Equality of Justice
A recent television interview between the clinical psychologist Jordan B Peterson and the Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman has gone viral and clocked up 8.4 million views to date on YouTube. The interview focussed on Peterson’s established critiques of ‘radical feminist’ gender politics. Many words have been spilled criticising Newman’s ‘umbrage-stoking’ tactics and praising Peterson’s ‘preternaturally calm and composed’ responses. It is certainly hard to disagree with such commentary.
For all Peterson’s evident effectiveness, though, a word of caution is nevertheless warranted. Peterson is a self-described ‘classical liberal’ who critiques progressive liberalism from inside the liberal tradition itself. This gives his attacks on modern identity politics a certain bite, as it enables him to turn the liberal principles of his opponents back against them, but it leaves him powerless to question the principles themselves. It is strange, then, that even thoughtful critics of liberalism, such as Rod Dreher, should respond with such effusive praise for their ‘hero’ without ever examining the liberal assumptions of Peterson’s arguments.
These sedimented assumptions rose to the surface during the interview’s discussion of the ‘pay gap’. Here, Newman asked: ‘Is gender equality desirable?’ Peterson, quite rightly, responded firstly by saying that, ‘if it means equality of outcome then it is almost certainly undesirable’, since there are ‘ineradicable differences’ between men and women that can only be removed with ‘tremendous social pressure and tyranny’. But then his alternative emphasised the need to ‘leave men and women to make their own choices’ and to ‘give people equality of opportunity’, which would be ‘eminently desirable for everyone, for individuals as well as societies’.
Now, this answer left Newman unnerved, since she shared his liberal belief in the equality of opportunity and could only respond by ignoring his reply. Her dodge, though, prevented Peterson’s own contradictory views from becoming apparent, for equality of opportunity is no less arbitrary and tyrannical a value as equality of outcome. Even if we accept a classical circumscription of equality of opportunity, where natural talents (including inherited wealth) are granted a right to disturb this otherwise pristinely arithmetical solution to our social ills, we are still left with a pretty comprehensive list of proscriptions:
Neither birth, nationality, colour, religion, sex nor any other equivalent characteristic should determine the public opportunities that are open to a person — only talent and achievement.
This is plainly absurd. There is no injustice in non-Americans being barred from the American Presidency, nor in Catholic schools taking into account the Catholic faith of applicants, or in membership of the Women’s Institute being open exclusively to women, etc. Such examples may well discriminate based on characteristics that liberals demand we remain blind towards, but, critically, they are examples of just discrimination that contribute to the common good. And even if we were to somehow draw up a comprehensive list of such common sense exceptions to their rule, people would still be left with naturally differing means to attain the public goods open to them, meaning that equality of opportunity could only be realized through a ‘continual extension of state control’ into the domestic sphere.
When mentioning equality, it is notable that Thomas Aquinas discusses concrete moral actions and uses the term ‘equality of justice’. This is because for Aquinas justice is a ‘virtue’ and a virtue, in turn, is a quality which ‘renders a human act and man himself good’. Consequently, in Thomistic thought there is no room for discussing the good of equality apart from a comprehensive analysis of the good of concrete acts and the good of man.
Liberalism’s fundamental aim is to discard any such deep discussion of the good and to instead create neat abstract principles that avoid us needing to delve into the murky realm of metaphysics. Whilst this is psychologically understandable, given the early-modern West’s intractable ideological conflicts, it is intellectual indefensible, as it turns the good into an arbitrary order we impose on the world, not a reality we discover in it. This is the fundamental problem we face today and we must do more than link arms with ‘inimicus inimici mei’ if we are to overcome it.