Equality Now

by Tim Sommers

We are all in some sense equal. Aren’t we? The Declaration of American Independence says that, “We hold these Truths [with a capital ‘T’!] to be self-evident” – number one being “that all Men are created equal.” Immediately, you probably want to amend that. Maybe, not “created”, and surely not only “Men” – and, of course, there’s the painful irony of a group of landed-gentry proclaiming the equality of all men, while also holding (at that point) over 300,000 slaves. But don’t we still believe, all that aside, that all people are, in some sense, equal? Isn’t this a central and orienting principle of our social and political world? What should we say, then, about what equality is for us now?

In September, Professor Elizabeth Anderson was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, a so-called “genius grant”, for her work in political philosophy. Though the Foundation specially cited the way she applies her views, pragmatically, to “problems of practical importance and urgency” (most recently with books on race, “The Imperative of Integration”, and work, “Private Government”), the theoretical backbone of her view is a new, original account of social equality – relational or democratic egalitarianism. In a seminal 1999 article, “What is the Point of Equality?”, Anderson asked rhetorically, “If much recent academic work defending equality had been secretly penned by conservatives, could the results be more embarrassing for egalitarians?” Her point was that at the same time that new egalitarian social movements, or at least newly reinvigorated egalitarian movements, focused on race, gender, class, disability, sexual orientation, and gender expression, the dominant form of academic egalitarian political philosophy (“luck egalitarianism”) spent a lot of time arguing about lazy surfers, people “temperamentally gloomy, or incurably bored by inexpensive hobbies”, and those who couldn’t afford the expensive religious ceremonies they wanted to perform. Granted, the characters that inhabit philosophical hypotheticals are bound to be a quirky lot, nonetheless, Anderson wondered what had happened to oppression as the main subject of political philosophy?

Well, here is one way, probably the dominant way in political philosophy, of thinking about equality before Anderson. The notion of equality seems to demand a quantitative comparison. To be equal is to have an equal amount of something. An egalitarian society, then, is one where (certain) things are distributed equally. Call this distributive justice.

The dominance of this point of view in English-language political philosophy is partly a result of a certain reading (or, I would say, misreading) of Rawls that goes something like this. The distribution of natural talents, abilities, psychological propensities, etc. can be thought of as the result of a sort of “natural lottery”. So, too whether we are of a particular race or gender that is favored socially or legally or of a higher social class, can be seen as the outcome of a sort of “social lottery”. Hence, from the point of view of justice, class and natural abilities and all that, are morally arbitrary. We should not distribute the fruits of social cooperation in a morally arbitrary fashion. So, how should we distribute them? And, by the way, what are we distributing exactly?

Take the second question first. How to think about what it is we are distributing has been called the “equality of what?” debate. The main contenders for, what G.A. Cohen called, “the currency of egalitarian justice” have been primary goods, resources, welfare, opportunity for welfare, access to advantage, and functionings and capabilities.

The main contenders for how to distribute these have been absolutely equally, according to “the difference principle” (the least well-off should be as well-off as possible or “prioritarianism”), according to “option luck” (people’s choices) as opposed to “brute luck” (their unchosen circumstances), or so that everyone has some sufficient minimum (“sufficientarianism”). I should say too that this project is motivated by the thought that political philosophy should proceed by developing an overarching theory of ideal justice which we can use as a normative point of comparison with our own political circumstance.

Here, by way of contrast, is Elizabeth Anderson’s way of thinking about equality. Equality is not a matter of distributing anything equally. Egalitarianism is a matter of the kind and quality of our social relationships. Equality means being regarded and treated as a social and political equal. And egalitarians need not aim at developing an ideal theory of justice. Political philosophy can simply be a response to oppression – or (what Amartya Sen had called) “manifest injustice”. “Egalitarians have always been better at criticizing inequality,” Anderson says, “than at devising a coherent and successful conception of a society of equals.”

Another way of putting the basic point here is that egalitarian political philosophers ought to aim, not at developing a theory of justice, but in exploring how to dismantle social hierarchies – like slavery, serfdom, debt peonage, feudalism, monarchy, oligarchy, caste and class inequalities, racism, patriarchy, colonialism, and stigmatization based on sexuality, disability, and appearance.
If you look at real egalitarian social and political movements (historically or contemporarily), they don’t look anything like philosophers’ debates about “distributive justice”. What actual egalitarians oppose, typically, is particular injustices, particular hierarchies.

Anderson sorts these hierarchies into three main types. Hierarchies of domination and command range from slavery to monarchy to patriarchal marriage. Hierarchies of esteem stigmatize some as dishonorable, disgusting, or contemptible and open, therefore, to ridicule, discrimination, persecution, and even violence for their sexual orientation, religion, language, customary dress, or the ethnic name. Hierarchies of standing are ones in which “the interests of those occupying superior social positions are given special weight” in deliberation and the normal operation of social institutions; hence, they enjoy rights, privileges, opportunities, and/or benefits denied others. In effect, others are marginalized. These types of hierarchies can interact and this list is not necessarily exhaustive.

Let’s leave aside for the most part, even though it’s important and interesting, whether or not the main task of political philosophy is to develop ideal standards of justice or whether it is to critique particular regimes of oppression. (After all, maybe, both. And, anyway, without any standards at all how would we identify something as oppressive? Anderson and Sen believe sometimes you can just tell – especially if you live there. But now let’s leave this aside, for real.) How might we respond on behalf of distributive egalitarians to Anderson’s relational or democratic egalitarianism?

Distributive egalitarians could argue that her account can also be viewed as distributive. Instead of demanding an equal distribution of welfare or resources, she calls for an equal distribution of power, standing, and esteem. That might seem a bit awkward or an unnatural way of putting it. But is the view that we are distributing “option luck” any less so? The point of describing all views of equality as distributive is just to create a way of comparing them. Does it really matter, in the end, if justice is described as distributive or relational?

To stick closer to the substance of her view, the challenge in describing egalitarianism as opposition to hierarchy is how to respond to the assertion that not all hierarchies are bad. What about hierarchies between parents and children, or of expertise, or as a result of a fair and voluntary competition? Maybe, relational egalitarians owe us a theory of how to tell pernicious hierarchies from harmless ones. And anyway, aren’t there also hierarchies that are socially, but not politically, bad? What about the social (and social media) tyranny of the thin and good-looking over, well, the less-thin and less good-looking? Not ideal? Sure. Calling for political or state action to end? Probably not. We seem to need a theory that does two things, then: it provides us a way of distinguishing objectionable forms of hierarchy from those that are less objectionable and tells us which are, or are not, the business of the state or politics.

Here’s a proposal. Maybe, we should object, politically, to hierarchies that either violate certain basic liberties or fair equality of opportunity or deny anyone a fair of share of social wealth – and count other hierarchies as subject, maybe to social, but not to political, censure. Is that a plausible theory of democratic egalitarianism? Maybe, but that position already had a name. It’s called liberalism.

Of course, Anderson’s point (or, at least, part of her point) is to get beyond politics as it has previously been understood. Some recent egalitarian social movements, most notably feminism, have had a political side (the right to vote, equal pay for equal work, etc.) and a personal one (to call for different kinds of intimate relations or to call out the bad behavior of men, etc. ) – and also an argument for the personal as political. The marriage equality movement, for another example, wanted legal, political recognition for same-sex marriage, of course, but LGBTQA+ movement as a whole is as much about social recognition and acceptance as political change. So, Anderson has, perhaps, among other things, showed us how to understand the link between political egalitarianism and broader attempts to achieve a society of equals, a new way of understanding equality now, for us.

Here’s a minor epilogue, more to last month’s column than this one’s. I spent a lot of time in previous columns objecting to some of the claims that Katrina Forrester makes in her recent book on Rawls, In the Shadow of Justice. One thing I haven’t mentioned before was how she connects Rawls to the general dearth of women in philosophy. She is not wrong that women have been grievously discriminated against in philosophy. One data point: the first female philosopher to get tenure in the Harvard Philosophy Department got that tenure in 1995. But Rawls, who had an exemplary record in encouraging female philosophers, is really the wrong person to single out here. For example, Elizabeth Anderson was one of his graduate students. As was that first female to get tenure at Harvard, the great Christine Korsgaard – not to mention Amy Guttman and Barbra Herman, both leading-lights in the field of ethical and political philosophy. And not to forget Erin Kelly who edited Rawls’ last book, among other things, while his student. I apologize in advance to other great female philosophers who studied with Rawls that I am no doubt failing to mention here. But you get the idea.