘social’ or ‘relational’ equality in philosophy today (Fourie et al. 2015). Even if persons are not unjustly discriminated against in the sense explained above, they might still be mistreated in the sense that they are not recognized as social equals. Social equality is, therefore, associated with relationships that express respect for or recognition of persons. These claims to social or relational equality are also based on the acknowledgement of universal moral equality, and they share certain similarities with moral equality. They exclude all unequal, hierarchical social relationships in which some people dominate, exploit, marginalize, demean, neglect and disregard others, even if they do not discriminate against them in the sense prohibited by moral equality. So, for example, social equality is aimed against ‘stigmatizing differences in status, whereby the badly off feel like, and are treated as, inferiors’ (O’Neill 2007, 126). While social equality is likely to have significant implications for distribution, many social egalitarians insist that social equality cannot be captured in the first instance by a description of the distribution of goods or some other relevant currency. They object that the distributive paradigm does not capture a number of pertinent concerns (Forst 2013, 17—37). Social equality or inequality is instead conveyed through, among other things, attitudes and evaluations, and the ways in which these are expressed via behaviour and institutions: As a social ideal, it holds that a human society must be conceived of as a cooperative arrangement among equals, each of whom enjoys the same social standing. As a political ideal, it highlights the claims that citizens are entitled to make on one another by virtue of their status as citizens, without any need for a moralized accounting of the details of their particular circumstances (Scheffler 2003, 22; 2005, 5—28).

Some forms of unequal treatment or differentiation are not excluded from moral and social equality if they are compatible with the recognition of equal moral and social status of concerned parties and if they fulfil the requirement of proportional equality. Relevant examples may include those differences based on merit and need, as well as appropriate differences in race, gender and background, as in cases of affirmative action or fair punishment. ‘Where there is social equality, people feel that each member of the community enjoys an equal standing with all the rest that overrides their unequal ratings along particular dimensions’ (Miller 1997, 232; cf. Wolff 1998).

The final conclusion is that moral equality requires relational equality, i.e., an equal social status, but leaves open the question whether legitimate inequalities can be based on other dimensions—such as a person’s natural talents, creativity, intelligence, innovative skills or entrepreneurial ability (Dworkin 2000; Arneson 1989; Cohen 1989; Scanlon 1996). This uncertainty should make it clear that even if all four requirements of equality are fulfilled, not all serious questions about justified entitlements to justice and equality in the social and political sphere are answered.

Thus, even if one sees relational justice in a society as a relationship of equals (Scheffler 2003, 22), the question remains as to the kinds of equal and unequal distributions that are required by the ideal of a society of equals. We find competing philosophical conceptions of equal and unequal distribution serving as interpretations of moral and social equality, and these conceptions need to be assessed according to their degree of fidelity to those egalitarian ideals. That is the crux of the problem to which I now turn.

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