What do We Owe Each Other (part I: equality and fairness)


This article by Martin O’Neill is a review of T.M. Scanlon’s book in the Boston Review.

” There is, on Scanlon’s view, a great deal more to the normative significance of equality. We don’t just want to see equal distribution of some thing. We want to live together, on terms of equal recognition, in ways that avoid interpersonal domination, prevent the emergence of stigmatizing differences in status, allow people to retain the self-respect that comes with seeing themselves as equal to others, and preserve the kind of background equality that can be a precondition for fair competition in the political and economic domains.”

When we are kids, the thing that makes us the most angry is unfairness. “It’s not fair!” we cry, because it instinctively feels so wrong. I don’t know if “fairness” is the same thing as “equality” but I’m going to take a stab at it.

Can something be unfair and equal? I think so, because not everyone was born equal. If there is an entrance to a school with steps, everyone is equal and must go up the steps to go to school. However is someone is in a wheelchair, they can’t go up the steps to get to school, so it is unfair. Fairness, and equality, in society can only exist if it gives access to everyone (in a fair and equal way).

Can something be unequal and fair? Taking the first case, then yes. There are steps to the school, so the school, let’s say, hires someone to take the person in the wheelchair up and down. This would be unequal treatment, but it would be fair. (Just for the argument, I’ve left out an access ramp, or an elevator.)

This is why things like affirmative action exist(ed), wheelchair ramps, braille on signs, special tutors at schools for the hearing or visually impaired.

This is what “defund the police” movements want to encourage, a bit of extra help in order to help poor communities function better. In my example, our present way of dealing with things is like requiring everyone to use the steps to go up to school, with no extra help for any particular group, then putting the kid in the wheelchair in jail for loitering because he can’t make it up the steps. The idea is to make it less about arresting the kid in the wheelchair and more about figuring out a way to get him up the steps.

So what do we owe each other? In the Boston Review article, the words that stand out to me are “stigmatizing” and “self respect”. We owe it to our most vulnerable members to create a world which is perhaps unequal, but fair, in order to avoid stigmatizing them and that to allow everyone to have self respect.

Foro loves and respects everyone!!!

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