Transcending equality versus adequacy.

Author:Weishart, Joshua E.
Position:II. Adequacy through Conclusion, with footnotes, p. 512-544

    The adequacy movement is a manifestation of the sufficiency doctrine. That doctrine can be understood as an expression of two theses, one positive and one negative. In short, "[t]he positive thesis stresses the importance of people living above a certain threshold, free from deprivation. The negative thesis denies the relevance of certain additional distributive requirements." (186) Positively, sufficientarians think that it is morally valuable for all people to live at or above a certain threshold, even if they disagree about where that threshold should be set. On their view, it is wrong for some people to live below the threshold not because other people live above it (i.e., because inequality in itself is unjust) or because those below the threshold stand to benefit more than others (i.e., because the worst off should be given priority). Rather, sufficientarians think it is simply unjust for people to have to live in deprivation. Few take issue with that general sentiment. (187)

    Sufficientarian critics do, however, reject the negative thesis, which serves as a further indictment of egalitarianism and prioritarianism. Negatively, sufficientarians deny the moral significance of any inequalities once everyone has secured enough. At that point, whatever inequalities remain are not morally offensive, and we have no reason to give priority to the least advantaged; what matters is that all have a sufficient level of advantage, not that the least advantaged are as advantaged as possible. Though sufficientarianism has attracted several eminent theorists, (188) I have chosen to feature Elizabeth Anderson's ac count because it coincides with her critique of luck egalitarianism and because her sufficientarian conception of justice aligns with educational adequacy.

    1. Democratic Equality

      In her provocative essay, What Is the Point of Equality?, Anderson contends that the luck egalitarian preoccupation with compensating people for "undeserved bad luck--being born with poor native endowments, bad parents, and disagreeable personalities, suffering from accidents and illnesses, and so forth"--is misplaced. (189) What troubles us about inequality is not so much the disparity in the distribution of goods, resources, or welfare but rather the "relations between superior and inferior persons." (190) That is, inequality is objectionable when the better off are able to subjugate the worst off politically and socially.

      Echoing the positive thesis, Anderson believes egalitarians should aim to ensure that all persons (1) "have sufficient internal capacities and external resources to enjoy security against oppression--violence, domination, material deprivation, social exclusion, stigmatization, and the like" and (2) "have enough to function as an equal in society--to fulfill a respected role in the division of labor, participate in democratic discussion, appear in public without shame, and enjoy equal moral standing to make claims on others." (191)

      Anderson explains that to sustain such relational equality, which she dubs "democratic equality," people must have the "capabilities" necessary to escape deprivation and maintain standing as equal citizens in a democratic society. (192) Anderson adopts Amartya Sen's definition of capabilities as people's real freedoms to achieve certain states of being or doing--"functionings"--given their personal, social, and material resources. (193) Functionings range from the elementary (e.g., being nourished and literate) to more complex achievements (e.g., having self-respect and taking part in the life of the community). (194) Following Sen, Anderson's democratic equality aims not for equal levels of functionings but rather for "equality for all in the space of capabilities," that is, "effective access to the goods and relationships of civil society"--the freedom to choose and achieve certain valued functionings by utilizing one's resources, broadly defined. (195)

      Whereas Sen would put his faith in a democratic selection process to value and order the essential capabilities, Anderson thinks that we can independently identify at least some capabilities that are necessary for equal standing and respect. (196) To function as a human being, for instance, Anderson suggests a person needs effective access to (1) "the means of sustaining [her] biological existence," such as "food, shelter, clothing, [and] medical care," and (2) "the basic conditions of human agency." (197) To stand as an equal citizen requires certain political rights--free speech, free association, voting, etc.--and effective access to civil society, including the economy. This entails nondiscrimination, access to public accommodations and the means of production, and the freedom to enter into contracts and other cooperative agreements.

      Significantly, although all citizens are guaranteed access to civil society, citizens are not guaranteed full participation. Certain functionings of citizenship require an income, Anderson explains, and "[f]or those capable of working and with access to jobs, the actual achievement of these functionings is, in the normal case, conditional on participating in the productive system." (198)

      Although there is much here to digest, I briefly introduce Anderson's democratic equality because it reflects a sufficientarian image of social justice and because it is helpful to understand how Anderson's defense of adequacy thresholds in education fits into the overall framework of her theory.

    2. "Sufficientarian Standard for Fair Educational Opportunity " (199)

      Effective access to education does not translate into "equal education." (200) Anderson doubts that equal educational opportunities are necessary to realize the democratic equality that she esteems. (201) Instead, there need only be "fair educational opportunities"--"a sufficientarian or adequacy standard" that obtains when "every student with the potential and interest ... receive[s] a K-12 education sufficient to enable him or her to succeed at a college that prepares its students for postgraduate education." (202) Specifically, "primary and middle schools" must prepare every student "to successfully complete a college preparatory high school curriculum," and high schools must offer such a curriculum. (203) Anderson regards this as a "high but not unattainable" threshold that will equip students with the capabilities they need to access civil society and function as equal citizens. (204)

      Anderson sets the threshold high--"education sufficient to qualify [students] for success at a four-year residential college"--because she regards a college education as essential to attaining "elite" status. (205) For democratic equality to endure, "those who occupy positions of responsibility and leadership in society" must be socially integrated and responsive to "all sectors of society, not just themselves." (206) So disadvantaged students must have effective access to the elite ranks, meaning "access within the realistic reach of students exercising substantial but not extraordinary effort and within the financial reach of their families." (207)

      Just as important, the socially advantaged and disadvantaged must be educated together. Such integration, Anderson contends, will cultivate (1) an "awareness of the interests and problems of people from all sectors," (2) "a disposition to serve those interests," (3) the "technical knowledge of how to advance these interests," and (4) "competence in respectful interaction with people from all sectors." (208) But, of course, the implications of this view are quite dramatic--"comprehensive social integration of schools ... requires dismantling the laws and practices that currently enable advantaged communities to segregate themselves from the less advantaged." (209)

      Perhaps because Anderson's adequacy threshold is so high, she has little trouble pledging to the negative thesis. In principle, she does not perceive any injustice in permitting "inequalities in educational access above the sufficiency threshold." (210) Although Anderson proposes ways to circumvent racial and class segregation (e.g., recognizing the rights of children to cross municipal lines to attend public schools in other districts), she does not find it objectionable for parents or school districts to decide to spend more on their own children's education, provided the threshold is met for all children. A complaint registered by a student teetering at or just over the threshold to a student sailing high above the threshold is, on Anderson's view, motivated by envy. (211) Moreover, to prevent expenditures above the threshold would level down "educational opportunities to the lowest common denominator in the name of equality." (212) Leveling down thus compromises the degree to which education works as a private and public good, "a good to the person who has it, and a good to others," who, in turn, are able to serve more people "in demanding jobs and volunteer service positions." (213) As observed in the next Subpart, many of the intuitions that reinforce Anderson's sufficientarian platform have resonated with courts that have instituted educational adequacy.

    3. Educational Adequacy

      1. Historical and legal perspectives

        Few would be surprised by the revelation that the concept of educational adequacy predates the 1989 Supreme Court of Kentucky decision that is said to have propelled the third wave of school finance litigation. But educational adequacy goes back much further; in fact, it precedes Brown's affirmation of equality of educational opportunity. Indeed, in two states--Massachusetts and New Hampshire--educational adequacy predates the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. (214) In those states and others, courts have concluded that adequacy is embodied in their state constitutions' education clauses, some of which were approved while the nation was still in its infancy, others during the common-school reforms of the nineteenth century...

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