This article reiterates and expands upon one of my YouTube videos, On Egalitarianism.
What does Egalitarianism mean? To paraphrase the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it’s just a political trend that favors equality of “some sort.” Unless you have defined what equality is, egalitarianism is a shell. A car without an engine. Unless you provide more context, it is a logically useless philosophy. In fact, if you push the statement “egalitarianism favors equality” in a vacuum, it is an example of the fallacy of obscurity.
But it can still be part of a useful model. You just have to complete it first. After all, to fix the fallacy of obscurity, you just have to define what was left out. No one favors egalitarianism without some potentially stupid definition of equality already buried in their heads somewhere. There are different types of egalitarianism. I support some and oppose others.
In each type of egalitarianism, the definition of “equality” changes. What that tells us about egalitarianism is that while it says we should favor “equality,” it has no stake in what people consider equal. I can make up my own form of egalitarianism right now. I am henceforth the father of Mexican Hooker Egalitarianism, where two people are “equal” in my eyes if they can down at least sixteen Mexican Hookers without falling down and crying.
Fuck you, why not?
To further illustrate egalitarianism’s place in logic, let me draw an analogy between egalitarianism and the concept of mathematical congruence. You’ve probably heard of congruent triangles, or maybe even linear congruences in modular arithmetic if you’ve gone on to work in combinatorics. A congruence is a kind of generalization of equality, where two things are considered equal under some context. That context has to be defined to be useful. Saying one thing is congruent to another is meaningless unless you toss in more definitions. Two triangles are congruent if their angles and side lengths are equal, but you can rotate or position them any way you want otherwise. Assuming you only care about sides and angles, you can effectively consider the two triangles equal.
In the case of modular arithmetic, we can make some new insights. When you divide one integer by another, you may end up with a remainder. Trivially, 3 divided by 2 gives a remainder of 1. You can express this as:
In addition, if you divide two integers a and b by some third integer c and you end up with the same remainder…
a and b are considered congruent mod c, which looks like this.
The equals sign with three lines illustrates equivalence, and the parenthetical sets the context.
So what the hell does all this have to do with a political ideology? The analogy is clear when you go back to look at congruence. As I said, it means nothing without context. If I just wrote
and left it on a piece of paper in the middle of the goddamn woods, it means absolutely nothing, just like most messages would when taken out of context. Egalitarianism is no different. If I just told you “Alice and Bob are equal” without setting any context for equality, nothing meaningful can be derived from that without knowing what “equality” means. It’s empty language.
Most of us already know that two people aren’t purely equal in all aspects. We’re clearly different creatures on observation. What we do instead is ask questions like “How is a rich person equal to a poor person?” or “What makes men and women equal?”
To get more insights on this, let’s go back to modular arithmetic. I want to show you something cool. There’s a thing in modular arithmetic called linear congruences, and you solve for unknowns in them a lot like you would in linear equations in algebra. “Solve for x,” as it were. The rules are a bit different since the context changed, but guess how congruence lends itself to us here? Go on, guess.
Turns out, you can substitute one number for another in linear congruences without changing the meaning of the problem. Take this for example.
This says that I can replace a 15 wherever I see a 6 and vise-versa whenever I am working modulo 9. In that context, 15 and 6 are “equal,” which allows substitution in the first place. But in everyday terms, 15 is not 6 because we fall back to a context where we are accustomed to thinking a number can only be equal to itself. But the truth is that in math, equality is context-centric, and you can redefine it however you want as long as you remain consistent with the concept of congruence. I cannot speak for the mutability of “equality” in all academic disciplines, but I think there are many parallels to be drawn between congruence and egalitarianism. But to fully understand the analogy, note that in practice, we don’t care about “equality” between people in their entirety, just between attributes of people. We compare ourselves to others in a variety of ways, be it through income, attractiveness or intelligence. So, a tall person can be equal to a short person in terms of political representation, or perhaps eye color. But we never discuss strict equality, we just cherry pick attributes, identify a congruence relationship (or lack thereof) and start screaming about “equality!”
But all of this brings up the next obvious question: Assuming we identify attributes of note, what practical solutions does egalitarianism offer? Trick question! Trying to use egalitarianism out of context dooms you to the fallacy of obscurity, as I mentioned before.
Again, you need context by defining equality! For example, “equality of outcome” economic egalitarianism introduces enough details to actually start evaluating a model. Equality of outcome suggests two people are equal if they hold equal shares of some scarce resource, or operate under equal conditions. Totally impractical, but hey, at least we got some workable model to evaluate. What’s nice is that we can analyze what forms of egalitarianism lend themselves to higher standards of living and an improvement to the human condition. We will have questions like “What forms of egalitarianism are best?”
I think this is a pretty empty question, to be honest. I would rather hear which form of egalitarianism are likely to “win,” and I would want to know how it affects my lifestyle. At the end of the day, we are a bunch of chemical bags with varied and contradictory goals competing over the same pool of scarce resources, and as we all know, competitions have winners and losers. If I lose, I’d like to be as much of a dick about it as possible since I do not like people telling me what to do. Granted, I can tell you that I support legal egalitarianism and a stipulative form of moral egalitarianism, and would even go so far as to insist upon them, but who cares? Such an agenda is just as subject to scrutiny and change as the rest of my beliefs. But in the event my livelihood is threatened, there is a chance that an ideological brother-from-another-mother is fucking with the law. It is totally possible and highly probable that two egalitarians will encroach on one another. Few things are more amusing than a bunch of rowdy groups wrestling in the mud while all shouting that they support “equality.”
But I ramble, so let’s recap. I have shown you what egalitarianism looks like in isolation and clarified its function by drawing an analogy between it and mathematical congruence. That said, egalitarianism is more of a philosophy of congruence in practice, not equality. If you put egalitarianism in a vacuum, it is a fallacy of obscurity, but once you apply it to whatever you want, it can actually serve as a better premise depending on what normatives you support, the facts backing them, and the logical relationship between those two things. But normative claims, I’m afraid, are the product of motivations, not logic. This gives reason for many to try and impose or defend their forms of egalitarianism. Reciprocation will fuel conflicts as it always has. What I want you to take away from this is the fact that “supporting equality” is meaningless unless you define “equality” and can demonstrate the viability of your model to the public, businesses and governments. This goes far beyond egalitarianism, but many working under the umbrella of human rights often encapsulate their worldview under the banner of egalitarianism alone. This is essentially tunnel vision.
I would say anyone who aligns with egalitarianism really is fighting for equality: their own! I consider myself an egalitarian, but that’s not important in the grand scheme of things. The question is not who is egalitarian, its about the age-old problem of who we should listen to and why certain ways of living are better for the human condition. Egalitarianism is only one lens in which to view this dilemma, and to reject it outright is to refuse to look through that lens, even in the interests of curiosity.
At the end of the day, you will decide what you value and defend it. Maybe you will even impose it, I don’t know. But justifying a position by saying it is egalitarian distracts us from the simple fact that there are normative claims at work, which means someone is spouting an idea of what is “better” and should be held to intellectual scrutiny. This does not give one a case against egalitarianism, it just allows you to weave your way through marketable distractions to the core of a person’s motivations.
I made the mistake of saying I was egalitarian without mentioning vital details before, and I will try not to make it again. Just know that when someone says they are egalitarian and nothing else, they aren’t telling you anything worth evaluating. Dig deeper.