“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.




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