One Another’s Equals: The Basis of Human Equality

HomeReviewsPhilosophy (Reviews)One Another’s Equals: The Basis of Human Equality

One Another’s Equals: The Basis of Human Equality. Jeremy Waldron. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017.


Perhaps it’s unfair to Professor Waldron that I’ve been reading Thomas Aquinas and Aleksandr Sozhenitsyn of late. Aquinas, in his way, would have delivered the content of One Another’s Equals in just a few precise pages. Solzhenitsyn’s version, on the other hand, while requiring multiple volumes, would be dynamic, shattering, and challenging. Waldron’s text, alas, a revision of his 2015 Gifford Lectures, while informative, is neither particularly illuminating nor especially interesting. Like so much of contemporary academic work, it is, in the end, a somewhat lengthy review of the literature.

Waldron explores equality. If humans are equal, as he suggests, in what way(s), how, and why? Quite obviously people are unequal in terms of wealth, power, opportunity, skill, social status, and capacities, but Waldron is interested in what he terms “basic equality,” the more fundamental sense of possessing equal moral worth and dignity.

Drawing on his earlier Tanner lectures at Berkeley, Waldron distinguishes “sortal” and “conditional” status. Many distinctions of status are conditional, that is, referring to the rights and obligations relevant to a person’s occupation, membership, or financial responsibility. Basic equality, however, is sortal, responding to the intuition that there are not different “sorts” of humans; that there is only one, basic, sortal status in our society.

A single sortal vision is hardly universal, as Waldron demonstrates through the work of Hastings Rashdall (1858–1924), a fellow of New College, Oxford, who had been invited to give the 1922 Giffords but was unable to do so due to failing health. Rashdall follows a kind of hierarchical utilitarianism, namely, that the good of “lower” persons ought be sacrificed for that of “higher” persons, especially along racial lines—there are different sorts and thus no basic equality. Against this, basic equality entails continuous equality—there are no fundamental distinctions of fundamental worth between humans—while perhaps also indicating a distinctive equality held by humans but not by animals.

This takes Waldron forty pages. Probably more than needed to introduce the vital (but not that difficult to understand) question: Regardless of our accidental differences, are we all the same in value?

Posing the question as I have, with a nod to the accident/essence distinction, suggests that there are some facts about human and human nature upon which the commitment to equality could be based. But are there such facts? If so, which are essential? And how would factual descriptions justify any prescriptive or normative conclusions about the equal value of persons? These very questions preoccupy Waldron in his second lecture.

The facts of inequality in its various forms tend to lead to the questions regarding basic equality. If humans are fundamentally equal, then the disparities in income, status, respect, rights, and privileges become cause for concern, or at least inquiry, and our prescriptions “target” or respond to these facts. Our prescription for equality, on the other hand, is not factual in the same way. Not only would that violate the is/ought distinction, but if basic equality is grounded on some set of facts (say, regarding human nature) then basic equality is not as foundational as many seem to think. Equality would be derived, and thus hardly foundational or basic.

Moreover, it’s not at all obvious what these moral facts might be, or if any exist, let alone how they ground basic equality. Perhaps equality is not factual at all, simply chosen or asserted by societies and politics of a certain sort. As Waldron puts it, we enter “into the discussion with a rough conviction that we are one another’s equals … and that informs the way we look for … the properties on which, upon reflection we say that equality is based” (65). In other words, if our intention of equality precedes the status we assign to the relevant properties, then the properties seem irrelevant or redundant to the project.

Some eighty pages in, Waldron begins to search for that fact or fact about which basic equality is supposed to hold. What property gives us such status? Perhaps it is our ability to feel pain, to feel affection for each other, to reason, to use language, to exercise practical rationality, to reason morally, to have a sense of justice, or to live on one’s own terms. Waldron summarizes each, while suggesting there are yet others.

But they’re all problematic, he continues, since each are capabilities humans possess in different degrees. Some people find it easy to reason, others find it hard; some are self-governed, others are shifted about by others. The capabilities appear to be unequally distributed, so how can they form the basis of a fundamental equality?

Drawing on Rawls, Waldron investigates the idea of range properties. For example, while Columbus is in central Ohio and Cincinnati just barely inside the border, both are fully in Ohio. “Cities in Ohio” is a range property, and the property is fully possessed even if not centrally possessed. This takes many pages, but tells us nothing about which property or properties are relevant to equality, whether that property admits of the range distinction, or whether such properties could ever ground prescriptions of equality. Waldron seems so fascinated with the distinctions and the complexities that he develops distinctions and complexities for their own sake, even if they don’t appear to productively develop the argument or solve the problem. (And he does go on a bit when doing so.)

This fruitlessness comes to a head in the fourth chapter in which he repetitively states that whatever principle we find “has a lot of work to do,” or has “heavy lifting.” Yes, it is quite true that any principle of equality matters enormously to how we answer questions about rights, dignity, status, standing before the law and so on. The reader was hoping to find something more than “the range properties [which are] probably capabilities (for thought, choice, feeling, and action of various sorts), not just traits. Bear in mind also that we are likely to be dealing with complex range properties, probably a cluster of related capacities, complementing one another, interacting with one another, and developing over time” (129).

That reads like an evasion, or at least as not much of a conclusion. After another long discussion, Waldron then suggests that “we have to have an account of what makes us one another’s equals that is deep and serious enough.… The account has to be able to explain why certain moral differences between people … do not count when we are considering the benefits of basic quality” (155–56). Well, that was the question with which the book began, and which, apparently, after multiple distinctions and digressions, Waldron continues to think remains the question. He is, as the chapter title suggests, scintillated by equality, but we aren’t much nearer to an answer. In fact, the closest he comes is to suggest that “we are simply impressed by the fact that individuals are capable of discerning the moral law … making it part of their apparatus of action.… We are sometimes just blown away by the sheer capacity that people have for the self-application of norms” (165¬–66).

But that is not an answer. Adverting to one’s own sense of amazement at another’s equality is hardly the stuff to ground and confirm that all are equal, especially in the face of disputes of who is equal to begin with. This is not particularly satisfying, to put it gently.

After a free-floating chapter on religion and equality and a more interesting discussion about disabled persons, Waldron concludes that any initial supposition we had that human equality “would be met by finding some little nugget of humanity” is false, for “we have found nothing so simple” (255). There has been “complexity” and “distinctions” at “every turn.” It is “complicated,” and we need to “make sense of these complexities” (256).

All of that is true, but this disappointing book reads very much like an exercise in distinction- and complexity-making for its own sake. You’d be better off re-reading Solzhenitsyn.

R. J. Snell

Written by

R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is senior fellow of the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. His books include The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode (Wipf & Stock, 2014) and Acedia and Its Discontents (Angelico, 2015).