“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.