Value and Alienation: A Revisionist Essay on Our Political Ideal


Akeel Bilgrami in the NOMIS Workshop Series: Nature and Value Discussion Papers (page 107 and on):

There are several other features of the political philosophy we have inherited that one could summon to present the tension between liberty and equality, and I have mentioned only these two just to give a completely familiar sense of how far such thinking has gone into our sensibility, how entrenched it is in the very way we deploy these terms, and how, therefore, it would seem almost to change the semantics of the terms if we were to think that the tension could be removed or resolved. That is to say, if we managed to see them as not being in tension, it would only be because, as Thomas Kuhn might have put it, we have changed the meanings of the terms ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’, not because we have produced an improved theory or politics within the framework of the Enlightenment. Within that framework things are, on this score, unimprovable. In other words, what I mean by framework here is perhaps one of the (diverse) things that Kuhn meant by his term ‘paradigm’ and, if so, clearly we need to shift to another framework if we are ever going to remove the tension between these two notions. In such a new framework, neither ‘liberty’ nor ‘equality’ would mean what they mean in the framework of Enlightenment thought, no more than ‘mass’ in Einstein’s physics meant what it meant in Newtonian mechanics, if Kuhn is right.

How might such a shift in framework be sought? Here is a proposal. Let’s, as a start, usher the very ideals of liberty and equality off centre-stage. If this is to disinherit an entire tradition of liberal thought of the Enlightenment, so be it. Once these are exeunt, we need to replace them on centre-stage with a third, more primitive, concept; that is to say, a concept more fundamental to our social and political life than even liberty and equality. And this is to be done with the idea that ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ may subsequently be introduced once again – by the back door, as it were– but now merely as necessary conditions for the achievement of this more basic ideal that occupies the central position. So re-introduced, there is reason to think that these terms may have undergone substantial revision in their meaning, and thus may not any longer express concepts that are at odds with one another.

More here. Sanjay Reddy responds following Bilgrami's essay.