There is a certain way that philosophers talk that make them sound, to outsiders, like they’re spouting nonsense. Take David Miller, for example. He writes on the subject of equality in Philosophy and Politics:
Complex equality…recognizes a number of relevant dimensions along which individuals may be scored, but it does not insist that scores be equalized along any dimension in particular. Instead it claims that overall equality can be achieved by counterbalancing among the different dimensions. If the dimensions are independent, in the sense that there is no connections between how a person performs on one and how he performs on others, then relative gains in one direction can be set against relative losses in another.
A professional philosopher will know that Miller is merely summarizing the learned literature on “equality theory.” But a lay or uninformed reader will presuppose that the man has lost his mind. Do philosophers really say that equality—the sublimest of all goals—can be had if only we could look into each heart and weigh or score each dimension of desire, awarding to each what he wants in proportion to how these rewards fit in with what each other persons’ desires?
They do say so, but you must understand that in philosophy we often discuss situations that might happen, that are theoretically possible, no matter how unlikely they might be. For example, we can imagine a Star Trek-like transporter device, and then ask questions about what happens if such a machine existed, all the while acknowledging that building such a device is next to impossible. So Miller might be talking theoretically and therefore might not be as nuts as he sounds.
Could we then imagine a device—never mind if we could actually build the thing—that at each and every moment, looks into each person’s heart, weighs all his desires and fears, and then looks into the world to see what resources are available, computes the means of manipulating those resources to turn them into “products”, and then, for each person and across all people simultaneously, metes out both the work required to manipulate those resources and to then to deliver the “products” before, of course, each person’s fears and desires changed?
Don’t get caught up in the improbability of the thing—it is clearly only a fantasy. But fantasies drive actions, so it’s important to understand it for at least that reason. It’s also necessary to ask whether such a thing could be done “in theory”, because if it can, then we can figure how close to the ideal we can get.
So is Miller’s equality of fulfillment possible? I think the answer is no, it is not. And the reasons are simple.
Suppose everybody got it into their head that they wanted to live in a certain spot and that living in that spot would fulfill their deepest desire. It doesn’t matter whether this situation is probable either, but clearly it is possible. Thus, by a kind of people-Pauli exclusion principle, equality is impossible because not all people could live in one spot, even if the “spot” is generously defined as a rather large plot of land.
Now, this spot could be on the surface of the sun (we can imagine building a shelter to weather the heat) or it could be on a beach in Hawaii. But no matter where it is, everybody can’t fit there.
Suppose next that my soul’s desire is to have X, where X can be an object like a certain baseball card, say, or X could be a state of affairs such as my enemy put six feet under, or, human nature being what it is, X could be a certain amorous relationship. Although somewhat loosely defined, X is unique. That is, there are some Xs which no two people can possess simultaneously. Somebody is going to go wanting.
These are two of the theoretical reasons why equality of fulfillment is impossible. Not just unlikely, but impossible. Of course, there are a host of reasons why it is impractical: no man can fully articulate his desires nor anticipate perfectly his needs, there would never be universal agreement on the desire-duty weighting algorithm, resources could never be manipulated into products and delivered quickly enough to satisfy that algorithm, and on and on. Even stronger, any scheme of equality always fails at least on age and sex: that is, everybody isn’t the same age and sex, and nothing can be done about that.
Equality of fulfillment isn’t the only definition of “equality”, but we will find (as we examine this subject over a series of articles) that of all the common definitions, none are possible, even in theory.