a college class on equality

This is an outline of a class discussion that seemed to work pretty well this morning. The reading is T.M. Scanlon’s “When Does Equality Matter?” Scanlon offers five reasons that a given difference among people may be unjust, and I add a sixth:

  1. The difference reflects suffering by the less advantaged–suffering that could be remedied.
  2. It is humiliating, conveying disrespect.
  3. It allows, or reflects, “dominance”: one person’s being able to control the other without giving reasons or being accountable.
  4. It shows that people lack equal opportunity.
  5. An institution is violating an implicit or explicit promise to treat its members alike.
  6. The difference reflects a past injustice that must be remedied.

For each of the following differences among people, debate: 1) Is it an injustice? 2) If so, for which of the six reasons listed above, or for other reasons? 3) What is unequal? (For instance, a measured outcome, a good, a right?) Who or what is responsible for remedying the injustice?

  • Men in the US live 37 years longer than men in Malawi (from Scanlon).
  • White men in the healthiest US counties live 15 years longer longer than African American men in the least healthy counties (from Scanlon).
  • American CEOs are paid 341 times more than average workers (Scanlon example; updated stats).
  • Kids from households in the 99th income percentile have a 94% chance of completing college. Kids in the lowest percentile have a 22% chance (Raj Chetty).
  • Amish kids are much less likely to go to college (from Scanlon).
  • Tufts faculty are 2.7% African American; 12.1% of the US population are Black.
  • Ninety percent of Tufts students come from the USA. Four percent of the world population is American.
  • A (hypothetical) teacher treats one of his students better than others.
  • A (hypothetical) teacher treats all of his students better than people not in his class.
  • In a doctor’s office, everyone calls the physician “doctor”; the nurses are called by their first names.
  • Among young Americans, roughly 75% of those with BAs vote, versus 25% of those without high school diplomas (CIRCLE).
  • One in four Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss “important matters” (GSS). They are lonelier than the other 75% of Americans.
  • There aren’t enough good jobs for all the people. Today 62.7% of Americans are in the labor force (BLS); that could fall with automation and AI.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

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