“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.

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