“One Another’s Equals” by Jeremy Waldron, Lecture 4: Power and Scintillation

Waldron continues his discussion of range properties in lecture 4, this time writing about the division of labor between range properties and scalar differences. As a reminder, “a given range property, R, will be defined in relation to a scalar property, S. For example, human rationality as a basis for equality may be defined in relation to a scale of measurable or ranked intelligence…a certain range within S is specified as a basis for the attribution of R: a range of rationality for the attribution of equal reason” (128). Waldron’s argument in lecture 4 is that both S and R have important parts to play in the treatment of persons; he calls the back and forth between S and R, “scintillation.”

The work of the range property is to underline the basic requirements of concepts like human equality, worth, respect, and dignity. Put another way, Waldron argues that the range property makes sense of the equality principle – the former makes the latter intelligible. Yet, it is not enough to simply choose one or more of the properties that all humans share and deem them range properties. To return to a question I posed after the last lecture, what are the constraints in choosing range properties beyond human possession? The most important constraint is one which I discussed last time: that the justification for human dignity or worth gives us reason to be interested in the use of a range property rather than scalar differences of degree (e.g. Kant’s justification for human dignity must be interested in our capacity for reason, not how successfully we reason).

Waldron discusses a number of other constraints. He argues that “the range property has to be able to do the heavy lifting that human equality requires” (141). Waldron finds two requirements here; range properties must a) be comprehensive, and b) do heavy-lifting. In other words, range properties must be up to the task of grounding basic human equality, a principle whose implications are wide-ranging and heavy. By comprehensiveness, then, Waldron refers to the wide-ranging implications of basic equality. The normative work of basic equality, according to Waldron, covers our being counted equally in cost-benefit analyses, our equal entitlement to justice, our equal basic rights, and our equal autonomy to live our lives.

Given the work that must be done, Waldron worries that a Kantian account fails to pass muster. He asks: “Do we really want to say…that it is because we are capable of making moral judgments and acting on them that attention should be paid to our interests?…There is a sort of mismatch between the work equality has to do and this rather narrow account. When you see a human person dying of hunger, you don’t say, “Oh, damn! Another opportunity for moral judgment lost to the world.” If a human is dying of hunger, we should be concerned with hunger and death, not just with the dimming of the moral capacity” (142-3).

This worry seems mistagged. What Waldron’s argument amounts to is that a Kantian account fails to capture completely why exactly we care about persons, not that it fails to. capture the comprehensiveness of basic equality. The comprehensiveness of basic equality should have no bearing on our answer to the question, why care about hunger and death? What basic equality requires is that in considering relevant human interests – whatever those may be – we count each for the same. Waldron’s actual objection is that the Kantian range property fails to give a compelling account of why we should care about human interests which seem important. This objection is directed more toward Kantianism as a comprehensive moral theory than it is toward Kantianism as offering an appropriate theory of equality. In a way, Waldron’s problem with the Kantian account of equality reveals how evaluations of theories of basic equality just devolve into evaluating more wide-ranging accounts of morality.

By heavy-lifting, Waldron means that the equality principle must hold its own against powerful psychological and moral temptations. On the psychological front, Waldron refers to our temptation to offer preferential weight to those persons we are in special relationships with like our family and friends. The point isn’t that parents should never give preferential treatment to their own children; rather, it is important that parents set up fair frameworks within which children compete which do not count their own children for more than others (e.g. school admissions).

On the moral front, Waldron makes the point that “it is a consequence of basic equality as I understand it that Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, and Adolf Hitler are to be regarded as our equals; they have in relation to us equal moral worth and equal human dignity” (149-50). Waldron admits this conclusion may fly in the face of our moral intuitions. Surely someone as evil as Hitler could not be considered in the same league as someone like Nelson Mandela. Suppose Hitler and Mandela were hanging on to a cliff and you could only save one. And suppose for some reason Hitler will never hurt anyone again. Even then the choice seems obvious to us: save the good person, not the evil one.

Yet, basic equality requires unflinching commitment – that everyone who falls within the given relevant range be considered moral equals. This point is easier to accept if made in terms of human dignity – that each person, regardless of how many evil deeds they have committed, is still a bearer of fundamental human dignity, and that is the sense in which we are all equal. As Waldron puts it, “the greatest human evildoer is one of us and must be treated as such even if he appears not to deserve it…that a being possesses the relevant range property in common with all other humans – whatever the startling differences between them – has to be what matters for certain moral purposes” (154-5).

To say simply that Hitler and Mandela are equal offends our basic moral intuitions because it seems to imply more than just equal dignity; it implies that they should also be treated equally, and considered equal in every respect. That is not a requirement of basic equality. Indeed, Waldron emphasizes  that basic equality does not require ignoring the many important differences between persons; it is only for certain purposes that differences between persons are ignored. For other purposes, we are required to “oscillate (as it were) between our concern for the range property and our concern for the precise location in the relevant scalar range that an individual might have” (155). In other words, sometimes we are concerned about where individuals lie on the scale, and other times we care only that they lie somewhere on the scale. This oscillation is what Waldron calls scintillation.

Scintillation helps us to understand what is going on with the Hitler case. We should absolutely consider the evil acts committed by Hitler, and his individual blameworthiness. Confronted with his misdeeds, we must consider the appropriate response. We may be tempted to inflict upon him the most gruesome forms of torture – we may wish upon him a slow agonizing death. It is here that we oscillate back to the range property – we must remind ourselves of the principles that demand treating Hitler as a person with basic human dignity. Still, his individual misdeeds warrant our treating him dramatically differently from someone like Mandela. Waldron writes that “we cannot think about this case without moving back and forth between principles that are sensitive to Hitler’s evil particularity and principles that are sensitive just to the fact that he is a human being” (162).

Waldron concludes: “The range property does its work by underlining the elementary requirements of equality, worth, and dignity. But then the range property does its work too by providing an occasion for the exercises and degrees of ability that matter to us in ordinary life as it is lived through time among those who are fundamentally equal” (174).  I will end with a point I think Waldron makes implicitly, but is important to mention: the demands of basic equality cannot be avoided by any individual or collective act. We cannot will away our basic human dignity and worth. For Waldron, this means that even the worst evildoer cannot will away his basic humanity. I think this point places an important constraint on our search for range properties – namely, that a range property must be inalienable in the same way our dignity and humanity is inalienable. Thus, it is not only that a range property must be comprehensive and ground equal dignity, but it must ground inalienable dignity – it must be a property such that no matter how hard we try, we cannot alienate it from ourselves or others; we cannot choose to give up what defines our basic humanity, and no one can take it away.

Waldron and Frankfurt on Equality and Respect

Earlier in the summer I read Harry Frankfurt’s short paper, Equality and Respect, where he argues against the intrinsic moral importance of equality. Waldron actually spends a couple of pages in One Another’s Equals responding to Frankfurt’s claims (which were republished in his recent 2015 book, Inequality). I will take this opportunity to go over the interaction between their arguments about equality.

Frankfurt’s first argument is that the resources and rights a person is entitled to do not depend on the entitlements of others. He writes:

Enjoying the rights that it is appropriate for a person to enjoy, and being treated with appropriate respect and consideration and concern, have nothing essentially to do with the respect and consideration and concern that other people are shown or with the rights that other people happen to enjoy. Every person should be accorded the rights, the respect, the consideration, and the concern to which he is entitled by virtue of what he is and of what he has done. The extent of his entitlement to them does not depend upon whether or not other people are entitled to them as well. (7)

I have already summarized one of Waldron’s responses to the redundancy argument (which you can access here). Waldron offers another reply, that Frankfurt’s claim cannot take into account cases of “comparative justice.” In cases of comparative justice, we are more sure that X and Y are entitled to equal shares, than to the exact quantity or cardinal value of those shares. Waldron gives the example of political rights, where both X and Y are entitled to some say in who rules them. We can say that X and Y are entitled to the greatest amount of say possible consistent with the constraint that both are entitled to equal say. Without the egalitarian constraint, Waldron observes, “we will be all at sea in our calculations” (73). Waldron offers criminal sentencing as another example of comparative justice; we are more sure that two felons with similar records and offense should receive equal-ish sentences, but a lot less sure of what those sentences should be. In these cases of comparative justice, it is non-redundant to say that each person is owed equal entitlements.

Frankfurt’s second argument is that equality has no independent moral significance apart from the normative demands of respect. Frankfurt claims that what some think of as the independent moral significance of equality is nothing more than the impartiality required of respect. He cites an example offered by Isaiah Berlin of dividing a cake among 10 people about whom you have no information. Both Frankfurt and Berlin agree that you should divide the cake into 10 equal slices, but for different reasons. Berlin believes that there is a presumption in favor of egalitarian goals. For Frankfurt, however,  equality is not a presumption, but rather a derivative of the demands of respect; because you possess the same amount of relevant information about all 10 people – that is, none whatsoever – the impartiality requirement of respect requires that you privilege no one.

If you do have some relevant information (e.g. one of the 10 people is vegan but the cake is smothered in buttercream frosting), then you may have to treat some differently from others, and according to Frankfurt, the demands of respect diverge from egalitarian ideals. In my last post (here) I explained how basic equality, or equal concern, does not always require equal treatment – or material equality (the size of the cake slices). Indeed in this case, it is exactly because we consider everyone’s interests equally that we change our cake division to take into account relevant information like veganism. There is something misleading about Frankfurt’s claim that here the demands of equality and respect diverge. He would be right if equality demanded that everyone should always have the same amount of everything. But if by equality we mean basic moral equality – that each person counts for the same – then the demands of equality and respect should never diverge. Indeed, I take Frankfurt’s ultimate point to be that there is nothing significant about basic moral equality that cannot already be captured by the requirement of impartiality attached to respect. This claim – that basic equality is derived from respect – seems right, and I think Waldron’s own analysis would force him to agree.

Frankfurt concludes that while the pursuit of equality may have substantial instrumental value, it is certainly not valuable in itself. He cautions:

…a concern for being equal to others tends to alienate people from themselves. It leads them to define their goals in terms that are set by considerations other than the specific requirements of their own personal nature and of their own circumstances. It tends to distract them from recognizing that their most authentic ambitions are those that derive from the character of their own lives and not those that are imposed upon them by the condition in which others happen to live. (13)

Yet, I think it is exactly because egalitarian pursuits have significant instrumental utility that it is not unwarranted nor alienating to be concerned about one’s relation to others. Indeed, it is exactly because someone feels alienated from the political process or cooperative scheme, instinctually feels there is some basic unfairness that exists, or feels that they have been morally wronged, that they are concerned that what they have significantly differs from what others have. We should be receptive to these concerns – not because inequality is an intrinsic harm – but because inequality is a useful indicator for many forms of social illness.

“When Equality Matters” by T.M. Scanlon

Today we’re going to take a break from Waldron to revisit something I read at the very beginning of the summer. “When Equality Matters” is the first in a series of three Uehiro Lectures Scanlon presented in 2013 at Harvard, and I also take it that it will be the first chapter in a forthcoming book about equality. The draft is accessible from the NYU Law Colloquium in Legal, Political, and Social Philosophy page here. I very much look forwards to the book’s publication, but for now, all I can do is scavenge different chapters from the web.

Here we move away from a focus on basic equality – that all persons have equal worth – and focus instead on what Waldron refers to as surface-level inequalities; that is, inequalities in possession, distribution, power, wealth, etc. We are interested most in the differences between what some have and what others have. This is the difference that Scanlon refers to when he writes that our country today is marked by “extraordinary high levels of inequality” (1). Scanlon doesn’t mean that today in our country people differ in their human worth – he means that people live in grossly different material conditions.

Scanlon’s primary aim in this chapter is to consider the many reasons inequality of this sort is bad and should be rectified. Today, it is common for politicians to call out high levels of inequality by shining a light on the abysmal living conditions of those with little to nothing to live on; they make the claim that inequality is bad because it leaves some to live in abject poverty. This is the objection that Scanlon wants to avoid, and which has caused many to dismiss inequality as a genuine concern. It is important always to keep in mind what inequality is, and what a genuinely egalitarian reason would entail. Inequality refers to a comparison between the position of some and the position of others. That means that any argument for reducing inequality would also have to be comparative; it would have to argue that the gap between some and others must be reduced. In light of this clarification, the common argument that inequality should be reduced because those who are the worst off in society live in abject poverty is not actually an argument for egalitarianism. It is merely an argument to combat poverty, not inequality.

To get our arguments against inequality right is very important to avoid the kind of reputation egalitarian reasons are often associated – most commonly, that an objection to inequality is merely an expression of envy that those with little feel toward those with plenty. And so, Scanlon’s aim in this chapter is to list possible objections to inequality which are comparative in nature. He articulates the central question: “when and why is it morally objectionable that some people are worse off than others in some way?” (5).

Scanlon begins with three objections to inequality that are based on the consequences of social inequality:

  1. We sometimes have reason to object to inequalities because they create humiliating differences in status.
  2. We sometimes have reason to object to inequalities because they give those who have more unacceptable forms of power over those who have less.
  3. We sometimes have reason to eliminate inequalities in order to preserve the equality of starting places that is required if our institutions are to be fair. Great inequality of wealth and income can, for example, undermine equality of opportunity and fairness of political institutions (18).

Scanlon points out that these consequences address the leveling down objection. He explains the leveling down objection as follows: “the difference between the situation of some and than of others would be at least a pro tanto reason to make the better off worse off even if this did not make any one better off. The charge is that this seems irrational” (8). These objections to inequality demonstrate that it is not irrational even if it doesn’t make the poor any richer because there are other instrumental goods involved.

Scanlon considers two more objections. The first is that “inequalities can be objectionable because they arise from failures of some agent to give equal treatment to those to whom it is obligated to provide some benefit” (18). [Let’s call this Objection 4] Scanlon compares two facts to illustrate his point. The first fact is that while in the U.S. the life expectancy of men is 74.2 years, in Malawi, it is only 37.1 years. Some refer to this kind of fact as the ‘international life expectancy gap.’ Why do we find this difference appalling? Scanlon thinks it’s because the difference points to the fact that life in Malawi does not have to be the way it is – that is, low life expectancy is avoidable. But why, he asks, is the difference in male life expectancy morally significant? Scanlon concludes that it is not the difference that is morally significant, but only the fact that people in Malawi have low life expectancy.

Now consider a second fact: while in the U.S., white men have a life expectancy of 76.4 years in the 10 healthiest counties, black men have a life expectancy of only 61 years in the 10 least healthy counties. In this case, the life expectancy gap does seem morally significant – in fact, it seems morally objectionable. Scanlon argues the reason this difference is objectionable is because it indicates that a requirement of equal treatment has been violated. Put another way, government agencies in the U.S. have an obligation to provide certain public health measures and medical care; but what these statistics indicate is that these agencies have not fulfilled its obligation with equal concern for its citizens. Notice that in this case, what we find objectionable is not the fact that there is a difference (indeed, giving white men a life threatening disease to equalize life expectancy would do nothing to alleviate our concerns), but rather the fact that this difference was a result of unequal treatment.

Scanlon’s last objection is that “unequal outcomes can be objectionable because they are incompatible with the claim of participants in a cooperative enterprise to share in its benefits” (18). [Let’s call this objection 5] By cooperative enterprise, Scanlon is thinking of arrangements like families, businesses, and societies where participating members can be said to cooperate for mutual benefit. The claim is that in cooperative schemes for mutual benefits, participating members have prima facie a claim to equal shares of the benefits it produces. In this case, the egalitarian reason is an equal claim to resources. This is a claim Scanlon attributes to Rawls in his formulation of the demands of the Original Position which he calls the “benchmark of equality” (15). According to Rawls, cooperating members of a society in the original position forced to choose distributive principles would have no reason to accept anything less than equal shares.

These five objections to inequality give a good idea of the kinds of problems we may have with the difference between what some have and what others have. Scanlon only means to give an overview in this introductory chapter, as each objection deserves (and requires) further extensive analysis. At this point I will spend a little time discussing objection 5 – the problem of equal treatment.

I think the recent Waldron readings give us a nice articulation of the problem Scanlon describes in objection 5. Scanlon’s argument is that in some cases of inequality, an obligation of equal treatment has been violated. The example he gives is when government agencies fail to provide equal health care to some areas as much as others, resulting in inequalities in quality of life or life expectancy. Waldron would call this a violation of the principle of basic equality – the notion that each person should be treated with equal worth and dignity. This normative principle requires that in carrying out one’s obligations – in the case of this government agency, to maximize well-being – one must consider the interests of the people involved equally. Each person is to count for one. This is of course a different kind of equality than the material equality Scanlon is concerned about. Scanlon even prefaces the chapter by writing that he presupposes “basic moral equality – the idea that everyone counts morally, regardless of differences such as their race, their gender, and where they live” (4).

Waldron helps us understand that the reason we can object to the inequalities in life expectancy amongst black and white American men is because they are indicative of a failure to respect basic moral equality – that is, in crafting policy, government agencies failed to weigh or count the interests of poorer black communities equally with the interests of wealthier white communities.

Of course, here, we trace the problem back to a basic moral inequality, not the inequality in life expectancy. As Scanlon notes, there may be inequalities in life expectancy that we do not find morally significant (e.g. the Malawi example). The Malawi case demonstrates that basic moral equality does not require material equality everywhere, at every time, in every instance. Strictly speaking, this moral requirement only requires material equality when: a) there is an obligation to treat others in a certain way at play; and b) that obligation requires everyone being treated the same way. The Malawi case does not meet this first condition because there is no relevant actor who has an obligation to treat the populations of the U.S. and Malawi in some way.

Let me explain further what I mean by the b condition. The kind of inequality we are dealing with involves the difference between what some have and what others have. But,  counting everyone’s interests equally and respecting the principle of basic equality cannot possibly mean that everyone must always have the same as everyone else. In many situations, there are compelling reasons why some should have more or less than others. This is a point Waldron makes in Lecture 1 when he explains why we can give preference to strong people when hiring firefighters. Scanlon gives an analogous example of an agency responsible for providing electricity to certain districts. One district currently receives fewer hours of electricity than another, and so Scanlon argues, the agency has stronger reason to increase the service to that district with fewer hours than to offer the same increase of service to the other district. It is only instances of obligation in which the obligation demands equal treatment that we may find these material inequalities objectionable.

I will end with one final point about the relationship between basic moral inequality and material inequality: that they are mutually reinforcing. In the life expectancy gap case, Scanlon demonstrates that basic moral inequality can lead to material inequality – it can lead to blacks living in certain neighborhoods to have significantly lower qualities to life than whites living in certain other neighborhoods. But recall Scanlon’s status objection to inequality – that “we sometimes have reason to object to inequalities because they create humiliating differences in status” (18). Indeed, the inequalities in the lives lived by poor black and affluent whites in parts of the U.S. can cause a humiliating difference in status. Recall finally how Waldron defined the principle of basic equality – that all humans possess the same sortal status. Violations of basic equality occur when some view others as belonging to a different status – a different sort of person. We can see, then, how moral inequalities and social inequalities are viciously self-reinforcing.


“One Another’s Equals” by Jeremy Waldron, Lecture 3: Looking for a Range Property

Lecture 3, titled “Looking for a Range Property,” helps give us a better idea of the many properties which might ground our basic equality. The central question Waldron seeks to address in this lecture is: by virtue of what fact(s) can it be said that humans ought to be treated as equals?

The first half of the lecture reviews many of the properties philosophers have suggested ground the principle of basic equality. I will not spend much time going over them, as I am more interested in the points Waldron makes later on in the lecture. Waldron’s list is quite extensive so it is worth referring to the text directly for more details. For now, I will merely quote Waldron’s own summary:

I have talked of reason (practical and theoretical); I have talked of feeling pain; I have talked of love; I have talked of the organization of life; I have talked of the ability to set ends for oneself, to respond to principles, to differentiate right and wrong and to act on such differentiations. Which of these capacities are we to privilege? (Waldron 17, 126) 

It is this last question – Which of these capacities are we to privilege? – which interests me most. Here, Waldron is asking which of these properties is the property which grounds basic equality.

In order to answer this question, Waldron addresses a concern some hold about the scalar variation within properties. Take, for example, the capacity to differentiate between right and wrong as the property which grounds basic equality. While everyone may possess such a capacity, there is no doubt that people possess the capacity to greatly differing degrees. Some are much better at differentiating between right and wrong than others. This variation, Waldron points out, appears to hold for most or all of the capacities listed or proposed by philosophers – and if it does not apply, Waldron notes that we’re probably dealing with some binary capacity that is trivial. How, then, can each person be equally worthy if everyone differs in their possession of these properties?

To address this concern, Waldron expands on an idea Rawls first introduced, which he called a “range property.” The idea of a range property is best explained with an example. New York City is right across the bay from New Jersey; Syracuse lies closer to the heart of New York State. But jurisdictionally they are both equally in New York State. Being in New York State is an example of a range property. Waldron defines what he means by a range property:

There is property R, which operates in a binary way (either you have R or you don’t), and property S, which is a scalar property admitting of difference of degree. We say that R is a range property with respect to S, if R applies to individual items in virtue of their being within a certain range on the scale indicated by S. In the simplest cases, R is like a threshold. If you are over a specific threshold on scale S, you qualify for property R. (Waldron 17, 118-9)

If the characteristics we care about are these range-ish properties, then the problem of varying degrees would be resolved because the point of a range property is that it does not matter where on scale S you are – the only relevant fact is that you lie on the scale. Waldron goes on to demonstrate that many of the philosophers he cites consider these properties to be range properties. What Waldron does not demonstrate, however, is why we ought to think of these properties as range properties. Why is the mere capacity to distinguish between right and wrong more important for the purposes of justifying human dignity than actually being good or bad at distinguishing between right and wrong?

It would appear that whether we should treat the properties that ground basic equality as range properties depends entirely on how exactly a property is used to justify basic human dignity. Let me explain further what I mean. Here it is important to recall the connection Waldron means to draw between human dignity and basic equality; the justification for basic equality takes the following form:

  1. Certain characteristics (like rationality, moral agency, personal agency, etc.) ground human dignity and worth.
  2. Every human being possesses these characteristics.
  3. Therefore, every human being has equal worth.

Waldron, in introducing the concept of range properties, adds an additional step 2b. to the argument:

2b. These characteristics are range properties.

In other words, it is essential that the characteristics that ground human dignity are the very same characteristics that are range properties. In justifying human dignity, what is relevant must be the capacity to be rational, not how rational someone is. It seems to me, then, that the justification for basic equality is contingent on the specific moral justification for human dignity – put another way, a theory of basic equality is always first attached to a moral argument for dignity.

Let’s consider a brief example to illustrate this point. We can take Kant’s moral system as one that grounds human dignity – or persons’ status as ends in themselves – on rationality as a range property. That is, our status as inviolable end-setters is certainly not dependent on our ability to make rational decisions, or consider our reasons for acting in all instances. Rather, it is tied to our basic status as rational animals. It follows, then, that the Kantian can accept Waldron’s account of basic equality and ignore varying degrees of rationality.

So – to return to our original question – which of these capacities are we to privilege? Which account of the grounding of basic equality gets it right? Waldron does not pretend to give us an answer, but does conclude that we should not necessarily limit ourselves to just one – it could be a combination of many of the properties he has listed. But when we ask these questions, I wonder what it is that we’re really asking about: are we asking about which account of basic equality makes more sense, or are we asking about which account of moral dignity makes more sense? So far, Waldron has attempted to write about the principle of basic equality without any moral attachments aside from the presumed value of human worth. How plausible is this? If a property’s workability as the grounding for equality depends on the structure of the moral argument for respecting human dignity, it seems that we should be talking about basic equality in the context of broader moral theories about human dignity, and the prescriptions attached to it. Recall that in the last lecture, Waldron calls basic equality a second-level value; it demands that in pursuing other values, in protecting people’s interests, each person is counted for the same. Yet, that does not mean we shouldn’t talk about basic equality as being attached to specific value-systems. Doing so, I believe, would help us decide which capacities to privilege, and ultimately help us ground basic equality.



“One Another’s Equals” by Jeremy Waldron, Lecture 2

In Lecture 2, titled “Prescriptivity and Redundancy,” Waldron argues that the principle of basic equality is prescriptive and non-redundant.

Waldron points out that the principle of basic equality is often stated in a descriptive manner (e.g. All persons are equal or All persons have equal dignity). Yet, these statements – despite their grammatical mood – express prescriptions. Specifically, they express the idea that people ought to be treated as equals. Waldron argues that this principle is applied in a second-level sort of way, guiding the application of an utilitarian or justice-related principles; in other words, the principle of basic equality demands that given any moral decision calculus, each person must count for the same. Waldron takes this to mean that basic equality functions both vertically and horizontally; horizontally by demanding equal consideration for people and their interests, and vertically by insisting on the seriousness of each person’s worth and interests – what Waldron calls “the dimension of human worth” (Waldron 17, 49).

Waldron explains that this second qualitative dimension is important since otherwise basic equality could be meant to recommend that all human lives are equally worthless. I do not see why the risk of such a recommendation is not just a necessary consequence of adopting the principle of basic equality. This is especially because Waldron stresses in the lecture that basic equality is simply one value among many – its second-level application means that it governs the ways in which values are applied to people. It does not prescribe values like utility, liberty, or well-being in the traditional sense; its prescription is that in treating persons a certain way, everyone must be counted as one. That could mean that people are treated with equal respect, but it also means that people could be treated with equal disrespect.

Waldron continues, writing that the worth of a person commands concern and respect. In that way, he writes, “human worth is a commanding value…humans demand our respect…According to the principle of basic equality, they demand it equally” (Waldron 17, 51). Indeed, basic equality means that human worth must be respected equally, if it should be respected at all. But that does not mean the value of human worth is built into the idea of basic equality; on the contrary, basic equality only governs the way in which worth is to be respected.

I can see, however, how a charitable reading of Waldron can resolve my concern. In describing equal respect of worth, Waldron writes that “we respect someone when…we take seriously his status as a thinking, reasoning moral being…” (Waldron 17, 51). The point is not made explicitly, but I take Waldron to mean that the our status as thinking, reasoning, and moral beings is the source of our human worth. It would also follow that given that we all share these traits – the traits which give us worth – we are also in a sense basically equal. If this is the point Waldron is making, I  can understand how basic equality is also equality of worth, and therefore equality of respect.

In the latter half of the lecture, Waldron responds to philosophers like Peter Westen who argue that the concept of equality is redundant. Someone like Westen argues that equal treatment is a trivial calculation – it is no more than saying that “we should consult all the interests that ought to be consulted and give them all the weight they ought to have” (Waldron 17, 68). I agree with Waldron that the principle of basic equality adds something further than this trivial statement. Basic equality tells us that everyone counts for one. Westen would respond and say, of course you should count correctly – counting one person as less or more than one is obviously logically incoherent. Yet, when racists or sexists count some as less than others, it does not seem appropriate to respond: What you did was wrong because you did not count correctly. To the Rashdall-racist, there was no counting error exactly because the lesser person does not count as one; there is some discontinuity that justifies counting them as less. It is, then, a substantial point that given the nature of persons, no person should count for more or less than another. To stress this further, I would ask you to consider the Equal Protection Clause in the American constitution which requires equal protection of the law. For someone like Westen, this too might seem redundant – of course a law should be applied consistently. And yet, there is no doubt in my mind that our society continues to require that the concept of basic equality is enshrined in law and rhetoric. So perhaps logically, the use of the word ‘equality’ is unnecessary – indeed, I hope that one day it becomes unnecessary. But as long as there remain some who do not accept the premise of basic equality, it is a worthwhile term to keep around.

Some thoughts on the grounds for basic equality.

In summarizing chapter 1 of Waldron’s new book, I mentioned that it was important to distinguish between differences between people that justify treating them differently in specific situations, and differences between people that justify applying totally separate moral apparatuses. In refuting Rashdall, Waldron’s point is that in accounting for the many differences between persons, we are not confronted with Rashdall-discontinuities. That is, there are no differences that demand the application of separate moral apparatuses. Waldron continues that in capturing what is important in the life of a person, we will always – regardless of who that person is – be concerned with familiar practices, languages, relationships (friendships, families, citizens, etc.), improvability, and other things that seem to define what it means to live a distinctly human life.

Waldron’s point leaves me thirsty for a clearer grounds for basic equality. It seems to me that there are two possible strategies for grounding basic equality. One is to argue that there are no differences between people that warrant discontinuity – that is, treating some people as a different kind than others in a morally relevant sense. This strategy has the seemingly insurmountable task of showing that there does not exist a single characteristic that some humans may possess and others do not that warrants this difference in moral treatment. Given the negative nature of this claim, it is unclear to me how this could be proven logically.

Another strategy is to identify one or more characteristics which every human possesses as morally relevant for sortal status. Perhaps this is what Waldron means when he lists things like familiar personal relationships, human improvability, and language. This is the strategy which philosophers often use to argue for distinctive equality – that is, the point that humans are equal in a way that makes them distinct from non-human animals. This strategy tries to demonstrate that humans are basically equal by virtue of possessing a common trait. In doing so, the strategy faces the same objections that philosophers who defend the human-animal difference must face; defenders of these uniquely human traits must account for outliers who do not fit the mold – those humans who lack rationality, or linguistic abilities, or whatever trait is deemed distinctive. After all, the entire point of basic equality is that no one is left out.

My guess is that Waldron will address this point in Lecture 3 (since it is titled “Looking for a Range Property”), but I will be on the look out.

“One Another’s Equals” by Jeremy Waldron, Lecture 1

For the next few posts, I will be commenting on Jeremy Waldron’s new book, One Another’s Equal, which explores the idea of basic equality. The book compiles the six Gifford Lectures Waldron delivered in 2015. In each post I will look at one of the six lectures presented in the book. You may be wondering – why is basic equality a topic that requires attention or, what does basic equality have to do with social or political equality? These are actually questions that Waldron preempts and seeks to consider throughout his lectures as well, so I will comment on those issues at relevant points in the lectures.

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

Lecture 1 Summary

Lecture 1 is devoted to clarifying the idea of basic equality – that is, what does it mean to say that all persons are fundamentally equal? After all, we’re all aware of the countless differences between persons – some of us (like myself) are shorter than others, some are richer, some have cars and others do not. The important question, then, is in what sense are we equal.

For Waldron, the principle of basic equality denies that there are differences in “sortal status” among humans – in other words, we are all of the same sort. The sortal status we share is that of being a human being. This shared status is something reflected in our positive laws and ideas of human rights – that by virtue of our status as humans, we are entitled to certain protections of our human worth and dignity. In Lecture 2, Waldron will explore the principle of basic equality as a normative idea.

To further illuminate this concept, Waldron compares basic equality with the views of Reverend Hastings Rashdall. Rashdall shared with John Stuart Mills an idea of lower and higher forms of happiness; but unlike Mills, Rashdall did not believe that higher forms of happiness were accessible to all humans. He wrote that “the lower Well-being…of countless Chinamen or negroes must be sacrificed that a higher life may be possible for a much smaller number of white men” (Waldron, 22).

Waldron points out that this should not be read as a simple utilitarian calculation. It is not that in some cases, sacrificing the wellbeing of “countless Chinamen or negroes” will maximize the overall wellbeing of some white men, and this is a desirable utilitarian result. Utilitarianism adheres to the principle of basic equality, treating each person’s well-being as equal – that is, counting each person as one. Here, Rashdall counts the well-being of minorities less than the well-being of white men. This is because, for moral purposes, Rashdall treats these people as having a different sortal status with different capabilities and characteristics which he views as morally relevant in a sortal sense.

Waldron (and critics of speciesism) compare Rashdall’s views with the commonly held beliefs about humans’ relationship to non-human animals. Much the same way racists or sexists regard certain groups of people as being of a different kind, humans commonly regard animals as possessing a distinct sortal status – that animals possess different capacities and habits which are morally relevant for our purposes. In criticizing our treatment of animals, critics of speciesism make this exact claim – that we are locating morally relevant differences where there are none, that there actually is no difference of sort.

For Waldron, these comparisons reveal the central principle of basic equality, what Waldron calls “continuous equality”; continuous equality opposes “any claim that there are moral distinctions and differentiations to be made among humans like unto or analogous in scale and content to the moral distinctions commonly made between humans and other animals” (Waldron, 30). In other words, there are no morally relevant discontinuities of kind between human and human.

Continuous equality raises a separate question – namely, what would count as a morally relevant difference? Here, it is important to distinguish between morally relevant differences that lead us to treat people differently in specific situations, and morally relevant differences that lead us to treat people as different kinds all together. The former case of differences allow us to – and in fact obligate us to – treat people differently – they are the reasons we prescribe medication to some people and not everyone, why we arrest some people and not others. These differences, however, never give us reason to treat people differently when it really counts – that is, differences in life style, choices, and preferences never warrant treating a person with an entirely different moral apparatus as a different kind of person. The principle of continuous equality “holds that basically the same apparatus of moral sensitivity is required for dealing with all kinds of humans” (Waldron, 34).

Three other kinds of equality

There are a few points Waldron makes in Lecture 1 that I did not include in the summary, but I will refer to them here. Specifically, I will review three other kinds of equality that Waldron identifies which will likely reemerge in his subsequent lectures.

Waldron distinguishes between basic equality and relational equality. Relational equality refers to relating to others in interpersonal contexts like society, family, or friendship as equals. I will be interested to consider further the relationship between basic and relational equality. At first look, it would seem that relational equality assume basic equality – that given people’s equal worth or status, we should recognize them as equals. Waldron will likely address this distinction further in Lecture 2 when he speaks about the normativity of basic equality.

Waldron also introduces the idea of distinctive equality. Distinctive equality adds something further to his idea of basic equality. While basic or continuous equality establishes the fact that there are no discontinuities within the human species, it does not speak to our relationship to other species like animals. The idea of basic equality has no bearing on the discontinuity or lack thereof between humans and animals. The concept of distinctive equality speaks to this question, holding that humans are equal in an additional sense; they are equal in their distinctive status from non-human animals. Not all who accept basic equality would accept distinctive equality (e.g. Singer), but Waldron suggests that he is sympathetic to distinctive equality as well.

Finally, Waldron refers to what he calls “surface-level” issues like distribution of wealth and income – what I will also refer to as distributive equality. These issues can also be categorized as concerning social and economic equality. Waldron holds the intuition that social and economic inequality must be held accountable to his idea of basic equality, and equal human dignity. Waldron also introduces the possibility that these forms of inequality (e.g. economic deprivation)  “may look not only as thought they are not being treated as equals but as though they are not equals of other prosperous members of society” – so much so that the extremely poor and the extremely wealthy begin to appear like two different kinds of people (Waldron, 38). The relationship between basic and social equality will be my central interest in my reading of Waldron’s lectures.



“Marx On Equality” by Allen Wood

In a chapter of Allen Wood’s book The Free Development of Each: Studies on Freedom, Right, and Ethics in Classical German Philosophy, titled “Marx on Equality,” Wood aims to understand why Marx did not share the egalitarian intuitions we may be tempted to attribute to him.

For Marx, equality as an exclusively political idea was a distinctively bourgeois value, used as a vehicle of class oppression and entirely separate from communist ideals of class abolition. The proletarian demand for equality could only be truly realized as the demand for class abolition; class abolition should be understood as the more precise articulation of proletarian aspirations.

Wood explains that the Marxian idea of equality as political can be understood as a form of political equality, or, equality before the law. Mere procedural equality, Wood points out (citing Rawls), is weak; conceivably, equality before the law could deem permissible such unequal relations like slavery. For Marx, these procedural conceptions of equality are tied to the bourgeois political and legal institutions that prop up class oppression.

To understand why Marx holds these views about political equality, it is helpful to review why Marx does not regard capitalist exploitation as unjust. Underlying such an explanation is the relationship between concepts of right and economic labor. Marx’s historical materialism posits that rather than economic relations being regulated by concepts of right, concepts of right arise from economic relations. Thus, right, for Marx, is contingently tied to the particular existing mode of production. To claim that class exploitation is unjust, then, ignores the lexical priority of modes of production; standards of right are set by the capitalist mode of production. The same problem is tied to the claim that class exploitation results in an unjust distribution of wealth. This cannot be; wealth distribution in a capitalist mode of production can only be considered just given capitalist standards of distribution.

This is, of course, not the view of distribution commonly held. After all, when philosophers speak of the correct standards of distribution, they do not usually mean the capitalist standards of distribution; such a standard makes for the trivial conclusions above. Rather, it is standards of justice that require that some things should be equal for everyone. This common intuitions, Wood observes, raises a plethora of questions including what exactly should be equal for everyone, or how do we go about getting to this state of equality, among others. But, there does seem to be a commonly held belief that given the right equal standard, justice requires equality of something.

Marx rejects this intuition, denying the idea that there exists an equal standard required of an ideal of justice. Yet, he also concede that as long as bourgeois conceptions of right exist, so too will these ‘equal standards’ be applied. In the first phase of post-capitalist society, Marx expects these standards to endure, as producers are given back the amount they contribute to society. Such an equal standard, for Marx, is unsatisfactory. He writes:

Right by its very nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable by an equal standard only insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only, for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing else is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will receive more than another. To avoid all these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal. But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society (CW 24:86).

In other words, right must be unequal to remedy the defects of equal justice. The slogan is: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs! People are equal neither in their abilities nor in their needs; given such inequalities in what people require of society, and in what people may contribute to society, the application of an equal standard is defective. It is important, for Wood, that we understand the use of the word ‘each’ not as referring to some substantive egalitarian principle, but rather referring to the fact that some predicate applies equally to all. (Consider for instance the statement: One might as well say that the Grim Reaper is an egalitarian on the ground that once we die, we are all equally dead).

There is another sense in which the egalitarianism which Marx rejects is a political idea. Implicit in the intuition that justice requires equality of something is the idea that justice places egalitarian demands on the actions of political institutions – that distributive policies like taxation or land reform are exactly that – policies implemented through laws by political institutions. The treatment of people as equals must be the treatment of citizens as equal members of a political association.

Yet, for Marx, political emancipation cannot be true human emancipation; human emancipation can only occur in the sphere of civil society which stands in opposition to the state. In political community, people are seen as communal beings entitled to certain rights or powers over other humans. When the social nature of persons is thought of as political, then the true social life in civil society becomes self-interested, egoistic, and private. For Marx, the political life is not the true social life, and therefore political concepts of right, equality, and justice are unsatisfactory expressions of human emancipation.

Genuine human emancipation requires the abolition of classes; it is the proletariat demand for class abolition that better encapsulates the true meaning of “equality” for Marx.

Central to Woods’s argument is that to frame Marx’s notion of classless society in egalitarian terms is a serious mistake. To understand why this is the case, Woods tries his best to describe what Marx means by classless society. This proves a challenge, for even Marx was not interested in “writing recipes for the cook-shops of the future” (Capital 1:99) and insisted that communism “is not an ideal to which reality has to adjust itself” (CW 5:49).

Marx does, however, offer more insight into his conception of class. Classes emerge out of production relations which prompt the creation of common mass interests; these masses with shared interests become classes upon engaging in some common action with historical force. In other words, it is only when these masses act upon these shared interests and defend them, that they become class interests. These class interests are necessarily incompatible and in conflict with other class interests, as classes are constantly engaged in class conflict. This is why Marx regards  normative universals like justice, right, or law as illusions which mask predominantly bourgeois interests.

We may be tempted to think that Marx’s position is that the bourgeois interests in the guise of normative universals attempt to usurp the place of true universals. This too would be a mistake. Marx thinks that any claim to a universal normative force will always be an illusion for bourgeois interests claiming authority. In other words, claims to universal validity are a product of class struggle in which a class attempts to claim universality and authority for their own interests.

It is only through understanding social life and history materialistically that communists achieve a kind of freedom – freedom from historically conditioned illusions made possible by class society.

We may also be tempted to view communist society as requiring a rightful distribution. But for Marx, communist society involves total abolition of right.
Marx adopted Max Stirner’s view of the free individual as one who rejected all interests, ideals and laws that claimed universal authority as illusions. In a communist society, people have a free claim to the imposition of class interests claiming to hold transcendent authority. These class interests – feigning as false universals – disappear in a classless society. Instead, individuals are radically free to cultivate themselves in a genuine community.

For truly social individuals, what actualizes individual needs also actualizes the needs of others. Here, Marx’s point mirrors Rousseau’s – that the source of human conflict is not as Hobbes thought – natural, but rather a social product. The abolition of class society creates the possibility of beginning human history, and retaining social cooperation without class conflict. This is because the proletarian movement is a self-conscious movement in the interest of the immense majority, and for the immense majority.

The chapter ends with Woods’s own reflection on Marx’s views on equality. Woods is attracted to the metaethical antirealism of all universal values that Marx defends; he finds the position thoroughly honest. Where Woods departs the most from Marx is in Marx’s view of capitalism as a transitional, and therefore temporary, economic form “whose historic mission was to elevate the productive powers of humanity…to the point where they would offer abundance to all in a higher and freer society.” Woods sees the age of extreme inequality, climate disruption, and continued exploitation among other things as evidence of the long enduring character of capitalism. And yet, Woods still accepts that there is reason to hope for the eventual abolition of exploitative relations – that given humans’ rational nature, we humans will eventually guide ourselves away from such an evil state of living.

A few miscellaneous thoughts:

First, much of the argument against universal normative values which Woods describes reminds me of the pragmatist position Richard Rorty ascribes to Dewey – specifically, his rejection of the correspondence theory of truth. It is not the position that universal values are illusions of the interests of the powerful – rather simply the claim that we have no reason to believe in universal ideals like morality or justice or that reality should reflect our ideals. We have as much reason to believe in these as we do sacred religious values – and indeed, we often treat them the same way. This parallel is reinforced when Woods writes that Marx is not interested in what exactly classless society will look like since communism “is not an ideal to which reality has to adjust itself” (CW 5:49). Similarly, the Deweyian pragmatist does not have an image of the better democracy in mind – it is only through practice and experimentation that the more democratic society emerges.

This raises a question for Marx, I think, which Rorty and Dewey face – namely, how can someone who rejects universal standards make claims about societal progress. It seems necessary to have standards like morality or justice to claim that today’s society is better than before, or the present state of affairs is an improved one. It seems as though Marx should be able to claim that a classless society is improved because there are fewer exploitative relations, and that exploitative relations are bad. Perhaps Marx would answer that classless society is better under the proletarian interests standard. But surely, the communist would want to make a more robust claim about the universal progress of a classless society – that it is not just better for the proletariat. Even if the Marxian does not care to make such a claim, it seems a deficit for a movement to be unable to measure its own progress – changing standards of justice or morality measures no progress at all since there is no universally applicable standard with which to weigh progress.

Second, the Marxian view of universal ideas of authority strikes me as similar to Thrasymachus’s claim that justice is simply the advantage of the stronger.

Third, Marx describes the freedom from historically conditioned illusions made possible by class society. Indeed, he argues that once we understand that there universals are historically contingent, then there is a sense in which we are free. This, I take it, is a kind of speculative freedom – a freedom that arises merely in our understanding some fact or arrangement of the world. Aristotle viewed philosophical speculation as the highest form of freedom. Hegel argued that once we understood how we were home in a fundamentally rational world – a world that initially appears as radically other – we could attain a kind of free relation to it. Perhaps even more similar to this Marxian idea of freedom, Heidegger wrote of achieving a free relation to technology. There, Heidegger was referring to technology as a mode of being. For Heidegger, once we understood that technology as a mode of being was exactly that – a mode of being, and a severely limited one, we could achieve a kind of freedom. I think the same can be said of Marx’s conception of freedom from universals. Once we understand universals not as universals, but as historically situated and limited class interests, we stand in a free relation to them.

I also have a few thoughts about Marx’s views on equality – specifically, I think that Marx appears to conflate moral and social equality, and takes for granted the importance of protecting standards of moral equality. I will address these concerns in a later post.





“Two Concepts of Liberty” by Isaiah Berlin

I thought it would be appropriate to start with a foundational piece of writing in political philosophy so I have chosen Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty.”


Berlin examines two forms of freedom: negative and positive freedom. Negative freedom is related to the question: “What is the area within which the subject is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be?” whereas positive freedom is related to the question: “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?”

I. The Notion of Negative Freedom 

Negative freedom is freedom as non-interference – acting in a manner unobstructed. Coercion is not mere obstruction (e.g. a high wall I cannot climb or the text my blindness prevents me from reading), but deliberate inference in an area in which I could otherwise act. “The nature of things does not madden us, only ill will does,” Rousseau said.

Negative freedom is limited in the interest of other values or even freedom itself (e.g. limits set by law). But it is also presumed that there must be a minimal sphere of person freedom that is inviolable. Otherwise, a person could not develop “his natural faculties” necessary to pursue basic ends. Thus, the limits of negative freedom must be drawn between private life and public authority. “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.” Liberty depends on the restraint of others.

There are circumstances, moreover, when liberty is not the primary value. Those who live in conditions of destitute poverty require medical assistance and food before their freedom means anything. The value of freedom, then, depends on the fulfillment of certain other needs.

There is consensus that we must preserve some minimal degree of freedom from interference; to sacrifice all freedom would be “to ‘degrade or deny our nature.” But, authors disagree about exactly how much, and exactly which forms of freedom must be preserved as inviolable. Regardless of the precise answer, the freedom these authors regard as essential to preserve is always a freedom from something – namely, interference. This is the sacred individualistic liberty conceived by modern liberals: “The defense of liberty consists in the ‘negative’ goal of warding off interference.”

Negative liberty is concerned with the area of control, not the source of control; because of this, it is compatible with autocratic government. It is conceivable that a benevolent despot guarantees a sphere of liberty greater than one preserved in an oppressive democracy. It may be the case that democratic self-government is overall more conducive to negative liberty, but that is not necessarily the case. Recall that the questions related to negative and positive liberty are distinct. Indeed, the question “how far can we interfere with what one can do,” is entirely separate from “who governs me?” The latter question has to do with positive liberty.

II. The Notion of Positive Freedom

Positive freedom is freedom as self-mastery. To be a self-master is to be a subject, rather than an object – one whose actions are self-directed and self-authored. “I wish, above all, to be conscious of myself as a thinking, willing, active being, bearing responsibility for my choices and able to explain them by references to my own ideas and purposes,” Berlin writes.

It is easy at the outset to question the difference between positive and negative liberty. It appears, after all, that freedom as self-mastery would similarly condemn external interference of my will. To illustrate the difference, Berlin has us consider the case of someone is who unaware of what her rational self would want – that is, what is best for her. This dominant self, identified with reason, is contrasted with the empirical self. Given the positive conception of liberty, Berlin explains, this true self “may be conceived as something wider than the individual…as a social ‘whole’ of which the individual is an element or aspect: a tribe, a race, a church, a state…” And given such a metaphor, the true self may warrant coercion of some for the sake of their true interests and latent rational will.

Berlin sees this positive conception as dangerous: “Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their ‘real’ selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man…must be identical with his freedom – the free choice of his ‘true’, albeit often submerged and inarticulate, self.” He continues that “this monstrous impersonation” is “at the heart of all political theories of self-realization.”

Berlin concedes that the negative conception of liberty is conceivably just as susceptible to this danger. After all, if we take seriously the interests of the rational self, then coercion is no longer interference in the relevant sense – that is, coercion is simply acting in accordance with the wishes of the true self. However, Berlin claims that it is a matter of historical fact that the positive conception of liberty, “with its suggestion of a man divided against himself,” is more conducive to this coercive danger. Here, Berlin’s insight is that conceptions of freedom are attached to certain conceptions of the self.

III. Liberty and Sovereignty

In part three of his essay, Berlin details the potential conflict between positive and negative liberty. He begins by describing Rousseau as a paradigm case of positive liberty – one that defends the possession of public power for all in the form of a general will. In contrast, Berlin cites Mill, who observed that “the sovereignty of the people could easily destroy that of the individuals.” The central point Berlin seeks to make is that self-governance is simply a different form of tyranny from monarchy or autocracy, wrapped in the trappings of democracy.

He goes on to cite Constant, who shares this worry about the transference of absolute sovereignty, whether to a monarch or a popular government. The threat of liberty, for Constant, was located in the concentration of authority, not the specific wielder of that authority; the source of oppression was not the tyrant, but rather the absolute authority he possessed. Given such a view, democracy is as dangerous as any monarch. The equal right to oppress nor the consent of the oppressed makes no difference in preserving individual liberties. “Popular government is a spasmodic tyranny, monarchy a more efficiently centralized despotism.”

Nineteenth century liberal thinkers, then, argued that there must instead be some minimal frontier of freedom across which nobody could cross. This frontier would be grounded in the nature of man. Only such a frontier, accepted and protected absolutely, can stand against the tyrannical potential of majoritarian democracy. ‘Positive’ rights for liberals, then, are instrumentally valuable to preserve the negative liberty of individuals. (These, I take it, are what we now commonly refer to as ‘civil rights’).

Liberals like Mill, Constant, and Tocqueville hold two principles to be fundamentally to any free society. First, no power, only rights, can be considered absolute. Second, there must be a frontier drawn of inviolable liberties or rights – liberties that cannot be procedurally overturned by legislation, judicial decision, or popular support. These are liberties required of the nature of persons like the right to trial, or protections against torture. For Berlin, the freedom of a given society is measured by the guarantee of these protections.

IV. The One And The Many 

In the final part of his essay, Berlin offers an argument for the value of negative freedom – specifically, the freedom to choose. Berlin begins with the observation that pluralism is an inescapable and permanent part of the human condition. By pluralism he means the existence of incompatible absolute claims and ends which people pursue. The value of the freedom to choose emerges from this permanent condition as an end in itself exactly because there is no way to harmonize conflicting ends. Despite being an end in itself, the freedom to choose is not unlimited; it must be weighed constantly against other values like equality, justice, or happiness to mention a few examples.


This blog will record my notes and thoughts as I spend my summer reading about problems in political philosophy, with special interest in social and political equality. Feel free to leave reading suggestions and comments!