“Equality of What?” has been a central question in political philosophy following Rawls. According to Gerald Cohen, the question asks “what metric [should egalitarians] use to establish the extent to which their ideal is realized in a given society.” Many answers were given to this questions by Rawls, Dworkin, Sen, and others.
I want to briefly explore whether the answer is different depending on whether we are discussing children or adults. Now, clearly, the specific goods (e.g., primary education) that children need are different from the needs of adults (e.g., pensions). What I am asking though, is whether the criteria we use to determine what all children should have are the same as the criteria we use to determine what must be equalized for adults.
Part of what drove interest in “equality of what?” was that egalitarian theorists strove to articulate a norm of social equality that nonetheless left people responsible for the consequences of freely made choices. As Cohen put it,
Equality of opportunity… permits and indeed enjoins departures from welfare equality when they reflect the choices of relevant agents… If a person’s welfare is low because he freely risked a welfare loss in gambling for a welfare gain, then… he has no claim for compensation.
I agree with the point. But notice how it is framed. Because we need to evaluate the person’s choices to determine whether they deserve compensation, we can only determine what someone is justly due after they have made their life choices.
This isn’t helpful when we are thinking about children. On the one hand, what we want for children is a way to equalize their future prospects, not compensate them for unmerited loss. On the other hand, relative to adults we are much less inclined to hold children responsible for poor choices.
When I think about “Equality of What?”, I am thinking about how to equalize things for children. It seems to me that what we want to equalize is Sen’s notion of capability: the ability of the child to do things and to achieve valuable forms of human functioning. Capability is forward looking and does not involve retrospective evaluation. My intuition is that ‘capability’ is the best notion of equality for children — perhaps the answer is different when we are thinking about adults.