The Egalitarian: Danielle Allen’s mission to return equality to the heart of American democracy

Spencer Lenfield in Harvard Magazine:

Ruby“These days too many of us think that to say two things are ‘equal’ is to say that they are ‘the same,’” writes Allen. But this is untrue: “To be ‘the same’ is to be ‘identical.’ But to be ‘equal’ is to have an equivalent degree of some specific quality.” Allen sees in the Declaration a careful case that the specific quality in question—what she calls “the fundamental feature of human equality”—is the ability to judge what makes one happy. We are all equal in our ability to judge our own happiness. It is only on top of thisbasic premise that the founders were able to build their argument for independence: we are free to decide what government we want to have because government is a means to securing happiness—the happiness which each of us is equally well qualified to judge.

Our Declaration was praised by magazines as ideologically different as Dissent and National Review, and colleagues have responded to it as a serious work of political thought. But Allen didn’t write it to intervene in academic political philosophy. Instead, it grew out of her experience teaching the Declaration in night classes at the University of Chicago to people with busy lives, children, sometimes multiple jobs. The experience revealed to her that the Declaration, read carefully, does philosophy in ordinary (if old-fashioned and highly rhetorical) language, laying the conceptual groundwork for the democracy to come. Moreover, she realized, anyone with sufficient patience and desire could read it. “I wanted [my students] to understand that democratic power belonged to them, too, that they had its sources inside themselves,” she writes. “I wanted to animate the Declaration, to bring it to life for them, and perhaps even bring them through it into a different kind of life—as citizens, as thinkers, as political deliberators and decision makers.”

More here.