EQUALITY IS FUNDAMENTALLY COMPARATIVE: whether A is equal to B with respect to income, welfare, rights or anything else, depends on how much A has compared to B. With respect to equality, the absolute level of income, welfare or rights is not ultimately relevant: if A and B have the same income, welfare or rights, there is full equality whether they both enjoy very high or very low levels. (1) Many of the criticisms of egalitarianism stem from this feature of equality. For instance, some charge that egalitarianism must be based on envy, on the grounds that only an envious person cares how much he has compared to others instead of what he has absolutely. (2) More significantly, there is the leveling down objection, according to which egalitarianism has the unacceptable result that a situation can be improved in some way by making the better-off (in terms of income, welfare, rights or anything else) worse off--by reducing them to the level of the worse-off. (3) Such critics complain that a situation can be made better in some way if and only if someone is in some way better off. (4)
To avoid such objections, many have adopted, instead, prioritarianism, a non-comparative view that tends to reduce the gap between the better- and the worse-off. (5) According to prioritarianism, benefiting or harming a person matters more the worse off he is (in absolute terms). (6) As such, prioritarianism is a weighted maximizing theory according to which the best state of affairs is determined by aggregating benefits to persons, where benefits are weighted toward the worse-off. Thus, gains to the worse-off count more than equivalent gains to the better-off; similarly, losses to the better-off count less than equivalent losses to the worse-off. Because of this weighting, prioritarianism tends to reduce the gap between the better-off and the worse-off. At the same time, it seems to avoid the leveling down objection because, according to prioritarianism, a situation can be improved only by making someone better off: the weighted aggregate can be increased only by making someone better off. (7) It also seems not to be subject to the charge that it is grounded in envy because it is concerned with the absolute rather than comparative levels (of some good) that people enjoy. (8)
Because prioritarianism tends to reduce the gap between the better- and the worse-off, it is sometimes treated as a type of egalitarianism--a noncomparative type. (9) As such, it is generally agreed that the leveling down objection cannot knock out egalitarianism in a single blow. (10) If egalitarianism is to be knocked out with one blow, there must be a comprehensive criticism that applies to both comparative and non-comparative versions of egalitarianism. Just such a comprehensive criticism, however, has been leveled by Shelly Kagan, who argues that desert should replace equality--whether comparative or non-comparative--as a normative ideal. (11) The argument has two parts. First, Kagan argues that many intuitions that are taken to support egalitarianism equally support the view that each should receive just what he deserves--that, in many instances, egalitarianism and the desert view agree. For instance, many people have the intuition that if A is worse off than B, and we can help one but not both by the same amount, then it is better to help A--that, other things being equal, we ought to help A. Such intuitions are thought to support egalitarianism, since conferring the benefit on A would reduce inequality while conferring the benefit on B would increase inequality. However, of course, if A is equally or more deserving than B, then desert would also call for benefiting A. Second, he argues, when equality and desert are not in agreement intuition favors desert.
Of course the desert view will tend to have egalitarian results if there is little or no variation in what people deserve. Such a "desert-egalitarianism" depends on controversial philosophical claims about what determines desert. …