“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.




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