Only Discriminate – four versions of justice

“We do not support the notion of discrimination. But you have to distinguish between people.”

These were the words of the Archbishop of Westminster in response to the Pope’s comments on the proposed equality legislation in the UK (reported by the Guardian).

Note the slipperiness of language. In its non-pejorative sense, discrimination does mean distinguishing between people or things, but the more popular usage makes discrimination a thing to be discouraged: distinguishing with the aim of unjustly favouring some over others. I am discriminating in the movies I watch. There is no question of injustice here. The Glenn Miller Story is clearly the greatest movie of all time. But if I discriminate in the people I offer jobs to, it’s reasonable to ask what my criteria are, and whether they are just or unjust.

The problem is that we have four broad versions of justice, not one, and these versions are at odds with one another. In fact they define themselves in relation to the others, so that my version of justice is specifically not yours.

For Egalitarianism, justice and equality are self-evidently identical; discrimination of any sort is problematic. In essence everyone is equal, and so any kind of distinguishing, however innocent, may turn out to be the thin end of the wedge. This might appear to be a counsel of despair, since, clearly, a world of identical people would be, to say the least, boring. But the Egalitarian theory of justice says the problem is that in the real world we make far to many distinctions between people and many of them are spurious pretexts for denial of liberty, rights, freedom, opportunity, etc. The basic (!) distinction between genders, for instance, should be unremarkable in terms of justice, but if that is so, how is it what women still get paid less than men and face all sorts of other unjust discrimination? Freedom lies in group-based voluntarism, which discrimination undermines. So for Egalitarianism, the task ahead is to reduce inequality by questioning and reducing existing social distinctions. A world of identical people is hardly on the horizon, and in the mean-time many are losing out to artificial differences that benefit those on top at the expense of those below.

For the Hierarchical world view, this is yet more evidence of a world gone mad. Any minute now, ‘history’ will be banned, in favour of ‘his/her-story’. This artificial Egalitarian levelling is destroying human meaning. If we don’t make distinctions, how can we know where we stand in the world? A society with no top and no bottom is no kind of society at all – it’s a sad, , barren, featureless plain. If all our relationships become equally meaningful, they are therefore equally meaningless. Justice lies in making the right kinds of distinction at the right times. We may not necessarily know what and when this is, but the correct distinctions are guaranteed by higher authorities: God, the law, the Government. All just institutions are organised along Hierarchical lines. This is what creates and preserves meaning. In doing so these institutions are only reflecting the hierarchical ordering of the universe itself. Freedom lies in rule-rich groups, with deep and meaningful traditions and expectations.

The Individualist perspective is deeply sceptical of both the above positions. We are emphatically not all the same. We are all different –  but who is some ‘authority figure’ to tell me how to behave? Individualism strongly opposes rule-bound hierarchies, but has no time either for the group-oriented coercion of political correctness Freedom lies in the freely-chosen association of individuals. It’s reasonable to discriminate, but only on the basis of ‘real’ distinctions: individual merit and prowess, determined not by some group or some hierarchy, but in free and open competition. There, and only there, lies justice.

Finally, Fatalism scoffs at the pretensions of those people and institutions that think they can somehow control the distribution of freedom and justice in any way. We get what luck is going to mete out to us, and the more we try to deny that reality, the less happy we’ll be. Of course there is discrimination, but the only just discrimination is the kind of randomness that the universe throws at us every day. Life’s a lottery, and so is justice. Mostly we lose, but someone has to win. The only really just way of organising is to make things more random rather than less. The world is highly rule-bound, highly deterministic and there’s no club you can join to improve your chances. True freedom means full exposure to the fickle finger of fate.

With this as background we can see that the view of the Archbishop of Westminster on the equality bill is exactly what we might expect the leader of a strongly Hierarchical organisation to say. Any move in favour of equality undermines the rationale of the institution, which is to naturalise and maintain the position of God at the top of a Hierarchy. God is necessary because a Hierarchy obviously requires a head, and the hierarchy is necessary because without one what role could there be for God? To change this view of discrimination (‘you have to distinguish between people’) is therefore to change the cultural bias of the institution’s theology. Equality between people implies putting the Hierarchical God out of work, and will be strongly resisted.

So what is the way forward? One option is to polarise the debate into rival factions who are at loggerheads with one another. The Church is no stranger to this approach. For hundreds of years, Europe experienced religiously motivated wars which revolved around the right of the Hierarchical Church to cast the whole of life in its image. Or to put it another way, these wars were about defending civilisation from the unreasonable claims of those who wanted to make relative the power of the established hierarchy in favour of some misguided views about equality, or the individual or even fate. ‘Sola Sriptura’, said the Reformers; ‘Ecrazez l’infame!’ cried the orchestrators of the Enlightenment. Neat solutions, in which one side won and the other lost, were attempted, without success, for generations. Neatness was often lethal.

A more fruitful option may be to come up with conceptually messy solutions that kill fewer people, solutions that give as well as take. But how could such a thing be negotiated? In truth this conceptual messiness is being negotiated as we speak. For many, the Pope speaks out of place. He’s a relic of another time and place, and he doesn’t fit with ‘how things really are’. For others, he’s a beacon of hope in a dark world, his voice speaks truths the rest of the world is racing away from at its peril. The normative aspect of the Cultural Theory summarised here is that a reflexive public discourse, able to countenance four divergent approaches to social organisation, and to recognise what it’s doing, is the best way of creating institutions we can live with.

The alternative is to shut down the debate, to disallow it in favour of neat solutions. The trouble with suppressing difference is that this false agreement will only result in institutions that can’t live with us.


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