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Opportunity Beyond Equality, Part One

Professor John Milbank speaks to The Disraeli Room on why the liberal consensus on 'inherited inequality' is broken

In the first part of a thought-provoking and scholarly riposte to the criticism levelled by readers at his thinkpiece on Guardian's Comment Is Free column, which was co-written with ResPublica Director, Phillip Blond, Professor John Milbank urges The Disraeli Room's readers to rise above simplistic political positioning, and to recognise that a meaningful, just social hierarchy cannot be structured exclusively around a narrow concept of merit.This piece also replies to engaged discussions on critiques of the piece's arguments about virtue and equality, on the Fabian Society's Next Left blog.

“...let me first say that of course Phillip Blond and I would not deny that equality of opportunity matters. Clearly Tawney allowed this and it is also true that Crosland did not retreat from concern with outcomes to the extent of New Labour. It is today that Brown says that equality of opportunity is the whole of social justice. I don't think that the issues being debated concern the history of socialist thought.

In this respect it is indeed the case that socialist and labour thinkers have often tried to justify inequality. But as the comments suggest, this has often been in terms of an instrumentalist acceptance of inequality, a kind of reluctant tolerance of an element of something that is basically bad. Blond and I by contrast ask for a more full-blooded advocacy of some inequality as a good in itself. This can sound horrendously reactionary. But this is where the real irony kicks in: the instrumentalist justifications of inequality in terms of making more economic wealth, providing incentives, rewarding endeavour etc etc are actually from my point of view far too merely capitalistic! This isn't to deny their place, but it is to insist that they are not enough.

Why not? For two reasons. First, because if the justification of inequality is merely utilitarian, then those who are privileged may not at all internalise a rationale for their own existence which is independent of their own consciousness. They may just pursue their own interests – and that means that they are likely to do so to such an extent as to usurp entirely the supposed utility of their own function! Think of the city bankers and the point is obvious.

The second reason is more fundamental. Some inequality is in itself good because talent combined with diligence and moral sense should be given greater scope to flourish than a relative lack of virtue. This is because the development of virtue is a good in itself for each human being and also because this greater flourishing will improve the lives of others – will help them to flourish to the best of their capacity. (I'm not here saying that such capacity is a sheerly natural given – more that for whatever reasons of both nature and nurture we tend pragmatically to encounter such limits: even if our current social settlement vastly exaggerates them)

The comments on the (Guardian) article indicate some utilitarianism but also much Rawlsianism which gives greater priority to equality in terms of negative freedom of choice and autonomy. Clearly it is this which Blond and I most of all reject. We're with Sandel etc and not Rawls. What is the problem with the Rawlsian model as regards delivering equality? The following I think: Rawls is bound to be limited to equality of opportunity and this leads to an aporia. It's true that he expands liberalism to include levelling out of disadvantages of birth etc but only in the interests of a Lockean or Kantian equality of negative freedom. Why is this aporetic? Because logically it would require one to abolish in every generation for the children the acquired and legitimate meritocratic differentials established by their parents. When we remember that ‘generation' is an artificial construct because new children are born every day, one can further extend this aporia into pure insanity. The Rawlsian agenda would require one simultaneously to allow and to destroy every properly emergent and rule-legitimated inequality! But let's assume that generations can be tidily separated. This still suggests that really children should be removed from their parents by the state – or that maybe all parents should read to their children the same amount of storybook every night etc -- and such idiocies have indeed been suggested by contemporary liberals. So at this point one is somewhere between tyranny and impossibility.

This suggests that the left needs to rethink the issue of inherited disadvantage. Being entirely against it can suggest a kind of favouring of space over time that is again poised between state tyranny and denial of our ontology – which is temporal. But there is another way to regard this. If the inherited inequalities have the cultural value only of greater material happiness and negative liberty, then those born into privilege are indeed likely to be nihilists like their parents – only far smugger! But if, for the reasons I've suggested, the abolition of inherited advantage is neither possible nor altogether desirable (and I'm by no means opposing mitigations of this like inheritance tax etc) then surely the idea that privilege includes an inherited commitment to honour and a sense of social responsibility is far less dangerous to society in general? Cynicism at this point is utterly misplaced, because I've just provided the logical reasons for why this is the best that we can aspire to from a democratic point of view...”

We will post the second half of Professor Milbank's disquisition, with its insights into reasons to prefer cricket over football, Hugo Chavez and Anglican orthodoxy, tomorrow.

Comments on: Opportunity Beyond Equality, Part One

Gravatar Iain Scott 15 May 2010
Er..... I think it might be better to leave this one until we get equality of opportunity and allow those living in that utopian politcal future to worry about the danger of it and the rapid increase of smuggery.r/>r/>Eh up I can see trouble ahead!r/>
Gravatar Maurice 18 February 2010
Gravatar barry 17 February 2010
This is probably the first article on any blog I have ever read that has compelled me to read, think, reread and read again.r/>r/>The mind is bogglingbut I'll wait to read the second part and Next :Left's response before I comment

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Date Published
17 February 2010


About The Authors

Professor John Milbank

John Milbank is Research Professor of Religion, Politics and Ethics and Director of the Centre of Theology and Philoso...