“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.

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