Quarantine and Social Justice

Gregg Caruso is interested in the notion of Agency from the perspective of justice, desert, and sentencing. This is applied philosophy.

My main argument against the possibility of free will is Nietzsche-Strawson’s causa sui argument, which I’ve touched on a few times by now, but I haven’t yet fully articulated my position. I’ll get to that another day. I’d also like to create another video, as I would like to do for this as I explore in more detail.

Ostensibly, this is a compatibilist view that leaves a modicum of free will, even with causa sui in place. I hope this illustration will be helpful.

In the centre of the illustration is you, the self of some arbitrary person who shall act as our subject. Let’s assume a couple of basic premises:

  1. We either live in a relaxed causal, deterministic or indeterministic universe.
  2. Causa sui is in full force and effect: one cannot cause any aspect of one’s self.

I include the term relaxed in the first premise, so I don’t have to deal with a fully deterministic universe governed entirely by the notion captured by Schrödinger’s equation. The second premise is in place to serve as a limitation: even if consciousness is an emergent property, its emergence doesn’t grant some insuperable metaphysical powers. One cannot reach outside of one’s self.

The scenario plays out as follows. You have been apprehended for violating some statute. Let’s say that you’ve taken an item from a retail store. As you are leaving the store, the police stop you. When asked if you took the item, you answer in the affirmative. This is a very efficient municipality, so you are taken immediately to a magistrate to make a plea.

In this scenario, Caruso is your attorney at law. His argument is that, given causa sui, you cannot be responsible for who you are. We’ve been here before. Since you can’t be responsible for who you are, any sentence to punish you would be unethical, as you’ve done nothing to deserve it. This is the notion of desert in the realm of retributive justice.

The judge buys this argument, but s/he counters with three possible courses of action. You may not be responsible for who you are, but we are a community of laws. You are a victim of your circumstances, so we cannot look backwards. For whatever reason—and through no fault of your own, by definition—, you were broken relative to complying with community norms.

Social Justice

Firstly, we may wish to make an example of you, to signal the community that we will incarcerate people who break the laws. This is more a public service purpose than a punishment.

Secondly, if you had contracted a communicable disease—we’re looking at you Covid—, you can be quarantined under the consideration of the common good. Framed this way, it is not a punishment, we just don’t want it to happen again.

Lastly, we may also be justified on the grounds of rehabilitation. I highlight the ‘re‘ in rehabilitation because some people may not have been ‘habilitated’ in the first place. Perhaps think of them as feral. In any case, a computer programming analogy might make sense here.

So what’s this all about? Remember, causa sui says that you cannot be held responsible for creating yourself. The claim is that you are a product of your nature and nurture. Genetically speaking, perhaps there was some reason that you could not incorporate inputs into factors that allowed you to appropriately interpret this law—or any law, more generally. Or maybe, you were never exposed to this law or category of law before.

In the preventative vein, we could be signalling, ‘We caught You taking an item from a shop without paying. Now you know this, and we may make an example of you since you are caught as well’.

Quarantine may be a bit of a stretch in this scenario, so feel free to substitute a more serious offence if it helps you to remember this. Perhaps You killed someone. Even without punishment, we may want to get You off the streets before another killing is perpetrated. I’ll come back to this one.

Rehabilitation makes sense even if one is not responsible for one’s self. Presuming that you are a product of programming—family, culture, peers, and so on—, perhaps you just need to be rewired. Perhaps a particular subroutine was not implemented or activated correctly. This rationality could be used as a non-punitive justification.


The public prevention case may be why offenders were pilloried in by-gone days. Display in a public square may inform some who may have missed the lesson the first time around, hence dissuading taking similar actions. But unless this ‘public service message’ reached enough people, it would probably not be the best rationale.

Quarantine may sound OK on the surface, but it’s actually rather specious. Firstly, that You knicked a trinket. What exactly is the risk of contagion? Petty theft is not known to be particularly communicable. Secondly, just because you’ve done something once is little measure of whether you’ll do it again. In fact, if this were true, then one might have assumed that you could never have committed the offence because of your history.

Rehabilitation may likely be the best option among these. If you missed that particular lesson or had forgotten or diminished the calculus, remediation may do just the trick. However, if your ‘operating system’ is not up to snuff, it’s not a matter of inputs. It’s a matter of processing capability.

Psychological intervention is in its infancy, so the probability of remediating this is low, if not a crap shoot. And not all such processes can be remediated. This could lead one to fall back on the quarantine option, but who is the competent assessor in this case?

It’s easy enough to assess if You is Hannibal Lecter or tells you straight out that s/he intends to repeat the offence. Some cognitive deficiencies are simple enough to recognise. But what about the grey areas—all of that space in between?

And who is making sure that the judges are not being punitive simply because they haven’t yet eaten lunch?


Bringing this to a close, if we have no free will, it makes no sense to punish. Sadly, most justice systems promote retributive justice and punishment in sentencing. I’ll spare you my diatribe on how I believe most people attracted to jurisprudence, law, and law enforcement have been conditioned. And whilst Caruso feels justified in foreword action, I am more sceptical. This said, I’ll take what I can get.

This post is pretty much a stream of consciousness. I hope to give it better treatment in a future video.

Monopoly on Reparations

Many places have histories of exploiting a group or groups to the advantage of others. Although this scenario applies to these people in a similar manner, I am thinking specifically of the exploitation and reparations due to the black and indigenous people of colour, BIPOC, in the United States.

I believe that many people are familiar with Monopoly, the board game where, among other things, one accumulates properties and extracts rents from the other players. My intent is to illustrate with Monopoly the need for reparations, to illustrate why reparations are necessary to restore justice. This is a twist on John Rawls’ veil of ignorance thought experiment.

Slave auction advertisement

I have heard some people say that the past is the past, or if there were injustices in the past, that was ages ago, and now everyone has an equal chance. No special accommodations or affirmative actions are necessary. I don’t agree that this is true, but let’s just say for the sake of this exposition that opportunities are equal for everyone in a given society.

There are parallels between a game of Monopoly and the way we are thrown into this world. No one differs in this regard. We are all subject to a loin lottery.

Imagine that I already own all of the properties. You own none. Irrespective of how the game came to this condition, your chances of winning are nil to none. Now imagine that the reason for the disparate ownership was the result of a system of injustice perpetrated by the player I inherited my position from on the player you inherited yours.

No matter how fairly the game is from now until the end, if your starting place leaves me with all of the property and you without, your chances of winning are slim to none. Favouring tradition and inheritance already benefits some people over others, but when the benefit is the result of a pattern of injustices, it feels more egregious. Worse yet, even if I ‘give’ you Whitechapel Road, Baltic Avenue, or Rue Lecourbe and keep the rest, your chances have only slightly improved.

With the end of US Civil War and the emancipation proclamation, affected blacks were promised 40 acres and a mule. For most, this never happened. This remains an outstanding debt. And whilst 40 acres in some places would be a boon, not many today really need a mule, so descendants of slaves need to be made whole. Reparations are a way to accomplish this.

Reparations are payments in arrears to attempt to compensate for the centuries of an unbalanced playing field. And reparations should allow you to recover more than Whitechapel, Baltic, or Rue Lecourbe properties. At least get Bond Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, or Boulevard des Capucines. If you’ve played Monopoly, you’ll understand that this is still not enough.

Can Metamodernism Sublate Modernism and Postmodernism?

I’ve been hearing that metamodernism is the next stage in the march of history toward progress. Metamodernism will synthesise modernism and postmodernism into something better that before. It’s what’s for breakfast.

I’ve heard about metamodernism in the past, and everytime I review some material I discount it and move on. This time, I’ll react to it. My colleagues in some other online fora have suggested metamodernism (Freinacht) or post-liberalism (Pabst), who see their solution located in the middle between conventional polarities. The attempt here is to adopt Hegel’s dialectic approach, so we’ve got a starting point, an objective, a lens, and a framework. Sounds good. Let’s go. But what are we trying to reconcile?

Ideas attributed to Modernism are

  1. Faith in science
  2. Development and progress
  3. Democracy
  4. The individual
  5. A meritocratic social order
  6. Humanity can recreate nature by virtue of her reason

Ideas attributed to Postmodernism are

  1. Critical questioning of all knowledge and science
  2. Suspicion towards all grand narratives about “progress”
  3. Emphasis on symbols and contexts
  4. Ironic distance
  5. Cultures have been oppressed and ruined by modern society
  6. Reveals injustice in “democratic” societies
  7. Relations create the individual
  8. A multicultural order where the weak are included
  9. Humanity has destroyed the biosphere

Metamodern Ideas

  1. How can we reap the best parts of the other two?
  2. Can we create better processes for personal development?
  3. Can we recreate the processes by which society is governed, locally and globally?
  4. Can the inner dimensions of life gain a more central role in society?
  5. How can modern, postmodern and premodern people live together productively?
  6. How can politics be adjusted to an increasingly complex world?
  7. What is the unique role of humanity in the ecosystems of nature?

Reviewing the Modern List

I want to be careful not to construct a strawman or create a false dichotomy, so perhaps I do have to backtrack to touch on the Modern list.

Faith in science is exactly that—faith—and is not warranted without recognised and articulated assumptions.

The notions of development and progress rely on underlying teleological goals and values that are not universally agreed upon and don’t benefit participants in the same manner and to the same degrees. There are winners and losers.

Democracy is a specious notion that I’ve railed against time and again. This is simply one form of political organisation among many. There is no reason to elevate this form over many others.

Moderns do have an rather fixed notion of what defines the individual. A Postmodern is not very likely to accept this notion except as a snapshot that can only be interpreted within a narrowly defined context.

A meritocratic social order is a Modern concept ripe with metanarrative support.

That humanity can recreate nature by virtue of her reason—notwithstanding the odd use of ‘her, evidently a nod to Mother Nature—, there is a elevated notion that reason is a superior mechanism. I’d extend this to include the notion that many people—not just the elite—are capable of ‘reason’. Yet again, all of this is questionable.

Critiquing the Postmodern List

At the start, I’ll suggest that Metamodernism is an attempt by Moderns to re-established ground lost to Postmoderns under the auspices of reconciliation. This does not appear to come from a disinterested mediator. The constituents of the Modern list look orthodox enough for my purposes, and I wish to spend some time parsing the Postmodern list. These lists don’t appear to be equivalent, as there is more editorialising in the PoMo list. I’ll skip the the first 4, taking them as given.

That cultures have been oppressed and ruined by modern society is quite value-laden. I’d be more inclined toward cultural constructs rely on unspoken metanarratives that leads to unbalance and disrupt the playing field. Employing the term ruin is a hint that the author is a Modern out of their element. To ruin would presume a notion of something to ruin with some teleological metanarrative in play.

That PoMo reveals injustice in “democratic” societies is interesting. First, the quotes around democratic suggests that the author finds claims of democracy to be specious or finds the term is at least at times misapplied. I can’t be certain. In the end, it’s not important because it seems to be acting as an unnecessary filler anyway. I better rendering might be the phrase ‘reveals injustice in societies‘. Full stop.

Relations create the individual feel legitimate. Identity is unnecessary in a vacuum. Although Identity is a dynamic and ambiguous concept. I don’t think this will affect my assessment.

A multicultural order where the weak are included is prescriptive. This, again, is a misinterpretation by a modern. That a Postmodern makes a claim that a culture has inequalities and inequities, it does not follow that s/he is promoting some particular solution—include the weak. Emotionally, this may indeed be the reaction by a Postmodern—perhaps myself included—, but this is not part of the philosophy that points out the discrepancy. It’s an annex.

Attributing the claim that humanity has destroyed the biosphere to Postmoderns is a huge stretch. I don’t believe this is an idea initiated by Postmoderns, and I don’t think this perspective is disproportionality held by Postmoderns over some other cohort.

Perusing the Metamodern List

Now to react to the metamodern list. Having already inspected the list, I’ll point out that every one of these questions has a Modern perspective—the need to construct and resolve over a need to deconstruct and explore.

How can we reap the best parts of the other two?

Ok. The concept of best here is a bit disconcerting since best is value-laden and relies on context, which further relies on some set of narratives.

Can we create better processes for personal development?

Again, what is this person we are developing? What is the telos? Why this telos and not another?

Can we recreate the processes by which society is governed, locally and globally?

This is a binary question, so I’ll assume the author meant more. We already know this answer. It’s yes.

The question this implies is ‘what might it be?’ We already know this answer, too. There are any number of organisations and processes of government, none particularly better than the next.

Can the inner dimensions of life gain a more central role in society?

Where is the inner dimensions idea even come from? Why would anyone even accept the notion, and why give it any preference let alone credence? Not to be a dick, but why give anyone a role? The apparent metanarrative here appears to be democracy or at least participation, but there is not reason to accept this as better or worse than alternatives.

How can modern, postmodern and premodern people live together productively?

Why ‘productively’? This is another Modern notion foisted on the solution. Aside from the productivity red herring, this is a somewhat valid question, though it does elevate the notion of an inclusive society, and there is not reason to accept this as a preference, again, without some underlying metanarrative treatment.

How can politics be adjusted to an increasingly complex world?

This feels a bit emptier that the other list entries. Again, the answer depends on the goals and expectations, so it requires this context.

What is the unique role of humanity in the ecosystems of nature?

Really? Humans need to have a unique role? This is obviously a Modernist-Humanist notion that elevate humans. I could see an argument where humans can be unique but not elevated. Again, what world would that be in? With notions of progress and productivity, it should be obvious that we’re again operating with some underlying metanarratives in place.

So What?

Reviewing metamodernism again, I can see why I forget about it shortly after I encounter it. Perhaps this will serve as a reminder that I’ve trodden this ground before. In summary, it’s painfully apparent to me that so-called Metamodernism is simply an attempt by Moderns to repackage and re-gift Modernism through the same old lens, but I’m not buying it.

Along my quick review of information on Metamodernism, there is a large metaphysical/spiritual element that is quite unlikely to resolve to either rationality or Postmodernism.

I may investigate other flavours of this concept, whether post-post modernism, post-liberalism, but from what I can tell, these are backwards looking toward Classical Virtue metaethical models. Besides having nostalgic value, I’m not a fan.

Political Path

People can change.

Although I have changed my opinion and perspective over the years, I feel that most people settle into their ways, fixing their positions with an unhealthy dose of confirmation bias. I’d like to think that I could change my position materially from where I am now given the introduction of new evidence, but I don’t think it’s likely. First off: because I am coming from a vantage where I feel I am ‘right’.

Don’t believe everything you think.

— Various

Of course, there is no absolute right, but from the perspective of the times and place and some triangulation, I’ll say ‘relatively right’.


When I left high school in 1979, I considered myself to be generally Conservative — at least as I understood the word to mean and without dimension or nuance. I’m not sure I had a great grasp of the definition.

Upon graduation, I entered the military. I remember in conversation with a mate that I was a Conservative. He laughed, and said I was the least Conservative person he’d ever come across. I was perplexed, but I had to reorient my self-perspective.

New Definition

I decided that I was a Conservative — a Fiscal Conservative —, but I was a Social Liberal. I’d pretty much been a Social Justice Warrior (SJW), concerned with the underdogs, but it wouldn’t be on my dime — or the prospect I had for future nickels and dimes.

I held this position for years — until I realised that the two positions were untenable. You can’t simultaneously offer full social equality for free, and these were rights we were discussing. Fundamental rights. If money was the friction between a right and its realisation, then it needed to be spent. Fiscal Conservatism be damned!

Politicus Interruptus

Somewhere in the fray, I had dabbled with Libertarianism. Again, I dismissed this as an untenable fantasy. There had never been even close to an instance of this working, and it goes against the grain of all social concepts. It’s built on a dream — somehow anarchy without the anarchy, so anarchy + magic.


At some point, I didn’t like the PR of the Liberal tag, so I opted for Progressive. In the real world, I tend to side pragmatically with Progressives — the Bernie Sanders crowd in the US — , though I understand the illusion of progress and of politics in general.

Searching further to find a political identity, I settle on anarcho-syndicalism, the system I most identify with today, though there are only slightly more examples of this as there are Libertarian instances, a problem being that when some people see a leaderless group, they see it as a vacuum, and history repeats itself, so I’m not sure how sustainable this system could be.

This is now…

I am under no delusion that there is a right way for society to exist. I do believe there are plenty of wrong ways, but there are too many dimensions and complexities to have a single way. After all, how are you optimising the system? Trade-offs exist, and making a choice to maximise X might (and does) mean that Y is no longer maximised. Do you make X = 10 and Y = 8, or do you settle for X = 9 and Y = 9? And there are decidedly more than just X and Y.

There is no real reason to believe that society or even humans should exists, but given consciousness and self-preservation urges, I’ll take that as a given. That’s an inviolable metanarrative element.

Geuss Who?

A mate in an online forum turned me onto Raymond Geuss, who’s got just the perspective I’ve been looking for. I’ve felt that the concepts of rights and justice are weak on etymological grounds, but Geuss’ critique is even more fundamental. In his Philosophy and Real Politics, Geuss undercuts the positions of both Nozick and Rawls. I’ve never been a fan of Nozick, but I do consider (have considered) myself to be a bit of a Rawlsian.

Nozick is a key figure underneath Libertarianism, as this movement is very centred on rights. Opting for rights as his starting place as his preface to Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).” — Robert Nozick

As Geuss points out, Nozick ‘allows that bald statement to lie flapping and gasping for breath like a large, moribund fish on the deck of a trawler, with no further analysis or discussion, and proceeds to draw consequences from it’. In other words, Nozick leads with an unsubstantiated claim that ‘individuals have rights’, and then ‘advances’ his position tautologically.

As for Rawls, justice is his centrepiece. In his A Theory of Justice, the opening line is “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought”. He merely starts from this emotional place and advances his theory based on this basis of justice, yet nowhere does he explain of defend why this should be the foundation. As with Nozick, Rawls simply conjures this out of thin air.

Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” — John Rawls

On top of this, Geuss comments on the shaky etymologic foundation of both justice and rights. Harkening back to the Latin origin of justice,

As Geuss writes, ‘To begin with the question of the concept of “justice,” it is striking how unclear this concept is in ordinary language and to what extent conceptions of justice differ from one context to another and in different human societies at different times. Thus at the beginning of one of the standard treatises of Roman law, the codification made for the emperor Justinian — one of the most influential texts in European history — we find that the very first sentence gives us a definition of “justice”: “iustitia est constans et perpetua voluntas ius suum cuique tribuens.” That is, justice is “the constant and unflagging will to give each person what is due to him.”

What have the Romans ever done for us?” – Monty Python

Then he goes on to clarify that “what is due to him” is radically different dependant on being a citizen, an alien, a slave, a woman, a minor, and so on. To simplify this, we are stuck in a tautological loop: one is due what one is due, as determined somewhat exogenously.

Rights don’t fare any better, being even more ambiguous, so I don’t feel so bad about pursuing the irrelevance of these virtue concepts on etymological grounds.

Post-Post-Modern Subjectivism

I’ve just finished reading Steven Pinker‘s The Blank Slate. Originally published in 2002 (and re-published with an afterword in 2016), it still feels fresh. Pinker offers compelling rationale for accepting that humans are not blank slates entering the world.

Though I am somewhat of a social justice warrior in principle, I am still a moral subjectivist, a post-modern thinker. Pinker shares his strong feelings against subjectivism, but he provides no evidence of the moral objectivism he advances, relying instead on an emotional appeal; in fact, he employs the same defensive tactic his detractors employ, which is to try to make an empathic connection to the reader.

All he does is to claim that there is an objective morality because everybody feels and knows that X is better than Y, taking a strawman approach. It’s not that I disagree with his Xs and Ys; it’s just that they are subjective not objective measures. He tries to slip in an appeal to popularity by claiming that everybody would (or should) feel this way when push comes to shove.

Nietzsche, I think, had it right in Beyond Good and Evil when he pointed out the dual moral systems of masters and slaves. Although a moral (just) system might be best constructed from scratch in the manner of Rawlsveil of ignorance, we are not starting from a blank slate. The power structures are already in place. There is a possibility for upward and downward mobility, but large jumps are not likely except in the manner of a lottery. Other than this, it’s unlikely that one will move from one quintile to another and even less likely to skip a quintile, especially on the upward trend.

In any case, the issue is not whether some might feel subjectively better; it’s whether—across all possible dimensions—a relative, stable equilibrium can be found. Even here, this is not objective, even if it’s not otherwise arbitrary or capricious. The larger problem is one of epistemological empiricism—apart from the ontological question—, whether we can know that we’ve found the objective truth or if we’ve just settled on something that works for our current station.

As much as I really do like Steven Pinker, and I await his next book, Enlightenment Now, I do so only to read how he couches his argument in support of Enlightenment and Humanism, two concepts I feel are tainted by hubris

All equalities are not equal

I have long been interested in notions of social justice and equality, but somehow it all felt a bit loosey-goosey and amorphic. To be honest, I feel this way about the entire composition of government, politics, and jurisprudence, and other power structures, but those are topics for some other days. Also, I won’t endeavour to speak to the artificial income-market construct, so for the purposes of this post, I’ll take this as given, as anachronistic and quaint as it might otherwise be. Nor will I discuss whether the system itself, apart from the equality question, is optimal or even makes any sense from a broader vantage, or whether competition has a role in an otherwise coöperative society.

Along with empty virtue notions as freedom, liberty, and justice, (topics for another day) equality is a post-Enlightenment Age catchphrase. As with its counterparts, it sounds nice; it has a nice ring to it, but it is just as specious. These are words invoked to raise emotions, but as with a pointillist’s painting, if you attempt to scrutinise them too closely, they become unintelligible.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat

Aside from maths, equality is an issue for sociology as well as political philosophy. In maths, the concept is tautological.

“In sociology, the study of the causes and consequences of inequality in its various forms – class, race, gender, power, status, knowledge, wealth, income – is one of the most pervasive themes of the discipline. In philosophy, theories of justice and rights are centrally concerned with the problem of justifying and criticising different kinds of inequality.” [1]

Sociologist, Bryan Turner, identified four flavours of equality:

  1. Ontological Equality

  2. Equality of Condition

  3. Equality of Opportunity

  4. Equality of Outcome

Political Philosophy is more concerned with accepting the sociological definition as given and discussing it in the negative sense of inequality.

Tautological Equality

In maths, we have likely been made accustomed with equalities since grade school. In fact, that’s what makes the other notions so compelling. It all appears to be so tidy and scientific.

1 = 1

2 = 2

1 + 1 = 2

Amazing, right? Two values balanced on either side of an equals sign. The problem is that these equations—these equalities—are logical tautologies. They are equal because this is in fact how they are defined, defined in the same manner as we define a red lorry as red. Equal in this context is not useful for us, save as a familiar reference.

Ontological Equality

The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America employs ontological equality, where ontological is defined as “relating to the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being”.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Aside from an unsubstantiable claim that these so-called “truths” are somehow “self-evident”, this weakest form of equality is a claim “that all men (read: people) are created equal” at birth because “their Creator” (read: God, an obvious metaphysical nod) “endowed” them with this  aspect.

Translating this into common parlance, this states that we are all equal in the eyes of God [sic]. In essence, to commence a racing metaphor, this means that we all get to participate in the race, and that sounds good, right?

The problem with ontological equality is that it outright ignores existing inequalities, so whilst you may be equal in God’s eyes, that’s where it ends. Essentially, you get an empty promise. If you’ve got something to say about, say a prayer; God’s got operators standing by. At least you get to play the game.

Man U
Manchester United football club players

Equality of Condition

Where ontological equality leaves off, equality of condition steps up. Beyond the metaphysical promise, it claims that all people get to start at the same position, that we each get to start at the same starting line. That sounds fair, right?

The problem with equality of condition is that whilst you may get a place at the starting line, you still face any systematic or structural adversity in play, whether that be discrimination, wealth disparities, access to quality education or other public services, and so on, at least you get to play the start at the same place.

Starting Line
High school girls at a starting line

Equality of Opportunity

My Libertarian associates seem to love this one. In fact, in their world, the only conversation is about equality of opportunity (also known as formal equality of opportunity) versus opportunity of outcome. It’s a cage match to the death, and opportunity is their champion.

Cage Match
Cage Match Fight

This flavour of equality doesn’t claim that a person has the right to start in the same place—only that the rules will be the same.

The problem with equality of opportunity is that it makes a specious claim. Besides ignoring the condition and situation and any past infractions—letting bygones be bygones (especially when they have given you the advantage that you wish to retain).

A parallel would be to allow a steroid-pumping athlete to compete by rationalising that, well, the race has started, so let’s just keep playing. Afterall, we’re playing by the same rules, so that makes it fair. Forgive and forget, right?.

The privileged live in better neighbourhoods, have access to better schools, can afford tutors and summer programmes. Many live in more stable family environments growing up, and they have access to networking benefits. This is further reinforced in university, and, like compound interest, the earlier one starts, the greater the effects of compounding.


Again, equality of opportunity might sound good on the surface, but, yet again, it disintegrates on scrutiny. Its main purpose is a feel-good head fake to keep one’s eyes off the prize.

Substantive Equality of Opportunity

A subset of equality of opportunity is substantive equality or fair equality of opportunity. Under this model, additional remediation is asserted to the disadvantaged person. This might be a familiar concept to golfers, who have handicaps. The goal is to—whilst also enforcing a similar rule set—accomodate those with some head start advantage. In the everyday context, it could be providing additional funding or resources to underprivileged children.

The problem with substantive equality of opportunity is that the deficiencies are multifaceted, the system itself is too complex to account for all material dimensions and measures, and most assessments are normative in nature.

Equality of Outcome

Equality of outcome is particularly pernicious. It claims that in the end, everybody wins, and everyone gets the same prizes.

Image of Alice taking with a dodo bird
‘At last the Dodo said, everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’

This is a potential result of Communism, that is if the definition is taken to the absurd. This is a common criticism by some when every participant receives a participation prize—a manifestation of the notion that everybody is special.

The problem with equality of outcome is that, among other things, not everybody wants the same thing, so this logic basically boils down to I want what I want if what you have is what I want as long as everyone else who also wants what I want has it, too. Of course, we could reduce this down from actual equality—apples for apples and oranges for oranges—into value equality, where everyone has access to some comparably equivalent value (whatever that might mean, especially insomuch as different people assign different values to the same goods and services).

Kurt Vonnegut depicted this in his short story, Harrison Bergeron (PDF), where, not being able to raise certain persons, people were instead reduced to the lowest common denominator, so rather than elevate the cognitive ability of low IQ people, the solution was to diminish the capacity of higher IQ people, so as to produce the same—albeit lower—results.

Dancers represented in Harrison Bergeron


In the end, ontological equality is nothing more than vapour; equality of condition fails to account for material differences among people and their situations; equality of opportunity also fails to account for disparities of condition; and equality of outcome is an unrealistic pipe dream that would be too complicated and complex to implement.

In order to further communication, if that is indeed even the purpose (rather than obfuscation, which I feel may be the prime motive), we need to use different concepts, to find new terminology.

End Notes

[1] Equality: Sociological & Philosophical Perspectives, Brighouse & Wright, 2009 (https://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/Sociology%20915%20&%20Philosophy%20955%202009%20syllabus.pdf, retrieved 5-9-2017)

Also note, that I reserve the right to make inline edits to this post in an attempt to extend, clarify, and otherwise elucidate this topic on equality.