Dignity and Membership, Equality and Egalitarianism: Economic Rights and Section 15

In this paper, I attempt to clarify the ideas of equality underlying section 15 claims for benefits such as welfare and health care; I use the name ‘economic rights claims’ for these types of claims. I adopt Joseph Raz’s division of equality claims into rhetorical egalitarian claims, which are based in a failure to equally respect a universal claim , and strict egalitarian claims, which are based on an actually existing unequal distribution of resources . I show how the dignity-based approach to equality stemming from Law v. Canada is an example of a rhetorical egalitarian claim. With this groundwork set, I turn my attention to the economic rights claims. I survey three reasons for thinking that an unequal distribution of some benefit might, even absent any failure to respect or recognize the dignity of those at the losing end, be thought of as wrong or unjust. The first two reasons – an appeal to an idea of sufficiency, and the fear that some stigma might be associated with the inequality – I reject in favour of the third, which is that in a situation in which all the participants have some equal claim to a benefit, a fair procedure will result in their benefiting equally. Following John Rawls, I suggest that our society, as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, creates in its members at least a prima facie equal claim to share in the society’s benefits. The economic rights claims, then, are claims that this prima facie equal claim has not been respected. But the benefits being claimed for, as benefits created by the society, are not benefits automatically due to everyone just in virtue of their humanity, instead they are due to the worst-off once the best off have come to be able to benefit from them. Thus they take a strict egalitarian form – once some members of our society benefit in a certain way, then the equality of all members as contributors to the cooperative venture for mutual advantage implies that the other members of our society gain a claim to that benefit. The fact that these economic rights claims are strict egalitarian claims means they cannot be grounded in arguments about dignity, as dignity-based claims are rhetorical egalitarian claims for benefits due to all in virtue of their universal human dignity. I conclude by returning to Law to highlight a passage which I believe provides a grounding for a recognition of economic rights in line with my argument; I also make some brief comments on the need for a stricter division of labour between section 15 and section 1 in the context of economic rights claims and on the effect of this argument on Canadian federal law more generally
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