July 10, 2020

Source: Bigstock

Walking through Paris yesterday, I saw the following slogan daubed on a wall:

Coronavirus: Inequality Equals Comorbidity

I doubt that this was done by someone completely without education. Indeed, I would be prepared to place a small bet that, to the contrary, whoever did it had a university degree.

Nevertheless, what he wrote was not only inaccurate but inaccurate in a very significant way, insofar as it implied, and was intended to imply, that inequality was a factor that causes the illness occasioned by coronavirus.

It is true, of course, that the relatively poor in France, as elsewhere in the world, were more affected, and more severely affected, by it than the rich. There is nothing unusual in this: There are very few diseases, especially infectious, that strike the rich more and worse than the poor, and this is so even in countries that are rich overall.

But is the cause inequality in itself? It is, rather, the conditions in which the relatively poor live: overcrowding, poorer diet, dirtier work, and so forth. A society in which everyone was equal but lived in the conditions in which the poorest now live would not be healthier or better able to resist coronavirus than the society we actually have, rather the reverse. In other words, it would be as true to say that inequality is a precondition for health as it is to say that it is a comorbidity of coronavirus, both propositions being absurd and misleading.

The confusion is a common one. An analogous confusion is that between equity and equality, where by equality is meant equality of outcome. Medical journals are particularly prone to this confusion, or perhaps I should say (to be accurate) that I am particularly prone to notice it in them. A recent opinion piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association, written by an eminent black cardiologist in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, was only the latest to elide the two concepts.

Equity is the quality of fairness or justice (again, related concepts, but far from identical, it being unfair that I am not more handsome than I am, but not unjust). Equality is the identity of persons in some respect or other, and even where it is a reasonable aspiration, as in equality before the law, it is rarely fully accomplished in practice.

“Nothing is easier than to find a pretext not to be charitable.”

Furthermore, it is rarely acknowledged (though it is also perfectly obvious) that while equity and justice are desirable, they are not the only qualities that are desirable, and in some instances may actually be undesirable. We should always bear in mind Hamlet’s response to Polonius when the latter says that he will treat the actors who have come to Elsinore as well as they deserve: Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping? And if justice entails using every man after his desert, as surely it must, justice would require a universal whipping for Mankind, but few except evangelical sadomasochists would propose such an eventuality because it was in accordance with the dictates of justice.

Moreover, it is perfectly obvious that justice and equality of outcome of material conditions are completely incompatible. If of two men of very similar backgrounds one works very hard and the other is a complete idler, it would be unjust if they were rewarded with the same standard of living—an equality brought about by transferring the fruits of the labor of the first of the two men to the second.

Hamlet, having established that we should not necessarily be better off if there were universal justice (it being a common but unfounded prejudice that if there were justice in the world, we should all be better off), goes on to add:

Use them [the actors come to Elsinore] after your own honour and dignity. The less they deserve, the more is your bounty.

In other words, charity and decency have their claims as well as justice.

Walking through London as I sometimes do, I have noticed a curious fact: that the homeless sleeping in doorways are rarely from ethnic minorities, as they should be if poverty alone were the explanation of homelessness, for ethnic minorities (at least some of them, not all, the variation itself a fact of some interest and importance) are disproportionately poor.

Many of the homeless are drug-addicted or alcoholic. Investigation of their life history would reveal that they have often behaved very badly or foolishly. They will have caused misery, often a great deal of it, to others around them. But who, when asked for money by them, would reply, “You have got your just deserts, you are taking the consequences of your own conduct”?

The fact is that, by whatever process they arrived at their present situation (and by no means all of them have had no chance in life), their present situation is pitiable. They do not deserve charity—it is in the nature of charity that it is given without desert—but it should at least be considered, though we often refuse it on the grounds that it will do them no good, or will even do them harm because they will use it only to repeat their foolishness. (Nothing is easier than to find a pretext not to be charitable.) What we need, then, is a soft heart but a hard head. More common among us is a soft head but a hard heart. In an age of exhibitionism, a soft head often passes for a good heart.

All of this is but an illustration of Pascal’s great dictum that should be inscribed over the gates of every university, that we should labor to think well, for thinking well is the principle or precondition of morality. Fuzzy thought, the substitution of supposedly generous ideas for real reflection, is to be combatted not by equal but opposite sloganeering, but by rational argument. It is not only liberty the preservation of which imposes the duty of eternal vigilance: The preservation of reason imposes it as well. So far, we are not making a very good job of it.


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